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Slave to the 50mm Noctilux

Introduction

(This page discusses the 1970's ƒ1.0 lens. For the new ƒ0.95 ASPH lens, see this separate FAQ topic.)

Noctilux images are the Rorschach Test of Leica Photography. Many squeak "Noctilicious!" when they see the dreamy bokeh, others dismiss the swirling muck with a contemptuous "Nausealux".

Let's face it, many who swoon over this 50mm ƒ1.0 lens have confused Ownership Arrogance with Optical Excellence. On any Leica mailing list, even the briefest mention of the n-word is enough to bring out the loonies and start an arms-race in uncritical superlatives.

Yet the lure to acquire one of these overweight, oversized, overpriced, vignetting and coma-stricken anachronisms can sometimes be irresistible. So presented below are a few links to reviews and some of the better examples of Noctilux photography. Check them out and make up your own mind…

Reviews

Sample Image Links


"Noctilust" antidote

There is a lot of star-struck hoopla surrounding this lens. Yet for every person who thinks it is marvelous, there are five times as many who don't. If it isn't the bloated size & weight, then it's the "miasmic" bokeh (particularly ugly on colour film) and Vignetting Forte — where only the center of the image is at ƒ1.0, with the remainder darkening 3+ stops as you near the corners.

The "tunnel vision" means the only way to get usable wide-open Noctilux images is to place your subjects in the exact-middle of the frame. Fun perhaps for AF-weened newbies, but irritating for everyone who has moved beyond "Happy Snaps 101".

Noctiloonies quickly respond that it isn't so much of a problem at night, where most of the frame will be black anyway. They have a valid point of course, but vignetting is still vignetting, and the only way to work around it is to always — always — center your subjects.

In Jan 2003 Roger Michel noted a few more issues:

1. People don't realize how BIG and HEAVY it is. In these respects, it fights some of the strongest suits of the Leica M system
 
2. It isn't very sharp at ƒ1.0. How could it be? Many people imagine it is going to be like a 50mm M Summicron at ƒ2 - it isn't
 
3. It takes very good darkroom technique to get really good results with the noct. It can produce beautiful tones but you need to coax them out. Many people use commercial labs who don't give a hoot
 
4. A large percentage of M cameras have misaligned RFs. Most of Leica lenses can tolerate a little inaccuracy - The noct can't. People get frustrated with unsharp images. You should get a good alignment BEFORE you buy a noct
 
5. The great performance of fast/pushable films has, in some ways, reduced the need for the noctilux
 
6. Too many people do not realize (or know how to take advantage of) the bright light potential of the noct. Slap a 16X ND filter on the camera and you can do amazing things in full sun
 
7. It is a very expensive lens and so buyer's remorse sets in more easily than with other optics
 
8. It is an ugly lens. Many leica owners want their cameras to look pretty :?)
 
9. It is not nearly as good as a 50mm M Summicron stopped down. It is, therefore, not a great general purpose normal
 
10. People buy it for the wrong reasons. The noct has a mystique and many people desire it purely for that reason. Owning the sucker blows the mystery and so the desire. I could analogize to a familiar cognate phenomenon, but discretion urges otherwise…

Software vignetting correction?

If you scan your images and use Photoshop CS with Mac OSX, then you can use a powerful PShop plug-in called LensFix ($US 40) to fully correct your images for vignetting (and to a lesser extent, lens corner aberrations).

This plug-in is part of the "PTools" set of plug-ins by Professor Helmut Dersch, OSX & 16-bit modified by Kevin Kratzke. See the following URL for more details:

<kekus.com/plugin/>

Of course "Lens-Doc" does a similar thing, but it is almost double the price and lacks the sophisticated additional features built into PTools (lens remapping, roll-pitch-yaw correction etc.)

Made in Canada?…

The Noctilux was (re)designed by Leica Canada in the mid 1970s and even after all this time is (much to the distress of Wetzlar Snobs) still manufactured in Canada .

See the following links for Elcan's photo optic division and April 2002 discussion about this on the Greenspun Leica Forum:

Rent-a-Noctilux

If you don't believe the hype and want to try the lens before buying, you may be in luck. In Feb 2002 the Beverly Hills Camera Center in Hollywood USA set up a rental scheme where you can rent a Noctilux for a 3-day weekend for $US 100. (An excellent idea IMO.)

Built-in lenshood cramps your style?

In Aug 2002 Mitch Zeissler noted the following work-around:

I got tired of the crappy built-in lens hood on my new Noctilux, [so] I took a pair of wire cutters to it. The Noct is now freed of that abomination and the cursed pieces of it lie in the bottom of the trash can. In it's place is a 60mm-to-62mm step up ring and a generic gold-coloured metal lens hood that I have since sprayed painted black.
 
Mmmmmm... Much better! ;-)
 
BTW, don't get the 62mm metal lens hood from Tiffen; it blocks the rangefinder. […]
 
I had an earlier E58 1975-6 era Noct with the removable hood and thought it was just about perfect. I recently replaced it with a new one because I wanted current lens coatings and have read the E60 versions have a little less vignetting when wide open. However, I found the built-in hood on the new Noct to be worthless, as it is too shallow, retracts at inopportune times and does not offer any real protection to the lens from bumps and such. The replacement screw-in *metal* hood is actually slimmer and deeper than the one I yanked off, is more substantial and offers more protection. The only reason I painted the replacement was the golden metallic finish would throw the light into the camera viewfinder at times. […]
 
Frankly, I don't care what removing the built-in hood did to the "collector" value of the lens; I'm not into it as an investment and am not planning on departing with this Noct. I'm into it to take the best shots possible, Noct or otherwise.

