People scurry along the docks in the freezing wind. A tiny whirlpool plays among the ice. The sound of demolition echoes from nearby.
In the past few years the photographic industry has gone gaga over performance.
Super fast apertures are becoming more and more commonplace offering immense light gathering and ever shallower depth of field. Coatings with fancy new names promise heightened contrast as well as better and better suppression of flare. Designs are also growing increasingly complex with more and more elements being added, preferably aspherical or otherwise exotic ones, further increasing performance to an extent previously thought impossible.
In this climate it can be easy to get swept up in the excitement of an apparent arms race. It’d be easy to disregard anything else and just opt for one of these incredible performers. But before getting carried away it’s good to remember that this push towards extreme performance doesn’t come without downsides.
These fast and sharp lenses have also been getting increasingly big and heavy. Their price tags have followed suit, becoming equally bloated.
To stay in the moment and make your best work sometimes these things get in your way and other aspects can actually be more important than peak performance.
I personally find that I tend to bring compact gear with me more often than things that are bigger. If I carry around gear that’s light I also end up less fatigued than with something heavier, making me able to stay more alert and observant on what’s going on around me. Combine this with good ergonomics and I’m better able to focus on things other than the gear – like composition, timing and light; aspects far more important to make images I’m happy with than an ever diminishing bump in performance.
So from this vantage point it’s good to see the occasional counterpoints to this performance rat race.
Shot on Leica Typ 262
Voigtländer is one of the manufacturers that has been quite good at offering more compact, modestly specced alternatives next to their high speed, larger options. In the past few years I’ve for instance been quite impressed with the Skopar 25/4 and the Skopar 35/2.5. Their recent 35/2 looks nice too.
Lately I’ve gravitated towards the 50mm focal length however, but have been keen on something even more compact than the other 50’s I’d been shooting. I’ve also been wanting to shoot my Leica II with a more modern 50 than the Leica Elmar 50/3.5 I bought it with. Taken together there’s been a few options on my radar. One of Voigtländer’s early lenses in particular has looked, on paper at least, like an excellent fit for what I’ve been looking for.
The Skopar is really compact and mounts on a ton of cameras – from the close to a century old Leica II pictured here, to the most recent digital Leica's as well as most mirrorless systems.
The Voigtländer 50/2.5 Color Skopar is a pretty unremarkable lens going by its specifications. To me though, that’s part of what made me interested in it.
Its low key specs it brings a number of advantages compared to higher end options, chiefly a small size and low weight (though not as low as you’d probably expect, something I’ll get back to). Beyond that the little Skopar has a few additional traits that made me even more interested in it. Appealing looking ergonomics and reportedly excellent build quality being the big points.
It wasn’t the easiest lens to track down, but with a bit of patience I managed to snag one up at a reasonable price a year and a half ago. Now that I’ve been shooting it for some time I feel I’m ready to review it.
In terms of broad strokes I’m happy to say that in use it holds up very well to the impression you get from it on paper. It’s a solid, no-fuzz lens that’s very pleasant to shoot. There are some minor limitations under certain circumstances, but in in all it’s turned out, somewhat surprisingly, to be one of the most enjoyable lenses that I’ve shot recently.
I’ll do a full rundown, but first some key takeaways.
Introduced in 2002 the Skopar 50 is a slightly long normal* that was one of the early lenses released under the Voigtländer brand after Cosina licensed it.
* A by the book normal for the 35mm format should have a focal length of around 43mm. To me a 50 often feels like a very short tele rather than fully neutral as a result.
There aren’t any versions to keep track of – the lens was unchanged for the duration of its production run. The lens was sold in both black and silver finishes. It was cancelled some years ago now, so the used market is the way to go to get your hands on a copy.
The Skopar has a pretty interesting design. While the 7 element in 6 groups design is based on the double gauss formula the front half of the optical package has been almost completely overhauled.
Compared to a traditional double gauss the front group has been separated with element two and three switching places and changing shapes. There’s also an additional element added.
Counterintuitively the separation of the front group has made it possible to reduce the overall size of the optical system. Actually most of the design changes seem focused on at arriving at a small size with retained performance.
However the redesigned formula moves away somewhat from the full symmetry of a by-the-book double gauss, introducing a few imaging traits you wouldn’t expect to see in a 50 mm double gauss as a result; distortion being the main one (I’ll get back to a full breakdown in the image quality section).
Overall the design is still quite clever – it retains most positive characteristics and the well behaved signature you’d expect coming from a double gauss design, but at the same time achieving it with a noticeably smaller footprint*.
