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