france

Life begins at 40 - The Voigtlander 40mm f1.2 mid term test.

As anyone who's been reading this blog (all two of you..) on a semi-casual basis will know, I've been slowly slipping my toes into the world of manual focus lenses.

Firstly, it was a fun Olympus 50mm f1.8 with a converter, then I roadtested a lovely 35/50mm combo from Zeiss which were really nice too, but to be blunt I still needed something 'extra' - a lens to fit into my already pretty cracking Sony and Zeiss Batis AF line up that nothing else would.

Well, it finally arrived in the form of the Voigtlander 40mm f1.2. I'd been eyeing this one for a while being interested in both the in-between focal length - a bit less wide than the 35mm standard and nudging towards the supposed 50mm sweet spot - plus the really wide aperture which can see in the dark like a rabbit on turbo carrots.

What really pushed me over the edge was the excellent review by Chad Wadsworth which basically made me do the photography equivalent of the Fry 'Take my money!' meme.

So, late May - after a back order wait - it arrived. Initial signs weren't great as Voigtländer have some work to do with the rather cheapo packaging, but once inside I knew I had something with a bit of class. Unlike a lot of the usual suspects nowadays, the 40mm is weighty without being heavy and has no truck with your cheapo plastics - this is one piece of quality metal.

The Voigtlander 40mm f1.2

The Voigtlander 40mm f1.2

Now usually I'd get a lens on the Sony, get snapping and pop an early review up touts suite, but something about the 40mm told me to wait and get to know it. Glad I did, because in the couple of months since it's arrival i've been learning how to use it properly - e.g learn my distances, find the sweetspots, forget about the focusing and the get 'in the moment'

Because this isn't just your usual lens. As pointed out elsewhere, whilst the headline is the light gobbling f1.2 aperture, I haven't really used that setting too much apart from when light was low or at night - i've been mostly living between 1.4 and 3.4. To comment on the f1.2 in normal light - well, you get that dreamy look everyone goes mad for but you have to be bang on with your focusing at that aperture in normal conditions.

But no, the real star here is the 'analogue' nature of the output. An example of this was when switching between this lens and my Sony 55mm f1.8. Now, the Sony's a great lens no doubt, but it's super sharp - like sushi chef sharp - and while that's awesome, it's a very 'digital' look and the Voigtländer wins for creamy, old school vibes as a counter point - which means I can get two different looks at different focal lengths.

Analogue vibes.

Analogue vibes.

Now, when I say 'review' at the top of this post, what i'm really meaning is 'what real photos look like in the real world' - there's load of reviewers out there who do clever things and check for levels of chromatic aberration etc but my angle and acid test is very much - 'is this a great lens for everyday use and does it take a photograph that I love that I couldn't take with another lens?'

And the answer is simply, yes. Because after a bedding in period where i've run the 40mm through heatwave sunshine in the Loire to a chilly night on Exmouth beach front i'm now getting images back that look amazing, anologue and most importantly - real.

I'm not going to use it for sports, or when I need a long lens at a gig or an event, but for getting proper almost cinematic quality output it's the closest to the 'Leica look' that i'll ever be able to afford - it's probably best for your lifestyle and travel photography types although at a push it might do the business at a wedding gig.

I've also grown to love the 40mm length very quickly, and i'm now of the mind that this is the nearest you get to what your eye 'sees' over and above the much touted 50mm and somehow it just gets it 'right' - and when you do a bit of research you find that in film world Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Francis Ford Coppola would probably agree.

Issues? Not many. Throw is a little long and i get oddly annoyed at the lens cap not pinging into place easily, but these are minor quibbles.

A lens you can give a fig about.

A lens you can give a fig about.

So, it's with a mixture of happiness and relief that i give the Voigtländer 40mm f1.2 a big old thumbs up. Below are a selection of shots taken over the last few months at home and away to give you an idea of the sort of real life images you'll get out of the camera. There's obviously been a certain amount of post production magic attached, but to be honest the more i've got to use the lens the less post work i've done on the images coming out of it - much less than other lenses.

