Firstly a disclaimer: The photo above has absolutely nothing to do with the title apart from it was taken using the Noctilux, my wife has a million and one tricks! It's very rare that I write about gear, I'd much prefer to be showing some photos, talking about photography or writing about a recent trip, alas time isn't allowing for any ride outs currently. There has been talk of a round the south coast of England photographic journey with my motorbike, possibly for a week or so, I don't know if that is going to become a reality just yet. In the meantime some thoughts on a lens...I know, boring right?
Is the Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 a one trick pony? Unfortunately the answer to that question is a resounding Yes; Well, It's been nice chatting....end of article! I really ought to enlarge on that conclusion. This isn’t necessarily a review, one where they test endlessly, fancy diagrams and all that. No, I can’t begin to understand those. Neither am I a gear addict, although I’m clearly going to have to discuss it here. I’m simply giving my opinion having used this particular lens for almost two years, perhaps it may help someone with a decision of whether they should have a Nocti 50 in their bag.
All the examples shown here are shot wide open with the Noctilux, some from client shoots and others from my own collection. Obviously not the one above because the Noctilux appears in the shot, next to the much smaller and my favourite lens, the Summicron 35mm.
Many years ago I saw a photograph made by a friend using the Leica Noctilux and decided I wanted one. Shooting with a large amount of Canon gear at the time I thought it highly unlikely ever to happen. You know that once a camera brand is chosen then it's not just a camera you're buying into, it's a whole system. Switching is a huge decision, not only financially. With that in mind I switched to Leica in 2015...I know, my life is a bit like that. In my defence it was mainly due to an increasing fascination with Street Photography, an interest that had started a few years before the switch. A DSLR with a huge lens attached wasn't going to cut it, for the obvious reason of being extremely conspicuous, especially if I wanted to capture those “candid” moments. Besides, I would still be able use the Leica for my client shoots and weddings. Now that might sound a bit of a leap; Why not try Fujifilm for example? Well, I already owned a Fuji X100 (some letter after it, can’t remember which) as a backup camera, I never could get on with it and I wanted to stay Full Frame. Apart from that my reasoning was using a Rangefinder should help my photography, everything is manual, exposure and focus, so it requires the user to put some consideration into the frame.
In my opinion and it is only that, the 35mm lens is a perfect partner to the Leica M. Of course that is highly subjective. I’ve tried many 50mm lenses over the years and I’m simply not comfortable with that focal length. I used to shoot a lot with a Canon 24-70mm zoom before I fully realised that Canon prime lenses were the way to go. I remember looking through the EXIF data on the files where I was using the zoom, almost every shot was taken at around 30 - 35mm. If you're using zooms then my advice is to ditch them and work only with primes. Use your feet to zoom in and out, you'll learn to frame correctly too, work with what you have. Of course I understand that if you're photographing some wildlife in the savannah or plains of Africa that may not be the best idea! Yes, Henri Cartier-Bresson thought 50mm perfect, I bow to the master in every respect, but disagree on focal length. Why in that case did I choose a 50mm lens? Acquiring the Leica M also meant buying the tiny allrounder Summicron 35mm f/2 together with a Summicron 90mm f/2 which I thought would be handy for client portraits. I’ve discussed the 90mm before on this blog and you can read that here should you wish. As is the nature of Rangefinders the 90mm or longer focal lengths wide open are a bitch to focus so mostly it now gathers dust. I still needed a portrait lens. I know gear heads get hot under the collar over all this stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily matter, it’s what you’re comfortable with - calm down, go and take some photos instead.
The Noctilux 50mm f/0.95, is handmade by Leica, it is a top quality piece of glass make no mistake and as such you’ll need to sell your children, any organs you feel are surplus to your requirements and still need to take a payment plan over let’s say twenty years give or take a decade if you want one. So, it’d better be great, better than great. I can report that It is, when wide open (f/0.95) It offers a surreal take on the world and beautifully renders portraits.
