I twisted the focus ring of the brand new Voigtlander Nokton 40mm F/1.2 and squinted through the electronic viewfinder of my Nikon Z. I watched as the petrified teeth and tongue of a Bengal tiger, dead for some hundred years, resolved slowly into focus. It was then that the word came to mind; anachronism.
Anachronism was all around me, in the natural history museum which felt suddenly more like a mausoleum. In the towering glass cases full of dead animals, in their rigid skins stuffed with desiccated straw, in the tanks of formaldehyde, in the grotesque jars of suspended sea creatures and in the thousands of pinned beetles and butterflies. I wondered; in the era of 4K video and augmented and virtual realities, in the era of 100 megapixel medium format digital sensors, the era of the internet, are these dead trophies in stuffy galleries of any real use?
Anachronism was there, too, in my hand. I was spinning it into focus to take another shot.
Nikon’s Z series mirror-less digital cameras are technically incredible. They do all the math, all the complicated arithmetic of calculating the exposure triangle. They can choose our ISO, shutter speed, and aperture in a millisecond. They can auto-focus near-instantaneously.
Along with their counterparts from Canon and Leica and Pentax and the other camera makers who make brand new cameras today, the Nikon Zs are the newest, brightest, fastest, and best cameras ever made. That is, they are if we mount the right lens.
But all of that stuff, that technical innovation and computerized magic, all of it evaporates when we pair the camera to a manual focus, manual aperture lens. Suddenly, the newest and best camera in the world becomes, at least in practical use, akin to a camera from the 1980s. It becomes an anachronism. It also becomes a paradox.
Because the Voigtlander Nokton 40mm F/1.2 Aspherical fast prime lens is amazing, and yet some photographers will hate it. It makes beautiful photos, and yet for some photographers, it won’t. It’s the best value fast lens on the market, and yet some would say that it’s not worth the $799. The lens is both very good, and not. It all depends on who’s holding it.
Specifications of the Voigtlander Nokton 40mm F/1.2 Aspherical
- Focal Length : 40mm
- Focus Type: Manual focus only
- Optical Design: 8 elements in 6 groups, 2 aspherical elements
- Maximum Aperture: f/1.2
- Minimum Aperture: f/22
- Diaphragm Blades: 10
- Lens Mount as Tested: Nikon Z (also available in Leica M and Sony E mounts)
- Lens Format Coverage: Full-frame (60mm equivalent focal length on crop sensor cameras)
- Angle of View: 54.8°
- Minimum Focus Distance: 11.8″ (30cm)
- Filter Size: 58mm front threads
- Size and Weight: 2.7 x 2.1″ (67.6 x 53.9mm); 11.1 oz (315g)
What’s a Voigtlander?
Voigtlander is one of the oldest names in photography. Founded by Johann Voigtlander in Vienna in 1756, the brand got their start producing mathematical instruments, precision mechanical products, and optical objectives. Voigtlander continued successfully in this business for decades, and by 1839, the company had passed to Johann’s grandson, Peter, who expanded the Voigtlander’s scope to include photographic optics.
Over the subsequent century, Voigtlander created numerous firsts in the photographic industry which would later go on to become commonplace. Voigtlander was the first company to create mathematically calculated precision lenses. These were developed by the German-Hungarian mathematics professor Josef Maximilian Petzval, with technical aid by Peter Voigtlander. They soon developed the fastest lens ever produced, the Petzval Portrait Lens, with an aperture of f/3.6. They invented the world’s first zoom lens for 35mm still photography (the 36-82mm f/2.8 Zoomar in 1959), and the world’s first compact 35mm camera with a built-in electronic flash (the Vitrona in 1965).
The German optical industry experienced great turmoil from the 1970s through the 1990s. Voigtlander’s factory closed in the early 1970s, and throughout the next twenty-odd years ownership of the Voigtlander name passed to various companies.
In 1999, the most recent holder of the Voigtlander name (Ringfoto GmbH & Co. ALFO Marketing KG) licensed the brand identity to the Japanese optics and camera company Cosina, who have produced Cosina Voigtlander lenses ever since. Today, Cosina’s Voigtlander lenses are available in Sony E, Leica M, Nikon Z, Fuji X, and other mounts, and they’re revered among photo nerds for their exceptional quality and relatively affordable prices.
The Voigtlander Nokton in Use
The Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f/1.2 Aspherical for Nikon Z mount is paradoxically old and new, at once.
It was just released at the end of 2022, and features much of what we’d expect of a brand-new, very modern lens. It’s an optically sophisticated lens that makes gorgeous images (with exceptions allowed for its extreme character when shot wide open). It has a super fast aperture that allows for both exceptional bokeh and superb low-light performance. It has electronic communication with the camera body, which allows transmission of EXIF data, allows in-camera image stabilization, and allows focusing aids such as focus confirmation, focus peaking, and focus enlargement.
But it’s also an old-fashioned lens.
