Testing the Voigtländer¹ 29mm f/0.8 Super Nokton for m43

(¹umlauts matter, every other Internet review I’ve seen has lazily excluded them.  It’s a sign of respect for the language & culture from which the company’s name was founded.  My surname has been anglicized to Chung but that isn’t even close to the correct pronunciation in Chinese.  It’s the 21st century and we should be aware of how the dominance of the English speaking world has in the past misappropriated foreign words.  This is not the same as dressing up as a Ming dynasty Chinese peasant for Hallowe’en.  For that you have my blessing.) 

 

I’ve been wanting to test the fastest lens in the m43 system for more than a year but Voigtländer Canada had no samples to lend so I ended up renting this copy from Lens Rentals.   Similarly the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 was rented from my local photo store Vistek, so I should have no bias in this review.

The Super Nokton is actually advertised as the fastest camera lens in the world.  To be more accurate it is the fastest native camera lens in the world – there have been faster lenses used in X-Ray machines that have been adapted for use on camera bodies.  The 29mm f/0.8 is like all the models in Voigtländer’s fast series of m43 primes.  That is, quality all metal construction with modern antireflective coatings and a modern optical prescription of 11 elements in 7 groups with two aspherical elements.   I have their 42.5 mm f/0.95 lens and it is a joy to behold, hold and to use.  But I rarely ever use it.  Most of my low light photography involves movement and I need the accuracy and speed of AF to exploit those circumstances.  And the eye watering price of $1800 USD also gives pause to acquisition.

So let’s see how good the Super Nokton is, and how it compares to two alternative lenses that also deliver that ultra fast f/0.8 performance.

There are quite a few inexpensive (≈ $300 USD) Chinese and Russian made manual focus 50mm f/1.2 lens in EF mount which can be used with 0.71x EF-m43 focal reducer adaptors to achieve a 35mm f/0.8 lens.  But, as in other parts of this blog, I don’t advocate spending money on products produced by dictatorships that oppose the free democratic countries of the world.  I advise picking up a 1960s era Canon FL 55 mm f/1.2 for around $200 USD and converting the bayonet mount to an EF mount using Ed Mika‘s machined brass conversion kit.   The financial outlay will be similar but you will have a Japanese heirloom lens to keep forever.

Second hand, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 is readily available and typically purchased for under $1000 USD.  I did not have to budget for the focal reducer since I’ve had mine for many years but the interesting observation is that the inexpensive Chinese made Vitrox functioned very poorly.   AF was slow and erratic.  The 5 element Metabones Speedbooster Ultra however functioned excellently with rapid and accurate AF.  Clearly the Chinese were not able to steal the Metabones code that translates Olympus AF signals to Canon AF signals, but they were able to copy the optical prescription of the original 4 element Metabones Speedbooster.  The Vitrox also did not play well with the Canon FL 55mm causing the image to lock up and black out when the shutter was released. 

LensChart

I’ve described in the past the process I use to test lens sharpness and how these MTF curves are generated.

MTF
MTF10 shown in red, MTF30 in green. The Voigtländer, Canon FL and Canon EF lenses tested at f/0.8 and at f/2.8.  All three lenses do benefit in increased off center sharpness when stopped down to f/2.8 but the Canon EF shows the smallest difference.  The Canon EF shows the best center sharpness but the Voigtländer shows the most consistent sharpness across the entire frame.  As expected from a vintage lens, the Canon FL is the weakest performer of the three but it’s difficult to predict if one could perceive these sharpness levels visually and without viewing the image at full scale.

There is also a lot more to a lens than sharpness performance.  Handling and quality of bokeh are important to me.    I mounted the manual focus lens onto the E-M1.2 and the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 with Metabones Speedbooster Ultra on the E-M1X.  Both camera bodies were mounted to a piece of square aluminum tube which in turn was mounted on a tripod.  This allowed me to take simultaneous shots of the same FOV which yields more useful comparisons.  The E-M1X was in C-AF mode with face and eye recognition on and both bodies were shooting at sequential low burst rate.  One of the best venues to test fast lenses is the action filled and unevenly lit world of professional ballroom dancing competitions.    Rarely is the entire body of a dancer in the same focal plane so faces become well isolated and the limbs disappear into the unfocused background bokeh as well as the action induced blur of slower shutter speeds.  (you can increase the zoom level of your browser to see the images closer to full scale so that they fill the entire screen and the captions fall below them)

