Voigtländer 40mm f/1.2 Nokton VM: A lens for all occasions
The Voigtländer 40mm f/1.2 VM is a new design from the Japanese manufacturer and was introduced in October 2017, a short time after the E-mount edition. Flaghead, the UK importers, send us an example for a few days during a particularly dull and miserable part of the late winter. As usual, this is not a full test — which you can find elsewhere — but an assessment of the lens as far as design, handling and general usability is concerned.
The Nokton is an oddball-focal-length standard prime for use on the Leica rangefinder and, via adapters, with the full-frame Leica SL and Sony A7 series. With adapters, it is possible to mount the lens on a wide range of APS-C and micro-four-thirds cameras where it becomes respectively, a 60mm or 80mm optic. It is thus very versatile and has the supreme advantage of being relatively inexpensive. It is also a brand new design and compares well with much more expensive lenses from other manufacturers.
The Nokton is a beautiful little lens. It is compact yet rather portly in comparison with its nearest Leica equivalents, the 35mm and 50mm Summiluxes. In some ways, it looks more like a modern AF lens than a traditional rangefinder optic. It has a purposeful air which makes it look like a very expensive bit of kit.
That said, the retro clues are evident. It sports a substantial scalloped focus ring with a long throw, which, while increasing the time it takes to go from near to far, offers more precise control over focus, especially useful at wide apertures. Unusually for an M-mount lens, the Nokton is capable of focusing down to 50mm, although when used with a rangefinder camera the split-image guide doesn’t kick in until 70mm. With the lens mounted on a mirrorless camera, however, this closer focus is a welcome feature. Strangely, the optically-identical E-mount edition has an even shorter close-focus capability at 35mm.
The aperture scale runs from f/1.2 to f/22, unlike the two Summiluxes which both have a smallest aperture of f/16. Again, unlike the other two, the Nokton has 1/3 interim stops which, I know, many photographers appreciate. Probably others hate the arrangement; I remain ambivalent.
Optically, the Nokton is a modern design featuring eight lenses in six groups compared with the 9/5 and 8/5 of the 35mm and 50mm Summiluxes respectively. It has two aspherical surfaces, in common with the Leica duo, designed to reduce spherical and optical aberrations. However, it is not a floating element design as with the two Leica lenses.
The 40mm Nokton f/1.2 is a very well-built lens, and I say this with an extensive experience of much more costly optics. Made from aluminium, the body of the lens is finished to a high standard, with a very attractive black finish, which I find more than acceptable. I see very little obvious difference in the build quality of this lens when compared with competing Leica or Zeiss designs. The lens exudes quality and it looks real special. In many respects, I find modern Voigtländer lenses with their retro highlights prettier than the more matter-of-fact design ethos adopted by Leica in the past few years.
Cosina Voigtländer has made significant strides in quality control and reliability over the past few years, and the Nokton is a good example of this. I have not owned older Voigtländer lenses but I have heard the odd story of indifferent built quality or variances in performance from one example to another. This sort of hearsay evidence can be worrying but from my experience, Voigtländer has successfully overcome built-quality problems — if indeed they ever existed.
Overall this is a lens which has an appearance and an air of solidity that epitomises precision and high quality. It is indeed difficult to believe that is costs as little as it does (relatively speaking, of course, because this is not a cheapjack lens by any means).
Fans of more expensive glass might well flail around suggesting that there is more hand craftsmanship involved in their costly optics, or that the rejection criteria (for glass in particular) are more stringent, or that these higher-cost lenses will stay taught and firm even after many years' use — implying that the Voigtländer will not. But this is all conjecture. I can only speak for the quality of the review lens, as it operates at this time, and I a confess I am mighty impressed. In fact, I am becoming quite a fan of Voigtländer.
You could, of course, get better results with a good telephoto lens, but this is a semi-wide 40mm prime which still captures readable detail when enlarged, as below (Click for detail)
This lens is available also in Sony E-Mount and that model has received many more reviews than the VM-mount version, which arrived a little later and has a lower potential market. The Nokton-E has been praised for its build quality and performance; more on that later. Although there are physical differences between the two versions (with the optics remaining identical) the quality is identical on both lenses.
