In this review, Ian takes a look at Voigtländer’s strangest manual focus 40mm lens for full-frame Sony E mount cameras: The Voigtländer 40mm f/2.8 Heliar. Its retro design is tiny and collapsible. Is it the perfect manual focus standard prime for travel? We take it across Europe to find out.
Sony’s a7 series has become the world’s favorite camera for adapting manual focus and vintage lenses. As the most affordable full-frame mirrorless cameras, the a7 line can be mounted with nearly any camera lens ever made. I’ve personally used many adapted lenses on my Sony a7S and a7II (full review) including lenses made for Pentax, Nikon, Canon and Leica mounts.
Voigtländer has released a very unique lens made specifically for adapting the Sony E mount system: the Voigtländer 40mm f/2.8 Heliar. It’s a strange and unique lens in that it’s a collapsible design reminiscent of the old Leica Elmar and Summicron collapsible rangefinder lenses of yesteryear.
Even stranger, the 40mm Heliar only focuses with the use of an optional helicoid close focusing Leica-M mount to Sony E mount adapter like the Voigtländer VM-E close focusing adapter. I already owned the more affordable (but less nice) Hawks Factory V5 adapter for my other Voigtländer lenses so that’s what I decided to use for this review. The 40mm Heliar is a Leica mount lens but it can’t be used on Leica cameras (you could mount it, but it would be stuck at infinity focus). It requires a Leica-to-Sony helicoid adapter in order to be able to focus. Weird.
Since the lens is so small, I saw this review as an opportunity to lighten my gear bag during a two-month trip through Europe this spring. I’m always looking for ways to keep my travels as light and compact as possible and there are few full-frame lenses as small as the 40mm Heliar for the Sony E mount. (My usual standard prime is the much larger Sony Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8, shown below next to the diminutive 40mm Heliar.)
After two months of using this little lens nearly every day on my trip across Europe, I’ve produced a lot photos with it and learned some of the quirks of its use. Here are some of my thoughts on what I think may be the strangest lens I’ve ever used.
The very first thing I noticed about the Voigtlander 40mm f/2.8 Heliar is that it’s tiny but very dense. It’s much heavier than you would think for such a small lens. It’s body is entirely of machined metal construction and it looks to be made very well.
All of the included attachments for the lens are also made of metal. That includes the two different lens hoods and two different types of lens caps. There’s a standard “tube” style lens hood with a slip-on cap and a smaller, flatter ring-shaped lens shade with a small screw-in coin style cap. I chose this lens specifically for its small size so I decided to keep the flatter lens shade and small screw-in cap during my travels across Europe.
The 40mm Heliar is a fully manual focus and manual aperture lens. Focus is controlled only via a helicoid adapter while the aperture is controlled by rotating the front aperture ring of the lens. The aperture ring is a smooth action, click-free aperture that rotates smoothly from f/2.8 to f/22. Whole stops are designated on the ring but there is no click into place when you’re at a whole stop setting. It should be noted that the front thread on the lens rotates with the aperture.
The 40mm Heliar is a collapsible lens. Just give the front of the lens a turn and push and it collapses for storage. The funny thing about the whole collapsing feature, in my opinion, is that it’s honestly not much of a real space saver. It only reduces the length of the lens less than an inch and the lens is already pretty darn small to begin with. I ended up finding that I preferred keeping the lens extended at all times when out and about. It’s just too slow of an operation to extend the lens and lock it in place, especially when trying to snap a quick shot. The only time the lens should be stored in its collapsed position is when you’re not using your camera at all.
The most notable quirk while using the 40mm Heliar is the fact that it requires an adapter to focus. Both the Voigtlander VM-E and Hawks V5 Helicoid adapters have their own focusing ring which extends and retracts the outer mount of the adapter. The focusing rings of the adapters are fairly close to the body of the camera so it feels a little bit cramped to use. A side-effect of having no focusing mechanism built into the lens itself means that there’s no focusing distance scale or hyperfocal markings of any kind when using the 40mm Heliar.
Another quirk while using the 40mm Heliar is the click-less aperture. It inevitably and inadvertently will shift away from its setting during use. There were more times than I care to remember when I went to shoot a photo at f/2.8 only to find aperture had already been bumped to f/22 somehow. Maybe I have fat fingers or something but nearly every time I would raise the camera to my eye after a short break in use, the aperture would be way off of the setting I previously intended to keep it on. It’s just too easy to bump the aperture.
