I’ve owned the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 Nokton Aspherical for nearly a year now, and I feel that I have to open this review by saying that I think it’s an absolutely fantastic lens. It’s small – at least for a lens with an f/1.2 maximum aperture – it’s “sharp”, it has great bokeh, little in the way of noticeable aberrations, it feels well made, and for an ultra-fast m-mount lens it’s not too expensive either. In fact, it’s taken me this long to review it because I didn’t want my writing to be too influenced by my initial over-excitement about how great it is.
The funny thing is though, now I’m over that initial excitement, I’ve decided to sell it – which probably seems a bit daft considering the first paragraph of this review. But – whilst I do think it is pretty much everything many people could ever want from a fast 50mm m-mount lens – long term, I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not for me. Regardless of how compelling it is, I just don’t need what it offers me.
That said, the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 is the first 50mm m-mount lens I’ve owned that’s tempted me away from the Zeiss 50mm ZM Sonnar. Those who read this website regularly will know that I absolutely adore my ZM Sonnar. I love that lens so much, that when I got the Voigtlander and began to realise just how good it was, I started to get a little bit stressed about the idea that another lens might have begun to usurp it.
I just don’t feel that there’s a strong case for two fast, modern 50mm lenses in my arsenal. I rarely shoot at apertures wider than f/2 with a 50mm lens, and – as I talk about in my Sonnar review – I also love what the Sonnar does at those apertures. As such, for the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 to truly de-throne the Sonnar, it would have to do something pretty magical at those wider apertures.
In fact, it is indeed what the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 does at those apertures that initially made me question my dedication to the Sonnar. The Voigtlander does have a couple of pretty impressive tricks up its sleeve, and I was totally drawn in by them when I first got my hands on the lens… so much so, that when asked by a few people what I thought of it, I used a phrase I absolutely hate… I called it a “game-changer”!
Shooting any 50mm f/1.2 lens wide open is, of course, not without its challenges – the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 is no exception to this. Interestingly though, it’s predecessor the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 was a bit of an exception to this rule. That lens was – at least as far as my understanding of optics stretches – quite well corrected for spherical aberrations. Because of this, it’s wider-open depth of field didn’t seem to be all that narrow, and the bokeh was a little more wiry and distracting.
The Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 – despite being a fraction of a stop slower – has an apparently shallower depth of field. It would seem, I guess, that correction for spherical aberrations was less of a priority in this lens design. The result is much smoother and much more creamy bokeh that the f/1.2. What initially got me particularly excited about this fact was that this also means that the transition zone is characteristically glowy. It doesn’t have the almost double-image glow of the Sonnar formula lenses that I like so much, but the way the in-focus melts into the out-of-focus is, nonetheless, quite aesthetically attractive to me. Wide-open, the bokeh is also arguably smoother than the Sonnar at f/1.5 which can – given the right circumstances – be a little wild.
One final possibly notable trait of its wide-open performance – and again also perhaps because of the spherical aberrations – it is a little soft wide-open – not catastrophically so, but it’s definitely fair to say that resolution drops quite a bit at f/1.2.
Initially, this all seemed more than slightly appealing. I’m not worried about a little bit of wide-open softness, and the other character traits I found certainly appealed to me – despite the fact I don’t often shoot wide open, I liked the idea that I could if I wanted to and get really nice results without much issue. But, it was when I stopped down to f/2 that I felt things got really quite interesting. I shoot my Sonnar at f/2 more than I do wide-open. There are many reasons for this, but they include the bump in “sharpness” and “improved” bokeh.
I was expecting the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 to sharpen up a bit by f/2, but what I found was a lens that sharpens up quite a lot. I suppose I’m probably used to the lower-resolution and higher-contrast type of sharpness that the Sonnar gives me, so when I found the Voigtlander to give me a lot more resolution when only slightly stopped down, I was very impressed.
How impressive the lens was at f/2 was only built upon by the mid-range apertures too. At f/4, the Sonnar starts to suffer a bit from focus shift. It’s not a big issue really – as I talk about in the review – you get used to it, or you work around it… but for as much as I have read there are some minor issues with focus shift with the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2, they aren’t nearly as much of an issue as they are with the Sonnar. In fact, where I have been caught out by the Sonnar in the past, I’ve not noticed issues with the Voigtlander at all in my photos.
In fact, stopped down, I really couldn’t pinpoint a single optical aberration or shortcoming that’s impacted my photography whilst shooting with the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2. I’ve read a large chunk of the mega-thread by Fred Miranda here, but whilst I respect Fred’s views a great deal, there’s nothing that he highlighted in his impressions as a negative that impacts negatively on my results in real terms. I just don’t shoot in a way or of subject matter that demands such objective quality.
