Super wide-angle lenses are unique. By their very nature, they’re specialized, uncommon, and expensive. So to go searching for a capable, versatile, and inexpensive super-wide seems like a fool’s errand indeed. But what if I told you that I spent the past month with just such a lens? You’d be interested, right?
Good. Because B&H Photo recently loaned me both versions of Voigtlander’s most recent 15mm, the Super Wide Heliar 15mm F/4.5 Aspherical III, and I’ve been really putting it through hell (don’t tell my friends at B&H). From mountaintops to rivers, skyscrapers to rollercoasters, this lens has seen a lot and it’s quickly become a lens I can’t live without. It’s not perfect (what lens is?), but for many photographers this lens will provide an unmatched balance of performance, size, sophistication, and most notably, economy. It’s just a shame I have to send it back…
I know specifications can be boring, but in certain cases they can also be informative, so let’s trudge through it. First, I should mention that this lens is manufactured by Cosina, in Japan. While this most definitely does not matter in practical terms, some photo geeks really want their German-named lenses to be manufactured in Germany. For the sake of simplicity I will continue to refer to the lensmaker as Voigtlander. You have been justly warned.
The 15mm F/4.5 III (third generation) lenses in M and E mount share much of the same DNA. They’re both manual focus lenses with manually-selected, ten-bladed apertures ranging from F/4.5 to F/22. They both feature an identical optical formula, this being an eleven element in nine group design. Importantly, both lenses feature one aspherical element, which Voigtlander says controls chromatic aberration, minimizes distortion, and facilitates consistent peripheral illumination and mitigation of color shift. In previous iterations of this lens, the last of these issues was especially offensive, making it a poor choice for those who mounted the super-wide in front of a full-frame digital sensor. Whether Voigtlander’s claims are honest is something we’ll get into later, but in either case it’s good to see that the manufacturer is at least addressing the major problem found in earlier versions of the lens.
Differences between the E mount and M mount versions are few, but may be important to some shooters. The E mount version offers switchable click-less aperture adjustment, and a closer minimum focusing distance of 11.8 inches (30 cm) compared with the M version’s 1.6 feet (50 cm). It also allows transference of EXIF data and provides access to Sony’s in-camera tech wizardry, including focus assist mode, image stabilization, and automatic lens correction (the last of which wasn’t available as of this writing – possible firmware updates to come?). It should be noted that these perks come at a price; the E mount version is quite a bit larger (66.4 x 67.5 mm versus 64.8 x 55.2 mm), is heavier (294 g versus 247 g), and is a hundred bucks more expensive.
Which mount should you buy? It’s an easy decision if you only own one camera – buy the mount that fits. But if, like many photo geeks, you’re shooting both E and M mount machines it gets a bit more complicated. Do you plan to shoot this super-wide on both cameras? Do you need the electronic features of the E mount version? Do you need click-less apertures for videography?
For me, the choice is clear. I would buy the M mount version because I occasionally shoot M mount cameras. When I want to shoot the 15mm digitally I can easily adapt it to Sony’s machine via an adapter, and the smaller size and lighter weight are much more important to me than EXIF data or focus assist modes. The closer focus distance of the E mount lens is irrelevant to my needs, and if close focus is ever required (for some reason?) I can always use Voigtlander’s close-focus adapter.
In either mount, build quality is fantastic. Voigtlander’s done something special in providing uncompromising material and construction in a lens with such a low price point. It’s surprising, to say the least. Lenses that feel this good are typically old (as with legacy lenses), or extremely expensive (think legendary German makers). But for relatively little cost we’re enjoying a 15mm lens with full-metal construction, exacting tolerances, robust engineering, and excellent performance – this is remarkable.
Every surface is solid metal, including the lens barrel, aperture ring, nameplate, and even the built-in lens hood. Aperture rings click into their detents with swift, mechanical precision, with the E mount version actuating in one-third stops and the M mount version actuating in half stops. But the star of the show must certainly be the deeply curvaceous focusing rings. These gorgeously machined rings harken back to the days of impeccably built Minolta MC lenses, and spin with a perfectly weighted fluidity that must be felt to be believed. Simply put; no autofocus lens focuses this luxuriously.
Knurling is precise and sharp, markings are deeply engraved and intricately painted, and filter threads are… what can I say about filter threads? They’re there, and they’re 58mm in diameter. Screw-in circular filters are easily mounted regardless of the built-in lens hood, which is tough and durable. Square filters are mountable via a rather ingenious adapter.
Functionally, the lens is amazing. It’s one of the most interesting, engaging, and excited lenses I’ve ever shot. It’s the kind of lens that’s full of surprises, is effortless to use, and makes you want to just keep shooting. To put it simply, it’s a fun lens. Whether I was being dragged through a rushing stream at the leash end of a Golden Retriever, silently creeping about the cavernous halls of Boston’s Public Library, distractedly shooting the Milky Way while keeping an ear out for hungry bears, or running around a theme park with my wife and one-year-old daughter, the Voigtlander 15mm helped me make unique and compelling images in every situation.
