Lens review: The Leica 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH

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.

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The beast.

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The Leica Noctilux 50 f0.95 is available here from B&H and several authorized dealers on Amazon.

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Vintage Alfa. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH

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Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Eileen Lyn Wah.

    • I believe, that this f/0,95 business is a little too much over estimated! Most people who can afford this overpriced glass, using it more or less, as an virility glass! And please, don’t tell me the worn out story, that I am jealous!

  2. Gary Morris says:

    I would add to this review what I have come to learn about the Noct after nearly four years using mine… it took me much of the first two years to understand how to shoot at f.95; more specifically when f.95 is appropriate and when it isn’t. There’s a temptation to over use f.95. It takes great discipline to use f5.6 (which I’ve found to be the killer setting for detail and sharpness) and not f.95. Too many times in those first two years shots at f.95 were nothing but optical mush when they should have been sharp, crisp and visually compelling. The Noct is now my everyday lens… my M240 and M9 before that along with my Noct are my desert island team… if I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one body and one lens (and my MacPro and NEC display) I could live happily ever after with the M240, EVF and Noct. In this review, your portrait shots and the Alfa shot are what Noct users strive for… drop dead visual gorgeousness. Thanks!

    • Here’s a question though – why spend $11k on the Noct when other options look pretty similar (and perform just as well) by f5.6? I have trouble justifying the weight and cost and 1m near focus limit otherwise…

      • Gary Morris says:

        Because I could (not meaning to sound flippant). That said, while I knew that other lenses at the time I bought my Noct would be more or less sufficient (the 50mm Summilux, for example), I just wanted to try out something a little more exotic and esoteric. Would I do it again? Hard call. But here’s a final other reason for the Noct… I don’t like the little lever that Leica puts on their lenses for adjusting focus. Seems unnatural to me. I like a traditional focus ring. The Noct has that and the Summilux has the lever. A little thing but annoying to me. When Leica eventually updates the 28 Summicron to a 28 Summilux (same as found in the current special edition) I’ll happily sell my ‘Cron and by the Lux just so I can have the more familiar ring vs. the lever.

        Parenthetically, I’ve found in our travels that I’ve met a number of very interesting people (from a variety of backgrounds… artists to CEOs) all because I’ve been carrying the Noct. There’s a fascination in that lens that’s an icebreaker for what’s turned out to be great conversations and connections.

        • Ah, admission to ‘the club’ – perhaps that’s why I’ve been denied – I actually like the lever because it instantly lets me tell what distance I’m focused at by feel… :)

          • Gary Morris says:

            That the lever method allows you to instinctively “know” focus vs. my needing to know focus in absolute terms is testimony to the fact that you are a craftsman. That alone confers admission to “the club” regardless of whether or not you are actually carrying the membership card. Besides, once the ice has been broken, I have to meet the expectation that I know what I’m doing with the Noct. Fail that test and it’s to the back of the line with no chance of advancement.

            • Ah, but if you’re not noticed in the first place…or doing the stealth street ninja routine, it’s a different matter entirely…

              • Gary Morris says:

                You are correct. The Noct, besides being a wonderful tool does elevate the user (at least in the minds of some people but certainly not all) to a stature (or appearance of stature) of being a little more “serious”. However, I would submit that like the tortoise and hare, the craftsman will ultimately win out over the symbol if the symbol is not backed up with solid performance.

                I think that after nearly four years I’m starting to become a Noct craftsman (despite what the wife says, I think the jury is still out but I’m feeling better about my chances) and therefore a little less likely to shy away from the unsolicited approaches I’ve had, all because I’ve carried the Noct. But it has been fun.

  3. What is optical better, the OTUS adapted on a SONY A7R, or the Leica 50/0,95 Noctilux-M ASPH adapted, if a high Speed lens is required?

  4. Hilmar ('- Hilmo -' on flickr) says:

    Ming, that’s a very nice review. I owned the Noctilux 50/.95 for about six months and then sold it because I couldn’t justify its price. I got the Summilux 50/1.4 instead which I also like. Sometimes I look back though and wish to have the Noctilux.

    I agree with all the statements you make in your review. In particular you’re right when comparing the Noctilux 50/.95 with the Nikkor 85/1.4. I haven’t thought about that but couldn’t agree more. Exellent read, thank you.

    Noctilux envy…

    • Thank you. Even if price weren’t an issue, I’d probably get the 1.4 too – because 0.7m minimum focusing distance is definitely much more practical than 1m! Now if they could make it work at 0.7m too that’d be a totally different proposition…

  5. For people with a micro four-thirds camera, the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95 has the same effective focal length, it’s pretty good, and it’s 1/10 the price. I took the following shot handheld in the catacombs of Paris — the lights were just 6 candles and a headlamp in the absolute darkness of the catacombs.

    Catacombes, Paris

    The minimum focus is quite close too, so even with a smaller sensor, you can still get nice bokeh:

    Test Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95

    I’m quite happy with mine (although I’m sure the Leica performs better overall — as well it should, for the price)

    • Agree – same EFOV, but not the same DOF profile (that’s a function of the true FL) and definitely not the same optical performance – moral of the story, you do get what you pay for. Having said that, I was seriously, seriously tempted by this lens. What put me off was my complete inability to focus it with any degree of accuracy on the Pen Mini.

Trackbacks

  1. […] SC; Leica 50/2.5 Summarit-M; 50/2 Summicron-M; 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH; 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH; 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH; Sigma 50/1.4; Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/50 Planar; ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar; ZM 2/50 Planar; ZM 1.5/50 Sonnar; […]

  2. […] get me wrong: I’m not so jaded or successful that I can afford to treat a Noctilux 0.95 or H5D with disdain, but ultimately those are tools: they are still in production, and designed to […]

  3. […] 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH** 9/10 – B&H Amazon Leica 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH 10/10 – review B&H Amazon Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar** 7/10 – B&H Amazon Voigtlaner 50/1.1 Nokton* 7/10 […]

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