Noctilux 1967-2008

Farewell to the King

For 41 years, the 50mm f/1 Noctilux was the fastest lens Leica made for the Leica M-system, and the fastest off-the-shelf lens available new for a rangefinder camera. It is true that there was once a faster lens, the Canon 'Dream' 50mm f/0.95, but this was short-lived (1961-1967) and used a unique external bayonet fitting on the outside of the 39mm x 26tpi (Leica screw compatible) mount of the Canon 7 and 7S; M-mount versions of the lens appear to be a later conversion. And, of course, the difference between f/1 and f/0.95 is a matter of marketing, rather than of significant lens speed: about 1/6 stop.

Towards the end of its life, the Noctilux was fabulously expensive -- over $5,500, though the dollar was very weak at the time -- and the subject of widespread lust on internet forums. It was sometimes touted as a 'universal' standard lens, though this does not seem to have been Leica's intention when they introduced it. Rather, it was a special-application lens, designed to be used principally at its maximum aperture when there was no alternative. The later fashion for using it at full aperture with a neutral-density filter under normal lighting was (perhaps understandably) not foreseen.

It used 7 glasses, all with common (spherical) curves, and was designed by Dr. Walter Mandler to replace the earlier, short-lived 6-glass 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux (also a Mandler design) which was made in 1966-67 and was the first commercially available aspheric lens for general application.

 

Performer, Spectacle de Danse, Moncontour 2007

 

 

We would almost buy the Noctilux on the strength of this one picture alone, if we thought it would guarantee getting more like it. It has the classic Noctilux 'look': not especially sharp, with incredibly shallow depth of field, and lashings of what is normally praised as 'painterly quality'. Roger's view -- all the pictures in this module are his -- is that it is a combination of luck and judgement, as well as the choice of equipment. This was on a Leica M8 with the ISO set at 1250. Like all the pictures in this module except the picture of the lens itself, this was shot at full aperture: f/1 for the Noctilux, f/1.2 for the Canon (see below).

Thanks to the kind offices of a friend, we had the use of a Noctilux for an extended period (well over a year). Because we had not laid out our own hard-earned cash for it, we did not need to justify its expense, and were able to view it reasonably dispassionately. Of course there is a certain thrill in using the fastest lens Leica made, and there were times when the speed was very welcome indeed; but the simple truth, of course, is that the Noctilux is no more a 'magic bullet' than any other lens.

Slow films

It is well worth remembering that when the Noctilux was introduced, films were much slower than they later became, and of course there were no commercial digital sensors at all in consumer cameras. The fastest colour film in 1967 was High Speed Ektachrome, at 160 ASA; the fastest colour print films were 64 ASA; and although Ilford HPS had at one time been offered at 800 ASA, it had been withdrawn and 400 ASA (e.g. Ilford HP4, Kodak Tri-X) were the fastest films available in 35mm. Kodak's Royal-X Pan (1250 ASA) was available only in 120 and larger.

Even in 1980, thirteen years after the introduction of the Noctilux, the fastest colour films were ISO 400 (GAF 500 had come and gone), though the early 80s would see the arrival of films of ISO 1000 and faster.

 

Noctilux on Leica M2

 

We chose the M2 to emphasize just how old the Noctilux is. It was introduced in the same year as the M4, when the M2 and M3 were still available new. This picture also makes it clear, we hope, that although the lens is big (it weighs 630g, 22 oz), it is by no means as hopelessly vast as some of its detractors maintain. Indeed, by SLR standards, it is quite dinky.

Of course, it has been commonplace since the early 20th century to say that 'with modern fast films, there is less need for fast lenses than there used to be'. Even in the 1950s there were people saying that with 'modern fast films' (the equivalent of ISO 400 at best) the average photographer needed no more than an f/2.8 or even f/3.5 lens. And the triumph of the 'standard zoom', typically f/3.5 or less, is evidence that this view is not entirely wrong.

'Available darkness'

On the other hand, there have always been photographers who were interested in 'available darkness' photography. Even before the Leica officially grew interchangeable lenses, the f/1.5 Meyer Plasmat could be custom-fitted to a Leica (scale focusing must have been interesting), and many pictures in the early 50s were taken with f/1.5 lenses and films the equivalent of ISO 200 to 400, often with what would today be seen as very long exposure times: 1/5 second was commonplace.

The combination of faster lenses and faster films allowed shorter shutter speeds, though, and this was surely the principal attraction and original intention of the Noctilux: reducing the risk of camera shake or subject movement.

