I find the sight of that familiar command bridge oddly soothing every time we get to it. A short cruise out from the mainland and we’ll be at our country house once again. I let the city go for a bit, wait for the ferry to undock, watching the flag play in the wind.←
The Heliar 75 is like the first clement breeze after a bitter Nordic winter. No longer too cold, but not yet all that warm either. The Heliar is long but not too much so. It’s fast enough, but not too big.
Sure, there are bound to be warmer days with more memorable pursuits. Sure, there are lenses that are brighter with more impressive spec sheets.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I like the Heliar as much as I do. It’s inarguably solid, but at the same time it doesn’t really stand out in any strong way. Despite that, it’s become one of my favourite lenses since starting this site. And before giving it some thought, it’s been a little hard to pin down exactly why.
I’ll try to break everything down neatly, but for now let me state that it simply feels right. It feels balanced. Not strictly in the physical sense, but in the sense that all the different aspects and trade offs that weight against each other when it comes to lenses feel like they harmonise. There are no major issues or annoyances and it delivers everything it should without nasty surprises. It all seems so effortless that it’s easy to overlook how hard striking a balance like this can be.
At 75mm the Heliar offers a very practical long focal length. It gives the compressed look of a long lens with fewer usability trade offs than something even longer.
The f/2.5 aperture results in a good balance between speed on one hand and size and weight on the other.
Ergonomics and build quality are excellent without real caveats.
The Heliar offers excellent performance and a well behaved, unusually well balanced overall signature without nasty surprises.
Most available alternatives strike a less successful balance between specifications, performance and price.
Launched in 1999 the 75 Heliar was one of the first lenses introduced by Cosina after licensing the Voigtländer brand. The first versions of the 15/4.5 and 25/4* had launched earlier in 1999 and then the 75/2.5 launched in August together with the the 35/1.7 and 50/1.5.
* I’ve shot and reviewed more recent versions of both these lenses. Read my review of the 15/4.5 II here, and the M-Mount version of the 25/4 here.
As far as I can tell the lens was unchanged for the duration of its production run. It was available in both black and chrome finishes.
The Heliar was discontinued some years ago, superseded by the faster but much bigger and heavier 75/1.8. Despite its cancellation the Heliar remains reasonably priced and fairly easy to get hold of on the used market.
The Heliar uses a double gauss derived design with 6 spherical elements in 5 groups.
At 75mm the Heliar is clearly in the long lens range and the field of view is noticeably narrower than a normal lens.
For some reason the 75mm focal length doesn’t seem to be a particularly popular one*. Most people seem to opt for either a 50 or a 90 instead. But I think 75mm is overlooked way too often. To me it offers a just about perfect trade off between the look offered by a longer lens, and the practical usability afforded by shorter lenses.
* Though a few lenses introduced since I picked up the Heliar signals that there’s some new interest in the focal length.
I’ll get back to some practical experiences with the focal length in a bit. But if you want an additional deep dive into the 75mm focal length I’ve written a separate editorial on the topic.
One of the first shots I made using the Heliar was this photo of my kid trying mochi ice cream. More or less it sold me on both the focal length and lens out the gate.
– Leica M9
There’s one aspect to dwell on for a second though, regarding shooting a 75mm lens on a rangefinder, and that is that not all cameras have corresponding framelines.
Of the Leica M-cameras only more recent models have correct framelines – from the M4-P and onwards. In many of the cameras the framelines are also rather small and at times a little tricky to make out.
If you’re shooting a camera lacking the framelines your second best bet would instead be to rely on 90mm framelines and frame a little tighter than you usually would. This is the approach I’ve taken shooting the lens on the Leica M3 for instance. I was initially a little hesitant to shooting this way, but it’s proven a successful method even if you need to be a little bit more mindful of what you’re doing.
For cameras that are missing 90mm framelines too, like the thread-mount Leica’s, I don’t think the Heliar makes for too compelling of an option to be honest. Composing using an external finder is an alternative obviously, but with a long lens such as the Heliar that doesn’t really result in an appealing shooting experience to me.
