One summer’s day, Goldilocks goes out to gather flowers. The woods are cool and shady, and birdsong fills the air. She ventures deeper than she has ever gone before. Presently she comes upon a clearing, and in the clearing is a little cottage. Too curious for her own good, Goldilocks knocks on the door. No one answers; she knocks again. Still no answer. Goldilocks pushes the door. It opens, and she steps inside.
She sees a great big room with a great big table. On the table is a 35mm interchangeable lens camera, and three lenses. She picks up the first lens, but it is a 28mm and it is too wide. She picks up the second lens, but it is a 50mm and it is too narrow. She picks up the third lens. It is a 35mm and it’s neither too wide, nor too narrow – the perfect compromise.
“The hell with compromise,” says Goldilocks. Putting the 35 back on the table, she walks out into the forest with the 28 and the 50, and makes several beautiful pictures.
The Anti-Goldilocks Principle
You’ve heard of the Goldilocks Principle – the idea that the right balance lies somewhere between the extremes. The idea, of course, is much older; early Buddhist texts used the phrase Majjhimāpaṭipadā – the Middle Way. I’d like to propose what I call the Anti-Goldilocks Principle.
I’m not saying compromise is a bad thing. When you can only pick one, the middle path may well be the best. But if you can pick two, it often makes sense to skip the compromise option and pick the two on each side.
To be clear, I have nothing against the 35mm focal length. Presented with a 35–50–90, I might pass on the 50mm, and go with the 35 and 90. And it’s not limited to lenses either. Consider film formats. Instead of getting a 645 camera, if your budget permits, you might be better off with a 35mm and a 6×6.
It’s not even limited to photography. I have two types of coffee in my pantry – a cheap variety for daily consumption, and high-quality, expensive coffee for the occasional treat. The in-between option, which some might say is best of both worlds, is in another sense also the worst of both worlds.
At least, that’s my thinking. I may be right or I may be wrong, but hey, at least I walk the talk. In my two main 35mm systems – Minolta (SLR) and Leica (rangefinder) – I have a 28mm and a 50mm lenses, but no 35s.
My 28mm rangefinder lens is the Voigtländer Ultron 28mm f/1.9. It is an LTM lens, so I use it on my camera – a Leica M3 – with an adaptor. Voigtländer introduced it at Photokina 2000, and at the time, it was the fastest production 28mm lens ever made for any rangefinder mount, surpassed in 2014 by the Leica Summilux 28mm f/1.4 (a bargain at $7,250). The Voigltander Ultron 28mm f/1.9 was discontinued in 2008, replaced by the Ultron 28mm f/2 in M-mount.
The later M-mount version has a different optical design – 10 elements in 8 groups as opposed to the LTM’s 9 elements in 7 groups. It is slightly smaller and lighter than the LTM, and the difference in speed is insignificant (1/7th of a stop). The M-mount version also has a circular lens hood (it’s petal-shaped on the LTM), and a focus tab instead of a screw-in lever.
As for performance – I have no first-hand experience with the M-mount version, but going by forum discussions, some favor the LTM and others the M-mount. This could be down to individual preference or sample variation. Which would I pick? Other things being equal, probably the M-mount version. But when I looked, the LTM was cheaper, so that’s what I got.
My Leica M3 came with a Summicron 50mm f/2, which is still my most-used lens. Soon after, I added a Tele-Elmar 135mm (reviewed here), and then started looking for a 28mm lens to complete the line-up. You’ll notice that I skip focal lengths in between – no 35mm and no 90mm. This is the Anti-Goldilocks Principle in action.
I had two main criteria for my 28mm lens. These being a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or faster (because I often shoot in low light or with slow film), and a price of £250 or less. The first one is easy to meet; there is a plethora of fast 28mm lenses from Zeiss, Minolta, Ricoh, Konica, 7Artisans and of course Leica themselves (including the superfast Summilux f/1.4 and the enticingly small Elmarit ASPH f/2.8).
Unfortunately, these were all above my price limit. The only ones which weren’t were the Canon f/2.8 LTM from the 1950s, and the Ultron which I eventually got. Even so, I had to wait several months (and lose several eBay auctions) before I found one within budget.
- Mount – Leica Thread Mount (LTM) (M39)
- Focal Length – 28mm
- Angle of View – 75°
- Aperture Range – F/1.9 – 22
- Aperture Blades – 10
- Lens Construction – 9 elements in 7 groups
- Close Focus Distance – 0.7 meters
- Dimensions (L x D) – 63 x 56mm
- Weight – 265 grams
- Filter Thread Diameter – 46mm
Look and Feel
In size, the Voigtländer Ultron 28mm f/1.9 sits between the Leica Summicron f/2 and the Summilux f/1.4. I would happily trade one aperture stop for compactness, but the small f/2.8 lenses like the Elmarit ASPH and the Ricoh are many times more expensive.
My copy is black, but there’s also a silver version (see Ken Rockwell’s review). With (admittedly heavy) use, some of the black paint has rubbed off, revealing brass-coloured metal below. I don’t mind this, and some people positively like the “brassing” – though one reviewer says it’s probably not brass but anodized aluminum.
In any case, it’s an all-metal body and feels very well made. The aperture ring is knurled, with precise half-stop clicks (except between f/16 and f/22). The focus ring is scalloped and turns in a smooth, well-damped fashion with no hint of play. The focus throw is just over 90°. I’ve recently felt a hint of stiffness near the infinity end, but not enough (yet) that I want to disassemble and lubricate it.
The Ultron’s minimum focus distance is 0.7m. The Leica M3 only focuses down to 1m (subsequent models focus down to 0.7m), so between 0.7 and 1m, I use scale focusing. This is not hard; I know that if the subject is an arm’s length away the distance is 0.7m. The photo below was taken at the minimum focus distance.
