Believe it or not, I’m still attempting to actively write, and after a very hectic year, I’m getting back into the game, kinda. This article all started indirectly during the total solar eclipse this year. A friend who also shoots micro 4/3 and I got to talking about lenses we like for the system. We were taking turns using my adapted Sigma 150-600mm through a solar filter to snap shots of the celestial event, and we got to talking about the Voigtländer offerings. I, having been the proud owner of the 42.5mm Nokton (review on that bad boy HERE), was excited to find out my friend was toting the 17.5mm version around with him. Well, I’ll spare you the minutiae of the back and forth, but we decided to do a lens swap for a month or so, and here we are. C’mon in for some touchy, feely bits on my time with the Voigtländer Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 lens…
Much like my time with the 42.5 being a wonderful portrait and general mid tele option for me, I was right at home with this semi-wide angle lens. The size, weight and general feel between the two lenses are nearly indistinguishable. Voigtländer make some of the most solid feeling, precisely built lenses I’ve personally shot with. Every movement is smooth and there is no errant wobble to any piece on this lens. It is a beautifully crafted tool, and one that is a pleasure to have in hand.
In past lens test/reviews, I’ve looked at more specific performance based metrics. This time around, and with an amazing amount of travel packed into a lot more work during the period I played with this lens, I didn’t have the time to really do controlled tests, but this isn’t a new lens, so if you’re researching it, you’ve likely seen tests like this that go into more technical detail. My rambling here is just going to be more of a love letter to shooting with these wonderful lenses along with my observations on this, and Voigtländer lenses on the whole.
Shooting a manual focus lens, like these Noktons, require the shooter to enter into an agreement with your gear about how and what you’ll be shooting. It’s not a particularly great lens for a lot of shooting scenarios, considering our modern reliance on snappy auto focus or seeming general expectation for razor sharp corners wide open. It is however, an intentional tool, a story telling semi-wide angle lens with a cinematic rendering like its Voigty siblings. An optical mate to your super computer of a camera that creates a visual conversation between you and your subject, requiring a little more physical interaction than what we have come to be accustomed to of late. You get the most from this lens as you slow down, breathe and start to see and interact with more of your world as opposed to react to it. Not that either situation is better or worse, nor mutually exclusive, just a different approach.
Many Voigty shooters like the precise, smooth focus, legible distance scales and DOF markings to employ an analog street shooting experience. Many like the ability to de-click the aperture ring for a smooth adjustment in video shooting. I like that my camera and lens require me to interact with them a bit more, knowing what I’m setting up for. Having to pre-visualize before I begin snapping away, causes me to approach any given shot differently than the way I’ve slowly developed in my current shooting style, and I enjoy that.
What is this lens good at?
Well, I think first and foremost, those of us looking at this lens, or any of the micro 4/3 Voigts are interested in it being as fast as most any modern lens, at f/0.95. That will do two things for us here. One, it absorbs available light and two, it helps us shallow up our depth of field, which for a lens measuring in at 17.5mm (35mm E-FOV) is challenging, mathematically speaking.
Let’s have a look at the light gathering. For those looking to argue the total light across formats, please go find Tony N. and you guys can have fun together debating factors that really only affect signal:noise, but for some reason get giddy when feeling a larger sensor somehow makes you more of a photographer, or somehow enables you to believe the rest of us want to hear it for the millionth time. I also shoot full frame, and medium format systems. I don’t care about total light insomuch as I understand that more pixel dense sensors can produce more noise, and I use different cameras for different reasons. All have benefits and drawbacks, and while there are legitimate debates on certain things, this is not an article I’m either looking at those differences, nor care to debate. But, this being the internet, I guess I’ll give a shiny gold star to the first to bring it up in the comments if you’re really feeling like you need to be heard.
While I was borrowing this lens, we went to see Cirque du Soleil. I’ve been to a few of their shows, where in the past they strictly forbid photography, they only grumpily condemned it this time around, while stating no ‘flash’ or video was allowed, so, lucky me, I had a fast, discreet setup in the GX8 with it’s silent mode, and Voigty 17.5 with which to snap a few shots during the performance without disturbing anyone. If you’ve been to a Cirque show, you probably know that the light ranges from non existent, to not very much. Even at ISO 1600 and 3200 throughout the performance, my shutter speeds were hovering around 1/30-1/50 sec wide open here. No matter the lens, nor sensor size, exposure is exposure, and these are the exposure values and light levels you get for performances like this.
If you’re a performance shooter, this particular lens (or any of the Voigtys) can provide a wonderful option in that at a 35mm effective field of view, you’re working with a wide enough angle to minimize perception of any movement by either you, or your subjects in a shot, within reason of course. Depending on your vantage, a semi-wide can present a viable option for environment, or full stage shots. Not great perhaps, if you’re shooting from the nosebleeds at a stadium show, but for more normal sized theaters and venues, I like the ability to go a little wider. The two shots above (and one directly below) were taken wide open to get as much light in while maintaining reasonable ISO settings and shutter speeds. I was impressed.
While not a lightweight lens (weighing in at 540g) when adding most any camera to it will get you to around two pounds, considering what that might look like if there were such an option for a larger sensor system camera, it begins to really show its worth. I have no problem toting a lens like this around wherever I go, and even fit it into larger coat pockets while on the camera. That is pretty sweet.
