My foray into the world of Voigtländer started off as a lark, and I can blame this Voigtländer Ultron 35mm f/1.7 LTM lens for that. I wanted a 35mm lens to use on my Canon P and Fuji X cameras, and snapped up this Ultron and the Bessa R that came with it on eBay. Based on their reputation, I knew that Bessas had excellent viewfinders but suffered from primarily-plastic construction. I figured I’d pump a few rolls through this mediocre camera, put it on the shelf, and use the lens on my trusty all-metal Canon.
But since I bought the Bessa, I’ve not shot my Canon P once. When James sent me a Leica M-A to review, I stuck this lens on it. When I vacationed across the Atlantic, I brought just the Bessa and three lenses. This 35mm was virtually welded to the camera for the duration of the trip.
So much for a lark. This may have turned into a way of life.
I’m not usually one for 35mm lenses, and I’ve only owned a handful of fixed 35s. I tend to prefer longer lenses, sometimes opting for long telephotos where others would use a 50mm. Where long lenses aren’t permissible, I tend to wind up on either side of 35mm, choosing instead either a 28mm or a 40mm. But shooting these focal lengths isn’t as simple with rangefinders as it is with an SLR. Apart from a handful of M-Mount Voigtländers, there aren’t many affordable interchangeable lens rangefinders with 28mm and 40mm framelines (Minolta’s CLE being one of the few that spring to mind, though that’s not so affordable these days).
If I was willing to compromise a bit, I’d have many more bodies to choose from. But as my affection for rangefinder shooting grows, I’ve had to adapt my lens preferences.
Lens Construction and Build Quality
The Ultron itself is a puzzling lens, and like many Voigtländer products it offers some superlative specifications. If you want to play in Leica’s league, you need to at least make some headlines. The lens is emblazoned with “Aspeherical” across its snout. It features all-metal construction and a concave front element. It’s metal aperture ring snaps across half-stop clicks all the way from f/1.7 to f/16 (and feels great doing so). It’s even got a slickly integrated lens hood.
The Voigtländer Ultron 35mm f/1.7 brings optics that are slightly unusual, specifically incorporating two peculiar items. The rearmost element is aspherical, designed to improve corner-to-corner sharpness and reduce distortion. The front element is concave, and while the inclusion of concave elements in lens construction is not that unusual, it is a bit atypical to see this in the front element (early Canon FD mount 35mm f/2s shared this quirk).
The overall optical scheme incorporates eight elements in six groups, with modern multi-coated glass. The maximum aperture of f/1.7 is relatively fast for a 35mm lens, and was designed specifically to one-up the f/2 Leica Summicron. The Ultron, in fact, is one of the fastest 35mm lens ever made in Leica Thread Mount (second only to Canon’s 35/1.5). Even the name seems designed to win a game of top-trumps.
Voigtländer lenses and their early 35mm Bessa cameras couldn’t be more different, and it can be hard to accept that they come from the same company. Where the Bessa R feels like a product of the 1990s with its judicious application of plastics, the lenses feel rather more special. The Ultron feels like my vintage Super-Takumars, rather than a lens made on the cusp of Y2K.
But despite how different they are to the touch, the Bessa R and the Ultron complement each other perfectly. The black finish on the lens matches the semi-gloss black plastic beautifully. Taken as a whole, the package looks incredibly cohesive. It does funny things to the brain.
These matching finishes only hint at the effort Voigtländer exerted in making the Voigtländer Ultron 35mm f/1.7 and Bessa R a cohesive pair. As I said in my review of the body, when combined the lens and camera feel like a great fixed-lens rangefinder rather than a body with a lens attached. The Ultron’s short focus throw and the Bessa’s crisp viewfinder go together like Chuck Taylors and Sharpie.
Image Quality and Sample Shots
Of course there’s a catch, and the Voigtländer Ultron 35mm f/1.7 simply wouldn’t be a Voigtländer without a “but.” In practice, despite the special construction and aspherical element, the Ultron is just not that sharp. Especially when shot wide open the Ultron simply doesn’t deliver the crispest, razor-to-the-retina images many shooters seem to crave.
Stop down even a little and this issue goes away almost entirely. Of course, once you’ve twisted that aperture ring even the slightest bit away from f/1.7 and you’re at f/2. The “it’s faster than a Summicron” argument suddenly falls on its face. If you don’t mind that and you continue spinning that ring, you’ll find a lens that when stopped down beyond f/2 or f/2.5 suddenly makes images that pop. At smaller apertures this lens really comes alive.
In most situations I didn’t find the relative lack of sharpness off-putting, and only in a few situations with multiple areas of back-lighting did it really foul up my images. If you’re willing to couple speed with some quirky character, then this lens offers a worthwhile compromise.
Color rendition is excellent, especially when coupled with Kodak Portra. Nearly every color shot in this review was shot on the stuff. When stopped down even slightly, sharpness is excellent, and the only way to make the thing misbehave is to point it at the sun and dare it to flare.
Despite its flaws, the Voigtländer Ultron remains a very compelling option. Its combination of build quality, color rendition, and sharpness at most apertures makes it a solid performer and a user-friendly lens. When considering its wallet-friendly price, it becomes even more interesting. Where all but the crustiest examples of Leica’s Summicron price higher than the four-figure mark, a perfect LTM Ultron can generally be purchased for under $500, and the revised M-Mount Ultrons sell for about $800 used.
Would I recommend the Ultron over a Summicron? Probably not, if someone else is footing the bill. For my money though, the humble Voigtländers are tough to beat.