I have been searching for a fast 35mm lens for my Leica M8. One of my favorite lenses is the Canon 35L F/1.4, so I have wanted something equivalent for the rangefinder system. There are several options out there including some vintage Canon glass, some Voigtlander lenses, and of course the famous Leica Summilux glass. My most immediate options were the Voigtlander 35mm 1.7, 35mm 1.4, and the 35mm 1.2. The 1.7 is discontinued and only focuses to .9 meters minimum. That is a little too far in my opinion for a 35mm lens. The 1.2 v2 now focus to .5 meters, but it is huge. ( I will be reviewing it soon…) I decided to try out the 1.4 lens first.
Before we begin, let’s put the difference in lenses in perspective. The new Leica Summilux 35 is absolutely amazing…and absolutely stratospheric in price. In fact, as of today, you can get almost EIGHT 35mm F/1.4 Noktons for the price of one Summilux. Wow. Let’s see what we get for roughly $600.
The Voigtlander 35mm F/1.4 Nokton lens comes in two flavors, Multi-Coated and Single-Coated. I am reviewing the multi-coated version. The coating is supposed to reduce flare, and give a little more contrast for color photography. The lens does not come with a hood, and unfortunately I could not source one at this time.
You can see how small the Nokton is above. On the left is the 35mm Color Skopar F/ 2.5, middle is the Nokton, and to the right is the Canon 35L. The Nokton is virtually identical looking to the skopar, but just slightly larger and heavier. It is still a very compact lens on the Leica.
The Nokton has a 43mm filter thread. Again, the lens is slightly bigger than the Skopar…but really not all that big when it comes to fast glass.
The Nokton weighs in at around 198 grams. Again, quite light. As usual on modern Voigtlander lenses, the focus is smooth and firm and the aperture has good clicks at each half-stop.
I coded this lens as a 35mm Summilux ASP. I did not have any problems with too much shading. I also had no issues with color shift.
This lens has a good feel and is quite solid as most Voigtlanders now are. I have been using Voigtlander glass regularly for a while now and have not seen any change in their feel or performance over time. So far so good.
So a lot of people seem to complain about focus shift with this lens. I was honestly surprised to see that this copy of the lens really didn’t shift that bad. Wide open the lens focused exactly where it should. The focus did shift back slightly when stopping down, but I never found it enough to be considered miss-focused or overly soft. A LensAlign tool verified this for me.
So here is a set of images showing the out of focus style of this lens. The lens was focused on the center duck from about 3 feet away or so.
As you can see, the duck remains visibly sharp throughout the range. Any shift that does occur is not enough in my mind to warrant this an issue. Even in larger prints or at 100%, the lens is very usable throughout the aperture range. Or at least this copy was. Maybe there is copy variance, or maybe Voigtlander has improved them. I have seen shifty copies online myself…but so far that has not been my experience with this lens. Overall the lens has pleasing out of focus areas. Maybe not the smoothest transition, but certainly nothing harsh. Certain conditions do bring out some weird highlights…but we’ll discuss that further down in the review.
Below you will find a direct comparison of the Nokton and the Skopar at F/2.5. One lens is stopped down and the other is wide open.
F/2.5 Color Skopar
To me, the Skopar is definitely sharper overall. All across the frame the Skopar has detail. The Nokton has less definition in the out of focus areas and seems a bit smoother. The Nokton is not as sharp or defined as the Skopar at any aperture however. Strangely, I also found the Nokton needed about a third to half of a stop more exposure than the Skopar at the same aperture. Shooting with these lenses, I found this actually seemed meter based. It seems as if the M8’s meter would read the Nokton as slightly overexposed. At the same settings, I could get roughly the same exposure, but the meter in the M8 would say the Nokton was over exposing versus the skopar. It wasn’t.
In the next two examples you can see the Nokton at roughly minimum focusing distance. At 1.4 you can easly knock out just about the most distracting backgrounds for subject isolation.
One issue I did end up having was ghosting. The Nokton would produce green duplicates of light sources when I shot at a certain angle to the light. This ONLY happened with an IR filter for the M8. I unfortunately did not have a different brand of IR filter to test. You can see in the two pictures below the ghosts. In the first picture they are present above and to the left of the light source. On the second picture there are no ghosts since the IR filter was not used. This did not happen in all situations…but most artificial point-light sources such as lamps, candles, etc… would cause this. Is this a problem…yes. Is it avoidable…sometimes. This is one of those issues I don’t particularly enjoy since I cannot always control every light source and my angle to them in some scenes.
Ghosting with IR Filter On
No IR filter
Here is another issue I discovered. This Nokton produced some WILD flare when shooting directly at the sun. You can see the ghost of the sun, as well as massive lines and color through the frame. What is fascinating to note, is that the lines you see in the frame are also on the lens. Even with the IR filter off, if you look at the glass on the Notkon you will see a pattern of reflections that replicates this flare. It seems like maybe the multicoating causes this? I don’t know. I just know this is the same pattern as the reflection on the lens glass itself. Would the Single-Coated version do this? I have no clue. I would love to try a single coated version to find out however. Again, this issue is a little bothersome in the long run. This is not the kind of thing I expect with a lens pointing into the sun. I often create back lit portraits with the sun and a strobe…so this kind of thing ruins a lens for me.
