A week-end with the Heliar 50mm f/3.5 (a review)

Discussion in 'Rangefinder Forum' started by philosomatographer, Oct 28, 2010.

  1. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    At a garage sale of sorts, I found a new-in-box Voigtländer Bessa-T Heliar 101 anniversary set, which, as you may know, involves the perfectly nasty little Bessa-T (black), as well as the quirky but sublime collapsible Heliar 50mm f/3.5 lens, hailed by many as mankind's finest creation in this focal length (even Erwin Puts admits that Leica has no equal in this focal length).

    Now, I am not a rangefinder guy (there isn't a rangefinder in this world with the viewfinder accuracy and clarity, nor the "operate-by-feel" ergonomics, of an Olympus OM-3Ti (my always-by-my-side camera), which is incidentally also less bulky than the Bessa rangefinder to boot) but as a darkroom addict, I just had to see - for myself - the rendering of this lens.

    Debating on what would be the perfect companion to (and deserving of) this jewel of a lens, I obtained a mint Leica M3 "single stroke" body for about $500, and boy was I right - I can't imagine a prettier or better-built combination than these two.

    As jewelry, the M3 is certainly a thing of beauty - the only camera body I have used with an apparently higher construction quality is a Linho Technika - and that shutter (and release) and wind mechanism could not possibly be better in my mind. Sadly, the OM-3Ti feels "cheap" compared to an M3.

    It's quite pleasant to use with a 50mm lens - the viewfinder is only "OK", but the immensely accurate focusing (for certain subjects, as long as they are 1m or further away, and contain simple, vertically-oriented detail which caters for focusing by alignment!) makes up for it. By the way, this is the first time I've seen a camera which, with a 50mm lens, distinguishes between focusing on a building 10km away, and "true infinity" (a star, or the moon). Complete overkill, but wow - what a precision device.

    So, for a week-end I went with a kind of minimalist, "zen" approach to my photography. I tried to photograph everything that caught my eye, with the constraints of

    • One roll of film (Ilford Delta 400 - needed for the f/3.5 max aperture!)
    • One camera, one lens (M3, 50/3.5)
    • No light metering of any kind - if you can't guess exposure with B&W film and a 50mm f/3.5 lens, it's probably the wrong subject matter for this tool in anyway.
    • Afterwards, limit print size to 5x7in. It's virtually guaranteed that this lens is better than any other ever made for 35mm film, so there is no point in obsessing about technicalities - just the "soul" of the image! Besides, it'll be posted to this odd bunch at APUG.org, so resolution means nothing on web images :smile:

    After quite an enjoyable time (after getting to "grips" with the odd ergonomics of this lens, with it's focusing tab, infinity lock, and (especially) the fact that when you rotate the hood, you rotate the aperture setting!) I have so far found the time to print these couple of images. Not sure what conclusions you can draw from these, but I really like the look of this lens. One is so constrained, there are no "gimmicks" (shallow DOF, weird OOF rendering, strange angle of view) to make the image. It's all simply completely transparent, neutral, clear, with the most amazing resolution, contrast and flare-resistance that I have yet been able to discern (on prints so small, in anyway).

    Wishing the outside were inside
    [​IMG]

    Riverside Café
    [​IMG]

    Riverside Café (interiour)
    [​IMG]

    Roderick
    [​IMG]

    Strolling Biker
    [​IMG]

    Streaks in the parking level
    [​IMG]

    Sunlit leaves
    [​IMG]

    Coffee and the news
    [​IMG]

    Waiting for transport
    [​IMG]

    All except "Strolling biker" were shot not-so-wide-open at f/3.5 (all of these from my gallery)

    Conclusions:

    • The M3 and Heliar 50mm f/3.5 is a classic, non-intimidating, limited, and rather impractical combination
    • This combination might drive camera fondlers to new heights of ecstacy - it's almost a work of art
    • Unlike most other "pretty and old or retro" things, I am convinced that, with fine-grained film, this combination will offer image quality at the highest level attainable from 35mm film
    • It's likely that only after about 2 days will you become remotely comfortable with this lens's quirky ergonomics. I accidentally changed the aperture setting all the time, but after I removed the hood (I am of the opinion that you cannot make this lens flare, period) this was no longer a concern.
    • The much-vaunted "heliar look"? I'm always hesitant to assign "looks" to lens ranges, and get especially mad when people claim things like the "Zeiss 3D-ness" or the "Leica glow", etc. However, this lens does render images with an exceptional authority and "naturalness", extending to the out-of-focus areas.