The only thing left to say about the Voigtländer is that when picking my lenses for a session out and about now it's the first in my camera bag, and to extend that pun for no other purposes than finding a title, it really does mean that life begins at 40.

 

Berkshire and beyond.

Various shots taken around Cookham, Wargrave and some more from Dorney Court, Ham House and Greys Court.

The Loire.

Shots taken in the Loire including Chambord, Blois and Clos Luce.

London.

Shots taken in Paddington, Kensington and Soho.

Devon.

Shots taken Sidmouth, Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton and A La Ronde National Trust.

 


Final note - I paid for the Voitglander out of my own hard earned and i'm not affliated in any way.

French Fried.

Ok, we know it's hot. Like real hot.

And when we've had scorching weather in the UK around the early 30's for weeks, it made complete sense for us to hit the road, jump on a ferry and head to an even hotter bit of Europe. Mad dogs etc.

Our destination this time was the lazy river running through the Loire Valley in the central section of France (down from Paris, across to the left a bit ok?)

With a 10-year-old in tow, a week's worth of vineyard visitations was sadly out of the question, so instead we did what lots of other Brits do - the 'Europcamp thing' - which to the uninitiated is rocking up to a mobile home affair (or for the brave, a tent) on a site with pool, bar, pizza etc. Our home for the week was Camping Château des Marais just outside Chambord. 

It's an 8+ hour drive - 2 to Dover from Maidenhead, then another 6 odd from Calais but you can shave a couple of hours off if you want to do toll roads and not be cheap arse like us. 
 

Blois.

Riverside at Blois.

After that mammoth journey, the first day was a potter around one of the local towns - Blois. 

Funnily enough, for a town of its type in the Loire, Blois has a Chateau and a Cathedral (sarcasm), plus some lovely streets ripe for photography leading down to the river. Lovely place and we liked it so much, we visited twice!


Château de Chambord.

Day Two. With driving legs sufficiently recovered, we jumped back in the car for the short hop to our rather magnificent local French Renaissance big house - Château de Chambord.

Brimming with a history tied up with Sun King (who didn't stay there much... rich people eh?), it's a pretty magnificent building and beautifully kept up. One of the crowning glories is the stairwells, which depending on who you believe - and it's a bit vague - were designed or inspired by Leonardo da Vinci who lived in the region until his death.

Basically, it's an amazing place and a must see if you're in the vicinity.

 


Orléans and Vendôme.

Slowing down a tad, the next couple of days were spent popping to two more local towns (well, I say local - both around an hour each way from our base... France is big). The first was Orléans - yes, the Joan of Arc one - which again has a pretty awe-inspiring Cathedral and more excitingly, a branch of C&A just across from a lovely square with children playing in fountains.

Second on the list was the sadly mostly shut town of Vendôme. Well, i say mostly shut: we went on a Sunday which we forgot means everything really is shut as unlike the UK, the French actually do have some sort of day of rest. Still, another lovely town with great views from the castle.

 


Clos Lucé.

There's a lot of Leo in the Loire, and by that, I don't mean DiCaprio. As previously mentioned, Da Vinci entered French service in 1516, and was given use a rather nice manor house called Clos Lucé where he spent three years until he died. The house is now a reworked museum with not only recreated rooms, but actual working models of his inventions.

I felt the gardens, rather than the house was the main draw - not only are they wonderfully kept but they're peppered with inventions for kids (and adults) to play on, and lovely little touches like steam popping out of the little river flowing along the grounds. 

So, château visited, wine drunk, towns walked around, bike rides had and, for one of us, a lot of time spent in the pool, we snaked our way back via Rouen to the coast. We could have easily had another week in the Loire region as there's loads to see and the campsite style is great as a base - especially when it's as hot as it currently is. 

Perhaps next year we'll head a bit further south and try out a similar gig in the south of France. Global warming allowing.

Phew.


Tech Corner:
The whole gang of Zeiss and Sony lenses from 25mm, through 35/55 to the 85mm got a runout but I really enjoyed playing with the Voigtlander 40mm f/1.2 this time out too. I'll do a full review using all sorts of shots from that soon once i've got some semblance of mastery of it.
 

