#846. The Voigtländer 40mm f:1.2 for Sony: the un-Otus.

#846. The Voigtländer 40mm f:1.2 for Sony: the un-Otus.

Voigtländer 40mm f:1.2 for FE mount (c) Cosina Voigtlander
 

The Voigländer 40mm f:1.2 for Sony mirrorless (FE mount) is designed and made by the Japanese firm Cosina, who bought the rights to the name of a prestigious German optics pioneer. Hence its alternate designation of CV (Cosina-Voigtländer). Do not expect this to be a full technical review, I have neither competence nor lust for it, and, because it is not a new lens, there are quite a few out there that do it well.

 
40 mm/1:1.2 Nokton aspherical
(c) Cosina Voigtlander
 

Interestingly, Cosina are also the manufacturers for Zeiss’ manual lenses (classics, ZM, Milvus, Loxia). For years it seemed that CV avoided competing head-on with their large German client, but now no more. They have issued a number of very good FE-mount lenses that are targeted at Zeiss-type customers: manual lenses of premium price and performance. While there is, to date, no direct match between a Zeiss and CV lens (CV for example have released 2 excellent macro lenses for FE, a 65mm f:2.0 and a 110mm f:2.5, whereas Zeiss have yet to play the macro card for Sony bodies), the 40mm f:1.2 has proven very popular, and certainly cost Zeiss some sales. It has spawned a 50mm f:1.2 sibling which seems to share the same optical construction.

 
Typical bokeh shot, f:2.0

 

As can be expected from Cosina, makers of Zeiss MF lenses, the CV 40 is a all-metal construction that feels like a quality item and inspires confidence. Learning about this lens, a question arises: how can Cosina design a lens which is relatively compact, not too heavy (315g, 52mm filter size), not hugely expensive (1000€ give or take), and delivers f:1.2 performance when one might have expected f:2.0?

 
f:1.6, nice,
… but magnification shows a lot of CA
 

From my point of view, present-day top lenses fall into one of 5 categories:

  • Top technical performance in every respect, and “some” character to boot (think Zeiss Otus, Leica APO Summicron). They cost a bomb, and neither is f:1.2. Otus are f:1.4, Leica APO Summicron are f:2.0.
  • Top technical performance (with MTF that are “calculated”, not measured), but character-and-soul-less, usually at premium but not luxo prices. Think Sony-Zeiss 55mm f:1.8, just like many other AF prime lenses.
  • Character lenses that are not technically perfect. Think older designs, like the Mandler lenses for Leica, or the Zeiss ZM 50 f:1.5. They have obvious flaws (sharpness wide open is a joke, many aberrations), but, when you stay away from trouble areas, they can produce awesome images, full of character and free of bugaboos, matching or even more pleasant than those of überlenses, for a lot less money.
  • Very fast lenses. Think Leica Noctilux; Nikon Noct-Nikkor, Voigtländer Nocticron, Canon 50mm f:1.2L and 85mm f:1.2L, and now much cheaper Chinese offerings( Mitakon, 7Artisans). Mostly, they are made to be used wide open, where they are far from flawless but very interesting, and nowhere else. Noctilux or Canon f:1.2 shots are fantastic for their intended use, but no-one sensible should use them as landscape lenses.
  • Slow lenses that are really, really good. Think Leica Elmar or Super Elmar 18, 21, 24, or Zeiss Loxia 21, 25, 85. Technically absolutely excellent, brilliant, super-clean-but-far-from-sterile images. Just, you have to put up with slow maximum aperture, meaning a less-than-full shooting envelope, while the price is full.
 
f:1.4. Very soft. Or maybe very, very soft…
 

So, which category does our CV 40 fit into? Essentially; CV have tried to kill 2 birds with one stone. An überfast lens, and a character lens outside the wide open useage area. meaning, yes, it has less-than-perfect performance, in parts, but it can offer more of a shooting envelope than either single types.

 
f:5.6
 

The question is, have they achieved this? No point beating about the bush or using linguistic convolutions, my answer is: again, in parts. To make it simple, the very fast(est) part is of limited value, as wide open shots lack any discernible sharpness, and there are other problems (not very elegant bokeh, focus shift). And, for the second goal, does it have character? In spades! In its shooting envelope, the CV can produce shots that are as impressive and apppealing as those of the best lenses.

 
SOOC, f:2.8. I really, really like what the CV does with that shot at that aperture!
 

