What’s In The Bag: Voigtlander 50mm f1.5 Nokton

After almost a decade of shooting rangefinders on a regular basis, I’ve gone through my share of 50mm lenses. My first was a junker Russian copy of the WWII era Zeiss Sonnar, a good little performer but not terribly sharp. Next came a couple older Leica’s, an Elmar and a Summar; great lenses but still not quite what I was looking for. I really needed speed in a 50mm as I use it almost exclusively at night; f2 is the standard “fast” rangefinder 50mm aperture, going faster usually means forking out a lot more money… then along came Voigtlander.

A brief history, for those not familiar with the brand: Voigtlander is one of the oldest and most respected names in photography dating back to 1756. They produced the worlds first zoom lens and the first compact camera with a built in flash, but due to some bad decisions and financial problems in the later half on the last century most younger photographers may not have heard the name. In their prime they made beautifully crafted luxury cameras, on par with Leica for quality and looks. After their decline, the brand was bought by Zeiss, then Rollei and then Ringfoto, but none of them did much to live up to the Voigtlander name. Mostly they just pumped out cheap consumer cameras stamped with the classic Voigtlander font. Then in 1999 Cosina came along and licensed the name to put on their new line of rangefinder lenses. To give some context, at the time no one besides Leica was giving serious thoughts to rangefinders anymore, it was an elite class of cameras for a very select crowd with deep pockets. A lot of people thought it was crazy to try and step on the toes of Leica; either these new Voigtlander lenses would have to be very expensive to make money in such a small niche market or if inexpensive, too low quality for those used to shooting with a Leica.

To many peoples great surprise the geniuses over at Cosina put out a stellar line up of inexpensive, but incredible performers. They’ve been credited by many with single handedley reviving the rangefinder system and introducing it to a new generation. Although, to date, they haven’t put out a bad lens, the 50mm Nokton is one of the real gems. At the time of release you could pick one up for around $350, they’ve steadily rose in price, and while they’re now discontinued, they can easily fetch $700 in new condition. While a bit on the big side for a rangefinder lens, I for one love it. I’ve got big sausage fingers that are used to SLR lenses and I find the added size a bonus. It’s extremely well built and has a nice solid, well machined feel when mounted.

Most people say leave religion and politics out of polite conversation, but if you want to see a real throw down, ask a group of rangefinder photographers which 50mm is the best. Ever since the lens debuted, the debate has raged as to how the Nokton compares to it’s two closest rivals, the Zeiss Sonnar and the reigning king of 50mm’s the Leica Summilux. After months of debate and sample photos the only thing everyone could agree on is that all three where amazing lenses: all three are incredible sharp, have beautiful rendering lovely bokeh. The fact that the Nokton held it’s own against two giants in the 50mm world that cost four or five times more money has made sure I’ll never part with mine.

When I picked up a Sony Nex this year, with the intention of using my rangefinder glass on it, I was very interested to see how my lenses would hold up. I don’t shoot film for its sharpness, I’ve always been more interested in how it renders a scene, so I’ve never really pixel peeped any of my glass. The picture below was shot with the Nokton on the Nex and I was very please with how it compared to my Canon DSLR primes.

While the Cosina Voigtlander lens lineup has been slowly creeping up in price as they come out with new products and revamps of some of their older glass, they’re still within the range of affordability. Too be fair, their original prices were so low, I have no idea how they stayed in business, and their current costs are still a bargain for what you get. For those of you in North America, it can be hard to find a store that stocks them, but CameraQuest is the official North American distributor, the site may look outdated, but the service and prices are great. If you have a chance to pick up a 50mm Nokton, or any of their discontinued lenses on the cheap, grab them, it’s an investment you won’t regret. You can see more from the Nokton on my Flickr.

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