No-one appreciates the value of a 50mm prime lens better than a Leica M user. The camera maker has four to choose from that are anything but standard, including the f/2.5 Summarit, the f/2 Summicron and the f/1.4 Summilux, along with the lens it dubbed “king of the night” when it was unveiled three years ago, the Noctilux f/0.95, which comes with an eye-watering price tag of £7348 +VAT.
Along with the 35mm wide-angle, 50mm is the classic rangefinder focal length, so it comes as no surprise to find this many standard primes available. Apart from the pure light gathering properties of them, each adds a unique signature to the image it creates, and none more so than Leica’s Noctilux range. Meaning “light of the night”, the series began in 1966 with an f/1.2 version designed by Helmut Marx. A new design by Dr Walter Mandler in 1976 pushed the aperture to an astonishing f/1 and, along with redesigns of the lens body resulting in four versions, it continued until it was replaced in 2008 by the current f/0.95 Aspherical Noctilux designed by Peter Karbe.
According to Stefan Daniel, Leica’s director for product management, “The Noctilux 0.95/50 is one of the most demanding lenses currently in production, and we can only assign production and assembly to the most experienced and skilled people in the whole company”. It is also the most expensive lens in the M and S ranges. It may therefore come as a bit of a surprise to learn that it’s also one of the most in-demand lenses, with a waiting list of up to a year. Although the lens itself takes 16 hours to assemble by hand, it’s the raw materials and optics, some of which have a rumoured 12-month period to cool from being cast, which add to the length of time required. There is some very exotic glass used in this lens.
You can pick up one of the older f/1 versions immediately on the second-hand market for between £3000 and £5000 depending on the version and condition. But although the f/1 versions are fast and will allow similar use in low light, all but the current f/0.95 version have a smooth, soft and “glowy” signature look when shot wide open. It’s a beautiful look that works extremely well for certain types of portrait and still life, but it’s not suitable for everything. This limits its use as an everyday lens and makes it a special use lens, meaning you need a standard 50mm as well. The same is definitely not true of the current f/0.95 ASPH Noctilux, which not only allows photography in even lower light, but does so with such pin-sharp precision that it makes the lens suitable for everything.
The narrow depth of field at f/0.95 meant that this sculpture could be isolated from the background - even when it was impossible to move back any further. Image © Edmond Terakopian.
In the days of shooting film, the f/1 Noctilux opened up possibilities with shooting in low light that would have been impossible, even with an f/1.4 lens. However, in the days of digital, this isn’t that big a problem as you can, up to a limit, just push up the ISO. There is more to choosing a Noctilux though, and I would suggest that more people choose it nowadays for its signature look than they do purely for its speed in low-light photography.
Apart from its cost, another aspect that sets it apart from the other Leica M 50mm lenses is its size. The Leica shooter is generally used to tiny lenses. However, to any SLR shooter, the f/0.95 can actually seem small compared to their f/2.8 zooms, and compares favourably in size to Canon’s 50mm f/1.2L lens, currently the fastest 50mm lens available for the SLR market.
Along with my M9 and 21mm, 35mm and 90mm M lenses, I took the Noctilux on a four-day assignment to Glasgow. It turned out to be my favourite lens to work with by far and, apart from three occasions, I realised I had shot the entire assignment on it. I must say, the results looked rather special.
It takes a short while to get used to its size on an M camera. It’s so well made though, with such a beautifully buttery focus movement, that it just comes to hand very quickly indeed.
One thing that surprised me from very early on was how little light I needed to make pictures. I was constantly taking down the ISO and, in other situations where I thought I needed a flash, I kept realising that the available light was more than enough.
I have worked extensively with the 50mm Summicron and 50mm Elmarit-M f/2.8, which are both amazing lenses with great image rendition. However, nothing I have shot with, including Leica’s discontinued 75mm Summilux f/1.4 or Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L II, produces images like the Noctilux. The images just pop. Your point of focus is pin-sharp and rendered perfectly. Shot wide open, the background blur is phenomenal and absolutely unique. Even Zeiss, which is known for its background rendition, can’t come close to how this lens renders.
This image was taken in low light with the main source of light coming from behind the subjects and an aperture of f/0.95. "The Noctilux allowed the shot to happen," says Edmond Terakopian. Image © Edmond Terakopian.
It’s not all roses though. This lens is challenging to work with at f/0.95. The depth-of-field is practically non-existent, and you have to be absolutely spot on with focus. It’s therefore a good idea to send your Leica rangefinder back to Solms with your Noctilux to have them calibrated to match perfectly. Leica products are very accurately calibrated to within tiny tolerance margins; however, when shooting at f/0.95, all it takes is for the camera to be plus in the tolerance range and for the lens to be minus and the image is slightly out of focus. This is an absolute must as, otherwise, you might just give up on the lens, judging it too challenging to work with, which would be a big mistake, as the magic of the lens will then remain undiscovered.
Also, when at f/0.95, strongly backlit subjects do sometimes suffer from purple fringing and, in these situations, it’s best to stop down a little.
The Leica rangefinder has always been a favourite with photographers who like to work with available light, and the lack of a reflex mirror means that it’s much easier to handhold at slower shutter speeds. With this in mind, and the fact that the f/0.95 is by far the fastest lens currently available on the market for any full-frame camera, this is a lens to truly covet. It creates beautiful images with an amazingly soft and fluid bokeh that makes your subject pop. And it gives more dimension and depth to every picture – some even describe it as a three-dimensional quality.
Is it worth the asking price? It’s hard to ignore the fact that you could buy an M9 and a 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH for a fraction more, not to mention the DSLR kit you could get for the same price. However, in a world where everyone shoots with the same equipment, with a sea of 24-70mm zooms, the Leica M9 and any Leica lens will set your work apart. The Noctilux takes this much further. It’s good to be an individual...
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