When I bought my first Leica M4 back in 2014, I decided to couple it with a Nokton 35mm f/1.4 S.C that I bought new (first time of my life I bought anything new). It was a great moment. I absolutely loved it and ignored its flaws as it was all I could buy myself at that time. I was so happy with it. But time went on and as many of you may know, once you start thinking “Leica”, it is very hard to resist to the temptation of getting more gear… German gear… So I ended up selling that Nokton to get myself a nice Summicron 35mm v4 (aka the King of Bokeh).
It was like a dream to have such combo in my hands. I also felt a bit dumb having spent 500 bucks more for a lens that was 1 stop slower… But it was supposed to be better overall – it was supposed to be the King of Bokeh. I kept it a long long time, changed cameras, from M4 to M6, to M9-p, to M4 again, then M6 again… But the lens remained the same.
I then one day started to shoot “semi-pro” and as I was getting paid for some work, I thought I had to step up and get an even better lens. So I sold the Summicron 35mm v4 to purchase a Summilux ASPH pre-FLE. This lens was crazy good and behaved as planned. As perfect as you can dream of for a 35mm. But it lacked the classic character I love for my personal photography, and it is a bit on the heavy side.
So as nostalgic as I was, I bought a Nokton 35mm 1.4 S.C. – but this time the new v2 – and again I was in love… But long story short, history had to repeat itself, and I finally got my hands on another Summicron 35mm v4. So with both lenses in my hands, I decided to make a comparison between the two. I wanted to know if these two lenses I keep coming back to are really that different or if there is anything that would justify the current skyrocketing prices of the so-called King of Bokeh.
The Leica Summicron 35mm f/2 v4, also called the King of Bokeh, for some obscure reason, is a “vintage lens” made in the 80s. It’s optical formula is similar to the one of the Summilux pre-aspherical, with a stop less and a shorter minimum focusing distance of 0.7m. This lens is known to be the smallest 35mm f/2 ever made for a Leica M camera. And it is also known for being an overall great all rounder lens, being both sharp all across the field when stopped down, and quite romantic wide opened with classic traits like strong coma, vignetting, moderate glow. Colour saturation is nice and beautifully balanced too.
The Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 v2 is a “modern lens” sold for the first time in 2019 and has been made to improve some traits of its older brother, the Nokton v1. The Nokton version II keeps much the same optical formula with only one lens element that has being changed for an abnormal dispersion glass. As such, this version 2 has seen a global performance increase. It has less distortion (about 2.1% vs. 3% for the v1), better field of focus flatness with no more soft ring in the middle field, and lens focus shift. I also noticed, comparing the two versions that the new one tends to have a rounder bokeh balls and thus tends to render less swirl effect. I don’t know if it is good or bad though.
Build quality wise, the two lenses are very similar. Both have very smooth focusing action, nicely clicked diaphragms, nice finish, engraved markings, bayonet hoods. The Nokton is slightly bigger than the Summicron. But this had to be expected with one more stop. While the Summicron is the smallest 35mm f2 I’ve ever seen, the Nokton is the smallest 35mm f/1.4 being mass produced.
Comparing the optical properties
Both lenses are non-aspherical, and thus should show things like wide open glow, coma, vignetting, moderate sharpness. The Summicron has been highly appreciated and regarded as an excellent all round lens. Not too sharp like its ASPH counterpart, nice character, great bokeh at middle apertures, no distortion. On the other hand, the Nokton has often been said to be a “character” lens, with many things that could be better like focus shift, distortion, sharpness consistency, fuzzy bokeh. But what does this all mean in real life?
I propose you to play a little game with me. Among the following pictures, try to determine which of the two is made with the Summicron and which with the Nokton without skipping to the end.
So, are you confident in your guesses? I’d love to know in the comments if you got it right. As you might have guessed by the last comparison, the photos on the left are from the Summicron and on the right, the Nokton…
You can find high resolution files there.
The following I am about to say is highly subjective as it is all about personal preferences and observations, but here is what I observed on high resolution scans:
- At small apertures (f/8), beside a bit distortion for the Nokton that is only rarely visible, the lenses are almost indistinguishable. Look at the right side of the fridge picture for the distortion.
- At medium apertures (f/4, f/5.6) the Nokton has more contrast “pop” and more separation.
- At larger apertures (f/2, f/2.8) the Nokton seems clearly superior to me. Sharper, more contrast and smoother bokeh. It looks like that the Nokton is a tad brighter that the Summicron at given f/stops.
- Wide open performances (f/1.4 vs f/2) performs very similarly. Look at the nightscape shot this is the only one here shot at f/1.4 with the Nokton.
- Both lenses have the same kind of flare that seems to be about the same at equivalent apertures. At f/1.4 the Nokton is the worst, but that was to be expected.
- Colours – sorry, as I am confined and cannot access my local lab for C41, so you will have to trust me on this from previous experience – are better with the Summicron. Better saturation and separation, warmer.
All in all, I have quite a lot of difficulty now to justify keeping the King of Bokeh. I clearly did not expect the differences to play out in this direction and was confident about the fact that the Leica lens was always the better one. I am not saying the Summicron is bad, but the comparisons I did just showed to me that, maybe, higher price doesn’t always mean “better”.
Now, that was the brain speaking, but the heart saying different things. Some people will speak of “gear coherence”, some other will talk of the “Leica glow”, that the Summicron surely has wide open. The Summicron can also evoke the “charm” and “gear lust” only some gear can bring to its owner.
So is one better than the other, both in terms of the quality of the outcome, and all the other reasons we might like to own gear, it’s all up to you and your preferences. Can you guess which one I will be keeping?
Thanks for reading, and I hope I hadn’t caused to much trouble to you 😉