There’s this photographer I know – a friend of a friend. He’s been a regular source of inspiration of mine for years, even well before us becoming acquainted. We’ve chatted from time to time and inevitably we’ve talked gear. We share somewhat similar tastes in equipment, though compared to me he’s been a lot more steadfast in what equipment he’s been choosing to use.
Actually, that might be an understatement. He’s in fact been using the same camera, lens and film stock for the entire time I’ve known him. If I were to guess, he’s probably been sticking with the same setup for a decade at this point, if not longer.
I’ve always felt a draw to this sort of consistency. It’s only by getting to know your equipment that you can make the most with it. And focusing on making work you’re happy with is far harder if you’re using something unfamiliar.
But at the same time I’ve never used a piece of gear where there’s not been some aspect or another that eventually motivated me to move on to something else. So I’ve never been able to see myself as someone that would ever feel content while remaining that consistent.
With the Voigtländer 50/1.2 though, I could sort of see myself on that path of absolute steadiness. Actually, at the time of writing I’ve not used another lens for over a year*. And I don’t really feel any urgent need or even motivation to change that. Which is really unusual for me.
* The exception is that I’ve used the Fuji X100T from time to time, when I’ve wanted something really small and not too expensive to bring along.
The thing is that the 50/1.2 is just such a good fit for what and how I’ve been shooting lately that most everything else feels like a less compelling compromise. Even options that have more appealing specs and traits on paper. That’s not to say that it’s without tradeoffs however, there definitely are some. All things considered though, they’re a lot fewer than I had expected.
Despite my own preferences I’ll make sure to offer a balanced perspective over the course of this review though. Something I feel well equipped for having gotten to know the lens so unusually well.
Let’s look at the broad strokes before diving in to the specifics:
Released in 2018, the Nokton 50/1.2 is a super fast, normal focal length lens for Leica’s M-mount.
Aside from the high speed not much stands out from the spec sheet alone. But what will soon become clear, is that this isn’t a bad thing.
It’s nice to see that it offers a 0.7m close focus distance, the closest distance supported by M-mount rangefinder focusing. Many of the closer alternatives aren’t able to focus as closely.
There aren’t any versions to keep track of – the lens has been unchanged throughout its production run so far. It’s also only available in black, with Voigtländer skipping the silver finish in this instance.
It has a close sibling in the form of the Nokton 40/1.2 – a slightly more compact lens with somewhat less refined performance. There are also some practical trade offs for rangefinder users in that most M-mount cameras lack corresponding framelines.
The 50/1.2 is also available in two versions for Sony E-mount. Here it offers the same optical design but tweaked for the thicker filter stack present on Sony’s cameras. These versions also focus more closely than the M-mount lens.
The first few super fast lenses came to market in the late 1950’s. Ever since then the favored approach for high speed designs in the normal range has been to augment a double gauss arrangement with a few extra elements, to keep aberrations under control even with the added speed.
Earlier lenses taking this approach were still quite compromised in terms of image quality. But over time designs became more refined and performance could eventually increase. The introduction of aspherical surfaces, in particular, contributed to significant improvements. Beyond these refinements though, this general approach held up for half a century.
Lately however, there’s been a push for higher and higher performance. As a result many manufacturers have pursued much more complex designs for their fast normal primes. Added features such as floating elements (for more even performance throughout the focus range) or internal focusing (for enabling fast autofocus) have also increased the complexity.
While not super simple, the design of the Nokton looks downright frugal when placed next to many other contemporary lenses. I mean just look at the amount of glass in the Canon lens for their mirrorless cameras, shown as an example below.
The diagram for the Voigtländer Nokton 50/1.2
The diagram for the Canon RF 50/1.2
The resulting lenses tend to offer very impressive performance. But this new direction is not without trade offs. More complex designs mean much larger and heavier lenses. They’re also more expensive to both produce and purchase.
So, perhaps there’s still merit to the traditional approach? The Nokton certainly makes a good case for that.
Voigtländer has based the design for the Nokton off of the double gauss formula, though in a heavily modified form. Compared to the original design two additional elements have been added, four surfaces are now aspherical and one element uses glass with anomalous dispersion characteristics. So compared to a simple double gauss it’s an ambitious design, but put it next to any other fast and recent lens for mirrorless cameras and the layout seems strikingly frugal. It also skips out on floating elements and internal focusing, using a unit focusing approach – another traditional trait.
Despite the old school approach the Nokton still manages to achieve a lot in terms of performance, something we’ll get back to in a bit. It’s also bound to be easier to produce with a lower cost of materials too. Something that’s carried over to the price, which is very reasonable.
But, perhaps most importantly, the design also makes for a comparably compact lens. This means it remains practical in day to day use, much more so than many of the more ambitious options.
The Nokton is a nice looking lens and impeccably made.
As mentioned the Nokton is very compact considering the speed it offers. Compared to other options of a similar specification its among the smallest and lightest options available.
|Voigtländer 50/1.2||49mm ☆||344g ☆|
|7Artisans 50/1.1||49mm ☆||400g|
|Canon RF 50/1.2||108mm||947g|
|Sony FE 50/1.2||108mm||778g|
There are of course plenty of more compact lenses available for M-mount if you opt for something slower. And as a day to day choice the Nokton is perhaps on the larger end – it’s pretty wide girthed and somewhat heavy. But as it’s just a hair longer than the one and a half stop slower Leica Summicron 50/2 or the Zeiss ZM Planar 50/2 for instance it’s hard not to be impressed by how compact it remains.
A few 50mm lenses I have at hand placed side by side offers a hint of the size of the Nokton.