An example of how the 75mm framelines look in the Leica M4-P. The outside lines are for 50mm lenses, the 75mm ones are represented by the corners only. In more recent cameras they are slightly more clearly marked. Compared to the very small area for a 90mm lens in a 0.7x viewfinder a reasonable fraction of the view is still in play for the 75mm focal length.
It’s worth noting that the Heliar uses a Leica Thread Mount. This means it’s compatible with a greater number of cameras than if it was using an M-mount – anything from the early 1930’s Leica’s to contemporary rangefinder and mirrorless cameras happily accepts the lens.
For use on an M-Mount camera a simple adapter ensures full compatibility, though keep in mind that it’s the adapter that dictates what framelines are brought up – make sure to get one that brings up the appropriate set.
On mirrorless cameras framelines are obviously not a consideration. You can choose freely to get either a straight adapter from thread mount to the mount of your choice, or have the lens and camera both adapted to M-Mount.
The Heliar mounts natively on thread mount cameras, like the Leica II above. With a simple adapter it is fully compatible with M-mount cameras. Beyond that it can be mounted on to practically any mirrorless camera using the appropriate adapter.
The Heliar focuses down to 1 meter – the default for LTM lenses. It’s a bit farther than the 0.7m focus distance supported by most M-Mount cameras however.
It would’ve been nice to have the closer focus distance supported, but on the other hand the longer focal length means that the level of magnification is still very decent.
Besides that, it’s pretty common for longer M-Mount lenses to have a 1m MFD. So it’s not too big of a surprise, or too big of a drawback compared to most of the alternatives.
The Heliar is fairly compact for what it is – it’s just a hair bigger than most 50/2 rangefinder lenses. Compared to most other long lenses, particularly for other systems, it’s very small.
As you’d expect of a Voigtländer lens the Heliar is very well made with high quality materials and tight tolerances. It’s practically nothing but metal and glass. The lens is somewhat heavy for its size as a result (though not that heavy for a rangefinder lens – it’s lighter than the sligthly smaller Leica Summicron 50/2 for instance).
The Heliar is equipped with a ten bladed diaphragm, resulting in smoother bokeh thanks to an almost perfectly round opening throughout the aperture range. Sun stars also tend to look pretty nice when they show up as a result.
The Heliar is larger than the very compact Leica Summicron 50/2, but not by much.
In terms of its look the Heliar is very similar to the Voigtländer Ultron 28/1.9 I reviewed a while back, though the Heliar looks a little more refined to my eye.
The Heliar comes off very much as a homage to a few classic Leica lenses. More specifically its fluted focus ring and overall proportions makes it almost a dead ringer for the earlier Summilux 50.
Like the Ultron it even goes so far as to imitate the wear to brass that the black paint Leica lenses show. As the paint on the lens wears a yellow metal shines through, rather than a white one that’d be more expected. The lens is probably made from aluminium though and anodised to a yellow tint – if it was actually brass the lens would’ve been quite a bit heavier (I’m quite happy to have a lighter lens).
Mimicry like this can very easily rub me the wrong way, but here it comes across as a tribute rather than a ripoff. And since the end result looks quite fetching I can’t really blame Voigtländer too much. Especially since they were breaking new ground in so many other ways during this time.
The Heliar 75/2.5 and Ultron 28/1.9 – the exteriors of these two lenses are very similar. Optically they behave very different from each other though.
Markings are engraved and painted in Helvetica Neue.
The aperture, metric distance and depth of field scales are painted white on a black lens and black on a chrome lens. Here the visibility is excellent.
The imperial distance scale is painted in a subdued red shade that’s hard to make out in lower light.
The aperture scale is marked by numbers at the full stops, plus the wide open f/2.5 stop. Intermediate positions aren’t marked.
The Heliar offers nice and clear markings, though the red imperial distance scale is a little hard to make out in lower light.
