Introduction

Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 is one of three 35mm primes that Cosina, owner of the Voigtlander brand, is currently manufacturing for the M mount cameras. Technically speaking, Cosina discontinued its ASPH Nokton 35/1.2 recently, and announced it will be replaced by a redesigned version (with unknown availability at the time of this writing). Nokton 35/1.4 proved to be an instant hit on the market due to its aggressive pricing - at US$579 (after the recent $50 hike), the lens costs ~1/8th of the new Leica Summilux ASPH 35/1.4.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 8 elements in 6 groups. The build quality is similar to other Voigtlander lenses - metal barrel, metal focus and aperture rings. Overall build is not as refined as with Leica's lenses, but still much better than with most modern SLR lenses out there. The lens weights 200g (7oz) and measures 55 x 28mm (2.16 x 1.1in). The lens extends a little bit when focused towards closeup, but still remains very compact. The minimum focusing distance is 70cm and the filter thread is 43mm. The minimum aperture level is f/16.

 

Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 can be used for any M mount cameras, film or digital, including Leica M8 and M9, as well as on Sony NEX and MFT cameras, using dedicated adapters. Within the scope of this review the lens was tested on an APS-H type Leica M8, where it gives EFOV of ~46mm.

 


Summary
Lens Composition 8 elements in 6 groups
Angular Field 64 degrees
Minimum Focus 70cm/2.29ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, manual
Filter Size 43mm
Lens Hood Metal (optional
Weight 200g/7oz
Dimensions 55x28mm/2.16x1.1"
Lens Case N/A

 

Handling

The evolution of Voigtlander lenses, has been somewhat puzzling to me. Cosina made a big splash when it first announced the plans to offer LTM lenses back in later 90s. At that time, rangefinder market was shrinking very rapidly because of Leica missing the boat with digital and a set of brand new designs offered by Cosina created a lot of excitement in the otherwise stale market. Original Ultron ASPH 35/1.7 received fairly positive overall reception from many users - inexpensive (~US$370 new), decent build, aspherical glass, good performance. What not to like here? Then Cosina made an even bigger splash, announcing the fastest 35mm rangefinder lens ever designed - the famed Nokton ASPH 35mm f/1.2 came with big fanfares, but the lens received mixed reviews, as many thought that Cosina pushed the envelope too much with the optical design not quite suitable for such speeds. Some users swore by that lens, others complained about the lack of character at wider apertures. I am a reasonably happy owner of the Nokton 35/1.2, but that's a different story (review I mean). Then Cosina announced  the end of life for the original Ultron ASPH 35/1.7 and its replacement with Nokton 35/1.4. Rejoice photographers! More compact lens, half-stop faster, and still reasonably priced! On top of that, Nokton was available as single coated and multi coated version... Nice... Except, aspherical glass was gone, and after a little while online forums started to to collapse (overdramatization, obviously) under the complains of Nokton 35/1.4 users, claiming that their copies did not perform well at wide apertures. Some thought the problem was in shady quality control, others thought it was sample variation with wider manufacturing tolerances, yet some who actually did enough testing argued that the Nokton 35/1.4 exhibits focus shift, common to all fast lenses.

ISO 160, 1/2000, f/2, 35mm

Focus shift is not a new phenomenon - there are a few good write-ups on the web worth reading, but in a nutshell, the focus shift occurs in lenses predominantly due to spherical aberration left uncorrected, which shift the focusing plane at different aperture levels. Different designs exibit focus shift at different aperture levels - I own a Zeiss C Sonnar 50/1.5 ZM, which also exhibits focus shift, and the original copy I purchased exhibited focus shift at f/1.4 and f/2 (the common term used by many is 'the lens is optimized for f/2.8' since from f/2.8 and smaller apertures focus shift does not show up in images). Yet other lenses have exhibited focus shift at middle apertures, like f/4 or even f/5.6. Focusing distance plays the major role in the focus shift, which is most noticeable at distances near MFD and less so at infinity. But basically by employing more complex designs, including aspherical surfaces, lens designers can limit or even completely eliminate focus shift in a fast lens (for example, Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH, which does not show any focus shift).

Why am I rumbling on for so long? Well, Nokton 35/1.4 does have focus shift, and that's the most annoying part of handling this lens (for me at least). By ditching aspherical elements from the design, Cosina exposed the problem in Nokton. It is rather surprising and somewhat disappointing, considering that the company could have simply converted the well respected Ultron LTM design into an M lens fairly easily. Anyhow, below you can see the amount of focus ring rotation I had to use to compensate for the focus shift at f/1.4, f/2.8 and f/4.

