The above video is the short version. If you would like to see the test images for image quality larger please click on the photos.
This L39 or Leica Thread Mount (LTM) short telephoto lens was one of the first lenses release with the launch of Cosina’s Voigtländer branded camera line. It was discontinued in 2010 with the introduction of the 75mm f1.8 Heliar Classic in August of 2010. The 75mm f2.5 can still be purchased as new old stock from some resellers ( Cameraquest being one of them) for $689 USD or second-hand on eBay for around $300. I bought this lens new in 2004 and put a LTM to M adapter on it to use with a Bessa R2.
The original Heliar design was developed in 1900 by Dr. Hans Harting as a symmetrical 5-element variant of the simple anastigmatic and well color-corrected Cooke triplet. In 1902 the design was revised correcting astigmatism, curvature and coma better than the original design. That new design was asymmetrical six elements in five groups. In 1950 Dr. A.W. Tronnier refined the design even further to produce the Color-Heliar. When Cosina revitalised and relaunched the Voigtländer line they revived the Heliar concept with the 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar. Cosina wanted to recreate the German optical aesthetic and engineering quality. This modern lens has a definite 1950’s look with its beautiful all metal construction. The scalloped focusing ring and ribbed aperture ring aid grip and the focusing ring is nicely dampened and has a throw of approximately 90º. The aperture ring has full and half click stops. The lens comes with a lens hood and it as well as the lens cap are made of brass. The lens hood is a push on fit over the lens hood, a particularly nice touch is the strip of velvet inside the cap to increase the friction between it and the lens hood. The gloss black finish does tend to wear but as it does so it creates a wonderful patina with the brass showing through.
Mount – L39
Six elements in 5 groups
Aperture blades – 10
Aperture range – f2.5 -16
Angle of view on 35mm – 32º
Closest focusing distance – 1m
Filter size – 43mm
Diameter – 55.5mm
Weight – 230g
Vignetting is present at f2.5, but by f5,6 it has completely disappeared. Lateral or transverse chromatic aberration is present throughout the aperture range, but it is well controlled and very slight. It is easy to remove in Lightroom as is the slight pincushion distortion using the lens correction profiles. Wide open the centre is very sharp and contrasty while the edges are a little softer and less contrasty. At f5.6 the corners are as sharp and contrasty as the centre. Diffraction starts to kick in at f11 and decreases the optical quality. There is focus shift as the lens stops down and the lens breathes when focusing.
The minimum focusing distance of 1 metre does preclude its use for head and shoulders portraits unless you use something like the Fotodiox DLX Stretch or the Voigtlander VM/E Close Focus Adapter which gives 4mm of extension and allows focusing as close as 0.65m. For half-length portraits the lens renders the background out of focus beautifully when shot slightly stopped down at f2.8 with lovely tonal transitions. This makes it a great lens for street photography and events. The fly in the ointment is that the total depth of field for 1.5m distance using an aperture of f2.8 is just 0.07m or 7 cm or 2.77 inches and the focus peaking on my A7r is not sensitive enough to make accurate focusing possible 100% of the time so I have to use the focus magnifier to punch in and fine adjust.
Now according to the pixel peepers on the forums at DPReview it is impossible to shoot moving subjects with anything less that a Nikon D5 or a Canon 1DX Mkii. In fact I get a an attack of hysterical laughter every time some one makes a post about wanting to take pictures of their young children and they are pushed towards those cameras with fast eye wateringly expensive fast primes. I digress. It is possible to shoot moving subjects with manual focus lenses and the A7r. At a recent Medieval Fayre I was able to shoot some action sequences of mounted archers and re-enactments of combat using a mixture and sometimes a combination of pre-focusing and follow focus. Stopping down to f5.6 and f8 gave a little leeway with focusing and smooth focusing action definitely helped. The whole experience of going out with a camera, two small lenses (the other was Voigtländer 15mm f4.5 Super Wide-Heliar), a couple of batteries, and an extra memory card was extremely liberating and made the whole experience fun.
The Voigtländer 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar is not a sexy fast aperture lens and this is why it was replaced by the 75mm f1.8 Heliar Classic. Consequently it is ignored by many people which is a great shame as it is a very well made and well performing short telephoto lens. If you like candid portraiture then it is a no-brainer.
