Would it sound ironic if I were to mention the speed, and slowed hinderance of manual focus as the two best qualities that this lens can provide a photographer? Let’s be honest, there are not many lenses in existence that offer this large a maximum aperture for any system, anywhere. Certainly not very many that come in at under a thousand bucks, but this is the case for the micro 4/3 mount, Voigtländer Nokton series. Yes, this 42.5mm (85mm equivalent field of view) lens is joined by a soon to be 10.5mm f/0.95 (21mm e-fov), a killer 17.5mm f/0.95 (35mm e-fov) and a 25mm f/0.95 (50mm e-fov) to create a set of super fast, Nokton wonder lenses.
I have been using the also stellar Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens of late, and before I took off on a recent trip, knowing I’d be doing a vast majority of my shooting in the darker hours, I felt the one thing I was really lacking, was a really fast lens. A remarkably solid and well built hunk of metal and glass, this 85mm equivalent lens has been calling me ever since it was announced. Well, I decided that I’d benefit more fully from a really fast portrait focal length over the long run, and would gain a good amount of latitude while handholding it combined with the IBIS in the GX7, so I bit.
C’mon in to see a few shots, and read my thoughts on this optical marvel.
The Voigtländer Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 lens is comprised of 11 elements in 8 groups with one “super high refractive element”, one aspherical element, the ability to de-click the 10 blade aperture (most useful for use in video) and boasts an aperture range of f/0.95 to f/16, adjustable in half stops. It weighs 1.26lbs (571g) making it “not light” and measures in at just under 3″ long without the included metal hood attached. Similar specs to the awesome Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens, albeit noticeably a bit heavier off the camera but that difference is not quite as noticeable when on the camera.
With a remarkably short close focus distance of 9″ or 23cm, you get into the suburbs of macro magnification at 1:4 which is pretty rad, and for a lens this fast it provides some absolutely razor thin focusing planes. I needed to stop down to f/4 for the eye shot below to keep the eyelashes in focus to give you an idea at or at least close to minimum focusing distance.
It also looks and feels pretty badass, so there’s that too. While heavy by mirrorless standards, on my GX7, it felt good in the hand, well balanced and added up to just around 2 lbs total making for a very manageable rig during full days out and about shooting. Here’s a shot compared, size wise versus the Oly 75mm and the Oly 45mm:
I’ve read, on many occasions, how people who shoot with the Voigtländer Noktons (any of them really) for the micro 4/3 system, absolutely love them. They have their own distinct signature, are built like absolute tanks, and as mentioned, are remarkably fast. When the Pana-Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 lens was announced for $1600, I ran out and bought the Oly 45. Not that the Leica isn’t worth the money, I just felt shellacked when just mere days before, the Fuji X system released their very own 85mm f/1.2 equivalent lens for $999.
For the same price as the Fuji lens, this Voigtländer lens comes in at a half stop faster, but does not auto focus. Is that a big deal? Yes, and no. If you’re shooting sports, or kids in any capacity, yes, auto focus makes a huge difference. If you’re shooting portraits, or street, nah, I don’t think so. If the subject your shooting speaks the same language as you, and is willing to listen to you as you ramble about in that shared tongue, manual focus is easy. If you’re shooting street scenes or candids, the zone focusing, enabled by the very nice and accurate distance scale on the lens makes for a very quick task, especially considering that focus peaking is awesome.
But my eyes! I can’t focus accurately while looking at an LCD screen or through an EVF! A couple years ago, I’d have agreed with you, but now, with all new cameras in the m4/3 landscape offering focus peaking, manual focus is almost as easy as focusing through a split prism finder. Seriously, focus peaking is awesome, and it works anywhere in the frame making manual focusing easy wherever your subject falls. Add to that the ability to crop into the live view image to fine tune your focus, and it gets even easier. An ultra fast aperture like f/0.95 is challenging at the best of times to focus properly, but here is where the inherently deeper depth of field compared to the angle of view comes into play and becomes an asset. You get an 85mm equivalent field of view with the depth of field from a 42.5mm lens all while having the light absorbing qualities of an f/0.95 light vacuum, sucking up shutter speed aiding photons like a champ.