The extremely wide field of view (110º) ensures that you’re going to get something interesting in the frame even if you’re not peering through your viewfinder (or the optional external finder). Post-processing crops to more accurately compose your shot are easily afforded by the exceptional image quality (more on that in just a moment), and the extreme depth-of-field allows the shooter to “F8 and be there” more readily than any other lens I’ve ever used. Even shooting wide open at F/4.5 it’s possible to set the focus ring so that everything from a distance of four feet to infinity will be acceptably sharp. That’s amazing, and it facilitates an almost point-and-shoot methodology that’s tailor-made for snapshots and street photography. It’s like having an autofocus lens, except faster.
Image quality is impeccable. In three weeks of shooting I discovered few problems, and those that did crop up were minor and easily solved. But let’s start with the good stuff.
If you love sharpness, you’ll love this lens. Some lenses are sharp in the center of the frame, some lenses are sharp at certain apertures. The Voigtlander 15mm is sharp everywhere, all the time. In the corners, in the center, shot wide-open, stopped down to F/11, it’s always super sharp. Somewhere between F/11 and F/16 we’re seeing this lens’ maximum sharpness. After that, sharpness starts to decline a bit due to diffraction, but that’s not to say it’s not sharp at F/22. It’s just not as sharp as it is at F/11. But in nearly all apertures it renders the world with a clarity that’s just astounding. Is sharpness everything in photography? Not really. But sometimes you can’t beat a crisp, clean image.
Chromatic aberration, typically easy to spot in astro-photography, is kept in check (presumably by that aspherical element, Voigtlander?). Areas of the most intense contrast do show a tiny bit of color fringing, but as far as super-wide lenses go, this lens is almost perfect. Ghosts and flares are very easily controlled by the built-in lens hood. Pointing that big front element directly at the sun causes no reduction in contrast, and results in very small (and I would say rather interesting) flares. Stopping the aperture down can bring out some pretty exceptional sunstars surrounding super-bright light sources, an effect many (though not all) shooters enjoy.
Portraits are possible, but the massive field of view demands that they be composed in a certain way. You’ll want your subject to be a part of the scenery and kept at a distance. Get too close and your subjects will take on unnatural facial proportions – no one wants that. Moreover you’ll want to keep the subject more or less in the center of the frame as opposed to near the edges, where subjects can become freakishly stretched and distorted.
As mentioned, earlier versions of this lens were pretty poor performers when mounted to full-frame digital cameras. Awful drops in sharpness and distracting color shifts would often populate the edges of the frame. With this third generation lens, Voigtlander’s solved these issues. I don’t know how they did it, but they did it. That said, the new lens still suffers heavy vignetting. Even shooting at smaller apertures of F/8 and F/11, shots display substantial light fall-off. This is a very common ailment in wide-angle lenses, and it’s really no surprise that a lens with such a massive field of view would show some darkness in the corners. What is surprising is that no amount of stop-down seems to make the problem any less pronounced. Luckily the effect here is sometimes pleasing, and even stands to give the lens a bit of personality. This flaw should also be balanced against the fact that vignetting is one of the most easily corrected ailments in post-processing.
Night shooting is a bit challenging with such a slow lens, especially when shooting any film under 800 ISO. But utilizing today’s mirrorless cameras and their amazing high ISO performance, the maximum aperture of F/4.5 is easily up to the task. Here again the massive depth-of-field helps, as the usual focusing pitfalls of wide-open shooting are circumvented completely. It’s true that shooting long-exposures of the stars, where we typically want the fastest apertures possible, isn’t ideal with a lens that tops out at F/4.5, but even with this relatively slow lens I was still able to make shots of the stars that at least impressed the non-photophiles in my life. And I’ve no doubt that a more talented photographer (one less fearful of bears) could easily bend this lens toward making unbelievable night scenes. For me, the versatility of this lens in every other situation more than makes up for it not being…stellar… at astrophotography. What a glorious pun.
Producing a good photograph is a process of mitigating flaws and solving problems; capturing the best light, subtracting unwanted components from a scene, struggling against the elements, and finding the right angle. The reason we search out the very best gear is so that we don’t have to battle against our own equipment. But in photography, perfect gear is extremely rare. All cameras are flawed. All lenses are flawed. There’s no escaping it. The best we can do is try to find the gear that demands of us the least amount of compromise. In the segment of super wide-angle lenses, this Voigtlander is that gear.
Usually I wrap up my reviews by advising who should or shouldn’t purchase the featured gear. It’s strange. With this lens, I can’t think of any reason not to buy it. It almost feels like cheating. It almost feels like a lens shouldn’t be this close to perfect. Like a lens this fun shouldn’t be this well made. Or a lens this well made shouldn’t be this cheap. Or a lens this cheap shouldn’t make images this good. But it does, and it is, and it really is that good.
Want your own Voigtlander 15mm F/4.5 Super Wide Heliar III?
[This article was updated to include the option for mounting square filters.]