Thoughts on Lenses

Why I sold my Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9 or: A cautionary tale of Actual vs. the Perceived need of a fast lens

Before I get into this, I just want to point out, this isn’t intended as a negative slant against the Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9. It is instead intended as a cautionary tale of a mentality I’ve suffered through owning one of these lenses; a negative mentality, that it would be unfair to hold the lens responsible for. I owned this lens for years, but I very rarely used it, not because it’s not a good lens, but just because it wasn’t quite right for me… And that’s despite the fact that I spent the entire time I owned it trying to convince myself that it was.

I’ve sold it now – a few weeks ago in fact – though really it was replaced as a focal length by the tiny Voigtlander 28mm f/3.5 quite some time before it went. I even sold the f/1.9 once before to my mate Ben, though for reasons I can’t quite explain, I ended up buying it back off him when he picked up the newer f/2 version. I hadn’t used it much when I’d first had it, I didn’t miss it when I was gone, and when I bought it back, I still didn’t use it. The whole time I had it, and the reason I bought it back was because I kept in the back of my mind that I “needed” a fast 28mm. Yet despite this “need”, I never found a time I actually required the lens to take a photo I wished to take.

I suppose that’s what driving me to write this post, this disparity between perceived need and actual need was so great that it caused me to continue to own a lens, be convinced it was of use to me, but not use it in any serious way for years. It’s sold now, this time for good, and parting with it after all that time and multiple ownerships has been an almost cathartic experience. It’s felt like the lens has been hanging around waiting for that moment where my photography finally finds a way to release its potential.

Voigtlander 28mm 1.9 & Leica M-A

A shot I took after I had the lens serviced – I had the work done in the hope it might make me want to use it more. It didn’t.

The right intentions

So how did I end up in this situation for so long? Well, fortunately I have a fairly reasonable justification for the original purchase. My early experiences with film rangefinders were often accompanied by experiences with a digital rangefinder; the Epson R-D1. I used to shoot R-D1 nearly as much as I did the Voigtlander R2a I had contemporary to it. It had a cropped sensor, 1.56x crop if I remember rightly. It also had frame lines for 28mm, 35mm and 50mm focal length lenses which gave approximately 44mm, 55mm and 75mm equivalent focal lengths respectively. I was a big fan of my 35mm f/1.4 Voigtlander lens at the time, but sometimes found it a little long for comfort on the Epson compared to the R2a. I wanted something wider but equally as fast. The Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9 was the closest thing to that requirement I could find.

Unfortunately once I’d bought the Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9, I didn’t shoot it that much. The Epson only went up to 1600iso and since I used to shoot primarily in dark pubs, every ounce of light gathering power was helpful. I also preferred the character of the 35mm f/1.4, and moreover its compact size made it a more comfortable lens to take out. In short, if memory serves, I stuck to the 35mm f/1.4 for the large percentage of the time and the 28mm stayed on the shelf. Really I suppose, that would have been the sensible time to have sold it…

My use of rangefinders dwindled a little for a few years. It’s odd to look back at it now, but there was an occasion when I was much more interested in Nikon SLRs. At one point I had pretty much all of the Nikon manual focus SLRs. I shot digital Nikons at work, and when I took photos recreationally, more often than not it was with one of those digital cameras or a Nikon F(something) and a 50mm f/1.2 (a fast lens(!)). Throughout this time I remained confident that my enjoyment with rangefinders would return, and whilst I sold some of the gear I’d accumulated, the 28mm f/1.9 remained steadfast in my lens box. Time went on and regardless of the kit I was using, my sense of a necessity to own fast lenses continued.

The fast/expensive lens misconception

Looking back at those times now I find I have an increasing sense of my own prior naivety. There’s what I think is a bit of a misconception with lenses that often makes me a think of a scene in a favourite comedy series called ‘Black Books’. If you’re not aware of it, look it up, it’s genius! If you are aware of it you might remember this scene from the episode ‘The grapes of wrath’ where Manny and Bernard are put in charge looking after a friend’s house. Through Manny’s stupidity they accidentally drink some very old and very valuable wine intended as a gift for the pope, get quite drunk and proceed to have the following somewhat slurred discussion:

Bernard: Old wine… is good wine…
Manny: Yes… but expensive wine is good wine also
Bernard: But the older the wine… the gooder it is
Manny: Yes… but by the same token, the more expensive the wine… the gooder it is also

This drunken slur is obviously filled with holes. Spending a lot on wine doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to like the flavour, nor does buying an old wine necessarily mean it’s going to taste any better than a younger wine. How I think this relates to lenses is hopefully obvious. If you take out the word ‘old’ and replace it with the word ‘fast’, and then replace the word wine with lens/lenses you end up with this.