Above is the full image of which I have selected a crop to do an aperture series that helps understand how the rendering changes with aperture

 
SOOC, crop, f:1.2, no discernible sharpness, but the old-style look is interesting. Some may like it or find it useful, but not I
The same at f:1.4. The point of focus is now faintly visible, and there is some sharpness. The look is nice, despite visible issues
 

Basically, until f:2.0, the CV is a soft, problematic lens. But if the softness doesn’t deter you, or even appeals to you for a “specialised” look, or very-low-light useage, you should be more than satisfied. Between f:2.0 and f:2.8, you have a first window of excellence. Images are by now technically clean and sharp, and full of character. Strong 3D, nice colours and contrast. If this is your “thing”, Wow! shots will come thick and fast, and you will be one happy camper.

 
f:2.0. Things get quite a bit better/cleaner, and the qualities remain
 

Close down some more, and the shots get even cleaner unutil they peak at f:5.6, the other sweet spot. Great sharpness, tremendous 3D and detail, high contrast, the lens can do most things remarkably well at that aperture, from close up to infinity, free from problems, yet retaining character. By f:8.0, the pictures are still super-clean but flatten out. And why bother with a super-fast lens, and the issues it brings, if shooting frequently closed down that much is your intent?

 
f:2.8. Lots of character, great 3D. Love this look
 

So, in a nutshell, here is what CV have to offer. A superfast lens? With severe limitations. A character lens? YES!!! With two sweet spots and two renderings, depending on aperture. A do-it-all lens? Mostly, but not quite. A lens that produces übershots? Yes, definitely, but only within its shooting envelope, which is far from full.

 
it flattens out a bit, without gaining much to offset this. A ‘tweener aperture IMHO
 

Many manufacturers try to offer products that are, within their price points, all things to all people. Voigtländer have taken another approach. Not everyone will like the CV 40. People like me, who like to open wide to place the focus point, and then stop down, will be frustrated by the focus shift, for example. But, for people who know how to use it, it will deliver shots that are best-in-class, or very, very close. And, for that money and physical package, that is mighty impressive!

 
f:5.6. Very punchy, energetic look, lots of 3D. Quite different from f:2.8. I really like it
f:8.0. The look flattens out. Not bad in any way, but why bother with this lens if that aperture is key for you?
 

Let me show you one shot I really like, and how I failed to get it right.

 
 

I like everything about it. Colours, contrast, 3D, rendering… Except one thing: I opened wide to place the point of focus very carefully on the edge of the horizontal bar, and then stopped down to, I think, f:2.8. I even did this twice and shot twice to make sure I got this lovely (for me) image just right. And failed twice. Because closing down from f:1.2 to f: 2.8 shifts the point of focus. Arrgh!

 
f:2.0
 

So, for some, this lens will be the bees’ knees. But not for me. Focus shift makes my usual workflow too difficult. Besides, just a week later, Pascal showed up with Audrey. Yes it has issues on a stock Sony body, and it is not good at all at f:1.2; because it is a f:1.4 lens. And I messed up a shot that I would have really liked because I forgot to manually adjust the IBIS, which is automatic with the CV but not on a adapted lenses, and so it is not quite sharp. But I fell in love all over again. Here is a very deep crop…

 
Zeiss ZM 35 f:1.4; a.k.a. Audrey. Brilliant!
 

So why do I call this lens the un-Otus? Using the Otus as a yardstick for “doing everything at the highest level of performance – weight and cost no object-“, there are many lenses that are called by their loving fans “mini-Otus”. Which is by and large a joke. Full Otus performance is just not easily reachable at all, and it is self-deception or lack experience to think that a lens costing and weighing a fraction is just-as-good-for-all-intents-and-purposes-in-the-real-world in every respect.

 
f:5.6; Again, very good definition, 3D, contrast
 

Voigtländer have not fallen, or caused trusting clients to fall, into that trap. Rather than trying to hit every performance measure, but on a much lower budget than Otus, the CV 40 cleverly picks its fights. And, where it is designed to perform, it performs remarkably well for the money, with a combination of modern performance and golden-oldie character. Just, you have to know if this floats your boat. Besides, for Sony FE, there is a glaring absence of near-perfect all-purpose 35mm premium offering. The Loxia 35 is not as good a more recent Loxias, and thus is also a “specialised” lens. The Sony-Zeiss 35 f:1.4 is AF, much larger and heavier, not everyone likes its rendering, and it is prone, it seems, to some QA issues. The Zeiss Batis 40mm f:2.0 is a more universal offering than the CV, with AF, but don’t expect it to match the CV where the CV shines, plus it is “only” f:2.0. So, is this Voigtländer 40 for you? Can you resist the siren song of f:1.2? Only you can answer that…

 
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14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron April 18, 2019

    Well I keep reading about lenses with quite extraordinary maximum apertures, and get left wondering why on earth anyone would ever want one.

