Full apologies to Mr. Reed for the title but the trite cliche just jumped right out at me. Back to attack in sunny Bangkok once again this month to look at things from a new angle, a very wide angle to be more precise. Despite typically preferring 35mm as a standard lens on a 135 film camera, I don't often find myself tempted to go significantly wider than that. I have however thoroughly explored 28mm from time to time as I liked the added drama this gives and it's not too far of a step away if somebody is already used to seeing the world through 35mm eyes (or Leica goggles for that matter). It was the work of Winogrand that first caught my eye for the 28mm focal length and I enjoyed it in the past shooting film on both Nikons and Leica M's for out and about in the city kind of work (my top choices on black and white film were the AI-s 28mm 2.8 Nikkor and Elmarit 28mm v3 in case anybody's interested). Other than that and a very brief fling with an 18mm 3.5 AI-s Nikkor ten years ago, I haven't ever really had a good long run with any quality glass at the really wide end of things.....but that all seems about to change!
In Leicaland, I have always been very intrigued by the 21mm Super Angulons, namely the f4 but especially the 3.4. Some tatty versions of the former often float about in Bangkok and are not generally too hard to score but I really had serious lust for the 3.4 and to find the right one in great condition isn't as easy as with other classic Leica glass. So, why the 3.4 anyway? Well, after having trawled threads on the more credible sites such as Rangefinderforum that pertain to this classic, it shows what can be done with such glass and my interest was only piqued even further through conversations with other photographers whose work I very much admire (both with and without this lens) when they sang the praises of the 21SA. I was interested to see what could be done on the street with this focal length on a Leica M film body in and around Bangkok on my beloved black and white films of choice.
Regular readers might well know by now that I generally prefer to shoot on film and do so using classic German glass of the 50's and 60's, in fact to me, sixties Leica glass and the way it renders on good quality black and white film is pretty much about as good as it gets. The high res, uber sharp yet low contrast 'National Geographic of the sixties' look just never gets old to me, it's just so classic. Remember, you can also nudge a slider after the fact to bump up as much contrast as you want in Photoshop but there is no 'make it look like the best of the best lenses from Leitz in 1965' slider option in any software that I am aware of. I fully understand why people prefer clinical, sharp looking Leica ASPH glass and why they wanna pay out the big bucks for it but for me I just can't get enough of that old timer, 3D looking glow packed Leitz goodness. Already owning some of the classics from this era, I felt the 21mm Super Angulon would be an ideal match. As I am always wary of becoming a hoarder, I choose any new item carefully these days. I also force myself to use what I have, which isn't always that hard but I do stick to this quite religiously. I also seem to be in the minority in that I actually prefer the silver lenses, especially of this time period. There's just something about the satin matt chrome over solid brass stuff that rocks, the very pinnacle of its type and something we'll not be likely to see again anytime soon. Of course, finding one of these lenses then got harder if I was going to score a silver one too.
Fast forward a little ways and I am delighted to say that I recently stumbled upon one in pristine condition, from the 1960's and with a mint condition original silver Leica finder. Trying to eyeball a 21mm without the finder is not recommended. You can get away with it with other focal lengths to an extent (a top tip is that for the Elmarit 28mm, a regular .72 Leica finder window will give you a pretty good built in finder if you just ignore the frameline sets and use the whole of the window when using a 28mm, saving you money and having to use external add ons) but there are no cheap and dirty life hacks laying in wait for the new 21mm user on a Leica M though, you really do need all the framing help you can get here. Oh well, the (pricey) finder is clean and clear with the original factory silver brightmarks in great shape. Plus, it doesn't rattle its loose elements when shaken next to my ear like so many of the original period metal Leica finders now seem to this long after the fact, which is always a bonus. The good news didn't stop there either as the very specific lens hood (a must for this lens and only shared with one other Leica model I think?) was also available as a set. Due to the huge rear of this beast, it also needs an odd and very deep Leica end cap which is hard to find (can you spot a pattern here?) and this came with a non original but frankly probably shiny brand new better metal aftermarket one which is simply amazing. This particular lens was recently imported from Japan which, as we all know, is a real haven for Leica vintage gear in top condition. The only bad news was the price, these ain't cheap and everybody knows it, especially the person you might find wishing to sell you a pristine one. I suppose I should at least be grateful that these can't be used on the modern digital full frame Leica M bodies without heavy purple colour fringing ruining the shots (they work ok in black and white modes though I believe) otherwise such prices would no doubt be even higher.
So, there was nothing left for it but to hit the streets with a roll or two and I'm throwing some of these up here with this post and please bear in mind that I haven't had long enough with this puppy to get the hang of it yet, I can already see it's going to take some time. This ain't no 50mm! Many people (including me) found that going from a 35mm for 28mm for street work was harder to handle due to the amount of extra elements in the frame. Well, suffice to say that if we apply that thinking to 21mm, it's not hard to see why things get a whole lot trickier indeed. Have to say though, it really is great fun, especially in a city like Bangkok. As time goes on, I'll probably check back in with you all on the blog with more 21SA 3.4 shots and musings but just wanted to say that so far I am really enjoying the drama and fun with this lens and it really gives a look that I am fond of. The best way I can describe the shots from it is to say that it looks like a much wider version of the 35mm Summilux pre-asph and if you like that sort of style or the look of the 35mm Summaron 2.8, 50mm Rigid V2 Summicron and 90mm Elmarit V1 lenses, then you'll probably fall in love with the 21SA 3.4. It's very sharp in the centre and I like the fall off to the edges, it renders beautifully with some signs of vignetting at wider apertures but that's just something that I think will only add to the character of the shots on film and hey, it's a 21mm after all. I don't rate lenses by shooting walls and using measuring charts, I like high quality glass with real character and my tastes are purely subjective and might not match what others have to say about a certain lens. Suffice to say, so far so good and highly recommended!