Leica Wide Angle Tri-Elmar Review. Welcome to another Leica lens review! This time its the ultimate wide angle M lens, the WATE! It has been A Craaaazyyy week for me. In the 10 months since starting my site I have never been this busy! I have no less than 8 products here I have to review in addition to this tri-elmar and I have been working from day to night. Every day and night! Even so, this is super amazing cool on so many levels! It’s like a dream come true. A passionate photo enthusiast getting sent killer lenses and cameras to review. Wow! There are some downfalls though! Due to my new expenses running this new and improved version of the site, any ad commission that comes in goes to my new host and server! It’s always something huh? But I am not complaining at all. I am having a blast, AND learning quite a bit. I am also making some new friends which is always cool. It’s all about my love for photography and my passion has not weakened. In fact, it has grown stronger and I have even started to discover new and exciting ways to record those precious memories and scenes.
This leads me to the lens in this review. The Leica Wide Angle Tri-Elmar, commonly referred to as the Leica WATE. If you would have asked me a year ago if I wanted this lens I would have answered with a big fat NO WAY! See, I am not a fan of “slow” lenses and this WATE is an F4 lens. Much slower than the F1.4′s and F2′s I am used to shooting. I also never really felt a need for a 16 or 18mm lens! Maybe a 21, but if I were in the market for a 21 and had $6k to burn it would go to a Leica 21 Summilux due to its fast 1.4 aperture but realistically I would but a 21 Elmarit if I were buying a 21 just because I do not use that wide of a lens very often.
But…(there is always a but) my thinking started to change with the release of the full frame Leica M9. I started seeing some pretty breathtaking images from some talented M9 shooters with this “WATE”. I started to see why someone would want to have this lens in their arsenal and started to wish I was a rich man so I could afford one of these lenses for myself! BUT, when I came back to reality I knew that A: I am not a rich man and my wife would never allow me to splurge $6,000 on a lens I did not really need, and B: I really never shoot that wide! For me, a 35 is plenty wide on the M9 and I RARELY find the need to go wider. I guess I am not an ultra wide kind of guy. Plus, get a load of this setup…
What you see in the image above is the Leica Wide Angle Tri Elmar with the Universal Viewfinder that will allow you to frame an image at 16-18 or 21mm. It actually goes up to 28mm so it is a universal “frankenfinder” that is large and to be honest, kind of ugly. I just can not see myself walking around town with this thing on my beautiful M9!
But…that was about to change. About two weeks ago I e-mailed Leica and asked for the status on the X1 loaner camera I have been waiting on. The e-mail I received back stated my X1 loaner may be a few more weeks but it also had an offer to review the WATE! How could I pass up an offer to review the lens I have just recently started to get so curious about?
I knew I was not a great wide angle shooter as I never really shoot with a WA but I was excited to give it a try and see for myself if a lens like this would ever make it to my collection.
Leica M9 – WATE at 16mm – F4
Before I get to the review let me show you an image from the M9 and WATE that I really like (the above image). It was taken at 16mm, F4, and HOLY S*&T… is it WIDE! Not only is this lens super wide, it is able to resolve crazy detail on the M9. I remember years ago I had a Canon DSLR and a Canon 16-35L lens. I had it for a week and returned it as I was not getting along with the ultra wide angle and its corners were mushy, even on a crop sensor! This WATE is sharp and the corners are scary good.
Here is a quick video I made that will show you what the lens looks like and how easy it is to change the focal length.
The lens is actually pretty small and light. Compared to a Canon 16-35L or a Nikon 14-24 it is TINY! The build is just superb as is all Leica glass. It just feels right and I can honestly say that the day has arrived where a landscape shooter can carry a tiny kit of an M9 and WATE and have all of the wide angle goodness they would ever need. As you have seen in the video above, you can set the focal length just by twisting to 16, 18 or 21. Its smooth and effortless.
In keeping with tradition of my newer reviews here is the weight of the lens, the lens with the finder and also a view through the finder at 16mm.
I tried getting an image with the D-lux 4 so you can get an idea what the VF looks like with the 16mm setting. It does have some barrel dostortion (the viewfinder) but this is necessary to fit all of that information into the small area. The circle you see under the 16mm frame is the spirit level, which seems to not be working in the review sample VF that was sent to me.
The images below were “nonsense” images snapped as I drove. No, I did not look through the VF and yes I kept my eyes on the road. I just raised the camera up to my window and snapped. I do this sometimes to see if I can capture anything worth looking at. These two are what I caught with the WATE and notice the nice colors. The WATE seems a bit warmer to me than most other Leica lenses, and this is a good thing.
