I recently bought myself a Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar. I’d been looking for a lens to compliment my 50mm ZM Sonnar that took, frankly, less energy to use. I wanted an invisible lens, one that takes modern looking photos with little lens character, that’s small, and I could use with comfort and little thought. I’ve found almost all of this in the 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar…
A little while ago I reviewed the Voigtlander 50mm f/3.5 Heliar. That lens is possibly the best lens – optically speaking – that I’ve ever used. Mechanically though, it was a bit of a pain. My review goes into this in a lot more detail, but a précis of the outcome is that I found myself torn. I loved the results, and actually got on ok using it, but felt a little let down by its indulgent design. I very nearly bought one at the time, but since then I’ve drifted further and further from the idea. As wonderful a character as that lens has, having a lens that’s just easy to shoot with has felt like it’s of higher value to me.
To a certain extent, this mentality has come about from persistent use of my favourite lens, the Zeiss 50mm ZM Sonnar. I love that lens, the results are always fantastic. But, sometimes it’s just too much to think about. I know how to deal with the focus shift, I know how to use it successfully and repeatedly, but to do so I have to think about what I’m doing. Sometimes, for subject matter where the Sonnar character doesn’t bring anything essential to the table, I want a lens that, for example, I can set to f/4 and not then have think about focusing slightly forward of my subject. I want a simple set and forget lens.
Of course, me being me, as I alluded to in the first paragraph of this post I had a bunch of other specifications too. I wanted a small lens, I wanted a lens that’s comfortable to use, and I also wanted something that was fairly transparent in terms of its character and rendering. Speed didn’t matter. For low light, the Sonnar is king. Whatever other 50mm I had was to be an everyday carry lens when my brain is less oriented to photography, and more just to snapping at my favoured focal length.
There were a few options on the table. I’ve been down the Summicron road before, they are lenses I know I can get on very well with. But cost was an issue. The Zeiss ZM Planar was a strong contender. Zeiss colour and contrast without the fuss of the Sonnar and a much better price than basically any Summicron; it seemed almost obvious that this was the direction I should go… of course, therein lies the problem. Don’t get me wrong here, I know this is daft, but I wanted to try something that was less of a known quantity. The Planar sat in the watch list for a while, but it didn’t inspire a purchase. The Leica Elmar-M was another of that ilk. Ticked many of the boxes in theory, but I’ve not been particularly inspired by Leica’s modern glass for a while now.
Finding a Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 color-skopar
The Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 color-skopar is a fairly uncommon lens these days, or at least they don’t appear on eBay that often – but I had been watching for one. One day I spotted a job lot sale consisting of a Voigtlander Bessa L, 15mm, 25mm and a chrome 50mm f/2.5. It’s the chrome one I’d been looking for so I kept an eye on the job lot in case it looked like it was going to go for a good price. It did. In one of those rare moments an eBay bargain is found, I picked up the lot for an amount that I could just about afford. I sold the camera and other lenses, and ended up effectively paying a pittance for the 50mm.
A mixed reputation
Something that particularly interested me about the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 lens was it’s mixed reputation. There’s loads of lenses out there that are highly rated and as such arrive on your doorstep with a reputation that precedes them. This is fine if you’re gear-lust is defined by finding the “best of the best”. My gear lust is more heavily defined by intrigue, so a lens that’s not unanimously desired is a lens that more readily piques my interest.
The Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 review
If you read the sparse commentary about this lens online and you’ll be lead to believe that the optical quality is somewhere between “little better than a Russian lens” and “excellent”. Comments on it’s physical qualities are equally divided, but do at least point to the same reality. It’s often spoken of being small and weighty, with preferences from either side of fence as to whether or not that’s an advantage.
Handling & Size
Small and weighty sounds good to me. Leica M cameras benefit from a bit of weight in the lens, as thanks to the position of the strap lugs, lighter lenses can mean the camera looks up at you when hanging off a strap. The Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar is weighty enough to feel balanced on a Leica M camera, yet at the same time is also very small, especially for a 50mm. It’s actually so weighty for its size that unmounted from the camera surprises those who hold it. This might not be for everyone, but for the balance it provides most cameras, and for the feel of quality it exudes, I like it a lot!
According to a one website with all the Voigtlander lens info on it, the small size is achieved through the use of an additional element; 7 instead of the more common 6 found in many 50mm rangefinder lenses. I’ve no idea if this is true, but it’s definitely small. Of course, quite often, small size comes with inconvenient handling. The Voigtlander 28mm Color-Skopar is a great example of a lens that’s ever so slightly let down by its focus control being a small pin that pokes out from the lens.
This is not the case with the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5. It takes a little getting used to if your preference is for a conventional focus control, but – if like me – you can readily get on with a focus tab, you’ll find it very comfortable.
Personally, I like small lenses, but much of this preference is subjective. A lot of it comes down to the fact that I like the overall footprint of my gear smaller and easier to stow in a bag or even under a coat, but I must admit that this feels a bit of a tenuous justification sometimes. That being said, there is a real-terms advantage of the small size here, and indeed its thread mount. I read on a forum somewhere that the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 is actually the fastest 50mm lens that will fit on a Barnack Leica without being visible in the viewfinder. Actually, this isn’t true – I can see it through the viewfinder of my iiia, though it’s not too intrusive. One way or another, personally, I think I’d still favour the 50mm f/3.5 collapsible Elmar – it might be slower, but that lens is tiny when collapsed!
