Leica Noctilux: Overkill or Necessity

Leica Noctilux is a lens, or rather a family of lenses, which is capable of transmitting more light than any lens in the world. To be more exact, at its full aperture of f/0.95 (in case of the previous version, f/1), loss of light is only due to internal reflections from optical surfaces, which is, for practical purposes, is almost negligible. The implication of it is gigantic: Noctilux gives a photographer freedom to shoot in near darkness without a tripod.

Leica M9, Leica Noctilux 1/50 @ f/1, 1/30, ISO1000

What is more amazing, even at f/1 Noctilux delivers image quality sufficient for professional use in photojournalism, editorial and even advertising photography.  The photo above, for example, was taken in the evening, with just two light sources: twilight from the store front, right in the man’s face, and a lamp with a 15W tungsten bulb, which you see in the picture. At 1/30 of a second I managed not only avoid motion blur (which at 1/15 would be very problematic), but make the scene look about two stops brighter than it actually was. This digital image sustained very little post-production (minor color correction compensating for the difference in color temperatures of sources and low sharpening), which literally took less than a minute. The picture, however, can be successfully enlarged for at least an 18x24” print.

In an interest of a full disclosure, I have to mention that other manufacturers, namely Canon and Vöightlander  also made super-fast lenses in the range of f/0.95 to f/1.1. These optics, however, did not gain much recognition despite their substantially lower prices, for the reason of their inferior image quality. Inferior to Noctilux, that is.

Obviously, image quality at full aperture cannot be expected to match what can a comparatively modest Summicron 50mm f/2 deliver at setting. In fact, no other lens can, because this very 50mm Summicron is a de-facto industry standard normal lens for 35mm photography. The main reason for this disparity lays in serious trade-offs that have to be made in designing super-fast lenses. For instance, in order to control spherical aberrations, the lens must be designed with lower overall contrast. Even use of aspherical optical elements and special glass with anomalous light dispersion characteristics cannot fully address all existing issues. That is why pictures taken with Noctilux at its widest aperture settings, especially when it is done in aggressive lighting conditions (strong hard light, very high contrast, overexposure, contre-jour, point light sources within the field of view), and frequently lack in contrast and sharpness. The most serious drawback of Noctilux is its propensity

Leica M9, Leica Noctilux 1/50 @f/4

to chromatic aberrations when shooting against the light. Even three stops down from f/1 strong backlighting can create purple fringing, yellow/blue and red/green color splits. The image above shows this very problem: a contour of the model’s face looks unsharp, while the rest of her silhouette is sharp. Initially this area was bright purple and remained fuzzy when the color was taken out in post-processing. In this case it worked for the image, while in most cases chromatic aberrations can ruin a shot. 

Having said that, I must acknowledge that the latest version of Noctilux delivers much improved optical performance. At apertures of f/1.4 or smaller, in fact, one will be hard pressed to tell this lens apart from 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH, which was not the case with any of the previous Noctilux incarnations. 

 Leica M9, Leica Noctilux 1/50 @ f/1

One of the most important skills of successfully using Noctilux is an ability to resist a desire to keep the aperture open all the time. Not every shot requires f/1, and often times the strong, almost psychedelic effect that this lens creates at full aperture is detrimental to perceptibility of the image. 

Even with the previous, optically softer version of Noctilux, correct post-processing in Adobe Lightroom (which is provided free of charge with an every Leica M9 body) makes photos taken at f/1 sharp enough to be visually indistinguishable from slower Leica lenses on an 11x14” print.

Incredible light sensitivity is not the only property that makes Noctilux so desirable. With DOF so shallow, the way that the lens renders out-of-focus areas  and transitions between focused and blurred parts of an image, plays an important role. Is easy to understand taking into account the fact that at f/1 rather often only a minor part of an image remains in focus. Hence if the posterior bokeh (this is a fancy name for the blurred background) is harsh and aggressive, the picture is unpleasant for the eye. A significant part of the Noctilux “signature” is its bokeh, which is not as neutral as of 35/2 Summicron ASPH, yet pleasant (see picture below).

