Half our lives are spent in darkness. To some, it’s an inviting friend. To others, a frightening foe. To a photographer, it’s a technical and creative challenge.
For early photographers, the limitation of narrow- or fixed-aperture lenses coupled with glacially slow emulsions dictated an obvious solution — long shutter speeds. But for anyone who photographs people in a candid or documentary style, lengthy exposure times are not always a viable solution to the nighttime conundrum.
Weegee and his ilk solved the puzzle by popping giant bulbs into shiny metal reflectors, and flashing the smithereens out of their subjects. A little of Weegee’s DNA resides in all of today’s strobist-school shooters, who see darkness as a blank canvas and their flash guns as artist’s brushes. Strands of Weegee’s DNA also inhabit the bodies of modern camera designers. After all, whenever the ambient light level falls below “midday sun,” nearly every automatic camera in existence will raise its tiny flash, and nuke its subject with a potent blast of blinding light — thus insuring all family snapshots resemble a NYC crime scene.
Me? I enjoy the mysteries that lurk in the darkness, the enigmatic shapes, and the cavernous infinity of a bottomless shadow. I’m in love with the night. In fact, I love it so much that I want to photograph night itself — and not flood it with artificial daylight. Those of us who embrace the night but don’t believe in flash photography have only three choices: we can use a fast lens; we can shoot at high ISO; or we can put our cameras away and hit the bar for a drink.
I’m not much of a drinker and, frankly, there are at least as many good photo opportunities in the night as there are in the day. So putting my camera to bed each evening is simply not an enticing option.
Shooting at higher ISO speeds only gets me so far. With film, the grain becomes gravel at about ISO 1600, and by ISO 3200 I’m forming photos out of boulders. In spite of the marketing hype, I don’t find the high ISO settings on full-frame 35mm digital cameras all that appealing. Granted, I can shoot my 5DmkII at ISO 25600. And this does let me get a shot that would be impossible with film, but it’s not a setting I’d choose to use on a regular basis. For me, the 5DmkII’s high ISO settings are the photographic equivalent of an automobile’s miniature spare tire — a crutch for emergency use, but not something you’d ever use to drive around town. Even amongst the ‘reasonable’ high ISO speeds, like 1600 and 3200, I find the organic nature of film grain to be much more visually appealing than the harshness of digital noise and its requisite smoothing algorithms. Since I’m already in metaphor mode, I’ll say this: ISO 3200 film looks like a richly textured wool fabric, while noise-reduced ISO 3200 digital looks like 1970’s polyester that’s been picked and pilled. Sure the polyester is technically ‘smoother,’ but the textured wool looks so much better.
For these reasons, whether I shoot film with a Leica M6 TTL or digital with a Leica M9, I prefer not to exceed ISO 1600. When I combine these ISO speeds with one of my Leica f2 Summicron lenses, I can extend my camera’s bedtime by about 30 minutes — the time between sunset and dusk. But darkness? I need to mate those higher ISO settings with a much faster lens.
Fortunately for us Leica M-mount users, lens manufacturers have long recognized the need for fast glass, and they’ve obliged this need for several generations. Unfortunately, we’ve obliged them right back by paying handsomely for the privilege.
Between 1966 and 1975, Leica “gave” us the 50mm f1.2 lens. I couldn’t track down its original selling price, but what’s relevant is what it costs today. Assuming you can even find one, you’ll likely have to cough up at least $5000 to get it. Double (or triple) that if you like your lenses in ‘mint’ condition. On one of my internet surfing waves, I found mention of a prototype version that sold for $30,538 at auction. Ouch.
Those with smaller wallets and a taste for newer lenses have long been tempted by the Konica M-Hexanon 50mm f1.2, which you can probably dig up on eBay for about $2500 (give or take the usual eBay fudge factors). And as long as we’re talking about 50mm f1.2 lenses, you can always try to find an old Canon 50 f1.2 and shoehorn it onto your Leica. But if you’re thinking “fast Canon,” why not think really fast and consider Canon’s fifty year old 50mm f0.95 lens? With the help of an adapter kit, crossed fingers, and $3000 (depending on condition), you could adorn your Leica with some old-world Canon charm.
Since 1975, photographers who demand their fast lenses bear the same nameplate as their camera have opted for Leica’s 50mm f1.0 Noctilux. It produces a creamy, dreamy softness totally at odds with today’s pixel-peeping mentality. Should you feel the urge to expose your photographic inclinations to ridicule amongst today’s kit-lens-wielding, entry-level dSLR owners, you can pony up about $7000 for a ‘new in box’ version with digital coding. Older versions can sometimes be found for a downright ‘respectable’ $5000.