Regardless of that preference though, the size weight and handling of this lens is pretty much everything I could want from a 50mm lens on a Leica M camera. It certainly ticks more of my boxes on this front than the Heliar did, and even the ZM Sonnar for that matter.
As I said at the beginning of this post, optically, this lens seems to divide opinion. In fact – though information about its optical qualities is quite sparse – one thing you’ll read when searching online is that some people speculated that there was some copy variance due to quality control issues. I suspect the truth in the matter would now be hard to find, but these stories of copy variance always raise an eyebrow from me.
It’s my view that human variance is just as likely a cause. After all, one man’s “acceptably sharp” is another man’s woefully soft. As such – though it’s pure speculation – the “issues” some reported with this lens could just have easily come down to it not meeting expectations. It’s a slower new lens, so perhaps some buyers expected razor sharp results from wide open..? As I’ll come to in a moment, “razor sharp” is not how I’d describe it wide open. That being said, there is certainly nothing so terrible about mine that would point me to a conclusion that there is anything specifically wrong with it. It’s just that, in many respects, it’s probably fairly well described as an optically average rangefinder lens – that is to say, nothing about it jumps out as being exceptional, or indeed specifically bad.
Sharpness, pop, and colour
Fortunately for me, in at least one of the ways it’s average, I find myself in familiar territory. The Zeiss Sonnar is not a high resolution lens, especially wide open, nor is my favourite 28mm, the Voigtlander f/3.5 Color-Skopar. I can now add the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar to the list of lenses I own that I’d describe as such too. In fact, in many ways it renders quite similar to the 28mm f/3.5 – it’s contrasty, but doesn’t seem to have the resolving power you might expect or hope for from a slower lens at its wider apertures.
Of course, this contrast brings a subjective sense of sharpness that – specifically when shooting with film – is quite appealing to me. As I say, I’m fairly used to this sort of rendering and as such don’t find the lack of overall resolution to be too much of an issue.
In fact, shooting colour film I find it to be quite appealing. Like the 28mm f/3.5 again, it has strong colours which combined with the higher contrast bring a fair whack of pop to the images.
On digital, things are a little different. For a start, it’s softer and a little more smeary into the corners/edges of the frame – even stopped down a little bit.
Unfortunately, the lack of finely resolved detail when shot wide open also feels more apparent with images captured by pixels when compared to those captured on film. Unlike the ZM Sonnar that outdoes the need for resolution with its massive amount of contrast – at wider apertures at least – the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 just falls a little short. It just doesn’t have the contrast bite that the ZM Sonnar has.
I suspect all this is what some of the online detractors are referring to. Perhaps there’s an expectation from slower lenses to perform better at their wider apertures? As it is, I’ve experienced faster lenses than this that by f/2.5 are sharper. With this lens, in my experience, you really need to shoot at f/4 to get a properly “sharp” looking photo on a digital camera.
Another issue I spotted when shooting digital is a bit of purple fringing. I should say, I rarely mention this sort of thing, as it’s fairly readily corrected in software and indeed I’ve had no issue removing it with the chromatic aberration dropper in Lightroom. I mention it simply for the fact that it was fairly prominent in a couple of photos.
An optical shortcoming that’s visible in both digital and film results is the pincushion distortion. For a 50mm lens, it’s quite pronounced too. In this photo, you can see it on the horizon.
Though as per usual with these things it’s less obvious in most other circumstances. I can just about make it out in the building to the right of the frame here, though it’s not obvious to the point of off-putting…
… and even if it was, since all of my photography – film and digital – goes via Lightroom, it’s not something I can’t correct if I choose to anyway.
Bokeh and transition to out of focus
Specular highlights appear quite nice to me. They aren’t perfect, but equally don’t appear to be too edgy or distracting. In fact, generally speaking, bokeh is quite nice. It doesn’t fall off to out-of-focus as quickly or as characterfully as either the Heliar or ZM Sonnar, but it’s perfectly acceptable to my eye.
I’ve not managed to make the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 flare. I’ve not tried that hard, I’ll admit, but regardless I’ve been impressed by an almost complete lack of any type of flare in any of my images. Perhaps the hood helps.
Skip to the end
I really like the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5, but I must admit, a big chunk of its appeal lies in its build quality and feel in use. It’s optical qualities are easily up to my standards, though to a very small degree, I can’t help finding myself a little frustrated that it’s limitations become a smidge more visible when I use it on my Leica 262.
It is, in my opinion a very good, if not excellent lens… it’s just not as optically exceptional as the Heliar. If I could take the optical qualities of the Heliar and combine them with the mechanical qualities of this Color-Skopar, I think I would have the perfect every day lens. That said, if I hadn’t ever shot the Heliar, I think I’d be very happy with what I’ve found in the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar.
As such, as I’ve being trying to remind myself recently, when I set out looking for a lens to use as an alternative to my ZM Sonnar, I wasn’t looking for anything especially exceptional. All I was looking for was a lens that I could shoot with little thought and get good results, and really that’s what I’ve found. The only real limitation is that I can’t expect tack sharp images on my digital Leica when shooting wider open – but then, I can’t really see that I’d shoot it much like that anyway.
Ultimately, the Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5 handles really nicely, and optically is modern in its rendering with good bokeh, very little in the way of issues with flare, and – at least within a part-digital workflow – doesn’t have any particularly stand-out optical issues that can’t be easily corrected. By the merit of all of this, it makes for an almost entirely invisible lens in use, which was exactly what I was looking for.
More images can be found here
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