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Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.5

An absolutely stunning lens with a near-perfect mix of image quality, film-look character and great handling.

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I very nearly didn't this lens. It was nothing to do with image quality or outward appearance but all to do with me being so stuck in the world of autofocus. After an early trip to the Goodwood Festival of Speed however, I fell in love and it's barely left my X-Pro2 since.

If you're just looking for the more review-based content (as close as I get), jump over the background story now.

Too much backstory

Having got interested in the possibilities of older manual lenses on the mirrorless Fuji cameras, I picked up three relatively cheap vintage lenses from KEH on a trip to San Francisco for work: an Asahi Pentax Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 55mm 1.8, Asahi SMC Pentax-M 135mm 3.5 and, because it looked ridiculous and was so cheap, a Soligor 100-300mm f5 macro. A weekend trip down to the Big Sur coast got me excited by these manual lenses and I started looking into what could be had if I spent some 'real' money on an older lens, which eventually led me to the Voigtländer Nokton 50mm 1.5.

After a bit of searching once back in the UK, I picked up a Nokton 50mm 1.5 on ebay for around £400. Having won the auction, my heart initially sank when I realised too late that I'd just spent quite a lot on the older M39/LTM thread-mount version rather than the recently updated version. A frantic bit of googling however, reassured me that the older lenses were optically pretty much the same as the newer ones.

So back to why I almost didn't this lens. The ebay mix-up certainly didn't help, but I found for the first week or two that I just didn't tend to put the lens on either of my cameras while out and about. I wasn't very confident manually-focusing yet (even with focus peaking) and so would default to using one of the Fuji-native AF lenses. 

Then came the Goodwood Festival of Speed, one of my favourite events and two days of motorsport heaven. 

I still didn't use the Nokton too much during the first day, mainly using a rented Fuji 100-400 to get close to the action and the 16-55 as a walk-around lens and spending the majority of the day up on the forest rally stage. As the day wound down though and I packed all the big gear into my backpack, I decided to put the Nokton on my X-Pro2 for a long, leisurely walk back through the festival and eventually to my car.


“As I walked to the top of the hill, I carried my X-Pro2 with the fantastic Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 lens I'd recently bought and played with shooting wide open through the trees as I went.” The forest stage, Jul 2018

Revelation! With the crowds dispersed, dust still hanging in the forest air and lovely early-evening light I could take my time and just play this new lens. The relatively long focal length when on a crop sensor (it works out at roughly a 75/76mm full frame equivalent) that bright f/1.5 maximum aperture was lovely for separating trees in the forest and I could already see that more film-like rendering on the back of the camera.

As I left the forest and wandered back through the festival, I always like to walk through the paddock at the end of the day at FoS: the teams are mostly still there finishing up work on the cars and chatting to the few remaining visitors; the light is lovely and golden and there's space to breath unlike the rest of the day. With the X-Pro2/Nokton combo in hand, I started snapping shots of the cars in the paddock and fell in love with the image quality. 

“I had the beautiful Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.5 on my Fuji X-Pro2 for walking around the emptying paddock in the evening magic hour.”Nigel Mansell's Williams FW14B, Mar 2018

That longer focal length also allowed me to set up a few Brenizer-style shots of the cars from close up, this one of Nigel Mansell's title-winning Williams FW14B.

The next day of FoS, the Voigtländer didn't leave my X-Pro2 and it's rarely left that body ever since.

A review of sorts

As you may have guessed by now, I'm not writing your standard review here, but telling my story this lens. That said, I'll now start to review my use of this lens and how it's fitted my style.

Cost

At the £400 I paid second-hand—or £699 for a new copy in M-mount—clearly the Nokton is not the kind of obvious bargain vintage lenses can provide (e.g. I paid only $39 for the Takumar 55mm 1.8). That said, it's also not hugely expensive compared to a modern lens: the Fuji 50mm f2 is just over £400 while the 56mm 1.2 is either £850 or £1100 depending on whether you get the APD version. You clearly lose autofocus but I've found I'm more than happy to lose that crutch on this lens in exchange for the buttery smooth image quality.