Operating the lens there’s nothing that diminishes the feel of a high quality piece of gear. The focus travel is smooth and even throughout the range.
Changing the aperture gives a distinct click at every full and half stop setting. The click stops are quite prominent and more pronounced than most other lenses I have at hand.
The lens on its own, with the hood and with hood and cap.
The lens comes with a metal screw in hood and a metal cap that fits over the hood with a friction fit. Both the hood and cap are very well made and are well integrated with the lens.
As someone that likes to use lenses without a hood though, I feel that the outside mounting threads on the front of the lens isn’t quite as elegant as I’d like when the hood is off. A different way of mounting the hood might’ve looked cleaner, or having a screw in cover ring like Leica have opted for on their recent lenses with screw in hoods. It’s not a big deal though, and having the hood so well integrated once mounted is obviously a plus.
Another nitpick is that the included friction fit cap can’t be used without the hood – the naked lens is a bit narrower than with the hood mounted. So if you want to shoot without the hood you need to get an aftermarket cap.
The Heliar handles very well in use without any ergonomic issues.
The focusing ring is comfortable and the fluted shape means that it’s easy to get a good grip, even in the rain or with gloves on. The focus throw at just a hair over 90° offers a reasonable balance between speed and accuracy.
The finely ribbed aperture ring is clearly separated from the focusing ring and feels different too, so it’s easy to tell them apart. Clicks are distinct making it easy to count clicks for the changes you make, if you have the camera to your eye. It also takes just the right amount of effort to change the setting – the aperture setting has never changed inadvertently for me using this lens.
My only incredibly small nitpick is that a wider aperture ring would’ve been a little more comfortable.
I also tend to prefer a focus tab over a focus ring, but that’s traditionally not offered on lenses longer than 50mm so I can’t really complain here, in particular since the focus ring is quite nice. Still with the short throw it’s a good candidate for a tab. It would’ve been nice to at least see a similar screw in focus lever as is offered on the Ultron.
Beyond these minor mismatches towards my preferences the Heliar really is a solid lens to handle and shoot.
The Heliar has a very transparent signature that might not stand out too strongly at first glance.
Looking a little closer though, you’ll find very impressive performance and – maybe even more importantly – an exceptionally well balanced rendering.
In broad strokes it’s pretty much what you’d expect out of a recent double gauss based design – a clean look with high performance across the board and good control over the common aberrations. Still the Heliar is unusually well balanced and there are even some pleasant surprises.
In terms of definition the Heliar does very well indeed.
Already wide open there’s high resolution across the frame – small details are well and cleanly resolved. There’s a high level of uniformity signifying good flatness of field and solid control over astigmatism.
The definition at the edges and corners lag a little compared to the center of the frame, though the difference is quite marginal.
Micro-contrast is high and has a similar, predictable, behaviour as the resolution. Even subtle gradation changes are reproduced faithfully.
Mid level contrast is impressive giving the overall frame a good sense of presence.
Finally global contrast is also high without becoming excessive. The overall impression generally avoids looking harsh as a result.
Stopping down increases definition gradually. Edges and corners sharpen up quickly and the full frame is just about perfect already at f/5.6. The most noticeable difference stopping down is honestly just the increased depth of field.
This high level of performance is offered regardless of distance and the lens behaves well with both long and short range subjects.
So then the Heliar is quite impressive in terms of contrast. Few lenses have noticeably higher performance in this area, and the ones that do often look overly clinical and harsh. The Heliar manages to strikes an impressive balance and the overall output signature gains a lot from this balance.
Definition is high across the frame already at wider aperture settings. Note the high resolution and contrast in the 1:1 crop above. Leica M9 – f/2.8
The Heliar offers a pleasant reproduction of colors. The color balance is neutral and the overall palette isn’t over-saturated. Subtle shades of similar colors are nicely separated. It’s a slightly more naturalistic, less punchy palette than some higher end options but not a less appealing one.
