Leica 21mm f/1.4 Summilux... A Helicopter... Plus a little help from the Canon 16-35mm
Actually, this review is really more about the usage of super wide angle lenses. It's just incidental that most of the sample images below were taken with the Leica 21mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH on the Leica SL. Although for good measure, I also brought along a Canon 5D Mark IV with the 16-35mm f/2.8L II and also an adapted 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-R, for the sake of some comparison shots.
Originally, I had intended to do this review, because a friend of mine had inquired about getting the Leica 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar. When I asked him why he wanted to get that lens, his reply was the most common reason. He wanted to fit more people into the frame, when shooting group photos, and thought a super wide angle lens would do the trick. To be fair to my friend, the 18mm focal length would definitely be able to do that. However, the distortion would be extremely difficult to handle with regards to his subjects nearer the edge and corners of the frame.
Unbeknownst to many, the primary reason for a super wide angle lens is to photograph up close in tight and confined spaces. Of course, that doesn't mean that one cannot use a super wide to capture more background. But you will be surprised how unpleasant an image could be if too much background in the frame leads to too much unintended and unwanted out of focus foreground.
So when I decided to do this review a couple of weeks ago, I had approached it not too dissimilar from my usual process. However, I was unhappy with the results of my shoot, so I scrapped it, until I could think of a better idea. When shooting super wide, I was determined to do it right. It wasn't enough to just take sample photographs for the purpose of demonstrating the image quality when shot wide open or stopped down. Equally important is the attention to how a super wide angle lens should be used.
Whenever shooting a super wide lens, the photographer must always be mindful how the subject (be it an individual or a group) can be distorted the closer they are to the corners and edges of the frame. As such, it becomes crucially important to frame the subject's face near the center of the frame, or at the very least, frame the body near in the middle of the frame, where distortion can be minimized or utilized to optimize the appearance of the subject. Failure to do so may result in grotesque optical disfiguration of the subject's face, torso and even limbs.
Because of that, I wanted to do a more comprehensive shoot. I wanted to be able to shoot outside for some environmental portraits. But more importantly, I wanted to shoot indoor in a confined area. Shooting outside for background scenery is easy. The weather has been lovely in Hong Kong, as of late. But where inside do I shoot? It's not as if I wanted to shoot somewhere overly crowded, and also uninteresting. It was then when inspiration struck me.
I decided to shoot up in a helicopter. It has been a while since I've been in one, and Anna seemed very encouraging of the idea. I had thought about adding a couple more people to come along for the experience, but I decided against it, because I needed to simplify the execution of the shoot. It's not as if I had all day up in the air. It's only a single fifteen minute whirl around Hong Kong Island. Besides, super wide angle lenses are not really made for shooting groups of people, contrary to popular belief. Even though it could, it seldom bodes well for those hapless few near the edge of the frame.
The helicopter tour was at the Peninsula Hotel, which was nice - albeit in Hong Kong's equivalent of bridge and tunnel country on the mainland. With that being the case, we decided to make a day of it. We started off with a stroll at the Heritage House 1881, next door to the Peninsula. Then afterwards, we had a quick bite at the hotel's lobby café. We couldn't sit down for a proper meal, since we had to be on time for the helicopter tour's orientation. It is basically their version of an airline's pre-flight safety demonstration.
By the way, our pilot for the day was Michael Wong, who is a very well known Hong Kong actor. It may seem bizarre, but he's actually very experienced with well over five thousand hours up in the air. I think this helicopter tour is a side business of his.
So what about the 21mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH? I have to be honest. I've always been very biased in favor of super wide angle lenses. For a while, I had a 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar permanently affixed onto an MP 240. And my lens of choice for the Leica M3 has always been the 21mm f/4 Super Angulon. I love how the 21mm focal length enables you to get closer to the subject without sacrificing too much of the background. I also love its deep depth of field, and the compactness in size.
The only thing I disliked about the 21 Super Elmar is how slow it is. Because of that, the 21 Super Elmar fails at the one thing in which a super wide angle lens is suppose to excel in - which is shoot in cramp and confined spaces - usually indoor and under poor lighting.
Of course, Leica has faster 21mm lenses. There is a previous generation 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit, which I had for a while. And of course, there is the 21mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH. The only problem with the 21 Lux is the size, which is why I never considered replacing the much slower 21 Super Elmar with it.
Mind you, the 21 Lux really isn't that much bigger than a 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux ASPH, and I've learned to accept the Noctilux. The problem with the 21 Lux on the M240 and its variants stems from the limitation of rangefinder photography. Simply put, the viewing experience of the 21 Lux isn't very good. Using the Noctilux as precedence, I think I can forgive the 21 Lux for blocking the viewfinder. However, I have a problem with Leica rangefinders' inability to accommodate focal lengths wider than a 28mm field of vision inside the viewfinder, without the help of either live view or an external finder.
But on the Leica SL, the 21 Lux is a completely different shooting experience. There's no finder blockage, and no need for clumsy external finders, given the SL's marvelous electronic viewfinder. So free from the impediment of an inferior framing experience, the 21 Lux no longer feels handicapped. With the SL, the pairing of the two is a familiar feeling, like a DSLR with a normal size lens.
Affixed on the Leica SL, I immediately took a liking to the 21mm Summilux. It did more or less everything the 21mm Super Elmar did, albeit super-sized in a noticeably bigger lens barrel. However, girth is quickly forgiven the moment you open the lens wide open. At f/1.4, the 21 Lux can shoot almost 3 stops faster than the 21 Super Elmar. What this means is that you can shoot the 21 Lux in lower and more unideal light situations.
