Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Leica SL: The taming of the Noctilux

Leica SL: The taming of the Noctilux

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 The Noctilux, with its squat, bulbous lines and acreage of glass is quite at home on the SL. They could have been made for each other.
The Noctilux, with its squat, bulbous lines and acreage of glass is quite at home on the SL. They could have been made for each other.

The most expensive M-lens, the f/0.95 Noctilux, comes into its own when twinned with the new SL. It is a marriage made in heaven, to coin a cliché. 

Leica’s fastest M prime, the Noctilux, is not an everyday lens. The only guy I know who seems to treat it as such is Thorsten von Overgaard. His well-worn Nocti is permanently attached to his M and he certainly doesn’t mollycoddle it. Here is a wizard who can focus it wide open to within a whisker of its life. We lesser mortals are sucked in and spit out in pieces when we try to do an Overgaard at f/0.95 while using a rangefinder.

Heavyweight

For me, having owned the Noctilux in the past, it has more than a few drawbacks. It is heavy at 700g, let’s not beat about the bush. This was a lens that I often optimistically clicked on to an M or Monochrom before going to bed, full of good intentions for the morrow. Come that morrow and most times I would unmount it and replace it with a Summilux or, even, a Summicron. Why have the bulk and weight of an f/0.95 light gobbler if I’m not going to be venturing into the sewers or shooting wider than f/2.8 in the street?

There are two practical difficulties with the Noctilux apart from its size and weight. It is meant to be used wide open (if not, I can make a case for a ‘Lux or ‘Cron being a better and sharper lens). Focus at 0.95 with the M is decidedly fiddly, such is the narrow depth of field, no thicker than a Rizla paper. The M240’s fastest shutter speed of 1/4000s and lowest unpulled ISO of 200 conspire to ensure that the camera is not fast enough, even in moderately bright conditions, to realise the full potential of this lens without having to resort to a filter.

 Critical focus on Bunyan and his Pilgrim
Critical focus on Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress: Note the depth of field at 0.95. BUNYAN is fine but the P in Pilgrims is tailing off into obscurity

Irresistible

In short, there is fiddling and compromise and, unless you really need that fast aperture (for instance in darker conditions, especially indoors) the Noctilux can be seen as overkill. Despite this, the Nocti has an irresistible allure. Use it well and often, as does Thorsten, and it rewards with sublime results. Practice, as with most things, is the essence of the matter with the Noctilux.

When I reviewed the SL, though, I was surprised how much easier it is to focus even mainstream M lenses accurately at fast apertures than with the M. My friend John Cartwright set my fevered imagination racing when he told me his 75mm Summilux, temperamental wide open on the M, is an unalloyed joy when mounted on the SL.

I began to wonder if the Noctilux had met its match in the SL. My theory was partly confirmed when I bumped into New York photographer and leading businessman Howard Grufferman in the Leica Store in Mayfair only yesterday. Around his neck was dangling the not insubstantial bulk of an SL and 24-90 zoom. But he wholeheartedly endorsed my theory. He uses mainly M lenses with his SL and he has no doubt that the Noctilux really does come alive on that camera.

So can the SL really tame the Noctilux? I decided to find out.

Fat, squat, perfect

The Noctilux could have been made for the SL. Fat and squat, with a football pitch of glass, it perfectly complements the SL’s brutalist body. It just looks right. And it handles far better than on the M where it gives the camera a distinct front-heavy feel. With that massive grip and the slightly heavier and more substantial body, the SL makes the Noctilux feel more nimble.

In terms of handling, I much prefer the combination of the SL and the Noctilux for all these reasons. It just feels right, as though it had been made as a native SL lens. And there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is easier to focus using the massive 4.4MP viewfinder and image magnification that comes as stock in trade with the SL.

Rewarding

The SL is definitely the most rewarding mirrorless camera to use with M lenses. It is better than a typical APS-C camera such as the Fuji X-Pro2 and, even, Leica’s own T. Focus with the full-frame Sony A7 is easier than on the APS-C cameras, for some reason, but even that camera is knocked into the shade by the SL.

The M’s rangefinder can also be supremely satisfying and accurate but there is always an element of trust involved. You don’t see the results until you chimp or post-process. With the SL all detail is on brilliant display in the biggest electronic viewfinder on the market. And at wide apertures, particularly at 0.95 with the Noctilux, you can’t afford to take anything on trust. By magnifying the image detailed focus (using the focus peaking option if needed) is easier and gives the photographer more confidence that he is getting it right. I have heard several M die-hards mentioning that as their eyesight ages they are finding problems with the rangefinder; they feel that the viewfinders of the SL and the Q are more comfortable.