    If I am desperate to get an image in appallingly bad lighting conditions, and I’m shooting from the hip because my tripod is too clunky to drag from one side of the planet to the other, I might occasionally open up to f/1.4. Less than 2% of my photos, according to the meta data on a thousand shots taken on one trip. And only when I needed to bump the ISO level past 2500, which I generally try to avoid.

    It’s probably disgusting to mention it, but heaps of articles suggest that you need to find your lens’s sweet spot, and try to shoot with that, most of the time. And it’s apparently normally somewhere around f/8. Of course then you have to work out what depth of field you want, how much bokeh, and so on. But apparently that’s the “starting point” we are supposed to aim for. Before we break all the “rules” and do whatever we want. 🙂

    Does this lens you’re describing have back focus problems, or is it perfectly normal for focus to go out, with a shift in the aperture? Pardon my “dumb”, but I do all the other settings first and focus last, so I’ve never come across this issue in my entire life. But again, that’s because I’m a wayward child and don’t normally use a tripod – to do that, I’d have to borrow a sherpa or something to carry all the junk everywhere.

    • Avatar
      philberphoto April 19, 2019

      Pete, as you know, I am no technical expert. But I believe that back focus can’t happen on a morrorless, because you are viewing what commes right off the sensor, whereas back-focus (or front for that matter) is a differential between when you see on the image and you what the AF system “sees”, which can happen in the case of DSLRs and ragefinders.
      Focus shift means that the point of focus of a lens is not the same at different apertures. Hence, if you focus at one aperture and shoot at another, as I do, your focus is “off”…
      Why do I focus wide open? Because it lets me place the focus point exactly where I want it, rather than a deeper focusing area if I were focusing at shooting aperture. And also because it gives the most light in the VF, which helps my aging eyes.

  2. Avatar
    Kristian Wannebo April 18, 2019

    Philippe,
    do go back (if possible) and redo the photo of that horizontal bar!
    I like the gate below too with focus on the chain! (How about at 2.8, or would it have too much DOF then?)

    And thanks for a good read on lenses.

    Btw., from where are the photos of the buildings with spires and of the castle?

    • Avatar
      philberphoto April 19, 2019

      Hi, Kristian,
      Unfortunately, the pictures were taken from the town of Ghent, a less-traveled beauty than Brugg. But still, to go there to take one picture, without even being sure of where the scene was, that is/would be dedication, Kristian…:-)

      • Avatar
        Kristian Wannebo April 19, 2019

        It *shure* would!
        🙂
        Thanks Philippe for the info!

  3. Avatar
    immodoc April 18, 2019

    Hi, thank you very much for your deep and balanced review!

    40mm was a popular focal length in the 70s, ROLLEI 35s had it, and range finders such as the Minolta High-Matic E …

    It was said to be a universal focal length between WA 35mm and normal 50mm. —

    For me, it would have been interesting to see how the NOKTON renders lights in a dark room, e.g. candles in a church.

    I have the Voigtländer Nokton 1,2/35 V1. This being an aspherical, too, which renders lights in the context above
    with onion-rings, the 40mm NOKTON might do this also …

    My Nokton 1,4/40 classic (M mount) developed a sticky focussing ring. I never had this with any of my M ZEISS
    lenses, also made by Cosina. Maybe, the different brands have different quality control processes. —

    I will not put the 1,2/40 NOKTON on my shopping list.

    My two “character lenses” ZEISS Sonnar 1,5/50 and the ZEISS Distagon 1,4/35 will have to do the job … —

    • Avatar
      philberphoto April 19, 2019

      Thank you for yor kind words. I fully understand why, if you already have a Zeiss ZM 35 f:1.4 and ZM 50 f:1.5, and CV 35 f:1.2 you wouldn’t feel the need to add a CV 40 f:1.2. How many “normal” MF lenses does one “need”? …:-)

  4. Avatar
    Mark Raugas April 18, 2019

    I typically focus at taking aperture, so the focus shift on this lens never was an issue for me. I have a variety of lenses around standard focal length: the Loxia 50, it’s progenitor the ZM50/2, the CV40, and the ZM 35/1.4

    One thing I enjoy about the CV40 vs the ZM 35/1.4 on the Sony system is the geometry of the lens itself. The CV40 feels very natural in hand and gets out of the way. The ZM feels very natural on my film camera but with the adapter and with the front PCX element attached, is as long as my 90 Summicron. The PCX had a tendency to fog on both sides in the PNW, providing just enough annoyance that I leave the 35/1.4 at home if it will be wet, which is mostly.

