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