Zeiss 15mm f/8 Hologon-M for Leica + Leica M10 - In Color and Corrected
Curiosity kills the cat... or in this case, the pocket book. Of all the normal production lenses ever made to grace the business end of a Leica M-mount rangefinder, none other is more unique than the Zeiss 15mm f/8 Hologon-M. On first inspection, you may wonder why anyone would give the 15 Hologon a second look. But, then you realize how rare it is. Reputedly, Leica only adopted 225 examples from Zeiss during its four year run.
In other words, the 15 Hologon is currently amongst the most sought after M-mount lens, because Leica enthusiast didn't like it more when it first came out. To quote from the 8th Edition Leica Pocket Book, it "was not a commercial success".¹ In fact, "the actual sales figures were very low",² which can likely be attributed to performance issues, ranging from its user experience, significant light fall-off, and lack of usability in low light situations.
To make matters worse, the 15 Hologon also suffers from noticeable color shifts in digital capture, much like the Leica 21mm f/4 Super Angulon-M I reviewed last week. Having said that, the color shift experienced by the 15 Hologon is actually even worse. Where it is only present on the right hand side of the photo for the 21 Super Angulon, it is also present on the left and bottom for the 15 Hologon. For most Leica enthusiasts, that might be a bridge too far to accept.
Nevertheless, I don't think issues of usability will stop most serious collectors from seeking the 15 Hologon. And even if they manage to get a copy, I highly doubt they're ever going to mount it on a digital rangefinder to experience the color shifts. Because of its value, most copies will never leave the safety of a dry box, much less see the light of day. It would be too risky to expose it to actual use, given how the slightest wear and tear could make it less collectable.
Still, wanting something for the sake of collectability seems somewhat undeserving to me. If that were acceptable, it would mean the 15 Hologon is only assigned value, because of its rarity - or rather - because being a commercial failure has made it rare enough to be a collectable today. In my opinion, that isn't a satisfying reason. For an item to have any value, it should offer some real observable benefit. Without it, whatever value it's assigned is arbitrary.
Fortunately, the 15 Hologon is much more substantive than an arbitrary assignment of value. The fact it's rare, as a result of being a commercial failure, doesn't mean it's a failure in design. Rather, it just means it's not properly appreciated. Having tested this lens for almost a month, I know it should be appreciated. And it’s precisely the reasons making it a commercial failure that makes it substantive beyond an arbitrary assignment of value.
In today's corporate world of clinical bottom line rationalization, a lens like the 15 Hologon would never be made. From a perspective of practical use, who would want such a lens? I mean, think of how absurd it really is? It only has one aperture setting - and at that, it's at f/8. So, right off the bat, the 15 Hologon cannot be used indoors, at night, or in any low light conditions. Not exactly a promising start for any lens. And the problems doesn't end here.
For example, the 15 Hologon cannot be focused conventionally through the optical viewfinder. Because the lens isn't made for M-mount use, there's no focus coupling. As such, the 15 Hologon might be unnerving to those unaccustomed to zone focusing - despite it's super-wide angle of view and generous depth of field in accommodating everything from 3.3' (1m) to infinity. That said, closer focusing depends solely on one's own confidence in judging distance.
It also doesn't help that the 15 Hologon is a quirky lens. With a super-wide 15mm angle of view, botching a photo with one's thumb or finger in frame isn't difficult. Then, there's the issue of how advancing the frame in film photography seems to shift the focus point, resulting in out of focus pictures. Either the rear lens element grazes the recocking shutter, which causes the shift, or the lens is just very sensitive to movement from stroking the winder.
Finally, there is also an anomaly with metering. On my Leica MP-6, the 15 Hologon seems to meter one stop faster. This I discovered unintentionally, having pushed my first roll of film a stop, and then having it developed at the rated film speed. Much to my surprise, the photos were properly exposed. As to why this happened, my lab no longer accepts special requests for C41 processing. For the sake of expedience, I decided to develop my roll normally, and then push in post.