 Leica M9, Leica Noctilux 1/50 @f/1

To summarize, understanding when the super-shallow DOF will benefit your subject matter is extremely important.

Also, as I have mentioned previously, this is not an easy lens to use. Overall, shooting with Noctilux is a considerably slower process than with with a lens one or two stops slower. There are several reasons to that:

  • It is heavy and somewhat cumbersome (compared to slower 50mm lenses). 
  • It requires special skills in composing the image regardless of aperture used, just because it obstructs at least 1/4 of the 50mm frame. 
  • Shooting at apertures from f/1 to f/4 requires special attention to the direction of light and overall contrast of the scene.
  • It attracts attention because, even with people who do not know what it actually is, the lens is large enough to look "professional". 
  • At last, its undoubtedly exuberant price may, in some instances, make you overly conscious of the risks, which will negatively influence results of your work.

A question that is probably the most often asked about Noctilux is why one would spend in excess of $10,000 for the luxury of an access to f/0.95, but at a cost of image quality by definition inferior to what a $2000 lens can deliver. Despite its obvious shortcomings, the whole idea of Noctilux, in my opinion, is not excessive at all, at least in professional photography. Even if you look at it from a purely economical position disregarding any aesthetic implications that shooting at apertures wider than f/1.4 may have (although, believe me, they really matter), Noctilux turns out to be well justified when used for what it is intended. When working on assignment, being able to shoot at f/1 (or f/0.95 with the last version) frequently means getting the shot versus not getting it. In professional photography it easily translates into thousands of dollars. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

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Total comments: 20
By Carbon111 (Jun 23, 2012)

Sadly, the bokeh in the last two shots is really "nervous" and "edgy". :(

magneto shot
By magneto shot (Jun 5, 2012)

there is a hyperprime now, so noctilux is for those who must have "leica" name in it or perhaps resale value. If low light is the main reason, reviews so far indicates the hyperprime is a better buy. There is also the nokton 50 1.1 for great value but debatable bokeh.

Thanks for writing this article, one can sense your iron clad defense of the lens even if some of the reasons when weight against the price looks dubious to some. For leica owners, the noct is a "must try" itch simply because the price will no doubt makes the mind wonders.

Is it really worth the asking price? The author in this article clearly thinks it is and it moves him to get great pictures in his work. Inspiration is always priceless.

By bpalme (Aug 29, 2012)

Huge difference between the Noctilux and the Nokton.... for the copy I had anyway. My Nokton was very soft wide open.
Also the Hyperprime I think is now being dismissed because of it's shoddy quality. Would you really want a lens that's glued together?
They're falling apart already.

1 upvote
David Strachan
By David Strachan (Mar 6, 2012)

The girl with the dog...in my opinion the bokeh is really ghastly.

1 upvote
Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Mar 8, 2012)

isn't it supposed to be that way considering the subject matter?

1 upvote
Alex Tempone
By Alex Tempone (Dec 20, 2011)

jeff it's not just about the low light performance it's also about that all important BOKEH / LOOK that us pro's chase. I dont care if cameras can shoot at 204,000, but if I cant have a lens that gets to at least F1.8 I loose the "look" i've built my photography on. just my opinion.

Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Dec 20, 2011)

Jeff, I have yet to see a camera that can match M9 colors at ISO1250. If you know something that I do not, please tell me :)

By JeffS7444 (Dec 19, 2011)

Nice photos, but the argument for low-light performance doesn't make much sense now that inexpensive cameras can be expected to have decent ISO 1600 performance and top pro models are topping out at 204,000.

1 upvote
By nliusvia (Dec 14, 2011)

Hi Irakly, love this article. For me you nailed pretty much the points re using nocti, specifically on the two last paragraphs and this line:

"being able to shoot at f/1 (or f/0.95 with the last version) frequently means getting the shot versus not getting it "

Bruce Granofsky
By Bruce Granofsky (Dec 14, 2011)

CWUT or 'Crap With a Unique Twist'. CATCHY!!
Sounds like an exciting new photography category! (with a unique twist)

Dan Nikon
By Dan Nikon (Dec 13, 2011)

Nice lens but, these photos have Canon 85 1.2L for thousands cheaper written all over them. At least you have a feel for the lens. I think it is dubbed the 95 for reasons other than the aperture though, 95% of the photos one sees from this hidden gem are cr@p with a slightly unique twist.