In 2008, Leica replaced the 50mm f1.0 with the new 50mm f0.95 Noctilux. Now that’s a nice lens — $10,500 worth of nice lens, in fact!
Given these economics, it’s easy to see why many of us night-loving photographers have long been forced to put our cameras to sleep before we, ourselves, are ready for bed — until now…
Last year, Voigtlander introduced the 50mm f1.1 Nokton M-mount lens for less than 10% of the price of Leica’s new 50mm f0.95 Noctilux. Yes, less than 10% of the cost! OK, the Nokton is a bit slower than the Noctilux… but you did see that it cost less than 10% as much, right? I wanted one. Instantly. But to fund it, I needed to sell some lesser lenses first. They say that good things come to those who wait, and I waited over a year for the necessary equipment transactions to occur before finally getting mine. So is the Voigtlander 50mm f1.1 Nokton a “good thing?”
Short answer: “Yes.” Those of you who are satisfied with this answer can skip to the bottom of this post, click the DONATE link, shoot some money into my Paypal account, and you’re all done with this article.
Long answer: “It depends on the photographer, his photographic style, and the reasonableness of his or her expectations.” Those of you who wonder whether the 50mm Nokton will match your particular requirements should take the long road to the DONATE button, and read the remainder of this post.
Before I begin, let me state unequivocally that I’m no Sean Reid, and this isn’t Reid Reviews. Anyone contemplating the purchase of an M-mount lens owes it to himself to subscribe to Sean’s site. It’s worth every penny (and then some). Sean doesn’t just measure a lens’ performance — he puts that performance into a real world context (a practice I strive for in my own quasi-reviews). Unfortunately, as of this posting, Sean has not reviewed the 50mm f1.1 Nokton. This, I suppose, is why I feel compelled to offer my own ruminations.
The Nokton is nearly 2-stops faster than my f2 Summicron lenses. You can’t suck up all that extra light and be “dainty.” In the rangefinder world, the 50mm Nokton is a behemoth. Because of this, you’ll likely read a lot of moaning and groaning about how big it is. Heck, I’ve even moaned once or twice myself. But let’s shine the light of perspective on this issue, shall we? Take a look at the following photo:
In the middle is the Voigtlander 50mm f1.1 Nokton. Immediately to the right of it is a Leica 50mm f2 Summicron (v5). No one would deny the 50mm Nokton is significantly larger than the 50mm Summicron, and therein lies the belly-aching. To the left of the Nokton is the Canon 35mm f1.4L lens for my 5DmkII. In the pro dSLR world, this lens is considered quite portable. In fact, on those rare instances when I carry my 5DmkII on the streets, the 35L is my “walk-around” lens. Obviously, if I consider the 35L to be a portable lens, I’d be hard pressed to designate the 50 Nokton as “not portable.” As you can plainly see, the 50mm f1.1 Nokton is markedly smaller than the Canon 35L. Just for grins, compare the size of my ‘walk around’ Canon 35mm lens with my ‘walk around’ Leica 35mm lens, which is the tiny little bump you see next to the iPhone. Then, for good measure, take a look at the white 70-200mm Canon lens on the far left — although an f2.8 version of this lens is available (and extremely popular), I chose the smaller f4 version (shown here) because it was “light and portable.” Given these comparisons, it would be pretty darn odd to complain about the Nokton’s size.
Still, with all things being equal, size would help guide my decision to carry the 50mm f2 Summicron on an all-day hike, while low-light capabilities would govern my decision to carry the 50mm f1.1 Nokton on an all-night hike. But rarely are things equal, nor are choices so cleanly cut. There are times, for example, when circumstances might require me to use my daytime 50mm at night — that’s why it’s important to understand the tradeoffs concerning high ISO speeds and possible flash usage. Similarly, there are times when I might need to use my nighttime 50mm in daylight. So it’s equally important to understand the tradeoffs regarding the use of narrow apertures on fast lenses.