* You can compare the Skopar to for instance the Leica Summicron 50/2 or Zeiss Planar 50/2 for instance, both use true double-gauss designs and are noticeably larger as a result.
Rear thread mount + M-mount adapter
The Skopar 50 uses the earlier Leica screw mount rather than the more recent M-mount bayonet.
As a result it can be mounted on a huge range of cameras – everything from the earliest 1920’s Barnack Leica to the most recent digital iterations is fully compatible with the lens.
The only thing needed to mount it to an M-mount camera is a simple adapter. In that case the one thing to keep track of is to get an adapter that brings up the correct framelines, as there are ones with all three frameline positioning lug lengths. Adapters are usually labeled though, so that’s easy enough to figure out.
The lens can be mounted on pretty much every mirrorless system camera too, but there are some ray angle induced issues to be aware of when mounting it on other digital cameras than Leica‘s (I’ll get back these to under the In Use section). Once again, a simple adapter does the trick.
Two things strike you almost immediately getting the Skopar in your hands.
First it’s the size. For a 50mm lens it’s tiny. Even by rangefinder standards, where lenses are generally small to begin with, the Skopar is unusually small.
The second thing that’s striking is the weight of it. It’s very dense and heavy for its size. Once again unusually so even by rangefinder standards, where lenses are generally all metal and glass.
The Skopar is quite small. From left – Leica 50/3.5 – Voigtländer 50/2.5 – Leica 50/2 – Zeiss 50/1.5
The unusually heavy weight can be attributed to a simple choice of materials. Where most modern rangefinder lenses use aluminium for the main housing, the Skopar is brass and significantly denser as a result – it’s just about the same weight of the almost twice as large, aluminium bodied, Zeiss ZM 50 Planar for instance.
Over time brass Leica lenses have become highly sought after by collectors, in particular the black paint ones. The dense feel, the organic way they wear and the patina they get are unusual traits by contemporary standards. In more practical terms though, there’s not much to it beyond the weight. Still it’s pretty nice to experience such an ambitious build without breaking the bank.
Beyond the brass construction the little Skopar takes a few additional cues from early Leica lenses. The overall look of the lens makes it a dead ringer for the first version of the Leica Summicron 35/2.
While mimicry like this tends to rub me the wrong way here it comes off as a homage rather than imitation.
It’s also hard to be harsh on it when the result is such a nice looking piece of kit. In particular one that’s unique in a number of other ways.
The Skopar feels right at home mounted on the Leica M3
Markings are engraved and painted using the font Helvetica Neue.
The name plate is always black with white text, regardless of the finish of the rest of the lens.
The aperture, depth of field and metric distance scales are painted white on black lenses, black on silver ones. The imperial distance scale is painted in a subdued red color regardless of finish. This color is somewhat hard to make out in low light, in particular on a black lens. The rest of the markings don’t suffer in this regard.
Due to the limited amount of real estate on the lens the markings are on the smaller end. Readability of the aperture scale in particular is ever so slightly compromised as a result. Overall readability is still very good in most situations though.
Clear markings and a useable depth of field scale.
The Skopar comes across as an exceptionally well built lens. Everything feels solid and high quality and the control points feel smooth and well balanced.
Focus control is smooth throughout the range with just the right amount of resistance.
The ten-bladed aperture is nicely executed with the opening staying nice and round throughout the range. Changing aperture settings feels good with very distinct clicks for each half stop.
1. The Skopar with its included cap.
2. With included hood.
3. The hood also fits Voigtländer's pinch style caps elegantly.
4. Optional, larger hood.
The Skopar comes with a friction fit cap and a low profile hood, both made of metal. I also got the optional larger hood with my purchase. All the accessories are very well made and well designed.
The cap slips on to either the naked lens or over the small hood. It’s felt lined and slips on and off with enough friction for the hold to feel confident, but not so much as to feel cumbersome. Overall I’d say it’s a very nice cap indeed. My only minor gripe is that the aperture scale is covered by the cap when mounted on the naked lens.
The thin hood screws into place with a solid and precise fit. It’s slower to fit than if it used a bayonet mount, but looks better integrated as a result. As it’s so low profile it’s not hugely effective, though the size also makes it easy to keep fitted (though personally I’ve tended to skip it to keep the size to a minimum).
The optional larger hood is also screw mounted. With its spatter-paint finish it’s reminiscent of the one supplied with the Ultron 28/1.9, but a bit better designed*. However for me one of the main appeals with this lens is its compact size and this larger hood definitely detracts from this enough that I don’t tend to use it.
