Last year, Cosina’s Voigtlander division introduced a new lens in it’s SL II lineup: the Voigtlander Color-Skopar 20mm/3.5 Aspherical SL II. This tack-sharp 20mm wide angle lens produces stunning results and is a very good addition to any enthusiast’s lens collection.
Disclaimer: this review was made with a lens purchased from Cameraquest. No vendor/dealer attribution was involved in this review. All images except for the product shots were taken by the author using a Nikon D700 DSLR. All images shot RAW (12-bit NEF) and were developed using either Lightroom 2.5 or Aperture 2.1 on a Mac Pro (Jan 2008 edition) with 8-cores and 12GB of RAM running the latest version of OS X “Snow Leopard” at the time. All product images copyright 2010 Stephen Gandy All Rights Reserved and used with the author’s permission.
A little background (and a small sermon):
Autofocus lenses are great for certain things. I would never dream of shooting the ballet without one. Any time you need to shoot in a fast-paced situation, they are the cat’s pajamas. But when you want to shoot slowly and deliberately, nothing beats a manual focus prime lens.
I am also a Leica M shooter and one thing the Leica M-System taught me was that manual focus still has a place in modern photography. I truly feel that one’s best work can be achieved if you are willing to take responsibility for all aspects of the shot.
Granted, autofocus is faster, but it’s not psychic. It can only guess at what you want to focus on based on the spread and accuracy of the camera’s focusing system. Sure, there is a manual override on most AF lenses (especially the pro level lenses which are clutchless in design) but the mechanism doesn’t feel right because the lens was meant to be used in AF most of the time. I often worry about messing up my expensive zooms when I override the focus. Maybe I’m just being paranoid.
Another issue is that there aren’t that many prime lenses being offered by the Big Guys currently. This may change in the near future, but for now a really complete set of prime lenses (for Nikon at least) are only available from Carl Zeiss (their pricey, but most excellent, ZF2 line).
Along comes Cosina Voigtlander, maker of film-based, M-mount rangefinders and lenses, with a set of lenses for Nikon and Pentax (at first) and later Canon. More amazingly, their lenses (unlike Zeiss’ earlier ZF lenses) came “chipped” for all of the platforms. This meant that this lens, on a full auto DSLR like my D700, would allow all auto modes to function normally as the lens transmitted data to/from the camera and could be controlled by the camera’s controls. And, since they were designed from the ground up as manual focus lenses, the focus mechanism feels solid and buttery smooth to the touch.
Get on with it!
First off, this lens is small. Referred to as a “pancake” lens due to it’s short barrel length, the CV Color-Skopar 20mm f/3.5 SL II does not add a lot of weight or bulk to your camera system despite being almost entirely made of metal and glass.
Since it’s focal length is 20mm, the lens has a staggering amount of depth-of-field. I very rarely had to move the focus ring even while wide open. The lens sports a minimum focus distance of 20cm which is unusual for a wide angle. An aspherical lens element helps manage barrel distortion except during extreme close-ups.
The grid formed by the vertical bars and horizontal lines showcases the lens’ lack of barrel distortion. Distance to subject: 2m
Sharpness and Details
As I mentioned before, the lens is tack-sharp and has an amazing ability to capture details. The following shot was made at f/5.6. The lens was able to capture all of the intricate details of the cathedral despite being focused on Atlas’ butt.
This shot was made at f/4 and still manages to capture all of the details of the skyscrapers.
What about non-landscapes?
Wide angle lenses can be used for more than just landscape shots. I actually did a little experiment in candid street photography when I was last in New York (New Yorkers are very cool about being photographed. Street photography requires a lot more discretion in Miami…) Despite the lens being manual focus, its amazing depth-of-field more than compensated for my lack of visual framing. I literally shot photos while holding the camera at my side (with a couple of exceptions). Here is a little slideshow of the results:
Granted, some of the angles are a little wonky, and shots that are not straight on show some distortion, but that is absolutely normal for this focal length.
While this review did not include measurement against a standard bench image (my
garage studio is currently filled with junk from our shed) I have shot plenty of real-world situations with it enough to get a real feel for this lens’ performance. Let me sum it up in two words:
Light, tack-sharp, and easy-to-use this lens should be in every photographer’s bag.
The lens can be ordered from Cameraquest and retails for $549 USD. Lens hood is an additional $39.