Other than those quirks, I can say that the 40mm Heliar produced some wonderful photos. It’s sharp from the get go and produces some very vintage-y looking images. The 40mm focal length is a personal favorite of mine. It’s a hair wider than the typical 50mm and that makes it a perfect all-rounder for pretty much every type of photography one might encounter on his or her travels. Let’s take a look at some photos I have made with the 40mm Heliar over the last two months.
Image Quality and Samples
The 40mm Heliar traveled with me and my girlfriend Diana to a bunch of countries across Europe including Iceland. It served as a great walk-around lens for many of the days where I wanted as compact a kit as possible.
This first image from the top of Sacré Coeur de Montmarte in Paris shows readily the 40mm Heliar’s characteristics wide open. Vignetting is pronounced at f/2.8 and the extreme corners are always a little soft but sharpness is excellent across most of the frame.
With the Hawks Factory V5 adapter, the lens focused quite closely to about 1 foot (0.3 meters) but it’s certainly no macro lens. With the Voigtländer VM-E adapter, the minimum focusing distance is about 1.5 feet (0.5 meters). Distortion seems fairly well controlled.
I especially enjoyed the 40mm focal length. It allows for very natural perspective shooting where the field of view doesn’t become a primary player in the “look” of the image. Not too wide, not too narrow. It’s a classic standard prime and that makes it a great candidate for a travel lens.
After Paris, we eventually made it to the Czech Republic where we stayed for a few nights in Prague. For some reason I felt like Prague was the perfect place to shoot in black and white so that’s what I did for most of our time there. I used the default Sony B&W creative style to compose in black and white. Some of the street scenes in Prague were simply amazing and I feel like the 40mm Heliar did a great job a capturing the feel of the historic city.
Once I got used to using the focusing ring on the lens adapter required to mount the Heliar to my Sony a7S, focusing got a little easier, especially with the a7S’s focus peaking enabled. I kept focusing peaking active on the “low” setting for pretty much the entire duration of my trip. Peaking also usually made it apparent when the lens was unintentionally stopped down (still too easy a thing to happen due to the click-less aperture). Even so, the lens is still more of a slow methodical shooter that forces one to prepare for the scene that’s about to play out before the camera. It’s no action sports lens.
Prague was in full spring bloom when we arrived and the overcast skies of day were perfect for portraits among the many blossoming trees surrounding the historic town.
The 40mm Heliar excels is in portraiture in my opinion. The lens doesn’t produce a perfectly flat field and the vignetting is pronounced enough that the bokeh has a mildly swirly effect. I think it’s a great look that’s not very common on more modern lens designs. It’s very characteristic of a classic Voigtländer lens. Photographers familiar with the 40mm f/1.4 Nokton and the other standard primes by Voigtländer will know exactly what I mean.
I spent a few hours roaming around at night in the historic area near the famous Charles Bridge to capture people roaming the streets. Here, I learned to love the way that the lens renders bright light sources. Usually, most lenses need to be stopped down several stops to start producing pronounced diffraction spikes but the 10 straight blades on the 40mm Heliar make it possible to get star-spikes from about f/3.2, just barely stopped down. This made it possible for me to shoot handheld and nearly wide open during the night while still getting those awesome star-spikes on the street lamps.
I found my best success shooting the lamp lit streets of Prague by standing patiently at a street corner, waiting for the right moment to arrive. I made sure to scrutinize my focus carefully, often using the focus magnifier function on the Sony a7S (which I have mapped to the easy access C1 button near the shutter) to check that I had precision focus. In these darks scenes with brightly shining lamps the 40mm Heliar did a great job at preventing flare or ghosting.
The lens could have benefited from a focusing scale and depth of field indicators to assist with stopped-down shooting. It really made me wish Voigtländer had just made this a native E-mount lens with a proper helicoid so they could make that a reality. Rather than setting to a pre-determined hyperfocal distance for any given aperture, as I have learned to do with many other manual focus lenses, I often needed used the built-in focus magnifier function on the a7S to double-check focus.
As most lenses, the 40mm Heliar peaks in sharpness across the frame at around f/5.6 and remains excellent until about f/11 after which it starts to lose some fine sharpness due to diffraction. Even at f/5.6 the extreme corners stay a little soft but contrast stays excellent throughout the aperture range.
I often found myself preferring to shoot wide open. Sharpness is still excellent at f/2.8 and I really learned to prefer the look of photos made with the lens’s vignetting characteristics. Shooting wide-open at f/2.8 brings more attention to the central portion of the image and creates a little more drama in the photos made with this little lens.