Comment edited 34 seconds after posting
Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Dec 23, 2011)

I certainly respect your decision to use this discussion for showcasing your fine sense of humor. However, assuming that you are not blind, your first statement indicates clearly that you most likely have not shot ether of the two lenses.

1 upvote
By steveleicaman (Nov 14, 2011)

What price can you put on a lens that offers unique artistic opportunities?

Every petrolhead needs to experience a Porche 911 in their lifetime. I think every rangefinder photographer should take the chance to try the Noct. I will. One day....

Interesting article

1 upvote
By starwolfy (Nov 10, 2011)

Really interesting review of a very controversial lens.
I agree when you say that this lens is for professional use. F1.4 is totally enough for 98% of shots. The extra speed is essentially needed for critical situations and you described well this idea when you say: get the shot or not get the shot.
The first picture you took says it all. It looks well exposed while it was really dark...this is the key point of the lens.
It has some drawbacks but this lens is just a masterpiece which reaches the limits of optical engineering. For that...this is just an amazing lens but again for general use it is overkill as it is a really specific piece of glass.

Moreover, I would like to see a comparison with let's say a 35mm F1.4 ASPH in practical use. Yes, this lens is less bright...but the focal range is also shorter meaning that you can shoot steadier at a lower speed than a 50mm would allow. Field of view is different also...but I guess a 35mm is also more proper for journalists than a 50mm is.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
Peter Nelson
By Peter Nelson (Nov 9, 2011)

I would love an M9 and Noctilux 50mm f/.09. I have an Leica M5 and 50mm f/1.4 Summilux First Version and it's my favorite lens. I have to muddle along with my Seiko/Epson R-D1 digital rangefinder with that Summilux and Canon 1dsMkII and 85mm f/1.2 L first version. That Canon lens on FF is simply a treat. The Nikon 50mm f/1.4 in Ai woks well with my FF Kodak SLR/n. But out of all these choices I would still prefere the Leica M9 and Noctilux 50mm f/.09.
Size and the way you use a rangefinder camera are two things to be considerd, but so is the way the image looks from the Noctolux.
I believe the original saying when using a Noctilux is: Taking photgraphs in available darkness. Cheeky but true! -Peter

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
By TheLastMan (Nov 2, 2011)

The benefit of this lens was obvious in the days of film when films had a fixed ISO rating and anything higher than 400 asa was seriously grainy.

However with digital, the fall-off in quality by going from ISO 100 to 400 is probably a lot less than the compromises resulting from a lens at f1.0 compared to f2.0. In fact with a 16mp camera with a good f2.8 lens at ISO 800 will have a better "printable" quality than the same camera with an f1.0 lens at ISO 100.

If you want a shallower DOF than you will get with an f2.8 lens, why not go medium format? A Pentax 645D with the "kit" 50mm costs the same as this lens!

Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Nov 3, 2011)

You are right. Medium format is a great idea... In the studio.
You cannot discount ergonomics in photography and judge cameras/lenses only on their basic parameters. Pictures always show how tired a photographer was while shooting.
Photographer is not a machine, which performs the same way in every instance. So, getting "better printable quality" at 2.8 does not mean that the picture will be better overall.

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
Les Berkley
By Les Berkley (Oct 28, 2011)

So I take it that, in order to get 1/2 stop more light, I have to pay ten thousand dollars? And, for that ten grand I will get jagged blur with outlined highlights? Count me in! Can't I just bump up the ISO? Then I can use the Sigma 50 f1.4, which is sharper and has lovely blur to boot.

Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Nov 3, 2011)

Of course you don't have to. It is purely voluntary :)

By snake_b (Oct 17, 2011)

This will not go well.

Comment edited 12 seconds after posting
Total comments: 20