Leica Tri-Elmar 1:4 16-18-21mm ASPH

The wide-angle Tri-Elmar, commonly abbreviated to WATE, is an incredible lens. It is not so long since a 16mm f/4 prime lens would have been regarded as a major achievement, but to make what is in effect a (relatively) fast wide-angle zoom, and to make it as compact as the WATE, is truly amazing. Still more astonishing is the performance. It is sharp and contrasty, thanks to both aspheric elements (two out of ten, real glass, not hybrid glass/plastic) and floating elements.

Wunderkammer

You can see the very slight barrel distortion in the bookcase at the edge of this shot, but would you have noticed it if it had not been pointed out to you? In the original M8 shot, the limiting factor to reading the titles of the books on the far side is pixelation, not lens sharpness (Roger).

Distortion at 16mm is about 3% at the corners on film, and quite honestly, even if you line up door-frames or other straight edges with the side of the frame, this is barely perceptible. With the 18x27mm sensor of the M8, it is even less visible. Vignetting exists -- it could hardly do otherwise with such a wide-angle design -- but in real-world picture taking, the only time this was a problem was with underexposed colour negative films taken at full aperture, when the corners were quite dark. With adequate exposure or smaller apertures, the problem effectively went away.

Unlike some ultra-wides, it is rangefinder coupled. Although there is no real need for rangefinder coupling with such focal lengths, at least on film -- scale focusing is more than adequate -- we both find it disquieting when the rangefinder patch does not move as we focus, and Roger finds it especially irritating to have to remove the lens from the eye to check the precise focus. On an M8, where the equivalent focal lengths in film terms are 21-24-28mm, coupling is more important. Focusing distances closer than 70cm are marked in grey for both feet and metres, and figures are provided for gauging depth of field right down to 30cm/12 inches; the rest of the engraved, paint-filled scales, on the black-finished lens provided, were yellow for feet and white for metres and everything else.

 

Wide-angle Tri-Elmar on Leica M8 (right) and Leica M2 (below)

 

The compactness of the WATE should be clear from these pictures. The M8 sports a 21mm Zeiss finder, as described below in 'the viewfinder problem' while the M2 has a Voigtländer meter on top: with the WATE set to 16mm (or indeed 18mm and 21mm) you can make interesting pictures shooting 'blind', without raising the camera to your eye. The lens worked fine on all the M-compatible bodies we tried.

On top of all this, it is astonishingly sweet-handling. The focal lengths are set via a click-stopped ring; the diaphragm is in equidistant half stops. The total focus movement (from 0.5 metres to infinity) on the finger-grip spur is about 110 degrees, with a distinct change of feel at about 85 degrees where the rangefinder coupling ends at about 70cm/28 inches; any closer than that, and you must resort to guesswork. Some have condemned the focusing as 'rough' or 'un-Leica-like', apparently because of this change in feel, but we cannot see it as a problem. The spur is the only means of focusing: there is no conventional focusing ring, but the great advantage of a spur (especially with wide-angles) is that you can set the distance by touch, as you are raising the camera to your eye.

Better still, it is very small and light: at 350g, a mere 30g (one ounce) heavier than the 18mm f/4 Zeiss Distagon, its most obvious competitor: of course the Distagon is also far cheaper, at less than one-third of the price. Admittedly the WATE is almost twice the weight of a 21/4.5 Zeiss Biogon, but it's also 1/3 stop faster and offers two extra focal lengths.

The uses of ultrawides

There are basically two reasons for using ultra-wide-angle lenses. One is because you have to: there is simply no room to step any further back, in order to get more into the field of view with a longer focal length. The other is for aesthetic reasons, either because you like the perspective effects or because you want to be nearer to the action.

Guy Thevenon

M. Thevenon does a fascinating demonstration of the evolution of music, from the most basic percussion on stones through tuned stones to xylophones. This is a good example of using an ultra-wide for all the reasons given above: being in the front row with no-one between the photographer and the subject; being close to the action for aesthetic reasons; and a dramatic foreground. Roger preferred the lens on the M8 (as here); Frances was much happier with it on film.