Since the lens is fully manual, with no electronic contact between the lens and the camera, the lens is best suited for easy use when the camera is in program or aperture priority modes. Set the desired aperture on the lens and the camera will do the rest of the exposure calculation. Typically, on the a7S in lower light conditions, the camera automatically chooses a 1/60th shutter time as the slowest shutter time. 1/60th is adequate for this focal length. On the Mark II versions of the a7 cameras, a custom auto shutter threshold can be set. On the occasion when I felt that I needed slower or faster than 1/60th, I would switch to shutter priority or manual mode with auto-ISO enabled and set my shutter speed as desired.
I thought that the small coin-sized lens cap on the 40mm Heliar would be prone to getting lost but it was the exact opposite in fact. The threads kept the cap secure when the lens was being moved in and out of my camera bag and wasn’t prone to being bumped off. A different lens that also went with me on the trip had a more common plastic squeeze cape and I actually managed to lose that one in the course of my trip.
The lens hood, however, is rather prone to being unscrewed during use. It sits flush with the small aperture ring and so it likes to unscrew if you’re not careful while turning the aperture ring to lower f/numbers. I never had it fully come loose on me but it can be annoying to need to tighten it back up in the middle of shooting.
Our final stop on our two month journey was Iceland during the summer solstice. It was more of a landscape local so the 40mm Heliar didn’t find as much use as mu super-wide angle but I did have the opportunity to shoot some portraits. Many parts of the island were absolutely covered in purple Lupine flowers. Along the south coast of the island near Skógafoss, there was a long stretch of road where it was literally flowers as far as the eye could see. It ended up being a perfect setting for a photoshoot with my girlfriend Diana in her new Icelandic wool attire.
The finely detailed flower background made for a great test of the lens’s wide-open depth of field characteristics and really demonstrates the bokeh of the lens. On careful inspection, the bokeh on the edges of the frame is slightly less pronounced than in the center, an indicator of mild field curvature and mechanical vignetting. Out of focus highlights are a tiny bit nervous looking but not overly harsh or distracting. I think it’s a great lens for portraits.
Conclusions and Verdict
The Voigtländer 40mm Heliar is the strangest lens I’ve ever used. It’s bright silvery brass construction and weird shape turns heads and raises questions. I had multiple people ask me about my lens in the two months we traveled around Europe. I even encountered a fellow Sony a7 shooter that wanted to see some example photos the results that it could make while sharing some photos from his adapted Helios 44M. Buy this lens and expect it to draw attention.
When I look back at my experience with the 40mm Heliar, I can help but remember some of the annoyances of the lens before I’m reminded by some of the great photographs that it makes.
In the realm of image quality, the Voigtländer 40mm f/2.8 Heliar is a winner. It has a ton of character and it’s very sharp across most of the frame. Only the extreme corners soften a little at the lowest f/numbers and flare performance is very good. Vignetting is pronounced at f/2.8 but I think that makes it a desirable and even flattering lens for photographing people. I simply love the photos that it makes.
For travel, it is not as light as its size might seem to indicate. If a lightweight lens is important, photographers should consider the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 which is noticeably lighter when taking into account the weight of both the 40mm Heliar and the required VM-E adapter.
The build quality, however, is truly excellent. The lens is of dense all metal construction that feels like it will last decades with good care. I thought at first I might not like the silver finish but it seems even more resilient than my other black finished Voigtländer lenses which tend to quickly start brassing after a couple of months of normal use.
Where the 40mm Heliar falls short is in its strange handling and user experience. The collapsible design is less practical than it might seem. It’s already a small lens and that makes it nice for travel but I can’t help but feel that the collapsible design is a compromise over a more traditionally shaped lens like Voigtländer’s other 40mm, the Voigtländer 40mm f/1.4 Nokton, which is already a rather small lens. The click-less aperture is also too easy to bump, often drifting from where it was original set. The decision to release this as a Leica Mount lens that requires a separate focusing helicoid via the VM-E adapter is a strange decision on the part of Voigtlander, especially since they are now producing native E mount lenses.
If you’re looking for a slower, more methodical shooting experience with excellent image quality and character, the 40mm Heliar is a great lens to meet that need. It’s quirky operation feels like a step back in time and that may or may not appeal to all photographers. 3.8/5 Stars
Voigtländer 40mm f/2.8 Heliar
Verdict: 3.8/5 Stars
Other gear used in this review:
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