B&W 35mm Street Photography in Europe with the Voigtländer 15mm Heliar

by Johnny Martyr

I’ve used a Voigtländer 15mm 4.5 Heliar Version II on my Leica M mount cameras for about eight years. In fact, I blogged about the basics of rectilinear wide angle lenses and the particulars of the Voigt 15 in 2019. But after some failed creative shoots, I relegated the 15mm to a specialty wedding lens where its use has been limited to just a few rolls per shoot.

In 2022, I stayed in France for a little over a week and armed myself only with two 50mm lenses. What I learned from this was that smaller lenses certainly make travel photography easier, and a wide angle lens would have been useful in numerous instances where I wanted to capture large scenes quickly.

So when I returned to Europe in 2023 I decided to dust off the 15 and try it out a genre that I hadn’t previously used it for; street photography.

I have been shooting street photography for fun over the past couple years. I normally use a 50 or even 90mm but many street photographers since the 1980’s have made use of wide angle lenses and I thought I should give it a try.

Wide angle lenses are conducive for use with street work because they have greater depth of field than normal lenses which enables quick, accurate focus and they can convey more of the total scene and context.

I could have used something in the more conventional wide angle lens range of 28 to 40mm and probably would have been very pleased. 28 to 40mm lenses are more commonly used than super wides for the obvious reason that the results are less extreme and more easily controlled. Both focus and composition can be a little loose with these lengths without negatively impacting the image too, which street shooters like when working in the moment. 28 – 40mm lenses are sometimes argued to be “true normal” focal lengths – providing a perspective closer to the human eye than the run-of-the-mill 50.

Montmartre Paris, France – ©2023 Johnny Martyr

But there is nothing “normal” about a 15mm! 15mm is a whole other way of looking at the world. Its perspective is unnatural but fascinating. This is what I like about it but am also challenged by.

Being that the Voigtländer 15mm 4.5 Heliar is a rectilinear lens, it does not bend lines the way a fisheye of the same length does. However, what it tidies up in barrel distortion, it can counteract with perspective distortion. And this has been the kernel of my excuses to keep this lens shelved for special uses. Where something like a 28mm can be composed somewhat loosely and produce great results, the 15mm requires strict attention or the entire scene can be lost.

This shot below of a tourist posing with the Arc de Triomphe was a successful use of the 15 in my opinion because I composed for the Arc, not the subjects and used my framelines to ensure that I was perfectly perpendicular to the landmark. Any tilt of the camera horizontally or vertically and the Arc would have been distorted.

Arc de Triomphe Paris, France – ©2023 Johnny Martyr

A little perspective distortion may not sound like a big deal, but if you do not hold your camera perfectly perpendicular to your scene, the Voigt 15 will not render a tilted image that can easily be rotated back to place when scanning/editing; it will completely contort the subject.

I find this distortion not only acceptable but also compelling if it’s obvious and strong like in this next shot of the Arc below. But just a little perspective distortion on an object with straight lines can just look like an accident.

Arc de Triomphe Paris, France – ©2023 Johnny Martyr

Can distortion be corrected in Photoshop? Sure. And from what I gather by searching the Voigtländer 15 Heliar online, I think that many photographers are correcting the lenses character in editing. But I think this is sad and missing the point to a degree. I don’t shoot film with fully manual cameras and lenses then hand process my work just so that I can repair shortcomings in editing. To me, correcting every shot can exhibit a lack of vision, understanding and appreciation for the design of the lens. Accept the challenge and learn to work with something unique that pushes your photography, or find something easier and more fitting to your particular vision and move on. This is how I approach photography. I’m not saying everyone has to subscribe to my way of thinking but this is mine and something else can be yours and we just see things differently. And that’s okay.

The Version II 15 Heliar that I use is rangefinder coupled, meaning that when I rotate the focus ring on the lens, my rangefinder patch moves too. The original Version I 15 Heliar was not only LTM mount but it was not coupled. Many people prefer the V1 lens because the optical formula is the same as the V2 but the lens is cheaper and they don’t see coupling as being necessary. I agree that it’s far from necessary to focus these lenses with your rangefinder. In many situations, hyperfocal distance or simply guessing will get you where you want to be due to this focal length’s great depth of field.

Photo Vincent camera shop in Montmartre Paris, France – ©2023 Johnny Martyr

But I seldom shoot the 15 Heliar without focusing the conventional way. The reason for this is two-fold. One is that I seldom shoot this lens alone, I am also using a second body and a lens that needs regular focusing, so it’s just easier to maintain the same method across both cameras. But my other reason is that, believe it or not, it is possible to miss focus when shooting a scene with a lot of distance in it at full aperture. Is it faster to skip focusing through the rangefinder and set the lens by more simple methods or to focus as normal even when it’s not necessary? For me, it’s faster not to take a moment to weigh my strategy than to just do the same thing with each shot. If you want to move from shooting subjects at hyperfocal distance to a subject a foot in front of you with a blurry background, for example, that RF coupling comes in handy.