    Even though I am a "shallow DOF" kind of guy (evidenced, for example, by my postings on the Zuiko 250mm f/2.0, etc), I must admit that if I were a digital shooter, and enjoyed rangefinders enough to purchase a Leica M9, a lens with such exceptional authority such as the Heliar 50mm f/3.5 would make me question why we would want faster lenses, and all their optical flaws?

    If you wanted travel photography perfection, with a rendering (imparted by the "low-energy" 5-element heliar deisgn, where the elements feature only the most minimal curvature) that is sublime, I could be happy travelling Europe with just this lens on an M9.

    As it stands, I would be very happy to produce 12x16in pritns of excellent quality from these ISO400 negatives, thanks to the excellent ISO 400 films available today.

    This lens challenges, and rewards, the photographer. I might hang on to it for those days that I wish to go ultra-minimalist.

    (I must admit though, after this week-end, looking through the bright, smooth, and accurate Olympus OM-3Ti viewfinder after the quirky, dimmer M3 finder was like a breath of fresh air (of course, a M3 finder is like a breath of fresh air compared to, say, a typical DSLR finder). But I "know" forever now that, for (especially distant) subjects, my focusing with a 50mm lens is dependent on my fallible ability to detect contrast, versus an immensely accurate rangefinder. Counfound it! (I want the best of both worlds) Oh well, we all pick our tools...)
     
  2. Athiril

    Athiril Subscriber

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    Looks like a great lens to stick on a FED or Zorki :smile:
     
  3. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    Certainly! I think it was a great idea of them to produce this in screw mount, and sell it with the M-mount adaptor. Hundreds of classic cameras this would look great in front of.

    Although I must admit, it's tricky enough to use the 50 f/3.5 in a hurry, it was doubly frustrating on a camera which had separate viewfinder / rangefinders. That is why I switched to an M body before really using the lens "out there".

    I think there are two distinct use-cases for this lens, for the "collector" and the "user". I am pretty sure that the "user" will always produce better results wit a co-incident rangefinder when one has to react quickly.
     
  4. gupa

    gupa Member

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    (reply)

    (is) all (this) really (necessary) (?)
     
  5. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    I'm not sure if I understand your intent, but no, it's really not necessary for you to read this thread (or reply to it) if you don't want to.

    Fact is, this Heliar lens is quite rare and unusual, and a number of people are curious as to what it's like as a photographic tool. I had the good fortune to obtain one (in South Africa, of all places) and decided to share some of my experience.

    I'm sorry I cluttered your life with unnecessary information, I recommend adding me to your "ignore" or "ban" list(s). On this forum, go to:

    "My Account" -> "Edit Ignore List"
     
  6. mjs

    mjs Member

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    I enjoyed the write-up. There are gazillions of cameras and lenses I'll never have the opportunity to spend a weekend with and an intelligent and well-written account is always appreciated. Thanks!

    Mike
     
  7. resummerfield

    resummerfield Subscriber

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    I've been thinking about this lens for some time, for use on my M6, but the smaller f/3.5 aperture has kept me away. Thanks for the review—I may just reconsider!
     
  8. mhcfires

    mhcfires Subscriber

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    Thanks for the review. I too bought one, I bought it mainly for my IIIf, at the same time that I bought a Nokton 50/1.1 for my M2. I enjoy my Heliar 3.5, it is one fantastic lens. I use it mainly with the IIIf, also with a IIIa, but I have used it with the M2. The Nokton is a heavy lens, the Heliar is much more minimalist, I agree. I like to go out with no lightmeter and do just as you did, have fun. I have a roll of Kodachrome 200 in the IIIf. I have only a few rolls left, I'll shoot one in the Barnack, and the rest in my M2. :smile:
     
  9. ntenny

    ntenny Member

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    Seriously---better than a good Summicron or the 50/1.5 Sonnar? Wow.