The other morning I took the dog for her usual perambulation along the river, as we were walking along deep in thought (well I was I can’t vouch for the dog) our tranquility was disrupted by the sound of thundering hooves and the odd sound of something being hit at high velocity. Getting closer I was met with a sight redolent of the medieval Eastern European steppes – not what you expect to see in Western Australia in Twenty First Century. But little did I realise that actually mounted archery or more specifically horse archery is quite a popular pastime. It is a new sport in WA, only 5 years old but is quickly attracting enthusiastic participants some of whom are jetting off to South Korea to represent Australia at the World Horseback Archery Championships. What I was seeing was a demonstration that was part of the 2017 York Medieval Fayre. If you are interested you can contact the fine people at the Western Australian Horse Archery Association via their Facebook page and they have regular events at the State Equestrian Centre in Brigadoon.
The above video is a shortened version of this entry.
Cosina are a Japanese lens manufacturer who produce lenses under their own and under companies names. In 1999 they leased the licensing of the Voigtländer name and started making camera bodies and lenses. Sadly they have stopped making cameras but are still making lenses in the following mounts:
VM – or Leica M
Sony E Mount or Nex
There is no need to worry about Cosina’s ability to manufacturer lenses as Carl Zeiss has them make many of their lenses.
This article is about the 35/2.5 P type II VM mount MC version. Which is a way of saying that there have been several versions of this lens with different mounts and lens coatings and this model was introduced in February 2004, I purchased it new that year, and it is still in production. Physically the lens is similar in styling to the Leica pe-aspheric 35mm f2 Sumicron right down to the inclusion of the finger tab on the focusing ring. The vented lens hood is an optional but essential extra, so if purchasing new budget for it, if buying second-hand look for a copy with it included. Readers not familiar with range finders may scoff at the design of the lens hood but the design was necessary so that the hood would not obstruct the view through the viewfinder. Not necessary when adapting the lens to the Sony A7 cameras but it does make the lens look cooler. Yes my copy has a dented lens hood, the lens has been very well used over the years. It also shows that a lens hood provides more protection against damage than a filter ever could.
Lens Vital Statistics
The construction is all metal and for such a tiny lens it has a reasonable heft and feels very dense. So as you can see this is truly a “pancake” lens and makes a very nice all day walk around pairing with a Sony A7. Street and landscape photographers rejoice! The lens also has marked on its barrel along with the focusing scale depth of field markings, this makes zone focusing and setting the hyperfocal distance a breeze. Set at an aperture of f22 everything from 1 metre to infinity will be in focus. The focusing ring has a smooth throw of around 90º coupled with the afore-mentioned finger tab and focusing while the camera is at eye level is just so easy. The aperture ring while admittedly very thin has two tabs on it opposite each other that help you find the ring by touch and adjust without taking your eye from the viewfinder. So while it would be easy to dismiss the lens because of its retro styling these little inclusions show that this is a lens that is meant to be used. To use it on anything other than an M mount camera you will need an adapter.
Mounted to my Sony A7r how does it perform? Unsurprisingly for a pancake lens vignetting is quite apparent wide open at f2.5 along with a magenta colour cast along the edges and in the corners of the frame. The vignetting is a result of the optical design, the magenta cast the result of putting a true 35mm lens in front of a digital sensor designed to use retro-focused lens designs. The lens was designed for film so it didn’t matter that the rear element was so close to the film plane as the silver halide crystals in the emulsion didn’t care whether the light rays were hitting them perpendicularly or not. Digital sensors do require the light rays to hit perpendicular to the sensor plane, if they don’t you get light fall off, smearing and colour fringing. The Sony A7 cameras because they are mirrorless designs have micro lenses on the sensor that help pick up the light rays at acute angles, but the camera needs to know what the lens is before any correction can be applied. This lens has no electronic communication with the camera so the cast remains. The performance of the lens improves considerably as the lens is stopped down, so the vignetting is all but gone by f8 but the magenta fringing continues throughout the aperture range. Happily the colour cast can be removed in post. If you use Adobe Lightroom there are correction profiles for the Voigtländer lenses – the video accompanying this article shows how they work. If you use other processing software have a look at Cornerfix which is a little app that allows you to build lens profiles.