Direct light Flare
Speaking of shooting into light…the Nokton generally had good boken until certain light sources were introduced. When shooting sunlight through trees, bushes, etc… I would get some pretty busy highlights. Generally the bokeh looked very good on this lens…until this kind of situation. As you can see, the highlights become over obvious and distracting. I have included a crop of that section for a closer look. It seems to me as if too many out of focus small points of light in a frame seem to cause this. This lens can handle in focus lights great!
Busy Highlights close up
So those were the biggest issues for me. What is unique about this lens? First of all, it glows. At F/1.4 you can definitely get that classic “glow” in your photos. It is not excessive, which is good. A lot of people dismiss this lens as being “soft.” I found that a low contrast rendering overall and a bit of glow seem to give the impression of softness. Overall sharpness is lower than some modern lenses, but I get the feeling this lens is truly following in the footsteps of some vintage glass. The following is a small example of glow. I am a big fan of halation in IR & black and white film. Have a lens that can produce this look on digital with highlights is great. I don’t mind at all!
Glow Close Up
Here are some more examples of some shots with this lens.
At F/2 the statue is nice and sharp, but pleasingly soft overall. Not soft as in lack of sharpness…but more gentle. I renders in a gentle way compared to other lenses. If you want contrast and punch…add it in later!
Here is another show of a statue at F/1.4. Notice foliage renders soft and beautifully. That is…until you introduce a hard light behind it!
In this portrait of a drummer I have added a slight bit of contrast and sharpness. Just make a preset in Lightroom that gives you a strong contrast curve, 50pt sharpness, and roughly 10pt clarity (optional) and you get a much more punchy look. It was shot roughly around F/2 I believe.
This portrait was shot at F/2 as well. With a little processing you can all the contrast and clarity out of the file as you want. It still has a gentler rendering overall to me. Even processed, I can still see the difference in rendering versus a Summicron ASPH or even the Color Skopar 35. This may be a very desirable trait for certain styles of shooting.
Another example at F/1.4 in the dark. ISO 1250 and 1/45 shutter.
This lens does have some mild barrel distortion. Honestly it never bothered me in use. The shots look natural. If you are shooting architecture, a small 3-5 pt correction in lightroom with clear it up if you need lines to be straight.
Notice no ghosting in this shot despite all those lights. I can’t quite tell when I am going to get the ghosting! I don’t like not being able to predict what my lens will do.
This lens has one big strength overall in my opinion. Black and White rendering. The following examples have virtually no adjustment to them aside from a basic black and white conversion. Take note of the tones and gradients in what are dark areas in the color shot. See how they are rendered in the black and white shot. I feel like I am getting more mileage out of this lens in black and white versus the color shot.
“Ritz Era” …just like Toys R Us…Tower Records…and Borders… Sometimes I still miss browsing their displays! Funny story…Ritz Camera was the only store that could source me a 5D, and later a 5DmkII upon initial release! Even large retailers that I had paid in full (well in advance mind you!) to be “front of the list” ended up not being able to get a hold of the cameras when promised! Ritz happened to take stock of a body or two on day one…but nobody ever went to Ritz for pro gear so they just sat on the shelf unnoticed! I walked in and made the sales clerks super happy! They never thought they would sell them! Who would have guessed!
What strikes me in this images is the detail on the wall. The shadows from the fencing design is fantastic to me. I see the rich blacks on the clock. There are so many more shades until you get to pure white. The color shot was boring. This lens is definitely rendering in a special way for black and white.
And not just black and white…I found toned images look better than just color images as well! This image of the razor wire actually reveals details on the blades.
This Nokton has some very bothersome traits as well as some surprising ones! I enjoyed shooting with this lens. It grew on me once I unlocked it’s secret. Black and white. With the ghosting and weird flare, I just feel there is no way I could use this when doing lit portrait shoots. I can’t take a chance with a lens that is somewhat unpredictable when it comes to light sources in the frame. The focus shift, at least with this copy was not an issue in real world shooting. I never looked at a shot and found it way off. I also never tried to compensate for it either. It’s a 35mm lens…depth of field is not that thin. As long as the lens is properly adjusted and focus is balanced front to back, then a little shift backwards shouldn’t knock you out of focus. This lens stayed in an acceptable range.
The Nokton has a gentle rendering. A soft look, even when shooting at smaller apertures. The lens is not lacking sharpness or detail. It’s there…but it is there for you to decide how much you want to be brought out. If you expect to take a shot and not edit while still getting a punchy, modern looking image…this is not the lens for you. If you like a lens with a classic feel that allows you to really decide how much you want in each image, and you don’t mind it’s quirks…then this lens is a bargain for the speed.
I wish I had this and the single coated version side by side. I found the Nokton to be a “Made For Black & White” lens. People have said the single coated is better for B&W between the two. Oh really? If so, then the Nokton SC would make an excellent lens for people that shoot primarily in black and white and don’t need to bother with IR filters.
The lens is small enough to carry around even with another 35mm lens. I am strongly considering a S.C. version to complement my other 35mm lenses. I want to love this lens for its small size and gorgeous black and white rendering. I do not like this lens in color, period. It just did not work for me. I do love it in black and white. I really do.
With a little bit of glow in the highlights, wide tonal range, beautiful bokeh (except in backlit foliage!), and a fast speed of F/1.4…this lens is made for the artist looking for tool that will give their digital black and white something special.