You know that moment when it’s time to pack your camera bag and you can’t decide what to take so you grab everything? I know this feeling well but this time I committed to the simplicity of one camera, one lens.
My default vacation lens kit usually consists of a traditional 35mm, 50mm and 85mm combo. To pare down to one lens, I would choose either the 35mm or the 50mm; but, what if there was a magical fov somewhere in between, say a 40mm? And what if that 40mm was also super fast, like f/1.2 fast? Luckily, the new Voigtlander 40mm Nokton f/1.2 manual focus lens does exist and it graced my doorstep just a few days before leaving for a quick recharge at Hotel San Cristobal outside Todos Santos, Baja California Sur.
Long a fan of 40mm – it’s an almost perfect solution for shooting the narrow zone in between a wide and standard lens- and with an aperture of f/1.2, this is a lens that can both siphon light from dark and isolate your subject for a 3d pop that rivals medium format.
I like to mess around with adapted manual focus lenses, usually small ones originally designed for rangefinder cameras. These lenses match well with the compact size of the newest Sony cameras and allow us to pack small and light when desired. But until now, I didn’t want to buy one designed only for the Sony E-mount – not when M-mount lenses can be used both on my digital and film cameras.
But the more I thought about it, the more the appeal of this new Voigtlander solidified. First off, the size is right – not too big, not too small, almost a perfect balance on the Sony a9 camera body at less than a pound. Then I thought about the manual focus tools on the Sony which have gotten better over the years. Focus peaking on the a9 works perfectly when shooting wide open – more about that later- and the lens is coupled to the E-mount system so that if you want, auto magnification will kick in when you rotate the focus ring. Pretty cool.
The Nokton also has an adjustable click or click-less aperture ring that the video crowd will appreciate and of course full metadata support. Its build quality is outstanding – similar to that of the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.2 lens, if you’ve ever had a chance to hold one. All metal and glass construction harkens back to the analog days, and if we’re honest, that’s a big part of the draw. With the perfection of digital being so damn perfect, sometimes its nice to put the visual brakes on and draw with something different.
Before getting into the optical characteristics of the lens, I do want to mention that it does focus very close (about 10″) but the downside to that capability is a semi-long focus throw – about 160 degrees. Not horrible but I’d prefer shorter.
Cosina state that this lens is designed with two aspherical elements “to suppress spherical aberrations and distortion for notable sharpness, clarity, and accurate rendering”. While that sounds like more digital perfection, this lens draws some similarity to the Zeiss C-Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 – a lens that is adored for its lack of corrections. While the Nokton is a much sharper lens and better corrected for chromatic aberrations, on occasion its images remind me of ones I’ve taken with the C-Sonnar, and that friends is a very good thing.
Wide open, the Nokton is surprisingly sharp – don’t expect Sony G Master sharpness but we are talking about f/1.2 in a $1k lens, so I am nothing but impressed. Stopping down to f/1.4 doesn’t do much to improve center sharpness, but go to f/2 or 2.8 and you will be slicing up eyeballs. But what impresses me the most of this lens is that when shot wide open, it just looks analog – there’s no better description. The subject isolation and 3d pop is outstanding, especially with subjects in that mid zone of say 10-20 feet. Images have a look that, on the full frame a9, draw as close to traditional medium format as I have seen. Yes, there is some CA at the widest apertures and vignetting makes its presence known abundantly, but nothing a little post work can’t correct if you feel the need.
It’s worth noting that the Sony a9 has a feature that makes it uniquely suited to the Nokton. The shutter on the a9 can be set to mechanical (1/8000 limited) or electronic (1/32000 limited) or automatic. In auto mode, the camera gracefully switches between the mechanical shutter and electronic modes to handle the need for faster shutter speeds when shooting f/1.2 in bright sun. Say goodbye to ND filters if you want to photograph with your lens wide open in daylight.
The shooting experience on the a9 is engaging, dare I even say fun. Focus peaking on the a9 is perfect at wide apertures, which was not always the case with earlier models so thank you Sony. Where I did find the limit to focus peaking was when stopping the lens down to f/5.6 or more. While this seems counter intuitive, because more should be in focus, that’s the problem – the focus peaking indicators show too much in focus when some areas are not perfectly sharp. So for deep field focus shots I stop down and pre-focus using magnification. Once set, the camera becomes point-and-shoot, which I imagine will be appealing to street shooters.
It takes a short while to understand a lenses capabilities but if you give it a wide diet of scenes, you can get a good idea pretty quickly. The accompanying set of photos are mostly vacation snaps and a few images the hotel could use, but I tried to shoot close and far, wide open and stopped down, daylight, sunsets, low-light – everything to provide feedback about the lens – would I love it, hate it, be indifferent?
You can probably tell, that the report is positive. I think this is going to be a very popular lens for photographers that tend to work in the traditional documentary fovs. I kept looking for faults but only found things I like. If there is any knock against the Nokton, it will be the price – but I think it is rightly situated above its smaller brother, the Voigtlander Nokton Classic 40mm f/1.4 (half the cost and half the image quality at f/1.4.)
This is a lens that is sharp when it needs to be, well behaved, but still looks less digital than most modern designs. It draws a picture that reminds me of the moment in an almost emotional way, but still clinical enough to not let you forget the heights we are reaching with resolving power.
For this next set of photos I have to plug my new friend Carlos, the owner at Todos Santos Surf Shop – he was just the best tour guide for a whale shark and sea lion swim experience. Check him out if you are near La Paz and want to swim with these beautiful creatures.
The fact that I have almost made it to the summary without mentioning bokeh is interesting. Honestly, I forgot about it. I realize that must seem crazy for an f/1.2 lens but I just don’t look at this Nokton as a bokeh machine. I’m not saying that because it can’t produce nice bokeh – it does and many will love it – but I just don’t shoot it that way. I had to actually go back and look through the images to remind myself how I feel, and bokeh can be tricky so let me try my best to describe it. First, what strikes me always about this lens is the transition from focus to out-of-focus. I’m not talking about how it renders a highlight or the shape of the circle, but the zone of defocus that either precedes or follows the subject. There is nothing abrupt or jarring about that transition on the Nokton – everything is so smooth. Nervous is not a word I would ever use. The look is similar to a hybrid of the Zeiss Sonnar and Planar designs – also a good thing. So what about those bokeh balls? Well I think they are kind of nice – elongated but creamy, very classic looking.
For photographers that love the look of analog 35mm, lenses like the Nokton are a lifeline to the past. The fact that we have companies developing these traditional lenses built-purposefully for the most advanced mirrorless platforms is almost a miracle. With the ascension of digital and the previous popularity of the dSLR, we easily could have lost the old rangefinder designs and the look of those lenses. Instead, we have lenses that work like the reportage standards but with a mix of classic and modern rendering on cameras that deliver impressive technical results. I can’t wait to shoot this lens on the upcoming Sony a7RIII and I don’t think I’ll be the only one.
For the record, I am a Sony Artisan of Imagery but have no affiliation with Cosina (Voigtlander). I bought the Nokton myself at full price and I’m keeping it.
Full set of sample images from the trip – click for full resolution link and basic metadata: