Thumb Prints & Signatures - The Leica 50mm f1 Noctilux-M - Is this the Most Legendary Leica Lens?

Thumb Prints & Signatures - The Leica 50mm f1 Noctilux-M - Is this the Most Legendary Leica Lens?

More often than not, the term “legendary” is used quite loosely when talking about older lenses but rarely do you hear about a lens that is hailed as “magical”. Enter the 50mm f/1 Noctilux, a lens that offers truly legendary properties that produce magical results. Stemming from the Latin word “Noct” for the night and “Lux” as in a unit of light measurement, the 50mm f1 Noctilux is unlike any lens that came before it.

Manufactured between 1975-2008 the f/1 Noctilux underwent several changes over its 30+ year production run, both optically and cosmetically. This iteration of the Noctilux in particular is the last version before the creation of its successor, the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux. Due to early production challenges with aspherical lens surfaces, Leitz was forced to find a new solution. The answer was the famous Leitz glass ‘900430’. This type of glass allowed renowned optical lens designer, Dr. Walter Mandler, to make two major and critical adjustments; add half of a stop of light to the lens’ maximum aperture and create the lens with spherical surfaces for all elements to render photographs as to how he envisioned.

The 50mm f/1.0 was Leica’s fastest lens that performed exceptionally well at maximum aperture, resulting in subjects being sharp and in focus, against smooth and dream-like out-of-focus background areas. Even with subjects further away from the photographer, there is a clear separation between the subject and the background, in both daylight and at night when shooting wide open. The lens requires a great deal of practice and skill in focusing wide open with the subsequent photographs being produced providing incredible impact.

I knew the best way to showcase this lens was by making portraits, so instead of my usual style of walking around downtown San Francisco, I participated in a photo walk with a group of friends that was hosted by @baeareafilm. The lens was mounted onto the Leica SL2-S with my primary goal being to make portraits at various focus distances and at maximum aperture to show the full effect of the lens.

By making use of the sensor's focus plane in conjunction with the inherent precision of the Noctilux, and the need for accuracy in focusing, I feel there are specific approaches to use the Noctilux that could potentially render photographs to have a similar look and depth to larger format sensors and film types.

Even though I missed perfect focus on some of the portraits, the shallow depth of field on the full body shots isolated each photographer from their respective backgrounds pulling all attention to them. However, when I moved closer for tighter portraits, the f1 Noctilux showcased just how precise this lens can be when focusing. Anything that is not on the focus plane of the lens begins to gradient into smooth bokeh.

With a name like Noctilux, how could we not photograph with it at night? So, I did a night walk around Fort Mason with the lens mounted onto a Leica M11. Much like the full body portraits, the depth of field at f/1 added spatial depth to each environment similar to medium and large format photography. Depending on where you choose to focus you can play with layers and perspectives of the image similar to a selective focus effect. When stopped down, the lens is extremely sharp throughout the frame and performs much like most modern Leica lenses.

I used this lens on both the Leica M11 and the Leica SL2-S and at times encountered difficulty in obtaining precise focus. Although I must also say that this is most likely due to my not being a frequent Noctilux user, When using the optical rangefinder or even with the help of capture assistance from the EVF, my body would rock back or forth ever so slightly causing the focus plane to shift.

I did make minor contrast, exposure, and white balance edits but left the colors relatively untouched. The colors this lens produces are soft yet saturated but not quite punchy, with at times a strong fall-off, vignetting, chromatic aberrations, and coma, which is not too much of an issue as it creates a distinct visual signature pulling your attention to your subject similar to tunnel vision.

Pros:

- Great shallow DOF

- Fantastic Subject/Background separation

- Soft dreamy look

- Color rendition

- Unique lens signature

Cons:

- Can be a challenge to obtain precise focus with a rangefinder, PRACTICE required

- Coma, chromatic aberrations, fall off/vignetting are strong

- Size and weight

- Loses “Noctilux look” when stopped down, and can look like a regular Leica lens

Even with the learning curve that the Leica f1 Noctilux requires I had a great experience with it. I personally like using older lenses on digital sensors because of the soft quality that is imparted into the photographs along with the unique look and signature of the lens that cannot be achieved with modern glass or editing in post. In summary, the Leica 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux provided me with a new and creative shooting experience, one that had me engaged with every image I made. I personally would not use it for street photography due to its size and difficulty to nail precise focus wide open although it's not entirely impossible. The look of the f1 Noctilux is unlike any lens I’ve used and I can appreciate what this lens is capable of. It is important to note that the different iterations of this lens offer slight variations in terms of lens signature. Overall if you are looking for a lens with a lot of character, the signature Leica glow, and a unique shooting experience, the Leica f/1.0 Noctilux is for you.

I would also like to say a special thank you, again, to @baeareafilm for hosting a great photo community event and thank you to all the photographers who let me take their portraits.

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