Both images below: Leica M9 – WATE at 16mm – F4 – “Drive by” during morning drive – straight from camera
Before I go further let me state that this review will be a little different than my other lens reviews. Since this lens is so sharp across the frame and I found no issues with it at all, even on the FF M9, I decided to skip the 100% crops of my clock as they all looked the same. SHARP. I decided to fill this review with even more real world images than usual as this is what the lens is made for. Taking photos. So with that said, I will get started!
When I knew I would be getting this lens to test out I struggled and wondered where I could shoot to really show what the lens can do. Portraits would not do. My cat would be of no help either. One day as I was driving down an empty deserted road it hit me! I remembered a location I found last year while shooting with my M8. It was an old abandoned hospital and I knew it would be an amazing location to test out the Wide Angle Tri Elmar. Last year with the M8 I had the Leica 28 Elmarit and while inside the nasty run down building I wished I had a wider lens. Bringing the M9 and WATE would be perfect!
I ARRIVED AT THE OLD HOSPITAL WITH THE ULTRA-WIDE LEICA COMBO
I arrived at the hospital in the afternoon and even though I was not supposed to go inside I knew that this building had been empty for many years. On weekends teens use it as a party house, or at least they did at one time. The beer bottles and vandalism tells me this much. These days, it is full of toxic black mold and is flooded in areas. It is also pitch black in some areas of the basement, which happens to be the only entry point. The image below shows the door that I used to enter the hospital basement. I shot this one as I attempted to LEAVE after an hour or so. For the life of me I could NOT get this door to open! I pulled and pulled and started to freak because every other door to the hospital, well, they were chained up and padlocked.
After a couple of minutes I realized the door was locked!! Yes, when I entered I locked the door behind me so no one could get in and “surprise” me. I forgot I did that and all it took was for me to unlock it and then it opened up. Somehow, when I entered I did not disturb the spider web :)
So as I made a right turn and as the smell of the nasty black mold hit me I threw on my mask and walked deeper in to the darkness. I used my Iphone as a flashlight and after a minute or so I started to see a little bit of light by some stairs.
ISO 640 – 23 SECONDS – WATE AT 16MM AND F4 – converted to B&W
I knew these stairs went up to the 1st floor where there was some light but I wanted to explore the basement more so I kept walking. I started to hear drips, squeaks, and bangs. I had no idea where the bangs were coming from but it did not deter me. I had a WIDE ANGLE TRI ELMAR TO TEST and I was going to do whatever I had to do to test it damn it!
I finally found a room with some light coming from one of the alternate doors, but it was still DARK. It took a 32 second exposure for the image below to work out and it was still underexposed, thus the noise from me having to bring it up during the RAW conversion.
ISO 320 – 32 SECONDS – WATE at 16mm and F4
After this room I decided to head back to the stairs to see what I could find upstairs. I found the old operating room and due to lack of light, it took 32 seconds to get an exposure. I wandered in to the scene and was checking out the light while the shutter was open…
ISO 160 – 32S – WATE – 16mm – F5.6 – straight from camera
You can see all of the vandalism from all of the teens over the years but today I was here all alone, locked in, and free to shoot as I please. My only limitation was light as the WATE was giving me amazing wide angle views of entire rooms. I put my mask back on and explored further…
Some light, finally! – ISO 160 – 1/6S – WATE at 16mm – F4 – straight from camera
ISO 160 – 16MM – F4 – (added vignette in ACR on this image)
ISO 160 – F4 – 16MM – straight from camera
After an hour inside shooting I left. The stench of all of the mold was starting to get through my mask and I was also excited to get home and see my images. While opening the DNG RAW files in Adobe Camera Raw I noticed that the images really did not need any post processing! I did all fixes from within the RAW converter which were just white balance on some and contrast on others. The images also had plenty of sharpness and detail. This is one sharp lens, and usually wide angle lenses suffer in the corners. Not the WATE and not on the FF M9! I did not see any issues from my hospital images. I was very happy and was starting to wish I could keep the lens.
I did used to own one ultra wide. I used to shoot a Voigtlander 15 heliar on the M8 with good results (color shifts were an issue) and on the M9 the little Voigtlander has been getting some not-so-good reviews. It seems to have a problem with color shifts and like some of the other non Leica brand wide angles, you will see a pink color bar on the left side of your image with the little Voigtlander. It is at a pretty cheap price point though and can do if you are not too fussy about corner sharpness and color shifts. I can say the WATE beats that 15 Voigtlander hands down IN ALL AREAS including sharpness, color and tonality. Yea, I was enjoying the WATE as it was opening up new possibilities for me. Lets face it, the shots you see in this review could not have been taken with my 35, and I loved the versatility of the lens.
