Lens review: The Voigtlander Color-Skopar 28/2.8 AI-P SLII

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The small, light Nikon D600 got me thinking about full frame as a viable alternative for a lightweight travel kit again – the D700 and f1.4 primes was smaller than a D3 and pro zooms, but certainly nowhere near as convenient as Micro Four Thirds. Of course, M4/3 doesn’t give you anywhere near the same control over depth of field, and you lose out at least a stop or more in high ISO performance. The OM-D might give you back a couple of stops of hand-holdability thanks to its excellent stabilizer, but there’s nothing you can do about depth of field control short of using the manual focus Voigtlander f0.95 lenses – they certainly fit the bill, but they’re also large, heavy and somewhat defeat the point of a small, light body.

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This is where the pancake primes and full frame come in: a D600 body and two primes make for a very light but also very competent travel kit. And if you shoot film, it makes even more sense. (And naturally, being a 28mm lens, I was curious to try it out.) The 28/2.8 has ridden shotgun in my waist pouch when I go out with the F2T and 58/1.2 Noct; sometimes you just need something wider, and it’s a handy option to have without paying too high a weight/ size penalty.

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The lens is just 24.5mm long (in Nikon F guise; it’s also available in EF mount, which is slightly larger as it has to accommodate the electronic diaphragm components) and weighs a scant 180g; it actually feels reasonably hefty as the entire lens is metal – probably anodized aluminium – and is very well constructed. It’s actually so short that it’s tricky to mount without turning the focusing or aperture rings, as the only portion of the lens that doesn’t rotate is the tiny 3mm wide section in the middle that holds the depth of field scale and index mark. It would have been great to have a locking button on the aperture ring like the ZF.2 lenses, but I suppose Cosina reserves that function for its more expensive siblings.

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Urban monk

Being an AI-P spec lens, the 28/2.8 has a chip to communicate aperture and distance information to the camera; you set the lens to f22 on a Nikon body and control the aperture using the command dials as normal. It will mount and provide full metering and electronic compatibility on any Nikon body. Focusing is manual, of course; would have been nice if there was a way to AF couple the lens – a built-in motor would probably have been impossible, but screwdriver focus might have been within feasible limits. That said, you always have the built-in rangefinder and in-focus confirmation dot (or beep on Canons) to help with determining focus, and the manual focus action is nicely damped and perfectly weighted – they certainly got the feel right with this lens. Since the lens is relatively slow and wide, it isn’t always easy to judge focus by the viewfinder alone – and Nikon’s modern focusing screens don’t help much, either. Most of the time, I could get achieve focus with the viewfinder alone, but on the edges it helps to use the dot: the lens suffers from moderate field curvature.

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The 28/2.8 is a 6-group, 7-element design; Voigtlander does not provide a block diagram or any details about the optical design, but from the way it performs and the fact that it can focus as close as 22cm from the sensor plane – yielding surprisingly high magnification – I suspect that the lens is a retrofocal but non-telecentric design to achieve this. As mentioned earlier, it displays moderate field curvature, some coma at the edges and chromatic aberration until f8 or so. (I tested the lens on the Nikon D600.) There’s also a tiny bit of purple bleeding at high contrast edges.

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Through the looking glass

Sharpness is not a problem: the center is excellent at all apertures, with the border and edges lagging until about f5.6 or so; this is partially due to field curvature, and partially due to coma. Note that if you’re going to use wide apertures with this lens, you will need to use focus assist over the subject – not center focus and recompose. Edge sharpness is not too bad, but the corners never get critically sharp due to radial coma/ smearing; you always feel that things have been ‘stretched out’ a little. No problem; just make sure your subjects are within the central portion of the image circle.

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Not having a huge number of elements, color rendition and contrast are excellent; images are rendered with a slightly warm hue, high saturation and macrocontrast. Microcontrast still isn’t as fine as the Zeiss lenses, but it’s certainly on par with Nikon’s regular AF offerings. This would be a good lens for low contrast scenes, but care must be taken if you’re shooting around noon in the tropics – you’re going to get things blocking up to black or overexposing if you don’t pay attention to your blinking highlights warning. It makes a rather good lens for black and white work, too.

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The morning after the night before

I consider myself a bit of a 28mm aficionado; perhaps fetishist is a better word. I find that it’s the widest I can go and still maintain a relatively natural look to the images without the usual wideangle geometric distortion; I feel that the focal length also matches my instinctive field of view quite well. This means that in my time I’ve owned and shot with a huge number of 28mm lenses and 28mm equivalents; the two I currently own – the Nikon AFS 28/1.8G and Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon are reviewed on their respective links, too. Aside from that, I’ve also got the Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon for my Leica M9-P, the 28/1.8 equivalent on the RX100, the iPhone 4, and an Olympus 15/8 body cap.

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So the natural question would be where does the Voigtlander 28/2.8 fit in – both in the grand hierarchy of 28mm lenses, as well as as a tool; I actually think it has a pretty well-defined niche. The Nikon 28/1.8 G is large but light, has autofocus and pretty good optics; the Zeiss 2/28 Distagon has stellar optics and a unique pictorial rendering, but is manual focus and surprisingly heavy for its size. Both have roughly the same maximum aperture and T stop. The Voigtlander is a tiny slip of a lens that’s capable of excellent results in the center, and decent results at the edges – these optical characteristics suggest it would serve as a good documentary lens (there is some distortion of straight lines which rules it out for architecture), but moreover an option where you a) need something light and small, and b) are unlikely to run out of light – though relatively low light work is still possible thanks to the high-ISO abilities of the current batch of full frame cameras. In short: this is a great lightweight travel lens, especially if paired with something a bit longer – perhaps the 40/2 or 45/2.8P. Now, if only somebody would make a decent focusing screen for the D600…MT

A big thank you to Eric Goh at Fotoman Marketing, the Malaysian distributor for Voigtlander lenses for the extended loan of the review sample.

The lens is available here from B&H in Canon and Nikon mounts.


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