When it comes to distortion – there is some barrel distortion, but that is easily fixed in post as is the small amount of chromatic aberration. Sharpness at f2.5 in the centre of the images is very good with nice edge contrast befitting a modern multi-coated lens. The edges are considerably softer with less contrast. The wide angled rangefinder lens in front of a digital sensor problem comes into play here. A lot of people will complain that there is smearing of detail, and that is true it does happen (Spoiler Alert!) and wait until you see my review of the CV 15mm f4.5 as that has it in spades, but with this moderate wide-angle and it’s fairly sedate maximum aperture of f2.5 the light rays are not being forced to hit the sensor at extreme angles so there is no visible evidence of detail smearing in the corners of an image. Like most lenses used on a 35mm sensor diffraction sets in at f16, it’s not disastrous. Diffraction is not like falling off of a cliff – at f11 everything is sharp then at f16 everything is out of focus. No there is a slight loss of edge definition which is a little more noticeable at f22. Flare is well controlled, but I would still recommend the lens hood and the 10 aperture blades produce nice sun stars.
Well lets look at pricing first. B&H Photo sell this puppy new for just over $400 USD sans lens hood at the time of writing. There are dealers on eBay that sell them for $350 USD and second-hand copies can be found starting at just over the $200 USD mark. This is not a sexy fast aperture lens and the price reflects that. There are only 7 lens elements with no fancy shapes. What you are getting is very compact moderately wide angled lens with a modest maximum aperture of f2.5. It is well designed and for stills photography is a delight to use. For video it is possible to use it, but the focus throw is a little on the short side, the small size makes operating the lens a little harder while filming and the small filter size makes the use of variable neutral density filters a little cumbersome. It is not a lens that lens snobs would consider, but it is a very fine workman like tool that I won’t ever sell because it is well made, functions well and is optically very consistent. If you like manual lenses and see one at a good price buy one. Like the many people who left reviews on the B&H web page you won’t be disappointed.
The Sony NEX mount was made for sad old gits like me. “Hold on Paul…” I can hear you say “do you mean that Sony engineered a whole camera line specifically for you?”. No! There was a happy accident that had some unforeseen benefits. I’ll explain. This is going to be a bit beardy and nerdy.
Just over 100 years ago, or to be precise in 1909, the film (or movie depending upon where you are from) industry standardised on a film format of 1.37 inches in width with four perforations per frame. The decision was economic, it meant that cinemas didn’t have to have different sized film projectors. In 1913 the first commercial 35m film camera was produced – the Tourist Multiple. made by Herbert & Huesgen of New York. Unfortunately this achievement is largely forgotten because the story of Oskar Barnack inventing 35mm film for stills and the Leica camera has become the accepted history, but that is FAKE NEWS as a certain orange haired buffoon is apt to say. Not long after these small format cameras as they were then known took two distinct evolutionary paths the rangefinder (which was the first) as pioneered by Leica and the Single Lens Reflex as pioneered by K. Nüchterlein’s when the Kine Exakta launched in 1936.
Rangefinder cameras initially were very popular. The technology was available and relatively simple and the cameras and lenses were very compact. The photographer looks through a window on the camera and sees an image with a fainter duplicate from a rotating prism over laid. The photographer adjusts the rangefinder until the two images match up exactly, then the image is in focus. This system was called the split image rangefinder and had been developed to sight artillery pieces and was well understood at the time. The disadvantage is of course that the photographer is not seeing what the lens sees, only an approximation which can lead to inaccurate framing due to parallax errors. Interchangeable lenses were facilitated by having a screw mount and Leica adopted as their standard the L39 or LTM (Leica Thread Mount) which is 39mm in diameter with a Whitworth thread of 0.977 pitch and a flange distance of 28.8mm. Other manufacturers made variations on a theme i.e. the Canon M39 (aka J Mount) and the FED 39 which all share the same diameter but the thread pitch and flange distances are different. By the 1950’s photographers were looking for a faster way of changing lenses and so short throw bayonet mounts were developed. In 1954 Leica introduced the M mount and this is characterised by it having an external diameter of 44mm, a bayonet consisting of four claws and a flange distance of 27.8mm.