 

 

As with other lenses that exhibit focus shift, your options basically boil down to: replacing the lens with one that does not have focus shift, trying to learn how to compensate for the focus shift, or sending the lens to the manufacturer to re-calibrate it for your most frequently used aperture and pretend that focus shift does not exist (I have no idea if Cosina can do that, but Carl Zeiss will recalibrate your C Sonnar 50/1.5 to make it focus spot on at any aperture, which is typically f/1.5 for most users, for 100EUR). My personal take on Nokton 35/1.4 is that I would have loved the lens to be optimized for performance wide open, which is the main reason we buy f/1.4 lenses as a whole. Compensating for focus shift does not come naturally to me and so my results vary quite a bit with this lens. Your mileage, obviously, may vary. Keep in mind that the focus shift in most lenses, and Nokton 35/1.4 is no exception, is much more pronounced at closer distances - so if you are shooting at infinity, all this becomes kind of a moot point.

Besides the focus shift, Nokton 35/1.4 behaves like any other Leica mount lens. The lens is very compact - about half the size of Zeiss Biogon 35/2 and almost a third of Voigtlander 35/1.2 ASPH, the two lenses I have been using over the last few months with my M8. The compact size helps the lens remain unobtrusive when used on rangefinder cameras - Nokton does not block M8's 35mm frame lines whether focused at the infinity or at the MFD. I did not have the optional LH-6 lens hood for the time of the test, but I suspect the hood will protrude a little bit into the right lower corner of the framelines.

Ergonomics of the Nokton 35/1.4 are pretty good overall. Despite the small size of the lens, Cosina added a conveniently located focusing tab, which makes rotating the focusing ring very easy. The ring itself rotates for ~90 degrees, which is about what other 35mm rangefinder lenses offer. The aperture ring, which clicks in half f-stop increments, has two small tabs for easier operation. There's a little bit of play in the aperture ring, which is probably the only mechanical weakness in this lens. And like with all manual focus lenses, Nokton sports a dedicated DOF scale engraved on the barrel, allowing you to preset the lens for faster use. The lens certainly feels 'more right' on a rangefinder than its over-sized speed demon cousin Nokton 35/1.2 - it draws practically no attention and on a M8/M8.2 becomes a 'staple' lens because of the sensor crop factor. Along with C Summicron 40/2 and slightly slower Color Skopar 35/2.5, Nokton 35/1.4 is an excellent choice for street photography, where its small size gives you the benefit of being discrete and not drawing too much attention. The question is how it stacks up with competition?

 



Resolution

Comparing lenses side by side is tough since any one metric in isolation would not give you the true feeling for the lens' capabilities. Resolution, while certainly an important factor to many users, is one such element - look at it in isolation and you can miss on a great lens, which might not be as sharp as you hoped it to be but still might have an overall pleasing draw. Now, I am not really going to compare Nokton 35/1.4 to the top of the line Summilux 35/1.4 ASPH - don't really have the 'Lux, nor I really think this would be a fair comparison. But I can draw parallels between Nokton and one of the three other 35-ish lenses I currently own, which all kind of fall within the same price bracket - Nokton 35/1.2, C Summicron 40/2 and Biogon 35/2. Only Nokton 35/1.2 gives us f/1.4 and frankly speaking I can't really see any significant difference between these two lenses at f/1.4 - they both have somewhat soft-ish center and are very soft in periphery. And at f/2 both Zeiss as well as Leica pretty much beat both Noktons to pulp across the entire picture frame. I will do a little bit more comprehensive comparison later and in the meantime, let's take a look at what Imatest tells us.

The chart below captures MTF50 results, as measured by Imatest using standard imaging target. Like in all other lens tests, I used focus bracketing to capture series of shots at varying focusing distances (1m to 10m) and selected the series with highest MTF50 numbers. Because Nokton shows focus shift at f/2.8-f/4, the chart was adjusted to accommodate for that. Nokton also exibits mild degree on field curvature (the chart is not adjusted to accommodate field curvature), but more on this a bit later.

