Here is another fine article by Ashwin Rao and this time he is writing about his thoughts on the lens that had me drawing up plans to rob a bank just to fund one for myself (just kidding of course). The Leica Noctilux f/0.95 is a masterpiece but it’s not for everyone, and is one of those specialty “dream” lenses for most. So thank’s Ashwin for this great read.
Revisiting the Noctilux 50 mm f/0.95 asph
By Ashwin Rao
Hi, fellow Steve Huff readers! It’s Ashwin, back after a rather long hiatus, to bring you my perspective on Leica’s most specialized and extravagent lens, the nearly $11,000 Leica Noctilucx 50 mm f/0.95 asph. Steve got to play with this lens for a trip to New York a few months back, and what he came back with were some truly magnificent shots. Prior to reading his article, to be honest, I had no interest in owning this lens. After all, I already owned the Leica Noctilux 50 mm f/1.0 at that point, and many, myself included, have waxed poetic about the unique rendering of this lens. I couldn’t see myself justifying spending $11K of my hard-earned money for a lens that I might not use all that much, one that is big and bulky (weighing in at well over a pound) and could be challenging to use wide open. Furthermore, my experience with the Noctilux f/1, which I used rarely (for uber-low-light work), suggested that my proclivities might lie with smaller lenses.
The months passed, and I nearly forgot about the lens until I began to observe the work of a few forum buddies including Kurt Kamka, who’s written for Steve before, and a few other close friends in the photographic world. I began to hear stories of individuals who were giving up their entire lens kits to get just this one lens. I began to wonder….should I do the same?
I struggled with the decision over a couple of months, and ultimately decided that you only live once. Now was as opportune a time as any to get the lens. I rationalized that most of my photography lies between focal lengths of 35 mm and 90 mm, where Leica rangefinders truly shine. I also rationalized my kit down to a set of lenses with similar signatures. One of the issues that I have come to recognize is that Leica lenses afford so many different looks. There’s the war era look of the early Summars, Sumnmitars, and Summarex lenses. There’s the classic look, as demonstrated by the Summilux 50 mm pre-asph,A summilux 35 pre-asph, Noctilux f/1, and Summilux 75 mm f/1.4, which some might even call the Mandler-look.
I decided that I was most often shooting and most comfortable with the modern Leica look, as best represented by lenses such as the 50 mm Summilux Asph, 35 mm Summicron Asph, and 75 mm and 90 mm APO-Summicrons. Adding a new Noctilux f/0.95, from what I saw from others in possession of the lens, would complement this setup with a more modern signature.
So off went my beloved (but infrequently used) Noctilux f/1, Summilux 75 mm f/1.4, and WATE. Having raised enough cash from the sale of these lenses and a few miscellaneous but less costly sales, I contacted Ken Hansen, and 2 days later, the Noctilux 50 mm f/0.95 was in my hands!
Just like Steve, the first thing that I marveled upon, after rapidly opening the wonderfully packaged lens, is how well it is built. The new Noctilux is a BEAST, but it’s very well built. It is a dense, compact, bundle of glass and metal, and it lets you know it. It’s focusing ring rotates smoothly, and aperture ring has positive clicks but moves effortlessly. The first think I did was mount the Noctilux upon my M9, and surprise, surprise, it balanced extraordinarily well on that camera! I mounted it next upon my Leica MP, and voila, it seemed to balance equally, if not even better, on that camera.
So in summary, despite its size and weight, te Noctilux 50 mm f/0.95 seems to fit like a glove on Leica M bodies. I was thrilled! After slapping on a B+W 60 mm UV MRC filter on the camera to protect that wonderful glass, off I trudged to my first photo stroll with the lens.
