And Now For Something Different: Voigtländer 40mm f/2.8 Heliar samples and impressions
This is the Voigtländer VM 40mm f/2.8 Heliar. We'll just call it the 40 Heliar for short. It's taking things in a different direction from modern lenses you will typically find us shooting galleries for. There's no plastic or composite materials in here, just metal and glass. There's no silent wave motor, or image stabilization (hence the Sony Alpha a7 II we have it mounted on). There are no in-camera lens corrections, or profiles, or focus confirmation chips, or even f-stop clicks. It is collapsible, and comes with lovely metal caps and shades.
By itself, the collapsible $399 40 Heliar is unusable on the full-frame and APS-C Sony E-mount cameras that it is intended for. It has a Leica M-mount natively, and has no focusing mechanism, being locked at infinity focus when extended. Yet it was designed with the Sony A7 series in mind. How then does this qualify as an E-mount lens?
For an extra $309 (a mandatory extra $309) the Voigtländer VM-E Close Focus Adapter, or CFA for short (shown above separated from the lens) acts as this lens's focusing mechanism, and adapts its M-mount to the Sony E-mount. It isn't currently made for any other mount, so right now the 40 Heliar lens will only work with E-mount Sony bodies.
The CFA offers the same build quality as the lens - all metal and nothing else. The focusing mechanism is slow at first, but starts to break-in and become easier to turn with use. I like break-in periods, it makes things feel more mechanical, like an old vehicle where everything can be repaired (or ruined) by curiosity and a proper set of tools.
I used it as a detail shot second camera at a local drifting event between periods of action, and loved the look of the shots.
Mounted on the a7 II it might look a bit awkward, and its all metal construction makes the entire package relatively heavy. However, the mass is all concentrated towards the center of the camera. This prevents the lens from having any leverage, meaning this setup is easy to grip and carry. When worn with a strap, the camera isn't flopping around against one's chest as it would if a larger lens with its front element sticking further out would. That makes the metal heft worth it in my opinion. So what is it like to use?
For those finnicky subjects that aren't still enough for the focus magnifier, a continuous burst while racking through critical focus is a useful trick. It is how I was able to get this camera-shy sweetheart sharp.
When using a manual focus lens on a modern mirrorless camera, it's difficult to avoid some of the Leica-esque shooting experience cliches floating around on the Internet:
"Each frame requires thought."
"It forces you to slow down and really concentrate on the subject."
"I am reborn as a photographer."
We've all heard them (maybe not that last one, but I've been that carried away before), and it's simply a matter of opinion wether or not someone likes shooting in this way. For me personally, I did find the need to slow down and take the extra time to focus and manually adjust the aperture refreshing. Actually, I might even say I found it fun. A lot of fun.
"I don't know where the wheel went, Jim."
This setup might seem a bit silly compared to something more modern and similarly priced, like the Sony 35mm f/2.8 ZA for example. The Sony is going to be sharper, and it has autofocus, right? Well, I don't think anyone is going to be left wanting for sharpness after using the 40 Heliar. As you'll see in our sample gallery below, it can make some lovely sharp photographs.
An example of where focus peaking was misleading. Peaking was happening along a lot of the white reflections in the chrome, but focus ended up slightly forward.
There are a couple of drawbacks to using the Voigtländer. On the Sony a7 II focus peaking is not very precise with a manual lens mounted. To really get things as sharp as possible it requires turning past the point of focus in both directions - much like one would do on a manual focus SLR - and a degree of fine-tuning trial and error to really nail focus using peaking. Even then, the peaking when set to "High" on the a7 II starts showing when details are still completely out of focus, and if on "Low" it will hardly peak at all when light gets low. It is also easily fooled by any sort of specular highlight.
For shots that require a wide-open aperture and absolute focus precision, the focus magnifier is the more trustworthy option. Because the 40 Heliar has no digital components whatsoever, I've found that the easiest setup is Aperture priority and Auto ISO. Then I just pick the f-stop, focus, and have fun.
See the vignetting? Another quality of this lens that hinges its desirability completely on preference.
Speaking of which, sorry to anyone who loves to check things like aperture settings on our sample images. You'll find no lens metadata here people!
Whether you appreciate the particular quirks of the 40 Heliar is simply a matter of preference. Wide open it does like to vignette a bit, but sometimes I think the vignette and shallow DOF work together to give photographs from this lens a specific feel. I happen to like it, but to others this could be a total annoyance (especially in the studio). For those who simply appreciate the feel of lovely machined metal parts, the Voigtländer is a great option. On the other hand of course, if you need AF and you're after a compact, sharp prime, the 35 f/2.8 ZA is the way to go.
Also, a very special thank you to CameraQuest for providing the glass.