I purchased the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH lens new in September 2013. A lens that many people dream about. A lens that many people hate without ever having tried it. This review will be based on my experience with this lens over the course of 10 months of usage. During those 10 months the Noctilux has been my go-to lens for every day photography, being the only lens I owned for my digital camera during this time. This review will not be very technical, there are many other reviews available online that deal with the in-depth technical details.
All pictures in this review are made with a Leica M Typ 240 and the reviewed Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. All images were captured wide open at f/0.95.
I’ve previously used a Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH for the course of one year as my only lens, on a Leica M Monochrom camera, and I recently re-purchased the Summilux again after selling the first example that I owned. As of today I have sold the Noctilux as I feel that the Summilux fits my needs and requirements for the Leica M system better. This is mostly due to the wide-open performance of the Summilux, which I find to be significantly better than the Noctilux even at f/1.4, and leaps and bounds better if you compare the Noctilux at f/0.95 and the Summilux at f/1.4. The portability, weight, close focusing possibilities and lack of distortion of the Summilux is also key factors to why I went back to the Summilux as my primary lens. But the Noctilux is a magical lens, and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to have owned it.
When I received my Noctilux back in September 2013 I was not completely satisfied with it. It back-focused slightly on my Leica M Typ 240, and, the aperture ring was loose, which made it very easy to accidentally change the aperture without intending to do so. After a few trips back to Leica in Germany the lens was perfect, and the calibration on my M240 was matched to the lens. The result was a perfect focusing action, perfect resistance on the aperture ring, and basically the best mechanically built lens I have ever had the pleasure of using. It’s like holding a gem. A large, heavy and very dense gem. When I first started using it I was actually not very impressed – mostly because of all the hype and reviews that are available for this lens online. I expected more than it delivered, especially considering it’s price tag! That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this honest review – simply because I feel there is too much hype and glamour surrounding this lens than what it deserves. As I said the Noctilux is a magical lens, but it’s by no means perfect.
This is mostly in regards to wide-open performance: sharpness, chromatic aberrations, purple fringing and distortion. Coming from the Summilux, I expected similar performance wide open at f/0.95 – which is far from reality – even though many people claim this. The Noctilux is sharp at f/0.95 if you consider the aperture value. It’s definitely sharp considering it is an f/0.95 lens, but it is definitely not sharp at f/0.95 if you compare it with a Summilux at f/1.4. The Noctilux will give you a lot’s of chromatic aberrations and purple fringing – it is basically unavoidable, especially on high-contrast scenes with strong backlight. As long as you have some strong light sources in your frame and you use it wide open you have to be prepared to always look for purple fringing and use the proper tools to remove it in post.
The Noctilux also has about 1% distortion, whereas the Summilux and Summicrons has 0.3% distortion. 1% distortion isn’t a lot, but compared to the Summilux and Summicron 50mm lenses, 1% is still a lot more than 0.3%. And it is noticeable. The distortion is the type of distortion that make human subjects look rounder than they actually are if they are in the center of the frame. That is not something that is very desirable for photographs of people! Fortunately Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw has proper lens correction profiles for the lens that fixes the distortions. The lens correction profiles will crop your frame slightly though.
The colors the Noctilux renders is very similar to that of the Summilux 50 ASPH, but even more close or almost identical to the Summilux 35 ASPH FLE based on my long-term experience with all three lenses. I would describe the colors of the Noctilux to be a bit warmer and slightly more saturated than what the Summilux 50mm gives, although it’s very easy to adjust this in post so that the colors look identical. The Noctilux also has slightly less contrast than the Summilux 50mm at every f-stop, and wide-open at f/0.95 the contrast in the center drops dramatically.
In some pictures the drop in central contrast looks very good, as it makes it look like the subject in the center of the frame is illuminated by a light source. This effect is also very nice to use during night-time photography, as the lens seems to pick up more light than what’s actually available. Less contrast also means better dynamic range, which makes this lens excellent for night-time photography with bright street lights and dark shadows. But this effect also has major drawbacks for other types of pictures – as it tends to apply a haze looking effect on the center of the frame on pictures in daylight, or of subjects with many details. Not very ideal for pictures that you need or want good technical quality on. But then again, if that’s what you need then you wouldn’t be using it at f/0.95 in the first place. Stopping down to f/1.4 gets rid of the “haze”.
The biggest reason to get a Noctilux over a Summilux is the extra stop – f/0.95 vs f/1.4. Many people tend to say that the Noctilux draws like the Summilux from f/1.4 and up. After many comparisons I find this to not be entirely true. Even at f/1.4 the Noctilux has visibly more bokeh than the Summilux at the same aperture. The Noctilux has a swirly type of bokeh however, which can be quite dominating in some scenarios, whereas the Summilux is just very smooth and creamy. The Noctilux is also softer in the edges of the frame at every f-stop compared to the Summilux.
