During a family trip to Maine, I was fortunate to test the Voïgtlander 12mm Ultra Wide-Helliar f/5.6 III, attached to my Sony A7r. For the entire week, the Voïgtlander 12mm was my primary lens and was incredibly fun to shoot with.
A 12mm ultrawide is a tool for a specific purpose: to capture as much in the frame as possible. What sets the Voïgtlander apart is not only how well it accomplishes this task, but also its style and grace. The manual focusing ring is fast and smooth, the aperture adjustments are solid clicks and not easily knocked out of place.
The Voïgtlander 12mm is an incredible addition to any landscape or architectural photographer's toolkit. Although not a fisheye, the lens offers an incredibly wide viewpoint. There is almost no distortion; lines are straight and true. Some may complain that f/5.6 is not fast enough, but this was a non-issue for me. Moreover, for low-light, even if the lens were faster, you would probably use a tripod.
On our first day in Maine we headed down to Biddeford to have breakfast at the Palace Diner. (If you haven't been, I highly recommend it.) The diner is a converted train car and seats only a few people. For any other lens on any other camera, its cramped location would make it impossible to take an interesting photograph. However the Voïgtlander made quick work of capturing the entire train car and everyone in it. Shots were sharp, contrasty, and the natural light allowed for easy handheld shooting.
Later that evening we went down to the beach. I was amazed that I was able to capture my feet (sorry) and the horizon in the same vertical shot. An unlikely scenario, for sure, but it was a shocking revelation to see just how wide the Voïtlander 12mm actually is. And here I thought 21mm was wide!
I used that crazy field-of-view to my advantage: taking drastic shots of a tiny boardwalk path to the beach, capturing all of the slats running before me while keeping the horizon at the top third line of the frame. And even though this lens isn't ideal for photographing people, I was able to photograph my mother up-close as she sifted through the sand and still capture a great deal of the surroundings as well.
Shooting at Night
At night, armed with a tripod and a long-exposure, I photographed this beached-due-to-low-tide sailboat and the jetty behind it. Slow moving clouds turned into soft trails, and I was able to fit the top of the mast, the entire hull, and its buoy lines with these drastic and fun angles.
On another clear night, I captured the stars and constellations on the beach and in the marsh behind it. I had hoped to photograph the Milky Way, but due to surrounding light pollution, this just wasn't in the stars. Still, constellations such as Taurus and the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) are easily discerned.
Shooting in Portland
Due to a two-hour delay on my last day, I walked down to Portland's piers and photographed the fishing boats in their wharfs. With the Voïtlander 12mm, I was able capture the environment and feeling of being there. The strong angle allowed me to depict the juxtaposition between overcast skies and the brightly colored boats and buildings in the foreground. Here is where the vignetting of the lens became more noticeable, especially with a gray sky. This problem was easily solved with some RAW post-processing, although I kept most of the vignetting as it adds a moody touch and complements the sky.
This lens is fun! I want a Voïgtlander Ultra Wide-Helliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III in my toolbox. It is not an everyday lens, nor should it be. But if you need to capture an entire building, inside or out, this is the lens for you. If you want to get crazy angles for creative use, this is the lens for you. And if you want a sharp, easy to use lens for landscape photography, both for day and night, this is definitely the lens for you.
About the Author
By day, William Bright is a User Interface and User Experience designer. He studied photography in college and has been shooting for more than 25 years. Find his photography on Instagram: @billfactor.