From left to right: Voigtländer 50/2.5, Leica 50/2, Zeiss 50/1.5 and Voigtländer 50/1.2.
|Leica 50/1.4 ASPH||53mm||335g|
|Zeiss ZM 50/2||43mm||211g|
|Zeiss ZM 50/1.5||38mm||240g|
|Voigtländer 50/1.5 II||37mm||198g|
The Nokton is a nice looking lens. It’s very reminiscent of some earlier Voigtländer lenses such as the Color Heliar 75/2.5 LTM and in turn very similar to the older Leica lenses that they emulate. The overall look and proportions bring to mind the early versions of the Leica Noctilux, though it’s not quite as much of a dead ringer for any Leica lens as some of Voigtländer’s earlier glass.
The chrome plated front ring is also a clear Voigtländer trait. Though this is one I wish they’d skipped as it can cause reflections when shooting through glass as well as flare under some specific circumstances.
Despite more than half a century separating their manufacturing dates, the Nokton 50/1.2 feels right at home on the Leica M3.
Over time I’ve started to feel like it would be nice to see Voigtländer find an industrial design expression that’s more their own, rather than to mimic various classical designs so closely. Disregarding that though, the Nokton certainly looks classy.
Markings are engraved and painted in the Helvetica Neue typeface. Aperture, metric distance and depth of field scales are painted white with excellent visibility in any light. The imperial distance scale is painted red and not quite as readable in low light.
The depth of field scale is clear and usable with markings starting at f/4.
There’s also a Made in Japan engraving on the bottom as well as the customary lens details on the front ring. The serial number is engraved on the rear mount.
Voigtländer have always made lenses with great build quality. With their recent releases this has been even further refined. If there ever was a gap between theirs and Leica’s lenses, that’s long since closed. Anecdotally they might even be best in class in terms of consistency.
Aside from the plastic mounting dot everything is made out of either metal or glass. Assembly is tight without play anywhere. Overall it build quality is excellent.
The comfortable focus ring has medium resistance and travels remarkably smoothly. It feels extremely nice and well balanced.
From this standpoint I’m actually quite happy that Voigländer skipped the addition of floating elements, as that would’ve likely made the focus feel a lot less smooth*.
* This is one aspect I’m not a fan of with the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4 for instance. It has a far more dampened, sticky focus feel due to its floating elements. As I had been shooting the Zeiss a lot just before picking up the Nokton I’ll touch on some comparative points between the two lenses throughout the review. I find it interesting that the lenses share a similar level of ambiton, but with differing design philosiphies, resulting in a very different feel between them.
The aperture dial moves smoothly with moderately firm, clicky detents.
Markings and scales are clear and usable. All control points are excellently machined, feel well balanced and very solid.
The Nokton doesn’t come with any additional accessories other than front and rear caps.
I bought my copy used with the front cap missing, but it looks like the familiar plastic cap generally supplied by Voigtländer – a no frills but well functioning cap.
There’s a hood available as a separate purchase. It’s a vented metal design with a bayonet mount. It’s pretty expensive, but going by similar hoods from Voigtländer that I’ve tried in the past I’d wager that it’s quite well made.
I generally prefer not to use a hood though, so I’ve not sprung for this addition myself. The Nokton is mostly so flare resistant that it doesn’t matter much, though for keeping the occasional bit of ghosting in check it could be a good addition.
The Nokton 50/1.2 offers excellent ergonomics. They’re not quite perfectly aligned with my preferences, but it’s close and everything is so well executed that I can’t really level any serious complaints about it.
If we start off with an unavoidable downside of the size and weight – on a Leica M camera the balance doesn’t feel quite perfect, with a slight front-heaviness. I definitely prefer how smaller and lighter lenses balance.
I personally find it on the right side of acceptable for day to day use though. The handling difference compared to a lot of other, even quite a bit slower, 50mm lenses that I’ve shot isn’t really that big in practice. The balance remains alright and the overall handling is really very nice. I’ve also found it possible to shoot comfortably even for extended periods of time without feeling fatigued or thinking about adding a grip to the camera*.
* If I compare it to just slightly larger lenses, like for instance the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4, that lens instead falls just outside of what I feel is pleasant day to day.
In terms of viewfinder intrusion it’s a similar story – there’s a bit more than with a smaller lens of course, but not in a way that I find problematic in daily use. The fairly short length of the lens actually keeps this aspect very manageable.
The Nokton isn’t a small lens, but in practice the difference in handling compared to something like the Leica Summicron 50/2 isn’t really that big.
The scalloped focusing ring is very comfortable and as mentioned earlier it has a very pleasant feel.
The focus throw is somewhat long at 120° which, combined with the wide circumference of the lens, leads to plenty of travel.
|Focus throw||Diameter||Focus travel|
|Voigtländer 50/1.2||120°||⌀ 63 mm||66 mm|
|Leica 50/2 V||120°||⌀ 53 mm||55 mm|
|Voigtländer 50/2.5||90°||⌀ 50 mm||39 mm|
This long traveling throw has a clear benefit in that it becomes easier to make small focus adjustments. Consequently it’s easier than expected, considering the speed of the lens, to nail focus.
The downside is that it’s a little bit more difficult to focus quickly at times. Moving from infinity to close focus is a bit more deliberate than when using a lens with a shorter throw.
I’m also a fan of focus tabs, so would’ve preferred such an arrangement here. Still, with how comfortable and accurate the focusing is I’ve certainly been able to disregard this.
Aperture is set with a finely ribbed ring that runs along the entire circumference of the front of the lens. The ring is easy to get the hold off and clearly distinct from the focus ring.
If I’m being super-picky I’d say that the ring could stand to be a little wider to get an even more confident grip on it.
Another nitpick. The aperture ring markings sit on a section where the lens tapers towards the front (to keep viewfinder blockage to a minimum most likely). Compared to if the markings would sit on a flush surface it’s a slight bit harder to read the numbers from a shooting position, without tilting the lens up toward you.
Now these nits are only mentioned as a result of looking for faults. They’ve certainly not caused problems in use.