All in all this makes it look like the images with the Noctilux at f/1.4 has a more pronounced bokeh effect than the Summilux at f/1.4. At f/0.95 the Noctilux is in a league of its own, of course. But you pay a big price in regards to loss of resolution and chance of a significant amount of purple fringing by using that aperture. Using the Noctilux at f/0.95 constantly is very tempting. I mean, that’s what you pay $11,000 USD for, after all. Right? Not every picture looks good at f/0.95. But it’s just very addictive to use it wide open! Stopping down the Noctilux yields excellent results. Almost up there with the Summilux in regards to resolution, and more saturated colors, and less vignetting at every f-stop. I also noticed that at every aperture between f/2.8-f/8 the Noctilux smeared the extreme corners of my photographs noticeably more than what my Summilux does. So in that regard it is not suitable for photographs that require edge-to-edge sharpness.
The Noctilux is a magical lens though. It has this ability to make a boring scene look interesting if the photographer is skilled enough to take advantage of the creative potential of such a lens. Shooting wide open at f/0.95 all the time however is not something I would advice anyone to do. Even though the Noctilux lets you shoot at f/0.95 – it shouldn’t be used at this aperture all the time. It creates excellent results at all apertures, and if you’re willing to live with the 1 meter closest focusing distance and the cost, size and weight, it can easily work as your only 50mm lens. It’s also one of the best lenses I have used in regards to resistance to flare. You don’t ever need to use the hood on this lens. Just point it directly at the sun and snap away without worrying. And if you get flare in some of your photographs its most probably caused by that flat UV (protection) filter that you put in front of that beautiful glass.
I sold my Noctilux mainly due to size and weight. I bought the M system for portability, light weight and compactness. I want to be able to bring my camera with me everywhere I go. The Noctilux made me leave the camera at home more and more simply because it was too big and heavy to carry with me at all times. The M240 + Noctilux combo made my neck hurt after carrying it on a strap over my shoulder for more than two hours. After almost a years use I also got tired of the “wide-open look” and started to use it stopped down to f/2.8-f/8 more and more, and to ensure proper IQ I also avoided using it at f/0.95 and rather used it at f/1.2-f/1.4 when I wanted a dreamy look (which it gives in spades also at these apertures). By stopping the lens down to f/1.2 you also eliminate most of the purple fringing. There is a reason as to why most pictures made with the Noctilux are converted to black and white images. The large amount of purple fringing isn’t always easy to get rid of without things looking somewhat weird.
If the dreamy wide-open look is your thing, then I advice you to get it if you can. At least try to rent it or borrow it for a while. I would not sell all my cameras and lenses to get it however. If you do, I think you will be disappointed. I must admit it’s a very exciting lens to have owned and used under all types of conditions. And you won’t know if you like it or not before you’ve actually used it for some time. But don’t expect the Noctilux to be “the perfect 50mm” (which many Noctilux owners usually say) – because it’s not. It’s technically inferior to the APO-Summicron 50mm and the Summilux 50mm ASPH as well as other 50mm lenses. It’s big. It’s heavy. It’s slow to handle and to focus compared to the Summicron and Summilux, and ergonomically on the M cameras it’s not easy to hand hold steadily compared to smaller and more balanced lenses. I have to say that due to the somewhat long focus throw it is easier to precisely focus the Noctilux than the Summilux and Summicrons however, which is absolutely critical for using it at f/0.95.
I’m glad to have owned it for almost a year. It made it possible for me to find out what I really prefer. But it’s not a lens I’m planning to re-purchase – unlike the Summilux lenses, that I have re-purchased, and which are the best compromise of low weight, small size and low-light capabilities in my opinion – at least for my use. I would have loved to use the even smaller and lighter-weight Summicrons, but f/1.4 is already borderline problematic for me for really low-light use – something that I really enjoy doing a lot of. The North is dark during wintertime, so having low-light capabilities is a must if I want to be able to practice my hobby and passion during evenings after work.
If you’re considering buying a Noctilux I strongly suggest that you make sure that you have a properly calibrated rangefinder on your camera. If not, get ready to send it in to Leica for calibration. I also suggest that you purchase the EVF at the same time. I almost feel that the EVF is a requirement for shooting the Noctilux wide open, especially when it get’s dark.
All in all the Noctilux is a marvelous lens. It’s a very cinematic, poetic and romantic lens, but it’s not without its flaws. It’s the best compromise f/0.95 lens on the market. The size, the weight, the sharpness and other optical qualities are all compromises, and I don’t find it to be superb at anything but being able to capture a lot of light, and to be able to make very dreamy photographs with a poetic feel. If it’s worth the cost is a different story. That depends on you and your use of the lens. I really liked the example I owned, but, I like the Summilux more for my type of use. And I would feel bad about having a Noctilux just sitting on the shelf.
I have more photographs made with the Noctilux in my Noctilux album on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/borgei/
© Børge Indergaard 2014. All rights reserved.