Keep in mind that I live in Seattle, and the days start to get long come April. As I headed off into a sunlit evening at 6 pm for my first photo shoot with the lens, I realized that there was plently of daylight left, and the Noctilux let me know it. I found myself trying to figured out how best to shoot wide open. I stepped this ISO down to “Pull 80” and turned the M9’s shutter speed all the way down to 1/4000, and I was still finding that evening light could overexpose my images. As a result, I picked up a lovely B+W 8x ND filter to match the Noctilux (thanks to Kurt Kamka for that advise as well). This ND filter provided me enough light blockage to use the Noctilux in daylight, at a native ISO of 160, wide open, baby! The only issue I have seen at all with using the ND filter is some vignetting, which can be removed simply in light room or Nik software in post-processing….or it can be left there.
Over the past 3 weeks, I have ported the Noctilux everywhere, on hikes into the Cascade Mountains, while wading through city fairs, into darkly lit bars and smoky jazz clubs, and into the light of day, with ND filter on, of course…
Let me just say, I am in love! I am using this lens FAR more than I used my previous Noctilux. It is so useful. Whereas the old Noctilux has its signature, the Noctilux f/0.95 has a unique signature which is more modern and more true to the image in front of you. In some ways, it can be described as a Summilux 50 mm f/1.4 asph on steroids. It’s that good, that sharp, and that well corrected in most cases…The old Noctilux has a beautiful rendering, but what I found is people commenting that the shots that I took with the old Noctilux f/1 were Noctilux shots, not MY shots…hmmm…let me clarify.
To me, the old Noctilux has such a distinct look that it can superimpose its own rendering & signature upon your work. Any Leica guru in the room can pick out a Noct f/1 shot from across the room. For those looking for this signature, they have found a match made in heaven. For me, I discovered that I’d rather have my images look less derived, less “Noct”ish, so to speak. In other words, I wanted to own a lens with fast glass that would expand the bounds of my own creative vision without overlaying a dramatic character trait upon that style. The new Noctilux f/0.95 allows you this flexibility. As a result, I find that it pairs MUCH better with my current kit, which includes a couple APO-Crons, the 50 Summilux Asph, 35 Summilux Asph, and 135 mm Tele-Elmar. All of these lenses maintain that Leica charm, albeit with increased micro-contrast, slightly less “glow” (less aberrations and blooming = less glow). The IQ that I have seen from the M9 and 50 Noctilux f/0.95 rivals medium format film images, to my eye, but of course, this is VERY subjective, and I’ll allow each to make their own decision on that.
The Noctilux f/0.95 is a remarkably sharp lens, even when stopped down all of the way. It holds is performance to its closest focusing distance, which sadly remains at 1 meter. Bokeh, as one would expect, is lovely, more modern, and somewhat more geometric than the old Noctilux. An interesting characteristic that I have noted is that the bokeh seems more blurred at the center of an image (at f/0.95) than at the image periphery. TO me, this tends to create images with a more 3D rendering when the Noctilux f/0.95 is used with the M9. I am not sure if this character is due to the microlenses used by the M9’s sensor, as I have yet to develop the rolls of film that I have shot with the MP/Noct f/0.95 combo.
Finally, the Noctilux f/0.95 holds up very well when stopped down. I find that it matches the performance of the 50 mm Summilux asph in most regards from f/2.8 onwards.
As you may see, I am smitten with the new Noctilux f/0.95. I had better be, given what I just spent, right? Hahaha.
But there are some drawbacks, for those who may be considering its purchase:
Purple fringing: I have seen this in several of my shots where there’s a very contrasty background with abrupt changes between shadow and highlight (i.e. thing tree branches against a bright sky). This does not seem to happen in every case of such useage, but it is noticeable often enough. I am not knowledgeable enough to know whether this is an inherent issue with the lens’ design or rather how the lens and M9’s sensor interact. TO me, this is not a big issue, as purple fringing can easily be removed in post-processing in most cases.
