The Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar Lens Review by Alwyn Loh
After switching to the Leica platform a few months ago, I was keen to add a high performing ultra wide angle lens specifically for landscape, travel and outdoor daylight photography to my lens kit. I almost settled for the 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph, and just before I bought the lens, Leica announced its replacement with the new 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar Asph lens, along with the M9-P in June 2011. Copies only really started shipping in late October and I am pleased to have become an owner of a copy. Here is my short write up and personal thoughts on this new high performing ultra wide angle lens from Leica. I am thankful and grateful to Steve for giving me the opportunity to share this with his viewership.
The lens is very well built, like all other modern day Leica lenses. Mine is black in aluminum, very solid to the touch. Depth of field and distance markings are engraved onto the lens barrel. Size wise, without the screw on hood, the lens is similar to that of the 28mm Summicron without its hood as well. It takes 46mm filters and I have a B+W UV filter stacked in front of my lens. The screw on hood will attach on just fine with the filter on it. The lens does block a small lower right portion of the camera’s viewfinder, though most users of this lens will likely be using an external finder to properly compose and capture their images. It is small in size compared to its f/2.8 and f/1.4 brethren, balances well on the M9 and easy to carry around mounted onto the camera body. Leica says it weighs around 280 grams and I count 8 blades on the aperture’s diaphragm.
While I was told by Leica Singapore that the first batch of this lens was recalled due to a focusing problem – which apparently could cause the lens to lock up. I have not experienced any issues with the focusing on my end so far. Focus is buttery smooth from end to end, the tabbed focusing working well for my smaller hands and fingers to effectively turn the small focusing ring well. The barrel of the lens extends by about 2mm when focusing from infinity to 0.7 meters and it brings up the 28mm frame lines in the M9′s viewfinder. With a focal length of 21mm, it is easy to use zone focusing with this lens. The aperture ring clicks at half stops and is somewhat easy to bump, even with my smaller hands and fingers, to smaller apertures indadvertedly when taking pictures. Sometimes, I find that I have been shooting at either f/4.0 or f/4.8 without as a nary of an idea that I had adjusted the aperture on the lens, so its been a habit of mine to periodically “flick” my index finger to ensure that I am shooting this lens wide open – not only to exploit the traditional performance at maximum aperture, but also to ensure that I don’t accidentally lower my shutter speed when shooting in the shade.
This lens is very sharp in the center and all the way into the corners. Bearing in mind depth of field considerations – for example focusing on subjects at infinity will yield the foreground to be slightly blur, I have absolutely no complaints about the extraordinary imaging quality of this lens. This lens makes up for its smaller maximum aperture by producing images with razor sharp detail edge to edge. I have absolutely no doubt in its ability to perform wide open. In fact, the only reason why I stop down when using this lens, is when the daylight scene in front of me causes the shutter speed to exceed the maximum 1/4000s of the M9. When I first downloaded the images into my computer, I felt that the imaging quality is as good as, or just maybe exceeds the performance of the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon – popularly used by some landscape photographers as a standard ultra wide angle lens. Stopping the lens down does improve lens performance and it reaches its optical peak at around f/5.6. Images and 100% crops are post processed slightly in Lightroom, with the default Lightroom sharpness of 25 being used during export, and a second round of default sharpening for screen in output.
and a couple 100% crops from the above image – (click the image to see the full 100% crop)
There is some chromatic aberration with this lens. At f/3.4, there were a few observed instances where I could make some purple fringing show. One was in a bland shot with fine tree branches against a brilliantly bright cloud – which necessitated the use of 1/4000s shutter speed to tame the exposure. Another was when some guard rails were in the picture reflecting an overcast sky. I note that the purple fringing typically appears more towards the edges and corners of the frame when bright and dark subjects are overlaid with each other. Even then, chromatic aberration is at a minimum for this lens. For all practical photographic purposes, such CA can be easily removed in post processing and has not been an issue for my own photographic work. If you want to exploit the weakest link in this lens and try to generate CA, you will find it, just that for every day shooting purposes, I rarely come across it and notice it even less.