This is a very sound and attractive design with a good performance and a bargain-basement price of £699. This price tag is quite remarkable when you consider that Leica’s 35mm and 50mm Summiluxes cost £4,200 and £3,300 respectively. Moreover, even a 35mm Zeiss Distagon costs over £1,700. But Leica does supply a free hood and a cute leather pouch. As always, you pays your money, and you takes your choice.
When handling the lens compared with the Leica lenses, the most immediate difference is the girth of the Nokton. The Summiluxes are slimmer, but the large knurled focus ring of the Nokton somehow feels more comfortable. It is easy to grasp and had a very smooth movement. There is also another big difference in focus handling — the throw from near (50cm) to infinity is unusually long for a manual lens, at 150 degrees.
I have always praised Leica lenses for their short throw, which makes for faster focusing. They contrast with the usual vague fly-by-wire manual focus inflicted on us by most modern autofocus optics. Many of these focus rings on auto lens go round and round and it is difficult to know just where you are at any given time and in which direction you should turn.
The 35mm Summilux, by comparison with the Nokton, has a more modest throw of 98 degrees enabling you to flick to infinity with one twist of the fingers. With the Nokton, the focus is a more leisurely business, but it does have advantages as became apparent as I increased my familiarity with the lens.
The longer throw can be a blessing in some circumstances, for instance at wide apertures when focus adjustment often requires precision in dealing with the razor-sharp depth of field. With a travel from 50cm to infinity of 30% more than that of the 35mm ‘Lux, the Nokton provides fine adjustment which is more precise, and there is less collateral damage if you nudge the ring a fraction before pressing the shutter.
Below: Plaque in St.Dunstan-in-the-East with crop image to the right. Taken with the Leica CL. Click on images to see full size
On the other hand, in typical situations when working at, say, f/4 or f/5.6 the faster focus of the Leica lenses is an asset, making it easier to achieve focus quickly when split-millimetre precision is not essential. It is one of those aspects that you need to take into consideration when choosing which lens to buy. I can see advantages and disadvantages in both approaches.
As I have mentioned already, both the focus and aperture rings are smooth and precise, as one would expect, and the Nokton is a delight to operate. The one-third interim stops of the aperture ring are a matter of taste. Leica tends to stick to one intermediate click while the Nokton and some Zeiss lenses, such as the f/1.4 35mm Distagon I reviewed recently, offer two intermediate detents. In some ways, it is easier to judge where you are with Leica lenses without looking at the scale, whereas with 1/3 stops it can be more confusing and you can easily forget where you are. Again, though, this is a matter of taste, and I am not sure which I prefer. I do not think it should be a significant factor in the buying decision.
Below: Pedestal of The Monument, erected to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666. Cropped detail to the right. Taken with the CL (click images to enlarge)
As I've stated before, 40mm f/1.2 Nokton is an unusual lens, occupying that median between the two most popular focal lengths for general photography, 35mm and 50mm. For those of us, including me, who sometimes have difficulty in deciding whether it is a wide-angle or standard focal length day, this is something of a godsend. I find it suits my photography well and it is a lens that can I can leave on the camera most of the time. In conjunction with, say, a 24mm or 28mm prime for wider-angle shots and a 75mm for portraits, this 40mm hits the right spot for everyday use. Yes
Leica dallied with 40mm some 45 years ago when it introduced the Leica CL compact. On that camera, 40mm was the primary standard focal length, and the rangefinder had frame lines to match. The standard M rangefinders, from the M3 to the M10, have never had 40mm frame lines — the progression is 28, 35, 50, 75, 90 and 135mm. Anything else is ignored. And herein lies the nub of the problem when using the 40mm Nokton.
Left to its own devices, the Nokton brings up the 50mm frameline when it is attached to an M camera. It forces you to learn to shoot outside of the box if you wish to fill the full frame. In practice, this isn’t a significant problem. I soon got used to using the 50mm frame lines and composing as tightly as possible, always sure in the knowledge that there was sufficient margin of error outside those lines. It soon becomes second nature and, while it is a disadvantage of this focal length it is not, in my opinion, a deal breaker.
Of course, the problem does not arise when using this lens on a mirrorless camera such as the full-frame SL or the Sony A7 or A9 (or with the M240 or M10 and EVF). You could say that the lens is more at home on a mirrorless body. In fact, the Nokton E-Mount version positively glories in its odd focal length and makes a very compact and fast manual-focus alternative to the native Sony lenses.