The Ultron 28mm f/1.9 came with a removable metal hood with crinkle-finish. The hood is petal-shaped, so I have to make sure it’s correctly oriented so as not to obstruct the lens (wider petal on top). The hood has a small screw for cinch-friction coupling, which I’m not a fan of – it tends to catch on straps and other things. The hood must be taken off to attach or remove a filter.
Originally, the lens also came with a felt-lined, friction-fit metal cap, and a small screw-in focus lever. My used copy did not have either of these. Robert White in the UK can supply both the lens cap and focus lever – I emailed them to ask, but I ended up not getting either. Instead, I bought an aftermarket centre-pinch cap – it’s not as nice-looking as the original cap, but it can be used without the hood (whereas the original cap fit over the hood). And I make do without the focus lever; I like focus tabs, but I’m not sure I would get on with the lever.
Framelines and finder blockage
The Leica M3 doesn’t have 28mm framelines, so I use the Ultron with an external viewfinder. I generally focus through the viewfinder on the camera, then switch to the external viewfinder for framing. Sometimes, especially at smaller apertures, I just scale focus – not hard with a wide-angle lens. At f/8, depth of field extends from 1.8m to infinity.
I’ve gotten used to the external finder, but it’s clearly not as straightforward as focusing and framing through the same finder. This is something to bear in mind if you use a Leica M body older than the M4-P (1981), which introduced 28mm framelines.
Regardless of what camera you use, the Ultron protrudes into the viewfinder – more so with the hood, but also without. It even appears in the external viewfinder, though in this case, only when the hood is on. A little finder blockage doesn’t bother me, but for some people it can be a deal breaker.
The Ultron 28mm f/1.9 has 9 elements in 7 groups including one aspherical element. (I rendered the lens diagram based on technical literature; it is a close approximation, but not 100% accurate.)
Now before talking about optical quality, I should say that while I’ve taken lots of “real world” photos with the Ultron, I haven’t rigorously tested it. And I use it exclusively on my Leica M3, so I don’t know how it plays with digital sensors. Finally, I have not used or compared it with any other 28mm lens for the Leica system. So this is more of a “user perspective” rather than a technical review.
That said, the lens is plenty sharp for my needs. In the first photo below, it resolved the thinnest struts on the gasholder in the background, and in the second, in a good enlargement, you can practically count the blades of grass.
If you want a more technical assessment, Erwin Puts claims that the lens is optimal at f/4, and a little soft at full aperture, especially in the corners. In Puts’ tests, the Summicron f/2 outperforms the Ultron at wider apertures (no surprise there!) but “stopped down it is a draw.” He also notes (and this means something coming from a Leica expert like Puts), “To get some perspective: an older 28mm lens from Leica is blown to pieces by the Ultron.”
Distortion, vignetting and bokeh
The Ultron doesn’t have noticeable distortion (I added a reference line in the concert photo), nor vignetting (the photo of the tea-seller was shot wide open at f/1.9).
It is, however, prone to flare even with the hood attached. I don’t mind this on black and white film; sometimes I think it even adds to the picture. But on colour film it produces blue ghosts, which I’m personally not a fan of.
Few people buy 28mm lenses for bokeh, but I actually find the Ultron’s bokeh quite pleasing. As you’d expect, it’s most noticeable up close and wide open, as in the photo of the snaps bottles. The portrait, on the other hand, was at f/4, but I still got good subject separation and, thanks to the 10 aperture blades, well-rounded out-of-focus highlights.
Using a 28mm lens
My primary lens for 35mm cameras has always been a nifty-fifty. Most people add a wider lens for landscapes, but I first wanted one after seeing Garry Winogrand’s street photography, most of which was made with a 28mm lens.
A wide lens is especially useful on the streets of my hometown, Kolkata. In a crowded market or a narrow lane, there’s often not enough room to back up. And even if you can, the constant stream of passers-by makes it hard to get a clear shot. At least, that was the case in pre-pandemic times.
Even in less crowded European cities, I like the 28mm focal length for streetscapes. It’s not without its challenges, though. With a 75° angle of view, you can end up with too many elements in the frame, but I try to compose and time the shot so that they come together in a harmonious way (not that I always succeed).
Another compositional challenge with wide-angle lenses is dealing with “dead space”, especially in the foreground. I try to mitigate this by including foreground elements of interest (like the pool of water) or leading lines (the staircase).
And of course, I use it for environmental portraits – of humans, animals and, in the last photo, a human with an animal mask.
The Ultron’s maximum aperture of f/1.9 combined with the fact that wider lenses can be handheld at slower shutter speeds without risk of motion blur makes it ideal for low-light and indoor photography. The photos below were all handheld – the black-and-white ones were on Kodak Tri-X 400 at box speed, and the one of my friend cooking was on Ektar 100!
I began this review by introducing the Anti-Goldilocks Principle to justify why I use a 28 and a 50, eschewing the classic 35mm focal length. But for the 28mm focal length specifically, I wanted one lens – not an assortment for different use cases. And as I say, if you have to pick one, the compromise option – the original Goldilocks choice – may well be the best.
The Voigtländer Ultron 28mm f/1.9 is not as fast as the Summilux f/1.4, nor as sharp as the Summicron f/2. Several other lenses are smaller, and the Canon f/2.8 sometimes sells for less than what I paid for my Ultron. But the Ultron has a unique set of attributes – a fast, well-constructed, relatively inexpensive lens with excellent optical performance – all of which combine to make it the “right” choice for me. I guess it is a Goldilocks lens after all.
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