This lens captures color brilliantly well in typical Leica fashion. Colors are vibrant, life like and have a certain richness to them. My only proof for this comes from the normal presets that I typically use for post processing in Lightroom. Colors come out more vibrant, much richer and visibly more brilliant by default. A personal standard preset that would have yielded a good color output with other lenses from other systems seems to “over do” the punchiness of the color saturation and fidelity on image files taken with this lens. Even in the shade, there is a natural glow in the color of the images it captures. Bearing in mind that the color in the final image is a combination of both lens, quality of raw file and post processing, it will be unfair to say that this lens produces the best color of them all. However, I would say that it does produce files that can be easily worked on to output beautiful colors depending on your needs.
Wide open, contrast on this lens is brilliantly high, so much so that I have to add a degree of “fill light” to open up the shadows in post production. Shooting images in the shade and with some post processing indicates that along with the dynamic range of the M9, it is possible to other crush the dark tones or else overexpose for the highlights without really trying to do so. I usually shoot the M9 with either a +0.3 or +0.7 exposure compensation in order to open up the shadows and find that I have clipped the highlights on numerous occasions. It has come to the point whereby I just shoot with no exposure compensation to avoid this happening. It does make for noisier shadows and dark tones though, so that should be kept in mind. On the bright side, photographers that prefer strong contrast in their images – like some in landscape or black and white photography, can yield high contrast images in the default raw files. My anecdotal experience is that I need less of an adjustment to the “curves” with files taken with the Super-Elmar as compared with my other Nikon/Canon lenses of a similar focal length to gain roughly the same degree of contrast in the output for a given scene.
So far, I was not able to make this lens exhibit any flare. Leica recommends the screw on hood be used at all times to prevent stray light from hitting the front element at an obtuse angle.
Depth of Field
At 21mm and with a maximum aperture of f/3.4, plus a minimum focusing distance of 0.7 meters. It is possible to make some measure of bokeh appear in the imaging frame, just that there is so much depth of field with this lens that one has to deliberately shoot subjects that are less than one meter away, with a background much farther off in order to stoke up any semblance of background blur. For my expressed purpose of landscape photography, hyper-focal distance is reached with subjects beyond 4.5 meters, so I don’t think serious buyers or users of this lens are out to exploit its bokeh potential and characteristics – which are okay but nothing to shout about. A 21mm lux would obviously be better suited to such a purpose. Clear depth of field scales are marked on the barrel for your reference in shooting with zone focus.
Leica indicates that there is a degree of distortion with this lens. Like most ultra wide angle lenses, subjects that are close to the lens and placed in the corner of the frame inevitably experience a degree of distortion, with objects slanting towards the center of the frame. For landscape purposes, I cannot see any barrel or pincushion distortion. This image has not been aligned, rotated or cropped in any manner and as far as I can tell, the straight horizon looks straight to me. Likewise, lining up vertical lines properly yields straight lines which stay reasonably straight throughout the frame with some slight barrel distortion visible in this brick buildings shot. Compared with the offerings from other lens manufacturers, I’d say that this performance is very well corrected for such an ultra wide angle lens. Your mileage may vary, however it is sufficient for my shooting needs.
In practice, shooting with this lens initially is a little bit clunky. For those who have never really shot with the use of an external viewfinder in general. I started out originally by framing the shot with the external viewfinder, moving my camera body viewfinder to my eye to gain focus and then back again to double check the composition and then finally to take the picture. With some practice, it gets easier. Then I realized that the easiest way was to perhaps just use zone focusing, stopping down my aperture slightly at a loss of some shutter speed and then using the external viewfinder as my all in one solution to frame and fire off the shutter. With a lens of such a wide focal length, slight shifts made during the crossover from one viewfinder to another do not really affect overall sharpness or composition. Besides, composition with an external viewfinder is somewhat clumsy at best, with the finder only giving a very rough gauge to the overall scene being captured. I think most people will get used to it with practice. It took me a while to do so, and it is now like second nature to me. The good thing is that depth of field is in your favor and with such a wide focal length, some slight shifts in the composition in between focusing and shooting are not really that noticeable.