I’ve also mentioned in the past, that I enjoy, and even prefer shooting with a manual focusing lens sometimes because it forces me to be both more aware of and intentional with my shots. Not that I can’t do that with an AF lens, I just tend to think about taking a picture much more when using a manual lens, pre visualizing, anticipating and pre focusing whenever I can, because it is more prevalent in the process by nature. Yes, it slows me down, but that can be refreshing, and for me, it ties me into the act of photography more and causes me to stay more aware between shots. I love auto focus lenses and have often been saved by quick wake times and lightning fast auto focus, but changing it up keeps me fresh, and I like doing that from time to time.
How about video? I have no idea. Sure I shot some video of my kids with this lens, and some horribly planned travel video as I was walking down the street, so trust me when I say, you don’t want to know about motion pictures, or this lens’ ability in that arena from me.
From what I hear, these lenses are wonderful for video, one big boon being the ability to declick the aperture making for a smooth, click less pull. To do that, one simply pulls the small ring just ahead of the aperture ring (the one with the white dot on it) toward the body, or aperture ring, and rotate it either way 180 degrees. That ring has knurling on it to grip and turn, and will click into a lock after rotating. The de-clicked hemisphere is recognized by a yellow dot to set aperture as opposed to the standard click stop mark which is white. Easy, and a cool feature I’m sure.
Alright, how about the ins and outs, nuts and bolts on this little bad boy? Below are some test shots showing the depth of field, sharpness, and even some CA differences through the whole range of aperture values available on this lens.
This first series was shot from roughly 25 feet away from the point of focus which is the bike seat. A distance that would easily enable a full body portrait, or group shot in landscape orientation. Click on any to see larger.
To my eye, even wide open at this focus distance, at the point of focus it’s very sharp. There is certainly some noticeable vignetting through f/2, and the CA visible wide open on the handle bars is noticeable, but neither are a deal breaker for me considering the maximum aperture has a larger measured diameter than the focal length of the lens. Vignetting, to me, is easily workable, and I find I often introduce it for portraits and the like to help the composition by drawing visual interest in toward the subject, plus it’s easy to correct for if desired. As we stop down, the CA disappears by f/2 as does the vignetting by f/2.8.
Here is one more showing a much closer focusing distance of about 2.5-3 feet. It could be considered a “head shot” distance. I apologize for not shooting a head, but I was out wandering around early in the morning, had the time to do this, and figured a bike box would move around far less than someone’s head anyway keeping everything in the exact same spot. The focal point in this one is the “E” in “Amarone”. Again, feel free to click any to see larger.
More or less the same traits as the previous set, but I wanted to show the shallow DOF capabilities for use in terms of closer focusing distances here.
I have found that wide open, at f/0.95, this lens has a bit of a sweet spot where if you’re too close to your subject, fine detail is softened as the lens struggles a little bit. Not unique to any lens this fast (or many lenses slower than this). Focusing on distant subjects suffer from the same issue where things struggle to get to “tack sharp” status, but I can’t really think of a scenario where I’d be shooting landscapes at f/0.95 so this is probably less an issue. Shooting between about 3′ and say 15′ (1m-5m) or so is where this lens shines wide open which is pretty perfect seeing that between these distances are your perfect portrait window. If you are to stop down to f/1.4, it sharpens up noticeably. By f/2 – f/2.8 this lens is very sharp and at f/5.6, this lens is about as sharp as any lens I’ve used. After f/8, as seems to be about par for the course with optics for the system, diffraction seems to start dragging that sharpness back down.
Alright, final conclusion time. What do I like, dislike and who do I think this lens is for?
Firstly, there is not really anything I dislike about this lens, at all. Sure, It would be nice if it was weather sealed, cooked breakfast and cost $50, but the quality for the dollar provides enough value and uniqueness in its qualities to be well worth the asking price of $999 in my opinion, hands down. I love being able to save a stop or two in ISO value while out and about in the darker hours, and the focal length lends itself beautifully to candid, intimate shots, portraiture or street shooting. It’s heavy, but compared to an equivalent full frame optic, what am I saying, there are so few full frame optics even close to offering this set of skills that for those few that are out there, I’ll never even be able to dream of affording them. That, I believe, is the best thing that this lens offers. It’s built to last and gives micro 4/3 shooters an optical tool that most every photographer dreams about.
