Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical II 15mm f/4.5 Lens
Although not a perfect match for the digital sensor on the Sony α7 II camera used for this review, the Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical III 15mm f/4.5 was able to produce some interesting images.
The combination of the small, pan-focal lens and compact full-frame camera body was great for street photography. It was possible to shoot subjects close-up without them being aware of the camera, using just the monitor screen to compose shots.
The wide depth of field at smaller aperture settings allows photographers to set the aperture and focus rings and simply aim and shoot. The most practical aperture settings are between f/5.6 and f/11, after which diffraction starts to reduce image sharpness. The virtual lack of rectilinear distortion also makes this lens suitable for some types of architectural photography.
The Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical III 15mm f/4.5 is the third generation update to a lens that has been popular with Leica M mount shooters since Cosina licensed the Voigtlander brand name in 1999. Made in Japan, the new lens has the same optical design as its predecessors but includes the rangefinder coupling, 52mm filter thread and modern Leica M mount (instead of the original screw mount) introduced in the 2009 re-design.
Side view of the new Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical III 15mm f/4.5 lens. (Source: Cosina Voigtlander.)
The original Super Wide-Heliar 15mm lens was designed for film cameras and comprised eight elements in six groups, with one aspherical element. The new lens design lens has 11 elements in nine groups, with one aspherical lens element. By tradition, all optical surfaces are multi-coated. The shallow, petal-shaped lens hood is permanently attached and the lens is supplied with a pinch-type front cap and bayonet end cap.
Front view of the Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar Aspherical III 15mm f/4.5 lens. (Source: Cosina Voigtlander.)
The latest model includes few modifications to make it compatible with digital cameras and its rear nodal point remains close to the sensor plane. This causes light rays passing through the lens from the periphery to arrive at a very sharp angle, which can result in vignetting, colour shifts and potential for blurring.
Some of these flaws can be corrected, either with in-camera adjustments or in editing software. But others can’t, so anyone considering this lens should be aware of the need for both pre-shooting and post-capture adjustments.
We received the review lens when we were also reviewing the Sony Alpha 7 Mark II, which can use this lens with the Voigtlander VM/E Close Focus Adapter, which was also supplied by local distributor, Mainline Photographics, for this review. This adapter enables the lens to be used on other Sony α7 cameras, which suit the relatively small size and light weight (247 grams) of the lens.
Who’s it For?
The mount for this lens only fits the Leica M cameras. Using it on other mounts requires an optional adaptor. The VM/E adaptor for the Sony α7 cameras, which we used for this review, will set you back an additional AU$369.
As well as the limitations listed above, potential purchasers of this lens should be aware it won’t suit photographers who use cropped sensor cameras. You lose the wide coverage when it’s fitted to cameras with smaller sensors due to the cropping factor.
It also requires full manual control ““ for both focus and exposure. Sony cameras must be set to enable ‘Release without Lens’ (page 4 of the Settings menu) when this lens is fitted. Don’t expect EXIF data from the lens to be recorded in image files; without electronic contacts, the data can’t reach the image processor.
However, once you get everything working properly (see below), this lens is great for street photography because of its extended depth of field, even at relatively wide apertures. Precise focusing can be difficult because the maximum aperture is relatively small so you may need to brighten up the EVF in order to see the image clearly enough.
In-camera focusing aids like magnification and peaking work normally with this lens. However, the peaking display can’t be relied upon, because the very wide depth of field makes almost everything appear sharp. Most of the scene will be coloured by the peaking display whatever the aperture setting. The lens will focus down to 50 cm with the VM/E adapter.
Focusing is impossible if the adapter and lens aren’t set up correctly. The first step is to check that the infinity lock lever (a small, magenta coloured tab on the rotating section of the adapter nearest the camera) is locked into the slot on the metal ring behind it. (This isn’t clearly explained in the instructions provided with the VM/E.)
This close-up shows the infinity lock lever on the adapter aligned with the slot on the fixed metal ring.
The infinity lock lever locked into position.
Once this has been done, the lens can be attached to the adapter by aligning their reference dots and turning the lens clockwise until it locks into place. The adaptor attaches to the camera body by aligning the red dot on the metal ring nearest the camera with the white index dot on the camera’s mounting plate and rotating the adaptor clockwise.
To remove the lens from the adaptor, you simply press down (towards the camera) the raised lever at the front of the adaptor. This releases the lens.
Build and Ergonomics
The overall quality of the Super Wide-Heliar 15mm lens is excellent. Solidly built from metal and robust polycarbonate plastic, its metal mounting plate is substantial and locks tightly to the adapter’s mounting.
No electronic contents are provided for exchanging data between the lens and adapter and adapter and camera. So all controls are fully mechanical and operated manually.
Immediately behind the lens hood is the aperture ring, which has click-stops indicating aperture settings in full-stop intervals between f/4.5 and f/16. Half-stop clicks are provided for apertures between f/5.6 and f/16 but they are not marked on the lens.
Behind the aperture ring is the focusing ring, which is about 20 mm wide with a grip band consisting of shallow, curved indentations alternating with 8 mm wide areas of fine ribbing. This ring turns smoothly through roughly 60 degrees.
The trailing edge of the focusing ring is marked with distances in metres and feet, ranging from 0.5 metres to infinity. The focusing distance can be lined up against marks on the depth of field ring immediately behind it to gauge the depth of field with different aperture settings.
We found manual (M) was best shooting mode to select on the α7 II camera as it makes it easiest to adjust aperture and shutter speed settings. ISO can be set to Auto and you can set the usable sensitivity range via the camera’s menu.