Shooting wide open, the 21 Lux doesn't have the same bokeh characteristic of less wide Leica lenses, like the 35 Lux or the 50 Noct or Lux. With that said, the 21 Lux still renders exquisitely in a Leica-like way, especially in how skin tones are reproduced. No less Leica-like in quality is the way the 21 Lux is able to separate the main subject from the background, when shot closer up and wide open. There is still sufficient shallowness in the depth of field to create a enough blur to pop the foreground subject in a 3D-like way.
However, there wasn't a need to shoot wide open up in the helicopter. If anything, our problem was not insufficient light. It was a bright and sunny day, with ample light shining through the window. Our problem was the of unequal light inside and outside the helicopter. If I metered based on the inside light, the view outside the helicopter window would be washed out completely - which essentially makes the effort of documenting at 10,000 feet somewhat pointless. Thankfully, forethought compelled me to bring a Leica SF-64 flash!
Unfortunately, preparation is no guarantee against goofing up. For the sake of complicating my shoot, I also brought along a Canon 5D Mark IV and the new Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II. Why? I wanted to make sure I had a wide enough lens to photograph Anna inside the helicopter's confined passenger area. With this much preparation going into this review, I had to make sure that I was going to have some decent image captures at the end of the day. If only I had a 18mm f/3.8 Super Elmar. More importantly, if only I brought along a Canon flash for the 5D Mark IV. That would have been better!
In any event, I started to shoot with the Canon at the beginning of the tour. I wanted to get the Canon images out of the way. That was a mistake, since the more scenic part of the tour was at the very beginning... which is why I've also included images from the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II. And before you say that the pictures look pretty good without fill flash, it should be noted that considerable editing was required in post to bring out the scenic background from 10,000 feet outside the helicopter window.
Admittedly, it never occurred to me to look outside the window, while photographing Anna in the helicopter. Being overly committed to get enough workable images for this article in such a short period of time, I became too anxious to wait for the right moment when the background was most scenic with Hong Kong's iconic skyline. By the time I started shooting with the 21 Lux, I was already on the opposite side of the island. Definitely a rookie mistake.
Still, the fill flash with the 21 Lux did work out nicely. It equalized the light inside and outside the helicopter. I only wished I had a more varied helicopter background images to pick from. As it is, the only background images I got are of rolling green hills and blue skies. But in retrospect, perhaps it wasn't 100% necessary to use fill flash. The natural light shining through the helicopter window gives Anna's face a lovely glow. Perhaps what I should have done was shot a stop down, in order to be able to recover details from the highlights.
Strangely, I was under the impression that I got a good variation of images with the 21 Lux up in the air - so much so, that I switched to a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-R, to demonstrate why one shouldn't rely on the more typical 35mm focal length and should bring along a 21mm lens. To be fair, the 35 Lux-R was lovely. But in the end, no one could tell if the helicopter was up in the air, with the images shot at 35mm. Without that proof, the impact of the images loses its significance. Still, the 35mm focal length is much better closer up.
It didn't take long for the tour to end. Like I said, it was only fifteen minutes. We thanked Michael Wong, and made our way back downstairs to the lobby, where we waited for our Über. During the meantime, Anna wanted some keepsake photos by the Christmas tree. She still has the wide eye awe of holiday bliss untainted by the bitterness of experience. So, I started with the 21 Lux, but it wasn't wide enough to get most of the tree to capture a well composed image, from where I was standing. So I pulled out the Canon, and fired away at 16mm. However, I still prefer the closer up shot with the 21 Lux. There's something so much nicer in the Leica rendering.
On the way back, I took a snap or two of Anna reclining in the car. I was in a fill flash kind of a mood. Plus, I wanted to demonstrate how I sometimes cheat distortion with a super wide lens. Compose by positioning the subject's head closer to the middle of the frame, then cropping out the excess background or negative space to reposition the head in post near the cropped edge of the frame. In doing so, I can prevent distortion of the head, while still optimizing distortion of the torso and limb through distorted elongation.
By the time we returned back, both Anna and I were strangely exhausted from our fifteen minute ordeal stretched from noon to well into the afternoon. We need time to unwind a little, so we had a spot of tea at a nearby café. It was then I realized that I didn't take many wide open shots with the 21 Lux. So I took a couple, and called it a day.
Overall, I loved the 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH on the Leica SL. It is an amazing lens, if you know how to shoot super wide. It does everything the 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH does, without the limitation in speed. It's truly handy to be able to shoot three stops faster indoor with the 21 Lux versus the 21 Super Elmar. It means that I don't have to step back to take a photo when I'm seated at a restaurant table, or inside a confined space. You just need to be wary of distortion and your foreground coverage.
With that said, and if you're a Leica M240 photographer, I would still stick with the 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar. It just makes more sense and feels better in hand.
By the way, here's a couple of shots from Anna's Fujifilm X-Pro2. A few notes about these images. It was a particularly hazy day in Hong Kong, so a considerable amount of dehazing was done in post. Furthermore, there was the added setback of shooting through a window. Though to be fair to the helicopter tour operator, the alternative wouldn't be safe. It's not as if we're on a gun ship with the sliding doors wide open, thundering through the clouds, to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.
Okay, I admit it... this narrative is a little non linear. I knew it wasn't going to be easy to write about the 21 Lux, the proper way to shoot super wide, making comparisons to a Canon and an R-mount lens, and still write a little about our little journey 10,000 feet in the air. Between you and me, I'm a little exhausted from this write up. But still, I'm thankful that you are reading this from across the void.
All images in this writeup have been optimize in Lightroom. Images have been cropped, only if mentioned in the captions.
A special shout out to Guy. Hope this helps, with regards to your question.