My 1999 Leica M6 TTL 0.85 & the Version II Voigtländer 15mm Heliar with viewfinder

One of the the things that I really enjoyed about shooting with the 15/4.5 is that I could handhold it at 1/15th of a second at full aperture and this was basically an equivalent exposure to my 50/2 Summicron at 1/60th and f2. And shooting at 1/15th handheld is a lot of fun because you can blur moving subjects without setting up on a tripod. Blurring passersby is perfect for the classic street photography technique of fishing also.

Fishing is a method whereby the photographer finds a good-looking background and frames it up, then waits for someone to move through the space.

I tend to use high grain to anonymize people in my street photography but shooting at 1/15th anonymizes them with blur. This technique requires/allows you to use a slower film and get more detailed surroundings. The blur effect also just adds more dynamic to the image in my opinion and tends not to be as common a trait in the age of anti-blur smart photo photography.

Odeon camera shop Paris, France – ©2023 Johnny Martyr

One of the challenges of shooting a 15mm lens on a metered rangefinder is that the metering pattern is also widened. So instead of having a center-weighted averaging meter that one does with a 50mm, now you’re effectively working with an averaging meter. So I often find myself over-exposing by as much as a stop from what my Leica is indicating. It’s important to be aware of high contrast scenes or subjects whose exposure differs greatly from their immediate background in order to choose the most appropriate exposure.

Similarly, the Voigtländer 15mm Heliar has a penchant for considerable vignetting at it’s modest full aperture setting. I rather like this “flaw” but it’s important to be consider it in terms of exposure. Since your metering pattern is very wide, it’s possible with a white background, for example, to overexpose the center and underexpose the perimeter. The lack of even exposure can be distracting. But by the same token, the vignetting can draw viewers’ attention to a center-placed subject.

Positano, Italy – ©2023 Johnny Martyr

Don’t forget that when using a super wide angle lens on a rangefinder, or even on an SLR in some cases, you’ll need a separate accessory viewfinder. I bought the metal bright line viewfinder by Voigtländer that pairs with this lens. They also made a cheaper plastic one.

These viewfinders exhibit fisheye distortion though, and the difference between what you see in the finder and the final result can be misleading. But you get the hang of it if you remember that the finder’s only purpose is to define the edges of your frame. Some shooters I’ve talked with don’t even use the finder and just center their subjects using the built-in finder. I have done this when in a hurry but I don’t recommend relying on it. The correct 15mm bright line finder will sure up your composition so you get everything you do and don’t want in the frame where it needs to be. Though because many times when shooting with super wides, you want to get very close to your subject, just be aware of the parallax caused by not looking through the taking lens.

My wife bought me the Voigtländer 15mm viewfinder in metal instead of plastic because, as she said “there’s no way I was going to buy Johnny Martyr a plastic viewfinder!”

Something else that I liked about shooting street with the Voigtländer 15mm Heliar is that I don’t think people know what you’re shooting with this lens. When you see someone with a more physically narrow lens and it’s pointed at you, you know instantly that someone is taking your picture. Nothing changes the fact that you’re pointing a camera at someone but with the 15, you can really stand amongst people taking photos and most folks in the frame are unaware that they’re in the shot. I imagine that they could write you off as just photographing nearby architecture. You can convince them of this by looking over the top of your camera at the background.

I don’t mean to come off like I’m deceiving people in order to take their photo, but in order to get natural moments, this is sometimes necessary. And if you’re blurring their faces, I can’t imagine many would have a problem with any of this. I think it’s important to respect your subjects but I also think there’s a bit of nobody-is-going-to-care at play with street photography. It is a subject-to-subject question really.

In the photograph below of Duomo di Amalfi, in Italy the woman in the center of my frame seems to be onto me!

Duomo di Amalfi, Italy – ©2023 Johnny Martyr

Below are links to where you can buy a 15mm Heliar and finder for yourself. Stephan Gandy’s Cameraquest is the best source of information, sales and support of Voigtländer products in the US, so I certainly recommend buying from him, as I have. The Version I is only available used, Version II is available on Amazon and Version III is available from Gandy via Amazon whereas both finders are only listed on Cameraquest. I get a small commission from Amazon and Gandy still makes the sale of the Version III via Amazon so please consider supporting us by checking out these links. And sure, you can also just buy all this stuff used on eBay but I think it’s really important to support manufacturers of new film-centric gear where possible.

Version I (LTM mount), Version II (Like mine!), Version III (for digital), Plastic Viewfinder, Metal Viewfinder (Also like mine!)

If you’re like me and took a break with your Voigtländer 15mm 4.5 Heliar, or other super or ultra wide, I encourage you to try it out for street photography. Or, if you have already done this, I’ve love to see your work in the comments!

I definitely need to get some more practice in with this fun little lens and will certainly continue to use it back in the States. It often just takes going somewhere new with a different piece of gear to find inspiration and the 15mm Heliar has certainly done this for me.

Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

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