Voigtländer announced their new 50/1.2 Nokton Aspherical lens back in March of this year, and Leica M users have been eagerly awaiting its arrival. I am a sucker for fast 50s; Xenons, Summarits, Summiluxes, Sonnars, Noktons, etc. I have so many that I won’t admit to the exact number in my collection! I own Voigtländer’s earlier speed king, the 50/1.1 Nokton lens, so this “new and improved” version certainly got my attention. You may recall that I had tested a number of 50mm lenses for Viewfinder a few years ago in my article entitled “The Bokeh Kings”, where I compared the Bokeh of over a dozen 50mm lenses available in Leica mount. The new lens has 12 aperture blades, so its Bokeh should be good. Voigtländer has gotten rave reviews for their recent 40/1.2 Nokton Aspherical VM lens, so my expectations for this 50mm version have been high. According to Stephen Gandy, this new 50mm lens was designed by the same team as the 40/1.2 Nokton. As the 40mm focal length is neither fish nor fowl for many users including myself, I was eager to try out this new 50mm lens.
The specs for the new lens are as follows:
As you can see, the new speed king from Voigtländer is a bit lighter than its predecessor, and slightly longer and slimmer, has one more lens element, 2 more aperture blades, and has a more common 52mm filter size. Close focus is .7 m, which improves on the older lens which is limited to 1 m. The new lens sports a more exotic specification with the use of 4 aspherical lens surfaces and a High Index glass element with low dispersion, which is certainly impressive. There is no direct comparison to current Leica lenses as the Noctilux is faster at f/.95 and the Summilux is slower with a f/1.4 maximum aperture. Even though they have the same maximum aperture, I would certainly never compare the 1.2 Nokton to the original pioneer speed king, the 50/1.2 Noctilux.
I contacted my friend of many years, Rich Pinto of The Photo Village, and he graciously sent me one of the first lenses he had available for review. Thank you, Rich! The lens is modestly presented in a neat little matte black cardboard box with silver highlights, molded foam inserts to hold the lens securely, front and rear caps and a minimal instruction booklet in Japanese, Chinese, German and English. Very understated, more than enough to do the job, yet miles away from the presentation of a Leica lens or even a Zeiss ZM lens. I guess Cosina Voigtländer doesn’t want you to think you spent your money on unnecessary frills like packaging!
The lens certainly has a presence when mounted on an M camera, so you know this is some serious glass. The haptics are excellent, with the focusing ring having a substantial scalloped knurling which is easy to find by feel and clearly differentiated from the fine knurling on the aperture ring located at the front of the lens. The aperture ring clicks smoothly and positively in half-stops from f/1.2 to f/22. Voigtländer has adopted the chromed bayonet ring hood attachment system on this lens, first seen on the Zeiss ZM lenses. Unfortunately, a hood is not included with the lens and is an extra cost option. At over $ 100, these hoods are a little too dear considering the price of the lens itself. The standard hood is the LH-8, and the LH-10 hood is extra deep for even more protection from flare. I purchased an inexpensive screw on the hood from Amazon for about $10, which certainly did the job but doesn’t quite match the look and quality level of the rest of the lens. I would recommend biting the bullet and purchasing one of the genuine Voigtländer hoods for the lens. The focus ring is beautifully damped, as is the aperture ring. They are both as smooth as silk, with just the right amount of resistance. The lens exudes a feeling of extreme high quality, approaching that typical of Leica lenses. Cosina Voigtländer has reached a new level in quality, and I would say this lens has better feel, fit and finish than most of the lenses CV produces including the Zeiss ZM lenses. The new lens is certainly not the heavyweight titan that the .95 Noctilux is, and is close to the size of my 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH Black Chrome without the weight penalty of the all brass construction used on that lens. Overall, the Voigtländer balances well on the camera is quite pleasant in everyday use and has the look and feel of a quality optical unit. The black anodized finish is neatly engraved with the aperture scale and distance settings in both feet and meters, the former being red and the latter in high visibility white. The lens mount has a recessed area to facilitate lens coding, and I coded the lens with an industrial grade black Sharpie to read as a 50/1.4 Summilux M ASPH, to better keep track in the EXIF data when reviewing my images. Due to its smaller diameter, it is easier to access the lens release button on the camera, which is much appreciated when compared to its older sibling.