While a modest aperture of f/2.5 isn’t really associated with extremely short depth of field the Heliar still offers a good deal of separation thanks to it being a longer focal length lens.
It won’t totally obliterate backgrounds though and something faster would offer less of a hint of what’s going on outside of the plane of focus. At close distances you can still isolate your subjects very well with the Heliar though, and even as things are farther away there’s a good sense of separation.
In terms of out of focus rendition the Heliar does quite well, something that’s not a given with a double gauss derived design.
Sure, under challenging circumstances bokeh circles can sometimes have harsh edges with a slightly busy impression as a result. Most of the time though, bokeh appears smooth, both in front of and behind the focal plane. In particular at closer distances.
At mid to far distances the lens fares a bit less well, in particular if you’ve stopped down a tad. Here the rendering can be a little more nervous.
Diving into the nitty-gritty there’s a very slight bit of mechanical vignetting wide open, giving bokeh circles a subtle cats eye effect at times. A slight bit of axial chromatic aberration means that there can be traces of color distortion in the out of focus areas. Neither issue is generally noticeable in practice though.
The overall out of focus rendition is retained when stopping down. The ten bladed diaphragm means that out bokeh circles stay round and out of focus areas stay smooth.
The transition rate is intermediate – plane changes are well defined but not extremely abrupt. Images have a clear sense of depth but also a gentleness that contribute to a smoother overall result.
Bokeh is generally smooth and appealing. At mid to long distance things can start to look a little nervous, especially once stopped down slightly. Overall the Heliar does well though.
Leica M Typ 262 / M4-P
The Heliar is well corrected for the common aberrations. There’s certainly nothing that’s distracting in day to day use and very little that’s ever visible except under extreme conditions or very close scrutiny.
Flare is exceptionally well controlled, even under challenging light. Ghosting is so rare that I’ve hardly ever observed it over hundreds of frames I’ve shot with the lens. There can be a slight loss of mid-level contrast in extremely high contrast situations, but generally that’s as bad as it gets.
Now I do have to note that since the hood is so well integrated I’ve had it mounted more often than I usually tend to. Still I’ve easily shot without hood more often than with it. So it’s a very impressive showing with regards to flare.
Beyond that trace amounts of axial chromatic aberration can be observed in extreme contrast areas. There’s also a very slight amount of pincushion distortion.
Focus shift is well controlled with the focal plane moving backwards only a very slight amount when stopping down. It’s generally not enough to be noticeable in practice, but if you want to be cautious it can be a good idea to shoot either wide open or stopped down to f/4.5 or so when working at close range.
Overall the Heliar is certainly a well behaved lens with very few troublesome surprises.
This is generally where I dig up an example of flare or other distracting issues, but actually I couldn’t find any photos where any real significant issues are visible. The Heliar is a very well behaved lens, even under challenging conditions.
The breakdown above is applicable regardless of the medium the lens is used on, but certain nuances can still be perceived slightly differently between mediums.
While tastes differ on what type of rendering one is looking for, but to my eye at least the Heliar is a lens that does well regardless of medium.
Output from highly performing lenses such as the Heliar can often end up looking quite harsh on digital. But through well balanced contrast characteristics the Heliar manages to avoid that. The result is a very competent output that both captures a lot of fine detail and manages to have just the right amount of smoothness to feel balanced. Colours look pleasant and there’s no major ray angle induced issues to look out for.
I generally prefer to shoot high contrast lenses on film and here the Heliar certainly delivers. The high level of definition across the frame combined with the natural and relaxed looking color palette makes for a very appealing output.
I’ve not shot the Heliar on black and white film a whole lot, but from what I’ve seen the output looks quite nice. Going from a few additional B&W conversions the smooth sharpness and overall balanced tonality translates really well to appealing monochromes.
The Heliar has a very appealing signature to my eye, regardless of medium. Here’s a sample from the digital Leica M9.
