The crack cocaine of the Leica world

Recently I think I’ve met two other people who have purchased Leica M8s and on both those cameras, I think I saw a Cosina-Voigtländer 35mm f/1.2 Nokton lens. If so, that’s a strange coincidence because it is a very obscure lens.

Leica and Cosina
Leica and Cosina
North Beach, San Francisco, California

Nikon D200, Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D, Canon 500D close-up filter
1/40sec @ f/1.4, iso 200, 85mm (127mm)

Say what you will about the value, but I think rangefinder cameras look gorgeous.

The weird thing is, that this obscure lens is the only lens I have for my Leica.

Well that’s not true anymore:

Weird aperture
Weird aperture
North Beach, San Francisco, California

Nikon D3, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G VR, Canon 500D close up filter
1/2sec @ f/14, iso 200, 170mm (170mm)

The only lens I have for my Leica is no lens at all!

Yep, the lens has officially died in a manner unheard of: the internal aperture blades have popped out of their mount during normal shooting use. I am writing this to see if Cosina will do something to repair the manufacturing defect, and to write a little about my experiences with this lens on a digital Leica.

[The Nokton, Voigtländer, and Cosina after the jump]

Dropping a Y Combinator

Because this was my only M-mount lens, I can’t discuss this lens without mentioning rangefinders in general and how I ended up with a Leica M8.

Andrei and I were talking over lunch about the best cameras for street photography, which is Andrei’s favorite photography style. My answer, instantly was a rangefinder. This then migrated to the cost of digital rangefinder photography. I stated that if one could get a M8 and a Noctilux for $5k, I’d jump on it—I didn’t think it was possible.

On a whim, later that day, I confirmed it. The M8 and the Noctilux retail for over $5000 each. There is no way you could eBay that unless it falls off the back of a truck.

But then I got to thinking. The M8 sensor has a 1.3 FOV multiplier, so a 35mm lens on a digital M8 shoots like a 50mm lens on film. Since the CV Nokton is under a $1k so if I could get the M8 used for under $4k, then I’d have the same setup as I was postulating for under a combinator. This turned out to be exceedingly easy to do, and I even got the color I wanted, two camera cases, two spare batteries, a grip, a flash unit in tow, plus a couple hundred dollars in pocket.

And if the camera in my color, why not the lens? The ever-informative Stephen Gandy of CameraQuest was happy to oblige with a limited-edition model in chrome.

Why a digital rangefinder

This explains why I went digital.

Since I don’t have time to do nature photography which is my favorite style, I thought I needed a camera to carry around at work and to geek events so I could still shoot. This camera, I thought, would be ideal being unrecognizable, compact, and able to shoot in low light.

Incognito turned out to be a stupid idea. The problem with geeks is that many or them recognized the camera immediately—even going so far as getting me labeled “that guy with the expensive camera.”. Photo geeks are geeks too. So much for being unrecognizable.

While being a lot smaller than a D3, Leica over-engineered the M8—sometimes to impractical proportions—it weighs a lot. Sure it feels solid but I’m not really planing on swinging it on the end of my camera strap to defend myself—the price tag sort of prevents that. And the Nokton is so large (and also over-built) that it blocks about 1/3 of your viewfinder at close focusing distances. Compact is relative. So much for compact.

Ahh, but surely f/1.2 should justify it! But that’s when I overlook the horrible fact that Kodak seems to be way behind Sony and Canon in sensor technology, and Leica is way behind Nikon and Canon in image processing. Add to the engineering decision to put a really inefficient IR cut filter, and you have visible noise at ISO 640 and unusability at ISO 1280. And all this despite the fact that the photosites are 70% bigger than my D200! have pretty low standards about usability—I shoot my D200 at ISO 1600 when taking snapshots, and I consider ISO 3200 as the “low ISO” on my D3. Noise trumps speed. So much for low light.

