Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH
In yoga class today, my instructor told me that this has been the driest spring in Hong Kong, since the 1960s. Temperatures have been hovering around the low 90s (roughly around 30°C), which is uncharacteristically high. Meanwhile, I've barricaded myself inside the office, since returning from New York. Frankly, I need to catch up on work. But even if I didn't have to do that, it's much too hot to go outside for a leisurely photowalk.
The heatwave has driven some to extreme measure. Anna for one has decided to take leave of Hong Kong, until the hot spell dissipates. Such is the carefree spirit of the unattached. If only I could run off like that and retreat indefinitely to the comfort of cooler climes. Perhaps she has the right idea? But then again, what about this ball and chain I've tasked myself to do every week? It's not as if the blog is going to write itself.
Besides, I have some unfinished business that's pressing me to brave the heat. If you recall, I was in New York working on a review of the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH, when conflicting objectives compelled me to put it on hold. In other words, the sample images I had taken for the review weren't especially good at doubling as travel snaps, given how difficult it was to manage the distortion in group documentation.
To be frank, the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar ASPH wasn't a lens I originally intended to review. From the perspective of a Leica photographer, it's not exactly a sought after lens. And in terms of providing timely review, the 18 SEM has been around for roughly ten years. So, it's not as if there is a desperate need for this review. Fact is, I'm only reviewing the 18 SEM, because of an error in judgment spurred by second guessing while at cruising altitude.
Of course, much of the reason why I never expressed interested with the 18 SEM had to do with the Leica 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar-M ASPH. The way I saw it, why bother with the 18 SEM when the Tri Elmar offered more flexibility in focal length, for a negligible lost in speed and a slight growth in size. But then, I noticed the price difference. The Tri Elmar - if purchased new - is twice as much as the 18 SEM. For some, the added flexibility of the Tri Elmar might not be worth it.
With that in mind, I took on the 18 SEM with renewed interest. I mean, let's be fair. Faster is faster and smaller is smaller - no matter how incremental the difference. At the very least, I should see how the 18 SEM fares when optimized for people photography, given how it's conventionally reserved for landscapes and cityscapes. I mean, now that I'm back in Hong Kong, I might as well conduct this review without the burden of taking memorable travel snaps.
As you can see, I'm not especially fond of the way the 18 SEM looks on the outside, given how it cramps the way I roll with my gear. But I suppose it's what's inside that counts. In terms of what it's suppose to do, the 18 SEM performs remarkably well. At the 24 megapixel resolution of the Leica M10, it appears to be consistently sharp, from corner to corner, across the aperture range with negligible falloff at maximum aperture.
Sharpness of the 18 SEM is also enhanced by its rendering. Both contrast and resolution of detail are noticeably strong, across the aperture range (with negligible softness at maximum aperture). In turn, the rendering of the 18 SEM appears to contribute added definition to fine detail, which reinforces the perception of sharpness. As a result, this makes the resulting image capture appear more accurate in documentation.
As for evidence of observable aberrations, vignetting appears to be kept under control, with negligible signs at maximum aperture. Barrel distortion also appears imperceptible, with lines of perspective running straight from the horizon. That said, perspective distortion is notably harsh, especially at close focusing range. And when capturing multiple subjects positioned on different focal plane or staggered across the frame, perspective distortion is even more pronounced.
Fundamentally, the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M ASPH is a compact super wide angle lens. To provide some context in size, the 18 SEM isn't significantly different in dimension from the very popular Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Admittedly, it might not seem that way, given that the 18 SEM is noticeably wider in diameter. However, it is roughly the same length as the 50 Lux, while only incrementally lighter in weight.
That said, the 18 SEM is a little bulkier in practice. Because of its protruding front lens element, which bubbles out like a dome, the 18 SEM is typically fitted with the screw-in lens hood in order to protect the exposed surface of the glass. This adds considerable size to the lens, in stretching the length to extend beyond the protrusion, while broadening the width to provide sufficient coverage to block stray light from the front lens element at the 18mm angle of view.
With the front lens element extending beyond the hood thread, the 18 SEM does not have filter threads. If a filter is necessary in documentation, the use of an external filter holder is necessary. Unfortunately, the filter holder is an inelegant design, since it is wider than the circumference of the lens. Needless to say, the lens hood cannot be attached to the 18 SEM, when the filter holder is being used. Apparently, the wider filter circumference is necessary to prevent vignetting.
To be fair, perspective distortion is unavoidable in a super wide angle lens. It's how the lens crams in more of the world around it from a closer focusing distance. Having said that, one issue I have with the 18 SEM is it's minimum focusing distance. To put this problem in context, the Leica 16-18-21mm Tri Elmar can focus as close as 19" (or 0.5m). In contrast, the 18 SEM can only focus up to a minimum focusing distance of roughly 27.5" (or 0.7m).
A difference of roughly 8" (or 0.2m) might not seem like much. But at super wide angles, such an incremental span can make a surprising difference. What may not be immediately clear to most is how the perception of documentable space expands at super wide angles, the further the camera is from the subject. So in accommodating for the minimum focusing distance, the space between the camera and the subject, and behind the subject always seem too ample.
As a consequence, the 18 SEM can never seem to focus close enough to the subject. Because of that, the resulting image capture often ends up feeling less specific in focus, albeit more inclusive in overall documentation. To that end, I suppose this is the beauty of the 18 SEM. It's not a lens to isolate the subject from its environmental context, but rather one to be inclusive of it. In that way, I found the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar-M to be a worthwhile lens to consider.
Having said that, please don't get this lens for the purpose of group documentation. I've already explained why on last week's post.
Exposure of some photos have been tweaked slightly in Lightroom, for the sake of consistency in presentation. Any other editing or cropping will be disclosed on the image caption.
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