While this isn’t low light scenario specific, I do also really like the rendering on all the Voigtländer lenses I’ve owned or used. I mentioned “cinematic” above, and have before in my articles on the Voigtländer lenses. I think that the colors are nostalgically vibrant, but the tonality and global contrast transition is somewhat muted, straight out of the camera, if that makes any sense. Probably doesn’t, but I’m not really sure how to encapsulate those tones into words other than that. Like files out of most any camera, through most any lens, they can always be adjusted to be more contrasty, punchy or the like, there is something about a lens that has a distinctive visual signature. The Voigts from my experience, do. Wide open, you will certainly see some flare and CA, but we’re talking about an f/0.95 optic here. Like I’ve mentioned, I see specialized lenses like this to be more a story telling tool, and in story telling, I feel much more comfortable in ignoring optical imperfections. Also, if you want to avoid CA and contrast robbing flare, stop it down and don’t shoot into a light source… just like with any other lens.
How about our ability to employ a fast aperture to shallow up our DOF?
While it will always be harder mathematically to render a shallower DOF with wider angled lenses, it doesn’t hurt to have one with an aperture larger than the focal length measurement. Considering your focusing distance, it really isn’t too hard to produce that 3D like pop as long as your subject is within say 5 feet of your camera. For environmental portraiture, that can be a boon.
While the idea of bokeh and shallow DOF in general seem to be the holy grail for many, it can be harder to achieve for those of us shooting a micro 4/3 system. When considering this lens will rough out to a full frame DOF equivalent of a 35mm f/1.8, with a two stop light gathering advantage over this theoretical equivalent, that isn’t entirely shabby.
A shallow DOF is a nice tool to have, but is largely for naught if you don’t get sharp enough results wide open. I’ve done quite a few tests with my previous Voigtländer 42.5mm f/0.95, and found, much like this 17.5mm version, the results wide open are certainly softer than when stopped down. No surprise, nor unique for this or any lens. I know I said that I wasn’t going to do any comparative testing, but just for giggles, here is a handheld series I took while I had approximately 13.5 seconds as I waited for Mrs. Squeeze to grab a coffee. Meant more as a personal curiosity, I’ve put it into a quick comparison chart because apparently I’m incapable of doing a simple photo essay.
click to see larger:
Certainly not a definitive sharpness chart, but for my interest, enough to show me where I’m at while shooting this lens in the wild. Not tack sharp wide open, but serviceable. While corners are about as sharp as you’d get with this lens at about f/5.6-f/8 diffraction starts to set in afterward, and I’d say the sharpest you’ll see the center of this lens is going to be pretty solid between f/2.8 and f/5.6 or so, and corner to corner falling within f/4-f/5.6, which is great for many of us that would like usable corner to corner sharpness while perhaps gaining a stop or two in shutter speed (compared to f/8 – f/11 on a full framer) for things like street, or kiddos who, for some unimaginable reason cannot seemingly sit still. All said and done, if wanting a ‘set it and forget it’ approach, dial in f/5.6 and focus to the HFD of ~12′ and you’ll be set for anything from 6′ through infinity in focus. Great for environmental or street shooting. Need a little bit more? Set to f/8, focus to 8.5′ and you’ll gain a workable DOF down to just over 4′ away from the camera through infinity. To put that into FF terms, with a 35mm lens, you’d need to be at f/11 or f/16 respectively to gain the same hyper focal distances, cutting your light and requiring a bump in ISO by two stops to achieve the same shutter speeds. See, sometimes a smaller sensor is actually a benefit! (want to learn more about HFD? Read THIS)
A 35mm angle of view has long been my favorite for most of my family/documentary/travel/walk around shooting. It provides a near standard field of view while providing a bit of extra width to better provide context, compared to a 50mm lens, in my opinion.
A great ‘from the hip’ focal length that can play nicely with anything from landscape, reportage or street photography, to environmental portraiture and event photography.
With a fast semi-wide, it can also allow you play with your depth of field creating fun bokeh both in the background, and the fore.
One last project I tackled while shooting with this lens, and tactic I tend to prefer employing for much of my landscape shooting, is using a semi-wide to standard focal length, and stitching vertically captured frames to build stitched panoramas. I like this because it minimizes optical and spacial distortion, compared to a more traditional ultra wide angle lens, producing a more realistic relationship between elements within a scene to my eye.
This shot was put together with 7 vertically oriented frames…
By using a longer focal length, and stitching, it provides a more realistic balance for me, even though you could argue a wider shot cropped into would essentially produce the same shot, less optical distortion (which on the edges can be poor). Yes, it would, but if wanting to print large for instance, my wider, or cropped image may only equate to a fraction of the total megapixels, while the above composite (at its full size anyway) comes in near 60 mega pixels providing a much more detail rich rendering, ready for large printing or resizing for web use.
Finally, this Voigtländer lens has an X factor in that it’s just such a cool piece of optical technology. I enjoy the tactile engagement in a way that I just don’t get with other lenses. You can feel its quality through physical interaction with it, which produces a kind of geeky enamoring on the part of the carbon based operator. Appreciation for something that has been designed and built with an exacting level of quality is something hard to explain without actually getting your hands on one, but for those who have had similar experiences, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. A well built tool is enjoyable to work with, and worth appreciating.
I’m a fan of this, and seemingly any lens that Voigtländer has available. If I come across some extra money, this lens may very well become one I pass down to my kids… assuming I can get them away from legos and into photography, eventually.
This felt good, and I appreciate you sticking around. Thanks for the read. I hope to be carving a bit more time out to get back into the swing of things around here.
If interested, you can see the Voigtländer Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 Lens via my B&H Affiliate link HERE.
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