For over 40 years, from the introduction of the original 21/4.5 Zeiss Biogon in the early 1950s to the appearance of the 15/4.5 Voigtländer Super-Wide-Heliar in the late 1990s, the widest lens to which most rangefinder users aspired was 21mm. Yes, there was the 15/8 Zeiss Hologon, initially in a dedicated camera body and later in Leica M-mount, but this was rare, very expensive and not very versatile with its fixed, small aperture. Nor was it much more significant in its revised 16mm form, for the Contax G-series or as custom-adapted (principally by Herr Zorkendorfer) for the Leica M mount.

Then, suddenly, there was the 15mm Heliar and, shortly afterwards, the 12/5.6 Ultra-Wide-Heliar, though the latter made far less impression than its 15mm sister because of its extra size, weight and expense, and its significantly lower speed (though only 2/3 stop slower than the 15/4.5).

But it seems to take a while for people to get used to wider lenses, a point which we discuss more fully in the Distagon review under the heading, 'How wide is too wide'? It may be that the 12mm will yet become more popular, especially if anyone brings out an even wider lens, which is theoretically possible. At present -- towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century -- 15mm/16mm seems to be as wide as most people want to go. The difference between 15mm and 16mm is not really significant, as variations in viewfinder coverage are likely to matter more: the same can be said of 24mm/25mm, and even, again as noted in the review of the Zeiss Distagon, 85mm/90mm.

The jawbone of an ass

Yes, you really can get music out of one, as M. Thevenon demonstrates. At 21mm on an M8 (as here) the Tri-Elmar covers the same field of view as 28mm on full-frame 35mm, and at full aperture, subjects near the camera (the skulls) are not in sharp focus. But this focal length looks half-way to a telephoto when compared with 16mm, above. Far from being an ultra-wide, as it was regarded in the 1930s, it is regarded by many today as a 'wide standard'. One of the advantages of wide-angles is of course that they can be hand-held for longer, so f/4 is less of a drawback with the WATE than it would be with a lens of longer focal length.

On film, the WATE therefore seems ideal both for those who frequently use a 21mm, but sometimes yearn for something wider, and those who find that they frequently have to use a 15mm, but prefer to use a 21mm when they can. It is also the ideal lens for those who find a 15mm too wide, but see 21mm as neither a true ultra-wide nor a 'normal' lens. The difference between 18mm and 16mm on the one hand and 18mm and 21mm on the other may seen trivial, but it is well over 10 per cent either way, and some people (especially Frances) see this as quite significant.

On digital, it is the first Leica ultra-wide to be 6-bit coded, and (obviously) a great deal more useful and affordable than the extremely rare 15mm and 16mm f/8 fixed-aperture Zeiss Hologons. On the M8 it is the equivalent (in angle of coverage) to 21-24-28mm, a considerably less interesting choice in our view than a 12/16 (16/21) lens might be but with the enormous advantage of being available.

Graffiti, Arles

Frances liked the lens so much that she used it as a 'walkie' lens for street photography in Arles. She did not note which focal lengths she used -- it is much more fun just to take pictures -- but recalls that this was probably 18mm as this was her standard setting on the lens. Kodak Tri-X, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. This was on the Leica M4-P.

Are there any reasons not to buy one?

If you can afford a WATE -- the biggest sticking-point for most people -- it might seem that as it can do everything the 18mm Distagon can do, and quite a bit more as well, there is little reason to consider the Distagon as an alternative. To a certain extent, this is true, but we had both lenses more or less contemporaneously (for different lengths of time, but they overlapped). We were therefore able to take a close look at their relative advantages and disadvantages; and, of course, at the other options, including lenses we own and other lenses we have borrowed. In other words, much as we both fell in love with the lens, we were able to take a long, hard look at what it can't do, as well as at what it can. So what are the objections?

Speed

At 21mm, this is an obvious consideration. Both Leica and Zeiss make f/2.8 lenses, and there is also the now-discontinued Kobalux f/2.8. The last was also available under a number of other names, including Pasinon, and was astonishingly good for the price, though it was bulky and the finder was not very good. The 21/4 Voigtländer is tiny and very inexpensive, and once again very good.

