The Mighty Summarex 85/1.5

Leica II/Summarex

Shown here with Leica II, MOOLY motor and SGOOD 85mm finder.

Thanks to Bill Rosauer, the owner of this delightful outfit, and to Tom Abrahamsson, who took the original shot for the front cover of Viewfinder Q1 1999.

Click here to see some of my first Summarex shots.

Further and more recent shots taken in Wetxlar, where the lens was originally made, can be seen here.

Leica's only excursion into 85mm lenses is a beautiful and fairly rare beast. A little over 4000 were made between 1943 and 1960, when Leitz decided that the 90/2 Summicron was a better bet.

Designed by Max Berek, it has in some quarters an ill-deserved reputation as a 'dog'. The only respect in which this is true is that it was named by the designer after one of his dogs, Rex (the other was Hektor).

The Summarex was a slow seller when new - not because it was a bad lens, but because it was very expensive to make. In the austerity years following WWII, it was hard to justify buying a lens which cost as much as a contemporary small car.

Most Summarexes were produced in chrome. There is a very rare black wartime version, which occasionally turns up at auction at sky-high prices.

As the 85/90mm. focal length is my favourite, the Summarex has been on my 'want list' for over 40 years. The problem is that really good examples are few and far between, especially with the handsome reversible hood and cap. Over the years I have looked at many sorry specimens with hazy elements and cleaning marks galore. So my quest was quietly consigned to the back burner, while I got on with Leica life shooting the 90/2 Summicron and the eminently portable 90/2.8 Tele-Elmarit.

In 2004 I had a pleasant surprise when my photo dealer in Cork, Ireland, brought in his own Leica collection as he'd decided to sell it. In amongst some very interesting kit was a cosmetically pristine Summarex complete with hood, caps and case. Fate was definitely knocking on my door! Of all the places in the world where Summarexes may lurk, I never expected to find one in Ireland.

I borrowed the lens to try out on my contemporary IIIf RD and III, and that's where the not-so-good news started. The Summarex wouldn't couple at infinity with any LTM camera I tried, including a Canon 7 and a Leica M3 with adapter. The r/f cam was definitely out of whack. I also noticed the beginnings of a fungal attack when I examined the elements critically.

As there was no-one in Ireland qualified to solve these problems, I called Leica wizard Malcolm Taylor on his Herefordshire, UK, farm. We agreed that I'd drop it in personally on my forthcoming visit to England. Five days later on the way back to Ireland I collected a Summarex with sparkling elements newly collimated on an optical bench and a cam which coupled perfectly. Now all that remained was to put it through its paces.

I mounted the lens on my IIIf RD (on which Malcolm had also fine-tuned the rangefinder), and used a Leitz 90mm brightline viewfinder in lieu of the Leitz 85mm, which understandably is an extremely rare item. You can see some of the results from my first roll of Fuji 200 by clicking here.

A 'dog' this lens definitely ain't. It is very crisp when stopped down a little. Colour rendering is excellent and 'bokeh' very pleasant. Most remarkable of all, for a 50 year-old single-coated lens, is its good performance contre-jour. Flare does not appear to be a major problem.

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