Review: Voigtländer Color-Skopar 50mm f/2.5

Hello, everybody! Do you remember the original Fiat Multipla? It’s an ugly car that has quite a following. It’s unusual in terms of design but all of the design decisions made a lot of sense at the cost of its looks. It was ahead of its time in some sense yet it sends you back to a time when cars look more cartoonish and real charicature of what they’re supposed to be. Despite its looks, many people loved it and I imagine that taxi drivers and couriers all love it for its utility and comfort. I never owned one but that car fascinates me to this day. I am one who doesn’t care much about how people judge me and my fashion sense so long as I am comfortable with my choices. I would like to introduce to you a lens today that is a bit quirky and it went against what the market wanted back then but it won the hearts of those few who know what they really wanted in a lens.

Introduction:

The Voigtländer Color-Skopar 50mm f/2.5 is an odd lens when it came out in 2002 to compliment the Voigtländer Bessa R2. Both were made by Cosina, it sounds weird but Cosina now owns the Voigtländer tradename. Going back to the odd part, this lens was made with specs that fit a 1950s lens, with the slow maximum aperture to match it. It was made for the M-mount, S-mount, the original Zeiss Contax rangefinder mount and the Leica screw mount. Its specs may not be impressive in 2002 but it struck a nice niché market along with the other lenses that Cosina made under the Voigtländer name. People were still shooting with these mounts to this day and we sometimes wanted something “modern” without having to pay a ridiculous amount for a Leica (at least for the M-mount) and the cheap communist Chinese lenses weren’t even available then. Even if they were, I would happily pay a little premium just to get reliable Japanese quality instead of those ghastly Chinese lenses.

I got the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 50mm f/2.5 in S-mount and it’s feels great to hold and use. It’s not as heavy as the old classics that were made with all-brass parts but you can certainly feel that it’s not flimsy. Its finishing is nice and is certainly much better compared to the Chinese cheapies. You can feel that Cosina has put-in a lot of effort to make this rival the German lenses in terms of build. The tolerances are tight and there are no sloppy paint jobs in the barrel. Everything feels premium despite having a modest price. I think these were sold for as little as $500 then and you can still buy them new for just a little over that these days. The S-mount and Contax RF mount versions are the cheapest at $400 each. I got mine in mint condition complete with its box, hood and everything for just $170 used. How can I resist it? This makes for a good general-purpose lens and it’s compact so it’s not a hassle to carry. I don’t know why Cosina did not make it as an internal-mount lens because that will make it even more compact and light.

Before we continue talking about this lens, I would like to talk about the old, original Color-Skopar that was made by the real Voigtländer company from several decades ago to put things in historical context. The original design is a Zeiss Tessar clone with a simple 4-elements-in-3-groups design. It’s mainly used in “folder” cameras like the original Voigtländer Bessas. With that said, the Color-Skopars that Voigtländer-Cosina makes have nothing to do with it apart from the name so don’t confuse the original one with these ones. This is a common practice in the industry, you’ll see lenses named “Sonnar” and “Tessar” but they have nothing in common with the original Zeiss designs.

It’s perfect with the Nikon S2, the bright 50mm viewfinder makes it easier to focus in the dark but I won’t use this lens for low-light situations because of its rather slow maximum speed of f/2.5 unless it’s paired with a fast film like Fujifilm Natura 1600. This is certainly more suited for sunny days where it’s best to use a slower film. Going back to the Nikon S2, I feel that the focusing wheel is a bit heavy due to the slightly-stiff grease used on the lens’ helicoid. I’m used to re-packing my helicoids with the lightest grease available to me so I may be a special case. It’s not too-stiff as to make it useless, you can turn it easily to be honest but I would just prefer a super-light one since I like to focus really quick when using the focusing wheel. As an alternative, Cosina kindly supplied us with a focusing collar in the kit so we can just attach it to the focusing ring to help make it easier to focus with your fingers. I find this helpful because the aperture ring is kind of big, which is nice but it tends to make it difficult to grab the focusing ring by feel. You can turn the aperture ring instead of the focusing ring and miss a shot. This is no exaggeration, it sometimes happens to me and I don’t have large fingers.

The included hood is of the inverted-type. It’s very helpful in shielding the front element from stray light coming from the sides and also protecting it from damage and fingerprints. I find myself leaving the lens cap at home all the time because of the hood is so helpful. It also feels luxurious, it’s lined in the inside with felt and the threads are a separate part made from a harder type of alloy that’s different from the aluminium used on the hood itself. Its lens cap is also quite exquisite, it’s also lined with felt. It slips-on easily and it can also be easily knocked-off which is unfortunate.