Perhaps the Heliar won’t light the world on fire with its signature. It doesn’t really have a unique and eye-catching way to render.
However to make images that stand the test of time I personally don’t want the rendering to be what catches the eye – I want the subject matter to shine through, not an overly strong character.
And in this regard the Heliar shines. Its signature never gets overbearing and it consistently delivers images that simply work.
That’s not to say the Heliar doesn’t have a nice signature though. Because to my eye it certainly does. It’s just that its strengths are a little more subtle.
The Heliar combines excellent contrast characteristics without distracting issues and mostly good bokeh*. Together with moderate transitions this give images a great deal of perceived sharpness, but still a smoothness in the overall impression.
* Aside from the so-so bokeh at mid range distances that is one of very few caveats I see about the Heliar’s rendering.
These traits mean that the Heliar renders just about perfectly to my tastes. It offers just the type of balanced signature I appreciate. In fact its overall rendering is among my favourites in recent memory.
For quite some time I felt like I had a gap on the long end of my set up. While I enjoy many aspects of the Leica Elmar-C 90/4 that I have, it’s a lens that can be tricky to use at times. Its slow speed and long focal length makes it hard to use in anything other than ideal light. The focal length also didn’t feel like the perfect fit for me so I was a bit reluctant to upgrading to a faster 90.
Instead I had been thinking about adding a 75mm lens to my kit for a while, as the focal length looked like a nice choice between a 50 and a 90. Eventually I came very close to picking up the Voigtländer 75/1.8, but after mulling it over decided to look around for the lighter f/2.5 lens instead.
About a year and a half ago I managed to pick up a nice copy locally (together with the Ultron 28/1.9 that I reviewed a while back) and I’ve been putting it through its paces since then.
Overall it feels like great fit for me, so I’m happy I went the route I did.
To me a big part of the appeal of the Heliar is definitely rests in its focal length. The angle of view that’s offered by a 75mm lens strikes a really good balance for my wants and needs.
It gives a noticeably more compressed look than a 50. Frame-filling portraits tend to look more natural and background and foreground gets pulled closer together.
Compared to a 90 on the other hand a 75 is much more pleasant to shoot on a rangefinder, particularly on the normal 0.7x magnifications offered by most Leica M cameras – the framing area is much larger in the viewfinder. A 75 is also easier to handhold at slower speeds than a 90 and tend to be smaller and lighter too. A 75 is also easier to use in closer quarters – a 90 often feels too tight indoors, but a 75 is still very workable.
I’ve covered a lot of this in even greater detail in my editorial on the 75mm focal length, so before retreading too much ground I’ll just say that 75mm is a very enjoyable focal length in use.
The 75mm focal lenght is very enjoyable to use. It’s more versatile than a 90 and can be used indoors easier for instance. Still it offers a more compressed perspective and a different look to a 50.
Leica M Typ 262
Now it needs to be said that the Heliar isn’t the perfect lens to shoot in low light. It’s somewhat long and not all that speedy – both aspects make things more difficult as light gets low.
But while a bit more speed would be nice occasionally, I consider this as an acceptable trade off for having a lighter, more compact, lens. Especially as it can still, with a bit of care, yield good results even under lower light.
Now I might feel differently if it was my only lens, but as a piece of even a small kit it does so many other things so well that I feel that some minor low light limitations are acceptable.
On that note I think it also makes sense to consider how any lens works in the context of a small setup. Very few lenses make sense as a one lens kit and any 75 might be a little narrow for such an approach.
But as part of a two lens outfit it makes a lot of sense. A 35/75 combination feels like a great, versatile setup, arguably more so than a 35/50 one. A 28/75 is another solid pairing that I could see myself shooting a lot.
A three lens setup offers similar flexibility but to me it can start feeling a little bit cumbersome to figure out what lens to use when.
Still, expanding your mindset like this relaxes requirements on a lens a little. Instead of needing to cater for every eventuality each lens instead becomes like pieces of a puzzle, where the weaknesses of one lens can be covered by the strengths of another.
