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The Leica Diary, Part IV – An Unexpected Thing or Two

Gear Talk
The M9 with a 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M lens

The M9 with a 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M lens

In this part, I’ll look at a couple of unexpected things I ran into when shooting with the Leica.

Most people who shoot with a Leica assume that the lenses available for it, like the 50mm f/2.5 shown above, are primes. And, for the most part, this is true. I’d certainly had no reason to think otherwise. 

The first unexpected thing…

Then I was introduced to the Leica 16-18-21 lens.

Leica 16-18-21mm lens

Leica 16-18-21mm lens

Okay, here’s the deal. Leica has really only made two zoom lenses that I know of, and of those two, this one is the only one still in production. And, to be fair, this isn’t a zoom lens like we imagine it to be.

Canon and Nikon both make a 16-35mm zoom, for example. On those lenses, you can zoom seamlessly through the entire focal length range. I’m fairly sure I have images shot at 19mm, 23mm, 29mm, and other focal ranges in my library that were shot with the Nikon 16-35mm lens.

The Leica’s zoom lens, however, is more like three prime lenses bundled into a zoom lens. The zoom ring doesn’t turn seamless. Instead, as you can see in the image above, there are three “click” stops at 16mm, 18mm, and 21mm. When you shoot, you shoot at one of those three focal ranges.

Now, this lens, when you rent it from us, comes with a neat little accessory.

Leica 16-18-21mm lens with viewfinder

Leica 16-18-21mm lens with viewfinder

Since the Leica’s built-in viewfinder isn’t wide enough to help you frame your images, we ship this accessory viewfinder with it. It goes into the Leica’s hotshoe and you now have two viewfinders on your Leica.

The regular viewfinder is used for accurate focusing, while the accessory viewfinder is for framing. Yes, you heard right – you have to use two viewfinders with this lens for the most accurate framing and focusing. Since the accessory isn’t “coupled” to the lens, it cannot help you focus.

On the top of the viewfinder, as shown in the image below, are two dials. The one closest to the front sets up the bright frames in the viewfinder to match the focal length you set the lens to. This viewfinder goes all the way to 28mm, allowing its use with lenses longer than the 18-18-21. The second dial lets you change the vertical position of the bright frames if you’re shooting subjects closer to you, thereby helping correct for parallax.

The top of the accessory viewfinder, and the zone focus markings on the lens

The top of the accessory viewfinder, and the zone focus markings on the lens

Zone focusing is still possible and easy with this lens, and that’s the mode I stuck with for the most part so I wouldn’t have to keep using two viewfinders. As you can see in the image below, the zone focus marks are stepped for each focal length. For each f-stop value, there is a vertical line that you match up with the distance range you need on either side of the lens. In the images above and below, I’ve set the lens at 21mm (though I forgot to change the dial on the viewfinder), and zone focus is set up so that subjects from 20″ to infinity will be sharp at f/16.

Zone focus markings on the 16-18-21mm lens.

Zone focus markings on the 16-18-21mm lens.

I really like this lens. Of all the lenses I tried out, this ended up being one of my absolute favorites. That viewfinder on the top and the quirky lens hood makes this Leica look even more like it belongs in the mid-to-early 20th century. I basically stuck to using zone focus and the accessory viewfinder and found that for the most part, my shots were framed pretty accurately.

Rodeo Beach in the Bay Area, shot at 16mm.

Rodeo Beach in the Bay Area, shot at 16mm.

The other thing…

So here’s the other thing I discovered that left me going, “Oh really? Now that’s… cool?”

In many ways, the M9 is a “true to its roots” camera – manual everything, dials and switches and rings for most controls, things like that. But that’s not to say that there aren’t little touches and flourishes hidden in the menu system that give this body a few features that you’d normally expect to see in modern DSLRs.

One such little feature is the Leica’s auto exposure bracketing. Now, I’d expected some exposure bracketing, but having come from the Canon world, I thought there woud be the usual three-exposures, +1 and -1 f-stop.

Um, no. The Leica is a full-on HDR-capable monster. You can shoot 3, 5, or 7 exposures, with each exposure being either 0.5EV, 1EV, 1.5EV or 2EV apart.

So, theoretically, if a scene meters in at f/8 at 1/60th of a second, you can shoot a burst of 7 exposures in Leica’s “C” mode (which gives you 2 frames per second) that would cover all exposures from f/8 at 1 second to f/8 at 1/4000th of a second.

The HDR image below was created from a 5-exposure burst, with the images 1EV apart.

HDR from a Leica M9

HDR from a Leica M9

Again, as HDRs go, it’s no great shakes, but the fact that the Leica is capable of bracketing exposures at this range is an unexpected surprise.

The Leica Diary is almost at its conclusion. Next week I’ll publish Part V of this set, which has my conclusions. Did I like the Leica? Would I recommend it? Is it awesome? Should you rent it?

Find out next week…

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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