Fun & flat lens
I once heard someone say a phrase along the lines of "normal lens = normal looking photos" as encouragement to try wider focal lengths than the usual 35mm and 50mm "standard" lenses paired to many cameras. At that time, I had already been using "ultra-wide" focal length zooms like a 16-35mm (especially for client and landscape work) for many years. Having been introduced to using 16mm during my early days of paid work in real-estate photography, I knew the challenges of making good images with ultra-wide lenses. Keeping your verticals looking somewhat straight, and avoiding the distorted, leaning look from distracting from the subject matter is one of those challenges. I eventually started to integrate a 28mm prime into my everyday and documentary photography and it has slowly grown on me for it's ability to include more in the frame at equal distances, compared to my usual 35mm.
Therefore, I was intrigued when Funleader recently reached out and asked me if I'd like to try their 18mm "CAPLENS", which is a small pancake lens with a fixed aperture of f8. As compared to previous versions, the Leica M-mount version they sent me has the ability to manually focus; rather than having a fixed focus range. The focus range goes from 0.45m to infinity, with a hard stop at 1m. Focus is adjusted using a handy lever, which makes adjustment much easier than having to use the ring, given the flat design of the lens.
So what is the point of such a lens, then? Well, being a "body-cap" style form factor means that it is extremely compact and useful to take along when you don't think you'll use an ultra-wide focal length too seriously. Heck, you can even leave it on your camera in place of body cap if you like, for transport purposes or to make sure you always have something ready to capture with. It is a lens intended for Fun usage, and encourages experimentation through it's limitations. The 18mm focal length is a bit wild and unique looking if you've never shot anything close to it. Being fixed to F/8 allows you to think more about shutter speed and perhaps embrace motion blur. Having something this modest and optically simplified lets you forget about corner to corner sharpness and experiment a little. There is a heavy vignette, distortion and other imperfections... but I guess that is the idea with the Funleader. If you take the ultrawide focal lengths a lot more seriously, you wouldn't likely reading this review in the first place, right?
One the best ways to use very wide focal lengths is to get close to your subject and draw in more information, especially from the background. Therefore, having the ability to focus close is a big plus when comparing this lens to one with a fixed focus range. Sure, you're not going to get blurred backgrounds and "creamy bokeh" with 18mm and F/8, but it allows you to bring attention to the foreground, to place the viewer "in the picture".
Kodak Portra 400, on the Leica M-A with Funleader "Caplens"
With the above image, I had the focus set to the 1m mark, which is about how far I was standing from the subject in the foreground. You can see that the 18mm focal length exaggerates distance and scale and draws in plenty of contextual information. The lens has a noticeable vignette, and softness towards the corners. Detail in the centre and midframe pleasantly surprised me, however! Sure, it's not super-sharp, but for a fun little contraption it's really not bad! Colour and contrast renders well, and the overall distortion isn't too distracting.
Another good use of 18mm is to simply capture a wide field of view, be it for landscape work or other general everyday scenery. The fixed F/8 aperture means that you need to vary your shutter speed (or ISO, if shooting digital) for correct exposure, but also means that no matter where you set the focus, you still have plenty of depth of field. This is especially true at further distances, such as from 2m-infinity, where your hyperfocal distance means you'll capture a larger amount of the field in sharp focus.
The package & usage on the Leica M-A
Funleader CAPLENS comes in a small box, with a tin can, soft-case, rear cap, and paper guide. Build quality is rather solid, being made from Aluminium. When I saw photos online I worried it would be mostly plastic, but that is not the case! The tiny lens actually has 6 elements in 5 groups. It weights in at 40g, and barely protrudes 1cm when attached to the Leica.
The focus dial moves firmly and smoothly, with the previously mentioned hard stop at 1m. This a good way to know where you are on the scale without having to look at the lens, especially given that this lens does not couple with the rangefinder of Leica M cameras. Having a somewhat good sense of distance is necessary, although the increased depth of field affords a lot of room for inaccuracy there. Distances are marked on the lens are in both feet and metres, which is great if you are more used to one than the other.
In the case of the Leica M-A (and many other M bodies), the widest frame-lines available are 28mm. In my case, I used experience and guesswork to estimate the 18mm focal length. For more accurate framing, however, you would want a separate 18mm capable viewfinder. For digital Leica shooters, you can simply use the Live-view or an electronic finder to see what the lens sees. If you have the time, you can even pull out your phone if it has an ultra-wide camera (which is often a 16-18mm equivalent) to get an idea of your field of view.
Adapting to the Fujifilm crop sensor
Since I have access to a Fujifilm X-T3, I decided to give the Funleader a try given that it would be the equivalent of around 28mm on that sensor! This could be handy if you happen to shoot Leica and Fujifilm, where the Caplens could serve as a traditional 28mm equivalent focal length, perhaps for casual usage or discreet street photography.
Although vignetting is noticeably reduced, corner softness is still very prominent, suggesting that the lens would still be best suited to applications where critical image information doesn't lie in the corners.
Looking for light
The F/8 aperture means that as the light starts to drop, things get a little tricker when you're fixed to a certain ISO, as in the case of film. This means you would be best suited to using the lens when light is aplenty. The above image was taken on Kodak Portra 400, where F/8 was still enough to get away with a still handheld frame during the sunset light. One thing to note however, is that when shooting straight into the light, the lens produces significant flaring/ghosting and aberrations.
When the sun isn't shining straight into the lens though, you wont have this issue. Using the lens for street photography, long exposures, landscapes, and general fun documentary during daytime would be my recommended scenarios.
The Funleader 18mm CAPLENS is a fun little lens worth giving a try if you have been wanting to toy with wider angles in your photography. Without the cost commitment of what would generally be a rather expensive focal length in the world of prime lenses, Funleader's offering allows you to get experimental with a look that is almost reminiscent of using cameras like the Holga, albeit with more resolution, detail and control.
Much appreciated, and happy shooting!
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