In this review I try one of the most unusual lenses I have ever used: the new Voigtländer 15mm/4.5 Heliar III. It’s an ultra compact, relatively slow, manual focus, super wide angle lens. It’s made for Leica M mount rangefinder cameras but can fit a wide range of mirrorless cameras with the use of an adapter. It’s one of the few truly excellent ultra wide angle lenses available for the full frame Sony a7 series of cameras. I put it through the paces on a road trip across the American Southwest, capturing ultra wide angle vistas in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Read more to hear about my experience shooting desert landscapes with this interesting lens.
The Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III is one of the few ultra wide angle lens choices for digital full frame mirrorless cameras like the Sony a7 and Leica M. When Sony first launched the Alpha 7 series of cameras, there weren’t a whole lot of great ultra wide angle lenses that also complemented the compact bodies of the cameras. The most compact, and most unique wide angle lenses available on the Sony a7 were adapted lenses originally designed for a rangefinder: lenses like the Voigtländer 12mm/5.6 Heliar and the earlier generation Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar II both provided compact designs and ultra-wide fields of view albeit with slow apertures.
But these older ultra wide angle lenses for M mount were not optimized for use on a digital sensor. As a result, many of these compact wide angle rangefinder lenses exhibit pronounced color shifts and reduced sharpness or smearing of the image on the edges of the image when used on full frame digital camera sensors.
Before the Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III, there were only a few compact ultra wide angle lenses that work well on the Sony a7 series without the problems of color shifts and corner smearing and those include:
It’s also possible to adapt lenses originally designed for DSLRs, but most of the ultra wide angle DSLR lenses available (e.g. Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6, Nikon 14-24mm f/4, etc.) are significantly larger than the lenses designed for short flange-focal distances. My Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 super wide angle lens can be mounted to the a7II but it’s really big, especially for a camera that I bought for its small size.
The 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III is the first compact super wide from Voigtländer that’s optimized for use on digital cameras. I primarily wanted to test this new lens on the Sony a7II as an affordable compact alternative to the more expensive Sony FE 16-35mm F/4 OSS or Leica Wide Angle Tri Elmar 16-18-21mm f/4.
So far, I’ve kept the 15mm Heliar III lens permanently mounted to my a7II for the entire duration of our current road trip across the United States. Diana and I have visited the steep, seemingly endless Kelso sand dune field in the Mojave National Preserve, California. We hiked through the multi-colored canyons of Valley of Fire, Nevada. We camped though rain and snow on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona. And for our latest outdoor excursion, we backpacked on the beautiful backcountry camping trail of the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. This lens has seen a lot of beautiful places and has met or exceeded most of my expectations at all of those locales.
Build and Initial Impressions
I like Voigtländer lenses. If you’ve never used one, try to get a chance to do so. They’re very nicely designed and made and the Voigtländer 15mm/4.5 Heliar III is no exception. It has all the staple high quality Voigtländer traits: all metal construction, a well damped and extremely smooth focusing ring, smooth rotation and positive detents for the aperture ring at half-stop increments, a 10-blade aperture diaphragm, and a very compact design. It’s 15mm focal length provides a super wide angle 110 degree field of view, perfect for landscape shooting.
The Heliar III is actually larger than the Mark II and the Mark I versions of the lens, making it the largest of all Voigtländer’s 15mm/4.5 Heliar designs. That said, it’s still a very small lens on the grand scale. It’s not much larger than the smallest native Sony full frame E mount lens: the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar T*, even with the necessary M to E mount adapter attached.
The lens has a 58mm filter thread that allows for the mounting of round filters, but, like its predecessors, the Heliar III has a built-in non-removable lens hood. The fixed hood may disappoint some users because it prevents the possibility of mounting a square filter systems like my Formatt Hitech 85mm filter holder. Square filters are a specialty item that have only limited uses, especially in the realm of digital cameras, but I enjoy the occasional use of a graduated filter for sunsets or a high stop neutral density filter for ultra-long daytime exposures. It’s a minor complaint for most photographers, but those who use a square filter system should take note that it’s not possible on the Heliar III due to the non-removable hood.
Mounting to the Sony E Mount
In order to mount the lens to my Sony a7II, I opted to use the excellent Hawks Factory Leica M to Sony E Helicoid Adapter V5. The adapter has a built in helicoid that offers the ability to both improve close-focus distance (from 50cm/1.6ft to roughly 3cm/1.5in) and the ability to calibrate the infinity focus position of the lens.
If you’re looking to adapt a Leica M mount lens to your Sony a7 series camera (or any mirrorless camera), try out the Hawks adapter, it’s excellent. Using the adapter I was able to shoot a lot of otherwise impossible wide angle close up shots. And with a calibrated infinity focus, it was very easy to shoot landscapes in the daytime or night without fussing about critical focus. Hover over the image below to see how the Hawks Helicoid adapter decreases minimum focus distance by extending the lens out from the camera.
