Cosina, which is better known in the rangefinder world then among SLR users, likes pushing the envelop figuratively speaking. Mr. Kobayashi, Cosina's CEO, has been relentlessly trying to prove to the world that good quality lenses don't have to cost an arm and a leg and everything in between. Cosina, under the Voigtlander brand name, has been targeting a rather small niche of the market, that of Leica rangefinder lenses, although it has on occasion also been known to introduce an impressive lens design or two for the SLR cameras. Cosina's constantly improving designs and expertise have even drawn attention of Carl Zeiss, which has struck a deal with the company to manufacture all of its rangefinder and SLR lenses. Some of the biggest splashed in the recent rangefinder world were actually of Cosina's making, and Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar ASPH 15mm f/4.5 was one such splash. The lens was initially released in M39 Leica screw mount in 1999 and was not rangefinder couples. Cosina recently re-released this lens in native Laica M bayonet mount and fully rangefinder coupled. What was shocking to the world is the price. The original LTM version of the lens was selling for US$399 and that price included a 15mm film view finder! This was absolutely unheard of at the time. In comparison, Leica's 16-18-21mm f/4 ASPH Tri-Elmar costs ~US$6,000, while Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8, which by the way is also manufactured at Cosina factory, costs ~SU$4,600. Even the newly released M-mount version of the lens costs only US$599 , a fraction of all other alternatives. How about that for a splash?
The optical construction of the lens consists of 6 elements in 8 groups, with a single aspherical element in the rear group. The formula is identical to the one used in the now classical M39 screw mount version of the lens. The build quality is quite good, with all metal construction, including the focusing and aperture rings. The lens is surprisingly compact and light, particularly for such a wide lens, measuring 60 x 38mm (2.36 x 1.49in) and weighing 156g (5.5oz). The minimum focusing range of the lens has increased slightly, going to 50cm instead of 30cm for the LTM version, although on M8 the rangefinder coupling works only to ~65cm. The aperture ring steps in half f-stop increments from f/4.5 to f/22. Like with the LTM version, new Super Wide Heliar ASPH 15mm f/4.5 has a built in lens hood, but now sports a front 52mm filter thread.
The lens was designed for traditional 35mm film rangefinders and so if you're using it on an APS-H type Leica M8, the EFOV of the lens will be ~20mm, while on APS-C type Epson R-D1 it will be ~23mm.The manufacturer's box includes Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar ASPH 15mm f/4.5 lens, front and rear lens caps and a manual. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested only on Leica M8.
|Lens Composition||6 elements in 8 groups|
|Angular Field||110 degrees|
|f-stop Scale||f/4.5-f/22, manual|
|Lens Hood||Integrated metal
When redesigning the Super Wide Heliar, Cosina did one thing right - listened to the user feedback. While the original LTM version of the lens was superb, it had two major problems. The lens was not rangefinder couplesd and did not have a filter thread. The lack of rangefinder coupling effectively required you to 'guess focus', While this seems like a fairly big limitation, in real life you can deal with this by using hyper-focal distance. The super wide focal length of the lens actually makes your life easier here - by setting the lens at f/8, you get a working range that spans the entire focusing range of the lens from minimum to the infinity. The massive DOF masks small focusing errors, making real life experience 'acceptable'. Of course, this does not replace good focusing and so the rangefinder coupling is quite welcome.
The second issue with the old lens was lack of front filter thread, making it impossible to attach a filter to the lens. On old film cameras this might not have been a big deal, but with Leica M8's limitations one has to use IR cut filters to get rid of the nasty color shift due to sensor's IR sensitivity. And so the addition of the front filter ring certainly made life simpler for many users. There is only one complication - because of the integrated hood, it is somewhat tricky to actually screw the filter in or attach the clip-on lens cap, as the hood leaves get in the way.
When updating the lens, Cosina also made it simpler for users to code the lens for M8/M9. The LTM version of the lens was fairly easy to code since you could use a number of third party LTM to M adapters. Cosina even offered its own version of such adapter. But with the new variant of Super Wide Heliar, Cosina added a shallow groove in the bayonet mount to allow for durable hand-coding of the lens. Without this groove, the hand-coded markings eventually rubbed off after a while. With the hand-coding kit, users can now recode the lens to be recognized by M8/M9 cameras as Leica WATE set at 16mm, which would allow the camera's firmware to correct vignetting and cyan shift arising from using IR cut filters.
So one may wonder why the cost of Voigtlander lenses are so low when compared to the similar lenses from Leica or even Carl Zeiss. Well, a part of the cost difference comes from the difference in cost of labor, while another part comes from the difference in quality. While Voigtlander lenses sport a very good quality compared to traditional, plasticy modern AF lenses, they are still not as good as Leica's. The difference is subtle - the aperture ring on Super Wide Heliar has a very slight play, the focusing ring, which turns for about 60 degrees when going from the infinity to the minimum focusing distance, has an uneven friction throughout. And then there is obviously the marketing prowess - Leica can charge higher prices simply because it is Leica and for many purists there is really no other alternative.
On the final note, I wanted to touch base on focusing the Super Wide Heliar. When attached to Leica M8 the lens brings up 28/90mm frame lines, and so if you want to frame your subjects properly you would need to use an external viewfinder. You have a number of choices here, from the super expensive Leica Universal Finder to a number of dedicated film finders like Zeiss 21mm finder or Voigtlander's own 21mm film finder, which is the most cost conscious choice - only US$128 new at CameraQuest. An interesting choice is Cosina's recently introduced Voigtlander 15-35mm Zoom Finder, which sells for US$529, also at CameraQuest.