(I simply dare you to do this to your lens!)

The "other" 50mm ƒ1.0 by Canon

Leica isn't the only one with a current ƒ1.0 lens - have a look at the Canon EF 50mm ƒ1.0L USM.

Unlike the current Noctilux it features two ASPH elements, and being an SLR lens, there are of course no problems with viewfinder obstruction. At 985g it is however 350g heavier, and real-world users report the EOS-AF mechanism is too slow and unreliable when ambient light drops to "available darkness" levels. It is also far more expensive than your typical Noct', with used prices hovering around $US 4300 for copies in good condition(!)

For more info and detailed remarks about this lens, see the following URLs:

Beneath ƒ1.0…

Is ƒ1.0 as low as you can go? Nup. In the 1960s Canon made a 50mm ƒ0.95 lens for use with the Canon Model 7 rangefinder camera. As you can probably guess, these lenses are v.rare. I've seen one in a glass display cabinet at a camera repairer's in Sydney (lens serial #16464). Unfortunately the owner refuses to sell it or even hire it out, so I have no direct experience WRT its optical or handling qualities. However in Feb 2004, Brian Sweeney sent me a note with a link to this page which contains sample images & commentary.

Then there is a list of ƒ0.75 - ƒ1.0 high speed optics at the following URL:

<abex.co.uk/sales/optical/fast_lenses/fast.htm>

… although note they all are fixed focus only. Indeed, some of them don't even have adjustable apertures!

In April 2003 Pascal Perno sent me a note about this www site which features (massively out-of-focus) still-life shots taken with the Rodenstock TV-Heligon 50 mm ƒ0.75 lens mounted on a Nikon. Pity there isn't much info there about the lens itself, or how good (or bad) it is for everyday work.

Noctilux vs Canon ƒ0.95

In Aug 2004, Charlie Lemay did a pictorial comparison between these wide-aperture titans. Surprisingly the Noct came off second best (!). To quote:

[…] The Canon ƒ0.95 also was out of alignment at infinity so I sent it out to DAG for readjustment as well. I decided to test it against my current version Noctilux, and fully expected it to perform much below this venerated optic. OK, the Noctilux does seem to have the advantage in contrast (not always the best thing pictorially I have found), but the Canon actually appears to outperform the Noctilux at 10 feet in the center. […]

In case you Strongly Disagree, you can read Mr Lemay's remarks in full, and see a number of comparison sample photos at <Photo.net: #0099xZ>.

In Sep 2005, Donald Largo Jr noted the following about getting the ƒ0.95 modified to mount onto a Leica M (<Photo.net: #00DWp9>):

The Canon 0.95 is easily adapted to fit the M mount by anyone with basic mechanical skills. It blocks about 1/8 of the viewfinder on my M3. It is important to get the rangefinding version and not the TV version.

OTOH in April 2008 when Philippe Andre showed off his Leica-M-mount modified Canon ƒ0.95 mounted onto a Leica M8, he specifically noted that he used the TV version of the Canon lens (<L-camera-forum.com: #50774>). Which probably means you can have both versions of the ƒ0.95 lens Leica-mount converted, it all depends on the skill of your technician!

Finally, see this collection of colour ballet rehearsal shots taken with a M-mount modified ƒ0.95 mounted onto an Epson RD-1 (!).

Zeiss 50mm ƒ0.7

To the best of my knowledge the all-time low-light champ with adjustable focus and aperture is still the Zeiss 50mm ƒ0.7. Made in a small batch for NASA during the Apollo moon program, here are a few links with more information:

Interestingly, (3) notes that these super-aperture lenses have become obsolete due to the vast improvement in 800 ISO emulsions over the last 25 years. (Hint-hint Noctilux slaves…)

For all you budding cinematographers, here's an article on photographing Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" and the maddening DOF problems they faced when using the Zeiss ƒ0.7:

<visual-memory.co.uk/sk/2001a/bl/page1.htm>

BTW the "visual-memory" articles are actually unauthorized reproductions from the March 1976 edition of American Cinematographer magazine. The exact references are:

  1. "Photographing Stanley Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon'"
    American Cinematographer, 1976 March, p.268
  2. "Two Special Lenses for Barry Lyndon"
    American Cinematographer, 1976 March, p.276

ƒ0.7 as movie star

I'm not kidding. "Zero-point-seven" is so famous it has featured in at least a couple of documentaries:

Stanley Kubrick: A life in Pictures (2001)

The lens can be seen for a couple of minutes from 1:22:00 onwards, being handled by Ed DiGiulio of Cinema Products Corporation. This is the technician who adapted the lens and rebuilt the Mitchell BNC cameras used on Barry Lyndon. As you can imagine "zero-point-seven" is a serious piece o' glass!

Opération lune (2002)

A French documentary (aka "Dark Side of the Moon") which claims NASA only let Stanley Kubrick use the Zeiss lens because they owed him a favour for helping fake TV footage of the Apollo XI Moon Landing. Rather appropriately this program was first broadcast in Sydney on April 1st 2003…

A note about possible broken links

This FAQ has over 900 external links. Over time it is inevitable some of them will break. If you are bothered by this, see this detailed topic elsewhere in the FAQ.

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