Sony A7 and the Nokton 40mm f/1.4
By Andrew Kaiser
I’m going to share a dirty little secret that is hard to admit. My favorite M-mount lens of all time is not made by Leica. It’s not made by Zeiss either. No, it’s not a vintage Canon or Nikon screw mount lens. It’s a lens made by that red headed step child of a manufacturer Voigtlander and it comes in the form of the 40mm Nokton f/1.4.
I purchased this lens along with a Bessa R3A more than a decade ago. To this day I am primarily a film shooter, mostly medium format. However, at the time I wanted something small I could carry around on occasion and the Bessa was an affordable option. I loved that camera and still own it to this day. Even more importantly I loved the lens. The 40mm focal length is as close to the field of view as my actual vision as I’ve ever used. The lens is sharp but not too sharp. The bokeh is smooth but not dreamy. It’s slightly gritty and feels very authentic to me. Best of all, the lens is ultra-fast and yet comes in a very tiny package making it easy to stick in the side pocket of a camera or messenger bag. When paired up against my medium format gear, I need any and all additional equipment to be small and easy to pack away.
These days I rarely shoot with 35mm film. I like the large negative of medium format and when I want something smaller I go with digital. Unfortunately, using the 40mm Nokton wasn’t much of an option in the digital universe without compromise. Digital Leica M cameras don’t have frame lines for 40mm lenses (yes I know I can approximate with 35mm or 50mm, but considering the price of a Leica I want precision). Adapting the lens to an APS-C camera wasn’t much of an option either as the lens becomes closer to 60mm, a focal length that feels very awkward in my creative brain. Even in the world of 35mm film, the 40mm Nokton was a bit of an oddball. To my knowledge, only the Bessa R3 camera line, the Leica CL, and the Minolta CLE had frame lines for a 40mm lens. So sadly, for a few years my 40mm Nokton sat on a shelf untouched and unloved.
All of that changed when Sony released the A7. I am not ashamed to say I bought the A7 with the primary purpose in mind of using my 40mm Nokton in a digital medium at the focal length the lens it was intended to be. That might seem silly considering the Nokton is typically considered more of a budget lens and not the kind of equipment a photographer should obsess over. But hey, to each their own!
The Nokton pairs beautifully with the A7. The overall package is small and compact, and yet I don’t feel like I am holding a toy or compromising on creative control when I use it. After spending a little time setting the camera up to my liking, its operation is completely intuitive. Nearly everything I want is accessible via its own dedicated dial or button on the outside of the camera. Why it took so long for digital camera designers to grasp the importance of this I will never know, but they are certainly getting it right with the A7.
I admit, having the majority of my photographic experience rooted in the film world made me very apprehensive about the EVF on the A7. Thankfully these fears were put to bed after using it for about two days. It takes some getting used to, but as with most things photography related, there are advantages one quickly learns to embrace, and some disadvantages one learns to overlook. I still don’t love the feeling of looking at my subject through a digital screen, but I have learned to appreciate focus peaking and focus assist when using vintage glass as well as being able to gauge depth of field in real-time.
If I have any complaints about the A7 they are relatively minor. The first would be a purely cosmetic one. I very much wish Sony would drop the bright orange color accents on its professional grade cameras. It’s ugly and sticks out painfully against what is an otherwise attractive camera design. The second is more functional. I would have really appreciated if Sony would have made the shutter release button threaded. This is not only nice when one wants to use a cable release, but it also gives photographers the ability to use a soft release. I’ve become completely addicted to soft release adapters in recent years and consider them an essential part of any camera purchase. Luckily I managed to find a mini-soft release that adheres to a flat shutter button via an adhesive method, but I’m still a little annoyed my choices were so limited. Sony got this right with the RX1, I don’t know why they didn’t do the same with the A7 line.
Still, minor nitpicks aside, the A7 paired with a 40mm f/1.4 Nokton has become my go-to travel companion, and a permanent fixture as a back-up camera next to my medium format film gear. Sony has really made something here that I can see myself owning and utilizing for years to come.