The result: When under the right conditions, the camera and lens is unmatched for documentary-style shooting:

Tayler
Tayler
RockYou World HQ, San Mateo, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/60 sec, iso 320, 35mm (47mm)

I took this snapshot at a Lunch 2.0 presentation. Can you see all the tones? ISO 320 leaves enough leeway to get that out of a black and white without having to resort to advanced B&W processing. And all this despite the fact that she is heavily backlit. The crowded background looks like creamy goodness.

Mark Kater
Mark Kater
Tagged, Waterfront, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/250sec, iso 320, 35mm (47mm)

This snapshot was taken during a work break. Misset to ISO 320, straight out the camera, soft, bright, mixed office lighting, and the background separation is supreme—almost like Mark is a cut out.

But when the conditions are bad, it is a miracle that a shot is even acceptable:

Michelle and Michael
Michael and Michelle
111 Minna, South of Market, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/20sec iso 640, 35mm (47mm)

Sure the rangefinder means I can hold it past the “shake limit,” but this was one of the only usable color images in the entire set. Even then, they look too flush and the colors range is muddy. I could have used professional de-noising here, but detail still wouldn’t have been recoverable, nor would the colors have been. And don’t even get me into mentioning how impossible it was to manually focus with so little available light.

Street photography

When I talk about Leica, it is easy to forget that this was the company that invented 35mm photography as a way to build an exposure meter for movie cameras.

And when we talk about the Leica M, we must not forget about Henri Cartier-Bresson who put this camera on the map.

And when we talk about about Henri Cartier-Bresson we shouldn’t forget what put him on the map wasn’t his news photography, but his street photography. The sort of photography summed up by three words: The Decisive Moment.

It’s not my style, but it would be criminal to own a this camera and not make an attempt. An afternoon weekend walk to my nearest bank branch gave such an opportunity to play HCB with my camera.

Passing the homeless
Passing the homeless
North Beach, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/180sec, iso 160, 35mm (47mm)

I started with a stop for a Slurpie at the Wharf and then headed down Mason toward North Beach, when I noticed this beggar camped out. This photo was probably shot at f/11. Focusing was hardly an issue at this aperture because I used the manual camera principle of “estimate first, then measure” so I only paused for a couple seconds to frame the shot. Neither subject noticed me taking the photo.

Then for a classic “vacation shot” when walking by Figaro’s in Little Italy…

Sidewalk dining
Sidewalk dining
North Beach, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/90sec, iso 160, 35mm (47mm)

Stopping down even further to get everything in focus for snapshot photography, I didn’t even pause to frame the photo. I love going by this place at night because the heaters keep me warm. It’s neat that even the tourist places on North Beach serve great food. I am lucky to live in such a wonderful city.

By the time I reached Chinatown, I decided to try my hand at scale-focusing

Old lady
Old lady
Chinatown, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/1000sec, iso 160, 35mm (47mm)

If you can anticipate the focus and get lucky, then you can shoot a moving subject a little wider. Here, I was able to shoot at around f/4.5 and it looks like I’m only slightly backfocused—the California Lottery poster is a tad too sharp. Despite this, notice how the other people on this crowded street in Chinatown aren’t? The depth of field was around two feet.

I usually dialed in the aperture based on test shots and looking at the histogram—chimping has to be one of the best things about digital photography. It is hard to trust the metering in the M8, especially after being spoiled by Nikon’s color evaluative meter for the last four years.

On a different day, walking home from a Lunch 2.0, I decided to try trust the metering and try to practice trying to take photos without using a viewfinder…

Exeunt
Exeunt
Chinatown, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/1500 sec, iso 160, 35mm (47mm)

No-look shooting is like a no-look pass with a shittier success rate. Basically, you don’t look through the camera or at the camera, you just sort of hold it in your hand or near your waist and snap the shutter. The aperture was wider than f/4, so the fact that anything was in focus is a stroke of luck.

My framing was fixed by cropping the photo.

And speaking of large apertures, I must remember that this is an article about the lens, not the camera. So even though it’s insane, I decided to dare to shoot wide open in the daytime.