The frameline issue apart, the Nokton handles well. The aperture ring has satisfyingly tactile stops (in one thirds, as mentioned) and they are more pronounced, with a more definite click than on the 35mm or 35mm Summiluxes.
The focus ring, with its unusually long throw, as already highlighted, is slightly lighter in operation, with less resistance than that of the two Leica competitors. Furthermore, it is considerably lighter in operation than the focus ring of the Noctilux. Above all, the knurled and scalloped ring is a delight to handle and helps enormously with the precision of focus.
I used the Nokton on the Leica CL and M10 and had a brief outing with it attached to a Sony A7III which I borrowed for an afternoon from a friendly dealer. It is a fast lens, although not that much different in light-gathering capabilities from the Summiluxes, and it does provide a very narrow depth of field, slightly narrower than the two comparable Leica lenses and well on the way to Noctilux territory when used on a full-frame camera. It’s tempting to think of the Nokton as a mini Noctilux, both in appearance, with its squat form and large front element, and subject-separation capabilities.
Below: Tower Bridge with the Leica M10, full frame to the left, cropped detail to the right (Click to enlarge)
The Nokton worked well on all three cameras, although at very wide apertures I found the two mirrorless cameras made it easier to focus because of the WYSIWYG viewfinders. Although I didn't have the opportunity to try, the Nokton would work superbly on the Leica SL as a handy 40mm carry-around lens. Moreover, as a 60mm lens on the CL it serves well in the role of “standard” optic for general use, even in street photography, and does an excellent job of portraiture. With the G9 or any other micro four-thirds camera, it becomes a delightful and very compact 80mm portrait lens.
Below: Taken with the Leica M10, full frame on the left, cropped image to the right (click to enlarge)
The 50cm close focusing distance is a great asset when used with an EVF, including the Visoflex on the M10, but can be slightly irritating when the lens is used with the rangefinder. The split-image rangefinder mechanism doesn’t click in until 70cm, which is the closest focusing distance of most modern Leica lenses (with some, such as the Noctilux, still focusing no closer than 1m). If you turn the focus ring to the end stop, at 50cm, the rangefinder isn’t working, and this can be disconcerting at first. However, you soon get used to it.
Below: A regular test scene for lenses and cameras, Resouceful 2 on the River Thames. Crop image on the right. With the Leica M10. Click on images to see full size
The Voigtländer came without a hood, as did the Zeiss 35mm Distagon I reviewed a few weeks ago. This is unfortunate since it is always useful, on occasion to have a hood. I noticed in one article on the E-Mount version of the Nokton that the reviewer specifically mentioned that a hood was included. This confused me, so I asked the UK distributors, Flaghead, for chapter and verse.
It seems that all E-Mount Voigtländer lenses come with a hood as part of the package. VM lenses, including this Nokton, are not supplied with hoods unless hoods are built in (which applies to the 10mm, 12mm and 15mm models). So there we have it. If you buy this lens and decide you need a hood (which I suggest you will), the official accessory costs £95 and fits more conveniently on the bayonet ring.
A third-party hood could cost as little as £5, but it will screw into the filter thread, thus potentially spoiling the appearance of the lens if you also wish to use a protective filter. Decisions, as always. But having saved a couple of grand compared with a Leica equivalent lens, it's not a bad idea to buy the genuine hood. Long-term, you will warm to the choice, despite the high initial cost.
Below: Classic car details, taken with the Leica M10. Full frame on the left, crop on the right (click to enlarge)
Notwithstanding the last paragraph, though, I had no problems with flare, but this was perhaps not unconnected with the uniformly dull and miserable winter weather during the review period which didn't bring out the best in the lens. I cannot, therefore, answer for the lens on bright, contrasty summer days.
Below: With the M10 at f/1.2 (Click to enlarge)
In use, this is an exceptionally convenient lens for all occasions — whether it be street photography, portraiture (although less so at its nominal 40mm on full-frame cameras), architecture or landscape. In fact, with this in-between focal length, it becomes the Swiss army knife of manual-focus lenses.