That said I was, I must admit, sucked in by the objective “improvements” the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 presented me over and above what the ZM Sonnar offers me. It is faster, has nice bokeh from wide open, it’s sharper quicker down the apertures, has less notable aberrations and is easier to shoot. It also has a good chunk of 3D pop which is definitely something I look for in a lens. And to top it off – as I said at the beginning of this post – it’s not that big and not all that expensive for what it is. So what’s not to like?
Where did it go wrong?
I do genuinely think that the lens could be the last m-mount lens a lot of people will ever need. The issue for me is that I think I’ve come to the conclusion – largely because of what the Sonnar does for me – that I’m a multiple 50mm lens kinda guy. I’ve talked about this before on my YouTube channel here. But for the benefit of those who don’t want to see my flapping jaw, the gist is that I don’t always have the same goals from a 50mm lens. Sometimes I might want something of what the ZM Sonnar does, sometimes I might want something more reliable and modern in the way it renders, and sometimes I like something that’s a lot more “classic” and lower contrast.
In the video, I talk about the ZM Sonnar, a Jupiter-8 and a Voigtlander 50mm f/2.5. Those three lenses don’t step on each other’s toes at all. They all offer something the others don’t, and so provide me with a near-perfect trio. In fact, I’ve decided to move the Voigtlander on and try a Zeiss ZM Plannar instead, but that’s by the by – it simply offers a slightly different flavour of what the Voigtlander f/2.5 does for me.
The Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2, on the other hand, covers two of the bases. It does the stopped-down easy-to-shoot thing, and does the wider-open lower-light nice-character thing too. So what’s not to like? Surely less kit is better – with my recent inspiration issues and desire to strip back my kit, less kit definitely feels like it could be the way forward. The problem is – at least for my very specific tastes – what the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 offers me isn’t quite what I want, especially when shot wider open.
Discovering the “flaw”
The first hint I had of this being the case was quite a long time ago now, and actually quite early on in my experiences with this lens. I’d paid a visit to a chap called Padraig, a very talented violin maker in nearby Malvern. I wanted to take some photos of him at work and had taken my now-sold Leica Monochrom with the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 mounted to the front of it. The whole experience was incredibly inspiring, and I came away feeling very positive about my photography, and indeed pretty much everything else in my life. The only thing that took a slight edge off the experience was the results I got from the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2.
Objectively speaking, I honestly couldn’t fault them. I shot a fair bit at f/2 and was astounded by the sharpness of the lens. The issue was, I didn’t really want sharpness. When processing the results, I craved the lower-resolution high-contrast look the ZM Sonnar gives me. The sharpness of the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 just didn’t fit the feel I was going for. I ended up softening the results in Lightroom – I had to reduce the sharpness and add a bit of artificial grain to take the edge off the detail. I was trying to get more of the look that I get from the ZM Sonnar into the results, and so found myself cursing myself for just not using the Sonnar in the first place. To me, the way the ZM Sonnar renders is just perfect for that sort of environmental portraiture.
This was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 for me. Every time a similar job came up, I found myself reaching for the Sonnar. And then, eventually, when it came to choosing a lens for less “character”, I would reach for something smaller and lighter than the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2. As I say, it’s not that it’s a big lens for what it offers, but if, like me, you don’t need or feel that what it offers at its wider apertures suits your creative desires, then all of a sudden it does start to feel like an unnecessarily large lens.
As I expect is quite clear, I genuinely think the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 is a stunning bit of glass. I said everything I think most prospective purchasers probably want or need to hear in the first paragraph or this post. Yes, as Fred points out in his dissection, there are shortcomings to the design that will no doubt frustrate those with a penchant for objective perfection, but for most “normal” photographers I stand by what I said to a few people on social media about this lens being a bit of a “game-changer”. The combination of it being good-enough optically, its smaller size, very fast maximum aperture and relatively low-cost present it as an excellent option for a lot of people.
For me though – at least in the long term – it has just reinforced my strong feeling toward what the Zeiss 50mm ZM offers me… at least when combined with something else a little more conventional. In a different world where the ZM Sonnar didn’t exist, I think I’d be happy with a combination of the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2 and some sort of classic Sonnar for more my more “character lens” based photography. In this world though – as much as it feels counter-intuitive to say this about a lens that I think is as good as this – there’s just no room in my bag for the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.2.