 

Lombric

 

Lombric is one of those bands that makes joy as well as music. In their happy songs, it is impossible not to smile and laugh along with them; in their slower, more contemplative numbers, you do indeed fall to thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything.

In the original of this you could, if you were masochist enough, count many of the hairs on the left side of the singer's head (the side towards the camera); but the quality of the out-of-focus image never registers as unpleasant or obtrusive. This is our (somewhat negative) definition of 'good bokeh'.

Depth of field, bokeh and 'the look'

Alongside those who really needed its speed, there developed another school of Noctilux users. Some wanted the incredibly shallow depth of field that the Noctilux could offer at f/1 (and used ND filters to allow them to shoot wide open, even under normal daylight), while others were addicted to the 'bokeh' or the quality of the out-of-focus image. Yet others argued (not without reason) that the Noctilux had a unique 'look'.

There is no doubt that some were deluding themselves and that many more were fantasizing about a lens they were unlikely ever to handle or perhaps even see, let alone use. Even so, there were those who loved the Noctilux; who treated it as a 'universal' 50mm lens; and who achieved many excellent pictures with it.

In the wings

This was taken at the same performance as the young danseuse above, and it has (we believe) many of the same 'painterly' qualities -- though the extremely shallow depth of field is more apparent in the deeper composition. Technical information as above.

The 50/1.2 Canon: a competitor?

The Noctilux is far from the only special-application lens that many have seen as 'magic'. Whenever the Noctilux is mentioned on the internet, it is a safe bet that someone will sing the praises of the the old screw-mount 50/1.2 Canon, which can of course be used on an M-series Leica with a screw-to-bayonet adapter.

Many people have made many excellent pictures with the Canon, and again, many more have fantasized about it. The big advantage of the Canon is that it was available on the second-hand market at a fraction of the price: maybe a tenth as much as a new Noctilux. The difference in depth of field between f/1.2 and f/2 is trivial; bokeh is a matter of taste; and so is 'look'.

There is absolutely no doubt that the Noctilux is contrastier and sharper than the Canon, though, and there is little merit in the question, "Ah, but is it ten times contrastier and sharper?" It is contrastier and sharper, and if you want that contrast and sharpness, that is what it costs. Whether it is worth it to you is another matter entirely, as is the question of whether you can afford it.

We were able to compare the two directly, as we have an old Canon that cost us effectively nothing: it came with a Canon 7S that we sold for more than we paid for the camera and lens together. It was cleaned and rebuilt by Optical Instruments (Balham), possibly the finest optical restorers in the world: they regularly restore the World War Two Zeiss binoculars used at the naval gunnery practice ranges in Wales. It's a fun, fast lens; but next to the Noctilux, that is about all you can say of it.

 

Lauren Jade Trezise

 

 

This is one of Roger's favourite pictures with the 50/1.2 Canon, of the woman he refers to as his sister. She was his girlfriend in the 60s -- innocent teen-age stuff -- and this is on the occasion of her marriage in the 1990s to Greg Trezise, an exceptionally nice fellow. Even Roger thinks he is worthy of her: an almost impossible accomplishment for anyone marrying a beloved sister. The lens was on a Leica, probably an M4-P though it might have been an M2. Film was Ilford XP2 Super; the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, sepia toned.

We are repeatedly assured over the internet that we must have been unlucky with our Canon, and that assembly tolerances must not have been met, but as we have had two of these lenses in the last 30 years and a fair number of our friends have had them too, we are less than convinced. It is noticeable, too, that the Canon enjoys a much higher reputation today than it did in the days when it was newer: when it was just another old lens, albeit unusually fast, no-one had a great deal of time for it. The general consensus was that it was all right if you really needed the speed, but that otherwise, you'd do much better with a slower lens.

Bookshop, Poitiers

The Canon is certainly better than no fast lens, but equally, it lacks the crispness and contrast of the Noctilux: this, like all the other shots is this module except the black-and-white of Lauren and the picture of the lens itself, both above, was taken with the Leica M8.

At the limits

Because of the availability of very fast films and (now) very fast sensor speeds, there is less need of the Noctilux than ever before. For us, the real proof of this came when we were shooting at night at the Moncontour festival in 2007. One of us had the f/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar; the other, the f/1 Noctilux. We swapped lenses occasionally, and at the limit -- wide open, with very fast film (Ilford Delta 3200 in a Leica M4-P) or the ISO speed turned up to the maximum (ISO 2500 in a Leica MP) and very long shutter speeds -- we really cannot tell the pictures apart: camera shake and subject movement literally blur the differences.

