v3nice

November was a totally insane month for Scenic Traverse Photography...... Let's recap:

  • End of my European tour (Austria, Germany, Hungary, etc)
  • Trip to Venice, Italy
  • Trip to Washington, DC
  • Trip to London
  • Prepare for a huge trip that I'll be announcing later this week....

Phew. I hardly ever unpacked a suitcase - clothes just moved from one to the next. But it was fun, and I've got a lot of images to share from November. So without further delay, I'm excited to introduce my latest photo series, titled v3nice.

The name 'v3nice' is a play on the fact that it was my third trip in as many years to the historic Italian coastal city. When you've been someplace as often as I've been to Venice, you need to take a new approach to your photography to ensure you capture something new and interesting. So I limited myself - I carried only my Leica M Monochrom and primarily used the 50mm Leica f/0.95 Noctilux lens. In a city as colorful as Venice, choosing to shoot only in black and white may seem absurd, but I promise, it was totally liberating. 

I also got creative with the format. There are some photographers who don't believe in cropping, but I have no issue with the practice. So I cropped most of these photos to an absurdly long and skinny (or tall and thin) crop of 6x17. The result is that you see slices of Venice, not whole scenes. I think it's a fun way to expose you to a city that is often photographed, but while offering a unique twist.

It's best to see this collection at once, so the images are laid out on a special page dedicated to the v3nice project. I hope to one day display these prints in a gallery, as the dimensions of the images would be a stunning visual, but for now, you'll have to enjoy them online.

To view the v3nice project, please click the image below. Enjoy. Then come back and leave a comment letting me know what you think!

Quick Shot: One for the Birds

Pigeons: "Flying rats".

These poor birds have the unfortunate reputation of being a pest. They are pre-disposed to a life of shooing and picking at leftover crumbs. But as much as we overlook pigeons, they can actually be really pretty..... in the right context. 

During my travel through Austria, Hungary, and Germany, I established a micro-quest to create images with pigeons as a prominent theme. As I photographer I love to photograph the things we often overlook, and pigeons became a fun little photographic project for that journey. 

So today I present a series of images on pigeons -- it's one for the birds -- and maybe you'll see a little beauty in that bird. Or you'll shoo it off. Whatever.

Photographed with the Leica M Monochrom and Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens. (PS- I might be the first person to use that lens to prominently feature birds. It's not exactly a 'birding' lens!)

Everyone else in the Hero's Square of Budapest was photographing the monuments. I was pre-focused and pre-composed waiting for the birds to take off. After a few long minutes of pigeon watching, they finally jumped into flight. Best yet - their flight path worked perfectly with the direction that dude in the statue was pointing. Winning!

Not all of my pigeon watching and timing was as successful as that first shot. In this case, these pigeons had their feet glued firmly to the rooftops in Bratislava. But the leaning and not level roof dotted with birds still makes for an interesting image.

I think this is one of the most ironic images I've ever made. This is some fountain in Austria, and this pigeon was just chilling at the feet of the eagle / hawk thing in the statue. The expressions are priceless.

No patience here - just luck. This is why I always carry my camera turned on - I turned around just to see these birds flying over the dome. Sadly some power lines were in the way, but it adds and interesting element to the image still.

Little Bits of Nature with the Noctilux

I feel like the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux is the most undervalued landscape photography lens...... Maybe because everyone thinks of it as a portrait and street photography lens with that insane f/0.95 bokeh. That same portraiture loving bokeh has some wonderful effects when used in nature and outdoors; I can isolate my subject from the background the same way a portrait photographer can isolate the eyes of the subject from the rest of the image.

Put the Noctilux on the Leica SL, and you have an insanely awesome duo. Seriously, go to a Leica dealer (or a Leica store) and ask to try the Leica SL with the Noctilux and tell me you don't love it. I've said it in previous blog posts, and I'll say it again.... If you have a Noctilux, you need an SL and the electronic viewfinder of the SL to really get the most from that lens.  

I have shot some "grand vista" landscape photographs with the Noctilux, but today I'm going to share some of the results you can get using it on smaller subjects. I don't dare call this "macro photography" - it's more like "small-ish landscapes."  Each of these images was shot on the Leica SL and edited in Lightroom. 

I don't like seeing people defile nature by carving their initials into a tree; however, this tree has aged significantly since it was carved with the heart, and the aging bark around it really contrasted nicely. I broke down and took the photograph..... 

