The Noct-Nikkor is perhaps one of the most legendary – if not the most legendary – of the lenses in the Nikon pantheon. Hitting the market in its first AI version in 1977, it was designed to do two things: firstly, be shot wide open, and secondly, push the limits of the F mount’s relatively narrow diameter with a lens that would collect enough light to shoot relatively slow film at night, and without a tripod. Although based on a traditional double-gauss design, the lens incorporated one enormous technological advance for the time.
That advance was the replacement of the front element with an aspherical design to combat the effects of sagittal coma; in plain terms, this is the tendency for point light sources to ‘smear out’ at large apertures, especially towards the edges of the frame. The aspherical element is both a bit larger than it needs to be – so the edges of the lens aren’t used – and more critically, was polished by hand. I believe this is due to the tolerances required for production of the element; it’s certainly not possible to see that irregular curvature from the block diagram alone. When they were still available new, the price of the Noct was three times higher than the 50/1.2 – almost entirely due to the cost of producing that single element. Today, the 50/1.2 is still available new for about $700 from B&H, which would have made the Noct about $2100 in inflation-corrected terms. However, the reality is that since so few were produced – about 2,000 of the AI version, and 9,000 or so of the AI-S version, made up to 1997 – they tend to command healthy premiums today; lenses transact in the $3500-$4500 range depending on condition. Although buying one was fulfilment of a minor dream for me, it still makes me nervous every time I take it out.
The regular 50/1.2 AI, which is still in production and available new (image courtesy Nikon)
The 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor – note front element (image courtesy Nikon)
By any measure, that seems like a lot of money to pay for another half a stop of light-gathering ability and a very strange 58mm focal length; the question as always is, is it worth it? I actually find this very difficult to answer objectively. Any Nikon afficionado worth their salt will tell you they have a special place for the Noct because of what it is, similar to the Leica Noctiluxes; however, I’ve found that unlike the Leica Noctiluxes, they don’t seem to be quite as limited in their shooting envelope. Firstly, the Noctiluxes are significantly larger and heavier, and have a reduced near focus limit of 1m vs 0.7m for the f1.4 Summiluxes; there’s also a much longer and slower focusing throw, and the odd ‘swirly bokeh’ that people either tend to love or hate.
I prefer to think of the 58 Noct as a fast 50 or fast 55 or steroids; granted, the regular SLR normal lenses never seemed to be quite as good as their rangefinder counterparts (something I’ve never been able to figure out) but there was a definite, tangible increase in optical quality as you moved up the range. Whilst the f1.8s might be excellent by f2.8 or f4, the f1.4s were excellent at f2, and so on. (The exception to that is the new f1.8G, which has aspherical elements and is excellent from f1.8, even on the demanding D800E, but I digress.) In the past, I owned both the 50/1.2 and the 55/1.2; I paired these lenses together with a D2H in a quest to find more speed and to counter the limited low-light abilities of that camera. The 50/1.2 was a bit better than the 55/1.2, being an newer design, but both couldn’t really be called critically sharp wide open – and that was on a camera with nearly 9-micron pixels! It was clear to see that the 55/1.2 suffered from internal flare and coma quite badly when used at f1.2; it was as though a soft portrait filter was being applied to the image. It wasn’t a bad thing for high contrast situations and portrait work, especially with the limitations of earlier digital sensors, but it certainly lacked bite until f2.8-4. Call it ‘character’, I suppose.
What the 58 Noct does do is bring the high quality ‘usable’ shooting envelope closer to the maximum aperture; there are traces of reduced microcontrast wide open at f1.2, but by f1.4, things are razor-sharp across most of the frame, and f2 is excellent – even on the D800E, which surprised me. On 35mm film, the lens is very good even wide open, but oddly displays some mild focus shift wide open which I don’t see on the D800E. Coma is of course very well controlled well into the corners, as we would expect from that front element. There’s a bit of CA until you stop down, but at f4 it’s all gone, and the lens is resolving far, far more than even Acros 100 is capable of, and matching the D800E. Needless to say, bokeh is excellent at every aperture – as we would expect from a lens with a nice round 9-bladed diaphragm (earlier versions had 7 blades).
I have to admit, beyond purposes of testing, I’ve not shot this lens on the D800E – for the simple reason that it’s very difficult to achieve critical focus without using live view on a tripod; that camera’s focusing screen is simply rubbish for manual focusing. Not to say that it doesn’t make a good match on digital, but you’ll probably get more utility out of the f1.4G version if you need autofocus simply due to increased resolution from better focusing precision. Personally, I think it definitely displays its character best on film; it’s lived mostly on my F2 Titan, where it looks very at home, and lately also the F6, which has proven to be an interesting combination. I certainly don’t think it’s for everybody, but if you’re an aficionado of lenses with charachter, and a Nikon fan: there is only one Noct-Nikkor. MT
(An excellent history of the Noct is available here at the Nikon imaging site.)
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