Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Aspherical Super-Wide Heliar
Living on a Leica M8
There is a venerable name in the history of photography – Voigtlander. That Austrian camera and lens maker is long gone, but the name has been resurrected by Cosina, one of the largest Japanese OEM camera and lens manufacturers. Over the past six or so years a wide variety of lenses for the Leica screw mount and M mount have appeared out of the Cosina factory under the Voigtlander name, and based on my own tests, as well as those of other knowledgeable reviewers, they are typically of a very high caliber, both in terms of build quality as well as optical performance.
In late 2001 I bought the Voigtländer 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical Ultra-Wide Heliar for use with my Leica M6 and M7, and Bessa T camera. My review from that time is found here. It wasn't that long afterward that I moved completely to digital, and sold all my Leica gear, including the 12mm Heliar. (Remember – Leica had made the public statement that they couldn't make a digital M Leica). As far as I was concerned, no digital, no Leica. I'd almost completely stopped shooting film.
Prior to the new generation of Voigtlander lenses the only lens this wide for an M Leica was the 15mm f/8 Zeiss Hologon from 1972. It was sold by Leica, but only a few hundred of these very expensive and slow lenses were ever made. According to Erwin Puts image quality was never that great, and there was significant corner fall-off.
By the way, if you're interested in a bit of background story on Cosina, this article by the also venerable Herbert Keppler is worth a read.
Make Mine Wide
Leica M8 with Heliar 15mm @ ISO 320
Now, with the Leica M8, the search for wide angle lenses resumes with a vengeance. Because the M8 has a 1.33X factor, to get wide angle coverage one needs to use really wide angle lenses. This is where Voigtlander comes in. Their 12mm lens becomes 16mm, and the 15mm becomes 21mm on the M8. For everyday shooting a 16mm equivalent is much wider than I normally use. But 21mm is a very handy focal length for up-close-and-personal documentary photography, and so the 15mm Heliar seems to be an attractive choice for the new M8.
There is an alternative – the new 15mm f/2.8 Distagon ZM from Zeiss, in Leica M mount. But at about US $4,000 it's a bit on the pricey side for a lens that may not be used on an every-day basis. Since the 15mm Heliar is $345 from Cameraquest with accessory viewfinder (though not the right one on an M8), and the Zeiss viewfinder alone costs $491, which would you purchase for occasional use? Right!
But, if a lens of this focal length is one that you use extensively, and you can afford its size and price, the new Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 may be your cup of tea. A review of the Leica wide angle Tri-Elmar is no also available here.
The 15mm Heliar comes in Leica screw mount, not M series bayonet, so a screw to M adaptor is required. This adds about $55 to the price of the lens. No need to be concerned about which rangefinder focal length coupling is needed, since the 15mm Heliar isn't rangefinder coupled. But since depth of field is so great with a lens of this short focal length, this may not be of great concern. (See my comments on zone focusing below).
Be aware as well that if you are going to be using the 15mm Heliar on a Leica M8 you will need to order the Voigtlander 21mm accessory viewfinder, even though the lens comes with a 15mm viewfinder. This will add about $140 to the overall price.
Vignetting and Evenness of Illumination
Anyone used to WA lenses on DSLRs will wonder about vignetting. The answer is that on the Leica M8 with its 1.33X cropping factor vignetting is relatively low. It measures at about 2 stop when the lens is at f/4.5 and quickly reduces at f/5.6 and smaller. I would regard a graduated circular filter as an unnecessary expense with this lens when its used on an M8, and with the dozens of shots taken during my testing and initial use I only occasionally needed to do any corner lightening in Lightroom or Photoshop.
Leica M8 with Heliar 15mm @ ISO 2500
Overall Build and Image Quality
The 15mm Heliar is so small and inexpensive that even if its image quality was only so-so it would likely be a worthwhile purchase. Quality of materials and construction is very fine. Anyone used to today's typical plastic zooms should have a look at a lens like this just to see the materials and precision engineering that used to be found. Unfortunately autofocus demands very light composite materials, but if brass and precision cut mounts turn your crank, Voigtlander lenses have them to offer at very attractive prices. Remarkably so.
All of this nostalgia would be for naught if the image quality from the Heliar 15mm wasn't there. But fortunately it is. The 15mm Heliar offers very good contrast and resolution, especially when closed down one to two stops. With a maximum aperture of f/4.5 it's a bit slow for some shooting situations, though fine for outdoor use. But to really get the lens to its optimum aperture one has to stop down to f/8.
I saw little flare in real-world use, and when I did (inevitable with a lens this wide) it was always well controlled. There is a built-in petal-shaped lens shade, which offers a bit of physical protection as well as some shading.
There's no Leica lens to compare it to at this focal length other than the forthcoming wide angle Tri-Elmar which has a 16mm setting. I'll do such a comparison when that lens becomes available, and as noted above, with the Zeiss 15mm Distagon as well.
Given its extremely small size, low price, and decent image quality, the 15mm f/4 Heliar should be in every Leica rangefinder user's bag. It is especially welcome for M8 users who need something wider than Leica itself has to offer, especially consider its attractive price.
In this age of ubiquitous autofocus the concept of manual focusing is alien to many, and the idea of not focusing at all even stranger. But with a 15mm lens there is so much depth of field that for many types of photography manual prefocusing is all that's required. For example, the depth of field scale on the lens shows DOF at f/8 to be from 2 feet to infinity.
Be aware though that this DOF is calculated for a circle of confusion appropriate for shooting film. For digital I prefer to use at least 1 stop more, so will typically set the focus scale for 1 or even 2 stops greater DOF for critical applications. This still means that even at a moderate aperture of f/5.6 DOF runs from about 5 feet to infinity when set to the hyperfocal distance.
Leica M8 with Heliar 15mm @ ISO 320
Having said that, I need to add that I wish this lens was rangefinder focus coupled. Zone focusing is fine, but there are situations where more accurate focusing is desired, especially since this lens is so slow, and thus one will be working wide open much of the time.
I don't know if the reason for not having focus coupling is a matter of cost, or a technical limitation, but it does in some ways make the lens less attractive than it might otherwise be.
What’s to say about this lens other than “I love it”? It is tiny and yet very sharp, even wide-open. The photograph below of the tentacled heating ducts in the attic of the Toronto’s historical court house was taken hand-held (firmly braced) at 1/6th of a second, at f5.6. Who needs a tripod? This shot shows that this lens (as well as the M8) has tremendous 'guts' and records significant detail in deep shadow, undaunted by blazing lateral highlights.
That said, I second Michael’s disappointment that the CV15 is not focus-coupled. I would gladly spend another $100-$150 for this feature. One commercially viable tack sharp image would more than pay for this feature.
The external finder (the CV 21mm) was very accurate and a pleasure to work with. There is simply no reason not to own this lens.
Leica M8 with Heliar 15mm @ ISO 320
Nick Devlin is a barrister and photographer in Toronto, Canada. He works as a Federal Prosecutor, specializing in major drug and extradition cases. With almost twenty years behind the lens, Nick worked extensively as a photojournalist and pro sports photographer before turning to the law. Presently, his main visual interests are urban landscape, portraiture and travel photography. He has been a passionate M Leica user for many years. Beginning with this review Nick will, from time to time, be providing insights and commentary as part of this site's product reviews.
Voigtlander lenses are typically not something that one finds at a local camera store. They're a specialty item. You can readily find them online though. One of the largest US dealers is CameraQuest, who carries the entire Voigtlander line. Harry's Pro Shop as well as B&H and Robert White are also reputable and reliable sources.