I don't like seeing people defile nature by carving their initials into a tree; however, this tree has aged significantly since it was carved with the heart, and the aging bark around it really contrasted nicely. I broke down and took the photograph..... 

I usually shoot the Noctilux wide open, but in this case I stopped down to f/4 so that all of he flat leave scene was in focus. 

I usually shoot the Noctilux wide open, but in this case I stopped down to f/4 so that all of he flat leave scene was in focus. 

Here I'm back to my f/0.95 ways! I love how the ferns disappear into the background, while one fern reaches out to touch the viewer in the foreground. At an aperture like f/8, this image would have seemed very harsh..... But the Noctilux gives the dreamy quality to make this feel like it was photographed in a dream. 

Here I'm back to my f/0.95 ways! I love how the ferns disappear into the background, while one fern reaches out to touch the viewer in the foreground. At an aperture like f/8, this image would have seemed very harsh..... But the Noctilux gives the dreamy quality to make this feel like it was photographed in a dream. 

Five Thoughts: A Day with the Leica Monochrom

I remember when I was first researching Leica's camera and lens lineup - well before I even considered purchasing my first Leica. As a self-admitted gear-obsessed woman, I researched the cameras and lens based on price alone. And how can you avoid it? You see cameras and lenses that cost around $10,000 USD and you can't help but be intrigued by their offerings.

Two of the many Leica products I drooled over in that initial research stuck out in my memory. They were the Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens and the Leica Monochrom. At that point the Monochrom was built off the M9 platform as the new M246 Monochrom was not yet announced.

These two products stuck out for several reasons beyond their pricing..... most significantly it was their uniqueness. A f/0.95 lens was (and still is) unlike anything else on the market, and the incredible bokeh and low-light it offered was remarkable. And the Monochrom - a camera that could only take black and white photographs! 

I have since secretly lusted for both. Earlier this year I had a chance to snag a Noctilux for a killer deal by monitoring the currency fluctuations (see my earlier post about the purchase of the Noctilux). And while the Monochrom still lived in my fantasies, it would take another killer deal before I could consider purchasing.

Low and behold, another killer deal came along.... this time a combination of the Leica rebate + trade in promotion + a weak British Pound / US Dollar exchange rate. Leica introduced a program where I could trade in another camera (I chose my lovely M7) and get a part exchange, plus $750 rebate. Alone this is a good deal, but the real killer is the exchange rate. After the June 23rd vote by the UK to exit from the European Union, the British Pound crashed to a 30 year low. I waited until the Pound traded at $1.29 on the dollar and jumped..... I purchased my Monochrom at Red Dot Camera in London.

I haven't owned my Leica Monochrom long enough to do a proper review, so I'll share my initial five thoughts on the camera and follow-up with another review when appropriate.

Three Leg Thing - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Pokemon Go - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

I: Oh Panchromatic....

Obviously you don't need to take many photographs to figure out that the Monochrom only captures black and white, or more technically correct, panchromatic images. In fact, if you take one photograph without figuring that out, you're either asleep, lost, or both.

Still, even though I knew I was going to get a greyscale product back from the Monochrom, there is an element of excitement and anticipation in downloading those first images into Lightroom. I was blown away by the tonal depth of the photographs..... millions of shades of grey never looked so good!

I would say it is different from film - at least from my preferred film, Ilford Delta 100. Scans of my film (which I self-develop in HC-110B) tend to be more contrasty and have bolder blacks and harsher whites. The Monochrom RAW files are more flat out-of-camera, but really sparkle with a few seconds of editing in Lightroom. The detail and resolution of the Monochrom files is also very impressive - I was able to get very heavy handed with some crops but maintain acceptable file resolution and detail.

Absorbed - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Road Markings - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Two Phones? - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

II: Neutral Density Filter Required, ASAP

I LOVE shooting with the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux on my Leica SL - it's become one of my favorite lenses for the truly unique look and feel that it gives each image. But mounted with a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th and a base ISO of 320, I will need to invest in a neutral density filter for the Noctilux before I can really get the most out of the lens in daylight. I took a few shots in London later in the evening when it was darker, but look forward to having a chance to play in more diverse light with a filter. I wasted no time ordering a 3 stop ND filter made by B&W!

Interrogation - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Walking - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Selfie - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

III: My Friend, EVF

Going back to the Noctilux - the reason it is such a great lens on the SL is because of the electronic viewfinder. In fact, I really struggled to decide between the older Monochrom (based on the M9 body) and the new Monochrom Type 246, but ultimately decided that the ability to use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was worth the extra cost. 