So then, overall the Nokton handles wonderfully, though just shy of perfect for my tastes.
Humor me while I head off on a tangent for a sec – how would you define perfect performance? The simple answer would likely be a lens that offers the highest marks on all objectively quantifiable criteria – resolution, contrast, aberration control et cetera.
I think there’s a bit more nuance though. Extremely high contrast output might look appealing under certain circumstances, but can make for harsh images other times. Solid control of aberrations is nice for the most part, but oftentimes a high level of correction brings messier bokeh as well. Not to mention that some aberrations can sometimes be utilized creatively. So then, instead of a very metrics driven line of thinking, to me it becomes more about what suits the situation.
If we carry on this line of thought, is then the highest level of objective performance the key thing to pursue? Or is flexibility more of a boon? A lens that has a bit of variance in its character so it allows you to make creative choices depending on the situation you’re facing.
Well, the Nokton offers such variance and I feel it’s a much more appealing choice for it, compared to if it simply offered the highest quantifiable performance.
That’s not to say it performs poorly though. In fact it’s quite outstanding overall. However there are a few areas where the level of correction falls slightly shy of that fabled perfection. And to my eye, that often ends up benefiting the rendering.
But let’s dissect the characteristics a bit before returning to how things come together in terms of overall signature.
The Nokton is an impressive performer with regards to definition. Despite the ambitious spec the compromises in performance are fairly minor.
But let’s start by getting the “bad” news out of the way shall we.
The 50/1.2 doesn’t tame spherical aberration (SA) fully at wider aperture settings. Particularly at closer distances.
So in terms of a technical assessment a slightly compromised acuteness can be observed in the high to medium frequencies, compared to top performers. That is to say – finer structures and edges can bleed into each other slightly.
In a wider context the amount of SA is still very low – but it is slightly higher than some recent benchmark options.
Aesthetically it’s less clearly a downside.
The slightly lower level of correction results in a bit of “glow” commonly associated with vintage lenses. This tends to give images a smoother overall impression.
So, where some more highly corrected lenses can end up rendering with an overbearing harshness at times, the Nokton’s smoother character can often end up looking more balanced.
The SA is most pronounced wide open and at close distances. It’s also rapidly reduced stopping down.
This trait is one of the main contributors to the previously mentioned flexibility in rendering – shoot the Nokton at wider aperture settings and you’ll get this interesting mix of vintage and contemporary traits. Stop down slightly and you’re instead getting output that’s highly modern and transparent.
Let’s quickly break it down on aperture setting level as well.
Despite the slight bit of SA then, the Nokton does really well even at f/1.2.
Resolution and global contrast are both at impressive levels considering the speed. Especially in the central parts of the frame and at a distance. Even fine details are reproduced clearly and the overall level of clarity is quite a bit better than expected for such a fast aperture.
Micro-contrast and mid level detail are very good but fall slightly short of optimal here, due in part to the slight loss in contrast caused by SA. As mentioned there are some aesthetic benefits to this though.
The frame periphery offers less distinct rendition of detail, but it still holds up surprisingly well considering the speed.
Field flatness is also well controlled without pronounced field curvature.
Moving closer than a few meters progressively makes the effects of SA more pronounced. Shooting at or close to the minimum focus distance definition clearly suffers somewhat.
At f/1.4 definition is increased slightly across all frequencies, but the overall impression is quite similar to that of the f/1.2 setting.
By f/2 performance starts to really pick up.
Definition is increased across the frame and contrast sees a noticeable boost, particularly at those medium to high frequencies previously most impacted by SA. While very respectable, micro-contrast isn’t quite as high as with some top-tier performers just yet and fine structures can bleed together slightly still.
Resolution in the central area is very high though and on par with industry benchmarks – impressive considering how complex designs the competition relies on.
Edges and corners are also well defined, though not quite perfect yet.
Close range performance is raised considerably. Overall the impression is now quite modern and transparent.
Stopping down to f/2.8 sees clarity boosted even further with very high definition across the frame. Edges and corners are now excellent and close range performance is also very crisp. Micro-contrast sees a nice increase and the overall output is now just about as sharp as you’d ever need.
F/4 offers practically perfect corners as well as a slight additional increase of definition in the central parts of the frame.
F/5.6 is optimal with a subtle contrast boost across the frame.
F/8 might be the best choice in some situations with an ever so slight increase in corner contrast, but with minor diffraction effects in the center.
A few crops are never the best way to assess performance, so the written analysis carry more weight than the samples with regards to the overall evaluation. These images mainly serve to illustrate a few of the key points.
This first example then is shot wide open. The first crop is obviously of my kid, the second one is slightly farther down and to the right, very close to the corner.
As you can see from the crops, the Nokton performs admirably already. There’s a bit of glow visible in the highlights in particular, but small details like strands of hair are reproduced well. Keep in mind that this is at f/1.2 at a somewhat close distance and quite far into the image field, so close to a worst case scenario with regards to definition (shooting even closer results in even more pronounced SA).
This image was shot at f/4. Here a significant bump in definition can be observed. The glow has dissipated and crisply renderd detail remains. Clarity is high in both crops despite both being from outside of the central, optimal area.
The Nokton renders colors in a very true to life manner.
Close shades are separated cleanly and even subtle hues are faithfully reproduced. The output is neutral without erring warm or cool. Saturation is clear and well balanced without becoming overcooked.
The Nokton does exceptionally well in terms of out of focus rendering. Something that’s far from a given with a fast 50. Of the lenses I’ve shot only long focal length lenses have come close to offering as smooth bokeh. It’s not totally bulletproof, but situations where it starts to fall apart are a lot more rare than what’s commonly the case.
Obviously, considering the speed and focal length of the lens, there will be the potential for a very shallow depth of field here. Subject isolation will certainly be part of the appeal with the Nokton. Even more so with the well behaved bokeh.