On the lookout
On the lookout
Chinatown, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/3000sec @ f/1.2, iso 160, 35mm (47mm)

I spent a long time standing on this corner prefousing on the strawberries in case anyone walked through the doorway. This paid off a few minutes later when a little girl decided to play at my prefocused distance while her mom did some shopping.

I was in the shade so I could overexpose against the rule and not have to tickle the max 1/8000 shutter speed. The vignetting on the right is artificial, but the vignetting on the left is not. That’s the price you pay for noct-style lenses.

Still, I think this proves that even in daytime photography. Wider is better. :-)

Some people call the CV Nokton a “painterly” lens. The above photo, I hope, shows why.

The available darkness

But, as the name implies, this is a lens for shooting at night. And when you get a lens like this one that vignettes heavily in order to get center sharpness at large apertures, the Leica cult stops talking about “available light” and starts talking about “available darkness.”

Proving that a camera at hand is worth a thousand at home, I took this shot one night they lit the Transamerica Building with the camera in hand on my way to work:

Crepuscular TransamericaCrepuscular Transamerica (bw)
Crepuscular Transamerica
Waterfront, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/10sec @ f/1.2, iso 320, 35mm (47mm)

I’m trying to learn black and white digital photography. I tried to process this shot to convey a different mood with the same image. I added some digital film grain of Tri-X film which can’t be seen at this magnification.

Handheld to 1/10 of a second at an 47mm equivalent field of view? An impossible shot on a SLR without a tripod. The cynical me says the Leica cult also stop talking about high ISO photography and starts talking about how they can handhold a rangefinder still at super slow shutter speeds.

And, since it is a rangefinder, we also mean night street-photography with this lens.

Hitting the Wharf at night
Hitting the Wharf at night
North Beach, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/22sec @ f/1.2, iso 640, 35mm (47mm)

These tourists are in focus simply because I prefocused at the street corner and waited until they walked past the part of the crosswalk paint I focused on

And then mixing the slow shutter into the night scene, we get:

A couple on the Embarcadero
A couple on the Embarcadero
The Embarcadero, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/22sec @ f/1.2, iso 640, 35mm (47mm)

I just waited until a car drove by to hit the shutter. That’s pretty easy with a little practice since there is no viewfinder blackout and you can see a little extra space around the framelines (the viewfinder has the coverage of a 23mm lens).

A do-over

But what to do if I could call a mulligan on the lens? Cost wasn’t much an issue, as the Noctilux is 5 times its price. But $820 is not cheap by any measure. It’s certainly heavy, bulky, and blocks the viewfinder. It draws too much attention to my camera.

Cosina already thought of this and launched the Nokton classic 35mm F1.4 this month.

35/1.4 Nokton Classic diagram
Voightlander NOKTON Classic 35mm F1.4
This lens is available for purchase (in the U.S.) right now for $560 for the multi-coat and $600 for the single coat version from Cameraquest in California and Photo Village in New York. I’ve mentioned Cameraquest, and I should mention that PhotoVillage is also a trusted name, don’t let their ugly site fool you. All rangefinder photo sites look like ass. Just to prove it to you this website is the same company!

This lens, quite unlike the 35f1.2 Nokton, is a standard double-gauss lens design almost identical to it’s sibling lens: the 40mm f1.4 Nokton. The main difference is, instead of one corrective element, the 35mm f1.2 has two corrective elements instead of one.

At this focal length, with the corrective elements, it makes for a highly compact lens: half the length of the F1.2, a tad thinner, and featherweight in comparison.

One thing that worries me about this lens is the bokeh. Bokeh, for those of you who don’t know is a pretentious Japanese word for how the out of focus stuff looks. It’s mostly a matter of taste, but the 40mm f1.4 tends to have a number of bad bokeh moments where it doubles up on long-thin objects and has strange tonal casts on points of light. I imagine the 35mm f1.4 won’t be much different. For reference on what the “bokeh” of my 35 f1.2 looks like, you can look at the wide-open shots above, or, this one:

Me
Me
R&G Lounge, Financial District, San Francisco, California

Leica M8, Cosina-Voigtländer NOKTON 35mm F1.2 Aspherical
1/60sec @ f/1.2, iso 320, 35mm (47mm)

While Halle may think that I’m not one of those bloggers who posts pictures of myself, I’m definitely a contrarian, so let me demonstrate bokeh thusly with a photo of me.

