The 15mm Heliar is a super wide lens from Voigtlander which has a Leica Thread Mount (M39). Unlike many other lenses that I talk about on this page, it isn’t ‘vintage’, though it is now discontinued – replaced by an updated version which has various additional features and improvements. While originally designed for 35mm cameras, it can be used on digital bodies like the M240 with the appropriate adaptor. The frame-lines when shooting with a rangefinder do not match up of course, given the nature of how they operate, but the field of view cannot be displayed through the camera’s built in optical viewfinder anyway – and so a separate shoe mounted optical finder is provided.
If you are into videos instead, you can watch one I put together on this lens here:
Voigtlander has a reputation for making great quality lenses, and this one is no exception. It is teeny tiny, with an all metal construction, and a permanent lens hood built in. Everything feels solid, and works as you would expect. The lens comes with a nice leather case, with a dedicated space for the optical finder (see below for more on that).
Here I would usually talk about the bokeh, sharpness and flare of a lens, before going on to talk about the things to watch out for afterwards. However, with a super wide lens like this, there isn’t really much in the way of interesting bokeh to speak of, and sharpness is less of a concern than with others. Even when you are shooting at f4.5 on an ultra wide, things will generally be in focus due to the depth of field, so, I’ve decided to highlight some of the idiosyncracies of this lens instead. However, it is worth noting that this is a moden lens from Voigtlander, and the performance of it generally is superb.
The original Voigtlander 15mm was designed for film bodies, and as such, the lens sits at a different distance to the sensor than it would with film. This results in a strong purple fringe around the edges of the image, which is more obvious in certain situations than others. This can be removed to some extent in post processing, but is something that I literally never do.
Despite being a rangefinder lens, the version of the 15mm that I have is not rangefinder coupled, which means that you can’t focus it using the rangefinder patch. The reasoning behind this is that at the 15mm focal length on a full-frame camera, the focal adjustment doesn’t make a huge difference – even at f4.5. However, later versions of the lens are rangefinder coupled, which is a nice touch, even if not all that necessary.
Because of the super wide focal length, the field of view with this lens is far too wide for standard rangefinders to display properly. As a result, you need an external, shoe-mounted optical finder in order to see what kind of area the lens covers. If shooting on a digital rangefinder, you can always use the Live View option, of course – and in all honesty that is what I tend to end up doing.
The version of this lens which I have does not have the ability to mount any filters, which means that the curved front element can be at risk of scratches or marks. There is a kind of rose hood built into the metal chassis of the lens itself which helps reduce this, but it is something to be aware of when out and about, to try and reduce the possibility of accidental scrapes. Note that later versions of the lens do have the ability to accept filters.
The Heliar 15mm is one of my favourite, and most dependable lenses. With its tiny profile and solid build, it looks and feels great on the Leica M. It’s small enough that I can always take it along with me on a shoot, and I am usually glad that I did.
I got the Heliar in a wee camera shop in Akihabara, Japan, back in 2016 – and it was the perfect lens to capture the enclosed spaces found everywhere in Tokyo.
The combination of an extended field of view and very short minimum focus distance means that you can capture so much more of the atmosphere of a place than you might otherwise, even when you are confined to a tight space. It is great for tiny bars, interesting backdrops, and when you are caught in the rammy of a protest. It is wide enough to imbue a certain and particular distortion of perspective, but not too wide that reality is completely warped. I have seen descriptions online stating that the lens is ‘awful’ and ‘unusable’ on digital because of the purple fringng, but I actually like it. It almost reminds me of a modern digital version of the imperfections of film. I’m not sure quite why digital shooters so often seem desperate to get the character of analogue, but then reject idiosyncracies like this. Embrace them.
While the maximum aperture is only f4.5, it performs pretty well in lower light situations due to its wide angle allowing in additional contextual light, as well as the fact you can hand-hold at much slower shutter speeds than you would require with other lenses.
At first I was a bit nervous about the lack of rangefinder coupling, because it seemed like I would constantly be out of focus, but this actually isn’t a big issue at all. Even when I’ve had the focus completely wrong, the images were still more than adequate. I’ve found that in fast moving situations, I can just swiftly lift the camera and grab a shot, and be fairly confident that I will capture something, whereas if there was rangefinder coupling, I’d be much less inclined to do so.
If you have a rangefinder with an M or LTM mount, you should have one of these lenses. It is great value for money, and fits that spot between fisheye and 35mm beautifully. It is one lens that I would replace immediately without question if I ever lost or damaged it.
The M mount version of this lens costs around £700, whereas the version I have here (more often found in silver rather than black) costs about £400 or even less on the second hand market. Given that price difference, I personally would always opt for the original.
The below are a mix of images shot on digital with my Leica M 240, and film, mostly on the M2.