Preview: Noctilux f/0.95 on the Leica SL

If you could “steal” an $11,000 lens, that also happens to be the fastest lens in production, would you?

Of course you would!

The Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Lens has a bit of a cult following, which is reasonable for something that costs this much and that is rumored to be one of the most complicated lens designs ever made by Leica. When I first heard about the Noctilux, I thought “maybe one day…” The feeling was similar to what I felt as a kid on December 23rd - I could see the presents under the tree, but actually being able to open and enjoy those treats seemed like a tease that would never come.

I have virtually read the entire contents of the internet on the Noctilux; if there is such a thing as the end of the internet, I found it. I knew all the technical specs and rumors of underground cooling for the special glass. Maybe I was crazy, but I thought that knowing everything about this lens would somehow make it more resistible.

About a week ago, something amazing happened…. magic. The stars and moon and earth must be in some special alignment, or the Leica Gods were just in a good mood, because it became suddenly financially viable for me to purchase a Noctilux. I didn’t win any lottery, but the strength of the US Dollar relative to the British Pound suddenly turned to my favor. With Leica’s 12% promotion pricing in place and a strong dollar, the normally $11,000 lens was now available for the mid-$8,000s. I also recently got my Leica M-P Type 240 back from Leica service in Germany and was ready to trade it in as I’d settled on the Leica SL. All said and done, I only had to shell out about $4,000 for a new Noctilux - a killer deal - and one that made me feel like I’d stolen my way into the elite Nocti' club.

The British Pound relative to the US Dollar was at a low not seen since 2009.....

The British Pound relative to the US Dollar was at a low not seen since 2009.....

Given the internet’s worth of information about shooting the Noctilux on an M-series camera, I’m going to focus this sneak peek on using the Noctilux with the Leica SL; the Leica SL Type 601 actually makes a TON of sense with the Noctilux.

One common complaint with the Leica Noctilux series, particularly the f/0.95, is that the size makes it awkward and front heavy. But mount the Noctilux on the SL body, which has a front hand grip, and suddenly the weight and ergonomics seem quite comfortable. After purchasing the SL, I walked around London for the day taking some photographs and never experienced any fatigue in my wrist or hand. If, like me, you are used to bulky dSLRs with a zoom lens, then the SL + Noctilux combination will still feel small and comfortable. It’s all about what you are used to using!

The other frequent complaint is that the Noctilux can be hard to focus. With a super razor thin depth-of-field at f/0.95, Leica had to create a long focus throw so that you could actually achieve sharp focus on a rangefinder, but the process is very slow compared to the snap of my other Leica lenses. Mounted on the M7, the Noctilux feels like it takes twice as long to focus as say, the 35mm Summarit. Most of the slow shooting is the dance between focusing the rangefinder and then re-composing. This is where the SL comes to the rescue; the old line-up-the-square-patches-and-then-re-compose dance has now been replaced with a new dance called ‘focus’. The SL’s electronic viewfinder allows you to see when your subject has come into focus and fire immediately. And for those times when critical focus is required, you can tap the back joystick to zoom in, hit focus, and then shoot. Voila!

Now I’m not saying the Noctilux is a bad lens for the M series bodies - I’ll certainly use my Nocti with the M7, but I am arguing the Noctilux is EVEN better on the Leica SL.

Prior to settling on the Noctilux f/0.95, I first had to decide if I wanted the new model, or one of the older Noctilux f/1 series. The internet is very divided on this issue with 50% of the bloggers swearing to the f/1, while other 50% swore to the f/0.95 and a third 50% swore the Noctilux was a rich-mans stupid toy. (Yes, I know that 50% + 50% + 50% = 150%, which isn’t a “real thing” according to my sister, who is a math teacher. But to her I say, look at the internet posts and tell me there isn’t a third 50%…..)

The Leica Noctilux f/1 - focus point was on the edge of the frame near the Leica logo.

The Leica Noctilux f/0.95 - same focus point.

Here I knew the Leica SL would once again help. I went to a Leica dealer in London that had a used f/1 and a new f/0.95 in stock and played with them side-by-side. Using the Leica SL app on my iPhone and the built in WiFi, I was able to take a series of test comparison shots using each lens and then review them in great detail on my phone, which has a higher screen resolution than the back of the camera. 

This turned out to be a great way to examine the results of both lenses prior to purchasing one. Comparing the bokeh, particularly in the lights of the display case, I found I liked the soft and more round shape of the f/0.95 to the harder and more oblong shape of the f/1. I also thought the transition of the edge of the display case to the wall was softer at f/0.95.  Finally, I preferred the locking lens hood and smoother focus ring of the f/0.95. 

I did notice a little more chromatic aberration (purple and blue shading that normally appears along hard transitions from highlights to dark and areas of high contrast) on the f/0.95 lens in my test image, but my preference for the smooth bokeh outweighed the slight difference in chromatic distraction.

My very patient friend poses for a candid while I compare the f/1 and f/0.95 Noctilux at Richard Caplan Photography in London, UK.

After purchasing the lens, I spent the day shooting almost entirely at f/0.95 as I walked through downtown London, specifically the Soho and Southbank districts. It happened that my walk took me through a protests against England’s stockpile of nuclear trident missiles….. this was a perfect chance to play with shooting the f/0.95 Noctilux. Protestors love having their photo taken, so I was happy to oblige with a series of shots.

A London traffic police officer closes the road to Trafalgar Square awaiting protestors

Thousands of protestors marched through London demanding the Trident missile program be dismantled to put money against the national healthcare system and welfare programs

Protestors walk down the main streets leading to Piccadilly Circus.

The Noctilux is a great storytelling lens. Here it isolates just this one protestor, while telling the story about the size and scope of the protest.

Discarded signs await trash pickup

A masked protestor listens to a speaker at the anti-nuclear rally in Trafalgar Square

The Noctilux has been critiqued for not having enough contrast, but I found the results quite pleasing, especially after post processing

Skaters take a break to have a discussion near Southbank Center

Is anything in focus? (yes) - but this is where the Noctilux really shines with storytelling.

A young skater watches others in the park

A BMX rider prepares for another trick

A little girl pops bubbles along the Southbank Center boardwalk

Some tourists pose for a group selfie along the London waterfront

Yeah, that can't be comfortable.....

A self portrait of my husband and I in a silver orb

The pigeon, which is in focus, provides a great sense of how quickly focus melts from the subject

So why do I like the Leica Noctilux? For me, it’s all about the story telling that an aperture of f/0.95 affords; I can completely isolate a subject from the rest of the world and bring my viewer into the scene in a way that only the Noctilux can do. I also expect this lens to become an interesting addition for landscape and nature photography, and will share those results soon.

Considering I practically stole my way into the Leica Noctilux, I’m very happy with the lens and look forward to a full review once I've had a chance to run it through some more shooting. Stay tuned!