 

Leffe through a lens. Or two.

There's actually more bikes than people in Belgium. Probably.

Ok. Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Belgium. It's all waffles, chocolates, beer and frites with mayo, right?

Well, there's always a truth in a cliche and our trip there did incorporate all of the above - some more than others - but I'm glad to report it's all that and quite a lot more.

Along with it being a welcome break over Easter, our visit to Bruges was a bit of work mixed with pleasure for me - which is a lot less international jet set than it sounds.

As a pretty much exclusive user of Carl Zeiss lenses on my Sony, I was delighted they agreed to let me road test some of their fantastic Loxia lenses in the field. To avoid boring the non-camera nerds among you, I've left the technical bit to the end - scroll down to find out how I did with these lovely bits of glass...

Meanwhile, let's hop on a ferry, shall we?

 

Day 1. No fighting on these beaches.

Malo-les-Bains Beach.

After an astonishingly early start and drive to Dover (white cliffs untouched by the Photoshop skills of the Daily Express that day) we disembarked at Calais and - remembering to drive on the right - made our way to Dunkirk as a lunch stop. 

Having enjoyed/endured the Christoper Nolan film of the same name recently and to experience the real thing, we dropped by the excellent Museum Dunkerque 1940 Operation Dynamo museum which is stuffed full of exhibits, artefacts and staffed by enthusiastic staff ready to inform history mad 10-year-olds.

It was pretty sobering stuff. The museum doesn't just centre on the 300,000 evacuees, but tells the wider story, serving as a welcome reminder of the horror of war and the rise of nationalism - especially pertinent in the current political climate we find ourselves in. This stuff happened then, and it could happen again. 

We couldn't leave without a visit to the famous Malo-les-Bains beach which has a most fantastic light - that blue-y grey you see in the war fiicks is very much present. 

On the beach.

The Nolan film is obviously a big deal locally at the moment. There was signage up everywhere and on one building on the beach (the frankly hideous Dunkirk Kursaal) you got a full explanation of the filming locations - including the pier that they blew up. You really get a feel for Operation Dynamo on Malo-les-Bains - you can almost see the little boats of England appearing through the fog...

So, full of history we wandered through town (stopping for some very nice Wes Anderson architectural opportunities) and back to the car for the final part of the journey - and a welcome blonde beer. To Bruges!

 

 

Day 2. Waffles, Bikes and Pralines.

After a hugely unhealthy and enjoyable waffle breakfast (really - how can it be so wrong?) we hit the cobbles - avoiding the many, many bikes - for some serious tourist action. 

There's pretty much nothing in central Bruges which hasn't been cleaned, polished up and made Belgium in a heart-shaped box for the international tourist, but unless you're some sort of hardened travel cynic it's really difficult to not enjoy it. The food and drinks are top notch, the shops small and artisan, and the architecture beautiful. A day of wandering was polished off with another round of beer in a fantastic little bar called 'T Brugsch Bieratelier - worth a visit if you fancy going through the entire menu and putting a downpayment on a catering sized hangover.

 

 

Day 3. Belfries, Boat Rides and Windmills.

It's easier on the way down.

Hitting our stride, we really pushed the boat out on our third day in town. Literally.

If you go to Bruges, you do need to go on one of the canal boat rides. It's like going to London and not riding a red bus. Our little cruise came with a comedy Captain Haddock style driver (spot him below) who was worth the entry fee alone. 

Before our trip out on the high seas though, Alice and I scaled the giddy 366 steps up to the top of the famous Belfry - Mrs. W decided this was not her cup of tea and went to visit the local C&A instead (the Europeans still have a soft spot for 80's flammable polyester it would appear)

There were certainly some amazing views to be had up in the Belfry - but if you're not a fan of lots of ascending small steps it might be worth giving it a miss. Still, I'm glad to see that contrary to that In Bruges scene where Brendan Glesson decides there's a quicker way down from the tower, that plenty of sturdy wire mess is installed up top...