Shooting wide open and at close to medium distances blurs out the background almost completely. Here out of focus highlights are nice and round with unusually smooth edges and minimal outlining. This is likely further aided by the lower correction of spherical aberration mentioned earlier, as there tends to be a correlation between lower correction of SA and smoother bokeh.
Even busy backgrounds tend to look surprisingly smooth under most circumstances.
Towards the outer field there’s a touch of mechanical vignetting, which isn’t surprising considering the small size of the lens relative to its speed. Still, it’s well controlled without noticeable bokeh swirling or strong field curvature.
Stopping down results in slightly polygonally shaped out of focus highlights, though outlining remains very low.
In certain conditions you might be able to spot some very subtle onion ring structures in out of focus highlights. Considering that the lens uses four aspherical surfaces onion rings are definitely impressively well controlled.
Transitions are moderate to fast. There’s a clear sense of separation between planes.
A clear benefit the speed of the Nokton brings is the ability to have visible subject separation even at farther distances.
One weak point however is that the transition zone can be slightly busy and under certain circumstances even harsh. So if a lot of detail ends up just slightly outside of the focal plane (i.e. in the transition zone) it can look a bit distracting, especially if it’s complex or high contrast elements to begin with.
There’s also a little bit of spherochromatism with slight green/magenta outlining in front/behind the focal plane respectively.
Overall though, the Nokton behaves outstandingly well with regards to bokeh.
Bokeh is generally exceptionally smooth. The fast aperture also makes it easier to isolate subjects at a distance. However in these scenarios bokeh can end up a little messy, particularly slightly stopped down and if the background is situated close to the subject (i.e. the background is in the transition zone).
A somewhat representative example of this can be seen in the second sample above, which was shot sligthly stopped down. Here bokeh looks slightly messy towards the corners. Still it must be said that it holds up very well, much better than a lot of other lenses under similar scenarios.
The Nokton has a solid handle on most other aberrations. I’d rate it as a very well behaved lens overall, which is particularly impressive considering the speed (many super fast lenses give up a lot more in terms of aberration control to achieve the speed).
It’s very rare to see any detrimental issues in general use and not even close scrutiny tends to reveal much in the way of problematic behaviors.
Longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberrations are all present but at very low levels, even disregarding the speed of the lens. These aberrations have certainly not been particularly visible or problematic in my use.
Coma is controlled pretty well. It’s not quite perfect and wouldn’t quite hold up under extremely demanding scenarios (e.g. astro photography), but in general use coma has never been noticeable.
Vignetting is fairly pronounced wide open, but reduces quickly stopping down. It’s still present at f/4, but now as such a low level that it’s practically irrelevant.
There’s a bit of pincushion distortion and it might make sense to correct for in images with prominent, straight lines towards the periphery.
In most cases it’s not visible though.
Focus shift is well controlled, but occasionally visible if you know what to look for.
What’s possible to observe is that when shooting at close distances and aperture settings around f/2–2.8 the focus point tends to be a hair farther back, when compared to shots wide open.
It’s not so pronounced as to be particularly problematic though – the focal point still falls within the depth of field at every aperture setting and is acceptably sharp even under these circumstances. But if you’re aware of the behavior it’s possible to optimize performance further by choosing to focus on something on the closer end of where you’d like focus to fall, rather than in the middle. You do get a nice little bump in definition this way.
Shooting at f/1.2 focus is spot on and by f/4 depth of field is deep enough that the shift can’t really be detected.
The Nokton is generally very resilient to flare. Even in challenging scenarios it’s rare to see much in the way of ghosting or significant loss of contrast. Even the best behaving lenses fail under specific conditions however and the Nokton is no exception. Still, it’s among the better behaved lenses I’ve used in this regard.
There is one circumstance that can cause issue on a rare but consistent basis. The chrome front mount can occasionally cause a fairly pronounced flare. This happens when strong light hits the front ring from a very specific angle and is then reflected into the lens. Adding any filter with a black mounting ring alleviates the issue, though the hood is probably an even safer bet. I’ve personally found the effect rather appealing in some cases, but I can’t say it’s not occasionally bothersome.
I’ve also observed another type of flare that’s been rather conspicuous on the occasions it’s appeared. This one also comes into play under very specific conditions so I wouldn’t label it as too problematic of a trait. This one I actually quite like the look of so I’ve at times strived towards provoking it.
The two types of flare that I've observed at a rare but recurring basis.
I’ve not shot much film during my time with the Nokton so far (as it’s been rather cumbersome to get it developed during the pandemic).
So my assessment is mainly based on digital use (which is generally the more demanding medium). From what I’ve seen though, the Nokton seems to be a lens that does well regardless of medium. I’ve seen some stunning shots on color film made with it. I also quite like the way B&W conversions look out of it, even with minimal work. But consider these points a bit more preliminary so far.
To my tastes the Nokton offers marvelous output. I’d in fact go so far as to say it might just be my favorite lens in terms of rendering.
Wide open and slightly stopped down there’s a beautiful mix of modern characteristics with a touch of almost vintage feeling glow.
Stopping down a little bit and the signature changes into something that feels very modern and transparent.
Having this bit of variance in signature allows you to make creative choices in terms of what type of look benefits a specific scene or situation. I personally find this a big benefit. That the Nokton also has so well balanced contrast characteristics overall means it’s very rare to see the output fall apart as well as uncommon to find images looking overly harsh.
I’m a big fan of the rendering offered by the 50/1.2. The flexibility in signature and ability to offer a fair bit of isolation even at farther distances are standout traits.
The smooth bokeh is another massively appealing trait. That out of focus areas are generally rendered in a predictable and consistent way furthers the availability of creative choice, as does the ability to achieve separation even at farther distances.