There is also the option of the 15/2.8 Zeiss Distagon, a superb lens -- there are pictures taken with it in the Zeiss Ikon review -- but its size, weight and cost are likely to discourage those who do not actually need the extra stop as compared with the WATE or the extra stop-and-a-third as compared with the Voigtländer 15/4.5.

Art gallery, Arles

It is possible to overestimate the importance of speed in ultra-wides, at least for many applications. Out of doors, except at night, you are unlikely to be shooting at full aperture, and indoors, it is often necessary to use a modest aperture in the interest of depth of field. Kodak Tri-X, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.(Frances, lens on Leica M4-P set to 16mm)

Size and weight

The published weight of the 15/2.8 depends on where you look it up, but we weighed it at 465g, almost 100 g (over 3 oz, or about 20 per cent) heavier than the WATE, and it feels enormous. The comparison with the 18/4 Distagon has already been made; in our opinion, the 30g/1 ounce difference (in the Distagon's favour) is more than acceptable. Both the 21/2.8 Biogon and the 21/2.8 Elmarit-M are smaller and lighter: we do not have a figure for the Leica lens but the Zeiss 21/2.8 is 300g, just over 10 oz, about 2 oz. or 20 per cent lighter than the WATE. Put all three lenses together, and you would be looking at well over a kilo, or about three times the weight of the WATE (as it were).

If small size and weight really matter, then arguably a Voigtländer 21/4 and 15/4.5 take up about the same space as the Tri-Elmar, and weigh about the same as well; but you still wouldn't have an 18mm.

Distortion

At 3% maximum on film at the 16mm setting, this is three times as great as the 18mm Distagon and over ten times greater than the Biogon 21/4.5. If freedom from distortion is of paramount importance, therefore, the WATE may exclude itself on this ground. Our feeling, on the other hand, is that distortion seldom matters in the real world, and even then, it normally needs to be greater than 3% to matter.

Street scene, Arles

True wide-angle distortion -- the phenomenon by which shapes are 'stretched' near the edges of the picture -- is entirely separate from curvilinear distortion, which bows staight lines outwards (barrel distortion) or inwards (pincushion distortion). True wide-angle distortion is an optical fact of life, unaffected by lens design: it is solely a function of field of view. The only way to avoid it is to keep tell-tale shapes away from the edges of the picture. Even if you do not, you may get lucky: the bicycle wheel on the right is easily seen as tilting over, and not stretched at all. Kodak Tri-X, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.(Frances, lens on Leica M4-P set to 18mm)

The viewfinder problem

This is a significant issue. Because the WATE is too wide for any of the built-in frames on an M-series Leica, it needs an accessory finder. Or three.

The official Leica solution is the multifocal monster which has come to be known as the Frankenfinder: 16-18-21-24mm, switchable for both 35mm film (24x36mm) and the 18x27mm sensor of the M8. Many users have complained that by the time you have finished fiddling about with the finder, the moment has long passed, thereby negating the value of a Leica as a fast-handling camera.

We cannot say if they are right, because when we received the WATE for review, they could not spare any Frankenfinders. We therefore used it with conventional finders, in two different ways.

Frances's favourite approach was to put the lens (O heresy!) on a Zeiss Ikon SW body, which of course has no rangefinder, but does have two accessory shoes; we did not get the SW until the last day or two that we had the WATE. With a 15mm finder in one shoe and a 21mm finder in the other, she had no problems in interpolating the field of view of the 18mm setting by guesswork. Because she normally uses this lens (and all wide-angles) on a tripod, scale focusing does not worry her.

