Clash of the Titan Macros

Voigtlander 125mm f2.5 Apo-Lanthar Macro up against the Zeiss 100mm f2.0 Makro

  Ok that’s a pretty dramatic title, but the two lenses I’m about to talk about here are both rated extremely highly by most people that have had the pleasure to use them…

Left the Zeiss, on the right the Voigtlander.

Back in the spring of 2010 I was lucky enough to have both of these lenses in my possession at the same time for a brief period enabling me to take some comparison photos with them mounted on a Nikon D700 DSLR. This is far from a scientific comparison but I think I can give a little of my personal experience with them both for your reading pleasure.

Here are the basic lens specs….

Voigtlander SL 125mm F2.5 Zeiss ZF 100mm f2
Max Magnification 1:1 1:2
Weight 690g 680g
Size min (Length,Width) 88mm,76mm 89mm,76mm
Size max Approximately double 114mm,76mm
Filter Size 58mm 67mm
Lens Elements/Groups 9/11 9/8
Aperture blades 9 9 rounded
Aperture span f2.5 – f22 f2.0 -f 22
Included Attachable hood, 2 front caps, one rear Reversible hood, 1 front and rear cap

Both the lenses reviewed here are the N/Ais mount variant (SL1 and, ZF), meaning they can be used with full metering on all digital Nikon models including and above the D200.  Both lenses are available in other mounts, especially the Voigtlander which can also be found in Nikon AIS, Canon FD, Olympus OM, Contax C/Y, Pentax K, Minolta MD and AF, and M42. As far as I know in 2006, the Zeiss 100mm initially only came in Nikon (ZF), and Pentax (ZK), flavours. More recently the lens has also been available in Canon ZE, and revised Nikon ZF.2 mounts as well. From this point on I’ll only discuss the first two Nikon mount types…

Voigtlander 125mm, shot at f2.5… Assuming your eyesight is good, both these lenses shoot portraits as well as they do macro.

Sunrise on the Danforth, with the Zeiss 100mm shot at f11.

Despite their quite different names, both lenses were manufactured by Cosina of Japan. Notice I say “manufactured”. Cosina leased the rights to the Voigtländer name, which it has used since 1999 for cameras, lenses and other photographic equipment designed by itself (and thus really has no closer a connection to genuine Voigtländer than to Leitz, Zeiss, etc.) (Thanks Wikipedia). The Voigtlander SL 125mm Apo-Lanthar was produced in limited numbers from 2001-2002, stopping production before it was widely known by many in photographic circles, especially outside of Japan. Some say Voigtlander stopped making SLI lenses in order to make way for the Zeiss production. I’m not so sure about this, and opinions vary. The two lenses certainly share a similar construction quality and feel. The Zeiss 100mm was designed by Carl Zeiss of Germany, and is manufactured by Cosina in Japan to Zeiss quality standards.

Voigtlander 125mm f2.5

Zeiss 100mm at f4.0

Still with me?     Good  🙂

After all those heavy specs, how do the lenses feel in the real world?

Well, I can say both are a pleasure to look at and use. The Voigtlander, with it’s boutique stylings, silver focus ring against the black of it’s body, and general design originality compared to a sea of plastic fantastic lenses out there is simply the most exciting lens I’ve ever held. My copy of the lens was probably at least 7 years old, but still had a focus action as smooth as they come. The old school helical action of both of these lenses gives a user experience quite unlike modern lenses with their focus designs compromised by the need to both auto and manual focus. The Zeiss unit is quite similar, but different. Dare I say, more German in it’s clinical but highly effective design. Gone are some of the original Voigtlander features, but replaced with all that is necessary in this still attractive lens. I think with the Zeiss one could remain a little more discreet if shooting on the street, though neither lens is perfect for such use. Again with the Zeiss, the focus action is super smooth, but stiffer than it’s rival here. This may of course be due to the lens being slightly younger in age, as these type of lenses often require less mechanical effort to focus with extended use. Both lenses have old school aperture rings. To me this is both a blessing and a curse. I’ll start with the curse and say that some low end Nikon cameras will not give feedback to the user of the chosen aperture value, and will not be able to meter when attached to the camera… This means shooting in full manual, and chimping* till you get in the right ball park for your desired exposure shown on the camera’s histogram. With the D700 as used here, the camera knows what aperture is chosen due to mechanical linkage from the body to the lens, allowing the user to shoot in Aperture priority and let the camera choose the shutter speed automatically giving a good chance of the right exposure with the first shot taken. Some people prefer to control the aperture of a lens via a thumb wheel on the camera body, but this can leave the already busy right hand more work to do, where as when controlled by the left hand, one can focus, and tweak aperture just millimetres away from each other, allowing the right hand to concentrate on other tasks like press the shutter release at the right moment. To me this is a blessing. These views are purely my own, your experiences may vary. On another note, mechanical aperture control from the lens is often preferable for those using their DSLR for video work too.