According to the chart, Voigtlander Nokton 35/1.4 is a fairly soft lens at wider apertures - center image quality seems a little bit softer, but borders is where the problem seems to be, with both f/1.4 and f/2 clocking pretty dismal resolution per Imatest. There is a noticeable boost at f/2.8 both in the center as well as around corners and from f/4 on the lens seems to deliver fairly decent performance across the frame. Huh, well, softer corners at f/1.4 are expected, the main question is how soft they really are in real life - is this going to be a problem in real life or is this just a MTF50 numbers game?

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

 

Before we look at the real life examples, let's first take a quick look at the crops from the imaging target, comparing borders at f/1.4 and f/8. Image quality at f/1.4 indeed noticeably softer with less overall definition compared to f/8.

 

Leica M8 (10Mp)

Image borders @ f/1.4 vs f/8 (Leica M8)

 

The crops below compare image quality in real-life like situation. All shots were captured at infinity. Eyeballing the crops confirms the trend set up in the MTF results - both center, and especially borders, are softer at f/1.4, however, while center quality is probably adequate to many users, corners are noticeably smudged and will probably annoy some users. Keep in mind that these are infinity results - with border quality deteriorating more at closer distances might cause further grumbling. And as mentioned earlier, Nokton 35/1.4 exhibits mild levels of field curvature which actually adds to the overall feel of poor image corners at wider apertures. How much all this going to be a problem, depends on your style of shooting though. Personally, while I shoot predominantly wide open with 35-50mm lenses, I tend to move closer to the subject where the DOF effect masks poor border quality and so softer corners don't bother me as much as the somewhat softer center.

 

Center

U.R..Corner

L.L..Corner

 

When comparing to my other 35mm lenses, most notably Biogon 35/2, I feel that Voigtlander Nokton is more subtle in how it renders wide open, both in terms of the resolution, as well as overall color/contrast. If Biogon is soft around corners at f/2 and reasonably sharp in the center, Nokton is soft throughout the frame (more so around corners). Biogon continues to dominate, particularly around corners all the way through f/4 - after that my eyes can't really tell the difference between the two. On the other hand, Nokton 35/1.2 ASPH almost mirrors its smaller version very closely, with slightly better center resolution in f/1.4-f/2 range and similarly soft corners. From f/2.8, both lenses seem to be equal in resolution. So if one is after sharpness with wide open aperture, Nokton 35/1.4 is not going to pass the bar, no matter from which angle you look at it.

Before wrapping up the resolution section, let's take a look at the simplified graph below which captures resolution dependency of Nokton 35/1.4 to the focusing distance to the target. Each point on the curve is measured as an average of center and border Imatest MTF50 across all tested apertures and at specified focusing distance. Notice the significant drop off in the resolution at closer distances, which recovers fairly slowly, primarily due to the lower resolution in the periphery.

 

 

Color & Rendering

ISO 640, 1/60, f/2, 35mm

Like with most other fast wide angle lenses out there, the rendering of Nokton 35/1.4 varies fairly significantly,depending for the most part on the aperture level used. At wider apertures, f/1.4 through f/2, the lens shows moderately low levels of contrast, which fall off further towards the periphery. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and is certainly quite common in fast primes - I think I've seen only one or two super fast f/1.4 lenses that preserve same level of contrast throughout the aperture range. If you're shooting portraits, then lower contrast should not bother you much as it actually gives you more flexibility in dealing with shadows and mid-tones. But expect some subdued colors and somewhat flat look here, requiring at minimum some post-processing to improve overall saturation and contrast. Stopping the lens down to f/2.8 or lower apertures solves the contrast issue - there is a noticeably boost at f/2.8 and if you like high contrast images, that's the minimum aperture you should be using. Colors also get more vivid and crisp, but shadow detail goes away a little bit. I typically try over-exposing the image by ~0.5EV (by the way, Nokton seems to consistently underexpose by 0.5EV to 1EV at wider apertures) and then re-leveling it in post-processing to recover some lost shadows. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not but when it does, you should expect a nice, evenly distributed luminocity and moderately high contrast in the subject.

Overall, I find Nokton's color reproduction decent but not exceptional in any particular regard - the gamut seems balanced across all three channels albeit a bit compressed, even when shooting in Adobe RGB space. With shots made at wider apertures, I find myself resetting black point frequently, which brings global contrast to satisfactory levels at the cost of some quality degradation in shadows and mid-tones. You can obviously be more elaborate with post-processing to bring up as much detail as possible from Nokton files, I personally find somewhat lower contrast and softness wide open work out fairly well for portrature type photography, but all this obviously is subjective. The picture above is the typical case - I have re-leveled the black point to compress shadows a little bit, which boosted contrast and then added a little bit of saturation to reds to make the subject stand out a bit better. I should have applied a mask, but I was lazy and so you can see a little bit of reddish tint in the white wall in the background.

