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Review: Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar M Lens

by Andy Hendriksen on 05/16/2012

The Leica 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH was, for a long time, one of the best ways to get into a super wide angle lens for your Leica M system, but in June 2011, Leica announced a replacement for the aging Elmarit: the new 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar. I’ve been testing it for a couple weeks now with a Leica M9-P, and I think it’s fantastic.

Items used in this review

Ergonomics and Build Quality

This lens is build just as you’d expect any Leica lens to be built: solidly. Constructed entirely of brass, it has a wonderfully hefty weight to it, and of course the buttery smooth focus ring and aperture control are an absolute joy to use. The size of this lens is pretty similar to the 50mm Summicron, which is to say it’s fairly small. Smaller than the older 21mm Elmarit, and significantly smaller than the rather hefty 21mm Summilux. The Super Elmar also comes with a standard rectangular screw-on lens hood, which when attached, doesn’t present any significant viewfinder blockage at all.

One thing to note: when you use a 21mm lens on an M-series camera, you need to use an external hot-shoe mounted viewfinder to frame your shots. Leica included their 21mm brightline viewfinder with this lens for review, and it works just as you’d expect. Framing lines are clear and bright, and build quality feels fantastic. Even the small leather case it comes in feels nice, and includes a small pull-tab to aid in removing the viewfinder from the leather case. Nice touch, but you’d hope that they would include things like this for the hefty $759.95 price tag. There are less expensive options from Voigtlander or Zeiss, but you know what to expect from the official Leica viewfinder.

I always prefer Leica lenses with the focusing tab, and I’m happy to say that this one includes it. I have relatively small fingers, and focusing is significantly easier for me when I use my index finger with a focusing tab. I’ve gotten pretty quick with rangefinder focusing, and the focusing tab makes a huge difference for me.

Usage & Image Quality

To put it simply: this lens is fantastic.

There isn’t really any reason to expect anything different from Leica, but really, it’s a very impressive lens. It is razor sharp in the center, and that sharpness continues all the way out to the edges, where many super wide angle lenses begin to fall apart. There is, of course, some very minor stretching towards the edges, but the image remains sharp and crisp, and shows very little distortion overall.

Contrast and colors, like most Leica lenses, are fantastic, and when paired with the M9-P, it produces beautiful punchy files, and even demonstrates some of the famous Leica “3D pop” that they’ve become famous for.

There is some slight chromatic abberation at f/3.4 in very high contrast situations, but it certainly isn’t severe, and disappears completely by f/4.5. Leica does also mention that this lens can be subject to flare, and recommends using the lens hood at all times to prevent it. I, however, wasn’t able to get the lens to flare with or without the hood attached. Vignetting is a non-issue completely, and I wasn’t able to find any issues at any apertures. In fact, I ended up adding vignette to many of my images in post-processing because this lens exhibits so little light falloff.

This is not an ultra fast lens, with a maximum aperture of f/3.4, but it is as sharp at f/3.4 as it is at f/8, which is an impressive accomplishment. I couldn’t really find an aperture that didn’t work well with this lens, and had absolutely no trouble from f/3.4 all the way to f/22, with my favorite results coming from between f/3.4 and f/8.

With a 21mm f/3.4 lens, particularly a rangefinder lens, you’re going to have a very difficult time finding anything in the way of bokeh. Leica lenses traditionally do not focus very closely, which would be your only hope of finding bokeh with such a wide angle. The minimum focus distance of this lens is 0.7 meters, and it’s simply not enough to get much of anything out of focus. That being said, what is out of focus is just fine, but it’s never enough out of focus to show either particularly pleasing or offensive bokeh.

My copy of this lens was perfectly calibrated, and I had absolutely no issues with focus shift at all (although it would be difficult to tell, as your depth of field is quite large, even at f/3.4). I’ve been told that some of the first-run copies were recalled due to focusing issues, but this doesn’t seen to be an issue at all anymore.

The only issue I have with this lens is not specific to this lens at all, but has to do with shooting super wide angle lenses on a rangefinder camera. The problem is that the viewfinder on the Leica M9 doesn’t cover the viewing angle of a 21mm lens, which means you need to use an external viewfinder to frame your shot. So you need to focus your shot using the standard rangefinder, and then frame your shot with the external viewfinder. It adds an extra step to your shooting, and can be slightly jarring at first. Towards the end of my time with this lens, I began to become accustomed to it, and found I was using zone focusing more and more to avoid needing to use the rangefinder viewfinder.

Conclusion

I’ll say it again, this is an absolutely fantastic lens. If you’re looking for a super wide angle for your Leica M and aren’t wanting to shell out well over $6,500 for the 21mm Summilux, this is the lens for you. It’s not the fastest wide angle in town, but it does what it’s meant to do, and it does it very well. I’m not sure I’ve ever shot with a lens that produces images this sharp edge to edge, let alone wide open!

This, to me, is the perfect wide angle to round out any Leica M system, and was an absolute joy to shoot with on the M9-P.

Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar M on Amazon or B&H
Leica M9-P on Amazon or B&H

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