Size: It’s a big sucker. I have found this to be a non-issue for me, as I have truly enjoyed shooting the lenses and have not developed any hand or arm fatigue when using the lens on the M9 or MP. But for some, size may matter, and I suggest that you try it out prior to spending a lot of cash on this lens
Bokeh. It’s lovely….most of the time….there are times, though, when I have come across some geometric bokeh on the M9…I suspect that this has to do with the use of aspherical elements in the lens. The current Noct does not render as smoothly as its f/1 sibling. Further, bokeh seems to be a bit harsher at the edges, with less blurring, than at the center of the image. I’d give it an 4/5 on my bokeh rating scale.
F0.95 is not for the faint of heart. Focal plane thickness is miniscule at that f-stop, so be wary and be prepared for a bit of trial and error with handling focus.
Dang, if I have a negative section, I gotta list some positives:
Image quality: Honestly, the Noctilux is possibly the sharpest lens that I own. It gives the Summilux 50 mm f/1.4 asph a run for its money. I know that some people hate that term, “sharpness”, but this lens has got it. For you pixel peepers out there, there won’t be any mushiness to your images, even at f/0.95.
Focal length: 50 mm is exceptionally useful for most uses. For those who don’t mind the size of the Noctilux, this easily could be your one lens solution for the Leica M system.
3D look: Hard to explain, but there’s something in the way this lens renders transitions between focus and out-of-focus elements that really causes the parts that are in focus (hopefully, your principal subjects) to POP!
Color rendition: This lens is very well color-corrected for color photography
Build: Best built lens by Leica…and that’s saying a lot.
Aperture: f/0.95, people. It doesn’t get better than that!
The Bottom Line
I love this lens. I was lucky Ididn’t have to give up my whole kit to get it, but I did give up a lot. But I feel like I gained a lot in return. Would I buy it all over again, knowing what I now know? Yup! Whereas the lenses that I sold to get this lens were all specialty items for my brand of photography, the Noctilux f/0.95 sits happily in the middle of my kit and will be frequently used. My only remaining question is whether I will keep my 50 Summilux asph….
Thanks for reading. For those of you interested in keeping track of my ongoing journey with the Noctilux 50 mm f/095 asph, please follow the following link on flickr, which I’ll be keeping up to date:
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My dream, take full body portrait with a shallow DoF!
I really like how the purple fringing was used a an effect for the trees. I also liked the music one as is. What disappointed me though was the man looking at cellphone. It’s too grainy and dim, I was hoping the lens could see in the night more and give a clearer image. It’s like the best part of the lens isn’t working right. Can you tell me more about what happened with that photo and if there was anything that could have been done that would have brought a clearer or higher quality image?
Do you have a link where I can get the B+W 8x ND filter? Is that your most preferred filter right now?
I am sorry to say these images are so mediocre and spiritless. The bokeh of Noctilux is so highly overrated that people pay the lense is just for that. It is too bad a great lense like this falls mostly into incapable talentless photographers.
Just take a look at the flickr of Ashwin Rao to realize your comment is as pointless as it is rude.
Beau, your images are outstanding on your own site!!!
Jag. Thank you. Agreed that the Noct f0.95 is very very well color corrected, even though it’s not an APO design. I will look for your samples on DPRriew!
Another great article Ashwin. If you decide to unload your 50 lux asph, I’ll buy it and give it a good home…
Ashwin, great article. One thing I noticed on my Nocti 0.95 were the colours. A few days ago, I shot the 90F2APO and the Nocti for similar scenes, and could not beleive the difference in colour out of the Nocti, it was significantl better. I”ll post some samples on DPR when I get a chance.
@ Ravi. Thanks very much! Congrats on using those alternatte life savings…hahah. I know the feeling…
@ Damian. Thank you very much. The Summilux 50 f/1.4 is awesome, and I am keeping mine for the times when size is paramount. I think that the Summilux 50 has a lovlier bokeh at f/1.4 then does the Noct f0.95 in certain circumstances, and bokeh seems more consistent with the ‘lux than the noct…..less purple fringing as well for the summilux….
