Magic. A word that gets thrown around quite a bit in the Leica world and the Leica Noctilux F1 lens is one of the reasons why. Over the past few months, I have written a review for the new Leica Noctilux 0.95 lens (available at AMAZON here) as well as the Noctilux imitator, the Voigtlander 50 Nokton 1.1. I have thrown in comparisons in those reviews with the classic F1 Noctilux, but have never written a review for what I think is one of the most special Leica lenses ever created for the Leica M mount! As a matter of fact, the ONLY lens I own right now for my M9 is the 50 Noctilux F1. I bought mine used from Mr. Ken Hansen (you can e-mail him here if you are looking for one, as he may have one left). No way I could have afforded the 0.95 version.
So after shooting with this lens for a couple of month on my Leica M9 I decided to do a write up of this lens this morning. Instead of a “review” this will be mostly photos I have shot with this lens and why I think it is so special and inspiring.
The F1 Noctilux – Gorgeous!
“The Beautiful Beast”
Every time I pick up this lens I say, “MAN, this thing is a MONSTER…A BEAST” and I wonder why I own it. It kind of takes away the small and light feature of the M camera. With this lens on my M9, it is about as heavy as a bare-bones Nikon D3s! But after I take some shots, I realize the reason why I deal with the weight. The way this lens can render a scene is amazing and at certain times breathtaking. This is an F1 lens, meaning it is an ultra-fast design, useful for low-light shooting. While it is one of the most unique lenses I have ever owned, it is also one of the most expensive and is not a lens for everyone due to its weight and size, and cost. So yes, it is a beast but it is a beautiful beast!
With that said, lets get to some images! Here is a shot I took just before Christmas 2009. My cat was sitting on the top of a chair and some lights were on behind her. The room was dark otherwise. I set the M9 to ISO 2500 and the lens to F1 and fired the shutter. I then added some blue tinting using Nik Color Efex pro in Photoshop CS4. Here is the result…
Those highlight “blobs” are one of the signatures of the Noctilux and is one of the features of such a fast lens.
BTW, forget those who tell you ISO 2500 on the M9 is useless. It is not and the above image is proof of that. With this lens and the M9, you have a camera and lens combo that can shoot in just about any situation. Light, dim, and dark. For portraits, it renders in a very gentle way when shot wide open at F1.
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“The Magical Swirl”
This lens is a classic–pure and simple. Even though there is now the $10,000 0.95 Noctilux, which is pretty much perfection in fast-lens design, this classic still has something magical about it. One thing is the very unique bokeh this lens can produce, the “Magical Swirl.” Many hate it, but some love it. Me, I am in the “love it” camp. I feel that there is no lens that can replicate it exactly. Sure, the Voigtlander 50 Nokton is a fast 1.1 lens, but it has a more corrected look with more sharp, even, and smooth bokeh.
One thing to realize is that the classic Noctilux is not razor sharp wide open. Rather is renders with a soft glow at F1. It also has swirly bokeh at times and just gives you a really unique look to your photos. Here is an image I shot at F1 to test the bokeh. When I saw this on my display I thought it looked like a painting. Very surreal. This is the kind of bokeh the lens can produce at F1 and as I said, no other M mount lens will replicate this look (that I have seen).
“My First Noct”
There are some classic lenses that come close to the Noctilux, like the Hexanon 60 F1.2 and the Noct Nikkor for Nikon. But for Leica, this Noctilux F1 is the low-light prince (the king is the new 0.95 version). This is the third Noctilux I have owned. The first was in 2002-2003 when I bought a new-in-box Noct from B&H Photo for $2995. I shot that lens on my Leica MP and M7 and came away with some memorable images. This was before the M8 or M9 and I was thrilled to own this lens. I eventually sold that lens and the one I have now is my THIRD in 7 years.
Here are a couple early Noctilux shots on my old M7 circa 2002/2003 with that first Noctilux:
I used the Noct a few years back as part of my homeless project with a Leica Mp and Tri-X film and loved the combo.
While some will say the Noct is not practical or worth the money, there will be those who say the opposite. If it fits your style and helps to inspire you then it is worth it. For me, this lens does just that. It helps to inspire me and gets my creative juices flowing.