A simple fact: stopped down to f8 or more, the f1.1 Nokton will not be nearly as sharp as the f2 Summicron. Just as, at night, higher ISO speeds will dictate that an image taken with the f2 Summicron will be far noisier than one taken with the Nokton. This is called physics. And these are the tradeoffs inherent within its laws. If you’re only going to own one 50mm lens, and you choose the Nokton, then you might be disappointed if you take most of your photos in the daytime. Diffraction effects mean that this lens gets softer once you stop it down past f5.6. Is this a reason to dislike the lens? Only if you’re buying it for daytime photography. But why would you buy an f1.1 lens to take to the beach?
There’s another issue related to stopping down the Nokton — focus shift. With the majority of fast lenses (particularly those that don’t cost $10,000), the focus plane shifts slightly as you narrow the lens aperture. Once again, this is called physics. Small amounts of focus shift, though easily measured, may frequently pass unnoticed in real-world situations. I’ve read many internet forums where people obsess over a focus shift of, say, 2cm. In reality, your own body can introduce this much shift, and the simple act of breathing can easily shift focus by a couple centimeters. Unless the camera is locked down on a tripod, the average person’s own natural sway is likely to cause as much or more focus shift than some lens designs. And lest we forget, stopping down a lens increases its depth of field — so it’s possible that any measurable focus shift will simply be obscured by the deeper focal plane of a stopped-down lens.
Regrettably, none of this is meant to imply that focus shift isn’t a problem on the 50mm Nokton. It depends, instead, on your definition of ‘problem.’ My copy exhibits measurable focus shift — about 7-8 cm worth at 1.5 meters. Depending on subject matter, this is definitely something you’ll see in the real world. Prior to purchasing this lens, my dealer allowed me to test both of his in-store copies, then cherry-pick my favorite. Both of the lenses I tested displayed an identical amount of focus shift, which I suspect is simply commensurate with this particular optical design and not the result of any manufacturing defects. A few days after I purchased the lens, I ran some tightly controlled tests, using my usual homemade setup. The setup is simple. I place 7 batteries on a custom-made template. Each battery is exactly 2cm over and 2cm back from the battery next to it. By focusing precisely on one battery, I can see a reasonable ‘real world’ approximation of a lens’ focus shift.
The results of my 50mm Nokton test are shown in the following series of photographs (click any photo to enlarge it).
At f1.1, the Nokton focuses where intended. The narrow depth of field is very evident.
At f1.4, the Nokton continues to focus where intended, but depth of field has increased such that the battery 2cm further away is also nearly in focus.
At f2, we begin to see some minor focus shift. Although the camera is focused on the closest battery, the battery 4cm further away is actually the most in-focus.
At f2.8 the lens seems to be at or near its optimum resolution. Unfortunately, it’s also focusing on a plane 6cm further away than the intended focus plane.
At f4, the resolution appears to equal the results obtained at f2.8. Unfortunately, the focus plane seems to have shifted another cm further away from the intended plane — to approximately 7cm. However, the more extensive depth of field makes the focus shift slightly less evident than it was at f2.8.
By f5.6, lens diffraction is beginning to affect image quality, and maximum sharpness is on the decline. Depth of field is becoming more significant, and it’s really quite difficult to determine where, exactly, the actual focus plane lies — but its center appears to be somewhere around 7-8 cm behind the desired plane.
At f8, diffraction effects further soften the overall image, and deeper depth of field makes the actual focus plane difficult to determine. Ultimately, given the extensive depth of field, the shift is unlikely to be visible in real-world photos.
Come f11, diffraction is really taking its toll on overall sharpness, and depth of field is so extensive that one can no longer tell where the actual focus plane rests. As a result, focus shift is now inconsequential.
By f16, both maximum diffraction softness and maximum depth of field combine to totally obscure any actual focus shift, making it completely irrelevant.
BOTTOM LINE: The 50mm Nokton performs flawlessly at both f1.1 and f1.4. At f2 there is some focus shift evident, but real world variances are nearly as likely to cause minor focusing errors. Between f2.8 and f5.6, the focus shift will undoubtably be visible within some photographs. By f8, the depth of field and lens diffraction mask any focus shift errors. What’s this all mean? It means that from f1.1 to f2, I use the Nokton without any fear that focus shift will harm my images. That’s good, because 90% of the images I take with this lens will be at f2 or wider. If, however, I’m using this lens in the f2.8 to f5.6 range and I’m photographing subjects that are fairly close to me (within a few meters), I’m going to have to be aware that focus shift exists. What do I do about it? I simply focus, then lean my head back slightly before taking the shot — focus issue resolved. Once I reach f8, I stop worrying about focus shift again.