* With thread-mount you often end up with the lens mounted rotated ever so slightly off center. Mounting an asymmetrical hood on axis in these cases would result in darkened corners. On the Ultron this is solved by having the hood rotate freely in its mount before tightening it down. While straight-forward this means you have to align the hood properly each time you mount it. On the Skopar then the axial alignment is instead done separately to the mounting threads – you loosen a small screw and adjust the hoods alignment in relation to the mounting threads. The result of this approach is that you then only have to this this once you mount the lens onto a new thread mount camera or lens adapter.
To my tastes the ergonomics of the Skopar are perfect. Despite the small size it handles wonderfully.
It balances well once mounted. The substantial density precludes it from totally disappearing onto most cameras like lighter lenses can. On the other hand it also means that most cameras become less back-heavy when carried by the strap, something that can be somewhat annoying with very light lenses.
Its compact size also ensures that it doesn’t intrude into the viewfinder of most M-mount rangefinder in any noticeable way. On the tiny Barnack cameras that have the viewfinder very close to the lens there’s a little bit of finder blockage, but few lenses fare better in this regard.
Here the control points are in clear view – the large and comfortable tab on the left as well as the narrow, ribbed aperture ring on the front.
Focusing is done via a very comfortable, convex tab. The focus throw is a hair over 90° resulting in a responsive feel without compromising accuracy.
I’ve come to understand that not everyone is sold on focus tabs, but to me they are wonderful in use. It’s a very comfortable way to focus and you can also work up good muscle memory and start moving the tab to an approximate distance to where you want to shoot even before bringing the camera to your eye. In all I greatly prefer it to a focus ring, though if you have a strong preference for the opposite the Skopar probably isn’t for you.
The minimum focus distance at 0.75m is really close to the common standard of 0.7m. As a result the focus travel and tab position at different distances is very much inline with other tabbed M-mount lenses. It does mean you need to take care to not focus closer than intended when shooting it on a thread mount camera however, where 1m is generally the minimum focus distance supported.
The aperture is controlled via a narrow, finely ribbed, ring at the front of the lens.
Distinct clicks at half and full stops makes it easy to keep track of your settings while avoiding accidental changes.
If I’m being super picky the aperture ring could stand to be ever so slightly wider, but in the grand scheme of things that’s nothing that detracts from the overall handling that the Skopar offers.
To me it’s among the very best handling lenses I’ve shot and in terms of ergonomics it’s certainly leader of the pack among the 50mm lenses I’ve used.
What’s considered “good” performance out of a lens is more and more a moving target.
It’s very rare to come across any contemporary lens that doesn’t offer way beyond adequate performance for most uses (i.e. the overall impression isn’t marred by technical shortcomings at reasonable print sizes and viewing distances). The vast majority of lenses these days go even beyond that – they’re well corrected to the point where it’s hard to find any issues visible outside of stringent testing.
So in this context does a lens need to be in the second category to be considered a “good” lens, or is beyond adequate in fact “good” enough?
Personally I feel more and more that – as long as the performance is adequate – the more important aspect of a lenses output is the overall character. How the full frame looks, the overall impression, rather than the tiny characteristics. Often they go hand in hand, but at times a lens with fantastic characteristics can have an incredibly bland character. On the other hand in case the character is pleasant enough the individual characteristics matter less.
So while the Skopar doesn’t offer outstanding performance I still find it very good because of the following:
A – performance is beyond adequate
B – for how I often like to shoot it the Skopar offers a very pleasant character.
Not everyone’s preferences are the same though. And if you’re looking for certain specific traits the Skopar might fall short. So to clear things up, let’s break them down.
There are both good news and bad news in regards to definition. Let’s start with the weak points.
Resolution and micro contrast is slightly lower than the best of its class.
Contrast also suffers towards the edges of the frame, due at least partially to field curvature. At wider apertures the full frame impression is not fully distinct at the peripheries.
My lens also shows signs of mild decentering — the right side of the frame is visibly less sharp than the left side. While unfortunate it’s not generally enough to be distracting. Decentering seems like a somewhat more common occurrence with Voigtländer lenses from this time than what you’d generally expect, though you’re never totally safe from this regardless of brand or manufacturing date.
Over to some good news instead.
Resolution in the central part of the frame is good already wide open with solid control over spherical aberration, leading to a nice amount of clarity.
Contrast at lower frequencies is unusually high already wide open and overall impression is quite punchy as a result.
Stopping down improves definition across the frame reasonably quickly. Already by f/4 the full frame offers fairly clear rendering, but f/8 is needed to give a solid impression of fine detail across the entire field.
The high mid level contrast gives a strong overall presence also while stopping down.
Definition is generally better at closer distances than at longer range.
