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The magic of the Leica 50mm Noctilux

I've owned and used a variety of Leica lenses but I was always curious to experience one of the most debated lenses out there - the Leica 50mm Noctilux. Comes with a very steep price-tag, it must be said. Last year I took the plunge and decided to see for myself what the Noctilux is all about.

Yours truly with the SL and the Nocti - a very good match (the camera and lens that is...)

I found a good classic camera shop in Delft in the Netherlands and they had a couple of Noctiluxes available. I walked out of the store with a lens in excellent condition from the 3rd iteration of the v3 Noctilux f1, made in a batch of 600 in 1992. The 27-year old lens was begging me to screw it to my trusty SL and take it out. Below is the first picture I took with it in downtown Delft where my eye caught a Citroen DS, a car that predates my Noctilux by a couple of decades. The photo highlight the things that make this Noctilux stand out; hyper-thin focus, painterly out of focus areas and an overall 'glow'.

The color of the bikes parked against the tree transform into a painters' palette

I was intrigued. And, like so many, I had the urge to shoot everything I saw at f1 because.... why not? It makes the mundane look mystical, the mediocre becomes magical. It can mask your ability to create an interesting capture of the world, and as such, make you lazy in how you compose your shots. Whatever you do, it will have a little bit of wow effect in it anyway. I stumbled on this after a while, noticing how my photos had become slightly boring in their own way due to the masking effect of what this lens can do.

Don't get distracted by the Monet-like background

When you can create these magical looking images, you find yourself turning the aperture ring ever more right until it goes no more and f1 appears. And rightfully so, I should emphasize. The effect is gorgeous and able to transform images into a dream-like affair that very few other lenses can do. So of course you should go for it and keep that aperture ring locked. And yet, this lens has so much more to give. This lens has a lesson to teach you, a lesson in constraint and focus. Or how to deal with temptation. Saving the final twist of the aperture ring for the moments where what you are trying to capture is begging for it. Think of it like a band with a guitar player that can play solos that make you weep of pure emotion. You don't want to hear the guitar player putting solos in front of the songs all the time. You want them carefully placed in the right timing and context of a song so that when his or her fingers start to find the notes, it just feels right*. Same with the Nocti, you need to feel when it is time to play that killer solo and for the other parts of a song, just provide solid riffs and support the music. Skilled listeners will still hear the solo-god through those riffs, and it makes them better for it.

Stopped down, the Noctilux retains its characteristic draw but with more restraint

So after my wake up call I started listening to the music around me and focus my use of the Nocti glow more deliberately. Along the way, I found that it serves effortlessly as an allround 50mm. Yes, there is the vignetting that you need to deal with, as it is present well into f4. You can either keep it as a little present from the Nocti, or simply deal with it in post. I found myself taking a half-way position most of the time. When other reviewers have made the point that the Nocti can be used as a all-round fifty, usually the comments section explodes with people ridiculing why you would need to pay so much cash for something you can use as an all-round fifty. I think they miss the point. The thing is that this lens has multiple personalities but you still need to carry only the one lens. If you want to shoot a crisp landscape like in Yosemite National Park below, you can. If you want to shoot a magical and dreamy portrait of a bear in that same park, you can do that too with the same lens. You might not survive it, though.

Sharp and crispy capture of the beauty of Yosemite

Let's talk about what it is like to shoot with the lens. I think it makes a huge difference whether you shoot on a mirrorless camera like the SL or if you use an M body. Using the rangefinder patch, I can't see myself nailing focus too often if shooting wide open. A friend of mine has the f0.95 version and uses it on an M10 and he is able to manage getting focus right. I am not sure I could do that. It's part of the reason why I left rangefinders behind anyway, but more on that in another post. On the SL though, focusing works fine. The combination of focus peaking and the ability to 'zoom' in and out quickly using the SL's navigating knob on the back is very effective. That knob on the back of the SL is one of its best features.

A large hole to capture all that light

There are drawbacks, of course there are. For instance, the focus throw for using it on my SL is too long. I understand the need for the long focus throw on a rangefinder but with the abilities of a mirrorless camera, you can do with a shorter throw to allow for faster focusing. I have a Voigtlander 75mm f1.5 which has a much shorter focus throw and it works just fine. Weight is another point. It's a heavy lens. Again, on the SL it balances out quite well, but it is still a hefty beast. Then there is the minimum focus distance of 1 meter.

Keep turning right and you'll end up in a magical place

There is one more ergonomic point to make about this lens and that is due to a more virtual characteristic, it's price. I bought my copy second hand (which I do for almost all my lenses) and it was a purchase I could justify. But, the weight of the cost is simply there when you use it. Last summer I was in Arizona & California, touring the national parks and the amazing variety in nature that part of the world has to offer. One day we went to an 'antelope canyon', a very narrow crevice, sliced out of the rock due to flash-floods. Close to the canyon where the most expensive photo in the world was made. Given this is a place that is extremely narrow with nothing but bare rock on either side, the price tag of the Nocti does make you walk a little more careful than you might with a different setup. It's not that bad, but it does appear on my mind in moments like these and makes me just a little bit more restricted in my movement.

The 'secret' canyon in Arizona

I have had this lens for about a year now and looking back, I am happy to have bought it and experienced shooting it first hand. It's an amazing piece of glass and a great match for the SL. I have been able to take photos that do show something different than what I would have been able to capture with any of my other gear. So, on to the final question to answer in this review; is it worth it? I am still not sure.

A classic 911 and a Noctilux share similar challenges in value perception. It's emotional, not rational.

There are other options as well in this focal length. There are various Voigtlander options, there is the Zeiss Sonnar and the recent entry of the 7Artisan brand, there are multiple options that can do 90% of what the Noctilux does for 10% of the price (new). At a different price level and not quite in the same playing field in terms of character, you can even throw in the Leica 50mm Summilux. As with many things, this is not a rational decision, and a very personal one.

For me though, the main reason I will very likely say goodbye to the Noctilux is that I long for the focal length I love the most. I miss my 75mm and look forward to making that my main lens again.

* Gary Clarke Jr is a case in point, a 'living Noctilux' with just the right timing and constraint


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