Made of beautiful knurled and scalloped chunks of metal, as in the olden days, it feels wonderful in the hand and balances beautifully on the camera body. It’s extremely compact, and impeccably crafted, and includes a metal screw-in lens hood which reminds me of the many Zeiss and Leica lenses I’ve used in the past. The manual aperture control ring and manual focus methodology hearkens back to the heyday of film, and for people who enjoy manual focus, it’s a truly lovely lens.
I was sent this lens for testing, and when it arrived I was thrilled with the chance to shoot a lens with such a luxuriously fast aperture. At f/1.2, I knew that I’d be able to achieve dreamy bokeh and exceptional subject isolation. I mounted the lens to my camera, focused on a nearby curio, and fired the shutter. This instantly locked my camera. Frozen solid. Dead.
After a moment of controlled panic, I figured out what went wrong. Firmware update required. Now my testing could begin in earnest.
I spent the next three weeks using the lens in all manner of situations. Portraits at sunset, with a good working distance and the aperture set to f/4 for nice subject isolation. Snapshots in nature at f/1.2, f/5.6, f/8 and beyond. Craft nights with my children, shot wide open to draw attention to the exact point of focus. It handled it all very well.
And then came the lens’ best use-case, at the dimly-lit and subject-dense Harvard Museum of Natural History.
In the darkened galleries of the museum I spun the aperture ring to wide open and shot, and shot, and shot. In this place, my photographic talent aside, the lens performed masterfully. No corner of the museum was too dark, no specimen too shrouded in shadow. That massive aperture devoured the light and turned it into pictures like very few lenses can.
I was able to focus on one specific beetle amongst hundreds. And if more context was needed, a quick spin of the dial brought more depth of field.
Focusing manually is naturally not as simple as using a fast auto-focus lens. But it’s not prohibitively cumbersome either. The Voigtlander lens is capable of focus confirmation, focus peaking, and focus enlargement. I used them all, and they all work well.
Different users will need to determine their own particular favorite focusing aid. Mine is focus confirmation. Simply spin the focus ring and the focus indicator in the viewfinder or on the camera’s LCD will light up green when the point of focus is in sharp focus. An afternoon of this is all it takes to become familiar, and while it’s never as fast as a fast auto-focus lens, zone focusing is (and in fact, it’s faster). With the Nokton’s depth of field scale, zone focusing is as easy as it is with any manual focus lens.
Image Quality Wide Open and Stopped Down
The Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f/1.2 Aspherical is not just paradoxical in its practical methodology, blending dichotomous elements of old and new, it’s similarly dichotomous in the images it can make.
Shot wide open at f/1.2 it makes surprisingly dreamy images. They’re diaphanous and soft and low in contrast. Even with the lens slightly stopped down to f/2, there’s a significantly dreamy quality to the images this lens makes. Shots at this aperture remind me of those from a sixty-year-old Japanese lens more than they do images from a modern one.
While this dreamy softness will certainly be off-putting to photographers who live and die by the pixels they peep, there’s another camp of photo nerd who will simply melt. These photogs would describe the lens as characterful.
The optical aberrations I’ve found with the lens are pretty typical of fast lenses. Vignetting is fairly extreme at f/1.2. Naturally this vignetting resolves as we stop the aperture down, and by f/4 it’s restrained enough to be correctable in post-processing, but at f/1.2 through to f/4 we need to consider the vignetting with every photo we make. And when shooting wide open or at f/2, we should also remember that chromatic aberration does occur. This resolves significantly by f/2, but does not disappear completely until f/4. Distortion is a non-issue.
Bokeh is quite beautiful. Backgrounds are blurred very well. When shooting into bright light sources wide open, highlight bokeh is round in the center of the frame, but turns to cats-eye shape on the edges of the frame. Bokeh highlights become geometric when we stop down even incrementally, so those who want pure, round bokeh balls will need to stay wide open at f/1.2.
But if we stop the lens down, things change considerably.
At f/4, the lens has resolved to a sharp imaging device. Gone is the dreamy blur and the low contrast. Gone is the vignetting. At f/5.6 and f/8 the Voigtlander Nokton is a scalpel, capable of impressive sharpness and fantastic micro-contrast. Yet even at these stopped-down apertures, the lens retains the artistic rendering that we enjoy wide open.
Image Samples Gallery
The Voigtlander Nokton 40mm F/1.2 Aspherical (available in Nikon Z, Leica M, and Sony E mounts) is an interesting lens. Anachronistic in its methodology and paradoxical in its rendering, it’s a lens that will appeal to as many photographers as it offends. It makes dreamy and characterful images wide open, yet clinically sharp ones when stopped down. It’s old fashioned, with its manual focusing, and yet modern enough in the ways that it implements that old-fashioned manual input.
That said, for the thoroughly modern photographer who needs a fast aperture and who enjoys fast auto-focus and the absolute highest image quality, there are better options (though they’re all much larger and much more expensive than this $799 Voigtlander lens).
The simple breakdown is this – there are no auto-focus lenses available with an aperture this fast, in a size this small, at a price this low. For those of us who love to turn focus rings and who enjoy the unidentifiable artistic flourishes that come with shooting older, fast lenses, the Nokton 40mm F/1.2 is one to own.
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