Can affordable alternatives to those pricey Leica M lenses produce outstanding images? Our resident Leica expert puts three “Normal” Voigtlanders through their paces.
You say you just dropped nearly seven grand on a magnificent Leica M9, the awesome new 18-megapixel full-frame digital Leica, and can’t quite up with an extra $10K (minus a measly five bucks) for a 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M to hang on the front of it? Is that what’s troubling you, buddy?
Well, Leica offers three glorious but fairly pricey alternatives—the superb one-and-a-smidge-stop slower 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M at a hefty $3,595 street, the acclaimed 50mm f/2 Summicron-M at well nigh 2 grand ($1,995, to be exact), and the cute, compact, and competent 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M for “only” $1,295 (more about that in part 2, in which we field test all four Leica Summarit-M lenses).
However, if you have a hankering for a classic 50mm lens to mount on any film or digital M-series Leica (or on an M-mount Made-in-Japan Cosina/Voigtlander 35mm, for that matter) there are three scrumptious alternatives sold under the Voigtlander banner that are a lot less expensive than Made-in-Germany Leica lenses. Just how good are they for the price, and what, if anything, do you sacrifice for saving a pile of money? To find out, I field-tested all three, and herewith present the hands-on results.
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kobayashi
As you probably know, the current line of Voigtlander lenses and cameras is the brainchild of Mr. Hirofumi Kobayashi, the CEO of Cosina and a serious rangefinder camera fanatic. He has a penchant for recreating vintage cameras and lenses, and resurrecting classic camera brands. He has the rights to use the venerable name Voigtlander, an optical company with a heritage dating back to the mid-18th century in Braunschweig, Germany.
Under Kobayashi's astute direction, Cosina’s engineers have ingeniously transformed the rugged, elemental Cosina SLR chassis and its metal-blade, focal-plane shutter into a creditable line of rangefinder 35s, most featuring an M mount. Perhaps even more important for our story, Cosina has developed a line of competitively priced M-mount Voigtlander lenses that have earned a reputation for excellent optical and mechanical quality.
Before we begin our three-lens field test, let’s delve into a bit of Voigtlander lens lore. The Nokton name engraved on two of our test lenses, the super-speed 50mm f/1.1 and the fast 50mm f/1.5, first appeared over half a century ago on the 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, the fastest lens offered for the lovely Voigtlander Prominent I and II leaf shutter, interchangeable lens rangefinder 35s of the ‘50s. This flagship lens was intended to help establish this posh, beautifully made camera as a creditable alternative to the Leica, Contax, Nikon and Canon, but although it was quite good optically, it never succeeded in that mission.
The name Heliar is even older, having appeared on a number of lenses for view cameras and Voigtlander medium-format roll-film cameras (e.g. the rangefinder Bessa) prior to World War II. The name Heliar denotes a specific optical formula, namely a 5-element, three-group design that is basically a Zeiss Tessar with a cemented doublet used in place of the Tessar’s single front element. Traditionally, the Heliar has provided high resolution across the field at wide apertures, lower contrast than the Tessar, and beautiful bokeh. However, the performance of the modern version has been noticeably improved, as we shall see.
Without further ado, on to the lens tests!
50mm f/1.1 Nokton
As you’d expect, this super-speed normal lens is a substantial hunk of glass—it’s 57.2mm long at infinity, 69.6mm in diameter, and it weighs in at a hefty 15 ounces. However, it is somewhat smaller, lighter, and far less expensive than its archrival, the fabulous 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M—$1,149 (Adorama price) versus $9,995! This 7-element, 6-group lens is multicoated, stops down to f/16, takes 58mm filters, and it’s the only member of our Voigtlander trio with a raised red orientation dot to position the lens for quick bayonet mounting.
Like the Noctilux, it only focuses down to 1 meter (about 40 inches), which is not close enough for a frame-filling headshot, but it obscures only a small portion of the lower right-hand corner of Leica M9’s 50mm viewfinder frame line with the furnished lens hood removed, much less than the bigger, fatter Noctilux. Its heavily knurled focusing collar takes the lens from infinity to minimum distance in a clockwise quarter turn. Focusing action is smooth and well damped, but lacks the silky precision of Leica-M lenses. The f/1.1 Nokton is nicely finished and its scales are neatly engraved and legible.
Naturally, the primary interest with such a lens is how well it performs at maximum aperture. In shooting and analyzing a variety of close-up portraits and medium-distance scenes taken at f/1.1, I was impressed with its sharpness, particularly in the center of the imaging field. While neither its absolute sharpness at the point of focus nor its out-of-focus image quality can quite match the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M, its wide-open performance is more than creditable, bordering on excellent for a lens of this type. More important, imaging performance improves as you stop down to f/1.4 and f/2, and holds this commendable level until about f/11, falling off only at f/16 due to the inevitable effects of diffraction at small apertures.
Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton, handheld at 1/60 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200, Leica M9.
Equally impressive was its performance in challenging backlit situations, where it delivered high-contrast, flare-free images in all but the worst cases of shooting directly into the sun. When I shot a handheld picture at f/1.1 of Christmas lights in Ridgewood, New Jersey and blew it up on the computer screen the form of the lights was clearly delineated and there was only a hint of color fringing—a severe test and a very good performance.
