David English: Going Ultra-Wide

I suppose it was inevitable. Acquire a taste for wide-angle lenses, and you’ll soon wonder just how wide you can go. With an M-series camera, that can be as wide as 12mm, if you’re willing to go with a third-party lens. As you may have guessed, I couldn’t resist the call to walk on the ultra-wide side, if only to find out that going that wide would be a step too far. Here are my experiences (the pros and cons) with ultra-wide photography on an M9.

As I mentioned in my previous Going Wide-Angle posting, I had gravitated to an 18mm Super-Elmar, 24mm Summilux and 50mm Summilux as my preferred trio of lenses for the M9. Roughly 90 percent of the M9 shots were with the 18mm and 24mm.

Since then I’ve purchased a Leica Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm lens (often referred to as the WATE, which is short for Wide-Angle Tri-Elmar). The WATE’s 16mm setting is as wide as you can go with a Leica brand lens, so I also bought a Voigtlander 12mm. It’s my first non-Leica lens for my M9. Both lenses require an external viewfinder, which is usually included with the lens.

The biggest advantage when shooting is the easy focus. With the massive depth of field available at these low focal lengths, anything beyond a meter tends to be in sharp focus. If you’ve shot with a Noctilux, think of an ultra-wide-angle lens as the opposite in terms of focus. You won’t be able to isolate your focused subject against the out-of-focus areas, because there likely won’t be any out-of-focus areas. You’ll have a full canvas to fill.

The expanded perspective can be tricky, as the sides (in landscape orientation) or top-and-bottom (in portrait orientation) can seem to wrap around your head. It helps to have something of interest near the center to hold the perspective in place. Some of my shots show no obvious angled distortion, while others show a considerable amount. Both types of photos can work, depending on the content.

As with standard wide-angle lenses, you’ll need to adjust your mental frame of reference to find matching visuals — only more so with these lenses. Be prepared to get up close and personal with your subject if you want that subject to dominate the field of view. If you think of an ultra-wide-angle lens as the opposite of a telephoto lens in terms of distance, you can see why you may have to move in for the shot.

The photo titled “Roller Coaster” is a good example of the need to move up close, as it was shot with the 12mm. I wasn’t dangerously close, since I was standing on a public platform, but I did lean in as far as I could, relying on the sound of the approaching roller coaster to know when to snap the shutter. The location is the Adventuredome in Las Vegas. As you can see, the dome’s ceiling, buildings and support structures are visually striking, especially from a widened perspective. A standard focal length from that same platform wouldn’t have been as interesting. This perspective also suggests the heighted experience you might feel from inside a roller coaster.

These two lenses are somewhat slow, so you may have to bump up the ISO or lower the shutter speed. The WATE opens to f/4.0, while the Voigtlander 12mm opens only to f/5.6. When indoors, I would sometimes try to find a surface where I could rest the camera to lower the shutter speed even further. You could also bring a tripod or monopod, though that would undermine two key advantages of the M9 — portability and unobtrusiveness.

There are several issues you should be aware of if you’re considering the Voigtlander 12mm for your M-series camera. You’ll need to purchase an M-Bayonet Adapter so it can be fitted onto the lens mount. There’s a fair amount of vignetting and side-edge color banding (red on the left and cyan on the right). The vignetting can be corrected with Photoshop, Lightroom or other photo editing software. If you shoot in black-and-white, the color banding won’t be noticeable. If you shoot in color, the free CornerFix program includes a profile for the Voigtlander 12mm that can correct the color banding; and yes, it can read DNG files. Also be aware that the focal length will not be listed in the photo’s EXIF data.

I experienced no issues with the WATE. Some don’t like the WATE’s bulky viewfinder, though I found the finder’s ability to adjust the focal distance, along with the focal length, to be highly useful for composing shots. The finder (also known as the Frankenfinder because of its relative size) has an internal bubble level to help you keep the camera level with the ground. Because wide-angle lenses tend to distort the perspective even more when off-axis, a bubble level can be helpful for quick shots.

Will I keep shooting with these two ultra-wide lenses? The answer is a most definite yes. Since I prefer not to change lenses often, the challenge will be to learn when to shoot ultra-wide as opposed to wide. My favorite lens is still my 24 lux, which I can use inside and outside, day or night. The 12mm is more of a specialty lens that has to suit the environment or occasion. The WATE is in-between for versatility, because you can adjust the focal length from 16mm to 21mm.

- 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 and moved to an M9 in November 2009. You can see his photos at www.protozoid.com. His main website is www.davidenglish.com and his classic film blog is www.classicfilmpreview.com.