The Leica Tri-Elmar is Leica’s only wide angle three position zoom. Is it a zoom, well sort of… It is a lens with three distinct positions, and it only performs well at these specific focal length positions. We have a lens that covers 16mm, 18mm, and 21mm focal lengths. We are going to look at its strengths and weaknesses…

It is arguably one of the best wide angle lenses in the world, easily holding its own today. A few other wide angle primes are better, but they are primes, they’re supposed to be better. If you want a small unobtrusive wide angle lens then this maybe your ticket.

For this test I used my Leica 24 megapixel M240. The M240 only records an approximate aperture value. There is no electronic link with M lenses to the camera. Yes, there is a 6bit coding on the lens, but that only tells the camera what lens is attached. No aperture information is passed. When you examine the files you may see an aperture value, again it is only an approximation. I did record that actual aperture values used in this test independently.

All images on this page can be clicked to see the full size version.


Specifications

Number of elements / groups:10 / 7

Focusing range: 0.5 m to Infinity, range from 0.5 to 0.7 m separated by index

Scales: Combined meter/feet graduation with uniform grey figures below 0.7 m

Aperture Setting / Function: Preset, with click-stops, half values available  F/4.0-F/22 Lowest value: 22

Bayonet: Leica M quick-change bayonet with 6 bit lens identification bar code for digital M models

Filter (type): Male thread, non-rotating and with stop for filter holder or lens hood

Filter: Optional screw on hood (male thread) with 67mm filter thread E67

Lens hood: screw-on type lens hood (included in delivery)

Dimensions: Length: approx. 62/72 mm (with/without lens hood),  Largest diameter: approx. 54 mm (53 x 58 mm with lens hood)

Weight: approx. Original hood and end cap – 334g

Bag Weight: 67mm filter attachment with a 67mm UV filter, lens cap & end cap – 368g


The Lens

Click the images below to see a larger image

This lens is quite small in keeping with the M system ethos. The regular hood does not add any width to the lens. Above you see the 67mm filter ring hood attached. This adds with and weight, but is immensely useful for adding a circular polarizer, or grad filters. I keep a 67mm UV on it normally. Ergonomics are great, there is a focus tab on the bottom. If you at not familiar with Leica lenses, this tab allows for single finger focusing. The lens is beautiful to focus, smooth with just the right amount of resistance. This lens, being such a wide angle, has lots of depth of field even wide open. As you can see, there is a depth of field scale, so zone focusing is possible – and recommended. The aperture ring clicks nicely, and quietly.

The zoom ring is a three position ring and is well marked. Leica does not recommend intermediate positions, and I have found a significant degradation in image quality when not in one of the recommended positions. When you turn the zoom ring, the lens will click at each focal length, so changing focal lengths is easy and  does not require that you look at the lens. There are only three settings.

This is a dense lens, not overly heavy, but solid. It has that Leica build and smooth feel. This test was shot on my M240


Lens Performance At 16mm

My version of this lens is optimized for 16mm, I have heard that there are a few out there that are better at 21mm. I am sure that Leica can tune the lens for you. I took the lens out on a nice fall day, to do a detailed shoot so that I can examine this wide angle lens at its prime focal lengths. I have shot many thousands of images through this particular Tri-Elmar, so I know its sharp, and I am very familiar with its output.

Here we have a our test image. It was chosen to show field Curvature and corner performance. Center performance is very good, as expected. The lens is sharp in the center at all apertures, with fine contrast details increasing up to F/8. The corners are already quite good starting at F/4.0, they continuously improve with each F-stop reaching maximum sharpness at F/8. The bottom right images show the effect of field curvature or lack thereof in this case. This corner which is closest to the lens continuously increases sharpness due to depth of field increasing. The lens displays one stop of vignetting wide open at F/4.0. Vignetting is completely gone by F/8 as can be seen in the blue sky corner samples.

Chromatic aberrations are minimal (1-2 pixel) and easily removed in lightroom. Chromatic aberration is completely gone by F/8.0

 

 

16mm Corner and Center Samples

 This is the full image at 16mm F/4.0

 

Top LeftTop RightCenterBottom LeftBottom Right
F/4.0
F/5.6
F/8.0
F/11
F/16

 

Lens Performance At 18mm

This lens is well known for the 18mm focal length being it weakest focal length. Compared to the 18mm SEM, it is not as good. The lens is known for being its strongest at 16mm, 21mm followed by 18mm. This said, performance at 18mm is still very good, exceeding most DSLR type lenses at this focal length. Center performance is quite good starting at F/4.0 and increasing steadily up to F/8.0. The lens reaches peak center sharpness at F/8.0 at 18mm. Corner sharpness shows very slight smearing at F/4.0, with full sharpness in the corners attained by F/8.0 The lens retains all of its Leica charm at 18mm. Vignetting is slightly less than at 16mm as you can see in the full image. Vignetting improves substantially at F5.6 and all but gone by F/8.0

This the full image at 18mm F/4.0

 

Top LeftTop RightCentreBottom LeftBottom Right
F/4.0
F/5.6
F/8,0
F/11
F/16

Lens Performance at 21mm

At 21mm my copy of this lens is very good. It’s performance is very close to the 16mm focal length. excellent center performance, and edge performance solidifying by F/5.6 Remember the right corner is shot to show field curvature, the other three corners will show sharpness at three different distances. The center portion of the dam is the focus point. Again there is very low chromatic aberrations, 1-2 pixels wide open in the corners, gone by F/5.6. Vignetting is now less than one stop, and again completely gone by F/8.0

 

This the full image at 21mm F/4.0

Top LeftTop RightCentreBottom LeftBottom Right
F/4.0
F/5.6
F/8,0
F/11
F/16

Conclusion

The lens displays remarkable contrast control, this lens has a unique ability not to blow highlights, and yet retain shadow detail. The level of micro contrast is well above its Japanese competition. Most Japanese lenses are optimized for macro contrast in order to speed up their phase detection auto focus systems. This lenses original design dates back to 2005, with its formal debut to the public in 2006. Given that this design is now 13 years old (This article was written in 2018) it represents quite an achievement. The lens is small, light and very portable. No other manufacture makes a lens with this performance at this size. Recommended even today!


 

Sample Images

Click on the images to see a full size version.

  
M240 at 16mm, F/8.0M240 at 16mm, F/8.0
M240 at 16mm, F/11.0M240 at 16mm, F/8.0
M240 at 16mm, F/11.0M240 at 21mm, F/8.0
M240 at 16mm, F/8.0M240 at 16mm, F/8.0
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