Bernard: Fast lenses… Are good lenses…
Manny: Yes… but expensive lenses are good lenses also
Bernard: But the faster the lens… the gooder it is
Manny: Yes… but by the same token, the more expensive the lens… the gooder it is also

In short, it turns into how I think some (including a younger version of myself) perceive the camera lens. The Noctilux is (once again on this blog) an obvious candidate for poking a stick at here. It’s fast and it’s expensive and often gets placed upon a pedestal for either or both of those attributes. And this is despite the fact that it’s actually broadly impractical for most normal day-to-day needs where something smaller and not quite as fast does the job in a much more convenient way.

Now, this is not to say that I disapprove of the existence of ultra fast lenses, or indeed the people who choose to shoot them. If you make good use out of an ultra fast lens, great. But, broadly speaking, the people who do make good use out of them have a specific set of a few requirements, not just one. So for example, someone who owns a Noctilux might own one because they enjoy shooting 50mm AND they like absurdly narrow depth of field. That combination might just warrant the sacrifice imposed by the size and cost. But, if someone only bought a Noctilux just because they like shooting 50mm, you might ask them why they spent so much money. Or if they just like narrow depth of field, you might wonder why they don’t just shoot a longer but slightly slower and probably very much cheaper lens.

I’m sure it’s fairly obvious how this all related to my story?! The Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9 was one of the last vestiges of a dying mentality in me. A mentality I’d had when I was younger, less experienced and less in tune with my own actual needs as a photographer. I thought I needed faster lenses, and specifically I thought I needed a wide-angle fast lens. In practice I just never shot with one because the two attributes of fast and wide never crossed paths within the realms of what or how I want to take photos with the camera the lens fits onto.

Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9

A shot I forced myself to take before I sold the lens, just to see what it looked like at f/1.9

The specifics of a lack of use

But, short of a lack of desire to never shoot a fast wide for reasons of achieving a certain photographic outcome, there is another reason I never shot with the lens… I just never carried it around with me.

I like small gear

Sometimes I have to remind myself why I started this blog, it’s simple really, it was through a love of small cameras. In fact, when I started this blog it was just about compact cameras. Over time I realised I couldn’t not include rangefinders, I was shooting more with them, but they are also cameras designed to be small. This desire to carry smaller kit impacts on my shooting. I don’t like carrying bigger cameras, and as such (by means of extreme example) I don’t shoot medium format. Because I don’t shoot medium format, my photos will never look like medium format photos, and however much I like the way medium format photos look, there’s no point in me buying a medium format camera, as I just won’t use it.

A perhaps more relevant example of all this – and hopefully also of my slightly more rational approach to kit in more recent years – was when I bought a 50mm Voigtlander f/1.1. I bought it because I like shooting 50mm AND I enjoy shooting in available light. I sold it because it was too big and as such found that I didn’t use it – and that was despite me actually liking the lens. I replaced it with the 50mm Sonnar, which if you read my review you will see I initially bought as a punt based on its tiny size.

My situation with the 28mm lenses was no different. I didn’t use the f/1.9 because I didn’t feel strongly enough about shooting wide-angle low lit photography to carry a slightly bigger 28mm. Yet when I bought the 28mm f/3.5 lens, it ended up getting used way more. This was because – you’ve guessed it – it was smaller. In actual fact, in real terms it’s probably not that much smaller than the f/1.9, it can’t be more than 100g lighter and not much more than a centimetre or so shorter, but comparatively speaking I barely notice when I have it in my pocket. Since I find it less fuss to carry a small second lens than a big one, I find myself carrying it sometimes, and as such, I also find myself using it.

To go back to Manny and Bernard for a moment, the little f/3.5 lens I now shoot is akin to that cheeky £5.99 bottle of red that seems to go against their drunken summary of what makes good wine. It’s not expensive and it’s no vintage (it’s not fast), but you could drink it all day, and even a connoisseur wouldn’t turn their nose up at it.

In the 28mm f/3.5 I have a lens that cost me less money and is less fast, but actually got used, rather getting left on the shelf to age. (Just a point of note here – as my metaphor is getting a little confused, I just want to clarify: leaving a lens to age, won’t make the maximum aperture any bigger… …)

Interestingly, I think the Voigtlander 28mm f/3.5 is actually a better lens than the f/1.9 too – it’s sharper and less prone to flare – but that’s a story for another post.

Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9

The flare from shooting a 28mm f/1.9 into the sun

Obvious (rather than profound)

The simple message here is pretty damned obvious I’m sure…? If you don’t use a bit of kit, there’s no point in keeping it. The thing is, I think of myself as pretty good at rationalising my kit. I know what I need to shoot the things that I want to shoot, and I’m usually good at moving on the things that I don’t need. The proof is in this blog. There’s a very good reason so much stuff has been reviewed here, I’m quite good at buying stuff, and whilst still thinking it’s brilliant (the Contax T2 as an example), selling it because I don’t use it. It’s the only way I could maintain the buying of things, I have to sell stuff to buy other stuff. Yet despite this, the 28mm f/1.9 sat unused for years, not forgotten, but just waiting for a time that was never going to come.

Actual vs. Perceived need

Which leads me neatly to the point I wanted to make with this post that perceived need is something that can be very different to actual need. I genuinely felt that I needed to keep the Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9, yet I can’t remember a time I actually needed its fast aperture. To put a time scale on this, I’m talking about nearly a decade of ownership. It’s madness in hindsight and actually indicative of the power of a fixed mindset. I had it so long, I think it was almost just a habit to think that I needed it. What strikes me as evident after finally breaking that mindset is that whatever the reasons, however whichever equipment works, or indeed doesn’t work for you, keeping, or indeed the need to sell something can be down to a wider range of variables than just the photos that thing allows you to take.

In my case one of the big variables is quite simply the size of the kit. For my own sake, I intend to attempt to heighten my awareness of this, and possibly think a little harder in future about some of the amassed kit I own, not to mention the that I continue to buy. Through this, hopefully I will learn to rationalise the gear that I actually need even better, as however good I thought I was at that rationalisation process, it would seem there is always room to improve… Especially if you’re a compulsive camera buyer like me!

Thanks for reading,

Hamish

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26 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Blinx
    February 6, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Wide aperture wide angle lenses are specialist items, whose only obvious use is on manual focus SLRs where the extra brightness makes focusing easier. A lens as wide as 28mm has inherent depth of field, so there’s no bokeh premium with the a big maximum aperture. True, it may give you an extra stop in marginal conditions, but chances are you’ll be pushing the film anyway.

    As you say Hamish, small lenses are easy to like and mostly trump their disadvantages, which are fewer with wide angles. The first professional I assisted always stopped his portrait lenses down a notch because they performed better, while still offering background separation. Since then I’ve tended to judge a lens on how if performs around F2, whatever its maxim aperture.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 6, 2016 at 11:41 am

      Yep, judge a lens stopped down a bit and there is much less chance of issue/disappointment – my experience of the ZM Sonnar illustrates that perfectly I think

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Blinx
      February 6, 2016 at 11:50 am

      …I also have a 28mm 1.8 lens, and it rarely sees the light of day. The 2.8 options are always first choice.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Gábor
    February 6, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    This is one of my favorite episodes from Blak books. When Many is sent out to collect ingredients for the fake wine is brilliant as well.
    I am also having similar experience btw, only with longer lenses.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Blinx
      February 6, 2016 at 12:39 pm

      Longer lenses often need the extra stop, especially if you’re working on film. The only way to get a high enough shutter speed for sports photography (for example), is to accept you need a 2.8 aperture and the lens will be as long as your arm and have a front element like a dinner plate. If you’re shooting a Sony A7SII your aperture mileage may vary!
      For personal use those restrictions don’t always apply, and you can carry a telephoto that fits in a pocket. Yes, Black books was a great series and much missed.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Gábor
        February 6, 2016 at 3:57 pm

        I rarely shoot sports, but I enjoy taking portraits on film. I have rcently got a 85mm f/2 Nippon Kogaku lens which is a true gem. But I had to realize that I shoot it almost all the time at f/2.8. This lens is really heavy for a rangefinder lens, and I started to wonder if a much lighter f/2.8 lens would be a better choice for me. Although we are talking about only 1 stop here, but the size and weight differemce is already noticable.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Hamish Gill
          February 6, 2016 at 8:07 pm

          I spent months bidding on and not winning one of those Nikon f2 lenses! Have you some shots taken with it that I can see?

          • Avatar
            Gábor
            February 10, 2016 at 8:05 am

            Sure I have:
            https://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/nipponkogaku85cmf2
            The ones with “From :G_a_D_o” are mine.

            I have some more with subjects other then portraits, but I need to dig them out and upload them somewhere. But you get the idea.
            The lens is very nice both optically and mechanically. I really like the sharpness and the transition to the blureed background is also beautiful.
            This is a L39 version, so I use it with an adapter. My problems so far is the diificulty to nail focus. (I need to test again since my camera went under CLA). The other problem is the weight. This thing is really massive. At least my chrome version.

