Hello, I’m a photographer in Japan and this is my story of my time with Leica’s 35mm Summicron ASPH.

On January 30th 2004, I bought a Leica M7 0.72 and a 35mm Summicron ASPH, specifically for street photography work.  The lens cost me 165,000 yen which is about 1,500 US$ and I sold it yesterday for 144,000 yen, a loss of about 200 US$.  And all this was selling to a dealer, had I sold privately I could have got another 100K on the price.  Not bad for a 12 year old lens that’s been through the wars…  Well, my little wars anyway.

Before I get into talking about my actual experiences photographing on the streets of Tokyo, I’m assuming many people reading this are interesting in what I think about the lens, it’s build quality, sharpness and so on.

What can I say, it’s a Leica.  It’s a beautiful tiny piece of engineering with incredible edge to edge sharpness.  It’s got everything you’d expect from a lens in this price range but it’s about a third the size of anything designed for a SLR or DSLR.  The curved finger rest that’s built onto the side of the lens at first seems a bit unsightly but you’ll understand immediately when you go out and start photographing with it why it’s there; the lens is so small you’re more comfortable focussing with one finger, your forefinger, than two.  As your left hand cradles the camera body, your forefinger on the same hand slips into this ergonomically designed rest and focusing can be achieved very easily, quickly, instinctively and smoothly with just that one finger.

One line of comparison that people looking at a Summicron will want answered is ‘Should I get a Summilux or Summcron?‘  Good question!  The answer should be obvious to you however if you can answer three questions:

  1. Can I afford the Summilux?
  2. Do I need the extra stop because I shoot in low light often?
  3. Do I need the nice bokeh effect that the Summilux provides when focussed on very near subjects?

If you are researching whether to buy the Summilux or Summicron (f/1.4 and f/2.0) respectively, question #3 would be the one I would need to answer, because the other two, well, they can be worked around.  Question #3 cannot.

35mm is wide and as such, focussed at anything over a few meters, your aperture is of little consequence.  f/1.4 or f/22, very similar results.  If however, you are getting nice and close, say for wedding documentary work and want to blitz the background into bokeh bliss, then the Summilux would be the preferable choice.  If you don’t have any such subject shooting in mind that requires close-up’s with great bokeh, then the Summicron is the one to go for.  It’s smaller, less expensive and doesn’t have a huge lens hood with a hole cut into it so you can see what you are doing!

These tiny lenses are also prefect for the street photographer or traveller who is concerned with weight or remaining inconspicuous.  Rangefinders are the original ‘Mirrorless’ cameras.  They are/were the choice of war, documentary and news photographers.  They’re small, quick and quiet.  Some think it’s just a brand name but there are reasons people choose rangefinders and there are reasons people choose Leica rangefinders.  If you research in detail about the M7 for example, you’ll find the shutter lag is 12ms.  That’s the time it takes for the camera to take a picture after you depress the shutter button.  12ms is fast.  Compare that to say a Nikon Collpix L3 which is a 1800ms, or a iPhone which is about 2 and a half minutes, it becomes obvious that there is real, meaningful engineering in these products that validate their pricing.  There’s much more going on under the hood than people take the time to discover.

For street photographers or any kind of non-invasive documentary photography, one can argue that a DSLR is much more jarring and annoying when it gets shoved in your face than something that looks like an antique and doesn’t make all those annoying sounds.  Of course anything being shoved in your face will be annoying, but the point is people don’t even seem to realise you are taking a picture with Leica equipment and even if it is obvious, they seem to care much less than if you have the air of a professional about you or if they have any reason to believe you might be publishing the images for gain.

Most people’s image of a photographer is someone with a big-ass camera and a big-ass lens.  It’s that simple.  I had more trouble and confrontations with a DSLR than I did with the Leica.  Having said that I’m going to recount the one time I did get into a bit of a bind with the Leica because this is a post about my equipment and my memories with it.  From there I’ll show some sample images taken with my time with the Summicron.

I was in Roppongi (the bar, club and restaurant district of Tokyo) one Saturday morning looking for people coming out of the night clubs to shoot when I got blind sighted while looking through the camera by a huge African man.  He put me in a corner and well, let’s just say there was blood.  At that time of the morning the streets are all but empty except for a few people under the influence of whatever they’ve ingested so any cries for help would have been in vain.  In fact I remember a bunch of foreign men sitting nearby, laughing about the whole matter!  He thought that I had been taking his picture, but the fact was, this was the first time I had even seen this dude – he was clearly high as a hike.

After a scuffle he had my camera, (that was brand new and not insured) by the strap and was swinging it around and around.  Yep, swinging.  I stood there mesmerised, watching as it came precariously close to the light post and railings on his right-hand side while he screamed at me in a way I can only compare to a Tyrannosaurus Rex roar that he was going to f**king smash it to smithereens!  Poor bastard clearly had his knickers in a twist about something.

Time definitely slowed down.  This’ll help visualise the moment:

With all that swinging going on, I was sure if I stayed the situation was going to escalate – he was going to smash it either intentionally or unintentionally, regardless the result would have been the same.  But if I walked away, there would be no reason to be swinging it around threatening to break it, right?  So that’s what I did.