Build & handling

As a manual lens, the Nokton 50mm 1.5 is also relatively small for its focal length and bright aperture. I've arranged it with the closest set of lenses I have for comparison and, even with the extra size of the L39-FX adapter for use on a Fuji body, it's a compact object which makes it great as a walk-around lens.


Left-to-right: Fuji 56mm 1.2, Voigtländer Nokton 50mm 1.5, Fuji 35mm 1.4, Fuji 35mm f2, Fuji 23mm f2

As you can see, the Nokton with mount adapter is similar in overall size to my slightly battered Fuji 35mm f1.4. 

This is a solid piece of metal, with a good weight in the hand. Fujinon lenses have metal bodies giving them a quality feel, but they're still quite light. The Nokton really feels like a chunk of metal and glass. The focus ring is nice and smooth, with a relatively short throw while the aperture ring sits at the front of the lens, ahead of the focus ring; in combination with the great focus-peaking on Fuji cameras it's a pleasure to focus manually. 

The Nokton is different in operation and layout to Fuji's own lenses but I got used to it very quickly (it also rotates the opposite way to Fuji aperture rings). The aperture ring moves in half-stop clicks, which is fine for a lens like this—I tend to be shooting at or close to wide open, or stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 anyway.

love the look of this lens, particularly mounted to the X-Pro2 (and to the Leica M I briefly owned). I realise some disagree, but the brushed metal against the black rangefinder body just puts me in the mood for shooting interesting pictures. It comes with a small metal screw-on lens hood and slip-on cap that complete the look and provide a little protection from flaring or glancing scratches. As a designer, I even like the typography around the front element and the 'ASPHERICAL' picked out in red.

While we're talking about looks, I have to say I'm not as keen on the updated 'Vintage Line' form of this lens with the pinched-in waist and so am really quite happy this older thread-mount version.

Image quality

Location scouting: Northumbrian textures, Jul 2018 | FUJIFILM X-Pro2

The Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f1.5 is a sharp lens, but not in the vein of modern digital lenses. All the detail you'd generally want is there, while maintaining enough softness to have some character. I feel like it creates nice smooth images that don't feel too 'digital' even on digital cameras. If you want more purely sharp lenses, use a modern one; Fujifilms lenses are fantastic for sharpness. The Voigtländer trades a little of that sharpness for a different feel.

While portraits aren't generally my thing, and indeed I've largely used this lens for landscape scouting and street shots, it's a great portraits lens, particularly that extra focal length on a crop sensor. I used it a bit on a brand shoot I ran for Funding Circle earlier this year—we were shooting sunrise at King Edward's Bay in Tynemouth and as usual I had the Nokton on my X-Pro2 as a light second camera, mostly intending to document our day.

Sunrise shot at King Edward's Bay, Tynemouth

The light was so good though that I popped down and got a second angle as Radek shot the main images with the X-Pro2/Nokton combo and I just love the results.

There isn't much vignetting or distortion to the Nokton (vignetting would always be better on the crop sensor, but I've also used it on a full frame Leica M), helping to give nice easy files to work with in post.

At risk of sounding too philosophical though, as much of the image quality of this lens, for me, comes from the types of images it encourages me to take as the pixel-peeped attributes of the resulting data. I fell in love with Fujifilm X cameras because they reignited a love of making images in me. This Voigtländer lens does the same job, for me: it evokes a feeling in me that makes me take photographs in a different way. Forcing me to manually focus helps, but it makes manual focusing pleasurable enough that I don't often resent the lack of AF, even as someone brought up relying on it.

In summary

Like the broken Bronica S2 I briefly owned, the original Fuji X100 and even the X-Pro2, the Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f1.5 is one of those pieces of equipment that transcends mere tool and becomes a cherished friend; one that changes the way I think about and make photographs.

The only piece of camera equipment I've refused to sell or give away so far has been my original Fujifilm X100: it captured my heart and a brief brush with losing it (story for another day) reinforced that it's a camera not to willingly part with. While the Nokton is not quite there yet, I do think I'd regret selling it, and it may yet make it into the untouchable club within my collection before too long.

Much like the original Fujifilm X100, there are technically better products out there to do the same job. But when you find gear that inspires you to create and to see differently, hang on to it. Maybe the Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f1.5 could do that for you.

Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.5 images

A selection of images taken with the lovely Nokton

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