Wide-Eyed with the Carl Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon
Dramatic, restrictive, and humbling are three words I’d use to describe the Carl Zeiss 16mm f/8 Hologon Ultra-wide lens that I shoot adapted to Leica M film cameras.
My initial outings with the Hologon were full of failures. Fingers in the frame, strap in the frame, and primarily photos that just didn’t feel like I’d gotten close enough to the subject. As I had picked up the lens in early 2020, it was soon impractical in a socially distanced world to practice using the lens much in the way that I had hoped. In fact, I almost sold it.
In spite of struggling with the Hologon, I just couldn’t seem to put it down. There’s just something about the way that an M camera handles with this ultra-wide pancake mounted. It’s no secret that a lot of photographers are drawn to this camera system due to its compact size and versatile mount. The Hologon really brings into focus what is possible with the M mount. Not wanting to take the lens off of the camera had me shooting it more and spending a lot of time thinking about ways to make images that I’d be happy with. In short, I’d need to get closer, a lot closer.
Working at a Distance; the Minimum Focusing Distance
I contend that ultra-wide lenses are at their best when foreground elements are shot at or originate from in front of the lenses’ minimum focusing distances. For the Hologon 16mm f/8 lens this means shooting with the camera about 1 foot from a subject. There’s no other way to say it; this is an uncomfortable thing to do.
I’d have a pep-talk internal monologue on my way to shoot and still find myself shooting at 2 to 3 meters. I’d look at the negatives and feel really disappointed that subjects weren’t prominent in the frame. Eventually, I just started setting the lens to what I like to call hypo-focal distance.
Just as the name implies, it’s the opposite or hyper-focal distance and works on the same principle. Using the very well-appointed focus scale on the lens, I’d set focus at 0.6m. This allowed for everything from 0.4m to 1.5m to be in focus. Users of this lens may note that the true minimum focusing distance on this lens is 0.3m but I found that if photographing people, I wasn’t likely to be just 0.3m (1 foot) from the person’s eyes so 0.4m to 1.5m worked perfectly to force me closer to subjects for more engaging compositions.
My Favorite Lens?
Listen, I get it, 16mm f/8 is about as impractical as it gets for a daily carry lens. That said, I just have so much fun shooting with this thing mounted to my camera. Something I want out of my photography is to always be challenging myself to make photos I like while not walking the easiest path. I want it to be a little tricky. It makes me appreciate the photos I do like a bit more and when we push ourselves we grow. Somewhat masochistic, sure, but it’s the path I’ve chosen with my image making and the shoe seems to fit well enough.
About the Gear
The 16mm f/8 Carl Zeiss Hologon has existed as a few variations of the same fixed aperture theme. Originally, the lens was set into a fixed mount of a dedicated camera, The Zeiss Ikon Hologon Ultrawide. That lens was 15mm and the optics were a bit more complicated to manufacture. Leica was seemingly a fan of the lens in that camera and commissioned a limited run of native M-mount 15mm f/8 Hologons to be made.
It’s a rather short list of lenses that Leica has farmed out to third parties over the years. I believe it’s a testament to the technical prowess it required to make the lens.
Later, for the Contax G series cameras, Carl Zeiss released the last of the Hologons; a 16mm f/8 iteration that used additional lens elements that effectively made the manufacturing process somewhat less daunting. This was the only Contax G-mount lens to be made exclusively in Germany. It’s these later lenses that are typically converted over to Leica M-mount via a largely non-destructive process that can be reversed.
Pros and Cons
Ever hear this one before? The lens has “ZERO DISTORTION”. I know, I know but hear me out. We’re going to need to play the ‘if” game but I am telling you that “if” you compose your shot perfectly square on all axis’ you will not be able to detect any distortion whatsoever. It’s just not there. That said, in the event that you are not shooting the camera on a flawlessly leveled surface or using the Leica Universal Wide-angle viewfinder, with its on-board bubble level (known hereafter as the “Frankenfinder”), you can go ahead and expect copious amounts of perspective distortion. Even if the camera is only slightly tweaked you will be painfully aware of that misstep when reviewing your photos.
Speaking of viewfinders, it should go without saying that if you hope to frame critically with the Hologon you are going to need an external finder of some sort. Typically you’ll find the lens sold with the finder that came with the set when new. It is large with decent eye relief and it has a bubble level built into it. It’s a champagne finish that closely matches the silver, or maybe they call it Titanium, Contax G cameras.
