With the continuing popularity of Leica glass being used on Sony A7 series mirrorless bodies, and the growing number of Leica shooters that follow my work, I thought this would be an interesting comparison to write up. If you missed my recent post about my current gear line-up, I sold my Sony A7II and upgraded my Leica M9 to the newer M240. I added the 24mm Summilux to shoot alongside my 50mm, but I still wanted a good 35mm prime for my Leica setup. I borrowed the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron and the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux and after a month of shooting, decided to go with the more expensive Summilux. The Summilux is one of the most popular 35mm lenses on the market, some consider it the best 35 ever made.
While I did like the Summilux, I found myself not loving it, and felt that it was a little flat at times. Yes, you read it correctly... flat. While the 24 and 50 combo is enough to get the job done, there is still part of me that absolutely loves shooting a rangefinder with a 35mm prime. I decided to pick up the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.2 Nokton for $900 and compare it head to head with the $4500 Summilux since I had heard some good things about it from other photogs. I shot with both for a few months, and ultimately decided to sell the Summilux which gave me a nice chunk of change back in my pocket. Money was not the reason I sold it though, and since I started to get asked a lot about the decision, I wanted to take the time and compare the two in a review.
I had B&H send me another Leica M and the 35mm Summilux to make it easier to test head to head, and I spent the past couple months shooting the two setups alongside each other. What I found through the testing was interesting, and while I still prefer the cheaper Nokton, I can understand why some would still choose the Summilux. Both lenses are unique in their own way, so it ultimately comes down to what you are looking for in image quality, and what characteristics are more important to you. Let me explain...
The Voigtlander is a larger and heavier lens than the Leica Summilux, but it balances out nicely on the M240. Both lenses are built extremely well, much like little metal tanks that take a beating. The Leica comes with a screw-on hood that can easily be removed, but it looks better on, and the lens cap goes over the hood. The one big winner for me with the Leica is its little finger thingy on the focus ring like my 50mm Summilux. The finger thingy is a focus tab that makes it easier to focus with one finger, something I do love having, but the Nokton grip is easy to work with and the focus is smooth enough that it really isn't a big deal. If I had to choose, I prefer the body of the Summilux.
The F/1.2 Advantage
For fast prime shooters like myself, shooting wide open usually where we like to hang out, unless you are a street photographer. Shallow DOF and getting that 3D look is what we love, and the wider the aperture the better. With that being said, lenses that go wider than f/1.4 usually get us all geeked up and have us dreaming of razor sharp focus planes and creamy smooth bokeh. Most of the time, as in the case of the Leica Noctilux which is f/0.95, that extremely wide aperture comes with a hefty price, and the ones that are worth the money are rare. The two most popular f/1.2 lenses that come to mind, are the Canon 50L and 85L, both great lenses and on the higher end as far as price goes for Canon glass. With the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.2 being one of those rare lenses, I was curious to why it was under $1000.
When I first shot with the Nokton, I was very curious about the f/1.2 aperture and what advantages it might offer. Usually when lenses go wider than f/1.4, they're not only more expensive, but a little softer wide open than their f/1.4 brothers. It would also make you believe that it would have a more shallow depth of field than a lens at f/1.4. Being that this lens was only $900, I figured it was most likely going to be pretty soft wide open, but hopefully offer an advantage in DOF. Well, it was the opposite. The Nokton is surprisingly sharp wide open, and there isn't much, if any, difference in DOF compared to the f/1.4 aperture of the Summilux. With that being said, there's a catch that that, because the Nokton can focus a lot closer than the Summilux. So, to rephrase that, when both lenses are shot wide open at the same focus distance, the DOF is pretty similar.
MINIMUM FOCUS DISTANCE
One of the first things I noticed when I initially shot the Nokton 35, was that something was goofy with finding the minimum focus distance when shooting through the viewfinder of the M240. I thought that something was wrong with the lens, and considered sending it back since I couldn't find anything online. Well, there's nothing wrong with the lens, other than the fact that it has a minimum focus distance closer than the viewfinder of Leica rangefinders will allow. You can still shoot using the viewfinder, but once you reach the limit of the rangefinder, you can get in closer and still accurately focus using Live View. With focus peaking and focus assist zoom, this gives the Nokton 35 a nice advantage over the Summilux.
