Leica’s Tri-Elmar 16-18-21mm f/4; Not A Zoom, But Three Focal Lengths In One Page 2

Then again, with modern fast films and high-ISO sensors, fast lenses are less important than they were, and the WATE remains more compact than any two lenses in the same focal length range except perhaps the 15mm f/4.5 and 21mm f/4 Voigtländers. Then you’re losing speed at the wide end, and the 15mm won’t take filters, either.

Heresy? Zeiss Ikon SW with Tri-Elmar and twin Voigtländer finders. But if you need a simple, fast-handling rig, there are many applications for which this could be a cost-effective solution.

Fourth, there’s image quality: most importantly, barrel distortion, the tendency for straight lines near the edge of the frame to bow outward. Well, although all current high-end rangefinder 21mm lenses have less distortion, as do the best 15mm lenses and the only 18mm lens, the difference in most cases is between “barely perceptible if you are looking for it” and “invisible”: we are not looking at 1970s SLR distortion levels.

If you earn a living by photographing, let us say, instrument panels in confined spaces, with the square edges of the instrument panels showing, then you may wish to buy another lens. Or you may not, once you have seen how slight the distortion is with the WATE. Resolution, contrast, and flare suppression are excellent, though again, the very best single focal length lenses are better. Even so, this sort of image quality would have been considered unbelievable just 10 or 20 years ago, at least with anything wider than 21mm. Of course, two aspheric elements help.

Sometimes 16mm is too wide. Easy: switch to 21mm. Abbaye de Montmajour, near Arles.
Photos © 2008, Roger Hicks Ltd., All Rights Reserved

OK, let’s go for a fifth and final reason not to buy it: the viewfinder. With a non-reflex camera, and a lens having three focal lengths, designed for use on two formats (film and digital) you need up to six viewfinders.

The answer to this objection lies in the words “up to.” Of course you can use lots of finders; or two; or one; or even none.

For two, Frances put the lens on a Zeiss Ikon SW (two accessory shoes) and fit both 15mm and 21mm finders. It doesn’t take a lot of experience to learn exactly how these correspond to 16mm and 21mm, and how to interpolate 18mm. This is true no matter which finders you actually use (Voigtländer, Zeiss, Leica—no two of which match precisely, even at the same nominal focal length).

For one, you can choose between the official solution; Roger’s solution; and Frances’ solution. Officially, there’s the Leica monster often known as the Frankenfinder which gives you all the focal lengths you need, on both formats, plus (manual) parallax compensation. We didn’t actually get to try this because demand has been so high that they couldn’t spare one for test.

Roger uses a 21mm finder for all focal lengths on both formats. His logic is simple. His standard ultra-wide is 21mm. With film, generally, if he needs wider than 21mm, he doesn’t really care how much more he gets: he wants as much as possible. With digital, and the lens set to 16mm, he gets a 21mm equivalent. On the rare occasions that this is too wide and 35mm (his next focal length is a 47mm equivalent) is not wide enough, the 21mm setting (28mm equivalent) splits the difference adequately.

Cloisters, Archbishop’s Palace, Arles. Even if 21mm is your normal ultra-wide, there are times when you want more!.
© 2008, Roger Hicks Ltd., All Rights Reserved

Frances, shooting only on film, uses an 18mm finder only (Zeiss). Her logic is similar: 18mm is her standard ultra-wide. If she wants a bit more, she can get it from 16mm, and if she wants a bit less, there’s always 21mm.

As for no viewfinder at all, shooting “blind” or by “guesstimate” has a long and honorable history, dating back to the “detective” cameras of the Victorian era. The enormous depth of field of ultra wides makes this even easier.

All of this may seem excessively casual, and it may not suit everyone. Something that’s easy to forget, though, is that Leicas are not like other cameras; or perhaps, more accurately, that Leica photographers are not like other photographers. If you buy a rangefinder camera, you tend to know why you want one, and you tend to take a lot of pictures with it. This means that you soon acquire an almost instinctive understanding of the field of view of your favorite lens(es), automatically compensating for slight viewfinder inaccuracies or indeed for the absence of a viewfinder. Or, of course, if you want a more accurate finder, there’s the Frankenfinder.

So what is the bottom line? Did we, in fact, talk ourselves out of buying one? Well, the answer was yes—but only just. And the reason was that we wanted two of them.

By the time we had to return the WATE, we already had the 15mm f/4.5 Voigtländer, the 18mm f/4 Zeiss Distagon, and the unreasonably good 21mm f/2.8 Kobalux (from Adorama—now, as far as we know, discontinued). If we had had none of those, we’d have bought the WATE. If we had only two, it would have been touch and go. But with all three, it was frankly an extravagance.

Second, it’s a lens we would have fought over. For Roger, it would replace both the 15mm f/4.5 and 21mm f/2.8; for Frances, the 18mm f/4. This means we’d want two of them. One would have stretched our finances more than a little. Two really would have been excessive.

Unless you find yourself in a similar situation, therefore, you may feel that well, just maybe, it’s time to sell the cat into slavery and buy one. Of if your cat isn’t valuable enough, you’re going to have to make some hard choices.

Leica cameras are imported to the US by Leica Camera Inc., 1 Pearl Court, Unit A, Allendale, NJ 07401; (800) 222-0118. Our aim here was to convey something of what the lens is like to use; for exhaustive technical data, visit www.leica-camera.com, and for more pictures, including black and whites, go to “Reviews” on www.rogerandfrances.com.

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