Traveling with the Leica Wide Angle Tri-Elmar

Leica Jun 14, 2010
Leica is world renowned for the quality of their lenses. Unmatched optical design coupled with exotic glass,  produces lenses that are head and shoulders above anything else in the 35 mm market today.  Leica’s M-system rangefinders are no exception. However, due to the mechanical nature of the M-rangefinder, zoom lenses are not possible. This did not deter Leica’s engineers from creating multi-focal length lenses for this platform. The first such lens, the Tri-Elmar, was introduced in 1998 and sported three distinct focal lengths in one lens: 28, 35, and 50 mm, all at f/4. The lens was a mechanical marvel. 600px-Leica_Camera_logo.svg.png

In September 2006, Leica announced the Wide Angle Tri-Elmar (also known as the WATE) which covered focal lengths of 16, 18 & 21 mm. It was intended for the Leica M8, the first digital M camera which sported a 1.33x cropped sensor, making the effective focal lengths of the lens approximately 21, 24, and 28 mm.Wide Angle Tri-Elmar

I recently took a trip to London and Paris and Leica USA was kind enough to loan me this $6000 lens and its attendant Universal Finder. I also packed my Nikon D700 kit as well and will now report on my experiences with carrying both kits on a transatlantic voyage. Please note that an IR cut filter is needed to prevent black synthetics from looking magenta tinted on an M8. I did not have an IR cut filter available for the WATE nor the filter adapter made by John Milich. When I transferred the images from Zenfolio to Flickr (via direct site to site transfer) something happened that caused some of my London images to magenta shift in the corners. I’m not exactly sure why that occurred.

Introduction

For those of you unfamiliar with rangefinder cameras (digital or analog), they differ from SLR cameras in a few key areas:

  1. They do not allow you to compose the shot through the lens mounted on the camera. A rangefinder uses a bracketing mechanism to indicate in the viewfinder what area of the image being viewed will be captured by the lens mounted on the camera. This has its advantages and disadvantages: since there is no reflex mechanism, there is no mirror to have to move out of the way when taking a shot and subsequently no blackout of the viewfinder while firing the shutter; this also allows the distance from the rear lens element to the focal plane to be much shorter and allows the lenses to be smaller; a rangefinder can be handheld at slower shutter speeds than a SLR because there is no vibration from the mirror slap that occurs in a SLR.
  2. The lenses are mechanically coupled to the body. Leica engineers added a black and white 6-bit code on their lens mounts to identify the lens to the body for metadata and software corrections, but beyond that, the lens’ mounting flange is all that differentiates the identity of the lens to the body. Third-party lenses (from Carl Zeiss and Cosina Voigtlander) have to be manually coded for use on a digital M. The CV Bessa R analog rangefinders have a manual switch for selecting the appropriate viewfinder framelines as did the Epson R-D1 digital rangefinder (which was manufactured by CV as well). Modern SLRs and DSLRs use electronic couplings to pass data back and forth between the camera body and lens.These two factors are what preclude M rangefinder cameras from using zoom lenses. There is simply no way to pass focal length information back to the body for frameline adjustments and maintain backwards compatibility with 50+ years of M lenses still in circulation to this day.

This, however, did not stop those crazy (like a fox) Germans from dreaming up a solution: instead of creating an infinitely variable (within its min/max focal lengths) zoom lens, they created a multi-focal length prime lens with three discrete focal lengths. In the case of the 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar, the bayonet would alter its lug position automatically bringing up the proper framelines. Since the WATE’s 16-18-21mm settings were wider than the widest possible set of framelines in an M rangefinder, a Wide Angle Universal Finder (lovingly referred to as the “FrankenFinder”) was introduced along with the lens. Here are the pair mounted on my trusty M8:

M8 + WATE

Shooting with the M8+WATE

The use of an external finder is not new to the rangefinder world, but the concept may be foreign to some younger readers. The process goes like this:
  1. Look through the camera’s built-in viewfinder to focus the shot and get the exposure right.
  2. Shift your eye to the external viewfinder to frame and compose the shot. This assumes that you set the external viewfinder to the right focal length and approximate distance from the camera to the subject to allow for parallax correction.

I know it sounds complicated, but after a couple of shots, the process becomes second nature  to you. The wide angle nature of the WATE also lends itself to being in focus most of the time due to its cavernous depth of field.

The Leica M Rangefinder system prides itself on being, among other things, small and discrete. Even with the “FrankenFinder” attached, the combo was far smaller and lighter that my Nikon D700. A day-trip to Versailles was a painless affair using my M8 travel kit which consisted of:

  • Leica M8 + Leicatime leather half-case
  • Leica Wide Angle Tri-Elmar + Wide Angle Universal Finder
  • CV Nokton 35mm f/1.4 MC (for lowlight/standard frame shooting)
  • Leica Universal battery charger with the complete set of plugs.
  • Naneu Pro Lima Shoulder bag to carry the whole kit

That’s it. No flashes, no telephotos, no zooms. All manual focus. The whole thing might have weighed 6-7 lb. (about 3 kg) including the bag. With it, I was able to produce shots like these:

All of the photos were taken using available light, all handheld. The full-sized images held a quality and sharpness that is breathtaking to behold. Where it gets really surprising is when you consider that this is not a super fast lens. It’s only f/4. The CV Nokton 35mm I was also carrying was three stops faster than the WATE, but the WATE held its own, even in low light conditions. The sunset shot at the pizzeria is one of my favorites.

IMG_20100404_0838
Changing focal lengths involves simply turning a ring on the barrel of the lens to desired focal length setting. When you turn on the M8, it asks you what focal length you set the lens to. The only real trick here is to remember to dial in the focal length in to the external viewfinder to get your framing right.

Conclusions

The M8 + WATE is an unbeatable combination for travel. Lightweight, sharp beyond belief and easier to use than expected, this lens delivers. On an M9, the WATE gets it mojo as the resident superwide in Leica’s harem of lenses. Granted, the Super Elmar M 18 mm is faster at f/3.8 (and half the price), but the WATE brings a level of versatility that, while not actually being a zoom lens, does not make you miss them that much. For the traveller wanting to keep it light, it would be hard to go wrong with this combo.

Now if only Leica would create a 50-75-90 Tri-Elmar…

The Wide Angle Tri-Elmar  retails for $4,995 (B&H) and includes the Wide Angle Universal Finder.

[DISCLOSURE: Leica USA graciously loaned me the Wide Angle Tri-Elmar and Universal Finder for this review. I was not compensated in any way other than the privilege of being able to take photographs with such a fine lens.]

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