          • Avatar
            Hamish Gill
            February 10, 2016 at 12:41 pm

            I really wish I hadn’t looked at that link … Lovely stuff! Want!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    JKLPHOTO
    February 6, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Agree that we often want things we don’t need. But as you found, the size and weight would be analogous to taking an anchor swimming (it is nautical after all). Did you ever own the Nikon 28mm f/1.4 AFD? I loved that wicked fast, krinkle finish, all metal lens. But after moving from Nikon F100 bodies into the D1 series (early 2000s) I realized the “need” for a fast – wide was greatly lessened given the higher ISO capabilities of the digital sensor. Also, modern SLR focusing screens don’t show a brighter image past about f/2.8, therefore offer no manual focus advantage.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 6, 2016 at 8:02 pm

      I craved that Nikon 28mm for years! It’s funny, I find 28mm fast lenses really handy for work – I bought the 28mm 1.8 afs Nikon just after that came out. A great lens that I shot a lot for press and PR type work. I replaced it with the Sony 28mm f2 which isn’t as good, but gets used for similar things. I didn’t get into this in the post as it didn’t feel relevant, though thinking about it, perhaps having those lenses and finding them useful was what led me more to feel I needed an equivalent for my personal work…
      Of course, as mirrors you experience, with the Sony lens, I don’t shoot it wider than f/2.8, and often not even that wide, there is little point when you have a camera that is effectively ISOless, as the A7rii is. I shot a photo at 10,000 ISO at a wedding the other day – it’s so far within the realms of “useable” it’s scary really. Digital cameras are just nuts these days, which a subject I’m actually brewing a post on …

  • Avatar
    Reply
    jeremy north
    February 6, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Great post Hamish. I love the remark about lenses not getting faster when aged. I think some lens speed lust is down to the “because it’s there” idea. The f2 80mm Planar on the Contax 645 brought it home to me some years ago. The DoF is so shallow as to be almost unusable shooting portraits.
    I was thinking something similar recently when looking for a Leica ilia. I’ve seen a nice Leica iii but baulked because of the 500th top speed. then I asked myself when did I last use 1000th. Especially when using a slower lens. Madness!
    Long live stream of consciousness ramblings.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 6, 2016 at 8:06 pm

      I know exactly why you mean, as if that difference in top speed couldn’t be swallowed up by film latitude anyway… I go through silly mental loops like that all the time – the thought processes like this we all have must be so similar!
      These stream of consciousness posts are actually part of a 12 step plan to teach myself not to think that way 😉

      • Avatar
        Reply
        jeremy north
        February 6, 2016 at 11:28 pm

        If ever you succeed with your 12 point plan, don’t let it stop your ramblings. Let them continue if only for our entertainment and provocation. Now I’m off to investigate if the Distagon 35/1.4 is better than the Biogon 35/2 which I have already. Could that one stop faster save my life? Is the M-A worth dropping over a couple of grand when I have a lovely M2?

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Hamish Gill
          February 7, 2016 at 10:32 am

          …*in American accent* “Find out next time in part 437,312 of Jeremy’s never ending journey”

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Hamish Gill
          February 7, 2016 at 10:32 am

          😉

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Abe
    February 6, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Great post. For gear to work for you it has to fit your needs. Which requires two things: the gear has to work well for a certain kind of photography, and you need to be doing that kind of photography. (This is also why one-size-fits-all camera reviews often miss the point. I appreciated your recent Bessa L review for just that reason: you recognized that it would be good for some purposes, even though it wasn’t a good fit for you.)

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 6, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      Yes indeed!
      And cheers! I had a similar response to the Petri Color 35 – really liked the camera, didn’t really like using it, but could see how some might. That’s a big part of the fun of trying cameras for me, working out how it is they work and who they are suitable for. In fact, come to think of it, I feel the same about the Leica M6 and M5 – neither of them did it for me, but both are clearly awesome.
      I’ve drifted into stream of consciousness again…
      🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Dan James
    February 6, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    Great and thought provoking post Hamish, I’m sure this touches a nerve with many (most?) of your readers.