Vernissage, Arles

Of course, you don't have to use a viewfinder... The WATE attracted considerable interest. Roger is in the background. Kodak Tri-X, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.(Frances, lens on Leica M4-P set to 16mm)

Roger, on the other hand, used a Zeiss 21mm finder on both his Leica MP and M8, for all three focal lengths. His logic is as follows:

"Mostly I prefer 21mm on 35mm, so the 21mm finder is fine for that, and usually, if 21mm is not wide enough, I don't really care how much wider the lens is: I just want the widest coverage I can get. In any case, the total area of the 21mm finder, outside the bright-lines, makes a tolerable 16mm finder. On the M8, on the other hand, the sensor magnification factor means that the 16mm setting is equivalent to 21mm on film, so I just use a 21mm finder."

Both approaches may seem somewhat casual to some photographers, but the more we think about it, the more we are convinced that our less-than-rigorous approach to viewfinders is why we both fell in love with the lens so much.

Filters

At first sight, there is no way to use filters on the WATE, but this is deceptive. The built-in rigid, rectangular lens hood is mounted on a patented screw mount which ensures that it always comes to a stop in the same place, like a bayonet mount but more secure and more precise. It is the precision which matters when you unscrew the hood (revealing a curiously anatomical-looking red anodized thread) and replace it with adapter nr. 14473 to allow the use of 67mm filters. This is not sublimely convenient but it's still better than the 15/4.5 Voigtländer which doesn't allow the use of filters at all unless you bodge something with gels. And of course the 15/2.8 Distagon requires a massive 72mm filter: the jump from 67 to 72 is only about 9 per cent in diameter, but it is 20 per cent in area and nearer 25 per cent in weight.

For colour photographers, this probably matters less than for devotees of black and white; if you habitually shoot with a yellow filter on the lens, as many do, you may not care for the Tri-Elmar.

Shadows

With very bright subjects like this, veiling flare and loss of contrast is a risk -- but the WATE retained excellent contrast and (in colour) saturation at all times. Kodak Tri-X, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.(Frances, lens on Leica M4-P set, as far as she recalls, to 18mm)

Lens cap

This is of fairly soft plastic and clips over the hood. There is a little lip on the bottom that is supposed to latch the hood over the lid (you can just about see it in the picture above right, but there is a clearer shot among the 'additional pictures' at the end of the review) but it is easy not to push it home fully. After you have nearly lost the cap once or twice, as a result of its catching on clothes or the like, it becomes second nature to check that it is, in fact, securely in place.

Depth of field markings

These are 'stepped', growing steadily wider from 21 to 18 to 16. They are not the most convenient on earth but they provide a good guide, which is probably all that most people expect from d-o-f marks. Anyone who uses d-o-f markings extensively on any lens would in any case be well advised to check that the manufacturers' recommendations agree with their preferences. Our rule of thumb with any lens is to use the next set of marks down, i.e. d-o-f marks for f/5.6 when shooting at f/8. We did not formally test the d-o-f on the Tri-Elmar. Here, you can also see the grey markings below 0.7m and the setting ring (here at 16) for the focal length.

 

6-bit coding

The WATE is 6-bit coded, allowing M8 software to correct vignetting and (presumably, to some extent) problems introduced by the use of an ultra-violet/infra red (UV/IR) filter. This is of no interest to film users, it is true, but for M8 users, it is quite a strong argument against buying Zeiss or Voigtländer lenses, which could not (at the time of writing) officially be coded because of Leica patent restrictions. Even if they can be coded to match the Tri-Elmar, and there are plenty of suggestions how on the internet, there is no guarantee that software optimized for the Tri-Elmar would work with anything else; in particular, distortion correction.

As well as the 6-bit coding, you can see the finger-grip focusing spur here very clearly; for Roger in particular, a major advantage over the 18mm Distagon, which does not even have the focusing 'bump' on the focusing collar.

One lens replacing two or three?

Clearly, the WATE replaces two or even three other lenses; but equally, there are not many who are likely to buy all three focal lengths, and the cost advantage of the Tri-Elmar would be greatly reduced if they did. It might even disappear: a lot would depend on which lenses they bought. Do it as cheaply as possible, with 15/4.5 and 21/4 Voigtländers, and the savings would be considerable: . Buy a 15/2.8 Distagon, an 18/4 Distagon and a 21/2.8 Elmarit-M, and you would spend a lot more than the price of a WATE. You would also have a far bulkier, heavier and less convenient outfit.

