THE CHASE IS OVER, NOW WHAT?
Updated February 19, 2017
The Leica 50mm F.95 Noctilux-M ASPH is the stuff of gear fantasies. It is no longer enough to just do F1, now it must go all the way to F.95. Seems a bit reminiscent of a classic scene from the parody Spinal Tap -
It is probably bad form to mock Leica, but we are talking about a $10,650 lens, so some levity is needed to lighten the seriousness of that price tag. Fortunately used Leica 50mm F.95 Noctilux-M ASPH's sell for considerably less, but whether new or used, it is a significant sum of money.
BUILD QUALITY AND HANDLING
The Leica 50mm Noctilux ASPH's build quality is pure Leica - solid, smooth, metal upon metal. Focus is as smooth as they come, the aperture ring is easy to find, no rattles, the built-in lens hood rotates to lock into place... all good stuff. The F.95 aperture, 50mm focal length and the full-frame requirement dictate the front element diameter, which in turn drives lens weight. Hence, a large and heavy lens is the price of admission for F.95 on a full-frame camera.
The Noctilux ASPH incorporates an aspherical lens with a floating lens element (FLE) design. Incorporating a FLE design improves near-field sharpness and generally reduces focus shift. For the most part, whenever a lens uses a FLE design, it is a good thing. The Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH also incorporates an FLE design.
The Noctilux ASPH feels quite nose have on the Leica M-P Typ 240. To help counteract that weight and improve grip, Match Technical's Thumbs-Up is an absolute must in my opinion. Frankly, a lens of the Noctilux ASPH's size is better suited on a Leica SL Typ 601 or Sony A7rII (with the vertical grip attached). Also, it is much easier to dial in F.95 focus with an EVF camera versus the Leica M's rangefinder system.
The Noctilux’s weight leads to camera shake, so I try to keep shutter speeds faster than 1/50th. This is ironic given that the point of F.95 is low light, yet I boost shutter speeds to mitigate camera shake. Thus, in terms of shutter speeds I net little benefit from F.95. With the Leica 35mm F1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE I can shoot at lower shutter speeds and the camera is easier to hold since the 35mm FLE weighs 1/3 of the Noctilux. If headed into a low light setting, generally I opt for the 35mm FLE over the Noctilux. Though, in terms of wide open bokeh, the Noctilux trounces the 35mm FLE.
I should write more in this section, but if buying a F.95 lens, the whole purpose of that lens is F.95, so some quick observations about the 50mm F.95 Noctilux-M ASPH’s performance at its wider apertures:
- Sharpness: I have owned the Voigtlander 50mm F1.1 Nokton and Leica 50mm F1 Noctilux-M (E60) and found their wide open sharpness to be unimpressive. The Noctilux ASPH easily wins - and is a faster lens. At F.95 the Noctilux is not quite as sharp as the Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH at F1.4, but still quite good. At F2-F8 the Noctilux might be resolving more detail than the Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH, but I have not have compared the two directly.
- Color and Contrast: The Noctilux ASPH images seem to have slightly more punch or pop in their color and contrast compared to the Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH. The Noctilux’s color rendition is similar to the Leica 35mm F1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE. Bokeh is probably the main reason most people consider the Noctilux ASPH, but I feel the color rendition is the lens' stand-out feature.
- Bokeh: The Noctilux’s minimum focus distance is 1 meter and the Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH is .7 meters. The Summilux’s bokeh wins if shooting closer than 1 meter; if the shooting distance is 2-3 meters, then the Noctilux has the advantage. Whether the Noctilux’s bokeh is better than the 50mm Summilux-M ASPH could be a spirited discussion. The Noctilux is an aspherical lens, so if the background is complex, the bokeh can have the dreaded “nervous” look.
Leica 50mm F.95 Noctilux ASPH Bokeh Example at F1.4
In Leica’s quest for supreme sharpness, bokeh is sacrificed. The picture above is a good example - sharpness is great and nothing is “wrong” with the picture, but the aperture blades are not circular, there is a degree of cats-eye and then the onion bokeh (Toothwalker’s site has an excellent write-up on bokeh descriptors). Generally, I feel the Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH yeilds smoother bokeh, but bokeh is very shot specific and highly influenced by what is in the background. If shooting the Noc ASPH outdoors in daylight at wide apertures, neutral density filters are handy to have on hand.
As numb as I am to prices, the Noctilux ASPH was a tough pill. I bought the lens convinced it would be put to good use. Six months later, I am not so sure. I marvel at the lens’ technical achievements, but it has turned out to be a trailer queen. It goes out for a Sunday drive from time to time, but I have yet to come home with a picture that could have only been done with the Noctilux. I love the idea of the Noctilux-M ASPH, but I worry that I will never put the lens to good use.
This review was initially written in January 2014 and the images mostly for late 2013. As of this last update (December 31, 2016) since then the camera landscape has changed considerably with the Sony A7rII and Leica SL Typ 601. These "new" cameras are very well suited for focusing at a F.95 aperture. Also, EVF's provide WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get), so gauging bokeh and depth of field pre-shot is much easier versus guessing with the optical viewfinder on the M. Granted, the Leica M-P Typ 240 has an EVF option as well, but its EVF functionality is quite poor compared to the Leica SL and Sony A7rII.
Do these new cameras change my opinion of the Noctilux ASPH? Probably not. But these new cameras do influence my opinion as to which camera(s) should be used with the Noctilux ASPH. I do believe a Leica SL or Sony A7rII owner will get more bang-for-the-buck out of the Noctilux ASPH than a Leica M owner. For the Leica M's, I feel the Leica 50mm F1.4 Summilux-M ASPH is a better value and more befitting of a rangefinder camera. But if you have to go to "11", the Noctilux ASPH awaits you 😊