Every focal length has a bit of a unique personality. Many of a lens’s strengths, weaknesses and identifiable traits are byproducts of its angle of view. And getting to know a particular focal length can take some time.
I’ve got a pretty good feel for most of the common focal lengths by now, having shot a lens or two at each angle of view.
Of everything that I’ve tried there’s been one focal length that I’ve wanted to revisit. One that I knew had a few traits I quite enjoyed but as I hadn’t shot it on a rangefinder I was curious but unsure of how they would carry over.
75mm is a comparable newcomer to the world of M-mount lenses. Leica have offered a handful of lenses in the focal length since the addition of 75mm framelines in the 1981 Leica M4-P.
As nice as a few of the Leica lenses seem though, it was the two lenses that Voigtländer have been offering that had really caught my eye.
I almost ended up buying the f/1.8 M-mount lens but eventually decided against it. Instead I opted for the slower, but smaller, f/2.5 LTM version.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves though. Let’s back up for a sec and consider why one would opt for a 75mm lens, surprisingly a somewhat unpopular focal length.
On paper at least, 75mm should be a Goldilocks choice between 50 and 90.
A 50mm lens is flexible and forgiving to shoot. It’s slightly longer than a normal and it shows – compared to something wider there’s a bit of compression and the perspective* feels a little more intimate. Still as a dedicated long lens it falls short (pun!). Facial features can end up somewhat distorted shooting intimate portraits and expansive scenes aren’t compressed in the same way as with something longer.
* I know that perspective and compression aren’t effects of the focal length but rather of distance. I’m taking some shortcuts with the semantics here for the sake of brevity.
A 90 on the other hand is decidedly long, offering a more condensed perspective. Frame filling portraits look more natural and larger spaces become visibly compressed. On the other hand it’s less practical. It can be a little too tight in closer quarters and 90mm lenses (especially the fast ones) tend to be quite a bit larger than ones closer to the normal focal length range. The framing area in the viewfinder of most rangefinder cameras is also very small and it’s harder to handhold at slower speeds*.
* I’ve mentioned this before but I find it odd that most people don’t seem take this into account. When considering a lens for use in low light they only look at the maximum aperture spec, not the focal length. You can for instance handhold a 28 comfortably at f/4 in roughly the same light as a 90 at f/2.
I’ve been experiencing this myself lately and have felt a bit of a gap at the longer end of my setup. I’ve been more than happy with the lenses I’ve been shooting, but while the 90/4 that I have is quite nice it’s not all that practical. It’s a little slow which makes it hard to use in anything other than bright light. But as none of the other 90’s available were quite what I wanted either the 75mm focal length started to look pretty compelling. Looking like it would offer a lot of what’s nice with a 90 with less of the practical drawbacks.
So a little before summer I picked up the Voigtländer 75/2.5 as an addition to my kit.
To illustrate the difference between the focal lengths discussed here, and hopefully make the things discussed a little more tangible I set up a quick demonstration.
Switching between the Zeiss ZM 50/2 Planar, the Voigtländer 75/2.5 Heliar and the Leica Elmar-C 90/4 I aimed to get three images demonstrating only the differences between the focal lengths. I didn’t quite get the framing exactly right across the three frames, but you get the gist of it.
The differences can be pretty subtle, but if you know what to look you can quickly figure out which is which. The most noticeable difference is how much closer the foreground and background look with longer focal lengths. The 50 and 90mm lenses are noticeably different in this regard, where the 75mm lens splits the difference.
I hope that the above demonstration was helpful to understand the nuances brought up throughout this article.
A small aside is that there’s another interesting observation you can make here too – while these images are all taken at the respective lens’s widest aperture (i.e. 50 at f/2, 75 at f/2.5 and 90 at f/4) the depth of field and amount of bokeh appears almost identical. This is due to the lenses having a very similarly sized entrance pupil and is a good demonstration on how the output is affected by this measurement (an effect I’ve been meaning to write about). Have a look at the three lenses in this image and take note of the apparent size of the opening.
Now that I’ve shot with the Voigtländer 75/2.5 for a while I’m really happy with the addition.
The lens handles nicely and performs great. It’s well made and the price is very reasonable.
In use I’ve found the focal length very enjoyable. It’s most everything I hoped for in terms of a Goldilocks choice.
The output has an unmistakable long lens look with a condensed perspective and distinct compression of different planes in the images. Close portraits look pleasant too without distorting features. It’s not quite so long as to become hard to use in closer quarters, but you do need to keep a little more distance than with a 50. A big advantage is that it’s a lot more usable in lower light than my 90/4. I can’t quite get away with it handheld in any light, but close to it.
Trying mochi ice cream.