Add to that competent handle of most aberrations and appealing color rendition and you start to see just how competent and well rounded a lens the Nokton is.
In terms of overall output signature then, it’s simply put sublime – the new yardstick to surpass, perhaps not in terms of raw performance, but certainly in terms of rendering niceness.
As mentioned earlier I’ve had the Nokton for a bit over a year at this point.
Back then I had been spending a good bit of time with the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4. But as I mentioned in that review I found myself gravitating towards the 50mm focal length. So I circled back to the Leica Summicron 50/2 V and used that for a while. I was quite enjoying my time with the Summicron and wasn’t in any real rush to pick up something else. But as the Nokton popped up used for a very compelling price I couldn’t resist snagging it up.
Getting it at such a good price certainly didn’t hurt in terms of finding enjoyment with the Nokton, but I also feel like it came to me at just about the perfect time. I was still on parental leave back then and could spend a bit more time than usual shooting. With winter closing in it was also getting darker by the day so the fast aperture frequently came in handy. Simply put, I found myself bonding with the lens unusually quickly.
But that affection also hasn’t waned during the year. Rather the opposite – I’ve become quite enamored with it. I think there are a few reasons for that, let’s cover a few of them.
One of the first things that struck me after shooting the Nokton for a while, was how ordinary it felt in use. As it’s so fast it can certainly be considered as pretty exotic. But in terms of deployment it’s sort of like shooting any other lens.
If I compare it to the aforementioned ZM 35/1.4 Distagon for instance, with that lens you’re constantly reminded that it’s a high performance piece of gear. The ZM is absolutely massive for a rangefinder lens. It’s significantly bigger than most other similarly specced lenses. It has a focusing feel that is much stiffer due to being equipped with floating elements to maximize performance. While I’ve been frequently impressed by the super well corrected output of the ZM, it can sometimes render scenes with contrast that can be almost overbearing, feeling a little harsh at times.
With the Nokton on the other hand, it’s certainly also a bit bigger and heavier than the average M-mount lens, but the difference isn’t as stark. Personally I’ve found that the size is very livable, even when traveling and being out and about. The focus feel is nice and light. While the long focus throw means it’s a little harder to work super quickly than with a shorter throw, it still feels quicker to work with than the Zeiss thanks to the light focus feel. The long throw also results in it being a lot easier than expected to nail focus wide open. With subjects less erratic than my children I have nigh on perfect hit-rate. Even when trying to keep up with the kids I tend to manage getting a very respectable number of keepers.
There seems to be this axiom that the sole purpose of a super fast lens is to be shot wide open. That if you buy a lens like this you shouldn’t be stopping down because then you’re somehow “wasting” the potential of the lens. Even Leica’s chief optics designer Peter Karbe has said in interviews that there’s no point in using the lenses of his design stopped down, because they’re so good wide open.
But I just can’t fathom this mindset. Not every image needs or indeed benefits from the shallowest depth of field possible. To me that’s a slippery slope where you can end up simply using speed as a crutch to make up for deficits in other areas of image making.
To me the better way to think about it is in terms of creative opportunity.
Because there are certainly situations where a shallow depth of field can bring aesthetic benefits and result in more appealing images. But it’s not applicable to every situation and thus not the sole valid choice.
In plenty of other situations stopping down yields more attractive results. A deeper depth of field can tell a more complete story or look more realistic.
So to me then, a lens is best shot at the aperture setting most appropriate for the image I’m trying to capture. And then having a few additional options simply means a bit more flexibility, not that those additional options are the only ones worth using.
I quite like the look at f/1.2 at a bit of a distance, but at closer range I tend to stop down a tad.
With the Nokton specifically, it might make sense to give a few examples of how I enjoy using it. I quite like the look it gives at f/1.2 at a bit of a distance, here the output is beautiful and distinct – quite different from what I’d be able to get out of a slower lens. But I don’t always want this slightly suggestive look and frequently stop down as well. At closer range, I often opt for f/1.7 which I feel gives a nigh on perfect balance of bite and smoothness in a lot of instances. Plus focus shift is kept to a minimum. So for a lot of situations these have been some go-to settings. Though I’ve frequently opted for other choices too, depending on the look I’m keen on.
Beyond the flexibility in look offered by a very fast lens, it of course brings some practical benefits. Chiefly that it makes shooting in lower light a lot easier.
Now on contemporary digital cameras a lot of this benefit is negated by the increasingly clean output at higher ISO settings – bumping the sensitivity a stop or two is generally not too big of a deal anymore. This makes it possible to get away with slower lenses even in very low light.
Still, there are some benefits to a faster lens though – when you’re already at or close to the point where images start to break apart you can get noticeably clearer results with a faster lens. You can also bump up the shutter speeds in moderately low light without ending up with astronomical ISO settings as a result. This can be very helpful when capturing moving subjects.
of course, every once in a while there are also the situations where I previously wouldn’t have thought it possible to make a decent image, but where the speed of the Nokton has enabled me to still come away with something very usable and sometimes even quite appealing.
So, to generalize – a few years back this type of speed often meant the difference between a usable image and none at all. These days it’s often instead a question of a useable image vs something a little bit cleaner.
On film, we’re also in a more binary world. The type of speed offered with the Nokton does make it possible to shoot handheld in conditions where it’s simply not possible (or at lest far less practical) without it.
Over the year I’ve had it the Nokton has seen by far the most use on the Leica M Typ 262. But I’ve used it a bit on the Sony A7 too. I’ve also include a few general observations for the two film Leica M’s I have.
An incredible setup. The balance is slightly front-heavy, but the overall handling is still very pleasant. The super fast aperture combined with the solid high ISO performance offered by the camera means it’s trivial to shoot in even very subdued light. The rendering and performance is wonderful.
I’ve not really had a chance to shoot this combination properly yet. But what I can already say is that it’s a well balanced setup. And despite over half a century separating the manufacturing dates for the lens and camera they feel like a very natural pairing. The M3 is fantastic for shooting 50mm lenses and with the Nokton’s speed the increased accuracy offered by the high magnification rangefinder in the M3 is an appealing benefit. While on the topic of speed – having a super fast aperture such as on the Nokton is an even bigger benefit when shooting film and allows you to shoot with confidence even under very low light. The only thing to watch out for with this combination is that the lens focuses closer than the camera, so you need to take a bit of care when working at closer distances.
I’ve not had a chance to shoot this combination yet, but from what I can tell this’ll be a swell combination. It balances and handles well. Having such high speed available is a big benefit when shooting film.
In terms of handling this is a very pleasant combination. The more pronounced grip on the camera makes the front-heaviness even less noticeable than on the Leica’s. It’s possible to cut down the minimum focus distance by using a helicoid adapter, which can sometimes be useful. Performance also carries over very well with that fantastic rendering still intact, despite the thicker filter stack. Looking closely and comparing with the native version of the lens there are some ray angle induced issues resulting in a slight reduction in definition away from the center of the frame, particularly at farther distances. There’s also a slight bit of induced field curvature which can make bokeh look a bit harsher towards the edges of the frame at medium to far distances. Something that’s less pronounced shooting natively. So, if you’re going to use the lens exclusively on the A7-series cameras it makes sense to opt for the E-mount version of the lens. Still overall it holds up very well and if you’re looking for a fast 50 that works well on both an M-mount camera as well as a mirrorless one, the Nokton is certainly a good candidate.
So we’ve established many of the Nokton’s strengths as well as weaknesses. But oftentimes it’s not until you start to examine those in relation to other available options that it becomes clear how compelling a choice something is. Obviously there are a lot of options available at such a popular focal length, but I’ve tried to include a number of the most relevant ones.
Among the super fast lenses available I feel like the Nokton is quite far ahead really. To me it strikes a really successful balance of traits and feels like a much more well rounded, less specialized choice.
Depending on what you’re looking for it might be worth asking yourself how necessary such a fast aperture is in your use though. While I still feel like the 50/1.2 makes a good case for itself as a day to day choice there are definitely a few options that are just slightly slower that are more practical in some regards. Though it’s worth noting that compared to those the Nokton still has an edge in one or two areas even beyond the speed.
Let’s just circle back to this comparison image from before. The diversity in lens choice is certainly one of the most compelling aspects of the M-mount system to me. That you can pick and choose from so many different excellent options based on your preferences is just swell. With 50mm lenses in particular there’s probably more choice than with any other focal length. I’d personally shoot happily with either of these lenses.
So then, before wrapping up, let’s look at some comparisons. We’ll cover quite a few lenses here (as I think there are a good number of relevant options, depending on why you’re considering the Nokton), so it might make sense to skip ahead if you’re more curious about the bigger picture conclusion.
Jump to the Nokton 50/1.2 compared to the…
Leica Noctilux 50
Leica Summilux 50/1.4 ASPH
Leica Summicron 50/2 V
Voigtländer Nokton 50/1.1 Aspherical
Voigtländer Nokton 50/1.5 Aspherical
Voigtländer 50/2 APO-Lanthar
Voigtländer Nokton 40/1.2
Voigtländer Nokton 40/1.4
Zeiss ZM 50/1.5 Sonnar
Available in a few iterations this is the closest alternative from Leica going on spec alone. All versions of the Leica lens are astronomically priced. But even disregarding that I think the Voigtländer lens strikes a more sensible balance than either of the Leica iterations. The Nokton is significantly smaller and lighter than every Noctilux. The Nokton also focuses closer and from what I’ve seen it has smoother bokeh and higher performance than all except for maybe the latest f/0.95 Noctilux. So, even disregarding the absurd price difference, unless you’re a collector I don’t see a reason to go for the Leica options over the Voigtländer.
From Leica’s lineup I think this lens makes for a more sensible comparison than the Noctilux. It’s roughly the same size and weight as the Nokton 50/1.2, though slightly skinnier. It has a nice focus tab and an integrated hood. It also has floating elements and higher definition at closer range as a result. It’s a slight bit slower though.
I’ve not had a chance to try the Summilux, but it’s a lens I’ve been curious about for some time. Honestly I’ve come quite close to pulling the trigger on one a few times, just to have a chance to spend some time with it. But doing a bit more research has mostly dissuaded me from getting this over the Nokton.
If we start with the ergonomic aspects. While I do feel compelled by the focus tab, the floating elements reportedly result in a stiffer focus feel and noticeable stiction. Something I found bothersome with the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4, as mentioned earlier. The integrated hood isn’t something I care about that much really.
In terms of performance I do sometimes feel with the Nokton that a bit more bite at closer range would be nice. And the Summilux looks to offer that. However, on the other hand the Summilux seem the have the potential to end up looking harsh more frequently. It also has an unusual aperture design that becomes star-shaped at intermediate aperture settings (probably to minimize focus shift). This shape of course carries over to the bokeh with slightly odd looking out of focus areas as a result.
So while the Summilux has a few advantages over the Nokton, there are also a few drawbacks. So the choice is certainly not clear cut. It feels like a two steps forward, two steps back sort of situation.
However, there’s one factor that I’ve not even touched on – price. I’m guessing it almost goes without saying, but the Summilux is massively expensive. The local used price for a Summilux is close to 3x the price of a brand new Nokton. So given that the Summilux doesn’t significantly surpass the Nokton in an overall assessment, it’s really difficult to see a reason to go for it when also factoring in the price difference.
As for the older Summilux I feel the Nokton is a much more compelling choice for a number of reasons, mainly the shorter MFD and much better bokeh.
