Noctilux. Regardless of its generation – whether the pioneering (and very, very rare) f1.2 early version or the current super speed f0.95, it’s a bit of a legend amongst photographers, and with good reason. It was one of the first lenses I was loaned by Leica – replacing a 50/2.5 Summarit that was supplied with the M9-P initially. I asked for more speed, and it seems like I got everything they could give me.
Let me start with my first impressions of the outgoing f1.0 lens: a big, huge, heavy, difficult to focus (thanks to a very long focus throw) beast with a near-useless short built in hood. I didn’t like that veiling softness caused at f1 due to a combination of flare and uncorrected spherical aberration; and I really found the ‘swirly bokeh’ distracting (another artifact of uncorrected spherical aberration) – something that most people loved as the signature of the Noctilux. I guess I’m in the minority. The first time I handled the f0.95, I was actually collecting my 21 Summilux; this was in 2009. I duly fondled, took some test shots, thought it was pretty good, and handed it back – I didn’t like the stiff focusing ring, and it was even bigger than the previous one. And somehow felt twice as heavy.
Cigar time. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
Fast forward a few years. Whilst the supply of Noctiluxes doesn’t seem to have improved, (or the demand has skyrocketed; where on earth do people find the money for $11,000+ lenses?) my second impressions are definitely a lot more positive. I’m pleased to report that the lens’ size is something you get used to after a while; it’s really not that bad, it’s the density you have to be careful of – it weighs more than the larger Nikon 85/1.4 G, and has a lot of sharp edges that might ding or get marred if you’re not careful when going through doorways.
The gift. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
The focusing ring is important, because it’s the first thing you interact with when using it. I’m also pleased to report that after a few months of heavy use, it definitely smoothens out and is now almost fingertip-easy, with just enough resistance to stop it from being accidentally moved off your chosen distance. Perfect. And unlike a lot of other Leica lenses, the aperture ring clicks sharply and precisely into place, requiring a decent amount of force to move it. (My 35/1.4 ASPH FLE isn’t anywhere near tight enough, and sometimes I find myself shooting at f2.8 because I knocked the ring while focusing.)
Nadiah. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
Let’s talk a bit about bokeh. The old swirls are gone; instead we have a nice uniform wall of blur both in front of and behind your subject – it means images produced with this lens look a lot more cinematic, and remind me of something shot with a telephoto rather than a normal focal length. Curiously, the bokeh signature is quite similar to Leica’s other recent asphericals which I’ve used; the 50/1.4 ASPH, 35 FLE, 21/1.4 ASPH. I suspect there must be some similar optical design decisions made which cause this – perhaps it’s the placement of the physical aperture, or the design of the rear group to improve telecentricity and even-ness of frame illumination. This last factor seems to have the trait of creating very smooth bokeh, as also seen with Nikon’s new f1.4 G lenses.
Christmas ball self portrait. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
The downside to this is that the new Noctilux doesn’t have as much character as the old one; photos aren’t instantly identifiable as ‘Noctilux shots’. But it does mean that there’s a lot more opportunity for the photographer to imprint their own style on the image. I did an experiment where I mixed up a bunch of images from the Noctilux and its nearest visual competitor – in my mind, the Nikon 85/1.4 G – and showed them to a number of photographers. Most of them couldn’t tell the difference between the two and guessed the wrong lens; those that did guess right had perspective clues in the frame to help them out.
Conference. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
A lens that can shoot at f0.95 would be quite pointless if it didn’t deliver useable results at that aperture – thankfully, it does. And boy, how it delivers! The Noctilux provides the same level of sharpness at f0.95 that the reference level 50/1.4 ASPH does. The only difference is in the edge and border zones of the frame, which might not be quite as sharp until f2 or so; however, it might also be due to the slight shift in focal plane when center-focusing and recomposing. It’s clear that this lens was designed to be shot wide open – scratch that, it begs to be shot wide open, and delivers in spadefuls. Frankly, I can’t imagine why you’d want to shoot it any other way, if you’ve paid 3x the entry price of the already fantastic 50/1.4 ASPH.
Hustle. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
Can you use it every day? Sure, it’s as sharp stopped down as it is wide open, and maintains that all the way through its f16 minimum aperture. But would I? Probably not, because the 1m minimum focus distance is pretty limiting, especially for portraits – and this is one cracker of a portrait lens. One important thing to note is that the focus ring on the new lens goes from 1m to infinity in 120 deg instead of the 180 deg of the old lens, which makes it a lot faster to focus – and precision doesn’t seem to have been sacrificed. You could probably use it for photojournalism or street photography, but to nail critical focus on moving subjects wide open is going to require equally massive amounts of luck and skill, not to mention perfect rangefinder alignment. I did try, but didn’t like the limitations imposed by having to rely on the central focusing area (and thus restrictions on subject placement) or having to stop down, so I eventually gave up.
f8 and be there – or “I was waiting for the obligatory homage a Magritte…” Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
You’re probably now wondering if I’d buy one if I didn’t already have access to the lens – if I had the money, without question. It’s an outstanding piece of optical engineering that provides utterly unique results; I can’t think of any other way to get the telephoto look at this angle of view. Practically though, I don’t use it that much as it resides at Leica, and I have a D700 and 85/1.4 G on hand for very low light situations; I’d rather gain 2-3 stops on the sensor in exchange for a stop on the lens, and of course autofocus – which helps greatly in low light.
Cinematic dinner. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
Of late there have been a number of competitors emerging – the Noktor t0.95 for instance – I can’t comment on whether this is any good, but I’d certainly love to give it a try. A reduced minimum focus distance to 0.7m is definitely appealing; the increase in size and weight isn’t, though. Whether they too can deliver the optical goods remains to be seen. MT
Vintage Alfa. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH