Wide angles are not for the fainthearted. With so much in your field of view, composition is everything. It’s a skill that needs learning. Before I dive into my experience with the Voigtlander 21 mm f1,4, I want to describe how I ended up buying it in the first place. If you want to jump straight into the lens details, scroll further down.
For years, the widest angle I used was 28mm, mostly coupled with a 50mm or a 75mm in a two-camera setup. I used a Leica Q for a while and I really enjoyed the lens on the Q, the aperture of f1.7 giving lots of room to play with depth of field. But I was still using it as a 'normal focal length'. Although wide, I consider 28mm as the wide end of the normal perspective, with 60mm being the upper boundary. When I was reviewing my 28mm shots, I noticed that using a 35mm or a 50mm for the same shot would have obviously resulted in a different shot, given the field of view, but it would not have resulted in a different interpretation of the scene. I was comfortable in the 28-60’ish framelength but it was not helping me tell different stories or take different angles on the scenes I was seeing. I needed to learn different ways of capturing what I saw.
Funnily enough, I ended up with a 21mm lens because I slowly gravitated towards more tele-lenses initially. I played with 90mm lenses (Leica Summicron mostly) and 100mm (Zeiss ZF) as well and I loved the ‘tunnel-vision’ I was able to get that allowed me to highlight a certain detail in a scene, or simply isolate one subject from the rest. Composition in mid-range tele-lenses is relatively easy, you pick the detail and build the scene to help bring it to the forefront. Next, I discovered 135mm could be a great walk-around lens as well and can be used for much more than just portaits. I shot a lot with the Sigma 135 f1.8 ART lens. It is an absolute beast and produces fantastic images. I could separate even more and I learned to appreciate that focal length. More recently, I’ve been shooting with the Zeiss Batis 135mm for Sony, another wonderful lens. As slow as a zoom lens in terms of aperture, but it has a certain draw to it that makes it viable as a prime. I enjoyed the alternative angles I could add to my standard view, as seen through a 50mm mostly.
So after learning how to use tele-lenses to portray a scene, I wanted to try to learn using true wide angle lenses as well. My first attempts were when I still had a Sony A7 II last year and I bought the Sony 24mm f1.4. If you have a Sony A7/9 camera, this lens comes highly recommended. Light, relatively small, and able to produce razor sharp images with gentle falloff beyond the focus plane. Quite special, this one. For me, I just could not gel with the A7 at all, so I ended up selling it with the 24mm as well. Next stop was the Sigma 24mm f1.4 for my trusty Leica SL. A lens that is capable of producing great images but did not perform well on my SL. Focus was hunting constantly and after reading similar experiences from others online, I decided to return it. That left me with no wide angle lens. Which wasn’t a bad thing as it allowed me to rethink my options. I felt 24mm was even not wide enough. Slowly but surely, I am moving away from 50mm as the starting point in my photography. For years, my two starting lenses in any kit would have been 28mm and 50mm. Recently, I have been shooting more with 35mm (see my favorite 35mm lens review here) and having a 28mm next to that just doesn’t make any sense. Heck, even 24mm felt too close.
Enter the Voigtlander 21mm f1,4. Having had a taste of the wide angle experiences with the 24mm lenses, I wanted to push it further and having heard of the intoduction of this 21mm, I was intrigued. I own several Voigtlander lenses and I truly believe that they are 96% as good as Leica lenses, especially the newer designs. They are very well built and the optics are wonderful for my needs. And then there is the price. A brand new Leica 21mm Summilux f1.4 will set you back almost 7000 euro. The Voigtlander can be had for 1300 euro. Is the Leica 5x times better than the Voigtlander? It might be. I wouldn’t know as I have not shot with the Leica. I can only tell you that the Voigtlander is more than good enough for my needs.
21mm is a very interesting focal length. If you manage it well, you won’t have the silly distortion you can no longer avoid if you go wider than that. And at the same time, it allows you to capture so much. I am still in the process of learning to adapt to this field of view. I need to learn to read a scene very differently from when I was using 28mm and up. Great examples are your standard landscape views. With a 28mm, you get just enough ‘tightness’ to capture a view of a landscape and in most cases, it will make for an ok shot. You still need to work it to make it more remarkable that that, but the way 28mm captures a view is a good starting point.
Not so much with the 21mm. Every time I used my standard composition approach, I ended up with incredibly boring photos. Leading lines that would have worked on a 28mm shot seemed to disappear, subjects that I expected to pop enough to guide the eyes were but small details. Nothing worked the way I expected. Quite frustrating to be honest. But having seen what others can do with this focal length, I was keen to learn and improve. I watched quite a lot of videos on YouTube and slowly but surely, I got the hang of composing at this focal length. I still have a long way to go, but at least I am producing more keepers and some shots are even half-decent to my eyes.
Being able to learn directly from others that have the skills that you are trying to build up is a great joy and YouTube is a wonderful resource for it. I learned so much from people like Andy Mumford and Nigel Danson. And I did not just look for photographers sharing how to use wide angle lenses to capture something, I also looked at cinematographers. Even more than photography, the wide angle lens is a standard tool for any cinematographer. Look up people like Wally Pfister or Igor Martinovic and learn how and when they use wide lenses.
With that as background, I have been using the Voigtlander over the last few months. As mentioned above, the build quality is exceptional. It has a super solid fee and the tactile feedback from turning the aperture ring is both pleasant and reassuring. It is not a light lens (I believe it is 500 gr or so), but on my SL it does not feel out of sync. As always, the SL’s viewfinder makes focusing very easy and the focus ring on the Voigtlander provides just enough resistance. This might be a very personal preference, but when the resistance on a focus ring is either to stiff or too loose, it can really throw me off (pun intended). I have a Zeiss 50mm Sonnar and its focus ring is so loose, I almost always overturn it when trying to focus and then I need to re-adjust back. This causes a slight delay in my focussing time, which sometimes can make the difference between getting the shot or not. Not with the Voigtlander 21mm, the stiffness is just right.
Being an f1.4 lens, it allows for a lot of creativity in how you want to use that ability to isolate or blur parts of your scene. It won’t give you the same depth of field as a standard or tele lens because of its wide angle, but it certainly gives you room to play. The minimal focusing distance is 0,5 meter (on a non-rangefinder camera) which is great for working foreground composition. I personally like that the focusing works internally, so the lens itself does not extend or retract. This is a matter of personal preference, of course.
Sharpness at f1.4 in the center is great and edge sharpness at this aperture is not too bad either. The focus fall off to my eyes is really nice and gentle. Bokeh being another matter of of preference, I’ll let the photos do the talking on that one. Stop down a bit and you get razor sharp images throughout. I buy a lens to use throughout the full aperture range and the Voigtlander does not disappoint here. You do get some vignetting throughout to f5.6 but nothing that can’t be handled in post. I found the colors that come out of the lens in RAW to be quite good and they provide a solid starting point for any adjustments to make as you please.
The 21mm focal length works well in my current set-up. I will carry this on my SL and couple if with a 58mm on my Nikon for a two camera, two lens combo that does well as an all-purpose set-up. Alternatively, if I take just my SL, I will carry the 21mm and bring the Zeiss 35mm f1,4 ZM and the Voigtlander 75mm f1,5 with it as well. That is still a small kit and gives me a lot of range to play with. In closing, I am really impressed by this lens and I think going beyond 24mm was the right thing to do.