The Nokton just doesn't get slightly closer, its a good amount. The Summilux has a mimimum focus distance of 2.3', and the Nokton is at just over a foot and a half at 1.6'. Sure, your not always going to want to get that close to your subject with a 35mm lens, but having the ability to do so when you need to is pretty nice. You can see below just how much of a difference that foot and a half looks in real life, it's pretty impressive.
SHARPNESS & BOKEH
Sharpness is one of those characteristics that a lot of photographers tend to look at as the most important, and while it's pretty important, a sharp lens doesn't make it a good one. Leica lenses are known for their sharpness, and they are the sharpest lenses I've shot. The problem is, there needs to be a good balance between sharpness, smooth out of focus rendering, and character. There are a lot of sharp lenses out there, but the bokeh looks like shit, or they lack character and have a flat look to them. The 50mm Summilux is a great example of a lens that is super sharp yet has beautiful and smooth bokeh, along with
Remember, when I talk about sharpness, I'm speaking wide open, since this is the way I like to shoot my primes for portrait use. I'm willing to give up a little bit of sharpness for creamier bokeh and more character in a lens. One of my favorite lenses I own is the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, which is pretty sharp dead center of frame, but everywhere else it dulls down pretty good. While a lot of photographers don't like that lens, I absolutely love it, and could shoot with it all day long cause it fits my style and the images I like to create. It has some of the softest bokeh I've seen and has tons of character.
The 35mm Summilux is extremely sharp wide open, and if you like sharp lenses, the Summilux is as good as it gets. The problem I found when shooting it, before ever trying the Nokton 35, was that the images just seemed to lack pop. They seemed to look flat to me. When I started shooting the Nokton, I could tell right away that it was more like the Nikon 58G. It was pretty sharp in the center, almost as sharp as the Summilux, but from corner to corner it fell short. What it did have though was much smoother and eye pleasing out of focus rendering and character that reminded me of old film lenses.
SAMPLES ABOVE: In the RAW images above, you can see the smoother bokeh in the grass. In the 2nd set of images you can see that the Summilux is sharper, although the focus is slightly off on the Nokton, but you can see the difference in the bokeh behind the focus chart.
While I realize this comparison isn't for everyone, being that they are compared mainly based on being shot wide open, I know there are a lot of photographers that shoot primes like I do. Sharpness is important when it comes to lenses, so is bokeh and character, but the bottom line is it comes down to what you personally look for and need in a lens. I get to shoot and test a lot of different gear, but the lenses I choose to own are the best. The best for what I personally want in a lens for the look I'm trying to achieve.
This isn't a lens review, it's more of a comparison between two popular 35mm prime lenses, one costing 4 times the cost of the other. I don't always compare lenses head to head like this, but I thought this would be a good one to do since I chose to sell the more expensive lens for the cheaper option. Not for the reason of saving money, although it is a nice bonus, but because the Nokton does a better job at giving me the images I am looking to create.
Both lenses are excellent choices, and if sharpness is what you are looking for, the Leica Summilux is the winner. The Voigtlander Nokton comes pretty close to being just as sharp, but I found that it fell a little short. While the Leica is slightly sharper, it's out of focus rendering isn't as smooth as the Nokton, and it's images are flatter looking. One key point I'll make about sharpness though, the Leica isn't 4 times as sharp, like the price difference.
Both lenses have an equal amount of chromatic aberration and vignetting, so deciding between the two comes down to which lens fits your style more. Price aside, they are both great options, and if you look at the sample images below, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference even when you look close. While price didn't come into play with my decision, I'm glad I did this head to head test, cause the Summilux isn't worth 4 times that amount of the Nokton. Let me know your thoughts.
NOTE: I forgot to mention flare, something you expect to see me mention. Both lenses do an excellent job of keeping flare in check, your not going to get any creative and artistic flare from either one of these lenses.