Voigtländer 40mm SL next to an EF 50mm ƒ/1.4. Note absence of aperture ring.
By James Leynse
The Voigtländer Ultron 40mm ƒ/2 SL II Aspherical (a long name for a small lens) is, to quote Mike quoting Sally Mann, "just about right." While Mike and Sally were referring in general to the 40mm focal length, the quote applies equally well to this little gem of a lens.
I recently acquired the newly released Ultron to use on my Canon 5D Mark II. The lens will work equally well on a cropped sensor camera, but it is particularly well suited to full frame. The lens is part of Voigtländer’s SLII series of lenses for Nikon, Pentax, and now Canon cameras. They come in three flavors: 20mm ƒ/3.5, 58mm ƒ/1.4, and 40mm ƒ/2. The 40 is what’s called a "pancake" (a lens type that's been missing from Canon’s lineup) as it's only about an inch long. It ships with a cute, stubby lens shade to which an included close-up filter can be attached. With filter on, the lens can focus down to less than 10 inches (.25m). The lens is chipped and couples seamlessly with Canon’s metering system but—and I will talk about this more in a moment—it's a manual focus lens.
Like many who read this site, I have long sought the elusive DMD. I‘ve given up on most point-and-shoots for anything other than party snaps and, while the new Micro 4/3 cameras seem promising, I’m not really looking to buy into a new system. What I really want is something I can slip into my bag with the cameras I'm already carrying.
The little Ultron meets this need nicely. The lens mounted on the 5D Mark II takes up only a little more room than the camera body alone. Hanging around my neck, the combination doesn’t seem much heavier or bulkier than my old Leica M6. Construction is solid, with none of the play found on many autofocus lenses. The rubberized focusing ring turns smoothly and precisely with nice "focus snap" when looking through the finder. Since the aperture on my Ultron is controlled electronically via the camera, my lens lacks the physical aperture ring found on the Nikon and Pentax versions.
Having cut my teeth as a photographer on a mechanical Nikon FM2, returning to a manual focus lens seems like coming home. I had forgotten the simple joy of watching the image come into focus in the finder. For some, learning how to quickly and accurately manually focus with the Ultron will take a little time. While with practice this does become easier, take it from someone who spent countless teenage hours perfecting his focusing on a bedroom wall; you will never best the speed and accuracy of a modern "USM" or "Silent Wave" lens.
However, speed isn’t really what the Ultron is all about. For my needs, manually focusing this lens is fast enough. If I really need to shoot fast, I can always use the nicely engraved depth-of-field scale to zone focus. As they used to say: "ƒ/8 and be there" is good enough.
To improve focus accuracy, I switched to Canon’s EG-S screen in my camera. As many of you might already know, camera manufacturers assume that most people only use autofocus. They put focusing screens into their DSLRs that favor finder brightness over finder "snap." Using a screen like the EG-S returns things to the old state of affairs but with the caveat that, when using lenses with maximum apertures slower than ƒ/4, the camera’s finder goes noticeably dark. This only effects the image you are seeing through the lens and not how the final picture looks, but it is something to be aware of before running out and purchasing the new screen.
Optically, there is very little to complain about with the Ultron. I am not really one for "pixel peeping." I have seen many great pictures taken with mediocre lenses and the inverse as well. That being said, I find this lens to be very sharp, with good contrast and pleasing bokeh. It suffers from slight corner softness wide open. It has mild barrel distortion (well controlled for this type of lens) easily fixed in Photoshop or some other program. To my eyes, it has a nice way of "drawing" and has good microcontrast.
Having now used a 40mm for the first time, I have to agree with Mike and Sally that this focal length does seem about right. It hits the sweet spot (on a full frame camera) between 35mm and 50mm. In the past, I have often gone back and forth between which of those I prefer as my walk around lens: 35mm is too wide to get an undistorted head shot, but a 50mm can be too tight for types of shooting where you want to emphasize more than one element. Forty millimeter seems like a good compromise: wider than a 50mm but not too distorted to get a flattering portrait. In other words…just right.
James Leynse is a professional photographer living and working in "the New York area." In other words…New Jersey.