Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III Lens Review
I am very fond of wide angle lenses. In fact, I have spent a number of years using a Leica Summilux-M 24mm f/1.4 lens on my camera prominently. Leica Camera manufactures excellent wide angle lenses with ultra-wide apertures namely Leica Summilux and Leica Summicron lenses. There were of course slower lenses like the Leica Super-Angulon 21mm f/4 lens, made by Schneider optics and rebranded as a Leica lens. It is performance stellar, even by today’s standards it offers better performance than just about all the lenses in the market. In this article, I will be looking at the performance of an alternative lens that works beautifully with Leica M cameras. Hence, it is called Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens review.
Leica Summilux lenses with 21mm, 24mm, and 28mm focal lengths are all superb performers in low light as well as for landscape photography at slower apertures. Of course, these lenses are above $5000 mark, some costing north of $7000 US dollars and they are legendary in all respects because at 21mm up to 50mm a variety of focal lengths give photographers the possibility to capture outstanding photographs that stand out in the professional photography community.
In my previous articles and reviews, I have written extensively about using Leica Super-Elmar-M 18mm f/3.8mm lens and Leica Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm f/4 ASPH lens which feature 16mm, 18mm, and 21mm focal lengths in one body design. They are all excellent lenses but again the price for a Leica Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21mm f/4 ASPH lens is above $5000 US dollars.
I know the price has often been an issue with owning a Leica lens and some photographers have been asking me about my opinion on wider focal lengths like the Voigtlander Heliar Ultra Wide-Angle 12mm f/5.6 lens for landscape and urban photography.
For those landscape photography enthusiasts, Leica camera manufacture a lens that is wider than 16mm focal length. There is, however, options like the spectacular Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 ZM lens priced at $4600 US dollars but again its price is close to a Leica lens. So, are there reasonably priced choices for wide-angle lenses for Leica M cameras like the Leica M10 or the Leica M240?
Yes. Yes. There is… Enter – Voigtlander Heliar Ultra Wide-Angle 12mm f/5.6 lens.
So what is Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens and exactly how does it perform?
At a fraction of the cost of a Leica lens, this ultra wide angle lens matches a Leica M10 camera or a Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) camera seamlessly. Voigtlander Heliar Ultra Wide-Angle 12mm f/5.6 feels like a pancake type lens and as well built like a Leica lens with its all metal body.
It can focus at a macro distance (30cm) to all the way up to infinity. It is light and compact, and cost a dollar shy of $900 US dollars. You might be wondering what the catch is, how come a lens that is so well built can be sold at one-seventh the price of a Leica Summilux-M lens.
The answer is simple, Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens is manufactured by Cosina which also produces Zeiss Otus lenses, reputed to be the sharpest lenses in the world. Cosina is a Japanese optics company that has some spectacular lenses priced at very reasonable prices. The company is keen on keeping their prices very low, and when we look at the pricing strategy of lens companies, their prices are not so far off from the median price of lenses in its segment.
Frankly, when I first began using a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens, I thought a slow lens with only f/5.6 maximum aperture would be only suitable for landscape photography applications. Then with some experimentation, I came to find that it offers many creative possibilities for architectural and street photography applications.
Distortion of Wide-Angle Lenses
Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens has a lot of distortion. It has to have because it is an ultra-wide angle lens and distorts considerably when the subject is close to the lens. Similarly, when photographing vertical objects, there is a distortion of straight lines. All is not lost though when you upload your photographs to Lightroom and select Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens from the lens menu, distortion is automatically corrected.
You might be saying, hey wait a minute that is cheating. I don’t have to do that with my Leica lenses. Well, in case you did not know, Leica M10 camera, for example, has already baked in “distortion correction” for your Leica lens when you attach it. Your Leica M camera automatically corrects your lens distortion without even asking you. In another word, what you do in Lightroom to correct the distortion of your Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens, Leica M10 does it in camera.
I was flabbergasted when I first shot some photographs with my Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens. At first, I did not want to believe what came up on the LCD screen after each shot. It had a unique angle of view that made everything appear different, but unlike a fisheye lens, it was a proper wide-angle lens that delivered results. Now, it has become one of my favorite ultra wide angle lenses.
If you were to ask me how would I describe this lens in one word, my response would be one word, fun. Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens gives such unusual angle of view, everything that passes through the optical arrangement of this lens’ design seems to be enchanted with a degree of magic that would be hard to describe without actually seeing the photographs.
At a Close Distance
At the closest distance, the lens has a way of distorting object that it feels like the photographs from a film scene in “Fear and loathing in Las Vegas.” The distant objects in the frame are pushed so far back that in an instant you can capture a photograph that you might have thought to be impossible to compose in a single frame.
Of course, having an ultra wide angle lens carries in itself the inherent risk of capturing images from a “fisheye” perspective, this is why it takes some getting practice to be familiar with using a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens.