Though not as challenging as “light shining through leaves” bokeh shot, the inside of this Chinese restaurant has the advantage of being real-world instead of bullshit-world and still having a variety of challenging lights and reflections. I tend to like the creamy look of my lens. It’s not perfect—the multiple specular reflections off the top of the chair on the lower left are bothersome—but that would challenge almost any lens.

So maybe the future me, who’d have gotten the 35mm f1.4 classic with that minor caveat, and the current me who is going to buy a 40mm f1.4 needs to consider only one last thing: Pay $40 more for the single-coated version? Others may feel differently but since it’s digital, if I really wanted lens flare and loss of contrast, I can do that very well in Photoshop. I choose multicoat, thank you.

n504326530_374803_9688
This photo of me with my M8 and CV 35F1.2 lens was taken by a fellow Leicaphile, Ted Matsumura, using probably a Leica M6 and the legendary Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH—in case you want to see what another 35 lens looks like…or what a 35mm lens looks like on film.

Notice the green reflection here or the magenta reflections in the “Weird aperture” shot above? That’s the multicoat. Single coats have a deep blue reflection.

Coatings reduce glare from the lens—less glare reflected means more light transmitted through the lens. More light = more contrast.

Other lenses to consider

[ IN PROGRESS. ]

About Cosina

I think the above points out to an essential irony. In normal world, even Nikon has moved their biggest factory to Thailand; in Leica Bizzaro World a well-made $820 lens designed and manufactured in Japan is “cheap” and “a bridge too far” optically.

The maxim in photography is, “always expect to pay more for your optics than for your bodies.” So in a world where the digital bodies go for $5000, is it that unreasonable to ask for a $1200 entry price per lens and see $800 as being on a budget?

And that brings us to the title of this article, which I shamelessly stole from Dante’s excellent review on the Leica M8:

At the same time Leica was sinking, Cosina was dispensing the photographic equivalent of crack cocaine. First some very wide-angle screwmount lenses. Then a screwmount body. Then more lenses. Then more bodies. Dribble out a couple of products every few months. They’ll come back for more as long as it’s cheap.

[ IN PROGRESS. ]
history of Cosina.

specs (and in Japanese with lens group diagrams)

Alternatives to Cosina

[ IN PROGRESS. ]
Analysis.

Cosina meets dSLR

[ IN PROGRESS. ]
announcement

Cosina-Voigtländer Lenses for Nikon/Pentax SLRs

For sale.

This move should come as no surprise because two years ago I mentioned Zeiss has introduced Cosina-manufactured manual focus lenses to the Nikon world—which is worth a remention now that the D3 is out.

Parting shot

Back to the price. We should remember that the price, no matter how “cheap” we say Cosina makes rangefinder photography, the entry cost is still exorbitant. We should remember that the manual focusing and semi automatic metering system is difficult to use at best. We should remember that the rangefinder design is been proven in the market to be less versatile than the SLR at the end of the last century and the pocket digicam at the beginning of this century. Or, as another Erwin Puts quote:

“The Leica style-rangefinder is at the end of its useful life. It is already amazing that a concept that was designed half a century ago could be still in existence without any substantial change. In ergonomics, quality, engineering and price, Leica has lost or is losing.… The Leica M camera now is mainly about joy and emotion. Sadly it is no longer the tool with the best handling and quality and offering added value that no one else has. Like it or not: the RF concept is in danger of becoming an obsolete object…Leica has to convince new users that the RF concept is exciting and a true alternative to the dSLR concept.”

With my photos, taken with a single rangefinder and a single lens, I hope you see some of the allure is of rangefinder photography. With my discussion, about a single rangefinder and a single lens, I hope that you see that even if you don’t own a rangefinder, the ideas behind it have application to you with your pocket camera—a camera that resembles the digital rangefinder.

