Photography / Hands-on Review

Vintage Lens Review: Non-Retrofocus Ultra-Wide-Angle Lenses

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When 35mm reflex cameras (SLRs) began arriving on our shores 70-odd years ago, the widest focal length lenses available at the time were 35mm (about 60° AoV). Wider-angle non-retrofocus lenses existed, but because their rear elements back-focused to within 5 to 10mm from the focus plane (film or camera sensor), they proved impractical for use in SLRs, which require 35-40mm of back focus to accommodate the mirror box.

Mirror boxes aside, non-retrofocus lenses have a lot going for them. These mushroom-shaped lenses are simple in design, contain fewer lens elements, are smaller, and weigh less than their retrofocus counterparts. Nonetheless, a new design formula was needed to fill the need for wider-angle SLR lenses.

Pierre Angenieux, a French cinema lens designer, nullified the problem in 1950 when he formulated the first retrofocus design wide-angle lens. Unlike the focal planes of non-retrofocus lenses, which are located close to the front of the lens, retrofocus lenses incorporate additional lens elements stacked together in a formula that shifts the focal plane farther back toward the rear of the lens, allowing space for SLR mirror housings.

Though intended for cinema use (motion picture camera shutters require the same amount of space requirements as SLR mirror boxes), the design advantages of Angenieux’s new retrofocus design were quickly realized by Nikon, Zeiss, Canon, and others. The newer retrofocus lenses were larger, heavier, and required more lens elements than their non-retrofocus counterparts—but that was the price to be paid if you wanted wider-angle lenses for (D)SLRs.

In the meantime, lens and camera manufacturers began adapting old school non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses for SLR use while feverishly designing newer retrofocus wide-angle lenses to take their place.

Retrofocus lenses are also referred to as “reverse telephoto” lenses. If you’ve ever peered through a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens backwards you’d understand why. Non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses are alternately referred to as “true wide-angle” lenses.

Photographs © Allan Weitz, 2017

Nikon 2.1cm f/4 Nikkor-O with optical viewfinder on a Nikon F2

In 1959, the same year Nikon introduced its first SLR, the original Nikon F, the company also introduced the 2.1cm f/4 Nikkor-O ultra-wide-angle lens. Originally designed for use with Nikon’s earlier S-mount rangefinder cameras, Nikon’s “new” 21mm ultra-wide was retrofitted with a Nikon F-mount so it could be used with the F body, as well as the Nikon F2, Nikkormats, and other Nikon SLRs with a mirror lock-up mode. Because the mirror remained in the locked-up position when using these lenses, each lens came with a 21mm optical viewfinder that slipped over the camera’s film rewind knob, for image composition.

Other camera manufacturers also began producing non-retrofocus lenses for their own SLR camera systems. Included among them are the Leica Super Angulon-R 21mm f/3.4; Canon FL 19mm f/3.5; Minolta 21mm f/4 W. Rokkor; the Yashinon DX 21mm/f3.3; Yashica 21mm f/4; and the Zeiss 15mm and 16mm f/8 Hologons.

Leica Super Angulon-R 21mm f/3.4 with optical finder on Leica R8

If there’s a downside to non-retrofocus lenses, it would have to be vignetting, which depending on the lens, can be 1 to 2 stops of light falloff toward the corners of the frame. When coupled to digital cameras, these issues can become exaggerated because, ideally, light shouldn’t strike the sensor at angles greater than 90°, which is the case when it comes to non-retrofocus lenses.

The Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon, which loses about 2 stops of light toward the edges of the frame, comes with a dedicated center-weighted graduated neutral density filter to compensate for the falloff. 

Truth be told, most photographers don’t bother with these ND grads and allow the corners to go dark. Aesthetically, it invariably adds a healthy dose of drama to the photograph.

Depending on the camera and your subject matter, photographs captured using non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses adapted to digital cameras often (but not always) display cyan or magenta color shifts, color smearing, chromatic aberrations, and poor image quality, most notably toward the corners. This problem is limited to digital cameras—film cameras aren’t an issue. My personal experience shooting with these lenses has been positive, though it’s a common issue when shooting color. (Monochrome is invariably a safer workspace with these lenses).

It’s worth noting that many of the abovementioned image-quality issues become non-issues when using these lenses on APS-C of MFT-format cameras, simply because the edges of the frame are cropped from view.

