Using the Leicaflex SL2 for a year confirmed that I’m a Leica SLR kind of guy. I’m also a wide-angle lens kind of guy. So after buying a new-old-stock example of my ideal Leica SLR, the R5, I began hunting for the perfect R-mount wide-angle lens. Enter, the Leitz 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R, a lens that I’ve been using for the past six months, and one with which I now hope to eventually be cremated.
Interestingly the 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R was not made by Leitz, but rather it was made by Schneider Kreuznach. Did I also mention that I’m a Schneider Kreuznach lens kind of guy? Not in this article? Well, I’m sure that I did when I reviewed the Rollei 6008. And if you’ve managed to ignore all the outbound links in these first two paragraphs connecting you, dear reader, to my earlier writings, congratulations! Your reward is today’s lens review. Actually, click those links anyway – they’ll open in a separate tab, and we could use the stat boost.
A Very Brief History of the Leitz 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R
The Leitz 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R (Leica number 11813) was unveiled by Leitz during 1968’s Photokina, and marks one of those rare moments in the field of consumer photographic optics in which a product reinvents, rather than reiterates. The new 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R of 1968 replaced the old 21mm F/3.4 Super Angulon R (Leica number 11803) that Leitz had offered their SLR shooters since 1964. And it brought meaningful improvement.
Sure, the earlier 21mm F/3.4 boasted a faster maximum aperture, but it also had an enormous protruding rear element that plunged so deeply into the mirror boxes of Leicaflex SLR cameras that using the lens required the mirror to be locked in the up position. This naturally meant that the major benefit of owning and using an SLR camera, the ability to see exactly what the lens sees and to accurately frame and focus the final image, was completely nullified. The new 21mm F/4, on the other hand, was made to work correctly with SLR reflex mirrors, meaning that it allowed for viewfinder viewing and focusing. What a novel idea!
Improvements didn’t stop there. The new 21mm also beat its predecessor in the areas of even illumination and in overall definition. It employed a ten elements in eight groups optical formula, presented a 92º angle of view (on 24x36mm full frame image area), and contained four aperture blades which stopped down from F/4 to F/22 in half-stop increments. It allowed focusing as close as eight inches, was built to incredible standards of physical quality, and was offered in two-cam and, beginning in 1976, three-cam configurations. Two-cam lenses natively fit on the first Leicaflex and the Leicaflex SL and SL2, but will only work in stop-down metering mode on newer R-series cameras; the three-cam lenses work correctly on all three Leicaflex models as well as all R-series Leica SLRs. If this talk of cams and ‘Flexes and R’s is confusing you, see our guide to Leica SLRs here.
The Leitz 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R remained unchanged and continually produced until 1994, a fairly long run for a lens. After 1994, Leica no longer offered a 21mm R mount lens. I assume that they assumed that their fast F/2.8 Elmarit-Rs in focal lengths of 19mm (designed by Walter Mandler) and 24mm (designed by Minolta) would satisfy those looking for an “around 20mm” ultra-wide lens for their R mount SLRs. These two lenses were produced until 2009 and 2006, respectively.
Using the Leitz 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R Today
Users unaccustomed to shooting vintage lenses will likely be impressed by the Leitz 21mm. The only parts of this lens that aren’t made of metal are the parts that are made of glass. The focus ring spins with delectable weightiness, and the aperture ring snaps into its half-stop increments with clicks that resound more audibly than most. It’s a weighty lens, at 420 grams (that’s almost a full pound), but one that feels well-balanced on the more substantial Leicaflex SLRs. Even on my Leica R5, which is the lightest Leica SLR camera ever made, the 21mm feels perfect.
Despite the old-world craftsmanship and exceptional materials, things aren’t necessarily perfect. The front element of the lens is simply massive, which necessitates a similarly gigantic front lens barrel to contain it. The focus ring is placed directly behind this enormous front lens barrel, and finding the focus ring can be a little bit fumbly when we’re holding the camera up to the eye and attempting to focus quickly. In these situations, don’t be surprised if you repeatedly grab and twist the front of the lens, achieve nothing, lower the camera, find the focus ring with your fingers (more challenging in the cold of winter), and get back to the business of making a photo only after having wasted about ten seconds.
More focusing difficulty presents itself when using the lens adapted to a mirrorless or other digital camera, especially in Live View mode. The rear LCD screen of my Sony A7II just isn’t fine enough to easily show this lens’ exact point of focus without using focusing aids which cost time and can lose us a shot. This is for two reasons – first, the slow maximum aperture; second and more complicit, the fact that depth-of-field on this ultra-wide lens is very deep indeed. It’s necessary, therefore, to use focusing aids such as magnification or focus peaking every single time we want to achieve a specific and sharp point of focus, such as when shooting close-up subjects, portraits, etc.
This liability isn’t egregious – it only truly impacts the process of making a photo in specific situations; when we’re shooting on a digital mirrorless camera, and then only when we’re being very specific about our focus point, and even then it’s only a serious issue when we’re shooting in compromised lighting conditions. And there are ways around the problem – use zone focusing, hyperlocal distance, or shoot the damn thing on a film camera, where the split-image focus patch and micro prism focusing screens of Leica R and Leicaflex SLR cameras make focusing this lens a legitimate pleasure.
