The new nickel-plated special edition Heliars have screw mounts (LTM) but are supplied with the appropriate Leica-M bayonet adapter, as well as hoods and metal caps. Aside from their high-performance optical considerations, these objectives are superbly engineered. Image © Jonathan Eastland
The optical cell of one of the lenses in this test was first reviewed in BJP four years ago [06 October 2006], a long time in modern photography. Looking back, the pace of technological change has been phenomenal, introducing extraordinary levels of image quality for all digital formats, as well as the convergence of high-definition video with stills.
So why would anyone in this day and age still be hankering after hardware evolved from an analogue design philosophy more than 100 years old, which inevitably, because of its specification, adds another few hundred grams of weight to the gadget bag?
The question is rhetorical, for in the process of pushing the envelope in one direction, the irony is that digital technology has simultaneously taken the capability of analogue photography in another to the next logical quality level – the one many of us once spent endless hours in a darkroom trying to achieve without much success.
When I look back at the time spent trying to match what could be got out of a Hasselblad with a roll of meticulously exposed and processed 35mm Pan F, or pushing Ektachrome to impossible ISO levels, I sometimes wonder today how I managed without digital.
Indeed, it is because of amazing digital tools that I keep on shooting film, for even with third-party customised firmware plug-ins, replicating the look of real film with an emulated version doesn’t meet the aesthetic remit in my book.
A good original film frame scanned with care on anything from a laser drum to the lowliest of mini-lab machines produces a look I prefer, and importantly, allows you to produce high-quality, large-scale prints relatively easily.
There is another reason too: I like film cameras. I like how they work, what they can do, and the way they do it. That means I am also interested in the glass stuck on the front of the box.
Decade of quality
Ever since it was set up in Japan in 1959, Kabushiki-gaisha Koshina has been manufacturing 35mm compacts, 8mm cine cameras and accessories as an OEM contractor for familiar brand names such as Konica, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Prinz, Vivitar, Yashica and others. In the late 1960s it started its own glassworks, and by the end of the next decade was producing a range of lenses for different SLR mounts.
Current CEO Hirofumi Kobayashi, who succeeded his founding father in 1988, acquired the marketing rights to the famous German Voigtländer camera brand name and, by the mid-1990s, the glassworks had perfected aspherical element moulding.
It was on the back of this technology that Cosina was able to launch the first compact and viewfinderless 35mm Bessa L with a super-wide but very small 15mm Aspherical Heliar lens option.
It was such a success that it kick-started a flow of modestly priced but well-made rangefinder cameras and lenses in Leica screw, M and even the old Contax S mount.
Earlier this decade, Cosina became the partner of choice for Carl Zeiss to work on its range of ZM (Leica M mount), ZF (Nikon F) and ZK (Pentax K) fixed focal length lenses for rangefinders and SLRs.
The deal required Cosina to adopt state-of-the-art production and quality-control techniques to meet CZ design specifications, a process evidently beneficial to Cosina’s own Voigtländer products, as has been seen in previous BJP reviews.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the Cosina Voigtländer marriage, the company released two special nickel-plated editions of the Heliars 50mm f/3.5 and 50mm f/2 in Leica screw mounts late in 2009.
These are the first such objectives by any manufacturer to be released in a nickel finish since Leica stopped the practice in the late 1930s, but only 600 of each have been made, issued in presentation boxes with an LTM screw to M bayonet mount adapter.
Both lenses feature an impressive level of engineering, easily matching that of the German patriarch of rangefinder production. With barrels machined from brass, they weigh 147 and 191 grams respectively, each of the finely made bayonet mount adapters, circular screw metal hoods and caps adding a little more.
The Heliar 50mm f/3.5 is a collapsible lens styled after the famous Leica 5cm Elmar f/3.5 launched in 1926, and was first made and marketed in 2001 as a companion to the Voigtländer Bessa T 101 camera celebrating the anniversary of that number for the introduction of the original classic Heliar lens design used on large-format cameras. But the first 35mm version was finished in silver chrome and was only available with the camera.
The 50mm f/2 reviewed on these pages in 2006 was also a collapsible model whereas this new limited addition to the range has a rigid body. It resembles the early Leitz 50mm f/ Summar launched in 1933, then available in nickel or chrome finish.
The new Heliar is possibly a more handsome piece of glass, fitted with a silky-smooth infinity lockable distance ring and aperture control ring full- and half-clicked-stopped over the f/2-f/8 range and full stops thereafter to f/16. Of the two samples loaned for this review by Robert White, the f/2 version has the ergonomic advantage.
It is one of the easiest-to-use rangefinder fitting lenses, slightly more compact and lighter than the current Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron and, like its slower sibling, takes a solid metal screw fitting hood. In common with other brand lenses of the type, more commonly available 39mm filters can also be fitted.
For the 50/3.5 Heliar, the f/stop range is 3.5 to 22 with an 11-bladed diaphragm half- and full-click stopped up to f/16. The 50/2 Heliar diaphragm has 10 blades. Both objectives have a cell design based on the original Dynar/Heliar Cooke Triplet modification of a symmetrical layout comprised of five elements in three groups, and, apart from the larger diameter elements required for the faster maximum aperture of the two lenses, emulate as far as possible the original 1903 Heliar configuration. The minimum close focus distance is one metre.
The f/3.5 version hardly falls into the bracket of exotic description reserved for standard lenses with larger maximum apertures. It is not the dream lens of outstanding low-light capability and, when fitted to a camera, it certainly lacks presence. But it is this unobtrusiveness, combined with an outstanding performance, that is part of its charm.
At medium 3–10m distances, possibly its best performance range, sharpness at the plane of focus is excellent at maximum aperture with medium contrast. Stopping down to f/8 brings little visible increase to these two categories, while allowing that increased depth-of-field lends an apparent but misguided improvement.
Beyond f/8, diaphragm diffraction brings a softer look to light-to-dark object edges noticeable in large-scale prints, but overall the performance is excellent. Neither geometric distortion nor vignetting is evident. The bokeh endowed by its multi-bladed diaphragm and glass choice are soft, smooth and well rounded.
The larger maximum aperture Heliar falls into a slightly different category. While retaining all the outward feel of an 80- or 70-year-old Leitz Summar or Summitar, this new multicoated lens endows a completely different look to images. Different from the Leica camp in all respects with regard to contrast and sharpness in the image centre or at the periphery, the f/2 Heliar has a fingerprint all its own with very rounded objects in out-of-focus planes.
Edge-to-edge sharpness at maximum aperture is good, slightly better in the centre than at the periphery, and contrast is about the same at this stop as for the f/3.5 model. Very slight vignetting is visible when the subject comprises large areas of single light tones, but for general-use purposes it is not an issue and, if anything, adds extra depth to the image.
Stopping down to f/4 brings in a higher level of sharpness at the centre for small image objects and by f/5.6 to f.6.3, excellent performance is achieved with moderate to high contrast and no visible corner shading. Geometric distortion is not evident.
Only results obtained from optical bench testing more clearly show the micro differences of resolving ability, contrast and other aberrations we are likely to experience with objectives designed and produced in the 21st century.
From a purely practical viewpoint and the only one that really counts in my book, field testing provides the more valuable data and shows clearly the aesthetic high and low points of lenses we might hanker after.
For technical work, such as document copying or macro or microphotography, other glass is more suited. These two lenses are clearly designed for pictorial work, and as such they offer an excellent all-round performance with both digital or analogue at relatively modest cost
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