Review: Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.5 + Sony A7RII

Using a Voigtlander 50mm f1.5 manual lens with the A7RII for street photography may seem too much trouble to many of you. Why don't I just use an auto-focusing lens?

Well one thing I've learnt in life is that anything rewarding and worth pursuing will never be easy. And when you nail the shot in manual focus, it's a hundred times more satisfying, you feel like YOU have made that shot, not the camera's brains.

It's a bit like driving, I have never enjoyed driving an automatic. When I drive, I want to feel like I'm in control, I want to decide if and when I should change gear.

Back to photography.

I've been shooting with the mirrorless Sony A7RII now since early August, so a little over 3 months, and it's been quite a change from shooting with the OM-D system (which I still love and use).

I'd been shooting solely Olympus Micro Four Thirds for the past four years so it was time to try other options and I felt the Sony lens ecosystem has matured enough now to offer a good range of lens options. I do however think the whole argument of smaller size is not valid with the A7 series, they are still big and heavy compared to other mirrorless cameras.

So for the A7RII, aside from three other lenses I bought, I chose the Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.5 Aspherical as my "every day" lens. 

To fit that lens on the A7RII body I chose the Voigtlander VM-E Close Focus Adapter. This adapter allows me to focus on subjects 40cm from me instead of the normal 70cm distance which I find way too long. 

The first reason I bought the Nokton 50mm f1.5 (and obviously): Its low light ability. 

What would be the point of using a camera like the Sony A7RII with such excellent high ISO performance if not to use it in low light environment? Couple it with a fast lens and it's what I call low light heaven. Many of the photographs in this post were shot at ISO 6400 in VERY dark environments.

After reading many reviews, inspecting many confusing charts and searching for the best deal, it became quite apparent that this lens comes close to the quality of a Leica lens for a fraction of the price.

At f1.5 you won't find this lens at its sharpest and you'll experience quite a bit of colour fringing in high contrast areas BUT this will be the case with any manual lens wide open, even the Leica. Trust me, I've witnessed it.

This can easily be corrected in post (if it really bugs you) and since I shoot mainly in black and white, well... it's irrelevant. Plus when you choose to shoot at f1.5 you do it for other reasons than pixel peeping back at home. No you do it because of low light restrictions or for aesthetic reasons for the shallow depth of field it creates. At f2.8 it all becomes very sharp with no real noticeable IQ issues.

For street portraits where you have a bit more time than pure street photography, this is a great lens, even wide open. At f1.5 on a camera with such high definition, focusing fast becomes a whole new skill (or head-ache). I sometimes use the A7RII's focus peaking but I have found that when one uses focus peaking too much one often stops using their eyes properly which after all are the ultimate judge of sharpness.

In short, at f1.5, focus peaking isn't always perfect so don't rely entirely on it as you may get home and realise the shot wasn't actually really that well focused.

Then there's the A7RII's focus magnification. I find it a lot more useful and reliable than focus peaking but either way, both take valuable milliseconds which you don't always have as a luxury in a street photography situation (to help me use these in a much quicker way I have assigned each to one of the two buttons right next to the shutter button).

So when it comes to actual street photography where speed of focusing can often make or break the shot, I usually have to stop down to f2.8 for a more forgiving depth of field. 

This is a small lens (for street photography it's perfect) and really well built, it feels solid. Whilst not weather proof, it does feel like even if dropped it would survive. Paired with the A7RII it makes for a mean street photography machine!

To put in perspective how much I love using this lens, I also own the excellent Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA, yet I never use it in the street, I keep it for photography jobs. It also comes from the fact it's big, too big for my liking for street photography, it's not what you'd call inconspicuous, far from that.

I would have liked the focus ring to have been a little better thought-out. It's not got the best grip but it's ok, I can kinda deal with that.

I do like for example the Leica finger focusing grip/tab which allows for faster one-finger focusing control. It also  gives you a marker in a way that you can remember that when in a certain position it means you're pretty much focusing at X distance. 

That's pretty much it really on the Voigtlander 50mm f1.5 paired with the Sony A7RII. 

I love the Sony A7RII and THE main reason is that since I use it I have not opened Photoshop or Lightroom once.

The straight out of camera contrast, colours, tones of black and whites are all I need. I've learnt to take better shots without feeling the need to automatically tweak them or alter them.

It's a lot more satisfying that way.

I hope you enjoy the photos in this article, all shot with this combo and always in-camera black and white, never converted or post-processed.

More non-processed photos shot with the A7RII can be seen in my recent review of the A7RII.

Drop me a comment if you have experience with it too or if you would like to know more!

Nico