The slight limitations the Heliar has can then be easily taken care of by pairing it with a mid speed wide angle lens, such as a 28/2 or 35/2, that are trivial to shoot even when the light gets low.
Now having this sort of approach to building a setup isn’t for everyone. Some people want as much flexibility as possible in each piece of kit they have. And in case that’s how you feel, and you also care a lot about shooting in very low light, it might be good to look beyond this 75/2.5. But even if you’re looking to build just a small setup the Heliar makes for a compelling piece of many puzzles.
With some care you can get usable images even as the light goes low, even on film or cameras without astronomical high ISO performance. Like this example, shot on the Leica M9
Before moving on I’d like to share a few observations on my experiences with the Heliar across some of the different cameras I’ve shot it on.
Since the Heliar is a thread mount lens it’s tempting to automatically figure it a good fit for this old Barnack. That’s not really the case though, and when I got the lens it wasn’t to shoot on this camera. The Heliar feels a bit big for the tiny thread mount camera, going against my main motivation for picking up the Leica II in the first place.
Beyond that the framing viewfinder in the Leica II is designed to cover the field of view of a 50mm lens and doesn’t include any framelines. To shoot a 75 using the internal finder you need to play a bit of a guessing game to get alright framing. Now it’s of course possible to add an external finder with 75mm framelines and compose using that, but to me that’s not an as appealing approach as with a wider lens. Despite these niggles though I’ve still enjoyed this combination occasionally and have made quite a few solid frames with it. But the Heliar is certainly far from my favorite lens to mount on the Leica II and the Leica II is certainly far from my favourite camera to mount the Heliar on.
Not a bad combination, though since the M3 lacks 75mm framelines it’s still not my favourite pairing of the ones listed. Beyond that it’s a nice setup though – the lens balances well on the camera and the large magnification finder in the M3 makes focusing a breeze. If you get an M-mount adapter for 90mm lenses it’s pretty easy to compose accurately using the 90mm framelines and framing a little tighter than you usually would. The Heliar renders very nicely on film and while it’s not ideal for low light shooting the combination isn’t too bad if you load up some mid speed film.
Now this is a fabulous setup. The lens balances and handles very well on the camera. There are framelines corresponding to the focal length and the framing area in the viewfinder still feels fairly generous. The rendering on film is quite nice and despite the modest aperture it’s possible to shoot in somewhat dim light with a mid speed film and some care. My only nitpick is that the framelines are quite subtle – the focal length is only represented by the corners and the framing area can be a little hard to make out under certain conditions. Overall though, I’ve made some photos I’m really happy with using this outfit and it’s one of my favourite setups as of late.
Wonderful! On paper the combination looks suboptimal. The mediocre high ISO performance of the M9 combined with the long focal length and modest aperture of the lens looks like it’d be a bit limiting. In practice though it’s not too big of a deal, even if it’s not a combination I’ve reached for long after sundown. The handling, focal length and framing area in the viewfinder all feel really good. The framelines are also a little more well defined than on the M4-P. Add to that a brilliant output where the lens signature and sensor play really well together and you have an exceedingly appealing combination.
Another wonderful pairing! The Heliar balances and handles very well on the M 262. The 75mm framelines are clearer than on both the M4-P and M9 and the result is a very pleasant framing experience. The improved high ISO performance of the M 262 claws back a bit of low light usability and the combination is nice to use under a large range of circumstances. The rendering plays well with the sensor and the output is simply brilliant. This might just be my favourite pairing of the ones listed here.
The Heliar and Sony makes for a very pleasant outfit. The balance and handling is just about perfect. Image quality is excellent without visible ray-angle induced issues. The minimum focus distance can even be reduced quite a bit by mounting the lens on a helicoid equipped adapter. One point worth noting is that shooting longer manual focus lenses with a live view based camera can easily end up feeling a little wobbly (particularly without sensor stabilisation) – when you zoom in to set perfect focus even the smallest amount of shake gets magnified many times over. But with a 75 that’s much less problematic than with something longer. So overall then this is a very enjoyable setup to shoot.
