LEICA UNIVERSAL POLARIZER
Updated August 19, 2016
Before using the Leica M8 back in 2007, my main digital cameras had been the Canon 1Ds series. Using filters on a TTL system (through-the-lens) like the Canon 1Ds Mark III was easy because what you see in the viewfinder is what you get. Coming from a SLR background, this is how I expected the world to work. Not so with a rangefinder because it is not a TTL camera. Initially I thought polarizers would not be possible with the Leica M, but eventually I stumbled across the Leica Universal Polarizer Kit (#13356) for the Leica M system.
As “cool” gadgets go, the Leica Universal Polarizer deserves a Boy Scout merit badge. The design is simple - the polarizer filter simply pivots 180º to the 12:00 position above the camera. While looking directly through filter, the polarizer is rotated until the desired effect is achieved. Then the polarizer is swung (or pivoted) back to the closed position - which is exactly a 180º arc. Now the polarizer filter is front of the lens and doing its job. The simplicity is genius. The process may be a bit victorian, but the ingenuity is charming and the process is very engaging.
The polarizer’s pivot action is very smooth - not too tight, not too loose. There is a stopping mechanism to ensure the filter does not swing past 180º. In the closed position there is a soft stop / click which keeps the polarizer in place. The polarizer has a small hood, offering some protection against flare. The hood is very shallow, so do not expect miracles. The polarizer itself rotates easily. I have owned several of these kits over the years - some have had stiffer resistance, some have spun very easily (perhaps too easily).
The Leica Universal Polarizer comes in a nicely made nylon case. The case unzips and opens like a clam shell. On one side is a foam rubber insert for holding the polarizer unit. On the opposite side is a series of four accordion style pockets for holding each adapter individually. The polarizer kit comes standard with E39 and E46 adapters. Optional E49 adapters are available, there are two E49 adapters:
- Leica #14211 - For E49 lenses EXCEPT the Leica 135mm F3.4 Telyt-M APO and Leica 75mm F2 Summicron-M APO.
- Leica #14418 - For the Leica 135mm F3.4 Telyt-M APO and Leica 75mm F2 Summicron-M APO. Do NOT use #14211 with the 135mm F3.4 Telyt-M APO; the polarizer with scratch the lens hood when tightened down.
- Leica #14213 - For the Leica 135mm F4 Tele Elmar M (E46); this adapter ring has been discontinued and can be difficult to find. It is needed because the standard E46 is flush with the hood, and attaching the polarizer (tightening the screw) with scratch the lens' built-in hood.
I have no idea which lenses #14211 is intended for; #14418 is taller and provides clearance for the clamping mechanism. In my opinion, there is no reason to buy #14211 because the #14418 will work on all E49 M lenses. Adapter #14213 is discontinued, but a 46mm to 49mm step-up ring with #14418 will work as an alternative for the 135mm F4 Tele-Elmar M (2nd version with E46 thread). The Leica Universal Kit works with filter sizes E39 through E49, so it will not work on lenses such as the Leica 90mm F2 Summicron-M APO, Leica 50mm F.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, etc.
The Leica Universal Polarizer weighs about 3 ounces, so the camera’s balance and feel are mostly unaffected. Swinging the polarizer to the 12:00 position, rotating the polarizer to the desired effect and then swinging the polarizer back takes several seconds. If trying to move quickly, repeating the process can be tedious. I prefer to have the flip-up position at 12:00 - straight over the hot shoe. Leica likely intended the flip up position to be at 2:00 so the polarized view is visible through the rangefinder window - clever. Whether using the 12:00 or 2:00 is purely preference and has no bearing on the polarizer’s performance. The Universal Polarizer Kit may look somewhat impractical, but in use it works out fairly well - with some caveats:
- The case is well designed and keeps everything organized, but it is bulky and it consumes valuable "bag space".
- Attaching the adapter ring to the lens, placing the polarizer on the ring, tightening the lock screw, rotating the polarizer into place, etc. takes a couple minutes.
- Attaching the polarizer in cold weather with gloves would be a challenge for sure. With thin gloves - maybe, but with thick gloves or mittens - no way.
While I like the uniqueness of Leica's Universal Polarizer, its actual optical performance has been mixed. Generally, on the Leica M9 I did not like the color rendition with the polarizer. The Leica M9 is by default overly cyan or blue colored; the polarizer amplified that trait. The result of the Leica M Typ 240 is somewhat similar - colors are "cold" and the files looks too blue for my tastes. On the Leica M Monochrom Typ 246 the polarizer makes blue patches of sky darker - almost like a channel mixer. I have been experimenting with the red filters and polarizer in tandem; the polarizer creates more contrast between the clouds and blue sky, but the red filter is by far the biggest contributor to the overall look.
I cannot get too twisted over the color shifts (with the color M's) because that is par when using a polarizer on a color camera. Even on dSLRs I seldom used polarizers because of the color shifts. The Leica M Monochrom Typ 246 paired with red filters creates mega amounts of "pop" with cloudy skies - I LOVE that!!! On the Leica M Monochrom, stacking the polarizer darkens the blue sky relative to the white clouds (if standing ~90º to the sun). Sometimes the red filter + polarizer can be too much - there is an aesthetic decision to be made.
Normally I do not take pictures in early to mid afternoon light because the color images look "blah". But the Leica M Monochrom + Red Filter + (sometimes) Polarizer, I love this mid-day light. A red filter loses ~2.5 stops of light and the polarizer loses ~1 stop of light, so shutter speeds drop really fast. Even in strong daylight conditions I am using a tripod, especially is trying to shoot F8 or smaller.
There are few options when it comes to polarizers for the Leica M, so if wanting a polarizer, the purchase decision is essentially binary. The Leica Universal Polarizer works well, but its operation can seem tedious at times and certainly slow down pace. That said, I am grateful to have a polarizer option.
The Leica Universal Polarizer is probably something each person has to experience first hard in order to decide whether it is worth carrying in their bag. Even if that decision is ultimately a "no", the Leica Universal Polarizer is certainly a unique experience. I feel the Leica Universal Polarizer is for the more seasoned Leica M user - someone who comfortable with the rangefinder experience, the cadence and enjoys Leica's craftsmanship.