Nov 162011
 

The Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar Lens Review by Alwyn Loh

Introduction

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.

Build

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.

Focusing

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.

Sharpness

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)

Chromatic Aberration

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.

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Color

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.

 

Contrast

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.

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Flare

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.

 

Distortion

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.

Shooting

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.

Post Processing

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.

Conclusion

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.

Where to Buy?

You can buy this lens from Leica dealers Ken Hansen (e-mail: [email protected]), Dale Photo or B&H Photo.

  24 Responses to “USER REPORT: The Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar Lens Review by Alwyn Loh”

  1. Great review Alwyn, thanks for taking the time to write it and share with the rest of us.

  2. Very nice review and some great photos, thanks. It really seems that Leica produced a great lens. It was probably designed to Leica M9 as the edge correction seems nearly perfect (contrary to may other 21mm lenses).

    But being such a gear head I would love to see a comparison to Voigtlaender 21/4 and Zeiss ZM 21/4.5 :)

  3. Thanks for the work on the review. I love wide angles and this looks like a winner.

    Btw nice to see the bottle of Schneider Weisse – my favorite beer and the one I am drinking right now.

  4. Is it true that Leica ended up recalling the first batch and redesigned the bayonet? The photo here of the 21mm f/3.4 looks different that what appears on Leica’s website now.

    • The photo of the lens above is the original version that was recalled. The revision has a wider body at the mount end. This looks like a “stock” product photo, probably not the lens he used.

  5. Nice Review,

    Seen already a view photos another threads about this lens. It seems to be a stunning ultra wide angle lens, esp. because it’s for 35mm and sharpness up to the corners is excellent while the distortion is very low

    Could be my number 4. However as I have the Zuiko 7-14mm I will have to think very hard….

    B

  6. Thanks for the report! Nice and informative. I held in my hand for the first time today a 24 Summilux. It was a whole lot smaller than I expected. It was the feeling of “wow” in my hands. Too bad I’d have to sell my M9 to be able to afford the 24 Summilux. And then, I wouldn’t have a camera to use the lens with! I’ve considered getting a 24 Elmarit or the 24 Elmar. But for the time being, I’ll just have to keep using the tiny Skopar 21/4 for wide angle stuff.

  7. Nice review. I would love to have this lens, but they are so scarce these days….

  8. Apparently the Voigtlander 21 is very nice (it’s sure compact!), but it doesn’t work so well on the M9 due to the rear nodal point being closer to the sensor…produces odd colour fringes. I guess you could correct them to some extent in post, but it’s pretty dramatic. Ken Rockwell (I know there’s mixed opinions about his opinions…) has a good review on his site – he absolutely raves about the Voigtlander, just not for the M9, but for film M cameras.

    • Rockwell tested the Voigtlander before Leica updated their firmware to improve the edge effects for wide angles. I use it on my M9 with the updated firmware, and seldom detect any discoloration. (The edge correction depends on the ISO setting. Use 160 ISO for best results. As an old film photog I don’t mind 160 at all.)

      • So that’s what happened!! The firmware update! That’s why I didn’t see much if any red edges at all last time I used the Skopar 21. Thanks for the info.

  9. Nice review Alwyn!

    For anyone looking to save a little and get something a bit faster, I’ve become a huge fan of the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Biogon T* ZM. Sharp as a tack, well built.

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/361537-REG/Zeiss_1365_651_21mm_f_2_8_ZM_Lens.html

    I coupled it with the Voigtlander 21mm/25mm viewfinder and it’s been a great combo!

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/725634-REG/Voigtlander_DA421A_21_25mm_Viewfinder_Black.html

    I bought it to use with my old M8 as roughly a 28mm but love it on my M9. I simply made a preset in the M9 for the 21mm ZM that flags it as a Leica 21mm and it works great. Corrects vignetting and flags it in the metadata as a 21mm.

  10. How does it compare to the Super Angulons from ’58-’80?

  11. Excellent review!
    I found M9 sensor’s dynamic range rather narrow, so in lots of situations a less contrasty lens can preserve more highlight and shadow details. It’s easy to dial Contrast up but no way to bring back lost details due to sensor’s low high-ISO performance.

  12. Great review, Alwyn. If I didn’t already own (and love) the 18mm Super Elmar, I would get this lens…but as Ashwin stated above, it is really hard to find…

  13. Lovely lens for sure, and great output with the M9, but damn, it must be quite the pain to have to work with an external viewfinder which you cannot focus through.

    Zone focussing is all good and well but its imprecision tends to defeat the purpose of such high end gear.

    • Actually, Sam, it is really no big deal using the external viewfinder…I found it annoying at first, but you get used to it, and it becomes second nature. I usually focus first in the regular viewfinder, and then compose using the external….not a problem. If you are shooting in good light and stop down the lens, focus is usually not a problem anyway…

  14. I love your post processing. I’d like to see a tutorial by you. Do you use a ND grad filter to get the skies exposed so well?

  15. wow… malaysian!

  16. I had no idea that the leica 21mm finder had M8 framelines on it. I thought that when they discontinued it and the M8.2 they would forget it ever existed and try to move on.

    I’m in the market for a few viewfinders and so that is one i will certainly be avoiding

    • Having the M8 frame lines on the 21 finder is actually no distraction at all. Quite the opposite I find it makes this viewfinder extremely versatile, as I can use it with the 21 SEM or 28 Summicron. Yes, the M9 has internal frame lines for 28, but if you set hyper focal or zone focus it’s faster to use the external VF. You can even split the difference between the 2 frame lines for use with the 24 Summilux. It’s also much smaller than the Frankenfinder, and more accurate than the Zeiss 21 finder, which I previously owned.

  17. I just bought this lens and it is a superbe lens indeed. The image quality is top-notch, super sharp & super contrasty. The colours are vivid and saturated. The build quality is as you would expect from any Leica M lens and the size is very compact/light which is ideal for travelling.
    Please see my images with this lens:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jerrybay/sets/72157628796100269/

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