I decided to go with a set of lenses with a “family” look, and the Noct f/1 was too different. This doesn’t mean I may change my mind down the road, but for now, I am liking how the lenses mesh well together. The Noct f/1 was quite specialized, even in terms of its look, that it didn’t fit as well….however, if diversity is your goal (or getting a different look), then definitely go for the f/1 Noct….it may be the more flexible option for you!
Ashwin, great article and pics. I dream of owning a Noctilux one day, but have recently bought a 50 Summilux which I am still over the moon with. It produces images just as everyone describes it, tack sharp and near perfect. Which got me thinking that the f/1 would be a better companion to it, to give another option in terms of rendering classical/modern.
Clearly your thinking was different, but do you think you will still you use the f/0.95 as regularly over time? It would be a big investment and I have only had a chance to try the old Noctilux to date.
Hey Ashwin ,
Magical photographs especially the man with the camera in the woods . It is unbelievably amazingly magically 3d .
I just ordered the 35 cron and m9 – my entire aternate life’s savings ( secretly from mrs ) has been spent . so I now have to start again . Maybe it gets cheaper in 10 years or you will plan to sell in 10 years time .
desperately yearning for one .
@ Max: Thanks, man! Hey, I know you are more of a B&W guy, but I wanted to share my excitement about getting 16 rolls of Kodachrome 64 (36 exp). I am gonna start my own brief Kodachrome project….something like a roll a week, and see what happens… I thought of you and your insights as I got that film. Alas, can’t process that at home 😉
@Richard. Thanks! I agree with your assessment. It’s often that timeless look that I go for
@ Armanius: Thanks, I loved that dancing shot as well…it came out as a surprise
@ Harald: Whoops sorry….I think the $7,000 question is a good one. What makes the one stop worth $7K? That’s in the eye of the beholder. For me, I had the funds tied up in 3 lenses that I wasn’t using as much as I thought I would, so once they were sold, I had the ability to purchase the Noctilux. Is it worth it? Tough question. I think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it, and I own the 50 lux asph as well…I do think that the extra light gathering and narrowed DOF does expand my photographic pallette quite a bit. For example, I am able to control DOF with even farther off subjects, and my photogrphic friends far more skilled than me swear that they are looking at medium format prints….Further, The Noct’s f/0.95 really allows one to shoot by candle light (or cellphone light, whatever ambient source is there. Using ISO’s of 1600 on the M9, this allows one to freeze action at 1/30 in near dark. And the images are tack sharp. NO OTHER LENS can do this. SO the bottom line is: do I shoot in the dark? Well, I certainly do so enough? Do I enjoy narrow DOF? Yup, and now I get to use it with subjects further away than prior! With a modern rendering that matches the character of many of my other lenses. This allows me to unify my pic style a bit more, which is great….so long answer to your $7K question is what I just wrote. Could I live without the Noct f/0.95? Sure. Am I happy that I have one in my kit, on hand, at my whim. Heck yes!
Ashwin, may I remind you … you still haven’t answered my 7,000 dollar question.
Don’t mean to question your nor any other Noct 0.95 owner’s sanity with my request. I am simply very curious about this. Both lenses are in my possession, the f1 Nocti and the 50 Lux. At least once a month I’m wondering if I should just sell my Nocti. Or maybe I should sell both of them and get the 0.95 instead????
I really like the way the bokeh is on the last photo, particularly how it renders the subject of the drawing. But my favorite photo is the man and the woman dancing. Very classy looking. Although it’s in color, it reminds me of those photos of people dancing on the streets at the end of WW2.
Nice Write Up Ashwin. Thanks!
I also want to note that the B&W of the fellow in the forest with the Canon L lens is terrific. It reminds me a LOT of those images which came out of the ‘west’ in the 1800’s. The whole look of the image, the lens draw, the tonality, the depth of field, just seems to exude photographs from a 150 years ago. Very Nice.
