Voigtlander has made some fantastic lenses over the years. Their 21mm F/4 Color Skopar is definitely in their list of strong lenses. I have spent almost nine months with this lens before deciding to write this review. There are several 21mm rangefinder lenses available, and price-wise this is the cheapest. Quality-wise, it is right up there with the rest however. I have also found this lens to be just as good or better than most equivalent SLR lenses. Actually, this would be my most used lens if it would only have perspective controls built in! Too bad rangefinder lenses don’t shift! (And no…Focus shift doesn’t count!!!!…this lens doesn’t focus shift either by the way)
This lens is very compact on a Leica M. You can see below a picture of the hood unscrewed. I am not sure how effective this lens hood is. Voigtlander offers a large square hood, but I have yet to try it. No problems with off axis light yet.
On the Leica M8 with it’s 1.33 crop factor, the 21mm lens just about gives you the view of a 28mm lens. Wide, but not super wide. The M8 only has frame lines for a 24mm lens. Many people use an external viewfinder with any lens wider than 24mm. Focus is first established in the main viewfinder then composition is finalized in the external viewfinder. I have noticed that the 21mm lens is actually about the same view as the M8’s viewfinder. The 21mm lens calls up the 28 & 90mm frame lines. This makes no sense. The lens should call up the 24 & 35mm frame lines. If you are looking at the 24mm frame lines, the 21mm lens edges are roughly 3 – 5 frame line widths further out. If you go by the 24mm lines you will always be ok. If you go by what you see in the viewfinder completely, you should be fine as well. Corners might not be exact, but you will be extremely close. An external viewfinder will be more exact. Then again, exact edges are not part of the rangefinder equation generally.
This lens goes from F/4 to F/22 in half stops. It has a decently firm detent on each step of the way and a nice weight to the focus lever.
Notice how far the lens extends behind the lens mount.
I code this lens with a single black line. This is the code for the Leica Elmarit-M 21mm F/2.8. This is the non-aspherical code. I find vignette is well controlled and I do not have any cyan or magenta corners with this code. Unfortunately my copy of this lens does not have the recessed coding area so after a while the sharpie mark can rub off. Luckily it is only one single line so I can recode effortlessly anywhere I am with a marker. Overall, the coding doesn’t rub off too easily so this isn’t much of a problem.
A 21mm lens has HUGE depth of field. Scale focusing is extremely easy with the markings on this lens. From just F/16 you can get everything from .5 meters to infinity in focus. At F/11 you have .7 meters to infinity. That’s almost 2.5 feet and forward. That is huge depth from just F/11. Get something in the foreground when you compose!
From left to right: Soda Can, 21mm Color Skopar, 35mm Color Skopar PII, 75mm Color Heliar, Canon 70-200 F/4. The 21mm is just slightly larger than the 35mm pancake lens. In use they feel extremely similar.
Here is an aperture comparison. The lens is quite sharp from F/4 and up. F/8 and F/11 are the sharpest overall across the frame. F/16 and F/22 are softer due to diffraction. The center on F/4 is just slightly less sharp than F/8. On the M8, the biggest difference between F/4 and F/11 is how in-focus the distant subjects are and the definition in the corners. I am sure this would be different on the M9 where the corners might be quite different at F/11 and F/4. There is some vignetting at F/4. On full frame I am sure this will be a lot more pronounced. These were shot at about 3 feet from the center duck.
Yes, those shots all do look similar. The biggest difference between the corners and the furthest background with a 21mm lens will only be really visible if you are displaying large. I am concerned more with overall look and quality versus individual pixels. This lens is great overall across the frame. I find myself using it at F/4 or F/8 most of the time for what I shoot with this lens.
The 21mm Color Skopar can focus down to .5 meters. Unfortunately, the Leica M bodies can only focus down to .7 meters. You have to guess the rest of the way! Luckily guessing is actually easier than it sounds.
This is where the Leica M can focus to.
This is how close the lens can focus.
If you want to focus at .5 meters, all you have to do is focus on your target down to .7 and move closer. Keep moving closer until the “ghost image” in the rangefinder moves to the left edge of the patch while the original is on the right edge. Keep them both inside the rangefinder patch however. At this point, you should be at .5 meters, or close enough that the lens’ depth of field will be enough to keep your focus point sharp. Practice this a couple of times and I bet you will never miss! This technique works extremely well in real use. The image below is an example of what you will see at .5 meters through the viewfinder when you are in focus based on my technique.
.5 Meter View
Here are some images showing this lens in different situations. Notice the rendering is quite pleasant for a lens this wide. You still have depth and the feeling of being able to move inside the photo, but without being overly defined at F/4.
This lens does create some wild sun stars. Flare is well handled, but those stars really shoot out at F/8 and above. I don’t mind them persoanlly, but maybe some will get annoyed. The flare is really only when the light source is head on with the lens, or an open source. Diffused lights, and lights pointing off axis don’t nearly cause stars like this.
Note there are sun stars on this image as well…they are just very soft and minimized by the angle and F-stop.
When it comes to wide angle lenses and architecture, either they are good enough, or they aren’t. This lens definitely is. Distortion is extremely minimal for this wide a lens. In light room I occasionally correct with a point or two to reduce barrel just a bit. This is only if I have straight lines that really require perfection and show just a slight bend. Otherwise this lens looks pretty natural in most situations. Too bad you can’t shift it!
Ok I cound’t resist. Here is a shot of a model and a 100% crop. I find the detail displayed is just amazing for a 10.3 megapixel camera and a 21mm lens.
This photo was an eight second long exposure at ISO 320. I initially shot it dark trying to capture some of the mood. I opened up the shadows in Lightroom to see how the file held up. There is just slight noise in the top and side wood beams that were in complete darkness before. Over all the shot is quite usable, especially when some noise reduction is applied and adjusted a little more carefully.
Overall, I find this lens to be quite gentle in its rendering. I have a lot of room to work with in terms of contrast and color depth. Personally, I normally gravitate towards really contrasty modern lenses with a lot of initial bite in the image. This lens really grew on me and gives me the flexibility to do what I will with a photograph. I can use it as a “snapshot” lens with a set depth of field and know that whatever is in my viewfinder will get captured. I also find myself using it on architectural shoots for angles and detail shot ideas I normally would have overlooked with a large dslr. The sun stars will be a hit or miss for most people I think. Reducing aperture will help without a huge loss in depth of field.
This lens is definitely a hidden gem amongst lenses. The quality I have seen from this lens for less than $400 is amazing. Leica’s closest alternative is almost $3,000. Their 21mm Summilux is $6,500. That is definitely on my “to get” list. 21mm at F/1.4 is a unique look that I love. For the majority of my work, traveling, and a light weight panorama kit, the Voigtlander 21mm is hard to beat. The 21mm F/4 captures the spirit of Leica very well. Small, light, and excellent performance. For now, this is my go-to 21mm lens.