While partial crops of an image or two isn’t generally the best way to judge overall performance of a lens, this image with the included crops hopefully roughly illustrates the overall impression offered by the Skopar at wider aperture settings.
The image was shot using the Leica M Typ 262 with the Skopar wide open. The central area has a decent amount of definition already wide open, though the rendition is a bit less crisp at these farther distances than closer up. In the mid-field crop you can see that definition drops noticeably (though to be fair, this is also partially exagerated by depth of field in this particular example). The overall contrast is high however and the full frame impression holds up reasonably well to my eye in this instance.
In this example shot at ~f/8 a clear increase in definition can be observed. Both the center crop and edge crop show solid amounts of definition at this point. The overall impression is now solid across the frame.
The palette is clear and saturated, shifting slightly warm. Close hues are generally rendered with clean separation. The overall impression is of a solid, modern color output.
Bokeh is fair to good. Combined with a clear distinction between planes the output can look very appealing under many scenarios, though there are also some shortcomings. Despite its modest speed the Skopar offers up a fair amount of separation.
At closer distances the out of focus areas are generally surprisingly soft and smooth. This holds true even under somewhat challenging conditions.
At mid to long distances things tend to be a little less appealing. Here the bokeh can start to look nervous in high contrast conditions. Especially towards the corners, where a bit of mechanical vignetting causes the depth of field to extend away from the camera in a way that can be a bit distracting under some circumstances. Bokeh circles also become truncated and there can even be a touch of swirliness as a result.
Dissecting out of focus areas under closer magnifications reveal bokeh circles with reasonably soft edges and commendably round shape throughout the aperture range. There isn’t really any major change in bokeh quality stopping down.
Bokeh in front of the focal plane also tends to be smooth, in particular when shooting at closer range. Things can come across as a little smeary when the objects in front of the focal plane is at mid to far distances.
The transition between in and out of focus is smooth but quite quick. This results in clearer distinction between planes than what you’d probably expect. Thanks to this there can be a very nice sense of depth at short to mid distances in particular. As the transition zone is generally creamy there’s an organic impression to the way depth is rendered that to my eye is quite appealing. The focal plane melts away rather than feeling totally cut out.
Bokeh is generally smooth when shooting at closer distances, even in challenging conditions. At mid to far distances it can start to look rather nervous however, in particular towards the edges in high contrast situations, such as in the second example.
The Skopar has a good level of correction of the common aberrations.
The most noticeable issue that can crop up is a tad of pincushion distortion. It’s not a significant problem in general use, though if you shoot a lot of e.g. architecture it can be somewhat distracting.
Spherical aberration is managed well. As previously mentioned there’s no haziness in the focal plane due to residual aberrations, but on the other hand the level of correction is also not so high as to result in overly nervous bokeh.
There’s a slight amount of linear chromatic aberration that can result in color fringes in high contrast scenes, e.g. around branches or out of focus highlights, but this is generally not at distracting levels.
There’s some vignetting, but not at unusual levels.
Flare is generally well corrected. However when there’s strong light coming from a particular angle a large, circular ghosting flare can show up. This could potentially be mitigated at least in some occurrences by using the small hood. Other than that it’s a solid showing with good retention of contrast and detail in most situations.
On certain digital cameras, in particular from manufacturers other than Leica, there are some ray angle induced issues due to the thicker filter stacks used on their sensors. This is somewhat unusual as most rangefinder 50’s are close to free from such problems. The issues probably stem from the compact design. In any case the Skopar isn’t quite ideal in this regard. So if you’re looking for a lens to also use on mirrorless cameras this is probably not the best bet (additional observations can be found under the Sony A7 section farther down).
The overall evaluation of the performance holds true regardless of medium, but at times characteristics can come across differently depending on the capture method.
With most lenses I end up feeling like they tend to be better suited for one or another type of medium. But occasionally, like with the Skopar, I feel that the major traits work well regardless of medium.
The contemporary signature works well for digital. The somewhat modest contrast at higher frequencies takes a bit of harshness off of the end results, something that can otherwise often creep into digital captures. The strong color reproduction and pleasant signature carries over too. However certain drawbacks can at times be slightly more noticeable on digital; mainly the lower resolution at mid to long distances and occasional chromatic aberration.
The Skopar’s strengths are equally present on color film. The high overall contrast leads to punchy negs, just to my liking. The contemporary color response contributes to a modern looking output. The well balanced characteristics amount to a rounded overall impression that still feels suited to the organic nature of film.
I can’t say that I’ve shot the Skopar extensively on B&W film. But from what I’ve seen so far it really does really well with monochromes, with a well balanced contrast signature. The digital conversions I’ve done have all required very little work to look unusually appealing.
