The Nikon Noct 58 f/1.2 Lens Review. The Most Beautiful Lens in the World?
By Steve Huff
So what changed? Well, in the early days of mirrorless cameras were not very good. Slow AF, No EVF to speak of (usually) and the cameras were laggy, and obviously just getting started. THAT is when it was exciting because as new cameras were released they would improve dramatically on the previous model. These days now that mirrorless technology is so damn good, new products aren’t as “tempting” to me and many others. We feel what we have is good enough, because it really is.
Today one can buy a Sony A7III full frame camera and be good for the next five years without a need to upgrade. Maybe even longer. It’s that good. Then we have cameras that stand the test of time like the Leica SL that came out four years ago yet is still cherished and bought new (and used) by passionate shooters (though in low numbers when compared to Sony, Canon and Nikon).
Here is a simple snap, shot with the Noct Nikkor at f/1.2. You must click the image for larger and better version. The contrast is nice, the color is nice and the sharpness wide open is impressive. It has a “shine” about it…
New releases today in cameras do not typically get me super excited unless something is dramatically different.
As for Lenses, it’s the same thing. Lenses have been produced for ages yet it seems camera makers seem to find ways to improve on them and to this day we have lenses that are creating near perfection for some photographers. Sharp corner to corner, sharp in the center, high contrast and 3D pop, no distortion or low distortion…and yes these lenses are not cheap and also not made how they used to be made. But to me, perfection is boring…because EVERYONE wants perfection these days!
The Noct Nikkor 58 f/1.2 was built when lenses were built to last a lifetime
When I hang out with photographers these days I normally see Sony bodies and Sony G Master lenses. This generation wants the best it can get so they snag up the G Master hoping to make some cash with this craft that they love so much. G Master lenses are gorgeous of course, some of the best new modern day lenses money can buy. I recommend them highly if you want a modern day perfection lens. But again, it’s what everyone seems to be shooting with these days. Not so much G master but modern day mega lenses that deliver sharpness and results that look, well, modern and sometimes almost too perfect for my tastes.
But there are some photographers out there, though not too many, who love to shoot with a lens that brings CHARACTER over PERFECTION. I am talking about some very special old lenses that are no longer made today. Lenses like the Leica Noctilux F1 for example. A gorgeous lens that I paid $3500 new for many years ago from B&H Photo. Today, a used Noctilux sells anywhere from $5500 to $7500. BTW, That is a way better investment than my savings account can deliver. I have owned, shot with and loved the original Leica Noctilux f1 and the newer 0.95 version that was all the rage a few years ago. I no longer own a Noctilux f/1 (sold it for a $2k profit many years ago) but there has been one lens that has eluded me for the last 12 years though I am not sure why.
THE ONE LENS I HAVE NEVER TRIED BUT WANTED TO FOR 20 YEARS
The one lens I speak of is the Noct Nikkor 58mm f1.2 Lens from Nikon. Produced from 1977-1981 originally with a 7 blade aperture design, Nikon made changes in 1982 with the Ais version when they gave the lens 9 aperture blades. It was discontinued in 1997 and back then sold answer from $600 to $1650 which is like $3800-$4000 in todays dollars. The only way to find this lens is used, and there are tons of them on Ebay as I write this article. They range in price, used, from $2800-$4500 and the average price for a nice clean working good copy is $3500. If you want a perfect as new lens with box and papers, expect to pay $4200 and up. Still cheaper than a used Noctilux without a box and guess what? I feel if you get a good copy of this lens (and this is key) that it beats the Noctilux in Bokeh, Sharpness, Color, Contrast and Size.
Three images from the Noct Nikkor wide open at f1.2. Shot on the Leica SL.
Yes, I feel this lens beats the Leica Noctilux F1 in all of these areas, oh and it also focuses at 0.5 meters vs the 1 meter of the Leica. THIS alone means you can take even more artistic images with the Nikkor as when you get close it starts to get surreal and dreamy yet always stays smooth as silk with the smoothest bokeh I may have ever seen come from any lens.
Make no mistake, this is a specially lens for those who like to take images that are different from the average photo taking crowd. Images that will make some ask you how you did it and images that have an ethereal rendering that NO OTHER LENS can achieve. Now, all Noct owners will typically agree that what is so special about the lens (if you get a good one) is the contrast and sharpness wide open, along with the color and ultra smooth painterly bokeh. It’s true, even wide open at f/1.2 the contrast is AMAZING. Shooting a lens like the much cheaper $799 Nikkor 50 f/1.2 (that is still in production) will yield less contrast at f/1.2 and a softer image (not as sharp). You also lose on the character and color that comes from the Noct Nikkor. In fact these two lenses are not the same in rendering, color, contrast or sharpness. The Noct Nikkor does much better in all of these areas (again, when you get a good one) if you ask me, but it is all personal preference I guess.
