Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.1
A Field Report By Nick Devlin
“F/1” – the number has an almost mythic status amongst photographers, synonymous with freedom from limitations on light and the promise of awe-inspiring bokeh. Nowadays, with computer aided lens design and computation, anyone can build a sharp 50mm F/1.4 at a very reasonable price. But few lens manufacturers have dared, or been able, to venture below F/1.4, into the realm of the super-fast. Fewer still have done it well.
The classic F/1 lens is the Leica Noctilux. For those lucky enough to own one, its huge weight and price tag bought passable sharpness wide-open and creamy, buttery-smooth rendering of out-of-focus areas, worthy of any dairy metaphor you cared to heap on it.
Leica recently upped (or downed?) the ante by producing the fantastical 50mm f0.95 Noctilux. If the Leica 50mm F/1.4 ASPH is the Ferrari of fifty-millimeter lenses, the 0.95 is the Bugatti Veyron.
Enter Cosina (Voigtlander), the upstart underdog in the high-end lens market, with the 50mm F/1.1 Nokton for Leica M-mount. Available for just under $1,000 in the U.S., this lens is too intriguing to ignore, offering a relatively low-cost entry into a very exclusive optical club. Having answered the siren-song to purchase one, two questions arise: is it any good, and does it offer anything special for nature and landscape photographers?
What’s the Big Deal?
Before looking at the Nokton specifically, we have to ask, what’s the point of super-wide aperture lenses? The answer, in four words, is – shallow depth of field. This in turn takes us back to the whole idea of making images with impact. The reason compact digital cameras have little capacity to render image with real subject-impact is that they have chronically massive depth of field (a product of the very short focal-lengths needed to cover most focal lengths on their tiny sensors).
While landscape photographers often yearn for enormous near-far depth of field, in most photographic applications isolation of the key subject is much more desirable. This is one of a myriad of reasons why medium format was, and largely remains, the preferred tool of photographic professionals.
In other words, the only real point to an F/1 lens is its performance at maximum aperture. It will always be heavier than its less spectacularly endowed kin, and its performance stopped-down is usually easily matched, and often surpassed by more conventional optics.
Nowhere is this better illustrated that with Leica’s lens lineup. Their 50mm f 0.95 Noctilux maybe one of the greatest optical achievements in film photography, delivering millimeters of razor sharpness even wide open. But stopped down, it is, at most, an equal to the spectacular 50mm F/1.4 ASPH, which readily overtakes its performance at ordinary working apertures.
Enter The Pretender
More than a few eyebrows were raised when Cosina dropped their entrant into this elite class in 2008 . Headed by Hirofumi Kobayashi, Cosina demonstrates in technicolor what a camera company can do when run by someone passionate about cameras. Having already flexed their lens designing might in public with their superb 35mm F/1.2, Cosina is a quiet force in innovative lens production. Their line of M-lenses under the Voitglander name has earned a justified reputation for high quality at often astonishingly low prices.
Still, when announced at a price of $1,000, the 50mm F/1.1 created some serious ripples of excitement. For less than 1/10th the cost of Leica’s competitor (and a quarter to a fifth the price of a used 50 F/1.0 Noctilux), this lens made ‘super-aperture’ photography a possibility for us mere plebeians.
I bought this lens on a lark the day of a friend’s 40th birthday party, which I decided I wanted to photograph. It was slated for a charming (read: dimly lit) restaurant, and I have long ago foresworn on-camera flash. A good local shop happened to have one in stock, and my credit card grudgingly assented, so the splurchase was made.
This lens is big. Now, by that I mean Leica-big, which is something completely different that ‘Canon-big’ or ‘Nikon-big’. In fact, it’s pretty comparable in size and mass to the plastic-fantastic EF 50mm F/1.4. That’s where the similarity ends, however. The CV 50 F/1.1 is a real, classic lens, finely machined from solid metal. Much to my delight, the focusing approached the silky sensuality of my 50mm Summicron. No quite there, but really, really close. Another experienced Leica user immediately commented on the mechanical quality as soon as he held it. The size and weight of the lens are significant on the “M” series cameras, but not overwhelming or unbalanced. This is a big but useable lens, beautifully made.
Simply put, you can shoot black cats at midnight with this lens. It is useable in light so low that rangefinder focusing is almost impossible (think 1/8th at F/1.1, ISO 1600). The birthday boy and his guests loved the atmospheric but highly natural and spontaneous images. Sure, they were grainy and less than P65+ sharp, but they were perfect to the purpose.