One of the quirky—and for me, fun—aspects of shooting with non-retrofocus lenses on SLRs is that when you lock the mirror out of the way you effectively turn your reflex camera into a rangefinder camera, which has its pluses and minuses. On the downside, since the mirror is locked up out of the way, you no longer have through-the-lens viewing—you must compose images using an optical viewfinder.

On the upside, because you no longer have a mirror bouncing up and down every time you press the shutter you now have a quieter, more vibration-free camera. Your camera can now be used in (some, but not all) theaters and similar quiet zones, and because the mirror is in its locked position is easier to handhold at slower shutter speeds.

For me, the most welcome challenge of shooting with non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses mounted on SLRs is that because I no longer have the exacting visual assurances afforded by a reflex viewing system, it forces me to slow down a bit to be more diligent when composing my photographs.

Non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses were manufactured for a relatively short period before newer retrofocus design wide-angle and ultra-wide-angle lenses began coming to market. Today, you can purchase distortion-free retrofocus ultra wide-angle lenses as wide as 14mm (114° AoV) and as fast as f/2.8 for full-frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

Gallery: Non-Retrofocus Wide-Angle Lenses and Photographs

Nikon F (1965) with Voigtländer 12mm f/5.6 Ultra-Wide-Heliar SL ASPH (1993)
 
Contax G2 with Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon T* (1996)
Nikon Nikkormat FT-2 (1972) and a Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide-Heliar SL (2003)

The curtain on non-retrofocus ultra-wide angle lenses began its descent during the late 1960s, with the arrival of the first modern retrofocus wide-angle lenses, including the Nikon 20mm f/3.5 UD (1967) followed by the wider Nikkor 15mm f/5.6 (1973) and Nikon 18mm f/4 (1974). Zeiss Distagon lenses also began arriving on our shores along with newer and wider retrofocus offerings from other camera and lens manufacturers. By 2005, the last of the non-retrofocus ultra-wide angle lenses—the Voigtländer 12mm Super-Wide Heliar SL ASPH and 15mm SL Ultra-Heliar ASPH in Nikon F mount, ceased production along with all their quirky quirks.

Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide-Heliar SL mounted on a 1972 Nikkormat (left) and 12mm f/5.6 Ultra-Wide-Heliar SL mounted on a 1965 Nikon F (right) with optical finders

With the advent of mirrorless cameras and lens adapters, these unique optics have been experiencing a comeback, as I’ve seen a number of them come and go through the B&H Used Department.

Non-retrofocus lenses are easy to adapt to mirrorless and rangefinder cameras. Above is a Voigtländer 12mm Super-Wide Heliar SL ASPH (Nikon F mount) adapted to a Leica M-series camera and a Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon (Contax G-mount) adapted to a Sony Alpha A7R II via a Contax G to Sony E-mount  adapter.

Do you have any experiences with non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses? Which ones and which cameras have you used them with? We’d love to read your comments and anecdotes.

Discussion 16

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What about the non-fisheye Canon FD 14mm f/2.8 L, back in my film days I used one (barrowed) on my Canon Ftb and AE1 got some great landscapes and museum shots without a flash (not allowed) and I think would be great on a A7rm2 or A7sm2 system. I go to estate and garage sales getting old great lenses give cameras and lenses not needed to local college photography classes, they start with film and you never know who you will be helping!! I should have bought the lens when I had the chance!!! Vintage or not until I could afford a Sony lens I used (still do) all my Canon FD lenses and still do film to see the differance in digital. STILL FUN!!! Lastly my first super ultra wide Voigtlander 12mm f/5.6 with Voightlander close up adapter used on my A7s for Milky Way and inside capture was and still is a dream and now the Voightlander 10mm f/5.6 is a dream for inside/outside/ and lit caves with no need for lens correction just awesome.

I apologize, the Canon FD 14mm f/2.8 L is not a lens of the subject matter, great read and thanks for the new knowledge!!

During the 1970s I worked with a Hasselblad Super Wide C which had a Carl Zeis Biogon 38mm F3.5 lens on 120 roll film.  The lens had a 90 degree angle of coverage and produced an edge to edge super sharp image.  We had to use a groundglass attachment on the SWC when doing very close up work or the lens had to be precisely placed.  You would compose and focus  on the ground glass with the camera on a tripod, and then put on the film back when ready to take the actual photo. 

Hey Weems

I know the camera well - I own a super-clean SWC (1979) that I use often. In my opinion Superwides are one of the neatest cameras ever designed and a joy to shhot with.l

And yes - the image quality is outstanding.

