The Better Pancake: Voigtländer Ultron 40mm f/2 SL II
About a month ago, you might recall my bitter disappointment with Canon’s new 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens. Aside from being light, it presented very little else that I could see as a positive. So my search for a great pancake lens continued, eventually leading me to the Voigtländer Ultron 40mm f/2 SL II Aspherical lens.
Voigtländer recently changed the SKU number of their 40mm f/2 pancake lens, and from what I can tell there doesn’t seem to be any change to the actual product that warranted that shift. I’m going to chock it up to something internal at the company that has no bearing on what we as the final consumer get our hands on. It did, however, significantly delay the production of this review while we waited for the new stock to arrive- so for that I apologize. Now let’s get down to business.
In case you are unfamiliar, Voigtländer is a very old optical company based out of Vienna. By very old, I mean founded in 1756 (which means it predates even Leica). If this doesn’t make it the oldest still-operational optical company, it is certainly up there (even if it isn’t a wholly independent manufacturer today).
Voigtländer is known for extremely high quality glass, on par with Zeiss, Schneider, and Leica. The 40mm pancake lens is no exception to that legacy.
Out of the box, the lens comes with a lens cap, “hood,” and close-up macro converter lens. I say “hood” because it’s not what you would normally consider a hood. It’s a screw-on adapter that does a little to shield the front element from light, but actually is designed to hold the lens cap and the macro converter. One downside to this lens, it’s that the hood has to be screwed into place in order to use the lens cap, which takes away from the compact nature of the lens slightly.
Side by side with the Canon, it is ever so slightly taller, and three ounces heavier in weight. You wouldn’t think three ounces would feel like much, but for sure- the lens feels heavier. It’s build of all metal, which is likely why it’s much heavier. Personally, I like that it’s made of metal. This lens feels sturdier, like it will last the rest of my life.
Before I go any further, I need to make something clear: this is NOT an autofocus lens. For those of you who loved shooting on film, this lens should remind you every bit of those glory days: manual focus, precise measurements for distance etched into the focus ring, and a firm, smooth focusing mechanism. That said, I would not recommend this lens for beginners raised in the DSLR era. Going from being spoiled on auto focus (yes, that includes me), it can be difficult to go without it. It will take some practice and you might end up with a slough of out of focus images starting out. But if you’re willing to put the time in, this lens can work wonders for you.
Being without an auto focus motor, there is a lot less to worry about breaking with this lens. You can also play with the focus without the camera being turned on (something I do now and again), which is something you can’t do with the Canon 40mm STM.
I appreciate that Voigtländer includes the “macro” converter, but it isn’t macro in the true sense of the word. It does make the reproduction ratio a bit better (1:7 to 1:4) but it doesn’t come all the way down to 1:1. I mean that is fine, and it does allow for a closer focusing distance which is what the public generally think when they hear the word “macro” anyhow. With the macro element, you need to be aware that though the minimum focus distance drops to 9.85 inches (25 cm), it also affects the lens’ ability to focus at a distance and limits you to focusing under three feet. From three feet to infinity, you will need to shoot without the converter.
Sans the converter, the Voigtländer performs admirably. It has some pretty gnarly chromatic aberration issues from f/2 – f/5, but is sharp throughout all apertures. This is in stark contrast to my experience with the Canon pancake, which was sharp for only about half of the possible apertures. And when I say this lens is sharp, I mean it is SHARP. This is one of the sharpest lenses I have ever shot on. I am truly astonished how gorgeous the quality of the images are. Every fine, minute details is crisply rendered. Sure, it is sharper at f/5 than it is at f/2.0, but that is to be expected. What wasn’t expected was how sharp the quality continued to be at f/22. If you recall, anything past f/16 was pretty muddy on the Canon. On the Voigtländer, only at f/22 did I start to see a slightly less sharp image than before.
Sharpness test samples at f/2, 2.8, 5, 8, 13, 16,and 22 from left to right:
The macro converter had me worried from the get go. I had a very hard time believing that adding another lens onto the top of the Voigtländer would do anything but make for lower quality images, as that has been my experience in the past. It’s the kind of thing you see once in a while as a gimmick, and we all know what horrors a lower quality polarizing filter can do. What I was most concerned about how it would affect the sharpness. I was convinced it would soften the image. However, as you see below, my worries were generally unfounded. I saw no problem with the lens sharpness at any aperture from f/2 through f/22. I did, however, see a bit of chromatic aberration from f/2 through f/5… but wait… that aberration appears to be less severe than when I did not have the macro converter attached.
Sharpness test samples (with Macro Converter) at f/2, 2.2, 2.5, 2.8, 4, 5, 8, 13, 16,and 22 from left to right:
Adding the converter to the lens did not make for a terrible image as I thought it would. Adding the converter to the front of the lens had basically no affect on the quality of the image whatsoever. Every image was still just as sharp as it was without the converter. And as an added bonus, the converter can actually reduce chromatic aberration.
What I like:
One of the sharpest lenses with which I have ever had the privilege of shooting
What could be improved:
Chromatic aberration wide open
Lens cap doesnt fit without “hood”
Not only is this lens sharper at every aperture than the Canon 40mm pancake, it’s sharper than most lenses with which I have ever shot. At f/2, it is also faster than the Canon pancake. Though it is heavier and lacks an autofocus motor (and follow focus with the STM motor), everything about this lens is tailored for a more serious photographer. Sure, the Canon 40mm is lightweight and has some cool digital functions, but it doesn’t stand up to the rigors of a working photographer. In contrast, the Voigtländer is a pro-level lens. If image quality is just as important to you as portability, you need this lens.