If you’re using an APS-C mirrorless camera like one of the Fujifilm X-Series cameras, a Sony NEX or APS-C alpha camera like the a6000 or even a Micro 4/3 camera like an Olympus OM-D, the Voigtländer 15mm/4.5 Heliar III will also be able to mount with the use of an appropriate adapter. That said, I honestly would not recommend it for a cropped sensor camera. For the price, a native mount lens made specifically for your APS-C or smaller sensor camera will be more appropriate. Native APS-C lenses like the Fujifilm 14mm/2.8, Sony 10-18mm/4, or any of the kit 14-42mm or 14-150mm Olympus lenses, just as an example, are all faster and better suited for their respective APS-C or m4/3 camera systems. The native lenses have autofocus capability on their systems and are all priced reasonably. The Voigtländer 15mm/4.5 Heliar III is a dedicated full frame lens and should probably only be used on a full frame camera like the Sony a7 series, Leica M rangefinders or even film 35mm rangefinders like the Voigtländer Bessa R Series. You can use it on cropped sensor cameras but I don’t know why you would want to.
With the lens calibrated for perfect critical focus at infinity with the Hawks adapter, I did notice that the depth of field (DOF) scale on the Heliar III is likely more suitable for film shooting or for use on a lower resolution camera. It’s possible that this variation is due to my calibration of infinity but even after a little experimentation the DOF scale still seemed a little over ambitious. The lens seems to use a larger circle of confusion than that which is appropriate for the 24 megapixel sensor on the a7II. In use on the a7II, I found it best to use the hyperfocal markers for the setting two stops brighter than the actual aperture setting. For example, when using f/11 on the aperture, the best hyperfocal markers were for f/5.6.
Once I stuck to this convention, the lens became an excellent walk-around shooter. I just left the lens at f/11, set the appropriate hyperfocal setting and shot away, never worrying about focusing as the depth of field ensured that basically everything was in focus. Shooting with hyperfocal distance set on an ultra wide angle is one of my favorite ways to shoot adventure photography, landscapes, and street photography. It removes any concerns about focus (provided it’s set properly) and makes it possible to worry only about framing and composition. We’ve hiked a bunch on our trip and my favorite thing to do as we strolled through the desert was to just set the hyperfocal distance appropriate for f/11 and shoot from the hip. Many of my photos made during the daytime were done this way.
Excellent. That’s pretty much all there is to say. If you want a sharp ultra wide angle lens for your a7, Leica or other mirrorless camera, the Heliar III will not disappoint. It renders the world in a grand way and it does it with precision.
I’m not much of a fan of shooting charts or brick walls so all of my tests of image quality were done by shooting landscapes and night photography. If you’d prefer to view some MTF charts, look at some brick walls and sample photos of someone’s backyard, there are other reviews of this lens here, here and here. In the interest of helping you guys out, I have provided downloadable full resolution (24MP) jpegs for all of the images in the review so that you can decide for yourself.
All images here were shot on the Sony a7II and processed through Adobe Lightroom 5.7.1 with standard sharpening and saved as 95% quality jpegs. Use the links in the captions for the full resolution photos.
The 15mm Heliar III has a modern optical design and its improved optimization for digital cameras shows. Edges of the frame are very sharp all the way out to the very corners where there’s only a small dip in resolution at the absolute extreme corners. It shows absolutely none of the color shift problems that plague the older versions of the lens (and most M-Mount wide angle lenses when used on digital).
Sharpness starts as very good at f/4.5 and then increases to excellent levels until about f/8 or f/11 where the lens hits its maximum sharpness. Shooting at f/4.5 or f/5.6 still produces good results but the corners won’t be quite as sharp as shooting at f/11.
At f/16 and f/22 the lens starts to lose a bit of sharpness to diffraction but stays useable should you need to maximize depth of field or increase shutter time in brightly lit conditions. Honestly, in daytime shooting, you’ll probably get the best results just leaving it at f/11 and forgetting about it. Depth of field is already tremendous wide open so there’s really no incentive to shoot at any aperture other than f/11 in bright conditions. It has the best mix of corner and center sharpness , extreme depth of field, and (slightly) reduced vignetting at f/11 so that’s the lens’s go-to aperture setting.
Vignetting is high at basically every aperture setting just due to the nature of the lens. Most lenses with this wide of a field of view will exhibit strong vignetting and the Heliar III is no exception. The light falloff in the corners can be corrected in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw but I tend to like the characteristic, it’s a staple trait of most super wide angle lenses. With dark exposures, photos from the 15mm Heliar III will show dramatic, dark corners.
The 10 blade aperture diaphragm produces very pleasing 10-pointed star-bursts around bright light sources when stopped down, one of my favorite traits of the lens. The lens handles out-of-frame flare perfectly due to its built-in lens hood and when used with the sun in the frame, it produces a very small pair of greenish-blue or rainbow colored flare spots. It’s a very easy to avoid the flare if you want to and there’s nearly no reduction in contrast in these conditions so I would say that the flare performance is excellent.