Leica 21mm Bright Line Finder
Foolishly, I bought the 21mm Leica Bright Line finder to go with this lens. To be very honest, I hate this external viewfinder, but find myself stuck with using it because I paid through the nose and way above the market value buying it locally and cannot bear to sell it at a loss. The view inside the external viewfinder itself is reminiscent of the M3′s 50mm frame lines. The frame is marked with curved lines in the corners, along with markings that indicate the 21mm field of view on the M8. I find that markings for the M8 are incredibly distracting, but have now gotten used to them – using them as compositional aids on one hand, and as a bonus for spectacle users like myself – they nicely mark out the 28mm frame lines when using such a lens, so one does not need to do eye acrobatics in order to see the entirety of the 28mm frame line inside the M9′s own finder. The external viewfinder is actually brighter than the M9′s viewfinder itself. However, for just over half the price and twice the brightness, I would recommend the Zeiss 21mm finder wholeheartedly instead. It is a stunningly brilliantly bright finder with sharp markings for the 21mm frame lines and no other distractions.
Light Fall Off
Initially, I observed a limited degree of light fall off towards the corners of my pictures when shooting with my M9 on older firmware. If you are not running on the latest Leica M8/M9 firmware, you will most likely need to update your camera’s software, so that the lens detection can work and corner fix do its work on your images taken with this lens. After I updated the firmware, the dark corners were gone and I have to admit that Leica has done a great job in ensuring that the images come out evenly illuminated when shooting at maximum aperture. Ironically, the latest firmware busted the use of my SD card and my 32GB one could no longer be used with the camera because the infamous read/write error. I had been SD Card problem free for as long as I owned my M9 until I had to update the firmware to best optimize this lens on the digital body. A 16 GB card in my M9 is now the staple as a result of this firmware update.
I have opted to share post processed images on this review to show what this lens is capable of. For myself, I believe that it is somewhat unrealistic to post 100% unedited images to share – because straight out of the raw file, these files do indeed come across as bland, boring, grey and washed out. For myself, digital photography is part art and part science and post processing is part of the aforementioned “science.” I see the world in color and find it hard to shoot images in black and white, strongly preferring warm reds, vibrant blues and brilliant greens in my images. As such, my post processing style is typically somewhat traditional – looking towards the color palettes of Velvia film for shots taken in direct sunlight and a more subdued Kodachrome output when shooting in the shade, when people are in the picture or when I prefer a slightly more subdued color tone in output. I apologize if the images in this review come across as harsh, over saturated, uninspiredly uninteresting or tacky. For the most subjective output of “color” and “contrast” – a good lens such as this can reduce the amount of work done in post processing, yet I believe that a certain degree of post production is also necessary, in my opinion, to truly get a representative idea of what the lens is capable of when you finally print an image and hang it on the wall for show.
Leica produced a winner with this lens to well succeed the Elmarit Asph. For a slightly slower maximum aperture, one gains a tiny jewel of an optic that takes 46mm filters, is smaller in profile, light for easy travel and boasts stunning imaging quality across the frame. It is easy to use, bearing in mind the need for the not-so-optional external viewfinder to best gauge framing. I am very impressed with this lens, very satisfied with my purchase and it is my hope that if you are seriously considering this lens, to consider testing out out and seeing if it suits your photographic purposes. The only drawback that I can really think of it obviously its smaller aperture – which sometimes lands my shutter speed into the 1/12s-1/24s zone at f/3.4 when shooting in the shade or indoors. But that is not a fault of the lens itself. If you have $3000+ dollars to spare and are in need of a high quality ultra wide angle lens and don’t mind the slower aperture – this lens is for you.
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