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.
The weird thing is, that this obscure lens is the only lens I have for my Leica.
Well that’s not true anymore:
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.
Why a digital rangefinder
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:
But when the conditions are bad, it is a miracle that a shot is even acceptable:
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.
Then for a classic “vacation shot” when walking by Figaro’s in Little Italy…
By the time I reached Chinatown, I decided to try my hand at scale-focusing
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…
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.
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:
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.
And then mixing the slow shutter into the night scene, we get:
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.
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:
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.
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. ]
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.
Alternatives to Cosina
[ IN PROGRESS. ]
Cosina meets dSLR
[ IN PROGRESS. ]
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.
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.
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.
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.