    The nickel version is apparently optically identical and still available; US$695 is a fair chunk of change, but if the lens is THAT good...

    Thanks for the detailed and interesting report. Personally I find these "experiential narratives" more useful and readable than the standard-issue purely-technical review style.

    -NT
     
  10. mhcfires

    mhcfires Subscriber

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    I didn't have a Summicron, just a Summar, so I really can't compare the Heliar with the Summicron. I am happy with this lens.
     
  11. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    Certainly (but this is to be expected for a lens 1.5 to 2.5 stops slower...) Test that I've read indicate that the Heliar shows, wide open in the corners, in excess of 100 line pairs per mm resolution. The Zeiss Sonnar is a special, "characterful" lens, but I doubt it could compare at any aperture to the Heliar, for any parameter if technical image quality. You just can't make a f/1.5 lens compete with a f/3.5 lens.

    It is basically completely flare-free, i.e high-contrast edges (as shown in some of my images) are rendered perfectly regardless of lighting or intensity.

    Hey - it has to do something special for being only a f/3.5 lens :smile:
     
  12. Xmas

    Xmas Member

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    cheaper too

    Noel

    P.S> worried about the Kat looks pregnant or overfed
     
  13. jawarden

    jawarden Member

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    Thanks for the review! That's a heck of a lens. :smile:
     
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  15. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    Where on earth did you get that idea? It's a perfectly healthy, lean, 6-month-old Maine Coon kitten (male).
     
  16. Xmas

    Xmas Member

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    I like the photo, but the kat looks fat, and as if he wants to be outside killing birds, that is part of the tension of the photo...

    Good to hear he is fit, but not bird friendly I fear.

    Noel
     
  17. stevebrot

    stevebrot Member

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    The cat looks fine to me as well.


    Steve
     
  18. blockend

    blockend Member

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    There's a lot to be said for smaller aperture lenses, especially on rangefinders where their lack of light transmission isn't a focus issue. Simpler to make and mostly cheaper. Have to say the images look sharp but no more so than any quality prime lens image over the internet. The difference will only register in a large (say, 16 x 20" +) print.
     
  19. ntenny

    ntenny Member

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    Yeah, I think honesty compels me to admit I don't really need 100 lp/mm in the corners. (Considering Nyquist, I don't think there are too many films that could capture it anyway, are there?) But dear ghod, what a price/performance ratio!

    -NT
     
  20. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    Indeed, I never made any claims as to the resolution exhibited in my images (this was on ISO 400 film to being with!), in fact I specifically stated:

    The point of this review was to share my experiences, and the "look" of the images.
     
  21. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    Not sure I really get the intonation of how you are saying this, but in fact I think (considering available lenses) the price/performance ration of this lens is not good (even though I happen to really like it).

    Despite that fact that it's optically a perfect performer at f/3.5, I suspect there are many $100 or $200 (new) 50mm f/1.8 lenses that will be hard to distinguish from this lens to the layman at that aperture. To appreciate the Heliar's rendering is a bit like appreciating a fine wine - It's very subtle.

    (Also, for this price, one can buy some interesting second-hand 50mm lenses, or even almost a Zeiss Planar 50/2.0 which will come very close in performance, and is almost 2 stops faster.)

    Like most things produced intentionally to be collectible, the price/performance ratio is much worse than some more conventional offerings. Since I'm not bought into a range finder system (and this will likely be my only lens for my M3) I'm not sure that I would have bought this for the new price of $700+. But for $400 (+body)? You betcha.

    You see, when most people sell film gear in South Africa, the buyer's market is small, and most people do not know the worth of what they are selling. That's my risk - I accumulate this interesting gear sold locally (I bought my Linhof Technika V kit plus 3 lenses for $~2500) but even for that I could not easily sell it locally, and shipping from here is quite expensive.
     
  22. blockend

    blockend Member

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    Indeed, my observation was a personal hobby horse against the fetishisation of absolute resolution in a lens for its own sake. Apparent sharpness relies on a range of characteristics, not least the texture in a surface revealed by lighting, micro-contrast in other words. The lens looks like it would handle nicely, which is reason enough to buy one.