What I found pleasing with portraits shot with this ultra-wide angle lens is the way the subject separates from the background without the bokeh we commonly look for in photographs. At 12mm focal length, the concept of creating a bokeh is almost nonexistent, but that is not why you would want to own this lens. Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens produces a three-dimensional effect by its mere design where the objects in the distance are spatially separated from the objects nearer to the lens.
For those who do love to use their lenses at f/8 or f/11 to capture “everything in focus” look for street photography, they might be pleasantly surprised to find out that they can do exactly the same with a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens and get more into their frame.
Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens is a very simple lens to use for almost all photography applications because the depth of view allows for almost everything to be in focus. On a Leica M10 camera, for example, there would be no need to bother with focusing, just point and shoot to capture amazing photographs.
Landscapes and Beyond
Interestingly, engineers at Cosina, (Voigtlander) have concocted a brew that allows this lens to capture incredible landscape photographs. The image seems perfectly “flat” yet feels like the only way to have a photo with such a wide angle of view would be to actually stitch multiple images together to form one panoramic photograph. Oddly, the photographs make sense, feels sharp, full of micro detail which I dare say could only be attained with medium or large format cameras.
When I returned to my studio to examine the photographs I took in the parks of Montreal, I had a hard time in believing the way they looked straight out of the camera. The contrast was fantastic, the sharpness, one of the most accurate I have ever seen, colors, Mon Dieu, colors were vivid resembling an HDR image.
Here were the photographs shot at f/5.6 with a lens that resembled the vibrancy of Zeiss 15mm ZM lens without the hefty price tag. Considering that Zeiss lenses sell about a third of the price of Leica lenses, a Zeiss 15mm selling about the same amount a top of the line Leica M Summilux lens should tell you that Zeiss had put all their technological know-how in making it.
Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens, however, delivers the unthinkable, a lens that is not only sharp but also resolves micro details in each frame captured. As you look at these photographs, you can observe the way objects at infinity appear to have three dimensionalities. I invite you to look at other photos shot with other wide-angle lenses, you will immediately begin to notice how a 12mm focal length creates such a unique photograph.
Photographs shot with a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens have the objects at infinity lie on the same horizontal plane much like how a wide-angle lens should produce images. This is very important because one of the challenges of photographing with an ultra-wide angle lens is that eventually the “curve” in producing a strong distortion that resembles a “fisheye.”
This phenomenon can be better explained with an example when you dial the lens at infinity, lens treats object further unlike a normal focal length lens, in this case, objects from twenty meters all the way up to infinity are at the same horizontal distance creating a “flat” look.
In the past photographers like Ansel Adams have used large format cameras to capture the depth that comes from having detail. As the film era cameras turned to digital format, the image sensors sizes were not able no match to large cellulose film used in the golden epoch of photography. Today, a full frame digital camera like the Leica M10 have approximately the same size image sensor as a 35mm cellulose film. Technologically, we still have a long way to go to reach the size of a large format film in image sensors.
Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens does something incredible that delivers results similar to a large format print by “squeezing more” into a single frame. In reality, what we are attaining with an ultra-wide angle lens like the Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens is a 121 degree of view in a photograph. Before the invent of such wide-angle lenses achieving such results were unthinkable.
Lens/optics companies even the newly established Chinese optics manufacturers are putting enormous efforts to produce lenses that not only deliver sharpness but have lens distortion and chromatic aberration. In this respect, what had been the domain of legendary lens companies like Leica camera, Zeiss, Canon, and Nikon are now being challenged by a new generation of optics manufacturers from China, and Korea even Japan.
From a manufacturing point of view, a higher degree of engineering and technical know-how is needed to produce an accurate, sharp wide angle lens. In yesteryears, a wide angle lens had to have a maximum aperture of f/8 to be sharp. Today, a Leica Summilux-M 21mm f/1.4 lens can open up to f/1.4 performing brilliantly in low light circumstances. This alone should indicate the amount of technological advancement and innovation that have gone into engineering better lenses.
It is for this reason among many that most landscape photographers use a medium format camera coupled with a wide-angle lens to capture micro details for their photographs. For example, Leica S (Typ 007) Medium Format DSLR Camera with a Leica Elmarit-S 30mm f/2.8 ASPH lens delivers results that are astounding by any standards.
Cosina manufactures Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens as an alternative for those who enjoy wide-angle photography. At 12mm focal length, a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens can be the lens for all your landscape of urban photography needs.
Of course, this lens is not perfect nor is any lens. There is always a trade-off, and Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens also has its Achilles heel. Firstly, it is not the most accurate lens because by its inherent engineering limitation associated with wide angle lens design. However, at infinity, it delivers results that most ultra wide angle lenses can have a hard time matching.
Secondly, Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens only opens up to f/5.6 which means that it is not the most suitable lens for low light photography lest you use a tripod.
It is not designed to deliver bokeh and has vignetting which need correction in Lightroom. If you have a look at the photograph of the girl at the street light, you can see that it lacks the bokeh but has strong separation from the background and some vignetting which I left for you to observe. Here it is the spatial distortion that produces this unique photograph. Frankly, I love photos that stand out from others, for me, this is a portrait that achieves that and more.