With the advent of digital imaging camera designers were suddenly allowed to consider alternative designs where there were no moving parts. It was hoped that eliminating the mirror and using an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) and taking a direct readout off of the sensor would allow cheaper and easier manufacture. The autofocus system would be more accurate because the readings could be taken directly off of the sensor and the use of electronics allowed more accuracy than mechanical linkages. With no flappy mirror to interfere with things the flange distance could be reduced along with it’s radius. So the Sony NEX mount has a flange distance of 18mm and a diameter 41.6mm which means that just about any lens can be mounted to a NEX body via an adapter and as long as it has an imaging circle big enough so that an image can be projected on the sensor. The NEX mount covers both so-called full frame format (35 x 24mm) and the APSC format (24 x 16mm). This is the happy accident because I’m sure that when Sony adopted this standard they didn’t realise that it would allow legions of photographers all over the world to mount legacy lenses (lenses made for cameras that are no longer produced) to be mounted to the new Sony mirrorless cameras. Now I am the first to admit dear reader that as a photographer I have been promiscuous. I have not stayed faithful to one brand or lens mount which means that I have a fair few lenses sitting in a shoe box that I no longer have camera bodies for. Now I’ve already talked about mounting my old Olympus OM Zuiko lenses on my Sony A7r here. This and a few subsequent posts are going to be about using L39 and M mount lenses.
“So who in their right mind would want to do this?” Well you’re probably right to want to do this would be a sign of mental infirmity to some, but for many people (myself included) auto everything cameras are a bit boring and modern lenses while being technically very good can be a bit characterless. While Leica lenses are wallet puckeringly expensive there are plenty of more affordable alternatives made by Minolta (now absorbed by Sony), Konica (initially taken over by Minolta and then swallowed up by Sony), Ricoh, Voigtländer, Rollei (both of these as part of Cosina’s licensing of their names) Zeiss and those produced in Russia such as Zorki and Fed. These lenses are beautifully made with metal barrels and mounts, buttery smooth focusing, and exquisite clicking aperture rings. I’ve got a Canon L macro lens, and while it produces wonderful images the plastic body is somewhat underwhelming considering the price Canon charge for it and it’s not something I’d pick up for the tactile experience and as for the whole joy of ownership – well let’s not talk about it. These older lenses just feel so satisfying in the hand that makes you want to do some serious lens fondling. They just engender a joy of ownership that plastic can’t. I told you there are mental health issues with this.
Another reason why rangefinder lenses are attractive is that there are fewer optical design compromises. SLRs have a big flippy flappy mirror between the lens and the film/sensor. This meant making wide-angle lenses next to impossible because the rear lens element would foul the mirror. In 1950 Pierre Angénieux invented the retrofocus lens which is a kind of “reverse” telephoto design where the lens elements closest to the film plane have a negative effect making the image smaller. The downsides are more glass elements means more air to glass surfaces which means more refraction which means more potential chromatic aberration and distortion. More glass means more weight. Here’s an interesting fact – a cubic centimetre of glass is heavier than a cubic centimetre of concrete. Range finders are mirrorless cameras so there isn’t a restrictive mirror flapping about, this has the net effect that your 28mm lens can be a true 28mm lens without a whole bunch of extra glass causing problems. It also means that rangefinder lenses are much smaller than their SLR counterparts.
However, it is not all unicorns at the bottom of the garden. Rangefinder lenses were designed for use with film and the silver halide crystals in the film emulsion did not care at what angle lights hits them to provide the necessary reaction to form the latent image. But with a digital sensor it is a whole different ball game because the sensor is no longer just a gelatine substrate coated with an emulsion containing silver halide crystals it is a complex sandwich of filters, lenses and electronic componentry as the schematic from whatdigitalcamera shows. For best performance the light needs to enter micro lenses at 90º, when the incidence of the light is severely off perpendicular then not all of it reaches the pixel at the bottom of its well this can cause vignetting, smearing with loss of detail, and severe colour fringing. This is what stopped Leica initially developing a digital range finder. Kodak developed a special sensor with offset micro lenses for Leica M8 to help overcome this along with in camera software correction the digital M became a reality.
Why not buy a digital M and be done with it? There is no way I could afford a digital Leica as I’m not a “Trustafarian”, and also and perhaps more importantly, my lenses are not made by Leica they are the much cheaper Voigtländers so I’m not going to drop nearly $10K AUD just to use them again. But as I had a Sony A7r for experimenting with my collection of Olympus OM Zuiko lenses I thought I’d just buy a M to N adapter. Because the Sony NEX mount is a much shorter flange distance than a conventional DSLR its sensor does have micro lenses to cope with the native wide angles. However, the fly in the ointment is that just having them alone does not fix the problems with M mount lenses because there is no in camera correction via firmware. So straight away the situation is more complex than using old SLR lenses. The answer is obviously to fix the problems in post. Users of Lightroom can rejoice as there are profiles for Voigtländers lenses in the developing module. They are easy to use but given that they are somewhat generic they sometimes don’t fix the problem entirely requiring a little extra fiddling about. If you are really keen then you can build your own profiles using Cornerfix.
Well now we’ve got that out of the way lets talk about adapters. At their most basic an adapter is just a tube with a male bayonet mount at one end and a female at the other. For the sake of brevity I’ll limit this to just dumb adapters i.e. you’re not trying to get auto focus and stabilisation to work. There are a huge range of prices for essentially the same thing. I’ve paid as little as $15 including postage from China to as much as $200. So what do you get for your money? Not a lot. I got a Voigtländers VM II Adapter – Leica M Lenses to Sony E Mount for $200 AUD from an Australian seller. It looked nicely made but it had a serious flaw, there was no spring in the lens release button which means that your lens could fall off as it wasn’t secured. I don’t know if that is typical but I had no luck with trying to exchange it with the seller so I was kind off put off spending a lot of money. The next adapter I bought was from a Chinese seller on eBay and it cost a grand total of $15 AUD and it worked fine. A little agrarian in the looks department but it did the job nicely. Then I noticed that Voigtländer made a close focus adapter which took my fancy. Generally rangefinder lenses only focus down to 1 metre and I like to use wide angles closer than that for dramatic effect and it also meant that my 75mm was suitable for tight portraits. So my interest was definitely piqued, but my wallet was a little bit shy about coughing up $389 AUD after my experience with the other one. Then I discovered the Fotodiox DLX Stretch for $170 AUD from B&H Photo and for half the price of the Voigtländer coupled with B&H’s excellent customer service I was in like Flynn.
When the DLX Stretch arrived in its plain brown wrapper I quickly reassured the significant other that it wasn’t anything X rated (“No luv I said photographic accessory not pornographic accessory!”) and got down to playing with it. Basically what it is is an adapter with its own built in variable extension ring. The extension is achieved via a helicoid with a long throw. The amount of extension is not great about 2-3mm but that is enough to reduce the minimum focusing on my Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color Skopar from 70cm to 30cm. As my Voigtländer 15mm f4.5 Super-Wide Heliar and Voigtländer 75mm f2.5 Color Heliar are both L39 screw fitting I promptly ordered two L39 to Leica M adapters so I could use them with the Fotodiox DLX Stretch and the results were just as impressive. For the 75mm the minimum focus is 100cm and is then reduced to 65cm, and for the 15mm the minimum focus was reduced from 30cm to 12cm.
In terms of construction the DLX Stretch is reassuringly weighty (unlike the cheap Chinese adapters which feel so light that they may be made from a lacquered toilet roll tube). Both the male and female mounts are chrome plated brass. The aluminium body is anodised a natty orange colour that matches the orange lens mount trim on Sony A7 series cameras. The ring that moves the helicoid is knurled and has a prominent finger tab and has a nice smooth action although saying that it is difficult to use while videoing without creating camera shake. There is no wiggle or play with the extension and the unit attaches to cameras and lens snuggly with evidence of any play or light leaks. To further install confidence in the product Fotodiox warranty the adapter for 24 months.
Overall I can see some photographers scoffing at the concept saying they have no need. Myself I like it very much and am using it a lot especially with the Voigtländer 15mm f4.5 Super-Wide Heliar.
I like wide-angle lenses, I use them a lot, but funnily enough mostly in the 24-35mm range (35mm full frame sensor speak that is). Occasionally I’d pull oy a 20mm, but as I said only very occasionally. The above shot was taken with a 24mm lens, it’s OK but a little cramped. I couldn’t back up any more as I was against the fence so I threw caution to the wind and chucked a 15mm lens on the front of the camera – and we’re talking full frame sensor here.
It’s amazing how much difference 9mm can make. Same viewpoint but this time with the camera in the landscape orientation. It sets the building in its context and thus makes it more appealing. I also like how the whole building is acting as a giant reflector for the setting sun. This will be the picture that is used for the end product, however, the one I like the most takes advantage of the enormous depth of field that such a short focal length provides.
* Today’s title comes from a couple of lines from the lyrics of “Is It A Crime” by Sade the über cool and totally smooth chanteuse of the 1980’s.