For just a bit more than the new price of the Nokton you can pick up a used Summicron 50/2. You sacrifice quite a bit of speed, but the Summicron is noticeably lighter and skinnier. It also offers slightly higher definition and a crisper rendering. Plus, it has an integrated hood.
I’ve had the Summicron for ages by now and still find it a marvelous lens, with a very appealing signature.
There are a few reasons why you might want to go with the Nokton though. For starters, bokeh is a lot less smooth with the Summicron. I personally find the focus and aperture rings too similar and close together, so despite the larger size I prefer the handling of the Nokton overall. There’s a bit more focus shift with the Summicron as well.
Still, I think the most significant difference is also the most obvious one – the added speed offered by the Nokton. I do feel like f/2 is slightly on the slow side at times and have come to really enjoy the added flexibility afforded by the speed of the Nokton, both in creative and practical terms. Overall then I would personally lean towards the Nokton under many scenarios, though it’s a choice between two exceptional lenses.
Full review of the Leica Summicron 50/2
This earlier lens from Voigtländer seems to have had a very similar set of design goals as the new 50/1.2, but in terms of the final product I find it a lot less successful. In some ways it’s actually a solid example of how far Voigtländer has come in terms of lens design in the past few years. The 50/1.1 is significantly larger and heavier than the f/1.2 version, only focuses down to 1 meter and has a way less refined performance characteristics. Personally I don’t see many reasons to go for the earlier lens.
In many ways I think the most relevant alternative to the 50/1.2 still comes from Voigtländer themselves. This slightly slower lens is available in two iterations for M-mount and one version for LTM-mount.
Starting with the older LTM lens it certainly seems very nice, with solid performance and pleasant rendering from what I’ve seen. It seems to have perhaps slightly less smooth bokeh, but seems to hold up really well overall. The ergonomics and industrial design is nigh on identical to the 50/1.2, though a bit smaller and lighter. To me the biggest drawback would be the fact that it only focuses down to 0.9m, something I find a bit too restrictive in general use.
If we move on to the first version for M-mount it seems to be a swell lens. We’re once again offered a 0.7m close focus as well as solid performance and pleasant rendering. However it has a somewhat frivolous industrial design, mimicking the original Nokton lens from the 1950’s. While it looks fetching it seems to have a number of ergonomic drawbacks. Still, it certainly seems like a very compelling lens overall.
If we move on to this recently released version of the 50/1.5 then, we have something extremely compelling. The version II is one of the smallest and lightest high speed 50mm lenses available. It certainly looks more portable than the 50/1.2. It also focuses all the way down to 0.7m, has straight forward ergonomics and is quite reasonably priced too. I’ve even contemplated switching to this lens from the 50/1.2. There is a clear downside to the smaller size though – pronounced vignetting. This shows up in the output both as unusually dark corners as well as a rather swirly bokeh and increased depth of field towards the periphery. To me eye these traits can end up somewhat distracting at times. Still, of the available options this certainly seems like one of the nicer ones.
This slower lens from Voigtländer is an interesting option. It’s priced the same as the 50/1.2, is almost the same size and weight, but is much slower. What gives? Well with the 50 APO Voigtländer have pursued a very different set of design goals compared to with the 50/1.2. Here the aim is to offer the ultimate performance while keeping speed modest. Compared to the Nokton then it’s more highly corrected across the frame offering a very crisp rendering. You give up speed, the flexible signature and smoother bokeh to get there though. Ergonomically they’re very similar, though the APO has floating elements to maximize performance at closer range, which I would suspect results in a less smooth focusing feel. Overall the APO looks really compelling, but I’d personally lean towards the Nokton as the signature is more flexible and compelling to my eye.
This slightly wider lens from Voigtländer is a very close sibling to the 50/1.2. It has very similar specifications as well as almost exactly the same optical design. It’s slightly smaller and lighter. A few aspects of the output are a little less refined here though – bokeh shows more pronounced onion rings and definition is slightly less solid across the frame. The main consideration is probably focal length though. On most M-mount cameras you wouldn’t have access to 40mm framelines, so you’d need to use some guesswork for how to compose. I’ve shot a few 40mm lenses in the past and haven’t found this a major problem, but given the choice I still feel like the 50/1.2 ends up the easier recommendation.
For day to day use it could be argued that compactness and optimal handling are more important aspects than ultimate performance. If you agree with that sentiment the little 40/1.4 could be an interesting option. It offers exceptional handling and solid performance from f/2 and up. Wide open it has a distinct signature that can look great when harnessed, but there’s a slight bit of unpredictability in its behavior here. You do lose out on corresponding framelines as well. The 40/1.4 is very affordable. In some regards the new 50/1.5 II is an easier recommendation if you’re keen on something portable. Still the 50/1.2 has an edge over both when it comes to performance and niceness of rendering.
Full review of the Voigtländer Nokton 40/1.4
The ZM Sonnar is a somewhat divisive lens. Being a Sonnar design there’s pronounced focus shift and resolution is pretty ho-hum. It has a very pleasant signature however, with exceptionally high contrast at lower frequencies and strong colors. It’s also very compact and light and handles in a very pleasant way as a result. I personally like the ZM Sonnar a lot and count it among my favorite lenses. But then why have I been sticking with the Nokton lately?
Well I think there are a good few things that the Nokton has going for it over the ZM Sonnar.
One of my main reservations with the ZM Sonnar is the 0.9m close focus distance. For how I tend to shoot this is something I frequently find an annoying limitation. So with the Nokton focusing down to 0.7m there’s already a good bit of appeal there.
If we move on to performance and rendering characteristics the Nokton absolutely smokes the ZM Sonnar in objective terms. Resolution is better, bokeh is generally smoother and focus shift is much less of an issue.