I also tend to consider how a lens or focal length can be paired up to be used in a small kit. I really enjoy the 28+50mm combination for instance, but can certainly see a few combinations with the 75mm focal length that could be just as versatile and usable. 75 might for instance make a better pairing with 35 than either a 50 or 90 would. And a 28+75 or even 25+75 would make for very nice set ups too. So once again the 75mm focal length is more relevant than what people seem to give it credit for.
As I’ve already alluded to, I’ve had some experience with the focal length from before. Shooting a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera results in a 75mm equivalent field of view (maybe that’s a reason some people frown on the focal length – that its use is often a result of crop factor, rather than a conscious choice). Something I’ve quite enjoyed in the past – both on a few D-SLR cameras and on the Sony NEX–7. So I wasn’t totally surprised by my findings so far and getting along with the focal length wasn’t too big of a surprise in this regard. However when mounted on a rangefinder there are a few additional factors at play – things where I was less sure in how they would impact my experience.
From Farther up the coast.
With a rangefinder there are a two additional aspects to take into account that has a pretty big impact when shooting any specific focal length – the framelines and the framing area in the viewfinder.
As 75mm lenses were introduced together with the M4-P, no cameras before it offer corresponding framelines. A shoe mounted external finder is an obvious option, but I feel such a set up is more acceptable with wider angle lenses – with a longer lens it feels more of a kludge. Another approach is to use a bit of guesswork and frame in-between the 50 and 90mm framelines. This makes for a pleasant shooting experience, though framing accuracy can suffer. Some practice gets around this, but ideally you’d want to shoot it on a camera with the right framelines*.
* As I’ve shot 25 and 40mm lenses a lot in the past, without corresponding framelines, I’m no stranger to treating the framelines as a guide rather than an absolute truth. However I do feel like the difference between 50, 75 and 90mm is more noticeable than the difference between 28 and 25 or 35 and 40, making framing in-between more of a challenge than with those focal lengths.
To me this means I’ve mainly been shooting the lens on the Leica M4-P and M9 which offer corresponding framelines. I’ve had a go with it on both the Leica M3 and the Leica II as well, but here the experience suffers somewhat. As an aside the experience is unsurprisingly pleasant on the mirrorless Sony A7.
But for use on the cameras with the right framelines the sensation of a Goldilocks choice continues here. On a 0.7x magnification viewfinder M-camera the 90mm framing area becomes very small. The 75mm one on the other hand becomes noticeably bigger and far more pleasant to use as a result. It’s not as nice as the spacious area for 50mm lenses but still quite a good size.
Illustration of M4-P framlines
28+90mm – 90mm framing area highlighted.
50+75mm – 75mm framing area highlighted.
There are a few minor downsides with the shape of the framelines though. The 75mm framelines are more subtle than those for other focal lengths, in particular the wider ones. On the M4-P only the corners of the 75mm frame are present and you need to pay some attention to figure out where the edges of the frame are. Depending on the background they can occasionally be a little hard to spot as well, since there’s so little to them. On the M6 and newer cameras the framelines are a bit more pronounced but they’re still subtle compared especially to the wider ones.
If the comparison is instead made to the framelines for 90mm lenses however, the 75mm ones aren’t bad. Interestingly they’re pretty much the opposite from the 75mm ones – with the edges visible, but the corners cut out. In use I find the 90mm framelines a little bit easier to frame with, but as the area is so much smaller I still find the 75mm ones a lot more pleasant to use.
There’s been a lot of detail on different framelines and framsizes, angle of views and depth of field, through this article, without really getting down to any sort of bottom line. But let me try to wrap up the gist of it.
Shooting longer lenses on a rangefinder is always going to be a somewhat compromised proposition. That’s simply the nature of relying on a fixed magnification viewfinder. For an ideal experience with longer lenses it’s probably a better idea to simply use a through the lens based camera instead. For a rangefinder then, it instead comes down to finding the most acceptable compromise. To me 90mm probably isn’t it, but 75mm on the other hand comes much closer.
I’ve reiterated it being a Goldilocks choice quite a few time by now, but that’s simply the best way to sum it up. It does pretty much everything I want from a long lens, with fewer of the drawbacks of something even longer.
That the Voigtländer 75/2.5 is such a well behaved lens adds to this pleasant experience. I’ll put together a review of it eventually, but for now I can certainly say it’s a lens that’s very hard to go wrong with.
For now I’m quite happy with this re-addition of the 75mm focal length to my toolkit, and look forward to exploring further how it fits my use.
Aside from the demonstration and gear images all photos were made using the Voigtländer 75/2.5 Heliar on either the Leica M4-P or Leica M9. Photos on film were scanned on the Plustek 8200i. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.