Richard in Michigan
Thanks for another great article, Ashwin. Big fan of the Noctis here but, at f2 and beyond, the Summicron is still the lens to beat in my view. They can certainly be fabulous at their widest apertures but…damn they are expensive 🙂
My jaw is still dropped at the price of this lens. Wow. Beautiful results. Loved the article, Ashwin. Another fave!
Interesting to read you opinion in the difference between the asph and classic nocts. Being a new noct asph owner my self i totally agree with your views of how great this lens is… and your right, its not a lens for all.
@Ashwin – That would be awesome – I can hardly wait.
@ Carlos: Lovely set up, yourself. Nothing shabby there at all. Once M9 prices come down, you should joint the party!
@ Frank. Great thoughts. Much of what you mention is certainly in the eye and interpretation of the vieweer. What I thought as mysterious, you thought as not-enough info. I do struggle with this with the Noct f/0.95, but think that in general, the Noct does open up creative venues. The club shot was very high ISO, maybe 1600 @ 1/30 sed shutter. I don’t think that the 50 summilux asph would have been quite capable, but it’s possible, sinc the image is somewhat static…may be worth testing down the road. Thanks for all of your thoughts! Glad you enjoyed the street sketcher image
@ Armanius: Thanks, my friend, for the kind words
Wow, great comments from everyone. Let me try to address/answer things:
@Jorgen: Thank you. Yes, the Noct 0.95 is so sharp and allows separation due to DOF that’s comparable to medium format (where 85 mm lenses become closer to normal, but you still get more DOF, due to the focal length)….this is one of the charms of shooting the Noct…a MF look
@ Emily: Great idea. I’ll try to find some time to break down lenses based on families and looks. I came to this realization recently when shooting the wonderful Contax G2, with it’s system of 6 lenses. There are no other options, and the lenses preserve a certain fingerprint accross focal lengths that allow for better pairings. I starting thinking that we may be able to cluster Leica lenses by look, so people can build collections about the looks that they like (Mandler-style, Karbe-style, Barnack/pre-Mandler style, transitional looks).
@ Susan, thanks for the kind words. According to Erwin Puts’ review of the new 35 lux asph, the MTF charts and what not for the new and old 35 lux asph are nearly identifical, as is the lens construction and elements, except the addition of the internal housing of those elements and the floating element (at least that’s my take)….meaning the optics aren’t different. Steve, who’s seen images, says they look more like the summilux 50 asph. I feel that the current 35 lux asph is a transitional look (between the Mandler era and the Karbe-era of modern style), so maybe adding the floating elements allows for more critical focus, and snappier images…coatings may differ as well, which, as we all know, can really change the look and rendering
@ Eric: Go buy yourself a Nikon fast 50! Sounds like a great idea (and a fraction of the price). In the Canon set up, I have and love the 85 f/1.2 L and the 50 f/1.2 L, both which are magical on the 5DII
@ Leicamonster: Great shots. Lovely rendering of focus and OOF
@ Harald Benz: You and I are on the same page. I used to cherish the old Nocti look, but then, after time, found that those images looked different than the rest of my lens family….and didn’t seem to fit other than as stand alone images….I completely appreciate the qualities of the lens, but we grew distanct with time. Too swirly and poor close focus were the problems for me…The new Noct has no issues with close focus, and in fact seems optimised for this.
But then the question arises: could 1.4 have adequately dealt with the low level of light in that night club? Yes? No?
In opposition to the nightclub photo, the street-sketcher photo is perfect. Both have a subject composed of 3 separate elements brought into triangular relation: In the first, 2 drinks, the woman, and the musician; in the the second, the sketch, its sketcher, and his client. But the musician is too out of focus for the suggested narrative. He is nearly as much out of focus as the beautifully, appropriately fuzzy street-crowd background of the street-skecher focus. He needs 1.4, not .95!