The electronic viewfinder on the Monochrom is a nice addition - it helps you 'see' in black and white if you are trying to learn to see the world without color, and the focus peaking is a must-have to improve your focusing hit-rate with the Noctilux. Of course there is no comparison between the Leica EVF-2 and the viewfinders on the Leica SL and Leica Q.... it lags and is much lower resolution, but if you can accept those things and just want a tool to help you ensure critical focus, then it's a great buy.

Taxi Driver - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Self Portrait - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Wine Tasting - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

IV: Underexpose

Several reviewers have discussed the importance of underexposing photographs to ensure no blown highlights as highlight detail cannot be recovered in the Monochrom files, but I had to play with it to really see it for myself. I took a variety of test shots against a bright window with a backlit subject to see how much I could "sneak out" of the highlights. Sure enough, blown highlights are really blown. (Sidenote: this is like a child being told something is hot, but not believing it until they touch it themselves and get burned. I had to try it to know!) 

In some cases, I actually like the blown highlight for the contrast it can apply to an image. I wouldn't do this all the time, certainly, but for a few of the images, I think the blown highlight helps draw the eye back to my subject.

I intentionally underexposed this photograph of my husband by several stops to see how much I could recover before I introduced noise...... see below. Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

The result. I would like to have pulled back a little more in the shirt, but noise started to be introduced at a level I was uncomfortable with. For me, this is as far as I'd push the image. All-in-all, a completely acceptable result! - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

V: See Differently

I convert 99% of my street photography, and probably 50% of my landscape photography to black and white, so the idea of pre-visualizing an image in black and white isn't new to me. However, there is still something to be said for knowing you can only capture an image in black and white vs capturing in color and knowing you have the option to convert. There were times in my walk through London that I saw some bright colors or shapes that made me reach for the camera, only to remember that the subject wouldn't translate into panchromatic. This isn't a bad thing..... I don't miss any of those 'missed' shots. Having a camera that only captures panchromatic images helps focus my attention. I studied the light and the way the light reflected off a subject. I experimented photographing shiny and reflective surfaces to see how those translated in the eyes of this sensor, and I found myself discovering contrast and intrigue in new scenes.

Moorgate Station - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Examine - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Shoryu Ramen (the best!) - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

There's a certain amount of learning required for any new camera, and the Monochrom and I are still in the flirting phase; still figuring out what the other likes while avoiding touchy dinner table conversations like religion and politics. We'll get there soon, but for now I need to continue to learn how the Monochrom responds to the world around it. I am incredibly excited by this camera - it begs to be picked up and to go shooting, so I'm sure it won't take long before Donald Trump's hair is broached at dinner......

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. 

Click on any image for a full-sized preview.

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?

Storytelling

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. 

Technical (in)Perfection

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. 

Delivery

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.

Quick Shot: A Walk In Dreamland

I took the photograph at Thetford Forest Park in central England on a sunny day. The path is actually part of a network of mountain bike trailers in the park, and the light through the treetops was perfectly illuminating this patch of grass that I put into focus. The dreamy effect comes from the soft bokeh and focus of the 50mm Leica Noctilux f/0.95, which has a very distinct style. Images made with the Noctilux are known for this softness, which was the perfect tool to really give the viewer the feeling of a stroll through dreamland. 

Quick Shot: Half Punt

I usually don't intentionally shoot a photograph with the idea of making a sequence or composite, but this was one of the rare times where I wanted to focus on half of the subject. I was standing on a bridge over the River Cam in Cambridge, England, watching a couple rowing a punt toward me. I decided to shoot the punt in half - IE one image for the woman in the front with lots of negative space, and a second image with the man in the back with more negative space. I thought it would be cool to have this as a pair of prints hanging side-by-side, and I think it worked out really well.

Here are the two prints merged together into one photograph.... just the way I'd hang it up in my house. 

Shot with the Leica SL and 50mm Noctilux f0.95

Quick Shot: Peek-a-Boo

A great photographer once told me "you'll take better pictures if you carry a camera"..... turned out it's good advice. Most photographers will stash their camera on a public bus, but I had my camera out and ready incase any moments arose. And sure enough, a moment arose.

This little boy had been sitting on his mom's lap, but turned around to peer over the chair right as I readied the camera. I cropped the photograph to tell the story how I saw it.... a little boy playing peek-a-boo.

Shot with the Leica SL and 50mm Noctilux f/0.95.