A few things of note in these two examples. Note how pleasantly the rendering carries over to B&W in the first image (shot on Delta 400 using the Leica M4-P). In the second image (shot on the Leica M Typ 262) an example of flare can be seen. To my eye both images also examplify the bokeh character and sense of depth in the Skopar’s overall rendering in a good way.
On balance then the Skopar is pretty middle of the road in terms of performance. It’s not the highest resolving lens with the highest level of correction across the board.
Still in terms of the overall rendering (and I’ve already given away my opinion here) that doesn’t matter much a lot of the time.
The Skopar offers a transparent signature with a bit of organic roundness that feels unusually well balanced.
The traits offered by the Skopar come together in a way that’s more compelling to my eye than a lot of other lenses that have less than perfect performance and even some that on paper are more well corrected.
Even with regards to its character it’s clearly not perfect though. There are times when it ends up looking overstretched. This isn’t unusual – all lenses have weak spots. What’s somewhat unusual though is that several of the Skopar’s weaknesses sort of clump together and show up in specific situations. This means that there are some conditions where its rendering comes across as a little less appealing a bit more often. But the same goes for its strengths, and there are plenty of situations where everything really comes together.
Aside from the occasional flare in side light, the biggest challenge for the Skopar is distance.
Shooting at wider apertures at far distances can yield results that lack a bit of bite with indistinct edges and corners.
At wide apertures and mid to far distances the Skopar can look a little overstretched at times. To me this image is an example of where the rendering distracts a little from the overall impression. To be fair, plenty of lenses would have a hard time with this rather challenging scene – still the Skopar isn’t fully convincing under these circumstances. Leica M Typ 262 ~f/2.5
At mid distances and wide to mid aperture settings bokeh can look rather nervous.
The slight bit of distortion can also, generally speaking, be observed more frequently with distant subjects.
So, to get the best out of the lens when shooting at a distance you need to take a bit of care.
At mid distances it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the background and try to keep it as clean and low contrast as possible. Shooting wide open or well stopped down is also good practice, minimizing issues by opting for either maximum separation or depth of field.
At far distances the remedy is simple – stopping down as much as possible. Even a stop down from wide open results in a clearer image. Sufficiently stopped down there’s little setting it apart from benchmarks in the range.
Moving closer changes the impression. Everything comes together already wide open.
Definition increases and bokeh becomes smoother. There’s a great deal of clarity with well balanced contrast without any harshness. The well defined transitions gives a nice sense of depth.
There are plenty of times the rendering out of the Skopar really shines. It offers a particularly appealing signature when shot at closer range where bokeh is generally smooth, definition high and there’s a nice sense of depth.
Edge and corner sharpness becomes less important and any slight drops are inconsequential.
In these situations the rendering offered by the Skopar is, to my eye at least, just about perfect; offering a fantastic blend of transparency and roundness.
Now with all this said it’s worth clarifying that even outside of the optimal envelope described above the Skopar performs perfectly fine. It’s just that under certain conditions it’s visibly surpassed by some higher performing lenses. But even then the differences are generally subtle and the overall character is also nice enough to still offer appealing output. Some of my favorite shots with the Skopar comes from outside of these optimal circumstances.
Then there are also those situations where the lens truly shines. And in those situations there’s nothing more that I’d wish for in terms of rendering.
In many ways I feel like the more gear I shoot, the less content I become. Everything can be compared unfavorably in one way or another to something else. What’s more and more becoming a search for my ideal 50mm lens is pretty emblematic of this.
My main motivation for getting the Skopar wasn’t really because I thought it’d be the ideal 50 for me. Instead I was simply looking for something more modern than the Elmar 50/3.5 to mount on my Leica II.
In this regard it’s been excellent. It’s pretty much all I could’ve wished for as a lens to shoot on the tiny Barnack.
The Skopar is quite nice in use. It makes a strong case for itself on a screw mount Leica in particular. To me it’s made me even further appreciate the Leica II that this was shot with.
It turned out to go even beyond that though. I enjoyed it more than expected and even came to use it more often than my other 50mm lenses on my M-mount cameras.
Shooting it this frequently started to underscore things I wasn’t sold on with those other 50’s. The ergonomics are perfect on the Skopar, an area where I’ve felt both of my previous favorites – the Summicron 50 and ZM 50 Sonnar – have a few niggles. The Skopar being able to focus down to 0.75m also makes a noticeable difference to the 0.9m close focus of the ZM 50 Sonnar.
