My mom and wife shot at f/0.95 in dim light / Photo by Joe Newman

Voigtlander Nokton 25mm for Micro 4/3 — harder, faster, better, stronger

For amateurs and hobbyists, buying photography gear is about striking the right balance between what you want, what you need and what you can afford. I asked myself those questions recently when deciding whether to buy a new 25mm lens for my Olympus E-M5.

I had pretty much convinced myself I needed a 25mm prime because it would fill a gap between my 17mm and 45mm prime lenses. For the Micro Four Thirds mirrorless system, the choice at 25mm comes down to the Voigtlander Nokton f/0.95 and the Panasonic Leica Summilux f/1.4. They’re both highly rated and the only  25mm non-cinema lenses available for MFT as of this writing (though a couple new 25mm lenses are expected this year).

In November, I wrote a blog post about seeing a Voigtlander Nokton 25mm up for auction on eBay, and while I didn’t bid on the lens at the time, blogging about it made me somewhat obsessed with actually finding out how it would handle on my E-M5. I thought about buying the lens (retail $999) but opted for renting it first, even if it meant spending $100 on the rental and shipping.

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I had read several reviews of the Voigtlander and looked at dozens of pictures taken with the lens posted to Flickr. So I knew what to expect — incredible low-light performance, creamy bokeh and soft focus when shot wide open at f/0.95, with overall sharpness much better stopped down to f/1.4.

But looking at pictures posted to the web and reading reviews will only get you so far. Investing in a lens like this requires some hands-on field testing. I got to say, I fell in love with this lens as soon as I picked it up.

The first thing you notice about this lens is how heavy and solidly built it is. The Voigtlander Nokton is about the same size as the plasticky 12-50mm kit lens that comes with the E-M5 but at 14.5 ounces, the Voigtlander is almost twice the weight. Imagine holding two rolls of quarters in your hand and you’ve got an idea what it’s like to pick up the Voigtlander, except, what you’re holding in your hand is the fastest lens made for the Micro Four Thirds system.

The other thing that sets it apart is that it’s a manual focus lens. The focus ring is smooth and responsive — not too tight, not too loose. Other bloggers have made the analogy that using the Voigtlander Nokton is like driving a stick shift. I’d have to agree with that assessment. Our family car is an Acura with an automatic transmission. It’s a fine ride and gives us everything we need in a car but sometimes I miss my old Mazda stick shift. It was just a lot more fun. The Acura … well, it’s just driving.

It’s the same with manual lenses. You have to do more than push a button. You have to take your time and concentrate on each shot. You have to own the experience.

I missed the focus on this photo by a fraction of an inch / Photo by Joe Newman

I missed the focus by an inch in this photo taken with the Voigtlander / Photo by Joe Newman

The biggest question I had was how much of the softness in the photos taken at f/0.95 was due to the lens’ optics and how much was due to the photographer’s ability to find the focus with such a razor-thin depth of field.

I think the answer is that it’s probably a little of both. The photos I took at f/0.95 were generally very soft. However, on some of them I found that my focus was off, if just by a fraction of an inch. In the picture of my wife above, her eyes and face are soft but it appears that a spot on her shoulder — maybe an inch past her eyes — is sharp. Before I go any further, I should emphasize that I’m not qualified to give a technical review of the Voigtlander Nokton. These are simply my impressions as an amateur. If you want technical details, check out a detailed review on Steve Huff’s blog.

That’s the irony of this Voigtlander Nokton. The thing that makes it so attractive, the large aperture and shallow depth of field, can make it frustratingly difficult to master. So on the one hand, while the wide aperture allows you to shoot in dim, poor and non-existent light, it also makes it that much harder to find the focus in those situations.

While I loved using the Voigtlander, I talked myself out of buying it because of the weight. After all, one  of the biggest advantages of a mirrorless system is not having to lug around a bulky body and heavy lens. Did I really want to carry the Voigtlander around for a street photography when the Panasonic-Leica would give me a slimmer, less intimidating profile, while also being a lot lighter? And that’s not even mentioning that the Panasonic is almost $500 less than the Voigtlander.

So, instead of buying the Voigtlander, I bought the Panasonic Leica 25mm. The reviews were excellent. People who used the Panasonic raved about it. The pictures on Flickr looked pretty good, too. Unfortunately, the one common criticism of the lens is the grinding noise it makes when used on the Olympus system.

I ignored those concerns because I figured, “how bad could it be?”

Bad. Awful. Terrible.

The lens took great photos but the grinding noise, which happened for no apparent reason when the camera was simply turned on, was maddening.

As soon as I got back from my trip to San Francisco, I boxed the Panasonic 25mm up and shipped it back to B&H.

It was time for another decision. Did I really need a 25 mm lens (the equivalent to the classic 50mm lens on a full-frame system)?

When I take a random photo walk, I usually carry either my 17mm or 45mm prime lens with me. The M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 is a great general purpose lens and gives you the classic 35mm equivalent that so many people say is the perfect focal length for street photography. And the 45mm M.Zuiko is in my opinion dollar for dollar the best MFT lens on the market. The 45mm lens excels as a portrait lens but is sometimes a little too tight for street photography.

The problem was I couldn’t get that Voigtlander Nokton out of my mind. Granted, there’s a certain cachet in carrying a Voigtlander, the oldest name in photography — older than Leica, older than Eastman and Kodak. In 1913, when the first Leica prototype was being developed in Wetzlar, Germany, the Voigtlander brand had already been producing the world’s finest optics for 157 years.

Today’s Voigtlander is the result of 257 years of classic German engineering, except for all intents and purposes, today’s Voigtlander is a Japanese lens. Cosina, based in Nagano, Japan, has leased the rights to use the Voigtlander name since 1999.

Some people might scoff at the idea of buying a lens because of a brand name. There’s some merit to that way of thinking. But on the other hand, there’s something to be said about trusting a brand that consistently produces well-designed, well-built products. I spent more on my Apple Mac Book than on any other computer or laptop that I had ever owned. Yet, it was a terrific investment because my Mac is four years old and still going strong.

Will the Voigtlander Nokton live up to its heritage of quality? During my brief time checking it out, it sure seemed so.

I may not actually need this lens but I certainly want it.

All images by Joe Newman.

My nieces shot with Voigtlander stopped down. How much? Who knows. The camera does not record EXIF info for the manual Voigtlander / Photo by Joe Newman

My nieces shot with the Voigtlander stopped down. How much? Who knows. The camera does not record EXIF info for the manual lens / Photo by Joe Newman

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.