I wasn’t a 40mm guy on 26 November when my VM 40mm/F1,2 copy came in. After capturing about a thousand images of my daughter, a few of my wife, and about a dozen bokeh frames of our beloved IKEA Christmas tree, I’m ready to say that I’m still not a 40mm guy- at least not on a Leica M.
It’s not a focus issue. I can focus a 50mm F/1,4 wide open no problems, and as far as I can figure, 40mm at F/1,2 works similar depth of focus to a 50mm F/1,5. And it’s not necessarily a bulk issue. The Summicron 90 is larger. So is the Voigtlander Nokton 50. It is partly the looks. Rangefinder lenses need to look like rangefinder lenses. It’s why Fujifilm’s XF 35/1,4, an obvious SLR look-alike, looks awful on the X-Pro. I’m unabashed to say Voigtlander’s latest M-mount 40mm lens isn't attractive.
I mean, check out that beefy, straight-legged barrel, wannabe Canon LTM fascimile. It’s a straight castoff from M42 land. Obviously certain parts migrated from other Voigtlander lenses. Those are: the semi-scalloped focus ring and severe mounting neck (35mm F/1,2; 50mm F/1,1) , subdued feet scale, chromed filter mount and clicky, ten straight-bladed aperture blade set. Like most Voigtlander M and L-mount lenses, it is tight and well made, if unpolished when juxtaposed against Leica M and L lenses.
The focus ring twists smoothly down to its closest focus of 0,5m, or 20cm beyond the M’s rangefinder coupling. The M’s coupling arm nudges the focus cam softly at about 0,6m, and couples for focus at 0,7m. Every Voigtlander VM lens I’ve used returns laser-accurate focus at its indicated distance. Even at minimum focus close, nailing soft-detailed subjects such as pebbly baby toes is easy as pie. Smooth as it twists, focus is weighty, as is the lens. Weighty but perfectly lubed, and completely free of play. Small adjustments slide rather than jerk into place along the the ring’s full travel of ~160º.
Masterful ergonomics or no, I’m not convinced. The reasons are simple: I rely on framelines. The Nokton 1,2 brings up 50 and 75 lines, and shoots well outside the former. Notice that I didn’t say that I relied on accurate framelines. I’m less a fool than I evince. Through no lens do I rely 100% on framelines. I won’t even lean on even Voigtlander’s devastatingly good classic 35mm F/1,7. I rely on a gentle inaccuracy.
Going with the 50/75 frames was probably a good idea. It leaves room for error. You’ll never accidentally or violently crop out a subject or setting.
The Nokton doesn’t nose down the prodigious SL, though it does the M. Because the M-SL adapter lacks a distance arm, focus is smooth from 0,5m to infinity. It’s a hella nice combination, if not an ultimately handsome couple. The problem isn’t insurmountable. But the SL’s ultra-modern, minimalist party is somewhat crashed by a lens that really wants to be mounted to a K1000.
Coincidentally, EF-mount Zeiss Milvus and classic lenses look killer on the SL. I mean, check this out.
Before I unmask some uglies, let’s wag on about what this lens nails. Even at F/1,2 it is centrally sharp, contrasty, and depending on where in the frame and what sort of genesis, out-of-focus (OOF) elements blend smoothly, with softly gradated edges, and generally attractive fall off. Typically wide-open frames focused within 3 metres show nervous-ish OOF details to the sides and corners very like classic Canon 35mm LTM favourites like the 35/2 and 35/1,5. As the Canon 35/2 LTM is my all-time favourite 35mm, this is a personal and discriminating triumph. Sparsely populated backgrounds aren’t as busy as the Canon, which is great when closing in on fall colours. But the Canon’s viney bokeh was really what pulled me in. Naturally, my taste for OOF structure rather than soft blur is idiosyncratic. Move back a bit, however, and inverted triangles spring to life. If you like that sort of thing, great. I’m torn.
Nokton tones are earthy, and warm, trending brown and red when enticed. This I dig. And again, I dug this in my Canon LTMs, too. My favourite Leica is the Summilux-M 50 pre ASPH, whose tones are bluer and cooler.
Generous and characteristic shading wide open goes well with the earthy tones and minorly busy bokeh. To a point, the Nokton is a classic-ish lens. Wide open sharpness is shocking, though not as bitingly so as the Nokton 35mm F/1,7. Both create brilliantly clear sun stars, and, while the 40mm flares more, flare is soft-edged, big, but as it goes goes, non-distracting next to fast classic lenses.
I’m ambivalent about aspherical lenses. I like their contrast and size advantages, but I dislike what they do to point lights in out-of-focus scenes such as the below Christmas tree. I grew up in a part of the north where only onions grow. I love onions- on my plate. I don’t like them in my bokeh.
Overall, I like the 40mm F/1,2, but I don’t love it. It really pops in the centre, and to a degree that certain other lenses do not. It’s got a bit of the classic magic that made the Canon 35/1,5 a classic, but it does so with modern optics. It’s a good lens. Whether or not you like its draw is up to you.
I'm no expert, but I reckon it sharpens across the frame by F/5,6 - F/8. (Centre, upper left, lower right, F/1,2 left, F/8 right.)
Voigtlander’s latest handles well, looks okay, is sharp, and passes a lot of light to your M or other camera. Its smooth focus and clicky, cleanly frictioned, and coupled aperture blades starkly contrast the plastic-feeling options from Fujifilm, and poppy classics from Nikon. Leica’s Summilux-M 50mm ASPH is damped better but here and there plays. Nicer-handling lenses are found few and far between.
But nicer drawing lenses are plentiful. Perhaps I’m too much sour grapes about the Nokton’s onion rings. Personally they’re big road blocks on the otherwise smooth road of enjoyment. If you’re not put off by them and mildly classic if energetic draw style, the Nokton 40mm F/1,2 does the trick.