Leica has just revealed a cosmetic update to its digital mirrorless Leica CL, and this time, it’s silver. But I’ve already reviewed that camera. Can I really request a test camera based on a new paint scheme? Hell, I’ve hoisted the moth-eaten sails of articles on far flimsier masts, and they’ve moved the boat. And another thing – the first time they lent me a CL for review it came with a big, honkin’ zoom lens. This is my chance to test the prime lens that I really wanted all those months ago – the Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical.
The Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical launched alongside the first (and far darker) digital Leica CL last year. It’s the kit prime lens for the Leica CL and can also be mounted on any L-mount camera (the T/TL and SL series). It’s the smallest and lightest prime for the system, and the widest (but not too wide). By these metrics, it should be the essential prime lens for the new CL, perfect for street photography, travel, snapshots. But it’s also the least expensive L-mount prime, and this last point hints at compromise.
What’s in a name?
With the Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical (and most lenses, actually), there’s a lot in that name. This assemblage of letters and numbers tells the experienced photo geek most of what we need to know about the lens. It’s made to fit any Leica L mount camera. It’s an 18mm lens (equivalent to a 27mm lens in the full-frame 35mm format). It’s got a slightly sluggish maximum aperture, and at least one aspherical lens element.
Dive a bit deeper into the spec sheet and we find the details – eight elements in six groups with four aspherical surfaces optical formula; electronically controlled aperture; autofocus from 0.3 meters to infinity, with user-selectable fly-by-wire manual focus; and that’s just about all we can wring out of that humble Portable Document Format file.
There are few surprises with this lens. Those who’ve shot a couple hundred frames with any 28mm lens will know what to expect – the Leica Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 will make images with a wide field of view, sharp when stopped down, a bit soft in the corners when shot wide open, very minor distortion of subjects at minimum focus distance.
At just 80 grams (2.8 ounces) this lens is astonishingly light, and with a length of 20.5 millimeters it’s simply tiny. There’s no smaller lens in the Leica L mount, and even adapting any one of the traditionally tiny M-mount rangefinder lenses won’t provide a lower profile. This makes the Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical the perfect travel and street lens for the CL, which is itself a perfectly sized camera for these photographic disciplines (and for people like me, who like small machines in all situations).
Upside noted, this diminutiveness comes with an unpleasant side effect; a disquieting voice whispering that the Elmarit-TL may lack the hefty, mechanical quality typically associated with products bearing the Leica name. The body of the lens is metal, sure, but it must be impossibly thin metal, and I suspect the innards are plastic (though I’d be in trouble if I took it apart to verify). Holding the Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical in the hand feels less like holding a Leica lens and more like holding a six-tall stack of Pringles brand potato and wheat-based stackable snack chips in all their unnaturally-shaped hyperbolic paraboloid glory.
But I’ve gotten pretty hypocritical, haven’t I? How can I say that I love the lens’ lightness in one paragraph, and then complain that it’s not heavy enough in the next? That’s just rude. If I were a reader reading this article I’d absolutely yell at me in the comments.
Besides, lenses are meant to be mounted to a camera and used, not fondled and weighed by some chin-scratching Professional Camera Liker with a magnifying glass.
On to more important things!
Handling and Image Quality
Fit the lens to the camera, strap on our cold-weather gear (it’s that time of year, unfortunately) and hit the streets to make some photos. Here, in its natural environment, the Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 begins to show its real worth.
Designed by Leica to be used without a lens hood, it never loses its portability (it’s compatible with 39mm diameter front filters). The lens and mounted camera fit naturally into my coat pocket, saving my ungloved hands from the bitter bite of Old Man Winter. The manual focus ring spins with weighty resistance, though the electronic focusing makes input feel subtly indirect and ever-so-slightly detached. The CL with 18mm feels balanced and cohesive, more like a fixed-lens compact than the interchangeable-lens system camera it is.
Shot wide open at F/2.8, the Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical performs really well, if not ever being exceptional. As mentioned earlier and as expected by old hands, the center of the frame shows average sharpness, and edges do not. Viewed on a phone screen or small monitor, this softness in the edges and corners won’t make any difference. Images transferred onto old-fashioned physical sheets of compressed moist cellulose fibers (big photo prints) will make edge softness more obvious. Whether or not this matters is a matter of taste. I don’t mind edge softness, and have even used it to subtly emphasize a subject.
Stopped down to F/4, the central sharpness gets even sharper and extends outward toward the edges. At F/5.6 the entire frame is sufficiently sharp to preclude complaint, same at F/8. At F/11 and F/16, diffraction rears its ugly head and decreases resolution (pretty starkly, in the case of images made at F/16).
There’s no chromatic aberration at any aperture. There’s barely any distortion in normal use. Up-close portraits get weird, but only at the minimum focus distance of just under twelve inches and only very slightly. And there’s virtually no light falloff (about 1 EV of vignetting when shot wide open). Illumination is even at all smaller apertures. That’s all great stuff, really.
Though universal post-processing of digital files pretty effectively negates bickering over color profiles these days, colors from the lens and the CL’s sensor are excellent. Punchy and vibrant straight out of the camera, the DNGs this machine produces are infinitely adjustable.
Autofocus speed is really impressive, helped along assuredly by the lens’ wide field of view and its rather deep depth-of-field. Bokeh is nothing to get excited about, but this lens is not made for bokeh or for people who live for bokeh. It’s a context lens, and in my opinion, that’s the best kind of lens.
When I reviewed the Leica CL last year, I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly did not expect the CL to be the only digital camera I truly loved shooting throughout the entire span of the calendar year. But it was. The CL must be the cleanest, purest, and most engaging digital camera I’ve used in the past decade. It’s lovely, and I don’t know why I haven’t bought one yet.
The Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical may just be the perfect companion to this camera, and finding it may be the last push I need to pull out the plastic (I’d get the black CL and Elmarit over the silver). Like my Triumph Bonneville, the Elmarit my not be the best at any one thing, but it’s pretty great at almost everything. Other primes in the L-mount lineup are faster, sharper, objectively better – but they’re also larger, heavier, and more expensive. Some of those lenses would even entirely subvert the joy of shooting a CL. Just take a look at the size of that 35mm prime – one of these combinations makes sense, and the other does not.
The Elmarit-TL 18mm F/2.8 Aspherical should be the first prime lens one buys for their new CL, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, even years later, it’s still the one that’s used the most. It’s the perfect fit for a camera that’s designed for those shooters looking for a smaller, lighter, yet just as capable alternative to its larger and more expensive counterparts.