The arrival of the review lens coincided with my trip to the Mediterranean, and I anticipated numerous photo opportunities to test the new lens out. I brought along two similar lenses to compare with the Voigtländer, my 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH and the Zeiss 50/1.5 Sonnar C ZM. My intention was to take the same photos with all three lenses as part of my review. Needless to say, the best-laid plans often go awry. The reality was we had a limited time in each port/city on the cruise, so taking three sets of images with three lenses at various apertures was totally out of the question. In addition to the lack of time available, the wisdom of dragging around so much valuable equipment in some of the areas we visited was questionable. As it was, in my bag I carried the indispensable 16-18-21 WATE, a 24/3.4 Elmar ASPH or 28/2.8 Elmarit ASPH, a 35/1.4 Summilux ASPH and 75/2.5 Summarit. Most days, to lighten the load and ease the strain on my shoulder and back, I would leave the 35 and 75 back in the cabin safe. In a nod to my dear friends Tom Abrahamsson and Sal DiMarco, I usually carried my kit in a small Brady Ariel Trout shoulder bag, in my case all-black to avoid unwanted attention. With a simple insert, you can comfortably and safely carry quite a bit of gear in a high quality, functional, yet low profile package that doesn’t scream “camera bag”. I also carried a Sony NEX 6 around my neck with its kit zoom lens as my “decoy” camera, for times when I didn’t want to be seen with the expensive Leica kit.
Instead of a technical review under controlled conditions with the camera locked down on a tripod and multiple images made of a static subject, I will be showing how the lens actually performed in the real world, under real conditions. I shot the lens wide open under a variety of conditions, mid-day in full daylight with an ND8 filter as well as under less than optimal lighting conditions at night. I also shot the lens stopped down to mid-apertures of f/5.6 to f/8 to see how well the lens performed at its “sweet spot”. Wide open, I could consistently nail my intended point of focus at close to medium distance. I was not really concerned with infinity focus as this is not a lens intended for landscapes. The M10 with its improved viewfinder certainly makes this easier to accomplish than with earlier M cameras. I deliberately did not resort to the Viso 020 EVF for any of the images I made with the 50/1.2, as I wanted to see how well I could achieve proper focus with the M’s optical viewfinder. On close examination of my images, the lens sometimes did appear to slightly front focus, but nothing to the extent where I would consider it to be a problem. As you can see by my images where I was shooting wide open, my intended point of focus was achieved consistently without resorting to the acrobatics required of a Zeiss Sonnar not optimized for maximum aperture shooting. I would say the Voigtländer performed on a par with my 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH in this regard. I did not see any evidence of chromatic aberration in my images, even with strongly backlit situations. I could see no detectable barrel or pincushion distortion. Is it sharp edge to edge? Wide open, who knows with such a shallow depth of focus. Stopped down, the lens seems to do just fine, and if you’re really worried about this go with the APO 50/2 Summicron ASPH. Of course, I can hear you asking, what about the Bokeh? As can be seen in my images, the Bokeh is very pleasant. I would not characterize it as nervous, busy or jittery, but not quite the super smooth, creamy kind seen with the 50 Summilux ASPH or the original 35/1.4 Summilux pre-ASPH lenses. As Goldilocks would say, it’s “just right”. The lens renders quite well wide open for portrait applications, and stopped down it does very well rendering typical travel subjects of architecture, people and street scenes. Wide open, it does a fantastic job with subject isolation from the background, drawing the viewer’s attention to the intended point of focus and subject matter. Colors are rendered quite accurately, and fine detail in the images is quite crisp. It is clearly an improved lens in every way over the earlier Voigtländer 50/1.1 Nokton, and Voigtländer is showing its optical chops with this new lens. This lens need not take a back seat to any of its more costly competitors.
Overall, I would say the Goldilocks analogy is quite apt. This lens does things “just right”, and will return impressive images under a wide range of conditions. Wide open, the lens renders subjects with a very nice 3D effect. The lens does not get in your way, is not cumbersome in size and weight as some other high-speed lenses are, and can be counted upon to get great results when used. It is not a “one-trick pony” that does just one thing well at the expense of being a good all-around performer. One YouTube reviewer goes so far to call it the best 50mm lens ever made! That may be going a bit too far, and I would say that the title of world’s best 50mm lens would go to the APO Summicron 50/2 ASPH. However, this lens definitely belongs to the upper echelon of 50mm lenses on the market for Leica M users and holds its own with lenses many times more expensive. With a retail price of just over $ 1,000 USD, it is a relative bargain in the world of Leica lenses.
I highly recommend this lens, and it deserves a place in your bag if you are looking for a high-performance M lens at a very reasonable price. Talk is cheap, but I was so impressed with this new high-speed 50mm Voigtländer lens that I am purchasing my review copy. Yes, it is that good! Voigtländer lenses are available from all of the usual suspects, but give Rich Pinto at The Photo Village a call at 212-989-1252 and tell him Bill sent you.