Enough design talk, how do these two lens render images?

Fantastically!

Here’s a couple shots from the Voigtlander :

125mm f5.6

 

Bokeh fun with the 125mm at f4.0

and here’s a couple more from the Zeiss :

Zeiss 100mm at f2.8

 

Zeiss 100mm at f2.8

The fact is, both of these lenses are great. Both are super sharp, and both can create very creamy backgrounds/bokeh. I’d say the Voigtlander offers a slightly less distracting background if only for it’s lack of colour fringing, and shallower depth of field due to longer focal length (despite the smaller max aperture).

So what differences have I noticed in the way each one draws?  Let’s look at a few test shots… I took these with the D700, and attempted to swap lenses as quick as possible in order to avoid heavy changes in light due to the patchy cloud cover on this particular day. The field of view is slightly different in each shot as I had to move the tripod closer for the Zeiss. Note, both lenses were shot at full (open), aperture.

First up is the Voigtlander:

Voigtlander 125mm at f2.5

Then the Zeiss:

Zeiss 100mm at f2

The first thing you may notice with these shots is that the sun did indeed come out from behind the clouds for the second shot (above), giving a warmer glow to the picture and more prominent shadows (higher contrast).

Now let’s crop in on the two shots, first up the Voigtlander:

Voigtlander

And then the Zeiss:

Zeiss

In the Zeiss image you may just be able to seen some colour fringing on the table where it meets the snow, but I think we need to go in yet closer to get the real story :

Voigtlander, clean as a whistle.

Zeiss, showing colour fringing around the table.

Now you can see in the second picture purple fringing under the table, and yellow fringing above it. Whilst the brighter light is adding to this situation and making it worse in the case of the Zeiss image, it definitely can’t compete with the Voigtlander Apo-Lanthar in this regard. In Adobe Lightroom, I clicked “Defringe: All Edges”, just to see if I could remove the evidence, but still the situation was visible.  This may seem like I’m pixel peeping too much, so perhaps take at this un-cropped image to see the effect more clearly :

Zeiss 100mm shot at f2.8, super sharp, but flawed. Click image (Twice), for a closer look.

Ouch! look at the bottom left of this picture. I’ll reiterate here, fringing like this is not present in most shots taken with the Zeiss, but when it happens, it can lead to extra time spent in post processing to remove.

With the Voigtlander on the other hand, it really seems as if the Apo(chromatic)-Lanthar, design is doing a wonderful job in my experience. Now if only Cosina would bring out a SLII version of this lens (at a reasonable price), I think it would sell like hot cakes.

Zeiss 100mm f2 on the left, next to the Voigtlander 125mm f2.5, with supplied hoods.

Summary

Zeiss 100m F2 Macro :   Top quality construction. Very sharp rendering at all apertures. Fast (f2.0). Good for portraits, great background blur abilities/very smooth bokeh. Beautiful macros, if only at a maximum of a ratio of 1:2. Occasional colour fringing can be generated in high contrast areas of an image. Expensive. No lens tripod mount

Voigtlander 125mm f2.5 Macro: Very high quality construction, beautiful to behold. Very sharp rendering at all apertures. Fairly fast for focal length (f2.5). Good for portraits, fantastic background blur abilities/ bokeh as good as it gets. Full 1:1 macro ability. Low dispersion type glass hardly ever creates colour fringing! Very expensive, hard to find.  Lens design may draw attention. No lens tripod mount.

Conclusions

I’ll try to be brief here. Both lenses are out of the top draw. The Voigtlander just seems better over all. It does 1:1 macro, rather than 1:2 with the Zeiss, and seems much more resistant to colour fringing. I can attest to this by looking back though my collection of pictures taken with the Voigtlander, and none of them need any post processing to remove such nasties from the images. In the favour of the Zeiss I will say that colour fringing can be reduced by stopping the lens down, and is less prevalent than in many other large aperture lenses. It is also probably slightly more effective a  lens to use for portraits, due to it’s combination of shorter focal length, and larger aperture resulting in less blurred shots. Of the two lenses, the Zeiss offers a higher contrast image, which is good or bad depending on the situation.

Today, a used Zeiss 100mm in good condition sells for around $1100-1500 (around $1800 new), where as the Voigtlander can fetch anywhere from $1500-$2500. The Zeiss is a super lens that deserves it’s excellent reputation. Is the Voigtlander worth that much more? I hear you thinking… I would say probably not, but this depends on how deep your pockets are, and if you want what is, in my humble opinion, is the most wonderful macro lens ever made…

Chimping* – The excessive use of the rear camera screen to view pictures mid flow during shooting, apparently also making one look like a chimpanzee.

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