Voigtländer 40mm 1.4 Nokton Classic MC Review

Maybe you’ve read my previous entry, detailing all the things wrong with the current three 35mm 1.4 lenses available in Leica M mount.

I got some good recommendations but ultimately, my decision came down to price and ergonomics.  It took a lot of consideration and reading but I finally made a decision.

But not 35mm.

40mm.

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The Voigtländer 40mm 1.4 Nokton Classic MC differs only very slightly from the Voigtländer 35mm 1.4 Nokton Classic MC but they are both Summilux clones.

I have chosen the MC (Multi Coated) version as my goal is a more modern look than the vintage Leitz lenes I currently own.  If you want to capitalize on flare and glow, look into the SC (Single Coated) version (or buy a vintage Leitz and run it without a hood!)

The main advantage of the 40 over the 35 is that there is no appreciable barrel distortion or focus shift, as are present in the 35.  Some have observed slightly higher resolution with the 40mm version also.  But the distortion was a pivot for me because, among other things, I like to shoot walls.

Another advantage is cost.  The CV 35/1.4 costs about $630 retail and the 40/1.4 is about $450 retail.  Both lenses take the same LH-6 lens hood at $70 retail.  So with the 40, you’re not only saving $180 but you’re also positioning yourself at about one fourth the cost of a typical 1967 Leitz 35mm 1.4 Summilux on which these lenses are based.

The disadvantage of the 40mm is that Leica M’s and my Bessa R2 do not support 40mm frame-lines.  The lens brings up 50mm lines on my M6 TTL when mounted.  Some people modify the lens to bring up the 35mm instead.  Some really crazy people have 40mm frame-lines installed on their Leica.  I suspect that most people, unless this is their only normal lens, just guess.

A second potential disadvantage of the 40/1.4 Nokton vs the ’67 35 Lux is durability.  My main concern with Cosina Voigtländer is with build quality.  As I’ve learned with their other lenses, durability can be very different than perceived build quality.  Of the three other CV lenses I’ve owned, I, who am not in the habit of abusing my gear, have manged to break two of these three lenses, twice each.

On the other hand, Leitz isn’t perfect.  Their vintage lenses can take a beating for sure but they are not without fail.  My 1949 Leitz Summarit was built in Wetzlar, purchased serviced from Tamarkin but suffered a pretty light bump a couple years ago and had to be rebuilt.  So what is more reliable?  A 1967 Leitz, made in Canada that has been used and potentially serviced or a 2019 Voigtländer made in Japan that is new but not made to the same tight tolerances?

I went for the Voigt because I like to support companies building new film-friendly products and it was cheap enough that I didn’t really even have to think about the purchase.  Additionally, as with any vintage lens, there’s sample variation so you might have to go through a few copies to find one that’s right for you.  So it was nice to just buy one and be done.

I haven’t bought a NEW lens in some time and forgot how fun it is!

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When I removed the 40/1.4 from it’s wrapper, the sweet fragrance of fresh machine oil permeated the air.  Voigtländer lenses smell wonderful when new!  It’s not like opening a new Nikon DSLR and getting hit with that ozone eating rubber/plastic/warm electronics smell.  Out of the gate, the CV lens already appeals to the senses..

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As expected, the 40/1.4 is absolutely tiny.  I run fast lenses on my cameras which are usually physically larger than their slower siblings.  An important reason I chose this lens is that I liked the idea of having a very small, normal lens for my M6 TTL.  With larger lenses mounted to an M body, one forgets how small the set-up can be.  And smallness has always been a virtue of rangefinder photography.  This Nokton is one of the smallest normal M mount lenses in existence yet one of the fastest.  Quite a unique and desirable combination.

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Speaking of size, some folks don’t spring for the optional LH-6 hood but I would highly recommend “throwing shade.”  While the MC version of the Nokton may prevent flare adequately, this lens is so small that I cannot safely hold the camera by the lens.  Installing the bayonet mount LH-6 hood does cause slight finder blockage but it’s vented and allows me to hold the camera/lens more confidently and safely.  I was even a bit afraid of handling the camera/lens withOUT the hood mounted because it makes for a small but dense rig that feels easy to drop.  With the hood installed, handling is reminiscent of running a collapsible lens that is easily cradled between the thumb and forefinger.

