David English: The Enigmatic 18

You could argue that every focal length has its own personality. A 50 mm lens likes to go with the crowd by focusing on what seems natural and appropriate. A 135 mm lens, on the other hand, can be overly curious, often poking around into other people’s business. So where does that leave the 18 mm? And more specifically, where does the Leica 18 mm Super-Elmar-M fit into the family of M-mount lenses?

For many M-System owners, the 18 mm Super-Elmar is a rather mysterious lens. The focal length would seem to be too extreme for most subjects. Who would want to carry a lens that would be good for only a small percentage of shots? Because it’s one of my favorite M-mount lenses, I thought I would try to make a case for this lens. It’s far more versatile than you might assume, given its extreme focal length.

I can see why M camera owners might be reluctant to try it. If a 21 mm or 24 mm seems extreme, imagine how excessive an 18 mm might be. In fact, there’s something exhilarating about an 18 mm lens, precisely because it has broken ranks with the usual cluster of wide angle lenses. If the 28 mm is the safe bet for a wide angle, and the 21 mm and 24 mm are still tethered to reality, then the 18 mm is the focal length that fully breaks free to explore new realms.

Once you become comfortable with the focal length, you start to see wide vistas everywhere you look. While you may have a higher percentage of rejects, because of the unusual perspective, you’ll also have more truly impressive shots that push the envelope in composition and depth. There’s an inevitable wow factor with many 18 mm shots. They hit that sweet spot that shows the world not as it is, but how it could be.

A great 18 mm shot can have strong emotional appeal, because the wraparound perspective provides a visceral connection. It can depict how a scene feels, as well as how it looks. Think of Vincent van Gogh’s bedroom and pool table paintings (Bedroom in Arles and The Night Café). They have a similar wide-angle perspective. If those paintings were corrected to a normal perspective (either 35 mm or 50 mm), they would lose much of their emotional impact. An 18 mm lens can also enhance the three-dimensional qualities of a photo. Like the wide-perspective van Gogh paintings that seem to pop out of the frame, an 18 mm can bring a depth and tonality that wouldn’t be present at higher focal lengths.

All of these 16 images were shot with an 18 mm Super-Elmar-M lens and M Monochrom camera. This lens is an especially good match for the Monochrom. One of the strong points for any 18 mm lens is its deep focus across a wide field of view. The Monochrom makes that deep focus even more impressive by providing a sharper image and expanded dynamic range. The Monochrom lacks the usual Bayer filter that splits the light into the various colors. As a result, the images from the 18 mm Super-Elmar are even more vivid and detailed when rendered onto a Monochrom sensor. And because the high-ISO noise on a Monochrom is more film-like (again, due to the lack of a Bayer filter), the 18 mm’s f/3.8 maximum aperture is less of a hindrance in low-light situations.

With the photo titled Rainy Manhattan #3, you can see that an 18 mm is wide enough to take in both sides of the street when aimed upward in midtown Manhattan. Here the drizzle and fog add an ethereal quality to the image, even as the lens captures the finely focused details of the buildings. If you tend to associate architecture and wide-angle lenses with coldly precise photos, this image may help to convince you that it’s mostly a matter of context. Given the right atmosphere (literally, in this case), you can use an 18 mm to create evocative and mysterious images, despite the tendency for everything to be in sharp focus. You can see a higher-resolution version of this photo here at Leica Fotopark.

Wouldn’t an 18 mm lens elongate or distort anyone who is caught in its perspective-altering gaze? Again, it depends on the context of the scene, as well as how those figures are positioned within the frame. As a general rule, people near the center of the frame tend not to be distorted in perspective. With the photo titled Rainy Manhattan #2, you can see that even when positioned away from the center, people can appear to retain their realistic proportions, if the background appears to be realistic in its proportions. Here the subject syncs up nicely with the focal length. The wide-angle view enhances the subjective nature of the photo, in that we also experience the immense scale and tunnel-like perspective that the two figures experience as they enter into Times Square. A larger version of this photo is available here at Leica Fotopark.

Because an 18 mm lens provides an extremely wide view with almost everything in focus, you can experiment with combining layers of content, especially when encountering reflective surfaces. With the photo titled Manhattan Store Window #10, you can see this multilayered approach and the possibilities for using stacked layers to create complex compositions. The three mannequins represent one layer, with the three rings behind them forming another layer. The buildings would seem to be located behind the mannequins and rings, but a quick realization of what’s really going on suggests that the buildings are being reflected on the glass. The scripted letters in front add yet another layer. Being closer to the camera, the letters have a softer focus. Photos like this are puzzles, in that they invite the viewer to decode and reconstruct the captured reality. As an added bonus, the mannequins appear to be taking in the whole experience. You can see a higher-resolution version of this photo here at Leica Fotopark.

While you can minimize the perspective distortion of an 18 mm lens, some of your most impressive photos will likely come from subjects where the lens is used to heighten that effect. With objects that are naturally curved, especially ones that are large enough to dominate the frame, you can utilize the wraparound perspective to produce dramatic images that are hyper-realistic or surreal. With the photo titled Manhattan Shadows #7, the curve of the main building and the outward spread of the shadows are greatly enhanced by the wide-angle view. Here the goal is not so much a realistic rendering, but an expressive interpretation of the geometric patterns and their dispersal throughout the frame. You can get a better sense of how these elements interact by viewing a larger version of the photo here at Leica Fotopark.

An 18 mm lens might seem to be too extreme for everyday use, and it certainly wouldn’t be your first choice for a typical wedding or portrait. But don’t write off the possibility of using it in situations that you wouldn’t have thought to be appropriate. Sometimes the power of a photographic image is not in recording what is, but in capturing what might have been — if one could view the scene with heightened senses.

– David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom, X Vario, and Q. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.

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One comment

  • When I was shooting with a DSLR for newspaper work, I loved a 12-24mm zoom that I had. Given that my DSLR had a APS-C sensor, that made it a 18-36mm lens in full frame 35mm terms. There were times that no other focal length would really provide the impact I was looking for. Totally agree that something that wide may not be for everyone but there are times nothing else will do….

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