Two more in B&W, f1.2
I am no stranger to character lenses. In fact I have reviewed so many vintage lenses here on these pages over the years that I enjoyed for their classic style yet, this one…is different. There is a unique look about it that I do not get from my Canon 50 1.2 L or the Sony 50 1.4 or my Voigtlander 50 1.2. From the color, to the falloff to the bokeh and contrast it just has a look that is otherworldly at times, yet not in a bad way. A beautiful way.
After just a few days with this lens I can tell it is special, and special lenses are rare. There are hundreds of fast lenses out there but only a few that have something remarkable or special about them. The Noct Nikkor, IMO, is now at the tope of this heap when it comes to fast prime lenses that offer you a look that is crazy cool unique.
With that said, lenses like this can get tiring. Always shooting wide open is something one will always get bored of for a while so many think this lens will not make a good every day lens. Ummm. Not so!
Both at f/1.2 here again! Such gorgeous rendering wide open!
I have discovered that while at f/1.2 this lens is surreal, sharp, beautiful and organic, just stop it down to f/2 and it turns into a CRAZY amazing lens with rendering not so far off from lenses like the $8000 Leica 50 APO. I do not mean it is perfect like the 50 APO but has a cinematic medium format kind of look coming from the lens when shot at f/2-f/2.8. It does have some field curvature but to me that is a non issue as it all adds to the way this lens delivers the image. This lens is not about bing perfect, it’s about being beautiful.
After one day with the Noct Nikkor I knew I wanted this lens for my own collection. Even having just reviewed another amazing lens, the Voigtlander 75 1.5 ASPH, this one is just so different and ticks so many of my boxes I knew I needed to own it. As I said, I prefer it to the Noctilux f/1 and one can get a new in box Noct Nikkor on ebay, with warranty cards and all for $4500 or so. A used Noctilux? Expect to pay close to $6000. So this is a win as you can get a like brand new Noct Nikkor for less than a used Noctilux f/1. With mirrorless cameras, I see a lens like this being resurrected!
BTW this lens was originally created for low light and to have coma free performance. But it can be used in any light while retaining the character it is known for.
WHAT BROUGHT THIS LENS NEW LIFE. THIS IS THE ONE GUYS!
This lens is not used by too many as I never ever see anyone talking about it. These days it seems collectors have these stashed away as it is like an investment. This lens will never go down in value, only up. The reason not many have been using this lens is because it was made for Nikon SLR’s and/or a Nikon DSLR. It is near impossible to manually focus this lens with an optical viewfinder. But use a camera like the Leica SL, Sony A7III or even Nikon Z and this lens takes on a whole new life. I feel once more realize how special this lens is, and that it can be used on ANY full frame mirrorless without compromise…well, we may see a new surge for this lens take place.
On my Leica SL it is a dream to shoot. The manual focus dial is smooth as I have ever felt and the aperture dial feels nice and solid. It will adapt to any mirrorless body with the right adapter and again, shooting and hitting focus with nice EVF is EASY. I do not even use peaking with my SL yet can attain focus easily wide open.
This lens is one of those with a mystique around it, and as I have discovered, rightfully so. Remember, it is not a one trick pony. Stop it down for more sharpness and pop and yet it still has the Noct magical look.
THE NEW NOCT NIKKOR
Nikon is working on a new Noct Nikkor for the Z series of mirrorless cameras but it’s huge, will cost a fortune and weigh a ton. Will be f/0.95. I will say to anyone who owns a Nikon Z and has been thinking of the NEW Noct…BUY THIS ONE INSTEAD or at least try to get a hold of one to give it a try! It will go up in value rather than down, will be much smaller and lighter and my guess is that it will still offer more magic than the new version. Why do I think this? Because of how I started this article! Today lenses are made to be perfect or as close to it as possible. To me, this loses some of the magic and character just as the new Leica Noctilux 0.95 lost some of its mojo over the original. Sharpness is not what makes a good image and images that are too sharp come off as sterile to me. This old vintage Noct Nikkor will never be a bad investment as if you do not like it, it is easily resold. Keep it for a few years and make some profit when and if you sell!
There is some vignetting at f1.2 but a tad less than the Leica Noctilux f/1 gives you!
First image at f/1.2, second at f/2 and third also at f/2
MAGIC. BEAUTY. INSPIRATION.
It was lenses like this that ignited my passion for creative photography back in the day. Leica Noctilux, Leica Summilux, Canon Dream Lens and others always inspired me to use them and find ways to bring this beauty to real life. Lenses like this have a way of making life appear nicer, more beautiful. It is full of magic, beauty and inspiration. I do not think for a second it is overpriced if you pay $3500 for a nice clean copy. I do not feel paying $4300 is expensive for a like new in box copy. In fact it is worth what someone will pay for it and people do pay these amounts for the lens. It’s less than some other exotic lenses and IMO is a more magical lens. THIS ONE is a lifetime keeper. Talk to anyone who has owned one for years and they may tell you “It is the one lens I will never part with”. See the Flickr stream of all Noct Nikkor shots HERE.
THAT says it all. You can find these used on Ebay. Have fun!