Did I mention that this lens is wide? It fits nearly everything in its 110 degree field of view. I think that such a wide field of view can be a little bit difficult to compose while trying to minimize distracting details in the frame but the results are often dramatic and very satisfying. It makes some images in which you can get lost just from the sheer amount of detail all the way from the foreground to the background.
If used on a close enough subject, the Heliar III actually has some decent bokeh. Cases where you’ll be using minimum focus distance are probably a little rarer given the extremely wide field of view but in those select cases, it will still throw the background out of focus, especially if you use the lens in conjunction with a helicoid adapter like the Hawks adapter I was using. It’s not a typical usage mode for me to shoot close-up shots of insects or flowers but it’s fun nonetheless, especially with an ultra wide angle lens. Here’s a quick snap from my instagram feed that was made with the lens at minimum focus distance and full extension on the helicoid adapter:
Such a wide field of view can make portraits difficult. It’s easy to get too close to your subject and the results can look rather stretched if someone is too close to the edges of the frame. The lens is, however, excellent for capturing people in their environment in a natural way that, in my opinion, is more representative of the scene as it actually was. I had a lot of fun shooting photos of Diana in her red dress at the Kelso dune field in Mojave National Preserve.
There are very few lenses as compact and with as wide a field of view as the Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III. Most similar focal length lenses for DSLRs are often physically huge by comparison. Some, like the well regarded Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, are so large that I wouldn’t typically consider adapting them to a small camera like the a7II. The 15mm Heliar III is a lens that you wouldn’t think twice about bringing with you because it’s so compact. A backpackable ultra wide angle lens? Yes, please.
Some might argue that it’s compromised by its slow f/number and lack of autofocus but if you’re using it right you’re probably shooting at f/11 for maximum sharpness and depth of field anyways and you’ll never need to change focus from the hyperfocal setting. It’s also not that bad at night sky photography as I eventually found out.
During my time with the lens I, of course, also used it a bunch at night for shooting the Milky Way. I put together a Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III Astrophotography Review where I gathered my thoughts on using this unique (and rather slow) lens for low light shooting and astrophotography over on my night photography blog, Lonely Speck. You can check out the full astrophotography review by clicking the image below:
Overall, my experience with the lens exceeded my expectations. It’s very sharp, something I don’t usually expect from Voigtländer lenses, it’s very nice to use (seriously, that focusing ring is so smooth it’s almost therapeutic) and it’s really compact, much smaller than I initially expected from the original product photos.
The only real complaints I have about the lens are the non-removable lens hood and the fact that the hyperfocal scale is a little bit too ambitious. There’s no apparent technical reason as to why the lens hood needs to be fixed: there seems to be adequate room to have had a bayonet for a removable hood and the front lens element is small enough to allow for regular filters so I’m not sure why Voigtländer decided to keep the hood fixed. For hyperfocal shooting on a high resolution camera like the a7II, using the depth of field markers for the setting two stops brighter than the actual set aperture seems like the better setting than the ones marked on the lens barrel.
With such a short, small aperture lens, the depth of field of the Heliar III, even wide open at f/4.5, is still very large. At moderate apertures like f/11, the large depth of field allows for easy walk around hyperfocal shooting and tack sharp landscapes from the closest foreground details all the way out to horizon and beyond. It’s a great compact choice for landscapes.
At less than $800 for the Voigtländer 15mm/4.5 Heliar III, the lens is cheaper than the other comparable compact ultra wide angle lenses. The Sony FE 16-35mm f/4 is almost $1400 and the Leica Wide Angle Tri Elmar 16-18-21mm f/4 is a whopping $4800. The 15mm Heliar III is also much, much smaller than the comparable DSLR lens choices like the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 or Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 which makes it a lot more suitable for smaller camera like the Sony a7, a7R, a7S, or a7II.
The small f/4.5 aperture is not ideal for low light photography but as I conclude in my astrophotography review, it actually exceeded my expectations for low light shooting, producing some very high quality, aberration free photographs of the Milky Way, something I did not expect.
Overall, the Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III a fine super wide angle lens. It’s one of the best I’ve ever used with it’s compact design, extremely high image quality and perfect ergonomics. Minor gripes are its non-removable lens hood ambitious depth of field scale and strong vignetting but none of these issues noticeably detract from an otherwise excellent photographic tool. It’s even alright at shooting the Milky Way, who knew. It’s likely one of the best super wide angle lenses available for any of Sony’s or Leica’s digital full frame cameras today. 5/5 Stars. Highly Recommended.
Where to Buy
- Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar III at B&H
- Hawks Factory Leica M to Sony E Mount Adapter V5 at B&H
- Sony a7II at B&H
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