It is though a one trick pony. To shoot this ultra fast lens anything other than wide open makes it utterly pointless, if you want to shoot at f/4 or f/8 save yourself a bundle of money and get a slower 50mm. I see it primarily as a portrait lens, though you could perhaps try it with Street Photography, I have and yet again it's highly subjective. I like to see everything in focus with Street shots. I want to know what's going on in the scene, not look at "bokeh" and in any case no one is making money out of Street photography so recouping the outlay would be impossible surely. In any case by the time you've obtained focus when it's wide open the moment is quite probably gone.
It makes a good stab at Landscapes and Architecture too, adds that surreal feel, but again I don't feel that's where it's best use lays. This may be due to the photographer rather than the equipment in all fairness, but I did state that it was in my opinion.
A little financial consideration; When I bought my version it was hard to resist. Firstly a Leica dealer was offering a £500 discount on the internet, unheard of I know and I think it was news to them until someone, namely me, bought one and they realised! Secondly, it was the day after the Brexit referendum. The U.K. was leaving the EU apparently and I could only see that the British Pound would plummet, devalue, especially against the Euro, thus making imports (in this case from Germany) even more expensive. It was a case of now or never. I can at least partly justify the expense, it does earn its keep. Worth bearing in mind that you may be fooling yourself if you thought your Canon lenses were worth very much used/secondhand. They're not, believe me I've been through that process, your used £1,800 L lens is probably worth £800 at best and would need to be in excellent condition to achieve that price. Some say that only wealthy people buy Leica, that may be partly true, but those individuals will maintain their wealth because they won't be loosing hardly any money when and if the decision is made to sell their old lenses, in some cases they'll actually be making some extra cash. Also a salient point that is often forgotten; there are many Pro's out there that use Leica to earn a living, because it is good, reliable kit that they enjoy using and offers something different to the client in both look and feel to their photos. Highly unlikely then that those Leica professional users will be millionaires as anyone will tell you who works in the photographic industry.
How is it using one? Here's a few of my observations;
- You're likely to need, if you shoot outdoors, a very high quality 3 Stop ND filter, I've always used B&W for filters. My Leica M's shutter speed only goes up to 1/4000 and at f/0.95 your shot will be overexposed and by that I mean the whole thing will be just one big blown highlight mess.
- I find it a lot easier to focus than the 90mm f/2. That said to begin with it can be hit and miss - eyelashes will be perfectly focused whilst the eye is a total blur. To solve this we obviously need a very quick shutter speed, put a little distance between us and the subject and more importantly lots of practice with focussing. You could of course use zone focus or hyperfocal but that isn't going to work wide open which after all is the only way you're going to use this lens.
- I have used the Noctilux for weddings, but it's a bit risky. I play it safe with the 35mm for the ceremonies, important shots and use the Noctilux for a few portraits.
- In certain light, wide open, you're going to see purple fringing like you've never seen it before, Lightroom usually helps solve that problem.
- I've heard people say that it's a heavy lens. There's a lot of glass and engineering involved so obviously it will weigh more comparatively to say a standard 50mm. If you've ever walked around with a 70-200 zoom for 5 or 6 hours then it's really not that heavy. I hardly notice the weight.
We're off on our travels again next week. The versatile Summicron 35mm will be attached almost continuously, but I'lll be taking the Noctilux with me. There maybe those moments that require something a little more surreal or needing some punch, if you're a Leica user and want that then this is the lens you absolutely should have in your bag. It's a one trick pony, but it is a bloody good trick! Lastly an image that was taken when I first got my hands on the Nocti, possibly more luck than judgement, Louis with Bertie in mid leap over the wall -
As usual I would be delighted to read any comments and my sincere thanks go to anyone taking the time to read my blog.
All images can be opened by clicking on the thumbnails and are taken using a Leica M with a Noctilux 50mm lens fitted.
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