Peter McCollough: Review of Leica Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 Lens

When Leica asked me to do a test review of the new Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 lens I was a little surprised because I’m not a particularly technical photographer, but I was excited for the opportunity. Then I thought about how wide a 21mm lens is and began imagining the bending horizons and distorted faces I would encounter. I haven’t owned a lens wider than 35mm for over three years now, and 35mm is how I like it. So with a little reservation, I took the lens for a spin. My first impression after clicking a few frames with the 21mm was that it did not feel like a 21mm lens. When I looked at the pictures on the back of the camera I saw what looked like a 24mm image with no curved horizon or bending lines. I honestly felt like the camera was doing a magic trick. I had never used an aspherical ultra-wide angle lens before, so it took a while for me to wrap my head around the fact that there doesn’t have to be the grotesque distortion in wide angle lenses that I had come to know and avoid. I called up another photographer to explain that I was taking pictures with a 21mm lens and no matter what I did, straight lines stayed straight. I feel naive about it now, but it’s fair to say I was a little blown away by what I had been missing out on. I now understand why some people are so particular about shooting aspherical lenses only. In a lot of  situations, they’re definitely priceless.

My second biggest impression was how the size and operation of the lens felt negligibly different from the Summicron-M 35mm f/2 ASPH I had been accustomed to. The 21mm is a little longer, a little heavier, has a metal hood and, because it was a new lens, the focus ring was stiffer than my worn in 35mm. But none of those things caused me to feel like I had to change the way I held, focused or shot the camera – they were barely noticeable – which is one of the major strengths of this lens. The only differences I had to adapt to other than the perspective was the f/3.4 aperture. I am often drawn to shooting in low light situations, shooting a wide open aperture with the slowest shutter speed, so f/3.4 was something that at first bothered me. In the end, it didn’t cause me to miss any photographs and the reliance on higher ISO settings on my M9, in my opinion, looked great.

While spending an afternoon wandering around downtown San Francisco I was pleasantly surprised at the depth the lens captured. It can be easy with any wide angle lens to make things feel too close or too far away and when I was at the right distance the lens made for exceptionally dynamic and dramatic layering. It actually made me question whether or not I should keep with my game plan of only using a 35mm lens. The power that a lens like the 21mm has is that it gives you more information to make sense of, and it allows you to do it without worrying about image quality. I found myself standing on the street corner, amazed that I could photograph someone way to my left, someone way to my right and the building above me and that the image didn’t look weird. The contrast of the 21mm was another pleasant surprise. It has a really nice pop I didn’t expect. One problem I’ve encountered with other camera systems is that when you switch lenses you get varying levels of contrast or color representation. I would feel very comfortable shooting the same person or situation with the Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 and my Summicron-M 35mm f/2 and having no issues with image cohesiveness.

After playing and experimenting with the lens, I started to realize that its sweet spots are most likely in environmental portraiture and architecture. The lens does a great job making you feel close to your subject and not distorting their environment. And for photographing buildings and interiors, I would imagine this lens is top of the list for Leica users. If I were to suggest a lens kit for someone, I would definitely make mention of Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4. For my photographic interests, it’s not a lens I would use all the time, but for those one in ten photo shoots, it would end up paying for itself.

-Peter McCollough

Peter Earl McCollough was born in Billings, Montana, in 1982 and grew up in Davis, California. Shortly after turning 18, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps where he served from 2000-2004. After being honorably discharged he began studying photography in Sacramento. In 2008, after transferring to Ohio University, he received a Bachelor of Science in Visual Communication with an emphasis in Photojournalism. He is currently a freelance photographer and aspiring cinematographer based in San Francisco. In his off time he likes to paint and work on his street photography. More photos can be seen on his website, www.petermccollough.com.