New Voigtlander Lenses
Adapt To Fit Rangefinders, Old And New

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The three new lenses: left to right, 21mm f/4 on Kiev 4a, 5mm f/4 on Contax IIa, 35mm f/2.5 on Kiev 4. The finder on the right-hand Kiev is a Voigtlander Kontur, probably 40+ years old.

Nikon's brief reintroduction of the rangefinder S3 in a "millennium commemorative" edition prompted the issue of three Voigtlander lenses in Nikon fit: the 21mm f/4, 25mm f/4, and 35mm f/2.5.

Few "new" S3 Nikons will ever be used in anger, and many of these Voigtlander lenses will be bought to round out an outfit that goes straight onto a shelf: the Nikon, after all, comes only with the standard 5cm f/1.4 lens. But for those who do want to use their rangefinder Nikons (ancient or modern), or Contaxes, or indeed Kievs, these new lenses are a blessing.

Before going on to look at the new lenses, which are essentially remounted versions of lenses that have already been reviewed (in Leica screwmount) in Shutterbug, it is worth looking at the cameras that they will fit, and at other lens choices for these cameras, which are few in number but legendary in status. Without understanding this, one cannot put the new lenses in context.

Mountable Cameras: Contax
The granddaddy of them all was the Contax, the traditional rival to the Leica. It was introduced in spring of 1932 as the I, then extensively revised in 1936 as the II and III (a III was a II with a built-in, uncoupled meter). Then in 1950 came the IIa and IIIa, which were smaller, lighter, and generally better, but still retained the astonishing old "roll-top desk" shutter made of intricately folded brass slats with silk tapes at the sides. These tapes eventually die of old age, and when they do, the shutter is normally irreparable because the brass has crystallized and breaks if you try to bend it back.

The complex external bayonet mount can clearlt be seen in this rear view of the 21mm f/4.

A lot of Zeiss lenses were made for Contaxes both prewar and postwar, but few still look good today: in the days before coating, Zeiss preferred contrasty but not very sharp lenses, where Leicas had sharper but less contrasty lenses.

Postwar, from Oberkochen (the seat of Zeiss was of course Jena) the original 21mm f/4.5 Biogon was and is a superb lens, but it's pretty rare; the 25mm f/4 Topogon is even rarer (I had one, once, the only one I've ever seen); and the postwar 35mm f/2.8 Opton with the small rear element is much rarer than the prewar (and significantly inferior) 35mm f/2.8 Biogon. There is a 35mm f/3.5 Planar, which is reputedly excellent but I have never seen one, and a 35mm f/2.8 Biometer, though these were only ex-Jena. The 50mm and longer postwar lenses are pretty good, but not up to the standard of modern lenses.

The Kiev
The Kiev was reputedly made with the tooling for the Contax II and III, taken by the Soviet Union as war reparations: the camera remained in production until about 1976. Fit and finish were rougher than Contax, as you might expect, but they are still charming-looking cameras with a combined range/viewfinder (Contax beat Leica to that by a long while, in 1936). The wide angle lenses are unfortunately dire: prewar Zeiss designs, albeit with coating. The 28mm f/6.3 is a Tessar derivative and the 35mm f/2.8 is the prewar Biogon: I do not think there was ever a Kiev version of the 20mm f/5.6 Russar. Among standard lenses, the 50mm f/2 Jupiter is not good, and the 50mm f/1.5 is worse. The 53mm f/1.8 Helios is pretty good, but I have only ever seen one: it was introduced toward the end of the Kiev's life. The 85mm f/2 is pretty good and the 135mm f/4 is surprisingly good. All these lenses (50mm f/2, 50mm f/1.5, 85mm f/2, and 135mm f/4) are as far as I know prewar Sonnars.

The focusing ring, seen fitted to the 25mm f/4, left, and in the front of the 21mm f/4, right, makes focusing much easier. The 35mm f/2.5 mount is substantially identical and takes the same sort of focusing ring.

Nikon Rangefinders
Then there was the Nikon. The Nikon I appeared in 1948 with the 24x32mm format (which it shared with Wrayflex and the Czech Opema 35 Leica derivative), and this grew to a unique 24x34mm in the Nikon M (October 1949 to May 1951). Finally, in 1951, came the knob-wind 24x36mm Nikon S; the 1954 lever-wind version was the S2. The SP (1957) was the greatest of them all, with built-in finders from 25-135mm; the S3 (1958, reintroduced 2000) and S4 (1959) were simplified versions of the SP, without the projected-frame finders. Series production ceased in the early 1960s.

Unlike the Kiev, which basically was a prewar Contax (albeit with occasional updates such as flash synchronization), the Nikons borrowed from a number of other sources, including a Leica-style shutter, which is longer lived and faster moving than the old roll-top desk.

Today, unfortunately, Nikkors for the old rangefinders are only a little more common than hens' teeth, though the 21mm f/4 was stunning and the others were very good for their day. The quality of Nikon lenses made the company's name, especially during the Korean war when several American correspondents bought Nikon outfits.