Focusing at F/1.1 is not your daddy’s “F/8 and Be There” mode of photography. Your rangefinder has to be calibrated to absolute precision, and your focus must be dead-on. To this end, I use a 1.25x magnifier on the M9, which both improves ease and accuracy of focus. I have no trouble hitting the mark with static subjects. Moving subjects should best be left for those with great faith in the power of prayer.
But what about when the lights come on? This is where the rubber hits the road. Can the Nokton put in a respectable performance in proper light, or with static subjects on a tripod? In a word, yes. At F/1.1, it is not the sharpest or contrastiest lens out there, but its performance is very good. I agree with the consensus view expressed by other reviewers that it matches the image quality of the Leica 50mm F/1 wide-open. While I have never had the privilege of using a f0.95, I don’t doubt that it bests the F/1.1 at maximum apertures. Whether it does so by $9,000 worth of micro-detail is between you and your personal banker.
Stopping the Nokton down to F/1.4 markedly improves the image quality, bringing it into the “Damn, that’s sharp” range (yes, that’s a technical term of art, corresponding to roughly 1,000 Nyquist nonsensometres per inch of brick wall). From F/1.4 downwards, it’s a top-notch lens as well.
All is not goodness and light, however. While the 50mm F/1.1 renders the out-of-focus zone of some images beautifully it also shows a roughness in the bokeh that I don’t entirely love.
In many instances, I suspect a majority of photographers would prefer the bokeh of the Leica 50mm F/1. This is a matter of taste and chance, but the Nokton is not perfect.
Shot at F/1.1, this lens shows its raison d’etre. Even with subjects at middle to far distances, it creates a pleasingly narrow field of focus which emphasizes the subject. My friend Kevin was snapped unawares in this fashion while wading through razor ferns in the Washington rainforest. He ranks the resulting portrait as one of his favourites. The ‘specialness’ of this image is attributable to the shallow DOF.
For anyone who loves portraiture, and shoots with a Leica, this lens is a natural fit.
But this is not the “Luminous Portrait” website, so what of the F/1.1 as a landscape photography tool? I spent considerable time on a recent trip trying to answer that question.
I particularly liked what the 50mm F/1.1 did with relatively uniform fields of pattern, such as flowers. It also offers a sort of ‘fairly-tale’ feel of isolation in subjects with a strong focal point, such as the bridge below.
The effect of minimal DOF is obviously more pronounced at closer distances. With typical postcard-style landscape work, shot at near infinity focus, this is of little or no use. I shot a number of resplendent waterfalls at both apertures and at F/1.1, and found myself preferring the ‘ordinary’ images. At middle-to-far distances, the fall-off of DOF on the Nokton just isn’t sharp enough to create a really dramatic signature effect. Rather, the edges of the horizontal plane just look slightly mangled – as if the lens was badly de-centred.
The Nokton also vignettes fairly noticeably at F/1.1 with the M9. Whether this is a lens or sensor issue, I am not sure. I generally like a bit of vignetting, but in the digital age its better added in post-processing when called for, so I cannot count this as a positive feature.
Because the shallow DOF effect is more pronounced at close-range, there is a real temptation to use the Nokton in a lot of quasi-macro applications. In the rainforest it worked very well for ferns and flowers, for instance.
I also tried several times to use isolated DOF to create an impactful image with a dead tree or stump as the foreground subject, but never quite pulled it off to my satisfaction. As the frame below illustrates, there is some real potential in this setup, with an emphasized foreground element and a not-too-distant background that is sufficiently separated for the shallow DOF to kick-in. This shot, however, illustrates that the Nokton possesses some of the famous “glow” that the original which made the original Leica F/1 so famous.
My conclusion is that the shallow DOF look has clear application in photography of natural environments, but I question how long or how often a photographer can use it before he begins repeating himself visually. Rather, a lens like this is a creative tool that’s fun to reach for when you want to do more creative or experimental work.
Since I am fortunate enough to own both 50mm and 75mm F/2 lenses which are eyeball-slicingly sharp (and the 75mm focuses much closer), I am not sure whether the CV 50mm F/1.1 would be worth it for me for landscape work alone. For outdoor nature photography it is a bit of a one-trick pony, but it’s a pretty nice trick. Since I do a lot of other forms of photography, I think I will happily keep it for times when its special flavour is what the recipe calls for.
Nick Devlin is a barrister and photographer in Toronto, Canada. He works as a Federal Prosecutor, specializing in major drug and terrorism cases. With almost twenty years behind the lens, Nick worked extensively as a photojournalist and pro sports photographer before turning to the law. Presently, his main visual interests are urban landscape, portraiture and travel photography. He has been a passionate M Leica user for many years.