It’s never easy to write a lens user review, especially a lens for the Leica bunch. Indeed the ‘L’ bunch is very proud of themselves and never think that anything is BETTER than Leica. I would like to consider myself to be in da club but as a professional shooter, I would use whatever lens that ‘suits’ my style of photography. So I don’t just own and use Leica lenses on my M but I also use Hexanon and Voigtlander lenses. I have yet to try out the Zeiss or in fact any other alternative choices via adapters. The good thing about the latest M is that it can act like a mirorrless camera so with the right adaptor, you can throw just about any lenses on it. The only downside is that you will have to use the EVF instead of the super slick OVF and rangefinder.
Back to my lead star of this review, the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm ASPH II. There are many great lenses out there but there are also only a handful that’re good enough to be mated to the latest M. I know that the Leica Summilux 35mm 1:1.4 ASPH FLE IS the benchmark for ANY 35mm lenses for any M cameras but after reading Stevehuff’s review on this Nokton, I dug deeper, read more reviews and saw more pictures before settling my thought on actually gettting one, well, at lease after I got my Leica M earlier this year.
So why this lens?
If you are a follower of my blog and Leica reviews, you will probably learn that I love the 35mm focal length for documentary and travel and have read my previous Leica Summilux 35mm 1:1.4 Classic review. I truly love that lens and it’s one that is packed with characters, the signature Leica glow that will surely make your subject looks like he/she is in a fantasy fairyland. No, I do love this lens and when stopped down, it is as good as any CURRENT 35mm M lenses that are out today with less distortion. But there was one problem, focus shift.
As much as I would like to use my old-time favourite 35 Lux on my new M, after a few weeks of non stop shooting, I discovered quite a bit of focus shift between f2.0 ~ f5.6. It’s bang on at f1.4 and got better by f6.3. The thing is that I’ve never noticed any shift when I was using it on my M6 and perhaps film has a greater tolerance in shift due to the face that digital sensor is either 1 or 0 means that you are either in focus or not. It’s very apparent, especially on the new 24mp sensor.
So if I am to use my M for my PAID jobs, I need something that I can rely on, even I could potentially train myself to manually adjust my focusing the classic lens to accommodate the shift. While I was considering the new 35mm Summicron ASPH or the 35mm Summilux FLE, I thought, why not give the Nokton a try, especially after all the raves about it since the inception of the original 35mm 1.2 Nokton. In addition, 1.2 vs 1.4 may have no difference in terms of image look, but the ability to gather a little more light in tricky situation can be a life-saver or killer. For me, I rather choose 1/50 than 1/30 anytime. Finally, for a price that’s even less than the Summicron, it sounds like a no brainer.
Well, this is NOT a Leica lens so don’t expect it to be as ‘solid’. But given that it’s still a premium metal lens with super insane 1.2 aperture for a 35mm full frame lens, it’s very well made. While it may not have the German flair, the lens focuses smoothly, the aperture clicks precisely and it looks like a weapon!
The all black finish is nearly as good as the Leica and I do like the chrome front thread ring which makes it looks more like a Zeiss lens than a traditional Voigtlander lens. I also purchased the optional hood that reminscents the classic Lux hood. Together it just looks purposeful without over killing the look of the M.
A special note however, I did get a lemon copy and returned it the next day. I didn’t know why and what happened, the lens seems to produce VERY soft images, no matter what aperture I chose. But the second copy I tried, it was spot on, super sharp, no problem. So if you get a ‘soft’ copy, try another one before making your decision.
Using it in practice, good and bad
Having tried a few Lenses lenses from various era and lenses from different makers, I’ve learnt more about manual lenses and what feels right and what doesn’t. Fortunately, the Voigtlander Nokton feels great. It may lack the solid feel of my great 50 Lux ASPH, it does feel better than any of my vintage Leica lenses. It does feel like a typical Japanese manual lens though. Very smooth with that very ‘fake’ gliding focusing feel. I cannot describe it but my 50 Lux feels very smooth like a very well engineered metal parts gliding along with little bit of gear oil. The Nokton on the other hand, feels like two not too well engineered metal parts gliding along with the aid of very nice and sophisticated lubricant. Nonetheless, it works, just that it doesn’t feel as good.
In real life use, I have no problem with the lens. Everything just works. There was no focus shift, NONE, ZIP… nothing!!! It doesn’t have any floating elements but it works. Somehow that puzzles me when it comes to Leica’s own 35mm Lux. Why the original ASPH has such bad publicity of focus shift? Why couldn’t Leica do something like the Voigtlander? Also, it’s wide open performance is much better than my Lux classic. It may lack the Leica glow, because it’s not a Leica but its out of focus area has a unique classic rendering that can rival my beloved Lux classic. When stops down, Nokton actually equal many top 35mm lenses we have today.
So it’s spectacular, super smooth bokeh, classic rendering, super sharp wide open performance and insane 1.2 aperture for maximum light gathering and its ability to isolate subjects in 35mm focal length is magic. It does have negatives.
It has horrible barrel distortion in close distance, slight soft edges when shoot wide open, big (for a rangefinder lens) and heavy (also for a rangefinder lens). When mated to the M, it feels front heavy. Even without the lens hood, the lens will block a good portion of the viewfinder. Though it doesn’t bother me too much but it can be a killer decision for some professional street shooters.
Strange it may seem, I like the Voigtlander Nokton. It’s special with a combination of classic draw and modern sharpness. It’s heavy and may lack the ultimate micro contrast of Leica’s Lux FLE, I like its rendering. As much as I love the original 35 Lux, the focus shift problem made me think that it belongs to the film era. The Nokton however, is a reincarnation of the 35 Lux classic for my digital M.
Whether I will get the ULTIMATE 35mm Lux FLE in the future remains a question. As a working lens, the Nokton is more than enough for me. But like any Leica shooters or in fact any photographers, getting the BEST glass is always on their top priority lists when it comes to upgrades. Given that Leica’s appreciating values, it can also be a good investment for many many years to come.
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