Storytelling with the Leica Noctilux
What happens when the most brilliant engineers and lens design specialists spend decades perfecting the already near-perfect lens? You get the Leica Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 lens.
I can rewind to a year ago… it was about this time that I started looking to purchase my first Leica M camera - a Leica M-P (35mm film). Although I knew the reputation and brand, the specifics of the brand lineup and offerings were new to me, so I spent hours reading blogs from Thorston Overgaard, Ming Thein, Steve Huff, and others to absorb as much as possible about the Leica system. In all of this reading, I kept seeing mention of this lens, the Noctilux.
When Noctilux is mentioned online, it’s usually in one of two contexts: 1) Holy crap that thing is expensive and you must be nutty to spend that much on a lens or 2) This is the best lens ever made, and its performance justifies the price tag.
Seeing the $11,000 price tag of the Noctilux for the first time literally took my breath away. I sided in camp #1 - the “you have got to be kidding” camp. I already had sticker shock over the $2,000 of the ‘basic’ Leica lineup - how could another $9,000 improve on a lens that was already supposed to be one of the bests in the world? It’s not like Leica makes bad glass or cheap lenses!
For months thereafter I gave the Noctilux very little thought. Occasionally I’d bump into some review or post about the Noctilux and would read it, amused and wishing for the type of disposable income that could make that a reality…. the same way I also wish for a sports car and private yacht.
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Once Upon a Time
There are lots of websites covering the history and legacy of the Noctilux, so I’ll sum it up simply. There are three versions, but only two were produced in large numbers: the f/1 and f/0.95 model. Done.
In my opinion, the real history and legacy of this lens hasn’t been written. We’re at the “once upon a time” part in Noctilux history….. Once upon a time there was a lens, called the Noctilux. It was adored, expensive, and specialty, but it hadn’t realized it’s true potential as a lens. Then one day a camera named Leica SL came along, and it was a perfect union of technology and optics. Finally, the Noctilux lived happily ever after.
Ok, that was a bit cheesy, even for me, but the point stands. The real potential - no, the real value - of the Noctilux is unleashed when it is mated with the Leica SL Type 601.
The Noctilux Epiphany
When Leica announced the new SL Type 601 camera in late-2015, I was completely head-over-heels with the system. It was a great fit for my photographic style and would allow me to finally separate from some of the Nikon equipment I’d been holding onto. I sold everything that didn’t have a red dot affixed to it and went all in on the Leica SL. It’s been a phenomenal decision! But what I didn’t realize at the time was that the Leica SL would be the driving factor for my desire to get a Noctilux, and as much as this review is about the Noctilux, I cannot overlook the relationship to the camera behind the lens.
If you are not familiar with the Leica SL vs the traditional M-series, then there is one very important key difference you must understand going forward. The SL uses an electronic viewfinder instead of the rangefinder to focus. A common issue with the Noctilux when used on the M rangefinder bodies is the need for precise calibration between the rangefinder and the lens - but the SL’s electronic viewfinder negates this issue. Looking through the eyepiece, you see exactly what the sensor sees, leaving no doubt that you nailed the focus even when shooting with the razor thin f/0.95. There are plenty of other differences between the camera systems, but the focus mechanism is most relevant to our discussion here.
Ironically, in my decades as a film and digital photographer, I have only ever owned one 50mm prime lens. It was a cheap Nikon lens and I only used it for infrared photography. Prior to the purchase of a Noctilux, I had maybe only ever taken 200 photographs with a non-Leica 50mm prime lens…. a focal length regarded as one of the best. I wouldn't say that my lack of 50mm use was intentional - I used a lot of zoom lenses that covered that focal length and didn’t see the value in owning a prime lens that replicated the functionality of a zoom lens.
When purchasing the Leica SL, I nearly fell into the same trap again. I purchased the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH zoom lens, which is an absolutely magnificent lens, to shoot on the SL body. Again, I told myself that I had a zoom lens that covered 50mm, why would I need another 50? I already had a Leica Summilux f/1.4 that didn’t get much use, did I need another (and far more expensive) 50mm lens?
Photography is about storytelling. It’s about capturing the emotions, expressions, feelings, mood, and world as it existed in that instant. It’s become easy to forget about the storytelling element of photography - we’ve become numb to having a camera and what that camera affords us. For instance, I will use my iPhone to take a snap of ingredients in a recipe book before I go grocery shopping, but that’s hardly storytelling. Likewise, as a Nikon shooter, I was too focused on technical perfection via equipment and accessories, and not focused enough on the story. That’s not to say Nikon equipment couldn’t allow me to be a storyteller; there are many phenomenal photographers who use that brand to create masterpieces. But storytelling is what Leica specializes in, more so than anything else.
You see, Leica doesn’t produce a lens that costs $11,000 for the sole reason of pointing out their technical superiority. They produce that lens because they know that, for the people who can afford it, that lens offers storytelling opportunities that no other lens can compete with. Leica’s emphasis on the essentials and manual controls force the photographer to think about the story they are telling when they click the shutter.
I didn’t buy the Noctilux because I was looking for a 50mm lens. I bought the Noctilux because I realized the opportunity that lens represents; the opportunity to tell a story in a way most other lenses cannot. That difference lets my work stand apart, and I value the opportunity the Noctilux offers enough to pay for the opportunity. Of course, if you saw my initial preview of the Noctilux, you know I didn’t spend anything close to $11,0000 either!
The Elephant in the Room - Price
So let’s explore the price. Chances are, if you read this far, you’re hoping that I’ll blow you away and the photographs will change your opinion of the lens, or you already understand the price and accept it at some level. Either way, price is what makes this lens so polarizing and yet so interesting.
Considering the retail price of $11,000, the Noctilux is arguably the most expensive manual focus, manual aperture selection, fastest prime lens available. That’s right, you’re not paying big bucks for incredible autofocus or image stabilization…. it doesn't even have those features. What you are paying for is a lens that laughs at darkness and is crafted with incredible precision. And if you value quality, incredible feats of engineering and some storytelling opportunities, then the Noctilux’s price isn’t that crazy.
The glass used on the Noctilux represents the best-of-the-best. Leica saves the clearest and most perfect glass for this lens; it’s rumored that just manufacturing the glass elements takes years. And then the lens is assembled by hand to the most exacting specifications and tolerances. While I don’t know if it’s true or not, it’s been said that Leica makes almost no profit on the Noctilux because the overhead cost to produce is so high. Leica does make some overpriced collectors edition cameras and lenses that are artificially price inflated, but the Noctilux is not one of those.
The Feel of a Noctilux
I never held a Noctilux until the day I purchased mine. I knew that it’d be hard to put down if I ever picked it up, so I limited myself too drooling from across a locked glass display case. When I finally held the Noctilux for the first time, I was shocked by the sheer amount of glass in the lens. It’s a heavy sucker, no doubt the heaviest M lens in production, but on the SL body, the weight counterbalances the camera body nicely. The combination is similar in size and weight to a more traditional dSLR setup. The Noctilux on my M7 is another story - the body is not heavy enough to counter the weight of the lens, but this is one of those times when my mom would tell me that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. You can’t ask for f/0.95 and not sacrifice some weight. Pick your priorities and Leica’s probably got a lens to suit them.
When I was shopping for the Noctilux f/0.95, I took the time to compare it to the older f/1 Noctilux for image aesthetics, feel, etc. I reviewed the differences in my Noctilux Preview, so I won’t repeat it here, but there were two differences in feel that I’ll cover.
First, the f/1 Noctilux was much stiffer when rotating the focus ring. While it could have just been the unit that I sampled, the stiffness of the focus ring was no where close to the smooth, yet firm, of the f/0.95 Noctilux. I realize that smooth and firm are contradictory statements, but that’s precisely how you want the focus on a lens like this to work; smooth enough that it takes little effort to rotate the ring, but stiff enough that it doesn’t turn unless you turn it. The focus ring on the Noctilux is perfect, and I hope it feels exactly the same as it does now in 10 years.
Second, the lens hood on the f/1 Noctilux did not lock in place, and a strong stare could have retracted the lens hood. While lens hoods are designed to prevent flare, I primarily use them as a front element bumper. I’d rather the lens hood get dings and scratches than the front glass elements. Therefore, a hood that doesn't stay securely extended is of no value to me. The f/0.95 hood pulls out and turns to lock into place. This design is far better, but I have encounter the lens rubbing along the side of my body when carried on a strap is often enough to unlock the hood.
Noctilux as a Landscape Photographer’s Lens
Most of the reviews you’ll find on the Noctilux focus on it’s application for street and portrait photography, but I’m not a portrait person, so I will instead discuss the Noctilux as a street and landscape photography lens.
Landscape and street photography have many similarities, which is why I’d argue the Noctilux is so good for both. In these fields, photographers are often trying to use light and the surroundings to portray the subject. Whether it is grassy fields or a busy market street, the razorr thin depth of field on the Noctilux allows the photographer to isolate their subject, while maintaining as much (or as little) of the surroundings to story tell. The biggest difference between the photographic fields is the amount of time afforded to the photographer; street photography requires split-second decisions, while landscape photography is often at a more relaxed pace. Yet with proper technique, the Noctilux serves both admirably.
I have become partial to the Noctilux for landscape photography. Using the unique Noctilux look, I’ve been able to isolate a small patch of grass in a sunbeam or individual pieces of straw in a way that none of my previous lenses have done. Several people have commented that the landscape photographs I’ve taken using the Noctilux look “dreamy” and “surreal” - as though they were taken in a mythical place. Whether or not that is my intention is irrelevant (although it is)….. it’s a comment I’ve never received on my photographs taken with another lens. And that, my friends, is why this lens is so special. Viewers notice the look.
I split time as a color and black and white photographer - color for landscapes and nature, while street and urban photography is entirely black and white. For both applications, the Noctilux is incredible. The color rendition is fantastic; I used to always adjust the saturation in Adobe Lightroom, but its almost unnecessary with the incredibly sharp and vibrant colors captured in the RAW DNG files using the Noctilux.
The Noctilux is proof of what incredible engineering can give us - it pushes the boundaries of lens design in many regards, most notably for it’s incredible f/0.95 aperture. Yet for it’s technical accomplishments, there is one nasty side effect that you will face…. Chromatic Aberration.
Chromatic aberration usually occurs in the highlights where those highlights meet a strong dark and contrasty area of the image. For outdoor photographers, we’ll often associate chromatic aberration with the purple outline where tree limbs and bright sky meet.
I hate chromatic aberration - but it’s an artifact of digital photography that we cannot escape, just like dust is an artifact in film photography. Unfortunately, at f/0.95, the Noctilux has very strong chromatic aberration, probably some of the worst I’ve ever seen in a lens. Stopping down even just to f/2 resolves all of the chromatic aberration, but at the cost of the storytelling benefits of f/0.95. Again I face the cake vs eating conundrum, and I choose cake….. to shoot at f/0.95 and deal with it in Lightroom.
Lightroom, Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw all have great chromatic aberration removal tools available, and a shallow depth-of-field Noctilux shooter should get familiar with them quickly. Even when I convert to black and white, I will take the time to resolve the chromatic aberration to prevent weird tonality changes.
The Leica Camera marketing team clearly wants you to feel special if you’ve spent $11,000 on alens, so they’ve packaged the Noctilux far more luxuriously than the other lenses I’ve owned. The exterior box is the traditional silver and black cardboard affair, but it’s big enough that I could store a pair of shoes in it. All the talk about how big the Noctilux is compared to other 50mm lenses in the Leica lineup isn’t helped when the box is that big!
Inside the box is the usual buffet of Leica paperwork: an instruction manual (sort of funny, if you think about it), a guarantee card, a certificate of inspection, and Leica Passport card. Remove the foam insert holding these pieces and you are rewarded with yet another box. This box is solid black with the Leica Camera logo stamped on the top and with a ribbon latch. Except for it’s large size, you could mistake it for an engagement ring box- which might have been Leica’s intention. If you buy a Leica Noctilux, you’ve become married to the brand? Untie the ribbon latch and inside the box rests the lens… on a silky pillow. With this sort of presentation, I’m a bit surprised the Noctilux doesn’t include a pair of white gloves for handling!
Final Verdict - to Noctilux or No?
I love the Leica M system - there is something very genuine and raw about taking images with a rangefinder body. While I own what is arguably one of the best lenses for the Leica M bodies, it’s not my go-to shooting lens, because of it’s size and semi- temperamental focus. This isn’t to discount the work of the photographers who do like the Noctilux and M body combination - kudos to them for their success. But if I didn’t own a Leica SL, I wouldn’t own a Noctilux.
With the SL, the Noctilux is a completely different lens. You can nail tack sharp focus on every shot; it becomes easy to shoot with the Noctilux. I was at a photography trade show recently and several Leica employees engaged in a discussion of the Noctilux + SL combination. Apparently many of them share my opinion: that the Noctilux is a different animal on the SL. The Leica SL is everything I didn’t know I wanted in a camera, and the Noctilux is the lens I never knew I needed. Combined, they are the right tools for me to great artwork. They aren’t the right tools for everyone, but with the Leica SL and the f/0.95 Noctilux, I’ve found my combination - one that provides me with new storytelling and artistic opportunities.