    I would agree the ZM is a far superior lens optically and I would like to use it more often. Once I did a comparison of 135 lenses and found I liked the Leica 135/2.8 R more than the Zeiss APO 135/2 despite the latter’s reputation. The CV40 is no Leica but I have enjoyed many of the pictures I have taken with it.

    It would be really nice if Zeiss would release a E mount version of the 35/1,4…

    Mark Raugas
    innercapture.com

    • Avatar
      philberphoto April 19, 2019

      I agree with everything you write, Mark, except for one point of view. Whereas the Zeiss 35 ZM f:1.4 may be, as you say, optically superior, CV have tuned their 40mm so well that, in its zone of excellence, it delivers IQ that is so good you do not feel any better is necessary. In other words, shots are mro than totally satisfactory, enjoyable, etc.. even for discriminating users. Just my $0.02.

  5. Avatar
    Pascal Ravach April 19, 2019

    Philippe, your first telescope shot is spectacular.
    I know that the background is distant, that the subject is ideal, that i’is not the first time I see the CV40 producing this kind of “reality”, 3d pop plus volume… but your photo just produces that better than other photos I’ve seen.
    Looking at it, I even feel that it has more “touch” than the Loxia!
    (ha, as we missed new words to describe our lenses :D).
    Less elegant, less “transparent”, sure, but so organic!
    (I know some would say “cinematic”, but it is a bit different).
    Of course, Audrey is not just a “Zeiss”, it’s a world by itself… another way to bring things to life.

    That specific CV40 fascinates me since its release, even considering its limitations.
    With its 12 (!) lens construction, it is quite surprising… but the results are there.
    Thanks for the review, the awe, and mostly for defining so well its shooting enveloppe… I am part of that minority tempted to buy it, you just worsened my situation 🙂

    • Avatar
      philberphoto April 20, 2019

      Thank you for telling me that I worsened your situation in some way. Then I can really write “Mission accomplished!” 🙂
      I owned and loved the Loxia 50, quite a different lens from the CV 40. I never felt the 50 was at its best wide open, which made it a f:2.4 or, better yet, f:2.8 lens in my book. Great colours and contrast, without a doubt. What kept me from keeping it was (a) that I bought a Otus 55, (b) bokeh was not the nicest when the shot incorporated points of light. Typically, shooting against a sun-lit background. And (c) the level of detail did not seem very high, which is the disadvantage of a contrast-priority image. But it did give a very modern, very organic, well-integrated, definitely classy look. At the time of its release, it was the only game in town for normal lenses on the Sony, and it immediately sealed the fate of my unloved 55mm f:1.8 Sony-Zeiss. Could I see myself using both the CV and the Loxia? Yes, I could, because in a way they complement each other more than anything. But then again, for not much more money and less weight than the two together, Audrey smiles swwetly with the “come hither!” gesture of an angel…

  6. Avatar
    brian April 20, 2019

    Thanks for your insightful review, which I enjoyed despite my bias towards keeping my ZM 35/1.4 and avoiding the purchase of another lens, no matter what. However, it happens that I read your page and appreciated your photos just as the 40mm Nokton’s new sibling, the FE 50mm f:1.2 Nokton, became available. Since, as I recall, the earlier m-mount version of the new lens seemed to offer improvements in some areas (for example, wide-open sharpness and lack of “onion ring” highlights) compared to the lens that you just reviewed, I suppose that you might find it interesting.

    • Avatar
      philberphoto April 20, 2019

      Hi, Brian.
      Yes, I will look into the CV 50 f:1.2 as pictures become available. While I am technically incompetent, from my end it seems like the 40 and 50 share the same optical construction, which I take to mean that the images and look will be related. Thats said, when I saw images of the M-mount 40 and the FE-mount 40 on the same Sony body, they weren’t quite the same, though they ought to have been, so….

  7. Avatar
    Edwin Verhulst April 20, 2019

    Thank you for providing your thoughts and insigths. For almost a year now I own the CV 40, as well as the Loxia 50. Both are an absolute joy to use and deliver beautiful images. And sure they have their own strength and weaknesses. But almost every photo they produce is pleasant to the eye. Whereas the Loxia shines in sharpness, detail and rich colours the more classic rendering of the CV 40 is what I really like. That’s why I highly recommend this lens.

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