Ease of Use
Even though this lens requires almost no manual focusing skills, it is not a lens beginners to immediately capture stunning photographs. It is a lens that has a learning curve due to its unique angle of view, character. Looking at its focus ring, you can see that Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens focuses at a close distance of 30cm and dials up to 3 meters than to infinity, basically, forgoing the out of focus possibility.
For those who wish to use this lens on the street, “zone system” allows this lens to be in focus all the time, in effect acting as a point and shoot with your Leica M10 camera. Imagine a lens that whatever you did you were guaranteed to get everything in focus. This is what Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens is and more.
Naturally, photographs at a closer distance will bear characteristics that suggest psychedelic substance use if the proper angle of view is not carefully observed. For this very reason, the photographer must be very cautious when composing an image because Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens lends to unusual distortions at very close distances.
A Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens is not your average lens, for most applications but given its characteristics can be very useful for professional applications such as real estate photography or artistic interpretations of space or portraits.
I can see how a photographer can capture beautiful images outdoors as well as play with the indoor perspective spaces or occasionally photograph portraits to accentuate specific features of a person. I also think that with its size and weight it can be taken as a second lens on travels or assignments.
If I had a choice to use this lens in one location, it would probably be Venice or Rome with buildings, canals, and gondolas, Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens would be able to deliver incredible photographs that convey the spirit of Venice or Rome.
If you wish to make the most out of this lens use the daylight to your advantage. Golden hours marked by morning and late afternoon sunlight will yield results that would be hard to beat with other wide-angle lenses.
If you ever travel to Africa or the Amazon region in Brasil, this lens would serve as an ideal instrument to capture all the richness of colors. As can be seen in color photographs the vibrancy and contrast are astounding for a lens that costs only 900 dollars.
As I mentioned earlier, Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens is a solid, well-built lens with all metal exterior with a smooth focus dial that reflects the spirit of lenses that are built to last lifetimes. I have used a number of Voigtlander lenses, and I have never had any issue with their performance.
Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens has a complex design that incorporates the know-how that comes from decades of producing optics for some of the best lens manufacturers in the world. It has ten rounded aperture blades with an angle of view of 121 degrees.
One of the interesting features that you would see it dials to f/22, comparably, most Leica lenses dial-up to f/16. This would mean that Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens could be used on a bright day without the need of ND filters. For example, in countries like Brasil where the sun is intense during most hours of the day, this lens could be dialed to f /16 or f/18 coupled with an ISO setting of 100 for very sharp images.
In this article, I have also used my Leica M246 camera to capture some of the images as a reference; some photographs are in color while others are in black and white to reflect how an ultra wide angle lens will behave when used for monochrome photography.
Unlike Leica lenses, Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens has a touch of resembles Zeiss Sonnar lenses. I feel that is a good thing since the contrast and saturation in the photographs lend a feel of a painting. Secondly, the colors are accurate and bold especially when images are captured with CMOS sensor.
In comparison, Leica lenses deliver a more “natural” look with subdued colors. On a side by side comparison, a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens will deliver a more saturated image which can be called “artificial” by some Leica enthusiasts. That is, of course, not an accurate way of looking at images straight out of the camera because as saturation as well as contrast can be tweaked to personal taste in Lightroom.
Anyone skilled at Lightroom out can easily adjust any of the settings to achieve the desired photography characteristics with images from a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens. As with any other lens what matters is the sharpness and accuracy of colors for which Voigtlander lenses deliver exceptional results.
Personally, I did not feel that not much is needed to achieve great results with Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens, a simple, lens distortion correction, a click on the chromatic aberration, you will have a very pleasing photograph.
As with other Voigtlander lenses, Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens delivers very rich colors, and the contrast is just about perfect for shadows and highlights when the lens is correctly exposed. Even at f/5.6, there is a significant amount of shadow detail that can be pulled up to enhance the look of any photograph.
One of the most difficult issues that wide angle lens have is that they have vignetting issues. This is true for all Leica lenses or otherwise, for Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens, it just means a Lightroom adjustment when you transfer your photos into your computer.
Interestingly, at f/8 and above apertures, most of the vignetting is negligible for Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens and that means you can use the photographs straight out of the camera should you choose not to have any correction done in Lightroom.
I have used Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens to capture photographs from various angles to demonstrate its unique qualities. If you have not used wide angle lenses, this is a perfect introduction to learning to use them.
I love the way images have details and deliver unique angle of view. Their imperfections are the very qualities that make wide angle lenses so popular. Whether it is for landscape photography or street, it is always a pleasure to see the results from using an ultra wide angle lens.
In my photography workshops, I talk in detail about using wide-angle lenses in creative photography applications. If you do attend a photography workshop, take one of your wide angle lenses to discover what you can do creatively in furthering your photography skills.
Here are some of the links to get the best prices on some Leica camera, lenses and Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III lens.
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OZ YILMAZ – Leica Review Team