So yeah, I highly recommend the hood!

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The 7 element/6 group optical formula of the 40mm Nokton is nearly a direct copy of the 1967 35mm Summilux which was a 7 element/5 group.  And that is where the “Classic” label on the Nokton comes from.  The idea is that it’s supposed to give the shooter that classic photojournalist rendering.

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Image from Voigtländer

The excitement of un-boxing and shooting on a brand new lens died off rather quickly however, after processing my first few rolls.

Several people and reviews said it.  This lens is soft at full aperture.  And I kind of wrote it off because the lens checked all the other boxes for me and I’m not a sharpness junky anyway.  You also never know exactly how people are shooting/conducting their tests and drawing opinions.  But after only a few rolls, it was clear that The 40/1.4 Nokton, even the MC version, was going to be a bit of a disappointment at 1.4.

Wide open/close distance performance has a classic painterly feel that I believe the optics designer was going for and is perhaps comparable to the 67 ‘Lux.  But part of my reason for buying a 35/40 was to get a good low light performer for bar scenes and wedding receptions.  Perhaps I was over ambitious.  The 40/1.4 certainly delivers when stopping down but full aperture is just plain soft in my opinion, without much redemption in the out of focus area for it, where the highlights are glowy, just like a vintage, un-serviced, un-hooded Leitz.  But I guess that’s why they called this lens “Classic.”

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I’m at minimal distance here, focused on my 1930‘s lens hood.  Focus is distinct but not crisp to my eye, and falls off very gradually without distinct separation.

 

I think I closed down to about f2 for this next one.  Separation is nice but there’s no 3D pop like I get out of the Voigt 50/1.5 Nokton.  And that glow on the highlights is blinding!

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Given the distance between the subject and out of focus background, I’d have expected to see more pronounced separation than this.  It’s really not bad but just doesn’t blow me away either.  Perhaps this same shot would have been stronger with a slower or finer grained film than Tri-X

I thought I’d enjoy the the lens barrel with it’s distinctive aperture tab control, reminiscent of the 1967 ‘Lux.  Leica left this design over time though and now that I’ve been using it for a while, I understand why.

Unlike a conventional, continuous aperture and focus ring, if you remove your fingers from the aperture control, then return, you might be left chasing them around the lens barrel for a moment.  And this also happens with the focus ring since it is not milled.  On other vintage Leica lenses, the focus ring not only has a tab but is also milled.  So you can guide your fingers back to the tab or focus without it.

I really wanted to like the funky ergonomics of this lens but when using it, I feel like a clumsy child who’s never touched his camera before.  I really pride myself on speed shooting with manual cameras and this lens causes me to have to pump the brakes a little.  This is frustrating when shooting moving targets!

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I do enjoy the slightly wide perspective with shots like this and when you stop down a little, subject separation may not exactly pop but it is still rather pleasing
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And the 40/1.4’s “throw-back glow” can be very flattering in the right conditions.  I made use of the slight wide angle here also.

I didn’t think the frame-line difference would be a big deal.  People say the 40/1.4 is really more of a 42 so if you frame a little wide for your 50mm lens (as oppose to working off 35), you’ll be good.  I’ve been doing this but just don’t like it.  Framing feels very “loose.”  I feel like I should just be shooting a 50.  However, my composition has been pretty close between my expectations and results.

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Look familiar?  A favorite test subject is rendered wonderfully.  The 40/1.4 Nokton is perfect for a shot like this where speedy use and wide open performance are not necessary.  In these conditions, it excels keenly.

As you can see, the 40/1.4 Nokton makes straight lines; there’s absolutely no barrel distortion.  I also have not noticed any focus shift.  Stopped down to 4/5.6, the lens sings like I’d expect, with sharpness and gradual focus fall off.

