Carl Merkin: Test Driving the New Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4

After downloading the new firmware ver. 1.162 for the M9 and ver. 2.014 for the M8.2, I set about learning what improvements were incorporated. One of the many upgrades included was support of the new lens “Leica Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4”. No sooner had I read these words than the phone rang. It was my friends at the Leica Blog asking if I’d like to test the new Super-Elmar and report on it. You bet I would!

When I opened the box and looked at it, my first impression was that it looked too small. Was this the right lens? It was! The compact lens and shade don’t interfere with built-in rangefinder or the auxiliary viewfinder image.  I immediately noticed the depth-of-field scale and realized the great potential for shooting from the hip without raising the camera to my eye, a technique I use a lot on the street to go unnoticed. Wide open at  f/3.4 and set at eight feet, the depth-of-focus extended from 5 to 15 feet. Stopping down just to f/8 gives you focus from three feet to infinity!

The build quality is superb with precise fit and finish and the feel is very solid, including the screw-in lens hood which has a positive stop at the end of the thread; this orients it properly and really makes it feel like part of the lens.  There’s a smoothness to the focus that makes you happy every time you touch it. Back lighting and even light sources in the picture area have no effect on contrast or color saturation which are as good as it gets. The perspective, if the lens is carefully leveled vertically and horizontally, is perfectly rectilinear. Sometimes the results don’t look like wide-angle pictures at all! If you point the lens up or down, or if a subject extends from near to far, you introduce a distorted perspective that can serve as a picture element, accentuating size and extending space.

I usually shoot with two or three Leica cameras and six or seven lenses, but I made the decision to give the Super-Elmar my undivided attention by leaving everything else home and testing the capabilities of this lens. I don’t use the 21mm focal length a lot so this was going to require an adjustment, namely getting closer to my subjects than I would normally get. Over the next few weeks, I took the Super-Elmar to a Mets game, a gallery opening, a walk in Central Park, went to the beach and South Street Seaport, Skylands Botanical Garden and lots of street shooting.

In most cases these M9 RAW captures were exposed for the highlights, allowing the shadows to go quite dark in some cases, but the degree of shadow detail was amazing as I opened it up in Photoshop, more or less, as each situation called for.

I’ve heard it said that the best Leica lenses challenge the photographer to use all their resources. I thought I was going to challenge this lens, but I’ve had to rise to its level. Too bad I have to return it now, but I’m looking forward to owning one soon.

-Carl Merkin

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  • I am so tempted.. I have a 35 lux (new version) on order but I love wides… I think it would sit perfect in my lineup with the 35, 75’cron. I am just unsure about the 3.4 if I am shooting indoor events and in dim rooms. getting the itch for a new lens and can’t wait another 4 months for the 35 lux 😉

  • It is an interesting lens which allows you to make photos with a unusual perspective. I specially like in this essay N°3 because of the way you framed the subject, N° 4 which is a good example of a way to use it and N° 5 because of a interesting complex subject, a little surreal. May be one day I’ll buy such a lens…

  • I have the earlier 21mm f3.4 Super-Angulon. It’s the second of five 21’s of which the one reviewed here is the fifth. I use my 21 on a Leica MD2 body with the Leitz 21mm finder. I find this lens to be an awesome performer in cities that have very old buildings, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Norwich. When I have my films (XP2) developed, I have them scanned to disc rather than printed. I then view my images on a laptop. This makes it easier to send images to press etc. The lens captures things I don’t always notice in the finder. The whole set-up is quite discreet in use and perfect for street shooting.

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