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  1. #1

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

    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


    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


    Riverside Café


    Riverside Café (interiour)


    Roderick


    Strolling Biker


    Streaks in the parking level


    Sunlit leaves


    Coffee and the news


    Waiting for transport

    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. #2
    Athiril's Avatar
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    Looks like a great lens to stick on a FED or Zorki

  3. #3

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    Quote Originally Posted by Athiril View Post
    Looks like a great lens to stick on a FED or Zorki
    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. #4

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    (reply)

    (is) all (this) really (necessary) (?)

  5. #5

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    Quote Originally Posted by gupa View Post
    (is) all (this) really (necessary) (?)
    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. #6
    mjs
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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
    Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming– “Wow! What a Ride!”

    — Hunter S. Thompson

  7. #7
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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. #8
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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.
    Michael Cienfuegos


    If you don't want to stand behind our troops, please feel free to stand in front of them.

  9. #9

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    Quote Originally Posted by philosomatographer View Post
    [...] 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).
    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
    Nathan Tenny
    San Diego, CA, USA

    The lady of the house has to be a pretty swell sort of person to put up with the annoyance of a photographer.
    -The Little Technical Library, _Developing, Printing, And Enlarging_

  10. #10
    mhcfires's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ntenny View Post
    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
    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.
    Michael Cienfuegos


    If you don't want to stand behind our troops, please feel free to stand in front of them.

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