Going Wide – Exploring the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super-Elmar M Wide-Angle Prime

This article was originally posted on Photofocus.com.

One of the biggest challenges for those who enjoy making landscape and architectural photographs is to locate and acquire the ideal wide-angle lens for the job. While no amount of gear is a replacement for experience and skill, we invariably learn as we go that certain projects will call for a solution beyond our existing means. Fortunately for photo-kind, powerful in-roads for testing and using specialized gear have surfaced to level the playing field, allowing photographers of all stripes full-access to the best tools and equipment available.

Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super-Elmar M

Courtesy of LensRentals.com
Courtesy of LensRentals.com

If the idea of shedding pounds from your bag in exchange for a ton of quality resolution is appealing, the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super-Elmar M aspherical wide-angle prime is in a league of it’s own, especially when attached to the Sony Alpha A7R full-frame mirrorless body.

Here’s a quick look at the overview from the experts at LensRentals.com:

“The Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super-Elmar-M is a relatively compact lens that features one aspherical element, offering high resolving power with wonderful image quality. While the f/3.8 aperture doesn’t allow for extreme low-light shooting, it does provide simple focusing due to its large depth of field. Despite being an 18mm, it has very little optical distortion, making it a great option for architectural and landscape photography. The retrofocus design allows for great corner sharpness at all apertures, as well as a limited amount of color shift. It does have Leica’s 6-bit coding that allows the M9 to correct for vignetting.

Please Note: To best make use of this lens, we suggest the use of an external viewfinder to aid in composing.”

As touched on in a recent article spotlighting the Sony Alpha a7R, combining the resolution and craftsmanship of Leica with the stealth and focusing capabilities of the Alpha full-frame mirrorless lineup is hardly a fair fight for the competition. While an external viewfinder is a necessity for accuracy with rangefinder systems, Sony’s on-board focus-peaking all but eliminates this need entirely.

Being accustomed to using less expensive and bulkier wide-angle lenses myself, I was shocked to see how tiny this lens really is. Weighing in at 11oz, the lens is 2-1/4″ long with about a  2-1/2″ max diameter at the hood. Having the small stature and appearance of a glorified point-and-shoot, I’ve been able to work (with permission) on and off-tripod without issue day or night.

Using an Adapter

Sony NEX camera to Leica M Lens adapter - Courtesy of LensRentals.com
Courtesy of LensRentals.com

Leica M-designated lenses can be adapted to the Sony A7R’s E-mount via the Sony NEX camera to Leica M Lens adapter, regardless of the desired focal plane. As mentioned in the overview above, this adapter does generate a light-to-moderate vignette in the corners to be mindful of in post. The effect is nominal when wide-open at f/3.8, but does become more pronounced as the lens is stopped down.

As Leica M-series lenses are now thoroughly profiled and embedded in Adobe’s Lens Correction workflow, adjustments for distortion, aberration and any unwanted vignette can be minimized in post by way of Adobe Camera Raw.

Thoughts & Samples

The Leica 18 has an aperture range of f/3.8 to f/16 with a fairly steep curve in regard to depth-of-field, allowing the lens to acquire a broad focus as early as f/8. At f/3.8, the lens is plenty shallow for landscape purposes and just open enough to mitigate any undesired flaring. If you need a more shallow solution, you may consider trying the Leica 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical Lens to add even more creative command.

While working with manually-focused prime lenses is a notoriously slower and more precise workflow, I find that by working with a quality prime over a wide-angle zoom can bring a more uniform look to a project overall, and allows for much faster decision-making in regard to framing and composition.

The Alpha 36-megapixel Exmor sensor and Leica’s high-resolution glass combine to create stunning HDR results with a wealth of creative flexibility. Just be aware that stacking 36mp RAW exposure brackets can make short work of a hard drive if you’re used to smaller file sizes.

I have to re-iterate here, as the argument will no doubt arise, that absolutely no amount of gear can replace skill and experience. Whether shooting with a kit lens or a high-end prime, it’s not the equipment. It is always the person behind the machine and how much that person cares about their subject – be it people or places or things. I’ve learned in time that what I might want as far as gear can be a fickle and expensive lesson. But when it’s time to go wide and I need a lens that cares, the Leica 18mm Super-Elmar M is tried and true.

 Click HERE to read more of Mark’s articles. To view more of Mark’s work, click HERE.

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