While discussing color rendering of Nokton, I should also briefly touch-base on chromatic aberration, which by the way is present with this lens. Per Imatest results, shown below, Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 shows moderate levels of chromatic aberration, averaging ~0.7px around corners across all aperture levels. This is fairly benign when compared to other wide angle lenses, but notice consistency throughout the aperture range, which is rather unusual. In practice, I do see frail signs of CA around borders in high contrast transitions, but I really have to blow the image to 100% magnification to notice the fringing. Nokton also shows minor levels of longitudinal CA in the periphery, but those are also fairly negligible and should not bother majority of users. Also, with a fairly consistent halation (bleeding of color around bright objects) the lens creates an interesting style pattern that might appeal to those who like older lens designs from 50s and 60s, like Summarit and Summitar.

 

 

DOF & Bokeh

ISO 640, 1/60, f/1.4, 35mm

One of the main uses for a fast f/1.4 prime like Nokton, is obviously night-time, or I should say, low-light, photography. Up until recently, the only 35/1.4 game in town was Leica's Summilux. There were plenty of f/2 lenses out there, but that one extra f-stop seemed to matter quite a lot to the users, particularly to those who owned the kludgy, first generation Leica M8s. With M9's improved (compared to M8/M8.2) high ISO handling, this might no longer be the case, but there is still something magical about the f/1.4 aperture - mention to anyone that you own an f/1.4 lens and you are likely to receive wishful looks in return.

Nokton fares quite well here - I mentioned previously that I prefer using older, lower contrast lenses indoors or basically in dim, but evenly illuminated environments. Nokton, which was designed to copy the look of older primes, is certainly more versatile than say Summitar or screw-mount Summarit, and I would not hesitate using it in bright light, but the lens does have a very interesting (in my opinion) way of rendering images when used at wide apertures in low light. It feels subtle, non-intrusive, dreamy if you will (although I don't like using this word since it has been overused too much) - muted colors, smooth gradation transitions, low contrast, subjects literally blending into the shadows. If you like lenses with 'softer touch', this is probably one of the better choices among modern lenses.

While rangefinder lenses clearly have a number of advantages over the retrofocus designs, one of their main weaknesses is the MFD.. With minimum focusing distance of 70cm (typical for 35mm wide angles), Voigtlander Nokton is a far cry compared to top of the class 35mm SLR lenses like Zeiss Distagon 35/1.4, which has MFD of 30cm. This naturally puts some limitations to the DOF of Nokton, which, according to online calculators is 2.47cm at f/1.4 (compared to 0.55cm for Zeiss 35/1.4 at f/1.4). Nokton's sweet spot is somewhere between the MFD and 1.5m, beyond which the lens carries through too much detail because of the expanded DOF, even if you shoot at f/1.4. Personally, I tend to prefer this focusing range anyway and so it does not affect my style in any way.

If you take a look at the series of pictures below, you would understand what I mean by the 'sweet spot'. With wide open aperture and 'up close and personal', Nokton 35/1.4 renders background in smooth, wide brush strokes, blurring the detail for everything but the largest objects. Yet, as you move a little bit away, the lens brings almost as much detail into the frame as when shot at small apertures. After using the lens for a couple of weeks, I started finding myself shooting predominantly at f/1.4 and f/2, where the lens gives a little bit more character and almost completely avoiding small apertures, where I find Nokton practically indistinguishable from many other 35mm lenses.

 

DOF @ 80cm

ISO 160, 1/8000, f/1.4, 35mm

ISO 160, 1/250, f/8, 35mm

DOF @ 2m

ISO 160, 1/350, f/8, 35mm

ISO 160, 1/800, f/1.4, 35mm

ISO 160, 1/350, f/8, 35mm

 

With overall subtleness at wider apertures, Nokton's bokeh feel seems pretty neutral to me. I can't really put my finger on anything that would make me claim that I dislike it. Caveate emptor obviously here is on the dependency on the focusing distance and aperture used. But when used wide open or at f/2 and close to the MFD, Nokton clearly benefits from lower contrast levels and lower resolution - OOF highlights are evenly lit and edges are either smooth or neutral (you can see occasional harsh highlight here and there, but they are superficial at worst). There is occasional slight doubling of countour that you can observe here or there, but the artifact is mild. Low resolution does impact the feel though - subjects don't really stand out in any particular way, at least not until you do some post-processing. Nothing extraordinary really, but not bad either...