Leica M Typ 262 / M4-P
When looking at alternatives to the Heliar the first question to figure out is if you’re wedded to the 75mm focal length or if you’re just looking for something on the longer end.
A 50 isn’t really that far off from a 75 while often offering greater versatility.
A 90 on the other hand can give you a more pronounced long lens look than a 75 (though you do end up losing a little flexibility).
But if you, like me, feel that a 90 is a bit unwieldy but a 50 isn’t quite long enough for you, then the 75 is a great middle ground.
Still I’ll go through some of the clearest alternatives I see, with a few notes on how the Heliar compares. Expanding the scope to include different focal lengths means the list becomes pretty substantial though, so feel free to skip ahead to the conclusion (or to the 50, 90 or 75mm lenses).
This is a pretty interesting comparison. In many ways shooting the Heliar reminds me a lot of when I was shooting the Summicron on the APS-C Sony NEX–7. It’s maybe not hugely surprising as both are double gauss designs (though the Summicron adheres more closely to the formula) but even so they share a lot in the way they render. Both have a very well balanced signature with smooth rendition of sharpness and high performance overall. The Summicron might have a hair higher contrast at low frequencies, but the Heliar has smoother bokeh and is more resilient against flare. The Summicron is a little more compact but the Heliar is lighter and offers slightly better ergonomics. So while the Summicron is more highly regarded I’d argue that the choice mainly comes down to which focal length you prefer. As it’s way less than half the price the Heliar is also a much easier recommendation overall.
This sibling to the Heliar is another very solid lens. It offers roughly similar performance (though the Heliar is a bit better overall) but in an exceptionally compact housing. It has fantastic build and ergonomics, even better than the Heliar. As it’s a little wider but with the same speed it’s also a tiny bit easier to handhold in low light (though you get slightly deeper depth of field). The little Skopar is also a thread-mount lens like the Heliar. I think that for use on the Barnack cameras the Skopar is a better choice as they are practically built around the 50mm focal length and the compact size balances better on the smaller cameras. So if you’re mainly looking for a lens to use on an LTM camera, or if you value compactness the Skopar is the better choice.
If you’re looking for a 50 to mount on your M-Mount camera the Zeiss Planar is the obvious recommendation. It’s a well behaved and reasonably priced, fantastic piece of kit. It too is a double gauss design with very impressive performance, practically without caveats. Compared to the Heliar then the main difference is the field of view. Beyond that the Heliar has a slightly rounder rendering with the Planar being a bit punchier. It’s very much a matter of preference which you find more appealing, though personally I find the Planar a little harsh and feel the Heliar is more balanced. Ergonomics and build quality are better on the Heliar by a whisker. Overall though it’s once again mostly a choice between focal lengths.
This is another option worth considering. This slightly faster normal is a Sonnar design, giving it slightly less predictable performance than the Heliar but with a very appealing signature and a fast aperture. The Sonnar is very compact and the wider angle of view and larger aperture means it’s more usable in lower light. Ergonomics and build quality are really solid on both lenses. The Sonnar is among my favourite lenses and picking between the two mostly comes down to what you’re looking for. If I was to pick a single lens to shoot the Sonnar would probably be it, but as part of a small kit the Heliar might make more sense.
There are plenty of 90mm lenses to choose from, but to me something like the Elmar-C makes for the clearest alternative to the Heliar. It’s not too much bigger or heavier and can still make for a nice option as a long lens. Ergonomics, build quality and price are roughly similar between the two lenses. Image quality is a hair better on the Heliar, but the Elmar-C isn’t too far off. But once you start diving into the specifics of shooting a 90 it probably becomes clear why I prefer the 75. Due to the focal length the Elmar-C is much harder to use indoors and in lower light, the framing area is really small on most rangefinder cameras and the overall experience is quite compromised as a result. Overall then the Elmar-C can be a nice, reasonably compact long end addition to a small kit, but personally I prefer the Heliar.