On the other hand I feel that the Skopar is just a little too slow to be able to cover most of my shooting needs. In this regard I’m more comfortable with the Summicron and even more so with the Sonnar whenever light gets low. With certain subjects I also feel like the higher performance of the Summicron in particular really benefits the end results.
So where does this leave me? Well, I’d say I’m more conflicted and less content. I’ve been wanting to pare down to having one main 50mm lens for a while, but adding the Skopar in to the mix has made that even trickier.
Disregarding such first world problems though, I’m very happy with the addition of the Skopar to my outfit. To me it’s just so darn enjoyable.
And if I were to give just a small piece of advice in conjunction to this it’d be to not overthink things. Just get what seems to make sense and whatever works for you and keep shooting it. Switch things up if you feel like it, but know that it won’t generally make photography easier or your shots better.
I’d like to jot down a few quick thoughts on the focal length as well, before moving on.
It’s weird how things goes sometimes.
I’ve had a bit of a rocky road in the past with regards to the 50mm focal length. I used to feel that it was neither fish nor fowl. But for the past few years I’ve started to enjoy it more and more, to the point of now counting it as my favorite focal length. I could easily see myself shooting nothing else than a 50 and being very happy about it.
I’ve come to treasure the slight condensation the focal length offers. It forces you to prioritize and choose what to include in the frame more ruthlessly than with something wider, and I feel my photos are stronger because of it. Still the angle of view is still wide enough for frames to not end up looking cramped or for it to become a hard to work with focal length.
Shooting just a solitary focal length could be a bit too inflexible for some. So for me what tends to make sense from a practical standpoint is a two lens set up. Pairing something longer with something wider to give a fair bit of creative flexibility. To me a 50mm lens paired with a 28 feels like just about the perfect set up.
Since the Skopar 50 isn’t all that fast I think it makes most sense to pair up with a slightly faster wide. If you’re use it mainly on a thread mount camera I think the Voigtländer Ultron 28/1.9 is a pretty compelling option in this regard (though the slower Skopar 28/3.5 feels more in line with the ethos of those cameras). On an M-mount camera the more recent Ultron 28/2 looks like a solid alternative. The Leica Summicron 28/2 is even nicer and would make for a great pairing, though that lens comes at a substantial premium.
You could go wider still and opt for something like the Zeiss ZM 25/2.8 which is fairly easy to shoot in low light. Or get a 35, for instance the Zeiss ZM 35/2 or Leica 35/2 ASPH, though to me that’s a pairing where each lens doesn’t offer quite as distinct a use case.
One key consideration with the Skopar is its modest speed for a 50mm prime.
Compared to something faster you do certainly run out of light more often. Depending on what you shoot and on which camera you use this might be a bigger or smaller consideration however.
Shooting the Skopar on any reasonably modern digital camera enables solid results even in very low light thanks to the increasingly clean high ISO performance.
On film it’s a slightly different story though, as well as with an older camera such as the Leica M9. Here you can still pull off solid shots in moderately low light and I’ve not felt all too limited even when shooting with ISO 400 film. But as light gets low there’s definitely a noticeable difference to shooting an f/2 or faster lens. It simply becomes harder to get enough light through the lens.
How much this matters then depends on how the rest of your outfit looks like. If you want a single lens to shoot mainly on film, then I’d probably opt for something slightly faster. If you’re shooting digital, are ok with pairing it with something faster or don’t shoot much in really dim light, then the speed of the Skopar becomes much less of a consideration.
The Skopar isn’t the first lens I reach for after sundown. Shooting it on a reasonably recent digital camera mostly gets around the limitation though, since high ISO’s are still so usable. On film or older digital cameras it can feel a bit restrictive however.
I’ve had the Skopar for around two years already, and in that time I’ve used it across a number of different cameras. Here are some observations from that use.
To me mounting the Skopar to the Leica II represents a sort of best case scenario. Not only does the combination work great, it’s even worked so well that I got a renewed appreciation for the camera itself.
For the type of photos I most like to make with this camera the Skopar offers a big step up over the Elmar 50/3.5 that I’ve been shooting on the camera most often up until now. Both performance and handling are clear improvements. As a result the combination even becomes viable as a day to day set up, even though the moderate speed of the lens limits the low light usability somewhat. Handling and balance is great and the overall footprint remains admirably small. The only thing to watch out for is to not focus closer than the 1m rangefinder coupling distance inadvertently.
Overall an incredibly enjoyable setup to shoot.
Leica II / Leica M4-P
I quite like the rendering out of the Skopar on film. Shooting it on the Leica II in particular really feels quite special. Getting contemporary looking, impressive results out of a 90 year old camera is a fascinating proposition.