 

ISO 320, 1/500, f/1.4, 35mm

 


Flare

Nokton showed pretty decent handling of flare, even wide open and even without the lens hood. The two shots below demonstrate what you might expect from the lens in real life situation with the lens pointed towards the sun. The shot made with wide open aperture shows some color casts as well as slightly reduced overall contrast - not bad considering many other lenses show a much more pronounced artifacts in such situations. And f/8 shot shows almost no visible impact from flare.

 

 

 

Vignetting

As one would expect from a fast f/1.4, Nokton 35/1.4 does show noticeable vignetting. On Leica M8, light falloff reached ~1.6EV at f/1.4, dropping to ~1.2EV at f/2 and to ~0.75EV at f/2.8. Technically speaking, vignetting is moderately high here, meaning that you should expect some darkening around corners as can be seen below.

 

In practical terms, this means that you would need to correct light falloff somehow - either directly in the camera, or during post-processing. If you are using Adobe Photoshop, you can set Vignetting Amount in the Lens Correction dialog to +18 to correct vignetting at f/1.4. The shots below showcase the amount of light falloff you should expect from Nokton if you use it without any correction.

 

 


Distortion

Nokton 35/1.4 shows moderate amount of barrel distortion - at ~1%, barrel distortion would be visible in real life situations, particularly around edges. Still, the effect is subtle and probably would not cause too much distraction in my opinion.

 

 


Alternatives

As briefly mentioned in other sections, there is an abundance of 35mm lenses for Leica M mount. Among the most revered are Leica's Summilux 35/1.4 ASPH and Summicron 35/2 ASPH, both of which are considered by many to be the golden standard. Their older variants are worth exploring, and if clinical sharpness wide open is not your primary requirement, than you might be quite satisfied with the non aspherical variants. My personal favorite is Carl Zeiss Biogon 35/2, which I use most of the time as my standard 35mm kit lens. Zeiss also offers C Biogon 35/2.8, which should appeal to those who don't require fast aperture and prefer more compact form factor. Cosina offers a couple of 35mm primes as well, most notably Nokton 35/1.2 ASPH, the current speed king among 35mm lenses, as well as a compact and well-regarded Color Skopar 35/2.5. I own 35/1.2 ASPH Nokton and find it to be somewhat limited for every-day use, specifically in the critical f/1.2-f/2 range (for which I bought this lens). The main advantage of the ASPH Nokton over its f/1.4 version is the absence of focus shift, but otherwise, rendering and resolution of these two lenses are almost comparable. Finally, you might also want to consider a couple of 40mm lenses, most notably Leica's C Summicron 40/2 and its derived variant Minolta M Rokkot 40/2, both of which offer very good performance, but have a completely different rendering feel.

 

Recommendation

Voigtlander Nokton 35/1.4 is an interesting lens, one which I would probably not buy for myself, but one I would encourage everyone to consider. My reservation for owning this lens is due to its focus shift, which I find hard to get used to. (Note to the reader - online community seems to be split about the issue of focus shift with this lens. A number of posts in online forums suggest that some of the latest batches of this lens might not exibit as much or any focus shift. I cannot really confirm or reject these claims though, since I tried only one sample of this lens). While I own other lenses that exhibit focus shift, most notably Carl Zeiss C Sonnar 50/1.5 and Voigtlander Nokton 50/1.1, I consider them 'specialty' lenses and keep them because of the unique rendering capabilities which I find appealing. I am not convinced that Nokton 35/1.4 offers any uniqueness though, particularly when compared to the faster 35/1.2 ASPH version of this lens. But while my bet is elsewhere, I still think Nokton 35/1.4 can offer fairly good price/performance characteristics to the users - image resolution is decent (weaker wide open as with most fast lenses and pretty good once stopped down to f/2.8 or below), color handling is nice and the amount of artifacts such as CA and distortion is manageable. Nokton is said to simulate the older, 70s-80s, Leica designs, and as such was designed as medium contrast, lower resolution lens from the start. If you were happy with first generation 35mm Leicas, you should be reasonably happy with the Nokton as well, in my opinion. And the price is hard to beat here - there are no other sub $600 35/1.4 lenses out there.

 

Sample Images

 


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