Below, undercarriage of the last Concorde. Full frame to left, crop to right. Taken with the Leica M10 (click to enlarge)
I very much like the image quality of the Nokton. It has its own signature and is surprisingly sharp, even wide open. As with most lenses, the sweet spot for sharpness comes at narrower apertures, in this case around f/5.6. There is some vignetting at wide apertures (on a full-frame sensor), most noticeable at f/1.2, but this is nothing unusual in that — even the mighty Noctilux is known for vignetting at wide apertures. There is also some evidence of purple fringing in high-contrast situations, again something that is not restricted to Voigtländer and an aberration that can easily be corrected in post-processing. The comparison images in this article, accompanied by very severe crops, demonstrate the sharpness and overall quality of the images.
The bokeh to my eyes is attractive. It is not as pleasing overall nor as smooth as the bokeh you get with the Leica 50mm Summilux which, overall, is a lens I would prefer — at a price. It is one of Leica’s best for all-round performance and low-light capabilities.
I also like the general render of the Nokton, while it is different to that of the 50mm Summilux, in particular, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is its own lens rather than attempting to copy another design. When it comes to putting down your money, you take all these things into account and you should check examples and see what you want.
The Voigtländer 40mm f/1.2 Nokton is an delightful optic and one which is capable of being THE one lens. It is versatile because of its ‘twixt-and-between focal length, it is very fast, yet compact, with a huge front element which gives it the appearance of a mini Noctilux or even a Canon f/1.4 LTM. It is just different in direct comparison with the thinner M lens designs we are used to. I’ve seen this used as a criticism but it is one I can’t accept.
It is a lens you can keep on your camera at all times, not needing to worry whether or not you might find yourself in a gloomy interior or wishing to achieve extreme subject separation. It does all this but also serves in place of an f/2 or f/2.8 for more general photography. This is because it is by no means a big or heavy lens and one that you do not worry about carrying around. With the Leica 35mm and 50mm lenses, I am often torn between the very sharp Summicrons, with their lighter, smaller profile and the heavier, more bulky Summiluxes with their better low-light and subject-separation properties. Which do I need today? Admittedly, this is a first-world problem. But you can argue successfully that the 40mm Nokton replaces all four 35mm and 50mm Leica lenses.
Below: Emperor Trajan stands before a section of the Roman wall of London. Full frame left, detail of the uniform to the right (Leica M10, processed in Silver-Efex Pro). Click to enlarge.
The Nokton is well made and solid, aesthetically very pleasing, and optically excellent. For general purposes, as an all-round, do-it-all optic, the Nokton is a sensible choice. At twice the price, even, it would be sensible, but at £700 (or £794 with hood) it is even more practical. The hood is a surprising omission. I believe that all lenses should be supplied as standard with a hood and the cost of both Voigtländer and Zeiss hoods (not to mention Leica hoods, if lost) is depressingly expensive. This price, as a proportion of the cost of the lens, is even more dramatic with the Nokton because the lens itself is relatively inexpensive. In this case, the hood, which is just a fancy bit of metal, costs one-seventh of the lens itself. This is illogical.
Below: A brief interlude with the Sony A7III, the only camera used here that has in-body stabilisation. Full frame to the left, impressive detail in the crop to the right (click to enlarge)
It is, however, a minor quibble in the buying choice. As you can tell, I really like this lens and have toyed with the idea of buying one. But first I will try out the E-Mount version of the same design (introduced in September 2017, a few weeks before the VM-mount version) on the Sony A7III. It has had glowing reviews from many quarters.
While it is an excellent all-rounder, the Nokton is also a great starter lens for anyone new to manual focus. On the rangefinder, the lack of 40mm framelines is an irritant, but this disappears if an electronic viewfinder is used.
Our thanks to Flaghead Photographic and also to Voigtländer retailer Red Dot Cameras who acted as a postbox for the review copy of the lens.
E-mount version of the 40mm f/1.2 Nokton
Below is an example from the Sony E-mount version of the same lens, taken more recently in better weather conditions than during April which was mainly overcast and dull. The bottom image is a crop from the top frame. Click to enlarge and notice the detail this lens has captured. I will later review the E version, in conjunction with the Sony A7III (which is used here). Both versions of the Nokton are optically identical and should provide exactly the same results.