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The slight perspective distortion that the 40 Nokton offers worked beautifully here, as did its very gradual focus fall-off and glowy highlights.

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Combine the unobtrusive size of this lens with its particular glow and good middle aperture performance and yeah, it has its benefits for sure.

I think that brings me to my conclusive thoughts on this lens.  If you’re a well or even fairly well seasoned rangefinder shooter and have tried several other lenses around this length, you are not likely to see any particular merit in adding the 40/1.4 Nokton to your existing rig.  It’s size and performance are not drastically different from older Leitz lenses.  At least not to the extent of replacing anything.  And while I’ve been happy with the feel of the Nokton’s construction, I still have my doubts about its long term durability.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the shooter who this lens probably appeals to most is someone who is just starting out with rangefinders.  I’m sure the 40/1.4 Nokton pairs beautifully with a newer Bessa or the Leica CL/E.  And in reality, it works just fine with an M.  I imagine that if you’re coming from SLR world, the 40/1.4’s size, feel and performance will be startling and inspiring.

But I purchased the Voigtländer 40mm 1.4 Nokton Classic MC as an attempt to quell my desire for the current Leitz 35mm 1.4 Summilux.  And for that purpose, I’d recommend that anyone considering the same should just keep saving!

NOTE:  I’ve been sitting on this review for MONTHS because I wanted to provide more photos which I’ve taken but want to release to clients first.  The shots that the Voigtländer 40/1.4 are putting out are excellent and I’ve enjoyed using the lens despite losing my enthusiasm for it early on.  It’s been nice to have for wedding gigs where small, light, high performing equipment makes life easier.  My feelings for the 40/1.4 are now somewhat conflicted.  But I’ve decided to publish this blog as-is because I recently discovered that Voigtländer has redesigned their 35mm 1.4 Nokton.  This revised lens addresses the focus shift and barrel distortion that drove me to the odd 40mm length and is part of my problem with the purchase.  I’m sure that this new 35/1.4 II will be much closer to what I was looking for and had it been available only several months ago, I’d have been happy to pay the couple hundred more.  Oh well!  What are you gonna do?!

What are your thoughts on these 35 and 40mm Nokton’s?  Own a copy?  Considering getting one?  Have you tried the new 35/1.4 II?  Think I’m overthinking all this?  Let me know in the comments.  Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

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2 thoughts on “Voigtländer 40mm 1.4 Nokton Classic MC Review

  1. I have recently acquired my first (an most likely only) M rangefinder, a M4-P. I ‘m not completely unfamiliar with rangefinders, but not what you’d consider a seasoned RF shooter, most of my experience comes with fast fixed-lens Japanese rangefinders like the Canonet or the 35SP with their 40mm lenses. In real life I shoot 90% of my photos with 35 and 40mm lenses with the occasional 50mm shot. Being budget-conscious I opted for the C-Biogon 2.8/35 as my main lens for the M4-P, as my main considerations were lack of distortion and sharpness (in which this lens supposedly excels) and I much preferred to get a new, unused lens rather than an old pre-aspherical 35mm Summicron, however luring the idea of owning Leitz glass (I also have a 2.8/50 Elmar that came with the camera). Now, although I’m not a low-light shooter and achieving correct focus with a 1.4 lens on a rangefinder wide-open surely is a matter of skills as it is of luck, I often dread for the decisive moment (lol) that f2.8 won’t be enough and I am considering the 1.4/40 Voigtländer as my “other” main lens for when lighting conditions might be suboptimal. Its 35mm counterpart is ruled out due to unacceptable distortion from which I’m pretty sure the newer version suffers as well from what I’ve seen online. Now my main concern is with frameline compatibility on the -M cameras. What did you do with your lens? Did you modify it or just shoot it with the 50mm lines visible? In hindsight, which lines correspond better with the lens’ actual FOV? Is there any other alternative for the budget-conscious film Leica shooter? What about the 1.7/35 aspherical? Have you tried that? Looks great on paper but way too large for the M4-P.

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