John Camp loaned me this lens to play with because he thought it would amuse me. Indeed, it did. Understand that this is a $1,200 toy, a specialized bauble for them what demands fractional aperture numbers (although ƒ/0.95 is a bare 1/6th stop beyond ƒ/1, so for the rest of this article, I'm just gonna say ƒ/1). Idiosyncratic barely begins to describe this optic; I don't think I've ever encountered a lens with more character, and that's both good and bad.
The lens is compact and dense. Only about two and a half inches in diameter and length, it weighs almost a pound. The build impresses. Please understand that I am not especially sensitive to build quality, which means my threshold for caring is extremely high. I've handled and used my share of Leica equipment. I'd say it's nice. That's it. Meh, so sue me. This lens, though, it's like a work of art.
The 300-degree helical runs from infinity down to about 1:4—essentially macro on a sensor as small as 4/3 (and I will get back to that). It needs that wide swing; at ƒ/1, submillimeter movements produce observable changes in sharpness. But, oh, does it swing. The focusing action is not "smooth as silk"—silk has a perceivable friction. This is silk, slathered with fresh creamery butter, gliding on a bed of frozen, polished teflon. There is no sense of mechanical contact whatsoever, just a preternaturally smooth resistance that accommodates precise focusing movements.
The aperture ring is almost as remarkable. It feels like one barely has to nudge the ring when changing apertures, yet each half-stop detent locks so firmly into place you'll never feel there's a risk of accidentally moving the ring.
OK, enough hardware fetishism. Does this thing actually make decent photos? Well, umm, kinda, sorta depends.
Light falloff, wide open, is, as you'd expect, substantial. This is an ƒ/1 lens on-axis, but by the time you get to the near edge, exposure's more like ƒ/1.4. You'll be down 1 2/3 stops from center to corner. No shock, really; just be aware that underexposure when using this lens wide-open may prove hazardous. Falloff improves rapidly: at ƒ/2 brightness is quite uniform over the entire field, down less than 1/2 stop at the most extreme corners.
Figure 1. Central crops from 3kx4k-pixel photographs show that on-axis the Nokton cleans up very rapidly. Wide-open, even a few score pixels off-axis you start to see aberrations. (click to see at 100% scale)
Wide open, the lens is sharp-but-soft in the very center. Central image quality picks up very rapidly with smaller apertures; stopping down just to ƒ/1.2 makes a substantial difference (fig. 1). By the time you hit ƒ/2 the image quality on-axis is excellent and is as good as it gets—very impressive. Even normal lenses rarely peak out at just two stops below maximum aperture.
Off-axis? Whole 'nuther story. Wide open, you don't have to move more than a few millimeters from dead center to start seeing coma tails. That's observable even in the very small central sections shown in figure 1, which are cropped from 3kx4k-pixel images.
The quality gets dramatically worse the further one moves off axis. Eighty percent of the way out (figure 2) it's horrendous. At ƒ/1 and ƒ/1.2 there's very little difference. It's so awful that if Coca-Cola made this lens, it would be giving "Coke bottle bottom lenses" a bad name.
Some reviewers describe this quality as being "dreamy" or "glowing." I'd say that's much the same way a realtor will describe a broom-closet-sized studio apartment as "cozy" or "intimate." Not me, sorry. Try "schmeary," as in what you'd see if you wiped off your fingers off on the lens after eating a nice bagel with plenty schmear.
Get beyond ƒ/1.2 and the image cleans up rapidly. The problem is the image quality has such a long way to go that you don't really clean up the 80% zone until you hit ƒ/5.6, and the extreme corners require ƒ/8–ƒ/11.
This is the upper left quadrant of an ƒ/1.6 photo at 50% scale (when you click on the image). That gives a fair impression, on screen, of what an 8x10 or 11x14 print would look like. Observe the fairly sharp boundary between good and poor image quality at about 75% of the way out from center.
The falloff in quality as you move off-axis is unusual. It's abrupt; there's a well-defined circle of decent image quality outside of which the quality plummets like Columbus sailing off the edge of the world, as fig. 3 illustrates. At ƒ/5.6, you've got 90% coverage with decent image quality. If you're inclined to a bit of cropping, you'd be set. ƒ/8 is probably your best choice for overall quality (figures 4 and 5), while ƒ/11 gives you uniformly sharp photos all the way to the corners.
This lens lets you have it good or have it fast, but ya gotta choose one.
It'll also let you have it close. As I mentioned, it focuses down to about 1:4. With a sensor that measures only 13x17mm, that's a pretty tight closeup. Is it any good there? Well, it's better than I expected. There's a huge amount of barrel distortion (figure 6), no big surprise in a lens that isn't specifically corrected for extremely close work. But, it's nice clean barrel distortion that Photoshop can get rid of perfectly (figure 7). You'll need to stop down, of course, for anything resembling good quality corner-to-corner. At the macro end of things, I'd probably set it as ƒ/11 and forget it. Do that, though, and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Yeah, better at the center than the corners, but acceptable everywhere (figure 8).
Figure 6. ƒ/11 is the ideal "macro" aperture for this lens, which can focus down to about 1:4 magnification. This is a photograph of an iPad screen. The funny plaid pattern is an artifact of sampling this image down to fit in 800 pixels; it's not in the original photo.
If I were still doing lots of nightclub photography, I'd snap this lens up instanter. It's maximum-aperture flaws wouldn't be obvious in that kind of setting and stopped (way!) down it's a credible performer in normal situations.
Ctein looks into interesting things on a weekly basis on TOP. His column usually appears on Wednesdays—this week the Laz. Ed. delayed it.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Noons: "Been using this baby on my E-PL1 since it came out. Rarely use any other fixed lens with this camera, with the possible exception of a very old Tamron Adaptall 28mm that is absolutely sublime on Micro 4/3 and a Canon FD 200mm ƒ/2.8 that has incredible bokeh. If I have to take interior portraits on available light, this ƒ/0.95 lens is the first grab. It is amazing for what it was designed for. And therein lies the rub: it is not a lens for landscape shots! [Just for the record, Ctein didn't say it was. He merely used a landscape shot to illustrate the qualities of the lens he was examining. It's just an illustration, not a recommendation of what you should shoot. —Ed.] Nor do I think anyone in their right mind would try such with a ƒ/0.95 aperture, whoever the maker might be! Thanks, Voigtländer, for putting out an affordable kick-ass-aperture normal lens."
Featured Comment by Min Wei: "Wow, my flickr view went out of the roof today because Mike Plews' comment mentioned my Canon 50mm ƒ/0.95 with Sony Nex-5N combo, ha ha. [Mike linked to a picture of Min's camera and lens yesterday. —Ed.] For me, the ƒ/0.95 is for night shots and bokeh shots. I mainly use my Canon 50mm ƒ/0.95 with my Canon 7 rangefinder. It allows me to shoot low ISO films in low light situations without pushing the films.
"And of course the bokeh! I just love it! Here is one shot I took with an ISO 64 film at night at ƒ/0.95. Here is the one taken with the Sony Nex-3:
Photo by Min Wei
"And about using the Voigtländer lens for landscape shots. I say why not. Yes, ƒ/0.95 is the key point of this lens. It's good for low light shooting and bokeh shots. At same time, many people will attach this lens to their Micro 4/3 camera and keep it on most of the time. The performance at other aperture other than at ƒ/0.95 is definitely worth checking! And, there is at least one use for shooting landscape at infinity, wide open—shooting landscape scenes with stars and the Milky Way at night! How cool is that! Just my two cents."