Introduction

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.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 6 elements in 8 groups
Angular Field 110 degrees
Minimum Focus 50cm/19.6in
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/4.5-f/22, manual
Filter Size 52mm
Lens Hood Integrated metal
Weight 156g/5,5oz
Dimensions 60x38mm/2.3x1.49"
Lens Case N/A

 

Handling

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.

 


Resolution

Resolution testing of ultra wide angles is always a hassle, particularly against an MTF target. Generally speaking, you need to leave enough space between the lens and the target so you don't measure the resolution of the target itself. That is not quite possible often with UWAs because at infinity focusing the lens captures so mach background that even the large ISO-12233 chart I use for testing, which by the way has the active area of 32 x 56in, does cover the entire image frame. And so either the camera has to be repositioned to separately measure the center and borders, or the UWA lens has to be tested at close distances - for the 15mm Super Wider Heliar, the working distance is up to ~2m on the APS-H sized Leica M8. Hene the need for a custom target, which helps increase the working distance to ~4m for the lens. Better, but still limited particularly if we move to even wider lenses like Ultra Wide Heliar 12mm f/5.6.

Anyhow, keeping in mind these limitations of the MTF50 tests for UWA lenses, let's take a look at how Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar 15mm f/4.5 performed. The simplified MTF50 chart below indicates that the lens is a capable performer. The resolution pattern is fairly uniform, with the center image quality remaining slightly better then borders throughout the aperture range. However, overall quality seems to be slightly degrading with stopped down aperture - f/11 seems to be the inflection point where diffraction starts to kick in, reducing the absolute resolution the lens can achieve.

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

 

Looking at the chart crops, which compare image borders at f/4.5 and f/8, I see very little difference between the two, which, not for the first time, tells us that the MTF measurement algorithms are much more sensitive to slightest changes in quality that might not even be easily noticeable by a human eye. If you stare long enough at the crops, you will probably start seeing doubles, and so instead of spending any more time here, let's review the real-life shots.even

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

 

The crops below demonstrate what you are likely be able to get out of the lens in the real life. The shots have been compiled using focus bracketing around infinity on 10Mp Leica M8. As is the case for all such tests, one shot with the sharpest center area per aperture is chosen and then crops from different frame areas are compared across different aperture settings. The most obvious and easiest conclusion we can make here is that center resolution is absolutely superb straight from the widest aperture. There is no visually noticeable variance from one aperture setting to another and while in absolute terms this might not be the best results I have seen out of all lenses tested so far, it is pretty darn good. It is also fairly obvious that border quality is not on par with the center. The difference is kind of noticeable even without blowing up the images to 100%, but under closer inspection the differences do become more pronounced. Still, while not absolutely perfect, the resolution even in extreme corners is quite acceptable and after a minor enhancement with an unsharp mask would cut the mustard so to speak for most users.

 

Center


f/4.5, Leica M8

f/8, Leica M8

L.L.Corner


f/4.5, Leica M8

f/8, Leica M8

L.U..Corner


f/4.5, Leica M8

f/8, Leica M8

R.L.Corner

f/4.5, Leica M8

f/8, Leica M8

R.U.Corner

f/4.5, Leica M8

f/8, Leica M8

 

Color Reproduction

The lens showed pretty minimal amounts of lateral chromatic aberration with center CA never exceeding ~0.3px and border CA hovering at around 0.4px throughout the aperture range. There is nothing particularly troublesome here as at these levels fringing should not be noticeable in real life situations, or require any extensive correction.

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

 

Overall contrast levels were fairly modest - global contrast was not quite as high as with Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/4 ZM I tested recently, but quite acceptable. Local contrast varied from moderately high in the center, to moderate/low in the periphery, which actually made images look slightly less crispy.

 

 

DOF & Bokeh

I am going to keep this section shorter then usual. Given the focal length of the lens, and its maximum supported aperture level, hoping to achieve a shallow DOF and nice bokeh is going to be naive. Even at close to the minimum focusing distances, where DOF is typically the shallowest, Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar 15mm f/4.5 shows too much detail in the background making it impossible to actually separate the foreground and background cleanly. Wide open or stopped down it is not that much different as can be seen from the images below.

 

ISO 320, 1/3000, f/4.5, 15mm (Leica M8)

ISO 320, 1/1000, f/8, 15mm (Leica M8)

 

 


Flare

Most wide angle lenses flare to some extent but the questions is always what that extent is. Given Heliar's focal length, it is not that surprising that the lens flares, but it is surprising that the flare is not worse then what it really is. The two samples below show what you could expect from the lens when it is pointed towards the sun. Both wide open, and stopped down, the lens produces flare and ghosting, but fairly minimal amount. The integrated lens hood does not help here at all because of the angle the sun rays are hitting the lens, but can be more useful in less extreme situations. Of course the main challenge with the lens that wide is going to be avoiding getting the sun into the frame in the first place.

 

ISO 160, 1/500, f/4.5, 15mm (Leica M8)

ISO 160, 1/125, f/8, 15mm (Leica M8)

 

Vignetting

Like most wide angle lenses, Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar 15mm f/4.5 shows some vignetting, which arguably is reasonably well contained for such a wide lens. What helps here really is the slower maximum aperture of the lens and smaller sensor of the Leica M8. At f/4.5 the Heliar shows light falloff exceeding ~1.1EV, which is not terribly bad. By f/5.6 vignetting drops to ~0.7EV and drops even further with as you keep stopping down the lens,

 

 

If you are using the lens on M8, vignetting unfortunately would be more painful to fix as it will cause cyan drift in the corners with IR filters. If you did not code your lens, which is how I used it, then Cornerfix or Photoshop are going to be your only options.

 

 

Distortion

The lens is pretty well corrected for distortion - at ~1.1% barrel distortion will be visible in some situations but should not be causing any major issues in real life.

 

 


Alternatives

There are very few alternatives in this focal range. As mentioned, Carl Zeiss makes Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 ZM, which costs almost 5x the price of the tiny Voigtlander. Leica also makes Wide Angel Tri-Elmar 16-18-21mm f/4, but the price of that lens is also astronomical. For slightly longer focal length, there is an excellent Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 18mm f/4 ZM, but it also costs twice as much as the Heliar. Your best bet really is another Voigtlander lens, the Ultra Wide Heliar ASPH 12mm f/5.6, assuming of course you want to get a wider lens. The first version of this lens was available only in LTM mount, but Cosina announced the availability of an M version of the lens for April 2010. And if you are willing to move to 21mm focal length, then your selection will triple, as all three companies offer a number of options here, from the value oriented Voigtlander Color Skopar 21mm f/4P to mid-range Carl Zeiss Biogon T* 21mm f/2.8 ZM and to the super expensive Leica Summilux M 21mm f/1.4 ASPH.

 

Recommendation

You will be hard pressed to find a better lens for the price then Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar 15mm f//4.5. Seriously. While the lens is by no means perfect, Cosina struck a good balance in delivering value where one needs it. Good image resolution, build quality, decent color handling and more importantly the right price. The main drawback with the new lens is that it does not come with a viewfinder. The LTM version did, and cost less then the M version. Success typically translates in higher prices and Cosina is certainly benefiting from the success of its M series lenses. I'm not complaining - even at the slightly higher price premium compared to the older LTM version of the lens, the new M one offers two major improvements - filter thread and rangefinder coupling. These two improvements alone easily justify the ~US$100 premium and if you own the older lens, seriously consider replacing it.

 

Sample Images

 


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