The longer the focal length, the inherent shallowing in the depth of field at the same focus distance, and shallow DOF is probably one of the biggest draws to an f/0.95 lens right? Providing that cinematic quality of focus separation plays really well to shooting candids, or people, certainly for video. Portraiture often benefits from selective focus with dreamy, out of focus backgrounds too.
Of course, you’ll have the “FF equivalent” nay sayers which are normally misguided in that the DOF for this lens is the exact same as it would be on a full frame camera with the same 42.5mm focal length. For this system, it just crops into the image making the angle of view tighter. For instance, this lens on a micro 4/3 camera would have a near identical DOF to a 50mm f/1.2 lens on full frame if both were shot wide open from the same distance. If we could find a 42.5mm f/0.95 lens for a full frame mount, the DOF wide open, regardless of the format, would be identical from the same shooting distance. If shallow DOF is what you want, while gaining the ability to shoot in near darkness at workable ISO’s, this lens is a great way to do that.
I think this lens would benefit any system user who doesn’t mind manually focusing and is looking for a short tele or portrait focal length. If you shoot a lot of natural light or environmental portraits, candids or street, aside from the Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 or perhaps the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 assuming you had the room, I don’t think I’ve seen a better lens for that purpose for this system. Video, sure. I’m sure video folks love it. The long, smooth focus pull has a stiff response making it stay where you set it, and the ability to de-click the aperture is probably a big deal.
Compared to the Oly 45mm f/1.8 lens, it isn’t a fair fight. The Oly is a GREAT lens, don’t get me wrong, but comparing these two lenses is like comparing a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta and a Toyota Camry. They’re both cars (or similar focal length lenses) but the difference is in the detail, the quality of craftsmanship and the ride, oh the ride. The Voigtländer has more control over the depth of field, and has over a full stop of speed, handy for lower light shooting, you could throw dozens of Oly 45mm’s at it as hard as you could and it wouldn’t even scratch this lens while the plastic Oly’s would be in pieces. It is a tank. The IQ at f/1.8 (or f/1.7 in the Voigt’s half stop case) may be comparable, but the Oly can’t compare, faster than that. Essentially, aside from AF, and size/weight reduction, the Oly provides nothing that the Voigt can’t do better from my experience. Do you need a Ferrari? Probably not, but damn it is fun to drive a Ferrari. (*full disclosure, sadly I’ve never actually driven a Ferrari, but I imagine it would be a blast. I have driven a Camry, and it was absolutely okay.)
Next to the Pana-Leica 42.5mm Nocticron f/1.2 lens is probably a closer comparison to IQ, speed and luxury. While the Nocti isn’t quite capable of nearly as much light transmission, or shallower DOF at max aperture, it does boast AF and optical image stabilization which is nothing to sneeze at. Those features come with a cost though, and at a 50%+ premium on price over the Voigtländer, it resides in its own exclusive zip code. For event shooters, (or anyone needing auto focus), I’d say the Leica is worth the extra money as you’ll need the reliability of AF to capture constantly passing moments and probably be buying with the ability to recoup your costs from weddings, etc. For studio shooters, videographers or the jack of all trades, I’d certainly take a good look at the Voigty. I’m very happy that I did. Is auto focus and optical image stabilization worth $500-600? That is the question I asked myself, and I decided that for me, it wasn’t.
Here is the Voigtländer, on the GX7 with and without the metal lens hood, included with the lens:
It’s not cheap, that is for sure. But this is not a cheaply made lens, and if you look at what it provides, there is no lens for any system, anywhere that can do what this lens does for near this same price at this same level of build and image quality that I’ve ever heard of. In that way, maybe it is kinda cheap.
You can see the lens via the links below:
Thanks for the read, and let me know your thoughts below in the comments. Questions? Fire away. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or Instagram to connect, and if you haven’t already, add your email at the top of the page to get new articles as they’re posted.
Happy holidays to all, and happy shooting!