The Common Mount
All three share a common (and eccentric) lens mount. The focusing mount for the standard 50mm lenses (often marked "5cm" in the old style) is built into the camera body. Both the focus and the rangefinder are driven by a little serrated wheel that sits under the middle finger of the right hand (not the index finger, as this is likely to obscure the viewfinder window). You can focus the lens by rotating it, but the wheel then zips around and, unless you are careful, saws up your fingertips even worse than if you try to use it to focus.

The roll-top desk that lurks within the Contax and Kiev.

Standard lenses are fitted via a tiny internal bayonet mount, while all other lenses fit on a much larger external bayonet: the rangefinder coupling is accomplished by threading the throw of the focusing mount so that it matches the rotation of the focusing mount of the standard lens. In order to engage the lug on the lens with the socket in the focusing mount, the lens must be set at infinity when fitting or removing it, as must the lens mount on the camera. Otherwise, the instruction leaflet warns, "the lens may be difficult to remove from camera resulting in damage€not covered by the product guarantee."

Because of the excessively complex mounts, and the relatively tiny size of the market, there have been few "independent" lenses in this fitting: Steinheil, Stewartry, one or two others, none particularly distinguished until now. There was once another Voigtlander lens in a Contax mount, the 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, but that was only a prototype, and besides, Voigtlander was owned by Zeiss at the time, having been taken over in 1956.

Zeiss themselves seem not to have coupled the 21mm f/4.5 Biogon; I don't know if the 21mm f/4 Nikkor was coupled; and the 25mm f/4 Snapshot-Skopar doesn't couple to the Bessa series, so it was a surprise that all three of the new lenses are fully rangefinder coupled.

There is an enduring question mark over how similar the focus register and rangefinder coupling are between Contax (and therefore Kiev) and Nikon-and it also helps to explain why the fastest lens supplied is the 35mm f/2.5. It looks as if the 35mm f/1.7 could be made to fit (the rear lens cell is well under 30mm in diameter, and would therefore go through the 36mm lens throat) but it might not couple adequately. The instruction leaflet (common to all three lenses) says, "if [the lenses are] used with conventional Contax models, no trouble is expected as possible error is within the depth of field."

The Fit And Focus Test
With one Kiev, results were awful, and with another, they were comparable with the Contax IIa that I used to carry out the main test, so never assume that any lens will go onto a Kiev without trouble: always test first. All three lenses went onto all classic Contax models (I, II, III, IIa, IIIa) without difficulty. The instruction leaflet specifically states that the lenses are unsuitable for "early models with slow speeds" which presumably refers to late Contax I models, but when I tried this I found no problem: there is only about 0.5mm clearance (1/50") between the slow-speed dial and the lens mount, but camera and lens remain functional. On the Contax, the results were what I have come to expect with Voigtlander lenses: good at full aperture (65-80 lp/mm centrally, 65 lp/mm edge) and excellent by f/5.6 or f/8 (80-100 lp/mm centrally, 65-80 lp/ mm edge). Results for all three were sufficiently similar so that they are not worth exploring in detail, but there is also the point that I was testing them on a camera that is nearly half a century old, and for which they were not designed. The slight loss of performance as compared with the Leica-fit versions I have tested before seems a likelier result from this than from any real difference in optical bench performance. If I didn't know that these lenses can be even better than this, I'd be recommending them without even commenting on the discrepancy: nothing else you can buy for a Contax, Kiev, or Nikon is likely to be as good.

Finders & Filter Thread
The 21mm f/4 and 25mm f/4 are both supplied complete with finder: as far as I am aware, the only interchangeable-lens camera ever to have a 25mm finder frame built-in was the Nikon SP. The 35mm f/2.5 is supplied without a finder, which means that if you want to use it on a Contax or Kiev you will need to buy one. The 21 and 25 finders are the same as are supplied for the Leica-fit lenses: brightline with parallax marks, and of the very highest quality.

Filters on all three are 43mm, but all have twin, concentric female threads around the lens, the outer being 48mm for the vestigial lens shades supplied with the lens: 4mm deep for the 21mm, 6mm for the 25mm and 35mm. An unexpected accessory, packed with each lens, is a clamp-on focusing collar for those who find the body-mounted focusing knob hard to deal with; this includes the vast majority of people I have ever met who have tried to use a Contax or Contax derivative.

All the lenses, of course, rotate in the mount, so all have twin aperture scales, 180ž apart, to ensure that at least one is adequately visible most of the time. All stop down to f/22, though by this point, diffraction limitations have knocked quite a lot off optimum definition.

To sum up, what does this mean for the user? Well, for very rich users, it's easy: it means they can buy a new S3 and use that. The only camera I would rather have than the S3 in this fitting is an SP (which has a vastly superior viewfinder), and even then, given the choice between a new S3 and a 40-year-old SP, the S3 might win. For die-hard users of old cameras, it's also easy: you can, for the first time in almost four decades, buy new, state of the art lenses for your classic Contax, Nikon, or (if it's in good order) Kiev. And that has to be good news.

Voigtlander cameras and lenses are imported by Schneider Optics Inc., 285 Oser Ave., Hauppauge, NY 11788; (631) 761-5000; fax: (631) 761-5090;

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