“Shooting in the Dark”
Like I already mentioned, this lens along with an M8, M9, or even an M7, can shoot in the dark and still give you wonderful results. Here are two images from a walk around Chicago at night, all on the M9 at F1:
Notice the clarity. Notice the noct color in the second shot. The one thing you will notice is that the classic Noctilux puts off a certain color cast that no other Leica lens gives you. It’s kind of a warm, sometimes yellowish tone. The new version renders colors perfectly with a snap and clarity not seen in the classic but some Noct owners prefer the signature that the F1 puts out.
The Noct is also great for capturing moments indoors in low light that is hard to do with slower lenses. Here I shot at F1 and ISO 640 I believe. We were in a hotel room and my sister had to give a breathing treatment to her son who has trouble at night with his breathing due to scarring of his lungs. Sure, I could have gotten this with a 50 1.4 but in many ways I prefer the way the Noctilux renders low light scenes.
Yes, I could go on and on, but I wanted to keep this short and sweet. Just a post to show my love for this special lens that I adore. The crazy thing is that as much as I love this lens I actually came close to selling it last week! Dreaded G.A.S. and the need for cash got me to list it for sale. BUT, I changed my mind and managed to get through Christmas without the sale. Besides, I know from first hand experience that if I sold it, I would regret it because I regretted selling my first Noct for years. Why would I let this one go now when I enjoy it so much?
This is a lifetime-keeper lens, so I have to keep telling myself this, even when my lens lust kicks in and I want a new lens! I will eventually add another lens for my M9 and will be patient.
Some say this lens is gimmicky, but I feel that it is actually a versatile lens. Even when shooting at F2-F8, it is wonderful. 98% of the time I shoot it wide open, as that is where the magic lies. There is that word again, magic. That is probably the one word that best describes this lens and why it popped up so much in this write up.
If you have one of these, shoot it more and enjoy it. If you do not own it, be sure to try it out at least once if you can. You may fall in love! BTW, I feel that this lens will be going up in price in the near futrure. I already see one on AMAZON for $7995! They are no longer in production so if you want one, and find a deal, snag it up!
UPDATE: I had a few emails asking how many versions of this lens are out there and which is the best. Well, the first F1 Noctilux was a child of the 70’s and the cost was a few hundred bucks. Maybe $500. The earliest version of the lens had an E58 filter size and a detachable hood. The latest version was introduced in 1994 and has an E60 filter size and built in slide out hood. Some think the lens coatings have changed between the versions and others say it has not. The only version I have shot with is the last E60 version and I love it. Deals can be found on the earlier versions though as I have seen them go for $4500-$4800 recently.
more info on the Noctilux versions:
1.) #11820: f1.2 – 58mm filter size – made between 1966-1975;
2.) #11821: f1 – 58mm filter size – detachable hood #12503 – made between 1976-1978;
3.) #11821: f1 – 60mm filter size – detachable hood #12539 (mounts on two posts on lens) – made between 1978-1982;
4.) #11821: f1 – 60mm filter size – detachable hood #12544 (attaches to lens via spring loaded clips) – made between 1982-1994
5.) #11822: f1 – 60mm filter size – built-in hood – 1994
6.) #11602: f0.95 60mm filter size – built-in hood – SIP
“Flaws, or cons of the Noctilux”
The Noctilux does have its flaws though, so let me list them out:
- It is a HEAVY lens, though it is smaller and lighter than the new 0.95 version and smaller than most DSLR lenses.
- It has a loooooong focus throw. This means it is slow to focus. It takes a long turn of the focus ring to lock it in. This is more precise, but slow.
- It vignettes from F1-F4. To me, this adds to that Noctilux character.
- The cost! These days a used example like mine (latest, built in hood, 6-bit coded, case) goes for about $5800 (on KEH). Yes, it is pricey, but it is cheaper than the $10,000 0.95.
- It’s not perfect! Nope, sometimes you will see some funky bokeh. It is not perfect like the new one, but it does have charm.
I hope you have enjoyed my post on this unique lens. You may not be one who likes the lens but you can not deny it’s ability to suck in every bit of available light and provide M shooters with an ultra fast lens for their nocturnal needs.
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Here are a few more images from the Noctilux F1!