Thanks for your thoughts!

AW

In the early 1960s, I relied on my 24mm Angenieux mounted on an Alpa SLR. It was my "riot" lens as a photojournalist. Diaphram adjusted with wheel on top of the lens. It was lovely. Got it and the camera at the factory in a tiny Swiss town at the end of the bus line that ran from the train depot. 

Sounds like a nice rig - Alpas are interesting to say the least - they even made SLRs for left-handed shooters!

Hope you still have it and use it on occasion.

AW

Early retrofocus fisheye lenses fron Asahi Pentax: Fisheye Takumar 18mm f11 (1963) and Super Fisheye Takumar 17mm f4 (1967). Both covering 180° on full frame. Still using my 17mm (purchased 1968) with DSLRs. Used some 100mm to 200mm non-retrofocus war surplus aerial photo lenses for astrophotography in the 1950s. Wide field and relatively fast but heavy, difficult to mount and required care in use as no shutters and no aperture control.  Used with 4x5 film but would cover up to 6x6 or 9x9.

You do sound like an ultra-wide guy... and I thoroughly understand...

Thanks for sharing your wide-angle history - it's a good one!

AW

The photos in the article reminded me of the wonderful graphic images that could be made with very wide angle lenses.  Once I recognized the beauty of wide vision, I bought an Olympus 21/3.5 and got many strong images with it, back in the days of 35 mm.  It became one of my favorite lenses.  One significant challenge with very wide lenses is making everything in the image relevant and part of the story, i.e. excluding that which is not relevant to the message you want to convey.  But that was all many years ago.  Nowadays I shoot architecture on Canon gear and am trying to get lines straignt and level instead of curved and distorted and angled.  Maybe I should go back to what was so beautiful about seeing wide in the first place.  Thanks for an interesting and informative article!

- Jake

Hey Jake,

I also use tilt-shift wide-angle for more 'disiplined' photographs and often use bubble-levels in order to eliminate or at the very least reduce keystone distortions when using these lenses.

Never-the-less I also love capturing what I refer to as 'controled Bozo imagery' when using ultra-wides. 

Thanks for the feedback!

AW

I nearly purchased a used Canon FL 19mm f/3.5 (non-retro-focus) for my Canon Ft some time in the very early '70s, but the salesman had miscalculated the tax by two cents and came back to me to ask if I had two cents.  My reply was. "Yes, I have two cents and for two cents you still have a lens."  Luckily, a few weeks later a more reputable photo shop was closing a branch for reconstruction and they had the newer Canon FL 19mm f/3.5 R (retro-focus) to clear for $149!  A steal!

The f/3.5 R was (is) an amazing, perfectly linear lens, much larger in diameter than the f/3.5 but employing only two extra elements (9 vs. 7) and not requiring an optical viewfinder or the purchase of a Canon Pellix, which utilized, as far as I know, a uniquely Canon idea of a fixed pellical mirror to divert the image to the pentaprism which lost about a stop.

If there were provision for file attachment I would attach the relevant pages from the "Canon Interchangeable Lens Guide (1969) which describes all of Canon's lenses of that time.

John,

Love your come-back line to the first salesperson! I'ts classic! The Canon 19mm is still on my radar and if I can snap a clean one up with a matching finder  at a decent price I'll probably make the leap.

Thanks for the feedback and the story.

AW

My 38mm and 47mm Grandagons for my Toyo view. The 38mm on a 4X5 can (will) get your shoes in the photo if you aren't careful!

I've used the 47 Grandagon but never the 38... sounds intimidating... I want one...

AW

Around 1974, at Altman Camera,in Chicago,  one of our more clever still camera mavens, Jon Sienkewicz, noticed that the movie section had

obtained a number of adapters for Leicina movie cameras, including one for Minolta lenses.   The Leicina and the Leica M2, m3 and M4 had the same rear spacing as the movie camera.   So, he grabbed a Minolta adapter and mounted the 16mm f2.8 Minolta Rokkor and put it on an M2 and began shooting interiiors of that gigantic store.    Ralph Altman had picked up a large stock of the 16mm Minolta lenses at a really good price and was selling them for $139.95.   We were soon peddling them with the adapter to Leica owners, who had no fisheye option, full field or not.

Dave Blocher

Dave,

You think they still have any in stock after all these years? I'm willing to pay a 'premium' of up to $12 over the $139.95 asking price, maybe $20 ... lemme know...

AW

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