    I enjoy user tests but unless it's a complete dog, most fulfil what a working photographer needs from a 35mm lens in practice, so I'd purchase on looks and handling.
    Edit: Last week Brian Legge posted this image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cannelbrae/5077016993/in/set-72157625017121419/ If he'd told us it was taken on a Leica glass I'd have agreed that it certainly looked Leica quality and that tightness and resolution is what you pay for. Sharpness is sometimes about expectation.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 30, 2010
  23. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    Hmm, I am going to have to disagree with you there (not that that isn't a very nice shot) -and, of course, processing has a lot to do with it - but even with a web-sized image, I would have to say my small images from the Heliar are in a whole different league in terms of resolution and microcontrast, compared to the posted image.

    If the larger version on Flickr of the image you posted above is "true" to the negative, then it would fall apart in a 12x16in print, whereas the Heliar negatives hold up exceptionally well (I made one larger test print).
     
  24. blockend

    blockend Member

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    I disagree. If you look at the photographs of Cartier-Bresson very few are highly resolved and a number aren't close to being in focus but they hang together just fine. The reproductions of Tony Ray Jones work (it's a long time since I've seen his originals on a gallery wall) exhibit an array of resolution and exposure issues and are all fantastic photographs.
    In the end it's a philosophical issue as to whether 35mm is the correct medium to pursue absolute tonality and resolution or whether grain and processing differences intervene before lines per inch, for most viewers.
     
  25. philosomatographer

    philosomatographer Member

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    We are discussing two completely different things here. I was simply responding to your statement that the image you posted, could have happily been made on high-resolving Leica glass, whereas it is clearly technically deficient (based on the posted web image) compared to (small, 5x7in prints). This (and I repeat) does not mean it's a bad image artistically.

    Many of the great images of the past (and present) have poor technical quality, but are favourable because of their pictorial content. I am sure that this will always be most important...

    You, however, seem to be stating that their pictorial content causes them to have inherently good technical quality in a large print? That's as absurd as the (common) reverse sentiment: That good technical content makes a good picture.

    But we digress: The intent of my post was not to discuss the artistic merits of certain photographs, but simply an interesting lens. Certainly, in the 1950s, nobody had access to a Leica M- or LTM-mount lens of anywhere near the technical quality as this modern Heliar lens. (I believe this to be easily demonstrable). I am pretty sure that careful testing might show only the Coastal Optics UV-VIS-IR 60mm f/4 lens to be optically superior in the 35mm format (sure the reference lens to date), otherwise, in all likelihood, the Heliar 50mm f/3.5 is "it" - and I believe that may have been the reason for it's creation by Cosina.

    Still, even with lesser lenses, great photographers made great images. I really don't disagree with that. And that's what counts in the end!
     
  26. blockend

    blockend Member

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    Can you explain how it's clearly deficient? I agree with the photographer that it lacks shadow detail which may well be a processing problem. On the other hand it handles contrast well at what appears to be a wide aperture in uncompromising lighting conditions, especially skin tone. It certainly doesn't look like a cheap lens image.
    The shots taken on your lens are not 'street' images and there would need to be a direct like-for-like comparison to make a definitive statement about which is 'best'. It's not a criticism of the Heliar which I'm sure is a superlative lens given its heritage and price and I have no vested interest in the outcome, being primarily an SLR user of manual focus Canon and Nikon glass, but I believe the eye is seduced by various issues that it takes for sharpness.

    As case in point many years ago I proof printed a shot taken on a 50mm Zuiko lens with 50 ASA film on Agfa Portriga at 5 x 4". A photography tutor disbelieved me that it wasn't a large format contact or at least a medium format image because at that enlargement it was to all intents grain free. The reason he did so was because the intensely textured sea wall contrasted with a white shirted man in intense sunlight gave no visual cue to interpret the film format. It was a good lens, better than good but it handled detail extraordinarily well from f8.

    Apologies for banging on but I do believe quality prime lenses of similar focal length are quite hard to tell apart and almost impossible over the internet.