Here’s a closer look at the caps. They’re both lined with felt which gives the whole kit better value.

It has a 7-elements-in-6-groups design which deviates a little from the usual 5 or 6-elements design that we’re used to seeing for a lens in this class. This isn’t a problem at all and it is said that this was done so the lens barrel can be kept small. I can’t verify this claim but this is considered to be the truth. I personally would want this to have a simpler design in-line with the design of the Leica Elmars or the Zeiss Tessar.

The aperture rings comes with your usual f-numbers, they click-into-place nicely but you have some click-stops between the numbers. This is nice but I don’t like it because it makes changing the aperture value a bit difficult if I am just basing it off by feel. I will have to look at the aperture ring just so I can be sure that I am using the desired f-stop.

Let’s now see some pictures that were taken with this lens. Learning how to use a lens is key to maximizing it. You will learn how to exploit its strengths and avoid its weaknesses. It will also give you an intimate understanding of how your lens works and that will give you and your lens a special bond. I’ll just make short comments based on my impressions, they are not scientific in any way.

The following sets of pictures were taken from f/2.5, f/4 and f/5.6 where you are going to see the most changes in its character. These are also the f-stops that people will usually want to use this lens with.

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Vignetting can be terrible wide-open but it should clean-up by f/5.6. You will see some chromatic aberration when you have a high-contrast, over-blown element in your scene such as the sky. It’s is kind of high wide-open but you won’t see much of it by f/4 and it’s not obvious at f/5.6.

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The quality of the bokeh can be terrible when you’re shooting a background with foliage and twigs, I use these things to judge if a lens has terrible bokeh quality or not. You can avoid this ugly look if you blur them out by focusing really-close and have them further into the scene. The good news is it does have quite decent bokeh quality when you do not have the right factors that can trigger that ugly look. Even with that, I think that this lens has a sub-par bokeh quality compared to other lenses that I have used.

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This lens is all about sharpness and it’s very sharp even wide-open. You are not going to gain much by stopping it down further. Resolution on the other hand is quite nice even wide-open but improves quite a bit by f/4 and you’re going to be really happy when you see the results at f/5.6 because the lens is performing at its peak.

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Contrast and saturation may be too much but I like this kind of look at times when it suits the subject. I do prefer a lens that has a more delicate tough so I don’t think that I will be using this much. It looks “too-hard” and if you are a long-time reader then you know that I prefer something else. The shallow field curvature is a nice bonus, too.

It can exhibit a pincushion-type distortion but it’s not too different from the Nikkor-H.C 5cm f/2 but it looks uglier to my eyes for some reasons. I’ll admit that I expected better from this lens since it’s a recent optical design but you will have to live with it.

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It’s also quite sharp for distant objects but just a bit lacking compared to the sharpness that you get when the subject is closer to you. The difference isn’t much to be honest and you won’t see much of a difference.

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The decent f/2.5 maximum aperture is adequate for low-light photography, I would prefer a faster lens for pictures like this. Bright light sources such as the incandescent bulbs in the picture to the right can trigger ghosts despite the lens’ modern coatings. It’s not bad but it’s enough to get your attention.

The above-average contrast that you get from this lens can work for you in scenes like this. It does make this scene look flat in a way but it also gives it a nice boost because the colors look more vivid.

One good thing about the rather small maximum aperture is you get more things in-focus so you get a slightly bigger margin for focusing errors. You’ll get the same thing when you stop a faster lens down but you’ll be tempted to use it at a faster aperture just because you’re able to.

Subject isolation is so-so, you do get that three-dimensional look but not as much. The focus transition isn’t as smooth as a Sonnar, you get what I call a “wall-of-focus” effect with this lens. The rather shallow field curvature also amplifies this effect.

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Here are more pictures. It’s refreshing to use a lens that doesn’t have much of a character compared to a real classic lens and I meant it in a nice way. I prefer how older lenses render but I sometimes miss the clean, generic look that most modern lenses seem to give. The difference is I can use it with my classic Nikon rangefinder cameras so it adds another level of enjoyment for me, just think of it as wearing new ties to go along with your bespoke suit.

Let’s now see some pictures that were taken using film. This lens was made in the early years of the digital camera era and so it was still designed with film in mind. It’s not a classic lens at all and its rendering easily shows it. It’s a true modern lens in every way except for the mounts it came in. Seeing it perform with different media will help us assess its performance better. It’s a favorite amongst many film shooters so it’s just fitting that we see pictures that were taken with film in this review. I took these with a Nikon S2 and it was loaded with Fujifilm Industrial 400.