Quick Shot: Lush

Spring is fast approaching in England, and that was very evident last weekend while hiking through Thetford Forest. Although the temperature hovered near freezing and it actually hailed during the hike, there was also moments of brilliant sunshine casting through the green tree canopies, creating a lush forest scene that screamed of changing seasons. Using the Leica SL (Type 601) and the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux, I took this photograph of the trees with the sunlight casting a brilliant green hue over the forest.

Noctilux vs Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm on the Leica SL

Leica is regarded as one of, if not the, best camera lens manufacturers in the world. The crowning jewel of Leica lenses is the Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 lens that retails for a cool $11,000. On the Leica SL (Type 601), the Noctilux has become my go-to 50mm lens because of it’s incredibly thin depth-of-field and night vision like capabilities. 

But I wanted to see how the Noctilux - the best lens in the world - compared to the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens that was released with the SL. The comparison isn’t exactly fair… the Vario-Elmarit has a best aperture of f/3.6 at 50mm (compared to f/0.95), but I was curious to compare bokeh on like apertures as well as sharpness.

A quick note - I’m not a professional lens comparer, but I am a professional photographer who wants ‘good enough’ comparisons. If you are looking for results in a lab, look elsewhere!

For this test, I setup my Zone VI large format camera against a neutral wall and put the Leica SL on a tripod nearby. The primary light source is a large window to the right of the camera, although there was also a floor lamp on elsewhere in the room.

All photos were taken at ISO 800 and the Vario-Elmarit was set to 50mm. The focus point was the shutter speed numbering scale on the front of the lens. Files were shot at .DNG and converted to .JPEG in Lightroom with minimal image adjustments (all adjustments were synchronized between images).

Finally, it’s worth noting that the EXIF data for the images shot with the Noctilux does not accurately reflect the exact apertures I used; since the SL cannot communicate directly with the lens, it makes a ‘best guess’ at the aperture. I am providing the aperture values off the top of the lens for the Noctilux images and any images where the aperture and EXIF value don’t match are denoted with a “ * ”. 

Click on any image for a full-sized preview.

The first comparison is at f/8. I chose f/8 because it’s an aperture that should render most of the camera in sharp focus. Side-by-side the results are very similar, but a crop shows the Noctilux renders the entire camera in focus, while there is still a bit of soft bokeh on the Vario-Elmarit. I was a bit surprised by this, considering the Noctilux has the ‘king of bokeh’ title!

The next comparison was to evaluate the ‘best possible bokeh’ from each camera by shooting at the largest respective apertures (f/0.95 for the Noctilux vs f/3.6 for the Vario-Elmarit). Clearly the soft bokeh of the Noctilux won here (no surprise), but I was really more curious to compare detail at the focus points. Both were equally sharp along the numbers, but the Noctilux displays some very strong chromatic aberration along the lever that cocks the shutter and the edge of the lens. The colors between the two are remarkably similar, and although I can pick out differences of darkness between the lenses, those are adjustments that could be made in Lightroom.

Note: This is best viewed on a computer or tablet - the mobile version removes the side-by-side images.

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/8*

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/8

Crop of Above
Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/8*

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/0.95

Crop of Above
Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/0.95

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/4

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/5.6

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/2*

Crop of Above
Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/8

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/3.6

Crop of Above
Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/3.6

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/4

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/5.6

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/4

The final round of comparisons were aperture-for-aperture side-by-side shots at f/4 and f/5.6. Like with the first comparison at f/8, the Vario-Elmarit shows more bokeh and softness along the back of the camera, while the Noctilux has rendered the camera as fully in focus.

So what have I learned from all this nonsense?

  • The best possible bokeh comes from the Noctilux at f/0.95 (if this surprises anyone, we have a problem).
  • At f/4, the better bokeh actually belongs to the Vario-Elmarit. Shooting the Noctilux at f/2 actually renders bokeh very similar to the Vario-Elmarit at f/4
  • Even at f/8, the Vario-Elmarit maintains some soft bokeh compared to the Noctilux
  • Sharpness and color rendition is very similar between the two lenses. Any differences could easily be the result of Lightroom adjustments (and could be resolved in Lightroom).

So what?

Well that’s the $11,000 question! This is where individual photographers need to evaluate their particular needs. If you want the look of the f/0.95 Noctilux, you aren’t going to get it from the Vario-Elmarit. Likewise, if you have little use for a lens faster than f/4 at 50mm, then you can save some serious cash!

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!