A wonderful and natural pairing. With the Leica M3 being so nice to shoot with 50mm lenses it’s no surprise that the Skopar feels right at home on the camera.
The classic styling of the lens also contributes to it feeling like a good pairing (a chrome copy of the lens would likely look even more fetching). The handling is just about perfect and the output on film is wonderful. The only minor reservation is the discrepancy between the 1m minimum focus distance of the camera and 0.75m offered by the lens – you need to take care to not focus too close. With mid-speed film you’re also slightly limited by the modest speed of the lens when it comes to shooting in low light.
Mounting the Skopar on the M4-P results in a solid setup that handles amazingly well. The Skopar renders wonderfully on film. You’ll be slightly limited by the modest speed of the lens in lower light, but other than that it’s a wonderful combination to shoot.
Very nice. The combination offers great handling and very appealing output. The rendering feels very balanced and goes well with the Leica M9’s unusual sensor characteristics. The modest speed of the lens and poor high ISO performance of the camera means you’ll be somewhat limited when shooting the setup in lower light. Beyond that, a solid pairing.
A fantastic combination. The lens balances and handles perfectly on the M 262. The output characteristics also work really well with the camera’s sensor and the overall rendering often looks wonderful. Beyond that the solid high ISO performance offered by the camera also means that the lens’s modest speed isn’t as much of a limiting factor anymore. Overall one of my favorite combinations over the past year or so.
Leica M Typ 262
I’ve been shooting this combination a lot during the past year or so and found it really enjoyable. Certainly one of my favorite combinations as of late.
Just a quick note as this is not a combination I’ve shot a lot. Still, beyond the Summicron-C 40 I think the Skopar is one of the most compelling lenses to shoot on the small CL. The size and handling is great, there are correct framelines for it and the output is quite appealing. Overall this would be a very appealing setup that I’m sure I’d shoot quite happily if it wasn’t for being more keen to shoot my other cameras at the moment.
A suboptimal but still enjoyable setup. Despite not being at all designed for each other the pairing handles really well. The solid high ISO performance offered by the A7 also claws back a lot of the low light usability lost to the modest speed of the lens. However there are significant and distracting ray angle induced issues making the output from the combination fairly unappealing a lot of the time. At a distance the mid frame and beyond is noticeably smeared due to exaggerated field curvature. There isn’t much color shift though. At closer range the rendering holds up fairly well and the output can look really nice under the right conditions. Mounting the lens on a helicoid adapter allows the minimum focusing distance to be cut significantly, opening up additional applications. On balance then it’s certainly possible to get nice images out of the combination and if you have the two pieces of kit it makes sense to use them together. However I wouldn’t recommend buying into the combination – there are better lenses to fit to the A7 and better cameras to fit the Skopar to.
Depending on the exact reasons you’re considering the Skopar the alternatives to look at change somewhat. The list below is far from comprehensive, but to me they feel like the most relevant options.
So while the Skopar 50 isn’t quite unique it still offers a compelling enough package to be considered even against lenses that look like stronger options on paper.
If you’re looking for a compact normal I think it makes sense to have a look at this 40mm lens by Leica. In terms of focal length the experience isn’t exactly the same as with a 50 (shooting a 40 feels closer to shooting a 35 than a 50 to me) but depending on the rest of your kit that might not matter. It’s a pleasant and flexible focal length to shoot and while most M-mount cameras lack corresponding framelines that’s not a major issue in practice.
The Summicron 40 also has a lot going for it. It’s among the smallest and lightest lenses Leica have ever made. It’s faster than the Skopar by two thirds of a stop, making it a bit easier to use as the light gets low. The ergonomics are slightly better on the Skopar though. Performance is roughly similar between the lenses – the Skopar is way more resilient against flare, has higher contrast at wider aperture and offers slightly better bokeh. The Summicron is a little more even across the frame and slightly higher resolution. The Summicron is also an M-Mount lens and can’t be fitted to as many cameras as a result.
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If you’re looking for something compact to shoot on a thread-mount camera this lens should definitely be considered. There are plenty of appealing 50mm options for LTM-mount cameras, but none are smaller than the Elmar in its collapsed state.
The Elmar has ergonomics that are way more fiddly than the Skopar’s though and it’s slower to shoot as a result. The performance is also not on par with the Skopar – the Elmar is a lower contrast, slower lens with a more vintage looking output than the contemporary signature of the Skopar. But depending on what you’re looking for that might not be such a bad thing.
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If you’re looking for a day to day 50 then the Summicrons are the benchmarks. I’ve had and used the fifth version of this lens for years and really have very few complaints. It performs a bit better than the Skopar across the board and is two thirds of a stop faster to boot.