This lens renders doesn’t render like a true classic lens as you would expect it to be since it’s a modern lens so your pictures will look like they’re taken with one of the newer lenses sold today even if you used film to shoot them.

There isn’t a lot of film out there today that has the speed of Fujifilm Natura 1600 so taking night-time photos with this lens can be limiting at times.

You can see a bit of distortion in this picture because we have vertical and horizontal lines in the scene.

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This is my bicycle set. These were taken from f/5.6 to f/11 because ISO 400 is too fast for use on a sunny day.

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Here are some pictures that were taken at closer distances. I think that this lens was calculated to be better at closer distances because it’s just sharper from the minimum focusing distances up to about 10m or so. It’s not bad at infinity at all, it’s just not as good.

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Here’s the rest of the roll. It’s a great lens for travel photography as you can see from my pictures above. We’re used to using 50mm lenses that are fast so this is going to be a new experience for some of us who are spoiled.

But wait, there’s more! I am going to show you some pictures that were shot using Cinestill 800T. This film has a unique look because light sources show a distinct glow that’s caused by its lack of an anti-halation layer. This is just re-spooled motion picture film and it requires a special process to develop it in its original state but this re-packed ones are fine for usual lab-processing using the C-41 process because its anti-halation layer has been removed. It’s a film with very nice latitude and fine-grain, it’s the only color film that I’ve used that has grain that’s this fine.

Here’s the familiar storefront that you see in my blog. The sharpness of this film benefits from the sharpness of the lens.

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Here are more samples using the same combo. ISO 800 is fast enough when taking night-time photos but don’t use Cinestill 800T at its box speed, I shoot it at ISO 600 because I get the best results from it at this speed. This isn’t like Fujifilm Venus 800 because that film is a true ISO 800 film in real use.

I hope that these pictures gave you a good idea on how this lens performs. I love it a lot, the contrast is nice and it certainly makes the pictures look a lot more saturated but some people won’t be too happy with these as they may want a lens that renders with a smoother look, it may be too “bold” for their taste. This is something that may turn them off because some people prefer the “vintage-look”, the rendering is in-line with many modern lenses and so the pictures end-up looking “generic” like what most modern lenses tend to make. I certainly don’t mind this occasionally and it’s good to have it when I wanted to, I can just use my classic Nikkors if I wanted the classic rendering anytime. I have yet to shoot with this lens using black-and-white film but it may have too much contrast for my usual Fujifilm Acros/Rodinal combo and the tones of my pictures may end up looking “clamped”. I will update this if I get to do that, I can’t develop at home for the moment.

Conclusion:

I highly recommend this lens to everybody who’s looking for a small lens to use with their rangefinder cameras and mirrorless cameras. They are great and they come in many common mounts with different barrel designs, too. The ones made for the Leica mounts are built the best and their prices show that as well, they’re usually a bit more expensive than the S-mount / Contax ones. Since I intended to shoot this with my Nikon rangefinder cameras the choice was obvious to me. You can still find these as new-old-stocks, they’re not being made new these days as far as I know but they’re not hard to find in the used or new market. Next time you’re itching to buy a 3rd-party lens, consider these lenses under the Voigtländer name and skip the Chinese ones that are prevalent these days. They may cost a bit more but you’ll surely be happier with their quality. If you really want to save money, just buy classic Japanese gear like the Nikkor-H.C 5cm f/2. They don’t cost much these days and they’re pretty-good at f/2.8. You also get to use a true classic lens with a good name.

That’s it for this review. I only wrote this to add variety to the blog. This isn’t a Nikon lens but it’s something that you can use with your Nikons so I guess that they’re still worth mentioning here. There aren’t a lot of information on this lens online so I hope that this will be helpful for people who are curious about this wonderful little lens. See you guys again next time, Ric.

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Maintaining this blog requires money to operate. If you think that this site has helped you or you want to show your support by helping with the site’s upkeep, you can make a small donation to my paypal.com (richardHaw888@gmail.com). Money is not my prime motivation for this blog and I believe that I have enough to run this but you can help me make this site (and the companion facebook page) grow.

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Helping support this site will ensure that this will be kept going as long as I have the time and energy for this. I would appreciate it if you just leave out your name or details like your countrym name or other information so that the donations will totally be anonymous. This is a labor of love and I intend to keep it that way for as long as I can. Ric.

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