In the over-amplifed din of the internet, the 50mm Nokton’s focus shift garners the most consternation. But there are questions and concerns about several other issues, which I’ll address next.
Bokeh quality? In high contrast situations, such as back-lit tree leaves, it can be a bit jumpy. Or edgy. Or caffeinated. Pick whichever term you like to describe a sort of uneasy jitteriness within the out-of-focus areas. This may impact your opinion of this lens depending, again, on how you choose to use it. In 99% of my shots, the bokeh is perfectly fine. It looks wonderful with low- and medium-contrast backgrounds. And its high-contrast edginess is actually a boon with nighttime street shots, since it gives them a tiny bit more ‘attitude’ than, say, the creamy bokeh that my 90mm Elmarit lens produces. The 50mm Nokton lens would not, however, be my first choice for taking shallow DoF photos in high-contrast nature surroundings. For that, I’d take a few steps backward and use a longer lens (like that 90mm f2.8 Elmarit).
Chromatic aberration? Yeah, wide-open it’s thick and purple and pervasive. If you’re a color photographer who, for some reason, likes to point his lens skyward to photograph treetops, you’re going to spend a fair amount of time cursing this lens in front of Photoshop. For the way I shoot, the chromatic aberration is not much of a problem. If I shoot color on the streets with my digital M9, there’s usually enough neon and other visual chaos that the chromatic aberration isn’t an obvious problem. Also, since I work mostly in black & white, I’m likely less bothered by purple fringing than the average color photographer. Needless to say, when I load my M6 TTL with black & white Tri-X film, and front it with the 50mm Nokton, then chromatic aberration is a total non-issue.
Vignetting? Absolutely. It’s part of the look. Should you wish to correct it quickly and painlessly, both Lightroom and Photoshop are more than up to the task. But I actually prefer to embrace the look rather than fight it. I’m from the old school, where we actually liked our lenses to have some personality.
Viewfinder blockage? Well, if it’s any consolation, the lens blocks only the portion of the scene that will be partially obscured by its vignetting (kidding). My seat-of-the-pants estimate is that, with hood, the Nokton blocks about 15% of an M6/M9 50mm demarcated viewfinder. Unscrew the hood, and the blockage drops to nearly half that amount. By the way, this might be an ideal time to mention that the Nokton actually ships with a lens hood — an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Should habit or guilt force you to feel the need to actually purchase a lens hood, there is a vented hood available that provides some flare protection while not blocking as much of the Leica’s viewfinder.
Obviously, darkness isn’t the only reason to shoot with the 50mm f1.1 Nokton. The narrow depth of field this lens produces when wide-open is, for some photos, a rather desirable feature. It’s for this very reason that I purchased a 64x Neutral Density filter. When screwed on the lens, this filter blocks a full 6-stops of light. On a typical bright day, I might normally shoot at f11, 1/500s, ISO 200. Screw on the 64x neutral density filter, and I’m suddenly shooting f1.4 at the same shutter speed and ISO! Obviously, this lets me use the Nokton at wide apertures on bright days, which (as shown above) can yield some interesting results.
This approach does, however, make street shooting quite difficult. With a wide open lens, the depth of field is razor thin — not exactly conducive to successful zone-focusing techniques. No matter. Some subjects seem to benefit from inexact focus:
There’s really nothing I don’t like about the Nokton. It is, after all, a specialty lens. And it performs its specialty with aplomb. It has its quirks and these will inevitably bother some users — but everything in life comes with tradeoffs. It’s up to each of us, individually, to assign value and meaning to these tradeoffs. For example, I have little doubt I would prefer Leica’s $10,500 f0.95 Noctilux, but the $9,500 cost differential is not a tradeoff that I, personally, am willing to accept. Neither is the opposite option of foregoing a fast 50mm lens, and putting my Leica to bed whenever it gets dark. I bought the 50mm Nokton to solve a problem — shooting in dark environments. But I find myself constantly seeking other photographic opportunities that will benefit from its unique properties. In my estimation, any lens that solves problems while unlocking creative options is “a winner.”
Darkness has always been my friend, and thanks to the Voigtlander 50mm f1.1 Nokton, it’s now my Leica’s friend, too.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “After Midnight Cowboy” and “A Romero Moment” were shot with a Leica M9 digital and a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton lens. “Wandering Troubadour” and “Sushi Window” were shot with a Leica M6 TTL and a Voigltlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton lens, using Tri-X film exposed at ISO 1600 and processed in Diafine.
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