    I’ve been lusting after a 58/1.4 Minolta MC Rokkor-PF for ages, as they look absolutely gorgeous (to me). Last year I managed to pick up my first Minolta film camera, an SR-1s with the 55/1.7 version of the lens, which itself is very beautiful, and very capable. The 58/1.4 is the same, but bigger, brighter, shinier…

    The SR-1s plus 55/1.7 lens cost me about £13 in total, and both work flawlessly. The 58/1.4 Rokkors seem to go for around £70-80+ on eBay, which is why I haven’t been able to justify the expense. (The average I pay for a lens is about £20, if that!) Especially as, besides the 55/1.7, I also have a later version 50/1.7 MC, and a 50/1.4 MD, both of which can produce wonderful photographs in my eyes.

    But that allure of the 58/1.4 remains, not because it would do anything my current lenses can’t (and some say the 55/1.7 is as good if not better anyway), but because it just seems so attractive and would make either of my Minolta film bodies look a million dollars. And I have this idea that this will help me enjoy using the lens and whichever camera I mount it on even more.

    Do you ever have this kind of aesthetic attraction to a lens, even though you already have one or more that would be at least as capable for similar purposes?

    Maybe partly it’s also what you say in your reply to Abe above – a big part of the fun is just trying different cameras with different lenses, and finding out how they “see” and capture the world… Once you’ve used a few 50/1.7 or 1.8 lenses and realise they’re pretty similar, the temptation and curiosity to try the 1.4s (and even 1.2s, though these jump in price many times over!) grows…

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 7, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Haha, yes I’d say I’m probably guilty of that! 😉
      But are we trespassing back toward the GAS horseshoe here (perhaps where a ‘2’ meets a ‘4’) or do you think you would retain this irrational”attraction” longer term?

  • Avatar
    Reply
    David Alexander-Watts
    February 7, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Interesting post, reflecting several of my own thoughts and experiences. I have three 28mm lenses – a Nikon Series E (which I used to use a lot), a Voigtlander f2 M, and the Sony 28mm f2. I hardly use the Voigtlander on my rangefinder cameras yet when I wanted a fixed-length autofocus lens for my A7ii the 28mm was the one I went to straight away and use quite a lot, perhaps a reflection of my past use of my Nikon Series E lens in the day when all I owned was a Nikon FE with three lenses, the 28mm, a 50/1.8 and a 70-200 zoom, which was my only kit from about 1983 to 2001 (aged 17 to 35) and which I still have.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 7, 2016 at 10:48 am

      Do you shoot different subject matter with the digital vs. the rangefinders?
      Without wanting to drift too far off topic… Have you tried the 55mm Sony Lens yet?

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Erik
    May 21, 2018 at 10:58 pm

    Where are the small (and affordable) 28mm lenses now?

    The Leica M Elmarit ASPH is 1.200 EUR+, the CV 28/3.5 is impossible to find at the moment, the M-Rokkor ist plagued by the White-Dot Pest and I’m not willing to take that risk, the Summaron 28/5.6 is fun at first sight but 2.000 EUR+ AND fiddly, the Canon 28/3.5 LTM may be a choice, the G-Rokkor LTM is also in the 1.000 EUR range in the meantime.

    What to do?

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      May 24, 2018 at 8:48 pm

      You make a very good point!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Grady Carter
    June 19, 2018 at 3:07 am

    A few years ago, I decided to get a personal camera that had a sensor that was the same size as 35mm film. That camera was the Sony A7 and I bought it before the A7II or A7RII came out. A revelation hit me like a ton of bricks when I was able to try on the Leitz 5cm f2 Summitar collapsible lens which was made, according to the serial numbers, in (1946). I shot a portrait session of my graphic artist friend testing the lens and the results had me me stunned at the beautiful rendering of the photos I had taken as a result of this vintage glass that look like an engineering art piece, that was long forgotten from another time period. I’m a commercial photographer, so, I’m very familiar about lighting, composition and creating a kind of story or theme to my images. The vintage lens had me in a position of seeing a well executed curve ball for the 1st time in my life from home plate. It was my 1st time experiencing such an artful flavor connected to a well planned portrait shoot. I had lens G.A.S. ever sense…!!!

    I am in a position now where I am slimming down my personal lens collection to a trinity set of rangefinder lenses for my same Sony A7 camera for people photography for art projects. I am looking for that elusive 28mm rangefinder vintage to complete my set. I also think that the CV 28mm f3.5 would fill that bill… maybe…

  • Reply
    7Artisans 28mm f/1.4 late-prototype early impressions preview - 35mmc
    November 16, 2018 at 9:46 am

    […] if I were looking for a carry-everywhere 28mm. Size and weight were two of the reasons I sold my Voigtlander 28mm f/1.9, the other being that I found myself disinclined to shoot fast wide angle lenses. As such, I hope […]

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