Ergonomically I prefer the Skopar though and at times I prefer its signature. The smaller size of the Skopar also makes it a little easier to lug around. The Summicron is also significantly more expensive and most versions don’t use the LTM-mount.
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To me this might still be the ideal day to day lens. It shares a lot of the Skopar’s strengths – it’s compact, has excellent ergonomics and is reasonably priced. Beyond that it has the benefit of being very fast to boot.
Compared to the Skopar the main deciding points then become speed, mount and focal length.
The Nokton is an M-mount lens and can’t be mounted on any LTM camera as a result.
The Nokton is a stop and two thirds faster than the Skopar, making it much easier to use as light gets low.
In terms of focal length a 40 is a great day to day choice. It feels noticeably wider than a 50 though, closer to a 35. Most rangefinders also don’t have corresponding framelines.
Looking at the way the lenses render they feel cut from the same cloth, sharing many common traits. Still there are also a number of differences. In very brief terms the Skopar feels a bit calmer and smoother, the Nokton a bit harsher and less predictable, but also with a little higher peak performance. Overall I prefer the Skopar’s signature slightly but the differences are generally subtle though and, to me at least, not a major deciding factor.
Between them then it’s a choice among two very nice lenses indeed.
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The most obvious recommendation in 50mm lenses is this double gauss design lens from Zeiss. There are few safer bets than this. It’s an excellent performer by any standards. It’s also fairly compact, light and reasonably priced. It handles well and is bright enough for most uses.
So then, is there any reason to consider the Skopar ahead of the Planar? Well, to me there are a few.
For starters I greatly prefer how the Skopar handles. The focus tab and half-stop aperture settings just feel way better in use to me. Its smaller size is an added bonus.
I also tend to prefer the slightly rounder character offered by the Skopar compared to the almost overly efficient output of the Planar. There’s no doubt about the Planar being the better performer though.
The last aspect to consider is that the Planar is only available with an M-mount and consequently it can’t be used on threadmount cameras.
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This list wouldn’t be complete without the Sonnar – still my overall favorite 50mm lens. It offers exceptionally appealing rendering and high speed in a very compact package. Ergonomics are good and the price is reasonable.
So what case would be the arguments to go for the Skopar?
Well I personally find the way that the Skopar handles much preferable. To me the focus tab and half stop aperture settings feel much better in use than the Sonnar’s focus nub and third stop settings.
I also find the longer, 0.9m minimum focus distance of the Sonnar an annoyance at times. The 0.75m minimum focus distance offered by the Skopar feels much more livable.
The Sonnar is also an M-mount lens and can’t be used on LTM cameras as a result.
In terms of performance the two lenses are roughly on par. Certain aspects are slightly ahead with the Sonnar, others on the Skopar. The Sonnar has a stronger character, the Skopar is more transparent. Overall they’re both very capable of appealing looking images.
Then there’s the speed difference. The one and two thirds additional stop of speed offered by the Sonnar makes it much easier to use in lower light. Where I often feel slightly limited with the Skopar, I can get away using the Sonnar in almost any situation. The Skopar is a bit more compact though.
So then there’s no obvious choice or recommendation between the two lenses. Depending on what area you find more compelling either could make for a better choice. Regardless it’s a choice between two excellent lenses.
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The Skopar certainly isn’t a particularly exciting lens. It offers modest specifications and very middle-of-the-road levels of performance. There aren’t any exotic elements in the design or extreme features.
As such it’s almost the antithesis of what most manufacturers seem to pursue lately. But to me, it’s far more appealing.
Shooting the Skopar frequently over the past year and a half has been very enjoyable. I’ve made a good number of my favorite photos over this time using the lens. This image of my two kids, here sibblings for just a few days, is one of them. I wouldn’t want to change a thing about it, certainly not how the lens has rendered the scene.
The small size and perfect ergonomics makes it fun and enjoyable to use and easy to bring.
Sure, the performance might not be anything to write home about, but it’s got it where it counts. The rendering is also really appealing for how I generally shoot.
Now, that’s not to say it’s the perfect 50, not even for my wants and needs. For general use I prefer something slightly faster as well as with a little more even performance at a distance. But every lens that offers that comes with other trade offs and as a result I gravitate towards the Skopar much more often than I’d expected.
In the end it comes down to what you prioritize.
If you’re keen on a small 50 that’s fun to shoot it’s hard to go wrong with the Skopar. Especially as a piece of a smaller kit, for use on a Barnack Leica or a recent digital one. In those instances the Skopar comes highly recommended.
Photos in this review were taken using the Leica II, Leica M3, Leica M4-P 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.