Yet another 50-ish millimeter lens. The Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f1.4 SL II. Nicer than most of the reviews would have you believe...
I'm sure you know by now that I find 50mm lenses, and lenses in the ballpark of 45-65mm to be the natural companion to my way of seeing things; photographically. And I'm sure you can see in my writing that I am curious to try as many different 50mm-ish lenses as I can, natively and via adapters, on my L mount cameras. A couple of weeks ago I got a Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZF.2 lens in a Nikon mount and adapted it to my cameras to play around with. Unlike modern "super" 50's it has what some like to call "character" or "personality." When people say this they mean that certain flaws are inherent in the lens and that they like the way those flaws affect the overall image.
Typically, fast 50mm lenses designed before the age of "super" lenses (circa 2008-2010 and later) have certain "issues" that are endemic to the basic optical design. One such "issue" is that most fast 50's of a certain design (fewer elements and fewer optical groups) tend to exhibit fairly pronounced vignetting when used at their two or three biggest apertures. The lenses are also sharper in the middle than on the edges until they are stopped down from f1.4 to something like f4.0 or f5.6. The final "flaw" in the mix is the tendency of the previous generation of lenses to have more field curvature which is part of the reason why they must be stopped down to bring the edges and corners to a satisfactory level of sharpness across the frame...
But while these classic 50mm lenses have common compromises they also have their own unique optical characteristics (guilty of calling a fault "character") and that's what makes them so interesting. So collectible. I've owned lenses such as the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens and I've played around recently with a Leica 50mm f2.0 SL APO Summicron; both of which are highly corrected. Same with the Panasonic 50mm f1.4 S-Pro lens which I owned way back in 2021. They are wonderful lenses from an objective point of view but to my mind they are too good. Too clinical, and because of their giant size and freakish weight they have lost a huge measure of handling comfort and easy agility which makes them a daunting choice for a "walk around" and "have fun" lens.
Knowing that I have these prejudices about modern versus previous generation lens design, and knowing how much I enjoy a good, eccentric 50-60mm fast lens, my friend Paul couldn't help himself and brought along a small package when we last met for coffee. Wrapped in a black, cloth pouch was a wonderful lens that I had never tried before and have always been curious about. "Try this one. You might like it..." He said.
Inside the pouch was an essentially brand new copy of the Nikon mount Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f1.4 SL II. The exterior design mimics almost perfectly the design of Nikon manual focus lenses from the 1960s and early 1970s. Complete with a large knurled metal focusing ring. A well implemented aperture ring near the rear of the lens and even the little "rabbit ears" that allowed Nikon lenses to be backwardly compatible, as far as metering is concerned, with cameras made previous to AI and Ais Nikon cameras.
The Nokton 58mm is not currently made in either a Leica M or SL mount so the Nikon F mount model becomes the easiest way to get this lens on a Leica SL or CL camera. You just need to add an inexpensive Nikon F to L mount adapter to the mix. These are "dumb" adapters that only mount the lens to the camera but don't transfer aperture information or enable any sort of auto-focus. I use them all the time and while I'm sure someone out there has tested some adapter for some camera and lens combination which ended up being "not perfect" my success rate with almost every adapter has been good.
If you use this lens directly on a Nikon DSLR, like a D850, it does have electronic contacts (and CPU) to transfer information from the lens to the camera and will give you full exposure automation but still no AF.
The lens "features" a classic, double Gauss optical design and a paltry seven glass elements in six groups. The parent company, Cosina, is that same entity that makes the currently Carl Zeiss branded lenses for several different lens mounts as well. If the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f1.4 ZF and the 100mm Milvus Makro lenses are any indication those folks really know how to do lens making well.
You can pick up this lens, brand new, for around $550. There is nothing miraculous or earth-shattering about this lens. It's well built and may have some small design tweaks to the optical formula which makes it "better" but, in essence, it's a standard fast fifty. You can expect good center sharpness even wide open but at f1.4 if you are shooting flat test charts you can expect a mess of unsharpness in the corners and at the edges. Remember, there is some uncorrected lens curvature (part of the optical formula compromise) so the corners aren't exactly in the same focal plane as the very center. Stopping down helps. A lot. I got great images at f2.0 as long as I was defining "great" as being very sharp in the center third of the frame but willing to accept moderately soft corners. By f4.0 and especially f5.6 the lens performs really well. Nicely sharp and with excellent contrast almost everywhere in the frame.
None of this is to suggest that you can't or shouldn't shoot the lens at f1.4. It gathers light well there. And if you put your subject near the center you can get great images. But never assume that a fast fifty, used wide open, is a great flat field macro lens. It's not. And it's not designed to be.
I used the lens a bunch yesterday and photographed lots of different subject matter. The lens has similar optical characteristics as the Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZF.2 but has a different color palette and a different degree of contrast and sharpness at f1.4 and f2.0. I would describe it as having higher performance than the Zeiss at those two fastest apertures; at least in the center of the frame.
Comparing either of the lenses to current AF lenses is interesting. The build quality of both seems much better than the AF competitors which trade fast AF focusing for rugged overall build quality and joyful usability. A lens like the Lumix 50mm f1.8 (AF) certainly resolves more detail in the corners and at the edges when used at and close to wide open but it is a bit clinical and much less fun to use. The lenses built as manual focus lenses are much more engaging to use because they require your participation in a different and more immersive way.
This lens or the Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 are very much fun to use and more than good enough for just about any sort of art-impelled photography you might for which you might use them. That lenses still exist that are this well made and this much fun to use makes me happy. I might even learn to use the 58mm as a newer, wider portrait lens. Change is good.
I've posted a bunch of samples below. They are sized to 3200 pixels on the long side and I encourage you to click on them and view them large if you really want to see how the lens handles detail and sharpness. If you are just glancing at them on a phone then the words will outshine the photos for information. But then.....phone? How passé....
vignetting added in post. And here I thought "print was dead..."
these guys were working on big infrastructure projects across the street from the Blanton Museum.
They flagged me down and asked me to photograph them. How fun! (f4.0)
Young family soaking up art at the Blanton Museum yesterday.
The small child was more interested in watching the amazing
technique of the professional photograph as amateur..... f1.4
You know a major university has gobs and gobs of extra cash when they can afford to
plant thousands and thousands of beautiful tulips ..... just because....
I was at the Blanton Museum with the Voigtlander Nokton 58mm f1.4 lens
yesterday. They have a new show called, "Work" and it's all about the regular day
jobs that some artists had to do in order to survive financially as they worked on
their art. Fun stuff from Andy Warhol, Barbara Krueger and Vivian Maier. And many others.
There was a sign at the entry to the exhibit informing guests that the in-house photographer (see just above) would be making photographs in the main gallery and that by entering you agree that the museum can use your image. I guess that's fair since Thursday is free admission day. Fun to watch.
And then there are the classics. Good, solid models with which to test your
lens at its widest settings. From the Battle Sculpture Collection. Also at the
Circling back. Would I buy this lens? Sure. It's beautifully made. The focus ring is exotically good. The images are solid and fun. Why the heck not?