Review of a rare bird: the Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar

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According to multiple sources, total production of this optic is somewhere between 700 and 1000 units in Nikon AI-S (unchipped F) mount; there were a few more made in Pentax K, and M42. The lens came out of the Cosina Voigtlander factory in the early 2000s, on the heels of the now-legendary 125/2.5 APO-Lanthar and more common 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar. All of these lenses had very short production runs, probably because it was right about the time the CV factory was switching over to produce the modern Zeiss lenses. This is a shame, because they’re relevant lenses more than ever. During my last trip to Tokyo in December, I found not one – but two of the very rare 180mm lenses. Bellamy at Japan Camera Hunter says this is the first time he’s seen one for sale – let alone two. Naturally, it followed me home. The other lens found a home with one of the site regulars…

Samples were shot on a Nikon D750 and D810.

[Read more…]

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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Shadows

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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Untitled

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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Shifty

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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Umbrellas

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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Texture

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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Review: the Voigtlander 25/0.95 Nokton MFT

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There are several fast-normal options available today for Micro 4/3 users – the Panasonic 20/1.7, the Panasonic-Leica 25/1.4 DG Summilux, and the fastest of them all, the Voigtlander 25/0.95. There are also a whole host of modified CCTV and C-mount lenses, some of which cover the whole M4/3 frame, some of which don’t. None of them have enough resolving power to match the resolution of the sensor at full aperture, either.

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Given the limited high-ISO capabilities of the earlier M4/3 sensors, there was an obvious gap left for a hyperspeed lens of any sort; being one of the M4/3 consortium members, Voigtlander stepped in to fill the gap. However, not having AF technology, Cosina had to make do with a manual-focus only design, but with a native M4/3 mount. The lens feels nothing like the M4/3 lenses from Panasonic, Olympus or Sigma; it’s a hefty lump of metal, built with the same solid feel as the more premium modern manual focus lenses. It’s not a small lens, especially once you attach the supplied hood – it’s actually about the same size (and much heavier) than the Voigtlander 75/1.8 for M mount. This lens rates very highly on the tactility scale; the focus ring is well-damped but turns smoothly without much effort; there’s no backlash and this makes focusing a very pleasing experience. The aperture ring has neat half-click detents, but I would prefer the stops to be a bit more decisive and less easy to turn.

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Cinnamon. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95

Let’s talk a bit about focusing – because one of the most frequently asked questions I’ve had with this lens. I would say it’s easier than expected, but not as easy as I would like – especially when using the lens stopped down. Since there’s no electronic linkage between the lens and camera, aperture is entirely mechanical; this means that you’re always seeing the stopped down view through the finder or on the LCD. The trick is to shoot raw, and turn focusing on your jpeg settings up to the maximum – this actually creates a little bit of a shimmery halo in the finder. (These settings of course do not affect the raw file). It also accentuates sharpness of the image, which makes it easier to tell when things are in focus – as you turn the focusing ring past then point of focus and back again, there’s a slight shimmer in the live preview. The focusing ring is also well-spaced – the normal range from about ~0.4m to infinity is easily covered by a turn of the wrist without having to reposition your hand; the near range – down to just 0.17cm – is more widely spaced, and allows for precise placement of the focal plane.

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The whole frame at the near limit and f1.4. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95

One doesn’t buy this lens with the intention to use it at any other aperture than wide open, at least most of the time. There’s simply no point in paying so much (it’s considerably more expensive than the Panasonic-Leica, which of course has autofocus and is about one stop slower) and carrying around so much extra weight if you’re going to use it at f2. In fact, you might as well get the Panasonic 20/1.7 – it’s cheaper, much smaller and focuses itself. The good news is that the center produces acceptable sharpness, even wide open – providing you focus it accurately. (The shallow depth of field transition profile of a 25mm focal length lens means that that finding the optimum plane isn’t always easy, either.)

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Satay. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95

There’s a considerable improvement in acuity at f1.4 in the center, and again at f2; however, the corners don’t reach anywhere near central levels of sharpness until f2.8 and beyond. Note that I use the term ‘acceptable’: it’s not great at f0.95, and there’s a distinct softness that’s probably caused by internal flare; I suspect that if the internal surfaces of the barrel were better coated against reflection, we’d see a corresponding improvement in contrast and sharpness. Microcontrast is simply nonexistent until f2, and macro contrast is generally quite flat, too – making it good for retaining dynamic range under extreme lighting situations, but poor for fine texture reproduction.

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The hills are made of rice. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95

What about the other common lens shortcomings, like vignetting, chromatic aberration, flare and distortion? The 25 has all of them, and in quite generous amounts, too. It will vignette wide open, but this is easily corrected and gone by f2.8. Chromatic aberration is a bit more problematic; we see that and purple fringing against high-contrast backgrounds, especially when subjects are backlit. If you get a bright point light source in the wrong part of the frame, you’re going to have fun with flare, lowering already low contrast even further – and the hood isn’t going to help you much. I didn’t actively look for distortion, so I can’t comment on it; the types of subjects this lens is suited to probably wouldn’t show it anyway.

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Family corner, at f0.95. Due to the short real focal length, f0.95 doesn’t have as shallow depth of field as you might have otherwise imagined. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95

After all of that, you might have come to the conclusion that this lens is pretty bad – optically, it’s definitely not the best I’ve used. But, what other lens offers a true f0.95 aperture (and T stop that’s not far off, either) at US$1200? I can see some uses for the 25 – portraiture, mostly – but it just doesn’t suit what I do. Even though the optics at f4-5.6 are excellent, and the 17cm near focus distance makes it quite useful for food photography, there just isn’t enough reason for me to keep the lens around since it replicates the performance of the Panasonic 20/1.7.

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Untitled. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95

As much as I love using the lens simply because it feels like a real lens, not a plastic shell – I just can’t recommend it for the kind of photography I do; it’s not sharp enough wide open to be used as an available-light lens, and is further hampered by the difficulty of focusing it under low light conditions; it’s big enough to defeat the point of the compact M4/3 system, and expensive enough that I think having the 20/1.7 and 45/1.8 lenses instead makes much more sense.

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Burger time. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95

If you’re an object shooter, as tempting as the close focus capability is, you can’t really use it wide open without dealing with rendering that’s best described as ‘impressionist’; you’re better served by the Panasonic-Leica 45/2.8 Macro, or the forthcoming Olympus 60/2.8. If you’re an available light shooter, and don’t mind the occasional softness due to focusing misses, then go ahead; if sharpness bothers you, then go for the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4 Summilux. However, I can see a very narrow niche of portrait photographers for whom pictorial style takes precedence over sharpness; this is your lens, and it offers a look previously limited to larger format systems.

If you must still have one, get it here from B&H or Amazon.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Crash test portrait dummy. Olympus OM-D, 25/0.95