What is more, many people on the internet compare the price of a new WATE with second-hand lenses. While this is a perfectly legitimate way of managing your own finances, it doesn't make a lot of sense when you compare the convenience of the WATE with the alternatives. Either you want (or need) the WATE for what it can do, in which case you have to pay the price, or you don't need or can't afford it. If you don't need it, then it's a waste of money at any price, and if you can't afford it (we can't) then at least be honest enough to admit it.

Many people say, "I could afford one if I wanted it," but we are convinced that an awful lot of them are lying, mainly to themselves. We could just about afford one, if we sold a load of other gear or went into debt. In that sense, we could afford it if we wanted it badly enough; and we suspect that most who 'could afford it if they wanted it' are in the same situation. Or possibly they are worse off. For us, after all, it would be tax-allowable, as part of how we earn a living.

Hillside house and flower-bed, Confolans

An ultra-wide seemed to Roger the best way to convey the steepness and crazy angles of this street scene. If we did not already own the 15mm Voigtländer, we would almost certainly make the necessary effort to find the money to buy a Tri-Elmar; if we did not have the 21mm as well, we would probably go into debt (not for too long!) to buy the lens. As it is, it's a question of 'Maybe' and 'Will they give us a discount?' and 'Perhaps when that inheritance comes in...' The lower-left corner (in shadow) has been dodged but the sky shows that vignetting is not a problem (M8, lens at 16mm).

The bottom line

This is a lens that we would both love to own -- and therein lies the rub. As noted above, we could probably just about afford one; we almost certainly could if we could persuade Leica to give us a significant press discount.

The trouble is, we would then be in a position to fight over it. As noted in the review of the 4/18 Distagon, Frances really likes the 18mm option on film, with 16mm for when she wants a bit more coverage, or 21mm for when she wants a bit less. Roger, on the other hand, is happy enough with his existing 21mm and 15mm lenses on film, seeing the WATE more as a convenient replacement for those two lenses than anything else. The real difference comes when he uses the M8, when the WATE is effectively a replacement for his 'standard wide' 21mm on film: 16mm being, as already noted, the equivalent of 21mm on the M8. It's a much nicer, handier, sweeter-handling lens than the 15/4.5 Voigtländer. For film, where he uses the 15mm seldom, this doesn't matter. With the M8, where he really wants a 21mm equivalent, it does.

Ateliers SNCF, Arles

The old railway workshops at Arles are used as an exhibition space during the Rencontres, the biggest gathering of fine-art photographers in the world. Here, Frances used the WATE at 16mm to create a picture that you almost fall into, shooting on Kodak Tri-X and printing on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

The ultimate bottom line for us, therefore, is two Tri-Elmars, one each. Unfortunately, this is definitely in the realms of financial fantasy. But the fact that this is the first lens that has ever led us to feel this way is something of an indication of just how impressed we were with it.

More pictures (including comparison pictures and equipment shots) below.

16mm

18mm

21mm

La Devinière

Rabelais was born here, in a house above extensive troglodytic farm 'buildings'. What surprised us about this sequence is the way in which the caves/cellars become steadily less gloomy and forbidding as you go from 16mm to 18mm and finally 21mm.This is probably due to the ever greater 'weight' of stone at the top of the picture. It is just a narrow ridge at 21mm but by 16mm it is quite a big chunk of rock. Also, of course, the big, dark area of foreground becomes more and more forbidding. Roger took all three shots on film (Kodak Portra) using a Leica MP on a lightweight Velbon 343i tripod weighing about 1kg (just over 2 lb.)

Zeiss Ikon SW with WATE and twin finders

The rather oddly-shaped snap-on hood

 

 

Confolans: 16mm

18mm

21mm (all M8)

 

Flare, with the sun in shot (M8)

 

WATE on MP

 

Above: Picture as taken (Confolans)

 

Above centre: with Adobe Photoshop perspective 'correction'.

Right: 'stretched' from 425 to 500 pixels vertically to remove squat appearance caused by perspective 'correction', blue sky added.

 

 

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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks