Voightlander 15mm Heliar

I love the Voightlander 15mm Heliar. It’s way cool to have such a tiny lens that opens up a lot of possibilities, a different way of looking at the world. While not a great choice for everyday shooting, it is most excellent when you need to go wide. The lens is a superb performer within its specialized world, but there is a price to pay for those unique qualities.

The Voightlander 15mm Heliar is all about compromises. When it comes to designing lenses, engineers have to prioritize. In order to have exceptional performance in one aspect of a design, another area will have to be less than optimum.

Some background

This lens is manufactured in Japan at the Cosina factory which also makes many of the classic Zeiss lenses. These guys know how to design and manufacture a high quality product. With the Voightlander 15mm Heliar, the designers are pushing the envelope, making a lens that is both wide angle, and super small.

So who would love a such a bizarre lens? Let’s start with the design objectives. There is a singular goal here, to put the best possible super wide optics into the smallest possible package. The lens was created to work with the $6000+ full frame Leica cameras. This is a well-healed and discerning audience, not likely to favorably view optics that are less than stellar. The lens has been around since 1999 and this second generation version has the same optical formula, but the mount has been changed to the current Leica ‘M’ mount. The original version had a screw mount. This version also has a 52mm filter thread, a slightly larger built-in hood and a tab on the focus ring. It’s been favorably reviewed many times on full frame Leica cameras. All well and good, but my plan is to use it on my Sony Nex-6, APS-C sensor, mirrorless camera. That’s a whole different story.

Ergonomics

The lens is tiny and light, yet feels rock solid. The aperture and focus rings are smooth and solid. Everything feels like well oiled precision machinery. The tab on the focus ring is in exactly the right place. It allows you to move focus accurately, with near perfect feedback. I use the viewfinder with focus peaking on, so the combination of visual and mechanical feedback makes getting correct focus intuitive.

The aperture ring is marked in half stops so it’s easy to know where you are. The detents are solid, but the ring can be moved with a single finger.

The built-in lens hood makes it a little more difficult to insert and remove the lens cap, but not enough to be a problem.

Overall the build quality and the way it handles and operates is first class.

The Specifications

Focal Length

15mm (full frame) – 22.5mm (APS-C)

Field of view

100° (full frame) – approx 91° (APS-C)

Max Aperture

4.5 (full frame) – 6.3 (APS-C)

Minimum focus

1.6′ (50cm)

Length

1.5” (38mm)

Diameter

2.3” (59mm)

Weight

.34 lb (156 grams)

Filter thread

52mm

Diaphragm

10 blades

Price

$599 as of May 2014

Using to Voightlander 15mm on Sony Mirrorless.

When using this lens on an APS-C camera, there are a few specifics you need to be aware of. Go to the menu and make sure the camera is set to release without lens. Since there is no electronic connection, the camera assumes there is no lens.

There are a few options for TTL metering. In all cases set the ISO manually.

Aperture Priority – The camera meters itself, and will be accurate 95% of the time.

Shutter Priority – Use the histogram along with the top control wheel to meter.

Manual mode – Use the histogram and the rear control wheel to adjust the metering.

Manual mode is slower to operate, but has the advantage of allowing very fine adjustments. You can shift the histogram a little left or right to give you a bit more headroom for shadows or highlights depending on how you might process the image. For example, if you have composed an image with a lot of bright sky, you might want to shift left a bit, remembering that in-camera metering assumes the image averages to 18% gray.

I advise setting the metering area to full frame rather than center or spot. With such a wide lens you will find that the sky can over expose 2 stops or more, and shadows under expose a similar amount when there is a wide exposure range. Most likely you will see this at golden hour or shooting from a shaded area into a bright sunlit area. Full frame metering will give you a raw file that’s easier to work with.

The first series of tests were shot with the in-camera vignette and chromatic aberration corrections turned off. We’re trying to find out how the lens performs, in-camera corrections don’t advance that goal. I will do some additional tests to see what effect there is.

One of the tradeoffs with this lens is size vs fast aperture. Voightlander keeps the price, size and weight down, at the expense of aperture. Since f/4.5 is as wide as you can go, shooting in extreme low light situations is problematic. The option is to increase ISO, and depending on what the camera sensor’s limitations are, that can be a small or large problem. My test interior scenes were shot at f/5.6 were completely satisfactory for my purposes. Newer cameras than the Nex-6 have better low light capability and noise suppression, so these are worst case situations for many users. Something to be aware of.

Images

My test images are all shot in raw, with minimal post processing. There are reasons for doing it this way as opposed the ‘normal’ way of showing out-of-the-camera jpegs. The reasons and logic can be found here. Why use raw files for lens tests.

There were no distortion corrections done during processing.  Some images had vignette corrections, but no corner fix or flat field corrections, just the sliders in Camera Raw.  Most of the processing was just adjusting contrast curves, luminosity and saturation in Camera Raw. There was no sharpening.

Conclusion

I found the Voightlander 15mm Heliar to be a joy to use. One of the advantages of using a full frame lens on a crop sensor camera is that that you stay closer to that central zone of sharpness, and that the corner distortions that come with any wide angle lens are minimized. In my view, this lens would rank above average at twice the price. At $600 you just can’t go wrong.

There are considerations to think about. It’s fully manual. You have to make all the decisions. It requires more time to set up the shot, get the focus just where you want it, and get the metering precisely correct. You could set it at f/5.6, aperture preferred and focus at infinity and use it as a point and shoot. Most likely 90% of your shots would be just fine. But when you want something really special, this lens is a great choice.

However, if you are the kind of photographer who loves multi-axis image stabilization, hundreds of auto-focus points and program mode, this is not the right choice for you. The Voightlander 15 is seriously old school.

Quote of the Day
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere..”
Albert Einstein