David English: Going Wide-Angle

Ask any M-series photographer what the best three lens kit would be, and you may hear something along the lines of a 28mm, 50mm and 90mm. You might also hear 35-50-90 or 28-35-75. Either way, the center-point is usually a 35mm or 50mm lens, which is considered to be a “standard” lens with 35mm film or a full-frame digital sensor.

Now imagine my surprise, being a relative newcomer to the M-series, when I gravitated to an 18mm Super-Elmar, 24mm Summilux and 50mm Summilux as my preferred trio of lenses for the M9. About 90 percent of the shots are with the 18mm and 24mm. How in the world did that happen? The shift to wide-angle wasn’t planned. It was more of a gut reaction to which photos seemed pleasing to me. After a year of shooting this way, I’m beginning to understand why I’m drawn to these lenses.

One of the benefits is an increased depth of field. When shooting with the 18mm, I sometimes just look at the distance markings on the lens and guesstimate the focus because of the expanded focus area. I very much like the fact that the entire frame can be in sharp focus, assuming you’re at least a few meters away from your subject. I also like to shoot as close as possible, which can throw some parts of the image out-of-focus. That can result in an image that looks like it might have been shot with a 35mm or even a 50mm lens, except with the altered perspective that’s associated with a wide-angle lens.

The more extreme wide-angle lenses aren’t usually the best choice for close-up portraits, as they can distort a face making the nose or forehead look bigger or more angled than in real life. I’m still somewhat uncomfortable photographing strangers, so that has been less of an issue for me—at least until I overcome my reluctance to ask or just take the picture if I’m in a public space. I tend to mount either the 18mm or 24mm on the M9, and essentially go looking for visuals that match that particular lens. You probably won’t capture as many images with a wide-angle lens, but you may find that the ones that you do capture are some of the best you’ve ever taken.

Do you need an external viewfinder with a wide-angle lens? On the M9, anything below 28mm generally requires you to focus with the built-in viewfinder and then move your eye to an external viewfinder to recompose the shot. That felt awkward at first, but now I actually prefer the two-step process because my external finders tend to be a bit brighter with a larger visible area outside the frame lines (handy for anticipating what might move into the frame). I’ve gotten so used to my 18mm and 24mm external viewfinders, I recently purchased a vintage Leitz 50mm viewfinder for my 50 lux, even though an external viewfinder isn’t required for that lens.

Ultimately, the use of wide-angle lenses is a personal decision that should grow out of the kinds of images you hope to create. I have a strong interest in classic films, including the silent films of the 1920s (especially the German and Russian films) and the great Hollywood films of the 1920s through the 1940s (check out Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography in The Long Voyage Home, The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane). Looking back, I can see that these movies have been a big influence on my photographic style and appreciation for a bold, diagonal composition.

Wide-angle lenses are particularly valuable when you have to shoot in a confined space. The photo titled Aria Escalator is a good example. I was attending a tradeshow in Las Vegas and left some time open to visit the newly constructed Aria hotel. As you can see, the escalator is surrounded by patterns of light. It took an 18mm lens to convey the complete experience. A 50mm would have captured only a portion of the scene. Even though the aperture was fully open (at f/3.8), the depth of field extends throughout the entire frame. The camera was set to ISO 320 to keep as broad a dynamic range as possible given the uneven lighting.

Both the 18mm Super-Elmar and 24mm Summilux are wonderfully sharp and solidly built. I assume the same is true for the 21mm Summilux, which I did consider over the 24 lux. I felt the 24 lux could be used in a wider range of low-light situations than the 21 lux. I’ll be trying the 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar soon, as it could prove to be more versatile than the 18mm.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest in the use of wide-angle lenses. I’ve found that with the right subject matter, they can add an expressive quality to your photos. If you feel that your photography has fallen into a slump, a wide-angle lens could be just the thing to relight your creative fires.

-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, Computer Shopper, Film & Video, Hemispheres, PC Magazine, PC World, Sky, US Airways Magazine 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.