For a lot of my use the ZM Sonnar still holds up really well though. Something that plays into this is that the Sonnar performs at its best at close range, whereas the Nokton is at its weakest here. With both lenses I tend to shoot frequently at around f/2 in the 1–2m sort of range. Here the difference in definition isn’t as massive as you might expect. In subjective terms the Sonnar’s signature is quite appealing here as well.
Still the signature of the Nokton is quite exquisite too, if not clearly ahead then at least toe to toe with that of the ZM Sonnar’s. I’ve also enjoyed the more flexible output that the Nokton offers. The Sonnar never quite gets to a point where it looks transparent in the same way as the Nokton can.
Ultimately between these two wonderful lenses it’s simply about picking which compromises you feel make more sense to you. Personally I’ve been leaning towards the Nokton due to the higher potential performance, smoother bokeh and closer focus, but I still feel there are aspects I’m forsaking to get there.
Full review of the Zeiss ZM 50/1.5 Sonnar
Based on the Sonnar formula this low cost lens manufactured by DJ-Optical is an interesting option. It’s very similar in size to the Nokton and just slightly heavier. It focuses down to 0.7m and you also get that super fast speed.
However quite a bit has been sacrificed to achieve that speed at such a low cost. There are some ergonomic tradeoffs with click-less aperture settings as a particular downside. You’re also expected to be able to fine tune the rangefinder coupling to achieve proper focus calibration. In terms of performance characteristics it’s not really in the same league as the Nokton or most contemporary lenses really. Definition is far, far behind, bokeh is worse, there’s massive amounts of focus shift and very poor flare resistance.
Now, it’s certainly possible to work with these traits and leverage them creatively. Still there will be a far more pronounced signature with the 7Artisans lens than with the more well balanced rendering that you tend to get with modern lenses. Personally I don’t mind a bit of character, but I find the 7Artisans a bit much in this regard. As a result I prefer the Nokton.
If speed is your main focus then this recent lens from TTArtisans, also manufactured by DJ-Optical, looks like an interesting option. It’s very similar to the current Leica Noctilux at a fraction of the cost.
Like the current Noctilux it’s an absolute beast of a lens, both significantly longer and heavier than the Nokton. While I’ve not handled one, it comes across as less than practical in this regard.
In terms of performance there are also a lot of compromises compared to the Nokton. There’s less dependable contrast characteristics, poor flare resistance and pronounced aberrations. The bokeh looks fairly smooth at closer distances but less so at a bit of a distance. Like other DJ-Optical lenses you’re also expected to be able to fine tune the rangefinder coupling to achieve proper focus calibration.
Overall the 50/0.95 feels like a special purpose lens rather than a relevant choice as a day to day lens. Personally I prefer something more well rounded and the Nokton is certainly one such option.
Shortly after the release of the 50/0.95 above, TTArtisans released this more sensible lens, once again manufactured by DJ-Optical. This looks like a really well rounded, compelling option that’s available at a very competitive price.
Despite being slightly slower it’s both longer and heavier than the Nokton. It’s equipped with a focus tab and offers a 0.7m close focus.
Performance seems solid with very respectable definition under most circumstances. Bokeh also seems quite smooth a lot of the time.
There are still some tradeoffs though. Flare isn’t controlled particularly well. Definition seems slightly lower and less even across the frame than with the Nokton, particularly at farther distances. You’re also expected to be able to fine tune the rangefinder coupling to achieve proper focus calibration.
Overall then, the Nokton has an edge. It’s slightly ahead in performance, speed as well as portability. On the other hand the TTArtisans 50/1.4 wins on value for money and on a budget it certainly seems to be one of the most compelling options.
Ok, about time to call it a wrap. Let’s sum up what we have covered with regards to the Nokton 50/1.2 so far.
A recurring theme in my reviews is that every piece of gear is a compromise between conflicting priorities: performance, handling, price, build quality, and so on. Generally you can’t get it all in the same piece of equipment.
That’s true for the Nokton 50/1.2 too. There certainly are some compromises. But the balance it strikes is still tremendously impressive. There are far fewer compromises than I would’ve ever expected. Overall I find it notably more successful in delivering on its design goals than any lens I’ve used in a long time. Simply put, it’s a tremendously impressive achievement.
Having gotten to know the Nokton so well over the past year there are a bunch of big and small tradeoffs that’ve become apparent. And in pretty much every instance I feel like Voigtländer’s made all the right choices.
I can easily imagine the temptation of pursuing even higher performance, by adding a feature or two, or another element or two. But that would’ve brought other compromises. Like an increase in size or price, or a harsher rendering.
Instead the Nokton’s manages to still feel practical as a day to day choice. As well as with the slight shortcomings in objective performance that actually ends up benefitting the overall output.
The Nokton has been such an enjoyable and inspiring companion over the past year. Most of the shooting I’ve been doing lately has been about documenting the day to day with my kids, and for this use I’ve found the 50/1.2 outstanding.
Because, yeah, the performance characteristics are certainly one of the reasons I like the Nokton as much as I do. It might just be my favorite lens in terms of rendering. The flexibility between the beautiful smoothness at wider apertures and crisp definition stopped down opens up for creative flexibility.
There are basically two distinct looks with a nice gradation and retained relation between them. Depending on the subject you’re shooting you can make decisions on what settings to use to achieve the look best fitting the situation. The super high speed of course brings both practical and creative benefits too.
That handling and build quality are impeccable and that the price is quite reasonable rounds out the offering.
But focusing too much on the individual aspects and traits sort of ends up selling the Nokton short in terms of how cohesive it feels. All the different aspects come together to form an incredibly competent, inspiring and fun to use lens.
One that I have no reservations to label as one of my favorites of all time.
Is it even one that I can stick with for years? Decades? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But for now at least I love using the 50/1.2.
Photos in this review were taken using the Leica M Typ 262. Photos of the lens were made using the Sony A7 or iPhone XS. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.