244685752_10226582355053463_855339410657741857_n
Shooting the same FOV simultaneously with the Voigtländer Super Nokton and the Canon EF 50mm.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Voigtländer Super Nokton, 1/200 s ISO200 f/0.8   I forgot to bring any of the lens hoods so there is considerable glare from the overhead floodlights in some images.   All Super Nokton images have been cropped to give them the approximate same image scale as the Canon EF which at 35mm has the slight focal length advantage.  I could not use the EVF but focused by increasing the magnification by 3x on the back screen.  Despite the f/0.8 speed, the lens handles very well and focus is easy to attain but the magnified view does not frame the image correctly.  I was focusing with the ring and index finger and triggering the shutter with the thumb of my left hand and shooting the other body with my right hand and also correcting the framing as the full image appears when the shutter is tripped.   There is too much to do.
Frame2V
Canon EF 50mm f/0.8 at 1/160s, ISO200. In the past I’ve had to shoot at ISO3200 when using conventional f/1.8 lenses in such a setting.  When the dancers are near the back of the dance floor, their heads are too small to be identified by the camera’s face recognition system and you to have to rely on the central cluster of AF squares to determine focus.  I believe this couple is performing the Quickstep in Ballroom Dancing in this and the following pair of images.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Voigtländer Super Nokton, 1/160s, ISO200, f/0.8 As the dancers approach the front of the dance floor I don’t have time to refocus. If I was just managing one camera and viewing through the EVF I probably would be able to do so.
Frame1EF
Canon EF 50mm f/0.8, 1/500, ISO200. But the E-M1X had no problems getting a good lock for facial focus.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Voigtländer Super Nokton, 1/125s, ISO200, f/0.8 its easier to attain focus when the dancers are travelling along the length of the back of the dance floor and then take a series of images but if they move more erratically as in Latin Dancing, it becomes much harder to get sharp manual focus images since there is always a slight lag between focus and shutter release. I also didn’t care much for these photos because the people in them are too far away for my liking.
Frame3EF
Canon EF 50mm f/0.8, 1/80s ISO200. Both lenses appear to give similar performance but the bokeh of the Canon appears more out of focus, more blurry than the Voigtländer.  Doing the Tango.
BestEF
Canon EF 50mm f/0.8 1/250s ISO200. I abandon the dual camera body rig and shoot normally with one camera body at a time. The beautiful isolation of the dance couple possible with super fast aperture.  Doing the Foxtrot.
LatinEF
Canon EF 50mm f/0.8 1/160s ISO200. Slower shutter blurs the motion of the female partner’s left arm and flying hem of her dress as she rotates away from her partner during the Samba.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Voigtländer Super Nokton 1/60s ISO200, f/0.8 Super slow shutter speeds shows so much in motion with this female dancer but also the poise and training that keeps her upper torso and face perfectly held in rigid position during the Cha Cha.  And smiling all the time.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Voigtländer Super Nokton 1/125s, ISO200 f/0.8  During the Cha Cha as both partners pause momentarily to strike a characteristic Latin Dance pose allowing me to take what amounts to be a static portrait showing the machismo of the male Latin Dancer.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
An example of the Canon FL 55mm f/0.8 (effective focal length of 39mm) 1/100s, ISO 200. I think the image quality is similar but perhaps a little softer and a little darker due to poorer transmission of light. Still an incredibly economical way to achieve f/0.8.  Doing the Waltz.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A closer shot with the Canon FL 55mm f/0.8, 1/125s ISO 200. It is hard to determine any IQ differences between it and either of the Canon EF or Voigtländer.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Voigtländer Super Nokton, 1/320s, ISO200, f/0.8   I failed to register the name of this apparently well known dance couple who performed a fantastic demonstration routine.

I do like the way the Super Nokton handles and delivers images but I did observe some weirdness.  The lens doesn’t write its model name or focal length to the EXIF but the image stabilization appears to be functioning normally and therefore the camera body must know what the focal length is.  For ballroom dancing, I would take the AF of the Canon any day and with so many used copies of the Canon available on the market, the price is currently much less expensive than the Voigtländer.   The Canon FL 55mm is the king of economy but its diminutive size actually works against it, the longer barrel of the Voigtländer makes it easier to focus and hold.  The Ed Mika conversion also accurately transmitted its focal length to the camera body with adjustment made by the focal reducer and written accurately to EXIF.   Vintage lenses will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to sharpness and light transmission but I really can’t see any differences between the images produced by all three lenses.   I did not comment upon chromatic aberration (or any field distortion) since I don’t have the ability to quantify them but fast lenses without extra low dispersion glass elements will demonstrate this under brightly lit conditions.

 

 

¹to continue my rant further I kept this at the end in case people want to skip it.  Not to flame my dear American cousins but I’ve always objected to their pronunciation of the University of Notre Dame and the city of Détroit.    Both are French words.  They should be pronounced in the fashion that the French intended for them to be pronounced, as a measure of respect.  Otherwise choose a different name.  My Canadian countrymen are not guiltless either.   Both Montréal and Québec are mispronounced by the English speaking population of Canada …. and we have even less of an excuse because the province of Québec is so strongly Franophone and I was taught French in the public school system from Grade 5 onwards.  There are examples of correct foreign word usage in English.  People submit their resumes when applying for a new job and they pronounce it with both French é’s  (résumé).

 

4 Comments

  1. Great review, and agree, vintage optics its fablous in this case, most caracter and cinematic rendering, i love a japanease, russian and germany (of course) rapid
    lens in MFT Bodies:)

    Like

  2. It’s not auto-focus, but my favourite speed demon is the Olympus OM Zuiko 50mm ƒ/1.2 on a Metabones Speedbooster Ultra, for an effective 35mm ƒ/0.8. The combo is tiny and light, and takes 49mm filters!

    Yes, you do give up something in manual focus. But I use a focus-sweeping technique to guaranty an in-focus shot on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II.

    I set it up for Pro Capture, which takes 60 full-resolution raw images in one second. It begins recording these when you half-press the shutter, and continues for some frames after you fully press the shutter, allowing you to get the peak of action at some point in the stack.

    As soon as I half-press the shutter, I sweep the focus through a limited range. Now, I have a 60-frame focus stack from which to pull the best shot, or even with which I can do a regular focus stack for more depth-of-field.

    With careful shopping, I got the 50/1.2 in near-mint condition for US$364.20 from KEH.

    Like

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