These two lenses by Leica might just be the most obvious alternatives to the Heliar. In general terms they are more similar than they are different. Image quality and ergonomics are very comparable between the lenses. The Summarit f/2.5 focuses down to 0.9m and the newer f/2.4 version focuses all the way to 0.7m. Other than that there’s little setting the lenses apart. As the Leica lenses are heavier, much more expensive and have rubber focusing rings that don’t age well I personally don’t see any reason to pick one of these ahead of the Heliar.
The 75mm Summicron is probably the benchmark in this focal length range. It looks to be an incredible performer, but big, heavy and expensive. Reportedly it’s also really tricky to focus accurately as a result of a short focus throw. To me then the Heliar is much more appealing. It’s way lighter, more compact and a lot cheaper too. Sure the rendering and low light usability might be a little bit better on the Summicron, but to me the difference isn’t significant enough to accept its downsides.
I came very close to picking up this faster lens from Voigtländer. I’m happy I went for the f/2.5 one instead though. The f/1.8 lens is significantly larger and heavier and the performance isn’t as well balanced. Personally I feel like the f/2.5 lens is the right choice for me, but for use in lower light the f/1.8 lens could be a compelling option at a reasonable price.
This lens has been introduced by Voigtländer since I picked up the Heliar. It’s nice to see a few more options in the focal length range. The new Nokton looks more compelling than the f/1.8 iteration at least. It seems to have a well balanced level of performance and isn’t totally crazy in terms of size, weight and price (though it’s significantly more expensive than the Heliar). Still I don’t see any huge reason to switch to this lens – from what I’ve seen so far the Heliar has a more balanced signature and the smaller size and weight is more compelling to me than the added speed that the Nokton would bring.
Another recently introduced lens. I’ve not yet seen much comprehensive information on how the 7artisans lens stacks up. Still it looks pretty interesting and as the price is exceptionally competitive I think it’s worth keeping an eye on this one too. As far as I can gather this 75 is closely based on the well received 50/1.1 that 7artisans put out a while back. If that’s correct then this will be a Sonnar design lens, which would offer a very different signature with more character than most of the other, usually double-gauss derived, 75’s on the market. It looks like a very big and heavy lens though, and focusing a 75/1.25 accurately will most likely be very challenging. For day to day use then, I’m pretty sure the Heliar is a more compelling option to my tastes at least.
In terms of gear I’ve become less interested in the spectacular, more so in the balanced. I’m particularly keen on things that work day in and day out and avoid feeling like special purpose equipment.
With such a perspective the Heliar is a fantastic lens. In fact I’d argue that the Heliar’s biggest strength isn’t an individual one – instead it’s all about the aforementioned balance.
The focal length feels like the perfect middle ground between a normal and something even longer, particularly on a rangefinder. It’s fast enough without being so big or heavy to feel cumbersome to carry around or use. The image quality also feels very well balanced, offering high performance without harshness.
I’m super happy with how this shot of my kid turned out, in fact I’d go so far as to call it one of my favorite shots from the Heliar 75, and in fact the entire year.
Leica M Typ 262
These characteristics, and more, coalesce into a lens that moves beyond just being the sum of its parts.
That’s not to say that it isn’t strong in individual areas as well though. Build quality, handling and ergonomics are all first rate. The image quality really is very impressive with very few caveats. Taking the price into consideration the Heliar becomes a very easy lens to recommend.
In fact to me it’s just about the perfect short tele and a standout since starting this site. Overall it’s one of few lenses that have my unreserved recommendation.
Photos in this review were taken using the Leica M4-P, Leica M9 or Leica M Typ 262. Photos of the lens were made using the Sony A7. All film was developed by Team Framkallning and scanned using the Plustek 8200i. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.