@Eric – Safe to say that if I ever bought a Noctilux 0.95, I wouldn’t be able to buy anything else!! 🙂
Nice write up Ashwin. Enjoyed the reading and photos as always!
Great question, Harald.
And certainly 1.4 bokeh is at times more appropriate than .95 bokeh. For example, Ashwin’s composition of the nightclub scene draws my attention to the musician at least almost as much to the isolated young lady and the 2 drinks on the isolated front table. Therefore, I want to know what kind of horn he is blowing so I can imagine the sound of the music. But .95 here makes that totally impossible. I can imagine the both second drink and the young woman being his and, in any case, I can certainly imagine her being totally absorbed in him and his performance. In other words, it’s good to keep him somewhat mysterious and indistinct but not so blurred as achieved by .95. My imagination wants to have a bit more perception of his reality as it might relate to the young lady.
F 1.4 here would allow mystery without destroying such minimum clarity as even imagination requires. Also, .95 bokeh here is not pleasing because It inappropriately approximates the kind of blur that comes from handheld shooting at too slow shutter speed.
@leicamonster: Thanks for posting the image…excellent, as I expected. Lots to think about!
Amazing article!! Now I am lusting for a M9 and a Nocti 0.95… I believe I could be happy forever with this setup and I would not need anything else for my photography needs … EVER!
Right now I am pretty happy with my Digilux 3 and a Summilux 25mm f/1.4. Quite different setup, but quite different budget.
Thanks Ashwin, very nice report indeed.
From looking at photos (online) made with the new Noctilux I always considered it a 50 Summilux on steroids. Funny, you calling it the same.
I must say I do like the bokeh (better how the lens draws) of the f0.95 way better than that of my f1. As I said in another post, I really don’t like how swirly the f1 can get. Yes, it is an “in the eye of the beholder” kind of thing (as Max put it) but in my opinion it can destroy an otherwise perfect photo.
When the swirls start to overpower everything and the structure of a photo’s background turns psychedelic than, sorry, the picture is ruined IMO.
I believe, when there’s no reference to location/environment/mood and such left to be recognizable or even identifiable (where the shot has been taken for instance) than the bokeh becomes nothing else but pure gimmick. It might come in handy for pictures showing flower bouquets but otherwise the effect renders a lens useless.
Phew! I know, I said too much.
Back to the new Noctilux. It seems in that regard the new Nocti is a big improvement.
Here’s a question for you Ashwin. Other than being one stop faster, what is the difference between the f0.95 Nocti and the f1.4 Summilux? What has the Nocti that the Lux doesn’t?
Or put differently, what makes that one stop the Nocti has over the Lux worth close to $7,000 more?????
Great demonstration of the capabilities of the new Noctilux at 0.95! I especially like the street-sketcher photo.
One peripherally related question:
I have never used 50mm. or 35mm. asph. at 1.4 in full daylight. If you need an 8x ND filter for 0.95, does that mean that I would need a 5, 6x, or some such ND filter at 1.4 under full daylight?
Safe to say if I ever bought a Leica , it would be for this lens and nothing else would matter, just like if I bought into Canon it would be for the 85 1.2 or the 50 1.0. Great article and it made me eye the nikon 50 1.2 a whole of a lot harder, wheres that visa again.
Susan here a pic with 35mm ash at 1.4[img]http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4029/4243042635_97343f9476.jpg[/img]
very nice set of pics, i love this lense.
Great job, Ashwin! Now I want one more than ever…but it would have to be my only lens in order to even think about it halfway realistically. I’m really anxious to see how it compares with the new 35 asph lux!
YAY! More on Leica lenses – can never get enough! Great writeup, Ashwin, and great images too.
I liked the way you broke down the “look” of the wartime lenses vs. modern lenses – you ought to do an article on just that stratification alone. More, more!
Wow, that black and white picture in the forest is so amazingly three dimensional, it’s beautiful! I think I can safely say though, save for me winning a lottery or something, I’ll never own this lens.