The world was a confusing place in the lead-up to the year 2000. Computers and stock markets the world over were destined to crash due to two-digit date codes, though the valiant efforts of Peter Gibbons and Michael Bolton apparently helped to avert that crisis. Nickelodeon’s All That thought you could wrap up any incomplete sketch with dancing lobsters. Whiskeytown disbanded, unleashing Ryan Adams’ solo work upon an innocent public.
Oh, and the Leica Thread Mount seemed to be making a comeback.
Several manufacturers toyed on the decades-old mount for one reason or another. Pentax made their first (and to date, only) LTM rangefinder lens. Ricoh briefly dabbled, as did Konica. Of all the makers making new LTM lenses, a newly resurrgent Voigtländer dove in deepest.
When the first 35mm Bessas launched in 1999 they were as primitive as a camera can be, and optimized almost exclusively for a range of very wide glass Voigtländer was making. The original Bessa-L lacked even a viewfinder, much less a rangefinder, and was simply a light-tight box for holding a lens, external finder, and a bit of film. This plasticky rectangle was followed by the more sophisticated Bessa-R in 2000, a proper rangefinder with TTL metering and a 0.72x viewfinder with marvelously bright framelines for 35, 50, 75, and 90mm.
But the Bessa-R didn’t enter the marketplace alone. Voigtländer sent it into the world with a suite of lenses to match the provided framelines, and the brand clearly intended to make a splash. This first big push brought some excellent lenses to market. They were meant to cover most common photographic situations, and included the 35mm f/1.7 Ultron, 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, 75mm f/2.5 Color-Heliar and the 90mm f/3.5 APO-Lanthar.
Where the camera itself was almost entirely plastic, the lenses were anything but. All four featured all metal construction, slick build quality, and impressive specifications. Even the names seemed designed for one-upsmanship. A Summicron sounds plebian when you can buy an Ultron.
Given the near-perfect compatibility between LTM and M-Mount via inexpensive adapters, it became obvious who Voigtländer were targeting with their new array of lenses. The emergent Cosina-helmed brand was obviously prepared to punch up.
The longest lens of the four lenses that launched with the Bessa-R, the 90mm f/3.5 APO-Lanthar, caught my attention for less vengeful reasons than sticking it to Leica. I’m going to be doing some traveling this summer, and I wanted a telephoto that was compatible with a mount I already had and one that would fit in a jacket pocket. As one of the most modern telephotos in LTM (if not the most modern) the Voigtländer seemed like the obvious choice.
I picked up an “optically perfect” example from ebay with just a few of the requisite “tiny dusts.” After waiting a few days for it to ship cross country, I slapped it on my Fuji X-E1 to give it a quick test and found a rather nasty surprise. While not immediately apparent when looking at the lens, when shooting outside in high light the Fuji’s focus peaking feature found fungus on the lens. Lovely.
Off to my tech the lens went, and while Al from Camera Works gave my lens a good CLA and a dose of anti-fungal cream, I did some research that I should have done before putting my money down. Apparently fungus on the front elements is a fairly common issue with this particular lens. Far from irreversible, but annoying. Buyer beware, don’t make my mistake.
But what returned to me was a pretty magnificent lens. Al, a seasoned camera tech and not easily impressed, thought the little Voigtländer was a pretty nice piece. In use it was much more than that. This lens did everything I asked of it, and dished out better colors than I expected.
The color quality, reportedly, comes down to a rare earth element used in the lens’ construction. Voigtländer made Lanthar lenses long before Cosina acquired the name. Lantham was used as an apochromatic element to minimize chromatic aberration, increase sharpness, and improve overall resolution. Reportedly this lens carries on that tradition, though there is some debate about whether or not the lens is a true Lanthar. In any case, it does have great color rendition, and excellent sharpness and resolving power.
While the slow maximum aperture might make this less than ideal for low-light work, this lens is a standout whenever more light is available- particularly when working outdoors. I found the subject separation to be reasonably good, and out of focus areas blurred nicely. With a maximum aperture of just f/3.5 we’re not going to see the same razor-thin depth of field as on a Canon 85mm f/1.2L, but it’s perfectly acceptable. As much as we can drone on and on about the desirability of fast maximum apertures, speed isn’t all things to all people. At f/3.5 this lens remains easy to focus for a rangefinder or mirrorless user, which would not necessarily be the case were it substantially faster.
Besides, if you want to shoot portraits there’s always the 75mm f/2.5 Color-Heliar.
Build quality is very good, with tight-fitting aperture and focus rings, nicely beveled edges on all moving parts, and an extra knurled ring near the base of the lens to aid in getting it on and off the threaded mount. The aperture ring is nicely damped, with half stop clicks from f/3.5 all the way to f/22.
Curiously, the small metal hood is designed to be left on the lens all the time, and that’s a good thing. With the hood removed the lens was a bit prone to flaring, and the front element sits far enough out to be vulnerable if unprotected. The lens cap doesn’t thread to the lens barrel, it slides on to the hood. It is also a perfect match for the cap on the 35mm f/1.7 Ultron, with which it shares a 39mm filter thread. Handy, if you want to keep your kit simple.
Tendency towards fungus aside, this is a pretty stellar little lens. If you’re an LTM shooter, this may be the most modern telephoto available to you. If, like me, you’re a Fuji X-system user this lens is a nice fit for the smaller throat diameter of the Fuji X cameras. Unlike a larger SLR lens, the Voigtländer feels like it was made to fit the Fuji. The diameter is right, the finishes are reasonably close to modern Fuji lenses, and the 90mm focal length becomes a very handy 135mm on the APS-C sensor.
As a short telephoto, it’s extremely compact and very useful whether shooting full-frame or with a crop sensor. Unfortunately it is not particularly cheap, with good examples hovering somewhere around $300 or more. The later derivatives, the SL and SLII, were made for numerous other mounts and are still more expensive.
With the caveat that you are extremely careful when checking for fungus and haze, I would certainly recommend this lens. For shooters like myself who prefer a longer lens in most situations, this little Voigtländer is sure to work its way into your kit for years to come.
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