Things We Love: Voigtländer Color Heliar 75mm f/2.5 Lens

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Sometimes the best lens isn’t necessarily the best lens. This statement rings especially true for me and my newest favorite lens, the unfortunately discontinued Voigtländer Color Heliar 75mm f/2.5. Since picking it up a little more than a year ago, this tiny, modest portrait-length lens has practically lived on my camera and seen more use than I could have ever expected. And despite nothing especially spectacular about it at all, I’m still excited each time I get to use it.

When I bought my first mirrorless camera, a Sony a7R II, a little over a year ago, I must admit that one of the most appealing aspects of the system was its ability to use adapted rangefinder lenses. I know it’s a faux pas to be so blunt about that, and many will scoff, considering how objectively impressive Sony’s own lenses are, but extreme sharpness and chart performance are not attributes with which I am typically concerned. I’ve had ample opportunities, here at B&H, to try many of Sony’s own offerings, as well as other native E-mount lenses, and am typically impressed by how good and consistent pretty much every lens is nowadays. And maybe that’s the problem. I enjoy using lenses for their character—a somewhat indescribable quality that cannot really be evaluated or shown in tests. I’m interested in rendering, not necessarily perfection.

Another large part of my enjoyment of certain lenses is their handling. I am mainly interested in working with manual focus (especially considering the ease of the focus magnification tool with the a7R II), so a significant draw for me is what it’s like to use and carry the lens. This is the reason I value rangefinder lenses so much: their smaller, slimmer, and dense builds with no extraneous components suit my minimalist tendencies. Everything from the simple-as-it-gets screw mount to the damped manual-focus action to the easy full-stop clicked aperture ring is what appeals to me about this lens; there’s nothing fancy, it simply works.

And then we get to the 75mm focal length. A somewhat bizarre focal length nowadays, where 85mm reigns supreme as the de facto portrait length, 90mm is a common macro length, and 70mm is where many zooms begin. The 75mm is a perfect length for 35mm rangefinders because it still takes up a sufficient area in the viewfinder for focusing, but offers the length needed to isolate subjects. Even though I’m not using my 75mm on a rangefinder, the slightly odd length still gives me this perfect in-between feel that isn’t too long and isn’t too wide. Much like the 35mm focal length is a goldilocks metaphor between wide and normal, the 75mm hits that sweet spot between normal and long. There is enough compression to pick out small objects from a cluttered background, but it’s not too tight to where I need to back up so far that my subject feels distant.

With only praise for such a humble lens, I couldn’t help but finish with an acrostic to sum up my feelings for this certainly underrated gem.

Very smooth manual focus action

Opened up, it still looks good

Impressive color rendering

Good sharpness from f/4 onward

The perfect, not-too-long 75mm focal length

L39 lens mount; perfection in simplicity

Ädapted to mirrorless makes a marvelous match

Not-in-focus areas filled with smooth bokeh

Dense, compact design

Exquisite compression and subject isolation

Really nice… just really nice

75mm f/2.5; more compact than the f/1.8

5 groups, 6 elements design

M-mount with a simple adapter

Manual focus, manual aperture

The Voigtländer Color Heliar 75mm f/2.5 is my new favorite old lens; what’s your favorite lens from yesteryear? What do you look for in a lens? Are there any lenses out there on which you can’t quite put your finger for why you love them so much? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

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Nice article, thank you for sharing it. I too own a Voigtlander lens but mine is the Superwide Heliar 15mm f4.5 for Leica M mount. I love this lens, it is small, focuses smoothly and is incredibly sharp and contrasty. I use it with my Leica M6 .85TTL and what I like most about it is that it slows me down because everything is manual--focus, aperture, framing--and gets me back to thinking about making a good image. I love shooting with my Nikon D3 (and D4 at work), but with the Voigtlander on my Leica I'm back to basics and in that quiet, contemplative place where photography takes me. Now if only Kodak would bring back Kodachrome...

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