Because your pocket camera’s zoom straddles the 47mm equivalent focal length exactly. Because your pocket camera has similar ISO usability limitations to the M8. Because your pocket camera can do prefocusing and no-look shooting. Because image stabilization on your pocket camera allows you to handhold down to insane rangefinder levels. Because your pocket camera and documentary-style street photography?—it’s all over that! Because every day you carry your pocket camera, you can prove a camera in your pocket is worth a thousand cameras never purchased or that dSLR left at home.

Canted snaps
Canted snaps
Patxi’s Pizza, Palo Alto, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
1/6 sec @ f/5.6, iso 1600, 200mm (300mm)

My Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX1, like many digital pocket cameras, resembles my Leica M8. This one even happens to have a Leica ASPH lens on it. In fact, Leica sells a twin to this one called the Leica D-Lux 2 for $240 more. As Dante Stella put it: “They’re even made in the same factory in Japan. Wait, did I say that? I should qualify that statement by telling you that it’s a very special corner of the factory that is hermetically sealed, with a positive pressurization of Leica essence to help keep Panasonic’s technical prowess from seeping in.”

Most likely, Erwin is right, we are at the end of the Leica style-rangefinder. But we’re also at the beginning of the digital pocket camera, the true inheritors of the rangefinder destiny.

JotSpot demo onlookers
JotSpot demo onlookers
Jotspot, Palo Alto, CA

Panasonic DMC-LX1
1/15 sec @ f/3.2, iso 200, 9mm (40mm)

A photo taken at a Lunch 2.0 presentation with a digital pocket camera. Sure there isn’t the background separation, but it conveys the same idea as “Tayler” up above. Optical image stabilization, common among the current generation of pocket digitals, means that it has no trouble handholding this camera past the “shake limit.”

You push a camera to its limits, your camera just has different limits to be pushed. Push them.

Not better limits, not worse limits, just different limits.

But ultimately…different photography, better photography.

Keep shooting.

16 thoughts on “The crack cocaine of the Leica world

  1. Pingback: The Woodwork » Blog Archive » Faking long exposure

  2. Greg Lorriman

    I don’t think that rangefinders will be finished until someone comes out with an aps-c, interchangeable-lens compact.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: The Woodwork » Blog Archive » Leica No. 5

  4. Kevin c

    Move over M mount, Olympus’ new micro 4/3 is the new rangefinder! Smaller, quiet, interchangeable lenses, full manual control, auto mode… Incognito. Welcome to the 21st century.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: The Woodwork » Blog Archive » Electronic Pen configurator

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  7. R Zake

    I went to film school and ended up directing for 10 years (I went late in my life). The cinematographers I worked with loved Zeiss lenses especially the super speeds but I have noticed voigtlander as also a preferred lens when I went to flea market or estate sale shopping. I found a pair of WWII bakelite German camouflage binoculars with Zeiss lenses for $5.00. Your photographs are great. I have a tiny Canon SD1000 that suits my purposes but I would sure like an M8 to do some serious shooting (and learning) now that my days of crews are gone.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: LH-3 Lens hood for the 35mm F1.2 NOKTON

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  10. Chris

    Hi,

    By comparing the V1 and V2 of Voigtlander 35MM 1.2, which one is better?
    Also do you recommend to get a Chrome V1 over a Black version?

    Thank you,

    Chris

    Reply
    1. Terry Chay Post author

      The V1 and V2 have the same lens formula. The difference is in the construction. In particular the improvements in the V2 are:

      • design is more in line with the newer cosines (40mm 1.4 Nokton and later), this also means the lens hood is different.
      • lighter and smaller
      • can scale focus to .5mm (instead of .7mm limit)

      One small detail is the location of the screws on my V1 makes it difficult to bar code. When I use a Zebra pen, I have to redo the lens every two removals or I lose the barcoding.

      Not sure if it is worth the extra $300. Besides, the new one isn’t available in Chrome and I like my chrome lens :-D

      Reply

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