Friday, August 28, 2009

going fast for less: the Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton review

Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M

Let's use a car analogy. Suppose the Leica 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH is a BMW M5; huge, fast and expensive. The Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton, by comparison, isn't quite as fast or advanced, but it's still impressively fast, cheaper, and Japanese: kinda like a Mitsubishi Evolution X. (Like the cars, it's also slightly less well built, and lighter thanks to an aluminum barrel instead of the Leica's brass.)

Howdy Pardner
Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M

Any sane rational person would probably just stick to a 50/1.8 on their wunderplastik DSLR, but since we've already proven ourselves consignable, you might as well go all the way. I've previously owned and used quite extensively both the Voigt 50/1.5 Nokton ASPH in screwmount, as well as the excellent (but poorly QC'd) Leica 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. The Summilux is consistently excellent -if you get a good copy - and the tight tolerances mean it's possible to hit optimum sharpness every time, even when shooting wide open with razor thin DOF. The 50/1.5 Nokton isn't as precise, and it shows. The infinity calibration on my sample was also way off - with adjustment and careful focusing, it was very nearly as sharp as the Summilux but not as apochromatic, especially on bright edges. I was also not that happy with the handling - the focus ring was far too tight and sticky, and the aperture ring far too loose and prone to moving on its own.

The battle for a Summilux replacement lead me to the newly announced Voigtlander 50/1.1. Could it be? A Noctilux equivalent for Summarit money?

Kancil worship
Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M

I've not used the new 0.95 Noctilux, but the short answer is yes, I think it's every bit as good as the outgoing 1.0 Noctilux - even though the Leica lenses both have aspherical elements and this Voigtlander not a single one. Build is fantastic. The focusing ring is smooth and without slop. The aperture ring is tight and clicky. Sharpness at 1.1, focused carefully, is pretty impressive. At 1.4 my copy is the equal of the Summilux. So what's the catch?

Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M

There are a few, actually. Firstly, despite being faster, it doesn't isolate as well as the Summilux - it's almost as though the transition from in focus to out of focus is more gentle, so it's harder to achieve the same 'cut' effect.

Secondly, it's huge. It's Noctilux huge. But at least the focus ring is nicely geared, so instead of having to crank and crank and crank like the Noctilux, the throw is about the same as the Summilux. A focus tab wouldn't go amiss, but that'd make the lens even bigger still. And it'd be nice if the near limit was 0.7m like the Summilux instead of 1m like the Noctilux - it's a bit limiting for close in portraits.

Thirdly, the bokeh is weird - for a superspeed lens, it's important, because there's going to be plenty of it. Instead of OOF edges becoming melted, they take on an odd double or triple aspect and actually look hard - you can see this in just about every sample image here. Perhaps this also why we perceive the Summilux as having shallower DOF due to the blur profile.

Finally, my sample required some serious RF recalibration - I tried calibrating the cam for infinity, but it appears that the Nokton 1.1 overruns somewhat - calibrating for close distances yielded much better results, even at infinity.

Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M

There is some lateral CA on point light sources and the like, but nothing out of the ordinary. And it all goes away by about f2, anyway. It's also worth noting that it works great at smaller apertures too - bitingly sharp everywhere. Probably a great partner for a full frame M, should one ever show up.

"I'm flattered, but y'know, you should really do something about your face."
Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M

So am I happy with the lens? In a word, yes, for now. No way did I expect it to best the Summilux and Noctilux for a third the price of the former; I'd say it's as sharp as the Summilux, with the speed of the Noctilux, but somehow doesn't quite have the character - probably from the bokeh - of either. But then again, there must be something Leica is giving you for all that extra coin...

Grease me up
Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M

Teenage posers
Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton M


  1. Heh, so here's somebody who uses his Leica for something other than taking photos of his other Leica...

    Good stuff, bookmarked :)

  2. Great observations and shots. Do you have any extreme low light samples you can post?

  3. Thanks. If memory serves me right, these were pretty low light: