You can read this review in Deutsch here.
Before I moved to the Leica M9 I did not like 50mm lenses. This changed with the Leica M9 and the Summilux 50mm Asph. After a while it became my standard lens together with the 35mm Summilux Asph. However, I was never impressed by the rather crude bokeh of the Summilux and the depth of field was often not small enough. So I decided to give the Noctilux a chance although I really struggled with its high price. I found a used one in mint condition and sent it directly to Leica to calibrate it on my Leica M. For a Noctilux you pay 11,000 Dollars (new) or 7,000 Dollars (used) and this is simply crazy. I use the Noctilux f/ 0.95 for six month now and would like to share my impressions.
All images were processed with Capture One 8 Pro.
When I unpacked the lens at first I was shocked how big and heavy it is. Of course it is well built and everything works perfect and I understand why it has to be large. But on a Leica M it looks a bit unsuitable. With the Summilux you hold a camera with a lens – with the Noctilux you hold a lens with a camera. Now I come from medium format and I already hiked with a Mamiya RZ plus lenses and a bag with films through the mountains.
But the typical Leica M feeling as a very compact camera is gone. Furthermore, there has always been an advantage of the Leica M system to be able to act discreet. On the street or at portraits no one feels threatened by the camera. With the Noctilux it’s different, people take it as a serious camera and feel observed. For me, this is a serious disadvantage.
The focusing is just as hard or easy as with other lenses, except for the noticeably larger mass which you have to turn. With the Noctilux I want to shoot wide open and the depth of field can be small even on longer distances. You have to be sure that you hit the focus. With the Leica M240 there is the possibility to use the electronic viewfinder with its zoom function. This is useful for stationary subjects, but with moving objects the delay between the viewfinder and the subject is so large that I almost always miss the right moment.
To focus moving objects is a challenge. Either I move with the object or I turn the focus ring synchronously with the movement of the object. You need to find out how much focusing corresponds to the moving object. Since you cannot double check the focus in the viewfinder, you better shoot more pictures and hope for a hit.
The bokeh and sharpness
The Noctilux is sharp. Even wide open it’s sharp in the center. In the corners it gets softer. But when I shoot wide open usually I don’t want to get the corners sharp, unless I arrange the subject straight to the corner. I do that very rarely. At f1,4 the Summilux is more sharp than the Noctilux at f1,4 but for me this is not an issue (check image comparison here).
The bokeh (the out of focus area) of the Noctilux is soft and creamy. From my impression wise it is much more pleasant than with the Summilux. Depending on the distance you can separate the object beautifully from the background. The sharpness runs wonderfully fluent in the blur. The picture looks natural. The blurred area retains a good contrast and so the whole image looks lively and dynamic. You have a vignetting wide open around 50% which you can easily correct in a raw converter. Wide open I can see a distortion in the corners but this is also not an issue.
A typical shooting distance for me is 3 meters and here I get a sharpness range 0.2 m. That means a person will be in this range but not more. With a Summilux at 1.4 the range is 0.31 m. This is not much either. At 5 meter the Noctilux has a range of 0.57 meter and the Summilux 0.88 meter. If you just want a small depth of field you should take a look to the Apo Summicron 75mm . At 5m you get a range of 0.59 m which is actually the same as with the Noctilux. It weight less (430 g) and you get it for a third of the Noctilux price. But it’s a 75mm and this is not the same.
The colors of the Noctilux tend to be warm and are powerful and appear natural. In comparison, the colors of the Summilux are colder. I like the dynamics in the pictures. The combination of colors, contrast and bokeh is perfectly composed. The images are clear and vibrant and less technical than with the Summilux.
Who wants to shoot wide open at daylight needs a neutral density filter to not overexpose. Unfortunately Leica offers no adequate ND filter for fast lenses. I find that annoying as in the Leica world shooting wide open doesn’t mean shooting in the dark, it means to compose and to be creative. So I have to use an 80 Dollar filter on an 11,000 Dollar lens. I have tried filter by Heliopan and B+W. The Heliopan Vario ND filter (62mm) failed because it has a strong color shift and strong fall off in the corners. I have decided for the B+W filters 102,103 and 106 MRC. Although they have a shift to warm colors they seem to keep the image quality. Whenever possible I shoot without filter.
Use with the Leica SL
The next two images were made with the Leica SL which is my favorite body today. Normally I use the big 24-90 lens which is an excellent lens on the SL. But for a special aesthetics the Noctilux is also a great match with the SL. On the SL it’s more easy to focus because of the excellent EVF. With focus peaking it is quite easy to focus especially when the the focus point is not in the center. Furthermore with the very short shutter-speed it is possible to use the Noctilux without a ND filter which is great.
6000 Dollars for one f-stop?
Is the Noctilux only good for shooting wide open? Compared to the Summilux you pay around 6,000 Dollars for this extra stop. And in the real world I cannot take each picture wide open. Most of the time I use it between f0.95 and f2 and for landscape around f8. But in fact the Noctilux with its beautiful bokeh and colors is extraordinary at each aperture. It has the same dynamic and colors as the Summilux 35mm FLE. These both lenses are a perfect match. So this is what I have in my bag plus sometimes a special lens like the Leica WATE.
I took a look to the APO Summicron 50mm because its size and weight is much more suitable to a Leica M and the color rendering is comparable to the Noctilux and Summilux 35mm FLE. Although I get a higher quality in color, sharpness and resolution for less money the APO Summicron it is too slow for me. I’m waiting for a lens like an “APO Summilux 50mm” or something which should be smaller and with the same quality as the APO Summicron and the same smooth bokeh as the Noctilux. Then I could give up the extra stop (maybe).
The Noctilux is a fantastic lens with opportunities like no other lens. Is it worth the price? It’s not when you use it mostly with f2 or higher. For that you could get the best available 50mm lens the APO Summicron for less money. But if you really use it wide open it will create pictures which are unique. The bokeh, the colors, the dynamic and the clarity of the images are perfectly matched and it’s a great pleasure to see the results especially on prints. Unfortunately you pay for that with a lot of money, a lot of weight and the loss to photograph discreet.
Every time when I use it I struggle with the size and weight. But if I do everything right I get a unique image which can only be made by a Noctilux. Nevertheless, since I have the Noctilux it is always in my bag and I don’t use the Summilux anymore. Probably it’s because I’m still learning but the lens is a great inspiration.