Image quality is very good. This Leitz lens has for decades been known as an exceptional performer in terms of center sharpness. Even when shot wide open at F/4, center detail is as good as anyone could realistically demand, though naturally the corners are softer than the center. Stop the lens down to F/8 and I’m not sure there’s anything to complain about as center definition seeps and creeps to the outer edges of the frame.
Are the edges of the frame at F/16 as bright or as sharp or as evenly illuminated as those made with the latest ultra-wide prime from Canon? No, but that gigantic lens costs $1,500 where this tiny one costs between $600 and $999, depending on condition and completeness. And clinical perfection isn’t the point of legacy lenses, anyway.
In my shooting I’ve noticed no chromatic aberration, though the lens does have a reputation for producing some color fringing on the edges of the frame at wider apertures. This could be possible, I’m sure, but I didn’t notice it. I suspect that what chromatic aberration this lens does produce is somewhere in the area of one-to-two offending pixels. And shooting on film you’ll never see them.
Flaring and ghosting does indeed occur in situations where the lens is being pointed at the sun. Again, this presents most obviously when shooting with digital cameras, and has more to do with the sensor than it does the lens. When shooting film, as I did with this lens throughout an entire summer full of beach days and bright suns and trips to Florida, I saw exactly zero instances of flares and ghosts in my film photos. And I love shooting into the sun.
Shooting bright light sources in the dark creates some beautiful four-spoked stars. They’re not necessarily the sharply defined and stunningly clear pinpricks of light with glorious starbursts that are possible with some other lenses which have more aperture blades. But they’re neat looking, I guess. I don’t get as excited about starbursts as some other, more Rockwellian, camera nerds.
The lens’ impressively close minimum focusing distance of eight inches frees the Leitz 21mm Super Angulon R from the pigeonholing that so often plagues ultra-wides. Designed with the traditional pursuits of landscapes, architectural, and editorial photography in mind, photographic disciplines that typically benefit from deep depth-of-field and focusing on the far distance, it surprised me how impressive and effective this lens performs when shooting up close. Some of my results are almost macro-esque in their presentation. But combined with the incredibly wide field of view, these up-close shots don’t lack in context, as is often the case when shooting, say, a 50mm prime at its minimum focus distance. And surprise again, shooting close and at F/4, the Leitz 21mm makes surprisingly pleasant bokeh. From a 21mm lens!
Shooting at its minimum focus distance does present some challenges as well. With flat field subjects and straight lines, we see distortion. Straight lines around the edges of the frame tend to bubble outwards, as with a lot of wide-angle lenses at close distances. This is only obvious in images that are composed of a lot of parallel lines. The distortion can be corrected fairly easily in post-processing of digital files or film scans, but this is an additional step that will need to be taken by those who are bothered by mild distortion. I should add, the distortion isn’t as obvious as it has been in every other ultra-wide legacy lens I’ve used.
Consumer Advice and Final Thoughts
In the Leica R mount lens system, the 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R presents a great value. It makes beautiful images, is very versatile, and is very affordable compared to other ultra-wides in the system (the 19mm F/2.8 Elmarit-R lens tends to cost over $2,000, and the 24mm costs slightly more than this 21mm and isn’t as wide). So if you’re a shooter who’s using a Leica SLR and you’re looking for an ultra-wide lens, and if you like the images I’ve shown in this review, buy this lens. If you’re a Leica SLR shooter who also uses mirrorless digital, buy this lens and an adapter and enjoy using it to make images on film and digital. For these two types of potential buyer, this lens is a no brainer. It is a phenomenal legacy lens for Leica SLR shooters.
The decision becomes more complicated for users who don’t own a Leica SLR but who are looking for an ultra-wide legacy lens to use on their digital cameras. This decision is harder because there are so many other ultra-wides that we could buy, and nearly all of them cost less money and offer faster apertures than this Leitz lens. To name one, there’s the 20mm F/3.5 Nikkor from Nikon, which performs extremely well and costs one-third the price of the Leitz. My parting words on the consumer advice segment – if I was only looking for an ultra-wide to use on digital, it wouldn’t be this Leitz 21mm. It’s just too expensive for that.
What was most striking about this lens, for me, was just how versatile it turned out to be. When photo geeks think of an ultra-wide lens we often tend to envision landscapes and cityscapes, and that’s probably all. After six months with the 21mm mounted to my Leica film SLRs and Sony A7II, these types of photos are the ones that I made the least. What I most often made were contextual portraits of my kids, hilarious shots of smiling faces and playful animals, photos of beautiful objects up close and personal, and editorial style shots of the daily occurrences in the world around me. I used this lens like a standard lens, and it worked perfectly. (Possible evidence to support my theory that the wide-angle lenses so commonly packed into cell phones for the past ten years have actually shifted our cultural idea of what we think of as the “standard lens” from the long-accepted 50mm to something closer to a 24mm?)
The Leitz 21mm F/4 Super Angulon R is interesting. It’s not a perfect lens. The corners vignette a bit, and they’re a bit soft wide open. This is typical. What’s atypical are the beautiful images that this lens can make, especially on film. This lens has got some character. It’s far more versatile than I ever thought it’d be. A landscape lens that can make charming contextual portraits of my kids. An editorial lens that can focus on a cupcake sprinkle that’s eight inches away. An architectural lens that can make images of a vacation that perfectly match with memory. I love this lens, and if you’re a Leica SLR shooter who wants a wide-angle lens, or a combination Leica SLR and mirrorless shooter looking to bounce a characterful wide-angle between film and digital, you’ll certainly love it too.
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