Text & Photographs by Allan Weitz
Before the mid-1960s if you wanted to shoot ultra wide-angle images with a 35m camera your lens choices were quite limited. With the exception of Nikon’s large and bulbous 15mm/f3.5 AIS or perhaps their special order Nikkor 13mm/f5.6 AI-S, 18 to 21mm lenses were as good as it got from lens manufacturers.
In 1965 Carl Zeiss introduced the Zeiss Hologon 15mm f/8, a fixed-aperture lens so wide (110-degrees AoV) and a rear element-to-film plane distance so short they had to design a camera to go along with it.
The three-element Carl Zeiss 15mm/f8 Hologon wasn’t much thicker than the lens cap that came with it. The Hologon featured a single fixed aperture – f/8, and because the blade-less aperture was perfectly round, it produced the most natural out-of-focus specular highlights, i.e. ‘great bokeh’ you’re ever likely to find.
Hand-crafted in Germany, the Zeiss Hologon camera was instantly recognizable by the large, cyclops-like optical viewfinder that was positioned directly over the permanently-mounted lens. To better ensure the user’s fingers didn’t photobomb the corners of the frame, a pistol grip was included along with a 2-stop, center-weighted graduated filter to compensate for vignetting.
Because the ND filter further reduced the lens aperture to an equivalent f/16, depending on the circumstances many shooters would forego the filter and deal with the fall-off post capture, if at all.
In addition to Zeiss’s dedicated Hologon camera, about 200 Hologon lenses were manufactured with Leica M-mounts and sold in Leica packaging. You can find them used but be prepared to pay a 5-figure price for one.
In 1995, Zeiss reengineered the Hologon, this time as a 5-element, 16mm/f8 T* lens. Designed for use with the Contax G1 (and later G-2) camera system, the new Hologon 16mm T*came with a center-weighted grad filter and a dedicated optical viewfinder complete with a bubble-level that slipped onto the camera’s accessory shoe. Priced at about $2500, the new Hologon turned Contax’s G-series cameras into the sexiest wide-angle street and landscape camera ever designed.
Though challenging to use, partly due to the limits of a fixed f/8 aperture, the results were unique unto themselves. Though wonderfully detailed in the areas that are in focus, the softer areas are where the Hologon truly shines.
Because the lens’s aperture is perfectly circular, the bokeh of the specular highlights of images captured by Hologons are as true-to-life as it gets.
The focus range of the lens is 12″ to infinity, which can be defined as anything past 4-5′ from the lens. Rather than a traditional focus ring, you focus the Hologon using the small silver lever with your left hand. When set to it’s hyper-focal distance (a smidgen beyond 3-feet), everything from about 20″ to infinity is in focus, which is deep enough for most any street scene or landscape you’re likely to photograph.
Long out of production, Contax G Hologon lenses can be found used and there’s no shortage of used, reasonably-priced Contax G-series cameras to go along with them. Some of these lenses have been modified with Leica mounts, making them compatible with every Leica M-series camera as well as any mirror-less camera that accepts M lens adapters.
Note – Though digital cameras were becoming available in the mid-90s, Zeiss Hologons were designed for film cameras and when used with digital cameras often exhibit soft, or smudgy corner detail, and vignetting infused with varying degrees of purple fringing. If you shoot (or convert post-capture to) monochrome, fringing becomes a non-issue though corners will still appear soft. Shoot to film and all of these issues become null and void.
The accompanying photographs were taken with Contax-G Hologon 8/16mm T* that was converted to a Leica M-mount. The cameras used included a Leica MD-2 film camera and a Sony A7S with a Voigtlander VM-E Close Focus Lens Adapter.
What makes the Voigtlander VM-E so unique is a built-in 4mm helicoid that enables extended close focusing distances with any lens you attach to it. The Hologon was originally designed to focus down to 12″, but when used with a fully-extended VM-E lens adapter focuses down to about 2.5″ from the front lens element. At this distance the visual dynamics of small objects up close combined with the 16mm/8 Hologon’s 107-degree angle-of-view can be astounding.
As an added benefit when shooting at maximum helicoid extension, background bokeh becomes far more visually dynamic compared to the look of out-of-focus backgrounds when the lens is focused to its native 12-inch minimum focus distance.