I knew there was no way I could physically overpower this guy and with the nearest police station back in the direction of the crazy man, I kept walking, back towards my motorbike that was parked just up the road.

So that was that.  My brand new uninsured Leica M7 and its Summicron ASPH was now in the hands of a drug fuelled crazed maniac that roared like a very scary dinosaur and it seemed the odds were stacked against me.  The dude had just relieved me of 300,000 yens worth of camera equipment for no good reason whatsoever.  In essence I had been robbed.  When that hit me I stopped, turned around and walked back towards crazy dino-man, who was still standing there, but now only gently swinging the camera back and forth, a bit like how a madman with a baseball bat in the movies will swing it gently to let you know he may or may not have plans for you and it to meet.

Since his stated concern was that he thought I had been taking his picture, I walked right up to him and told him that I hadn’t been taking his damn picture but I’d give him the bloody film so then there would be no need to keep the camera.   Remarkably he handed me the camera and stood there while I tried to get the film out.  Since the camera was new and Leica’s have a unique way film is loaded into them, it was a bit sticky and I was having trouble get the film out.  That’s when he pulled out a small knife and assured me he was quite serious about getting the film.

Fast forward a bit, he got the film (which had no exposures on it anyway) and I got my camera back.  That was the first real confrontation I had while doing street photography in Tokyo, but it wasn’t to be the last.  It was also the last time I let someone take film from me, and they’re all stories for another day.

So with that and many more fonder memories and a teary eye I let the lens go.  I still have the camera and I think I always will.

Pictures taken over a 2 year period with the M7 and 35 Summicron
© Steven West | The Photographer in Japan
Times Square, NYC | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
UFO Catcher | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Salaryman, Shibuya | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Smoker, Shinjuku | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Shinjuku | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Dancers | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Horse Race Track, Chiba | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Shibuya | © Steven West
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Couple, Ueno | © Steven West

After shooting for a year or so almost religiously on a daily basis with that one camera and lens, I picked up a digital SLR and was shooting sometimes with film, sometimes with that.  It was convenient for sure, the fact that you could change your ISO on the fly and of course there was no more buying, processing and scanning film – wow – real breakthrough in the process and workflow.  But truth be told, the digital cameras back then paled in comparison to 35mm film and they still do in many ways.

Though I can never see myself going back to doing street (unless someone paid me a fixed monthly salary for it), I enjoyed the process immensely.  It’s so immersive, you find yourself in a perpetual state of trying to predict what people will do in the next few seconds, where they will walk, how they will move, what expressions they will make, how the light will fall etc.  You’re projecting a future movie on top of the present reality happening before you – at least that’s how my mind worked.  You become very aware of the space-time continuum; if you miss a shot, it’s gone forever.  Just happening upon a moment is not enough because you will more than likely miss it by the time you get your camera up to your eye and compose as it’s so fleeting in many cases.  You have to try to predict what is going to happen and be prepared for it, framing it in your mind before it happens and getting into the best position to get the best shot.

It certainly helped me to see the world around me in a slightly more cinematic way and reaffirmed to me that the camera is not just a tool between you and your subject, it can be a big fat obstacle, if you let it.

If you’re just starting out in photography and are keen to develop your ‘eye’, I really recommend doing a bit of close-up street work.  Using a 35mm or wider lens and trying to tell a story in that frame without cropping it or getting superfluous crap in shot that ruins the scene – it’s a good challenge.  Not getting close just for the sake of getting close, but getting close so you can fill your frame with only the good stuff you want in the frame.  I like the 35mm lens for its field of view which I find closely matches the human my focused field of view, gives you a sense of being there, unlike the distant and compressed perspective that a telephoto lens would give you.

There are no settings to deal with.  I set my lens to zone focussing and aperture priority which essentially meant that I chose the depth of field in advance – anything from 3m to 10m would be acceptably sharp.  There was nothing to do but to look for the moment, choose my position, angle and timing.  Anything additional would have meant probably missing the shot.  It’s a great way to drum into the enthusiast that it’s not the camera, the lens or the settings, and that the more you can dissolve your cameras workings into your unconsciousness, the more you can concentrate on what it is you’re trying to photograph.

I loved this lens. It’s tiny, inconspicuous and sharp. What else do you need? You can find them on Amazon here. The trend I’ve shown here and that has proven to be the case for the last 10 years, is that the prices will only rise. It’s an awesome investment.

That said, equipment is important in the sense that you need to be comfortable with it.  You need to understand it inside out, be able to change settings on the camera without looking at the buttons, it needs to be just like riding a bicycle or driving a car.  Just natural and without any conscious obstacles.  Leica make beautiful cameras and their lenses are engineering marvels.  If you get one, you’ll love it and cherish it.

Feel free to have a look at my Instagram (@mecan) where I have many more images.  And my Facebook fan page is chock full of Japan’s hidden gems from mountains to beaches!

If you would like to see more pictures taken with the Summicron and Leica M7, head over to  here.