Despite being pooped from all that climbing, we spent the rest of the day wandering towards a less well known Bruges landmark - the Sint-Janshuis Mill. Still working, it's at the end of a lovely walk out of town which gets quieter and quieter as you pass through little streets of charming houses - basically, I want to live there.

 

 

Day 4. Meant for Ghent.

Most of the big hits in Bruges are 'do-able' in a couple of days, so on our final day we diverted pre-ferry to Ghent for lunch and a bit of a look around. Via charming tea shops (one called Alice so we had to go in - turns out that it was beautiful inside), we made a bee line for the remarkably well preserved (read: much rebuilt - castle). Not sure I was prepared for the extensive torture exhibit, but everybody loves castles and it's got great views of the city. 

Ghent itself is a bit like Bruges' older, bigger and less polished brother. It's still got canals and boat rides, but with added hen and stag do chic and a more 'working town' vibe. We liked it though - worth jumping on the ferry for again.

Which neatly leads up back to the DFDS terminal and, waiting in the queue a little time to ponder on the Belgian cliches mentioned above. Yes, you've got your praline, your Leffe and your chips, but Belgium is certainly a bit more than that. With its long history, pretty towns and duel Dutch/French nature, there's a complex character to it that get's a bit missed on a worldwide stage which is shame, and the people we found hugely friendly and welcoming. 

Lots of the UK obviously has issues with Brussels, but don't include us. Especially when the beer is so good.

 


Twice as nice with a Zeiss.

So, the technical bit. I've written a post about using manual lenses for street work before where I spent an afternoon using an old Olympus 50mm with an adaptor.

Being a big fan of the Batis range of Zeiss lenses, I really wanted to try out the manual only Loxia range, so the trip to Belgium was a great opportunity to give both the 35mm and 50mm a street whirl. 

The Loxia 35 and 50.

Obviously, it's a big difference from AF as you've got more to think about when 'in the moment' - getting the focus correct whilst hitting the composition with a moving target is no mean feat out on the street. I'll be honest and say even with the A7Rii's cool manual focus peaking mode that I struggled a bit initially and my 'keeper' rate was really low - nothing to do with the lenses here, all down to the photographer!

After a bit of trial and error, I reverted to using the old 'f8 and be there' trick - you can especially see this in the Ghent people shots as they're different to my usual style, which tends to be more shallow in its use of depth of field. I can certainly see why people use this setting - suddenly I started getting proper decent shots - albeit it with high ISO's - and my confidence returned!

For me, where the Loxia's really shine is in a static situation (or that might be my lack of manual street chops!). When sitting in a bar capturing people, having the ability to choose the thing YOU want to focus on rather than what Mr. Sony thinks is best in that situation is wonderful - there's more control. Plus the warm analogue aesthetic they give off is lovely - compared with my AF Sony 55mm f1.8 for example, which is great but very, very sharp and slightly 'digital' looking, the Loxia's have a nice 'old fashioned' look.
 

In a way, you don't mind if you miss focus - a Loxia still makes it look lovely.

Oh, and did I mention they are gorgeous bits of kit? - fast, smooth focusing action and lovely metal build quality. Pick of the two for me was the 35mm - it was certainly nice to have a lens of that focal length on my Sony that was drastically smaller than my behemoth Distagon 1.4 which tends to shout "LOOK... PHOTOGRAPHER!!!" when you're trying to be a bit covert.

So the question is: could I move to an all manual set up and dump autofocus? Possibly, but not now. I love the quality of the Batis line and they allow me to get the shots I want without the worry of missing the moment.

However, the charm, history and control of a manual lens are real and it's certainly something I'll be developing. So perhaps it's not a choice between one or another, perhaps it's horses for courses and perhaps a Loxia will be in my future camera bag after all...



Small tech note: 85% of these shots were the Loxia 35/50 and the rest were the Batis 25 when I need to go wider - for instance up in the Bruges Belfry and shots from the castle in Ghent.

Many thanks to Adam at Zeiss for the loan.