In practice, you can obtain acceptably sharp images in most situations and use the camera plus lens for point-and-shoot photography if you set the aperture anywhere between f/5.6 and f/11 and the focus to between 1.5 and two metres. Alternatively, just align the infinity mark with the 4.5 indicator on the right hand side of the depth of field scale.
The camera’s manual focusing aids (peaking and magnification) can be used with the Super Wide-Heliar 15mm lens, although the peaking display can’t be relied upon due to the wide depth of focus of the lens. Magnifying the image is the most reliable way to check focusing and/or fine-tune image focus. But the essential characteristics of the image (see the Performance comments, below) can make it difficult to tell when the most precise focus is achieved.
With cameras that use TTL metering you can normally see the effects of adjustments to the lens aperture on the monitor screen or in the EVF, although checking exposures post-capture is advisable in poorly-lit situations. Shutter speeds can be adjusted by turning the relevant control dial on the camera.
Fortunately, shutter speeds are displayed on the camera’s monitor and EVF screens, although aperture settings are not (no electronic contacts to transfer the information).
Subjective assessment of images captured with the Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar 15mm lens on the Sony α7 II camera showed them to appear somewhat flatter and not quite as sharp as images from the 16-35mm lens we used for our original camera tests. This is probably a result of how the light reaches the sensor (see above) and how it is handled (or not) by the image processor. The phenomenon has good and bad aspects.
Flatter images are more likely to record the widest possible tonal gamut, whereas very contrasty images often compress highlight and/or shadow detail and either or both can be lost. Flatter images also provide more scope for post-capture processing and it is easy to boost contrast and saturation to whatever extend the photographer desires.
But, the flatter the image, the less easy it is to discern edges precisely. This can make manual focusing difficult since if you can’t resolve edges, you can’t see whether the lens is precisely focused.
This lack of clarity may have influenced our test results, despite the fact that we conducted four sets of tests, re-focusing after each. The results presented here are an average the figures obtained in the best two test runs.
Throughout our tests the lens failed to reach the resolutions expected from the α7 II’s sensor, although the highest resolutions came acceptably close. Edge and corner softening at wide apertures was both observed and confirmed by our Imatest tests in test shots taken without in-camera correction, as shown in the graph of the results, below.
Lateral chromatic aberration figures were mostly within the low range, edging into the moderate range at the widest aperture. Some purple fringing was found in test shots, particularly in outdoor subjects where contrast was high. In the graph below, the red line separates negligible from low CA, while the green line marks the lower boundary of moderate CA.
Vignetting was noticeable in raw files taken with the widest aperture settings, although it was less visible in JPEG shots taken with the camera’s built-in corrections engaged. Interestingly, we found few instances of the colour shifts reported in reviews of previous versions of the lens.
Rectilinear distortion was remarkably low for a lens of this type. We found no obvious distortion in shots taken with the camera back parallel to the subject. However, even a tiny tilt caused vertical lines to begin converging. (This is often a ‘wanted’ result of using very wide angle lenses and some interesting images can be obtained by exploiting it.)
The lens also appeared well able to deal with strong backlighting and we had no instances of flare in any test shots. Bokeh is never a consideration in lenses with such a wide depth of field, which aren’t ideal for close-ups or portraiture ““ unless you want to capitalise on the inherent characteristics of the lens.
Although not a perfect match for the digital sensor on the Sony α7 II camera, the review lens was able to produce some interesting images. The combination of the small, pan-focal lens and compact full-frame camera body was great for street photography. It was possible to shoot subjects close-up without them being aware of the camera, using just the monitor screen to compose shots.
The wide depth of field at smaller aperture settings allows photographers to set the aperture and focus rings and simply aim and shoot. The most practical aperture settings are between f/5.6 and f/11, after which diffraction starts to reduce image sharpness. The virtual lack of rectilinear distortion makes this lens suitable for some types of architectural photography.
If you can handle the inherent limitations of the lens design, it’s well worth a look. It’s considerably smaller and lighter (and a bit cheaper) than Sony’s nearest equivalent, the Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS, which we reviewed recently. It also covers a wider angle of view than Sony’s SEL28F20 FE 28mm f/2 lens plus the dedicated fish-eye converter lens (which also covers the 16mm equivalent angle of view).The only way to buy this lens in Australia is from the local distributor. Equivalent Voigtlander adapters for Canon and Nikon full frame DSLRs are not listed on the Mainline Photographics website currently. (Older versions of the lens, both new and secondhand, can be found online.)
Picture angle: 110 degrees (on cameras with 36 x 24mm sensors)
Minimum aperture: f/22
Lens construction: 11 elements in 9 groups (including one aspherical lens element)
Lens mounts: Bayonet VM; Sony E mount via adapter
Diaphragm Blades: 10 (circular aperture)
Focus drive: Manual focusing
Minimum focus: 50 cm
Maximum magnification: n.a.
Filter size: 58 mm
Dimensions (Diameter x L): 64.8 x 55.2 mm
Weight: 247 grams
Standard Accessories: Front and rear caps, integrated lens hood
Based upon JPEG files taken with the Sony α7 II camera.
We are unable to provide shooting data for the sample images below because no EXIF metadata is recorded when this lens is fitted.
Vignetting at f/4.5.
A crop from the above image enlarged to 100% showing purple fringing along high-contrast edges.
Two examples taken from the same position. showing the effect of lowering the camera while keeping it parallel to the vertical lines in the subject.
Close-up at the focusing limit for the lens.
Close-up at f/4.5
Close up at f/8.
RRP: AU$995; US$750
- Build: 9.0
- Ease of use: 8.2
- Image quality: 8.5
- Versatility: 8.0