But there are two issues I have with this finder. First, the bubble level is exclusively forward and back leveling as opposed to leveling on all axis’. I’ve no clue why they’ve done this when complete leveling is so critical to achieving zero distortion.
Secondly, the field of view is too narrow. I’m not entirely certain what’s going on here but at least on a Leica M camera, either the finder is tight or the lens is actually wider than 16mm. With the original finder, if we’re calling that 16mm, expect to get at least 15mm worth of frame. Earlier I mentioned Leica’s Frankenfinder. As an owner of a 16mm (or is it 15mm?) and 24mm lens and wide-curious to say the least, I’ve invested in one of these monstrosities.
I don’t think you can do better than the Frankenfinder as a 16-18-21-24-28mm multi-finder with parallax correction and illuminated brightlines. The star of the show is its glow-in-the-dark, multi-axis bubble level. But listen, there’s no other way to say it, the thing is enormous. When shooting quickly in a crowded environment I’ll often use no finder at all. The same rules of shooting close apply and essentially everything you can see is in the frame.
No, not girthy bad news, this thing actually produces a wider negative than any other lens you’ve ever shot on an M. The reason for this is the bulbous rear element that sits deeply into the film chamber. This allows the image circle to slip under the side baffles as the light is projected at such a shallow angle. Pretty cool right? Well, not so fast. While the exposed frame is without question wider than the norm, the camera’s frame spacing is not adjusted to make up for this parlor trick. What that means for you, and your lab, is that the blank space between frames basically no longer exists. Scanning Hologon negatives is a pain and depending on your lab or scanning setup, it may result in some additional work.
The only way to describe the Carl Zeiss Hologon is small. It’s only slightly prouder on the camera than a body cap, even with the lens cap on. It’s really pretty incredible but with lenses as in life, there are no free lunches. With the angle of view being so dramatic and the lens mounted so close to the body, it is really hard to keep your fingers out of the frame until you’ve trained yourself to grip the camera appropriately for the lens. You’re probably going to learn the hard way.
Another drawback of this shallow mount lens is that the otherwise wonderful brass focus lever may hit the frameline selector of your M camera. You can ignore this and not focus closely but I think that would be a mistake. You’ll find that if you buy a previously mount-modified Hologon it may have already had the backside of the focus lever shaved to clear the lever. Mine was un-shaved so I very carefully addressed it on a bench grinder.
Maybe you’ll be more cautious and use a Dremel Tool. That would be a better choice.
To Center Filter or Not
The Hologon vignettes. It’s not an insignificant amount, either. Because of that, the lens originally shipped with a radial center filter. A reverse ND of sorts to lift the exposure in the corners by knocking down the exposure in the middle. This filter effectively turns the f/8 lens into an f16 lens. That’s just too high a cost for me and I’ve never used, nor do I own the center filter. I’ve seen plenty of results with the center filter in use and I always feel like there are some odd artifacts. I prefer the natural vignette profile of the optics and as I tend to overexpose my film it seems to minimize the vignette. All this is to say that you should take your feelings on lens vignetting into consideration when deciding if this lens is for you.
But It’s f/8?!
I get it, f/8 is slow, and the fact that it’s a fixed aperture further restricts the user’s ability to blah, blah, blah, I don’t want to hear it. I’d implore anyone considering this lens to really lean into its quirks. Yes, the lens is slow, but it’s also a 16mm with its weight placed largely inside the camera body. The Hologon on an M camera is a remarkably stable setup. With even a minor attempt at remaining still one can successfully pull off very long handheld exposures. An 8th or even a 4th of a second is more than doable. No need for extreme ISOs or multi-stop push processing. You can do it.
Do you own a Monochrome camera? Good news, you’re golden. Do you own anything other than a Monochrome camera? You’ll be converting to black and white. The purple and magenta are too much to overcome. Don’t even try.
If you adapt the lens to a digital camera like a Sony a7 series camera, you may not be able to safely shoot at infinity. That’s no fun anyway. I’ve actually shot a couple of frames with this lens adapted to an a7 via a close-focus adapter. With the adapter fully extended and the lens set to its minimum focusing distance, not only does it focus very, very closely but it actually produces some shockingly nice out-of-focus elements. Who knew?
After three years with the Hologon, I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed shooting a lens more than this on any system. It pushes me to think and see in ways that no other lens does. It’s impractical, difficult to use and when used on film produces a negative that can be hard to work with… and none of that matters to me because when I shoot with it I’m having too much fun to worry about any drawbacks.
About the author: Andy Shields is a street photographer based in the Detroit area who shoots candid event coverage in the style of classic street photography. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.