Still, despite its many issues and quirks, I maintain the 15 Hologon makes phenomenal sense - that is - if you get used to it. And once you do, dealing with its many idiosyncrasies in handling seems to be worth the trouble. Simply put, there isn't another lens quite like the 15 Hologon. It's a super-wide angle pancake lens as obtrusive as a lens cap, with a minimum focusing distance of 7.9" (or 0.2m). Because of what it can do, I believe the 15 Hologon is a very well thought out lens.
The mistake history made in making the 15 Hologon a commercial failure is an inability to accept what the lens is offering. For the sake of compactness, speed was sacrificed. From the context of daily use, that sacrifice was too much to swallow. However, Leica never intended the 15 Hologon to replace the 35 or 50 Summicron as daily use lens. All they did was offer a compact alternative to be left inside the bag, for those occasions when super-wide became necessary.
Arguably, there are much more usable super-wide angle lenses, for those emergency situations. But then again, how often is one prepared when those occasions present itself? All faster super-wide angle lenses are significantly bigger and much more obtrusive than the 15 Hologon. I mean, they might be more useable. But will it ever be used, if it's too big to be left inside your bag? And that's the genius of the 15 Hologon. It can always be left inside your bag.
Besides, the 15 Hologon is phenomenally unique in rendering. Once you get over the light fall-off in vignetting, what becomes immediately clear is how high contrast the lens is in documentation. For example, shadows appear darker while highlights appear lighter. Moreover, tones rendered by the 15 Hologon also appear to be more highly saturated. Overall, this provides the image capture with an increased impression of volume.
I suppose that is the story of the 15 Hologon. It is a lens of extreme - in contrast, color saturation, minimum focusing distance, and size. Even in sharpness, it performs well beyond expectation for a forty year old lens in resolving detail - albeit at the center. Given what the 15 Hologon can do, I believe it is a lens that everyone would want to have, if they only knew how well thought out it is. But alas, the 15 Hologon is also prohibitively too extreme in price, making what I have to say academic, at best.
Blame it on Leica enthusiasts at the time of release for failing to better appreciate the 15 Hologon for a longer production run.
Finally, a word on adapting the 15 Hologon. It can adapt to the Leica SL. However, the color shift appears to be even more extreme. So I wouldn't recommend adapting it on the Leica SL. As for Sony FE mount cameras, the 15 Hologon does not appear to be compatible with the Leica M to Sony E adapters I have. I tried using a Metabone adapter, along with two other no-name Chinese adapters. That said, there might be an adapter that is compatible.
Admittedly, the fact my M to E mount adapters don't fit make no sense. However, I wasn't about to force the 15 Hologon onto a Sony, like a square peg into a circle, just to make sure. That said, it took no effort to adapt the 15 Hologon onto a Leica branded M to TL adapter. But as I stated already, the color shift from the 15 Hologon on the Leica SL is much too extreme for it to be usable without considerable burden to fix in post.
Still, the 15 Hologon is still best on film. After all, it was designed to be used on film. Even so, the 15 Hologon is quite usable on the Leica M10, despite the color shift. The easy solution would be to desaturate. But then again, what fun is life without the possibility of color? Thankfully, fixing the problem isn't too difficult in Lightroom. The methodology to correct the color shift is a variation on what I demonstrated last week with the Leica 21mm f/4 Angulon.
Exposure of some photos may have been tweaked in Lightroom, for the sake of consistency in presentation. All digital images have had their color shift issue corrected in Lightroom. No digital images have been cropped.
Also worth noting, I didn’t use the accompanying graduated filter to reduce the impact of light fall-off in documentation. Personally, I don’t mind the vignetting, since it offers further subject isolation. That said, the filter seems to worsen color shift in digital image capture. Besides, I don’t think the filter is worth the trouble, given a loss of a stop in speed.
And a final word on collectibility. Make sure there’s no mold on it. If there is, it cannot be removed. This I’ve been told by someone of great authority.
¹ Bower, Brian and Nobby Clark. Leica Pocket Book, 8th Edition. West Sussex, Steyning Photo Books LLP, July 2012. Page 115
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