Girls dancing

Roger is 99% sure this was taken with the Noctilux, but at the same ball he also shot some pictures with the 1,5/50 Zeiss Sonnar -- and by the time you have this much camera shake and subject movement, at full aperture, it is pretty much meaningless to try to distinguish between the two lenses, even though they differ in speed by a stop. One thing he is sure about, though, is that if he had used the Canon, the contrast would have been a good deal lower. ISO was set to 2,500 and the shutter speed is about 1/4 second.

The only time we saw a major advantage in the Noctilux was when we were shooting the Spectacle de Danse, again in Moncontour, again in 2007. Shooting wide open at f/1, with the ISO at 'only' 1250 on the M8 (in the interests of reduced image noise), Roger was able to get a lot of sharp pictures with, indeed, the unique Noctilux 'look'. Yes, he could have cranked the ISO up to 2,500 and used an f/1.5 instead, but the penalty would have been significantly noisier images. On the other hand, there would have been more depth of field -- though this was of limited relevance for many of the shots, which were taken at 10 metres or more.

Now, we do not shoot this sort of thing very often, but when we do, there is not much doubt that the Noctilux is perfect. If we could easily afford one, we would have one. But -- and this is an important point -- we would not want a Noctilux as our only 50mm lens: it is simply too big and heavy, and there is no point in dragging all that extra weight and bulk around unless you need it. Also, it intrudes into the viewfinder much more than other 50mm lenses, simply because of its size.

Finale, Spectacle de Danse

How much detail do you expect in something like this? Any individual face (assuming it is not turned away from the camera, or obscured by a balloon or the shadow of a balloon) would just about be of acceptable quality for an identity card or passport photo; details of spectacle frames can be seen; the patterns painted on the butterflies are clear. It was only just possible to get everything in from the back of the school gymn; this is the full width of the image, strongly cropped vertically.

The bottom line

The Noctilux is a wonderful lens, and as we have already said, if we could afford one without thinking about it, we would buy one like a shot. If we did a lot of the kind of photography for which the Noctilux is ideal -- the performing arts, in particular -- we would grit our teeth and find the money: it's expensive, but as a tool of that particular trade, it's extremely useful. But as neither of these conditions applies, we really don't think we're missing all that much by not having one -- which is not the same as saying we wouldn't like one.

Our unkind suspicion is that many, or quite probably most, Noctiluxes are bought by photographers who neither need them nor use them to their limits. Rather, they are bought for prestige: many photographers prefer to be judged by the cost of their equipment, or the maximum aperture of their lenses, rather than by the quality of their pictures. When you see their pictures, you realize why.

It is however all too easy to be overcome with jealousy, or reverse snobbery, and say that no-one needs a Noctilux. In one sense, this is true: the sense in which no-one needs a camera, as they will not starve to death without one. In another sense, though, there are a few photographers for whom a Noctilux is a wholly rational purchase, and many more for whom (as long as they can afford it) it is a perfectly reasonable purchase; at least as reasonable as (say) a fast car that they enjoy driving, or a set of golf clubs that they enjoy using.

Waiting to go on

There is a strong temptation to crop in on the little girl at the front -- the expression on her face is delightful -- but we decided that it was better to leave everything in context in the whole picture.

There are three more pictures below, including a close-up of the lens, or you can

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Lombric again

The limitations of depth of field and subject movement are clear, even at ISO 2500. This really is 'available darkness' photography, at f/1 and maybe 1/15 second.

 

Left: Danseuse with chair

This is about one-quarter of the area of the full frame of the M8. Blow it up far enough and her hair is, indeed, a little soft; but the texture of the fishnet tights is clear enough.

To us, this is what photography with the Noctilux (or indeed any extreme-speed lens) is all about: capturing a mood, a pose, an instant. If you are interested in shooting test targets, this is not the lens for you. But if you like to shoot the sort of pictures for which it is suitable, there is arguably no better lens on earth -- even though it has been discontinued.

 

 

Below: Noctilux

The retractable hood is retracted here, and all the scales (including the feet-metre scale) are clearly visible. No matter how often we see this lens, the '1' to the left of '1.4' always comes as a bit of a shock.

The focus travel is unusually long by modern standards at about 160 degrees, which explains the well-spread-out depth of field scale: the idea of depth of field being detectable at f/1 is quite novel!

 

 

 

 

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noctilux off camera

© 2007 Roger W. Hicks