The Voigtlander Heliar Classic 50mm F2 was produced in 2006 as part of the Voigtlander 250th Anniversary R2M and R3M sets. Only 800 were produced in chrome and 1700 in black. In 2009 the same optics were used for the limited edition Rigid Nickel Leica Screw Mount 50/2 Heliars. Reference:Cameraquest
The Voigtlander Heliar Classic 50mm F2 is the photographic equivalent of a praise sandwich. If you are not familiar with the term, a praise sandwich is a technique used to massage someone’s feelings when you are giving them negative feedback. First, you praise the person. Second, you give them criticism. Third, you praise them again.
For example, Johnny “You killed it last quarter with your sales. During that time, however, you slept with three of your co-workers and ruined two marriages. That caused some headaches in the HR department. Moving forward, because you are the best salesperson we have, and I can’t tell you what to do on your personal time, if you can stop the extracurricular activity, I am sure we can continue to work together and advance you in the company.”
You see how it works. Positive. Negative. Positive. What could go wrong? Hint: don’t try this with your spouse.
In order to form the perfect praise sandwich, I need to deviate from the normal review format. With this lens, we will first need to discuss image quality and then we will get to the garden gnomes and parked cars.
Does it have SOUL?
The images from this lens define the SOUL of what I am looking for. Period. End. Of. Story. I. Am. Hooked.
If you consider the reason I started this search, you are reminded that I am looking for lenses that aren’t technically perfect. I am looking for lenses that make images that are a little rough around the edges. Lenses that create vintage-like images yet aren’t over the top retro gimmicks or are so old that they force me to have to deal with the headaches that come with buying vintage lenses like haze, balsam separation, cleaning marks, and all the rest.
If the world dropped a modern lens in my lap that checked all of those boxes, this one would do it. No joke. I am freaking out here with the Voigtlander Heliar Classic 50mm F2. Please note there is no sarcasm in this paragraph. I am serious as a heart attack. Seriously. Voigtlander nailed it.
I could go on and on about this one but, once you scroll down and see how long this review is, you will be upset with me for rambling on paragraph after paragraph waxing poetic about the Voigtlander Heliar Classic 50mm F2.
This lens lives in the zone between vintage and modern and it is exactly why I started this search. Conversely, if you are into MTF charts, you play the vignetting game, worry about corner to corner sharpness, and you zoom in to 500% to do anything other than retouch pores, this lens is not for you. While we are at it, this entire website is probably not for you. Let’s leave it at that. We need to get back to our praise sandwich because the meat is coming.
On garden gnomes and parked cars
I never had a beard. I don’t understand when or why bartenders became mixologists and started wearing vests. I don’t understand why I get catalogs in the mail encouraging me to buy bespoke axes or hand-forged knives from Norway. If you understand or value any or all of those things, it is possible that your experience with the Voigtlander Heliar Classic 50mm F2 lens will be different than mine.
The issue with this lens is the package. In researching this article, I tried to sort out exactly why collapsible lenses went out of vogue. All I could find were some guys (always guys it seems…do women ever post in photography forums?) reminiscing about how in the old days, a camera needed to be as small as possible so they made collapsible lenses. I know they were reminiscing and not pontificating because they all used the word Barnack or referenced Mr. Barnack like they were drinking buddies. Invoking the term Barnack seems to be forum slang for “I am old. I was there. I shot film before you were born. I know more than you. Trust me.” I also know they are old because their avatar tells me they are old.
Anyway, as time went on, pocket cameras were developed that were smaller than the original lens designers had anticipated so lens manufacturers decided to compete on quality and speed rather than portability. Faster and better lenses required a rigid body or else they would be too heavy and/or unmanageable if they were designed to collapse to save size. There were also issues with moving parts in the old collapsible lenses. I have no idea if any or all of that is true but it seems to make sense to my pea brain.
My worry with this lens, because it is collapsible, is that it is just too “bespoke” to be considered a rock-solid, day to day, performer. When collapsed there is a little bit of a wobble in the lens body which is expected because there are moving parts. I worry, however, that because of the motion, it will get tweaked in my camera bag. Can I take this with me on an international trip or paid shoot and rely on it or is there is a chance that it will bend in the middle? That is my real question/worry.
I have no idea if this is even a real-life concern but because my bag is a pigpen, and I am a brute with my equipment from time to time, this is something I am concerned about. I could not find any reports online about breakage but there were only 2500 made so it is possible they are all sitting on a shelf somewhere or taking pictures of garden gnomes and parked cars.
The other, not so minor issue, is that the focusing ring is super narrow, there is no focusing tab, and it has a relatively long focus throw. These are not deal breakers but the usability is not ideal and warrants more than a glancing comment. I know this is a throwback, classic, remake and all of that (I am not daft or missing the point of this lens) but it is more difficult to focus if you are working fast when compared to a lens with a modern ergonomics. TAAB’s won’t save you in this case. Because it collapses the TAAB gets in the way of the collapsing mechanism. Hassle.
The last thing to mention is that there were a few times I forgot to fully extend the lens and I missed some shots. That was 100% user error but, as a result, I stopped collapsing the lens at all and just leave it extended. I don’t know if this will damage the lens in my bag, if this is acceptable and/or if this violates the “bespoke” code. I do know, however, that leaving it extended obviates the benefit of collapsibility in the first place.
This brings up the question, why create a collapsible modern lens? Obviously, this is a retro, limited, edition throwback, lens and I get that. If that is the goal, this is a slam dunk winner. Bravo. I guess I just don’t prefer collapsible lenses. Now we know.
And this brings us to a discussion of 50mm Voigtlander lenses in general. In the 50 mm range, Voigtlander left some of us (or at least me) wanting. It seems that Voigtlander has either 1) fast lenses like the Nokton 1.5 or 1.5 that are larger than I want or need 2) bespoke awkwardness like the Heliar Classic 50mm F2 in this review or Voigtlander 50mm F3.5 VM Heliar Vintage which, even though it is probably phenomenal, looks like the nose of a proboscis monkey and my vanity won’t allow me to purchase one or 3) has a screw mount like the Color Skopar 50mm 2.5 and you know how I feel about screw mount lenses. Anyway, that is a quick explanation about why I am not reviewing other Voigtlander 50mm lenses on this site. Voigtlander will certainly have ample representation in the 28mm and 35mm sections of the website when the time comes.
Did I keep it?
This lens is the best. The package is the worst (for me anyway). It is not kak. There is your praise sandwich.
I am obviously a smitten kitten when it comes to the images produced by this lens. You are encouraged to take my usability assessment with a grain of salt. It is largely a comment on collapsible lenses rather than this particular lens. I see the photography world as Dr. Spock would. Logic and functionality are as important as image quality. If, however, you are more touchy-feely, you like your axes hand-forged with handles of reclaimed wood, you home cure your own meats, you ride a fixed gear steel bike, and you sit around listening to Beach House on vinyl, the Voigtlander Heliar Classic 50mm F2 might just be a perfect 50mm F2 lens.
Before you ask, the answer is yes. I do see the irony in a guy reviewing lenses for a Leica camera casting dispersions at people who enjoy spending time with bespoke axes. Crazy world eh?
So, did I keep it? Did the SOUL outweigh the usability issues? The suspense is probably not killing you but my hope is that you are interested enough to see how things turned out with my search, learn more about which lenses I kept and which lenses I sold, and learn that you will check out my Leica Lenses for Normal People:The Recommended Lists. Access will cost you about 2 cups of coffee but it will likely save you hundreds of dollars in time and headaches.Your support is also greatly appreciated.
Sample Images (Coronavirus quarantine edition)