The next day I went back to the hospital and grabbed a few more shots…
WATE AT 18MM – F4 – ISO 160 – straight from camera
18MM – vignetting, contrast enhance
16mm, f5.6 (I think) – straight from camera
I know some of you will want a full size image to download so yes, I will provide one. The image below was shot at ISO 320 for 6 seconds. In the full size you will see some noise but that is due to me underexposing the image and having to bring it up in the RAW converter. When you look past that, you will see the great detail captured at 16mm, ISO 320 for 6 seconds! First, the image at 1500 pixels wide (if you click on it).
If you want to download the 18MP full size file CLICK HERE.
Here is one more full size – 16mm, ISO 320 and F8 which is where I feel the WATE reaches its peak as far as sharpness is concerned.
I WAS IMPRESSED!
So after processing about 40 of these images from the old hospital I was very impressed with this M9/WATE combo. I shot it in dark conditions having to use long exposure and it did great. BUT, I knew of another wide angle combo that is also superb and comes in at less money for a camera and lens! Someone on a forum pointed out that I could buy a Nikon D700 and Nikon 14-24 lens for less than the cost of the WATE and finder! This is true but if you own a M8 or M9 then you can find this WATE used for $4000 at times. This would get you probably one of the finest wide angle lenses ever created, the Leica Wide Angle Tri Elmar! Why would an M9 owner want a D700 and 14-24 when they could have a WATE to go with the camera they love so much? No doubt the D700 and 14-24 is a beautiful combo, BUT its HUGE HUGE HUGE!!!!
If size does not matter and you do not own an M8 or M9 then the D700 combo is the one to get. If you own an M8 or M9 and want a killer wide angle setup, the WATE is a great choice. But remember, Leica also has their super 18mm elmar which will get you in between the 16 and 21 settings of the WATE for $2800 or so. I used the 16mm position on the WATE 95% of the time as it provided me with the most dramatic looking images. I am not so sure I would shoot it at 21 as I am not really into an F4 21mm lens.
So who is this lens for? It is for the one who loves shooting wide and one who wants perfection in their wide angle lenses. If I were a big time landscape shooter I would buy this lens in an instant to add to my arsenal. The lens puts out a crisp brilliant image that leans to the warm side of neutral. It delivers the detail and while it has some distortion at 16mm, what 16mm doesn’t? That comes with the territory. The WATE is sharp to the edges, maybe getting a little bit of softness at the extreme edges at F4 but that goes away at F8-F11.
If you love shooting wide, want versatility and the best wide angle lens created for your Leica M, the WATE is a must buy. The only negative is the price. At $5995 for the lens and viewfinder (which IMO is a must) it is not cheap and this is the only issue keeping me from buying one. I am not really a wide shooter though I did find it very nice to have one available for those times when I would need or want an ultra wide lens.
For a guy who LOVES fast lenses, hates slow lenses, and rarely ever shoots ultra wides, I was surprised that I liked this lens so much. It has a quality about it that shines and I found no faults. I saw no vignetting and no color shifts on my M9 that I noticed in my everyday shots.
WHERE TO BUY?
If you are interested in this lens you can go to B&H or contact Ken Hansen. He is a GREAT leica dealer who has this lens in stock most of the time. You can e-mail him here for pricing and availability but make sure you tell him I sent you! Ken always gets an A+ from me with his old school service and great stock of Leica cameras and lenses.
BOTTOM LINE: If you crave an ultra wide and wants the best for your M, the Wide Angle Tri Elmar is stellar and along with the Universal Finder, makes for a very versatile one lens wide angle solution. Compared to a D700 and 14-24 it is a very compact solution capable of amazing things. If you can swing the cost, I highly doubt you will be disappointed. If the price is too high I would suggest checking out the Leica 18 Super Elmar 3.8 (though as of this writing I have not tested it on the M9).
Here are a few more of my “real world” samples from this lens during my time with it. Enjoy! If you enjoyed this review, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page and also be sure to join me on twitter or facebook! Also, you can subscribe to my feed at the upper right of any page and be notified of when new reviews are posted! Again, I wish I was rich as I have found another lens I wish I could afford!
NOTE: I added a lightbox to the site so when you click on any image in a review you will get a lightbox popup with the image in it. I thought this would be more user friendly compared to opening the image in a new window. Let me know how you like it, or if you have any issues opening up the larger versions!
Some of the black mold on the wall in the halls of the hospital – at 21mm