The verdict: Anyone in the market for a super-speed 50mm lens for a Leica M9 or any other M-mount camera, should consider the 50mm f/1.1 Nokton as a viable alternative. However, while it certainly represents a good value, at nearly $1,200 it is not exactly a lens for cheapskates. If you don't really need a super-speed lens, by all means look into the aforementioned 50mm f/2 Summicron-M, the 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, and the other two 50mm Voiglander lenses covered in this report.
50mm f/1.5 Nokton Aspherical
This fast normal lens actually comes in Leica 39mm screw mount with a screw-to-M adapter, and we hear there’s an M-bayonet version in the works that’s based on the same 6-element, 5-group optical design. Incidentally, the aspherical group in this lens is a compound aspheric formed by cementing an aspheric surface onto a conventional spherically ground surface, a technique used by Tamron, Sigma, and others.
It is far less expensive to produce than the ground aspheric elements used in many current Leica lenses. Maybe that’s one reason the 50mm f/1.5 is a relative bargain at only $409. The lens is also considerably smaller (2.2-inches long at infinity, 2.3 inches in diameter) and much lighter (a tad over 8 ounces), and generally handier than the f/1.1. Mounted on the Leica M9, it just about clears the 50mm finder frame line with its furnished lens hood removed. Another plus is that it focuses down to 0.9 meters or 3 feet, a bit closer than the 50mm f/1.1 Nokton or the 50mm f/3.5 Heliar.
In terms of sharpness and contrast, the 50mm f/1.5 Voigtlander’s performance is very good to excellent at maximum aperture, but not quite equal to the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M that costs over $3K more and sets the standard for this speed and focal length. High contrast is maintained and sharpness improves a bit on stopping down, particularly in the off-axis areas toward the edges and corners of the frame. It maintains this commendable level of performance until about f/11, and even at f/16 it’s still very good.
Flare and ghosting are very well controlled throughout, partially due to its 6-element, 5-group design that has fewer air-glass surfaces than most lenses of this speed, and partly due to efficient multi-coating. Like the 50mm f/1.1 it has a 10-bladed iris diaphragm that contributes to its above-average bokeh seen in out-of-focus areas of the image. All comments on focusing smoothness, finish, and scales are the same as for the f/1.1 Nokton.
Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5, 1/1000 sec at f/2.8, ISO 200, Leica M9.
Incidentally, the screw-to-M-bayonet adapter works well and allows the lens to be used on old screw-mount rangefinder cameras, but the lack of a raised mounting dot (there’s a red index mark on the adapter) makes mounting the lens a bit of a fiddle.
Verdict: A worthy, well-made contender at a very attractive price. It’s definitely a great value, but not quite equal to the high-priced spread.
The 50mm f/3.5 Voigtlander Heliar
In terms of its appearance, function, and design this collapsible nickel-finished 5-element, 3-group lens is a true classic, resembling the vintage 50mm f/3.5 and f/2.8 Leitz Elmars of yore. Its spring-loaded infinity catch, convenient focusing tab, even the engraving on the scales, are dead ringers for the out-of-production German originals.
In fact, the milled segments on the Heliar’s aperture ring are a lot more convenient for setting the f/stops from f/3.5-f/22 than the 50mm f/3.5 Elmar’s notorious inset aperture tab. The Heliar has detents at the full- and half-stop positions except between f/3.5 and f/4 and f/16 and f/22 but they are a bit too shallow. The good news is that the 10-bladed iris diaphragm helps in achieving smooth, natural looking transitions in out-of-focus image areas, in other words, good bokeh.
Incidentally the lens can be collapsed into all film and digital Leicas—including the M9—without fear of damaging the shutter or sensor, but I did not have the temerity to fire my (borrowed) M9 with the lens collapsed.
The nickel-plated Heliar is said to be a limited edition of 600 pieces (the original chrome-plated version of 2001 was an edition of 2000) and it weighs a mere 4-1/2 ounces and extends a little under an inch from the camera in collapsed position. It focuses very smoothly but with somewhat greater effort than the Elmars of the past, but it makes up for it by offering better imaging performance overall. Like the 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, it is a screw-mount lens that comes with an M bayonet adapter and unlike most modern 50mm lenses with an infinity lock it will work perfectly with the bar-code-able Type II Leica screw mount to M adapters. Minimum focus distance is 3 feet.
To say that I was impressed with the performance of this lens is an understatement. It acquitted itself superbly under all shooting conditions, delivering sharp, contrasty images across the imaging field at all apertures and shooting distances. At $699, it is certainly not inexpensive for a normal lens of modest aperture, but it will definitely give the costlier 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M a run for its money, falling short only in sheer speed and focusing smoothness.
Voigtlander 50mm f/3.5 Heliar, handheld at 1/4000 sec at f/4, ISO 200, Leica M9.
The Heliar is very well corrected for flare and ghosting, but since the front element is very close to the front ring of the lens, using the furnished sunshade is definitely recommended when shooting in high-flare situations. There is also something way cool about just walking around with this lens mounted on your Leica M9—it’s the ultimate back-to-the-future fashion statement!
I’m not quite sure how many of these 50mm Voigtlander lenses are actually going to wind up being mounted on Leica M9s, but they do represent a fascinating and eminently usable alternative for those who can scrape up sufficient cash to acquire this magnificent machine, but then have to put off acquiring an array of Leica lenses until their cash reserves are replenished. Needless to say, these lenses also fit many other M-series and (in two cases) screw-mount cameras, including rangefinder Canons as well. (The 50mm f/3.5 Heliar is not currently available at Adorama, but we're working on it!-Ed.)
Look for Part II: Leica Summarit-M Lens Field Test on Tuesday!