 The Noctilux is a compelling lens once you get the hang of it. For subject isolation and 3D imagery it has few equals. This photograph of Leica
The Noctilux is a compelling lens once you get the hang of it. For subject isolation and 3D imagery it has few equals. This photograph of Leica’s Robin Sinha taken by Mike Evans with an early M240 and Noctilux 0.95 at f/1.4.

I ought to mention the VF-2 electronic viewfinder as used on the M as an accessory. It, too, aids focus with “difficult” lenses but unfortunately it is an antiquated design with only 920k dots, old even when the M was introduced in 2012, and it cannot compare with the SL’s state-of-the-art 4.4MP offering and 60fps refresh rate. It’s like trying to compare a model T with a Tesla. 

In one aspect, though, the M and the VF-2 combination does have a useful trick to perform. The M is the only camera that knows when you nudge the focus ring of a manual lens, thus triggering automatic magnification (if set). This is a great boon and is possible only because there is a direct physical connection between the lens and the camera. On all non-rangefinder cameras, including the SL, the T, the Fujis and the Sonys, you have to prod a button to bring up magnification. This is an extra step in the picture-taking process which becomes tedious. I suppose we can’t have everything.

Wide open

Earlier this week I borrowed an SL and a pre-used Noctilux from Red Dot Cameras and spent half an hour mooching among the dead in the nearby Bunhill Fields. Along the way I took the opportunity to call on John Wesley, William Blake, John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe, to mention just a few of the famous inhabitants of this ancient graveyard. None, apart from Wesley, was willing to pose. It wasn’t a proper test, by any means, but I did manage a few shots, some of which you see here, and I convinced myself that the Noctilux is indeed at its best on the SL. I was interested as much in the ability to shoot wide open as in the way in which I felt more confident in the focus.

I was also reminded of the pleasures of manual focus (having used the 24-90mm automatic zoom on the test SL a few weeks ago). There’s just something immensely satisfying in homing in on a precise focus point and ensuring that the image is sharply drawn. With practice, too, it is quick.

 Architecture wide open on the Noctilux? It
Architecture wide open on the Noctilux? It’s not something normally to be recommended. But the lens acquitted itself remarkably well, offering an impressive 3D effect. John Wesley stands in front of his chapel, just across the road from Bunhill Fields, taken at 1/6400s, ISO50 and f/0.95. This is a good example of a shot that would have been impossible on the M without the use of an ND filter.

All the shots were taken wide open at f/0.95 and in several cases this would not have been possible on the Leica M240 without an ND filter to cut down the light. I calculate the SL has an overall three-stop advantage over the M. One stop is accounted for by the faster shutter speed (1/8000s compared with the M’s 1/4000s). Of more significance, however, is the SL’s ISO 50 base sensitivity compared with the M’s 200 (although in fairness it can be pulled to 100). This adds a further maximum two stops to the advantage of the Noctilux.

If the SL had featured an electronic shutter (as does, for instance, its ever-so-near sibling, the Q) the opportunity to play with the Noctilux’s massive aperture would have been almost endless. In very bright conditions, brighter than this early Spring morning in London, the SL would probably still struggle on occasion at 0.95. [Later on the day of publication of this article, Leica announced a firmware update for the SL which, among other improvements, introduced an electronic shutting topping out at 1/16,000, similar to that on the Q. This means that the SL has a potential four-stop advantage over the M, further improving its ability to deal with the Noctilux].

Recommendation

Without a doubt I can recommend this made-in-heaven combination of the SL and Noctilux. If you already own the Nocti, then this is a very good reason to buy the SL. If you don’t then perhaps you should buy the two of them, assuming you have the odd £13,000 burning a hole in your pocket.

  • Note that the Noctilux needs a mount adaptor to work with the SL
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4 COMMENTS

  1. I have two problems with that combination Mike, one of which is insoluble…

    What were Leica thinking when they added that massive supposed hand grip to the right hand side of the camera? I might be over 6ft tall, but I have very small hands and I struggle to get a firm grip… I wonder how the other 50% of the population feel about this?

    The other problem is not so serious, I cannot justify in my head the expenditure of £13,000 on a camera and lens pairing… It is not to do with poverty or stinginess, I would happily spend like that for a couple of bodies and a few lenses… M3D and MP + T2?… more even, but for one lens, whose benefits are not that clear, and a body that I can’t get to grips with? …Nah.

    Saying that, I have not used a Noctilux, but I have read that one can become tired of its ‘benefits’ quite quickly.

    • It is very much a matter of personal preference, I feel. I know people who swear by the Noctilux, others who complain that it isn’t the sharpest knife in the box and fret over the problems of focus–especially those with below-par eyesight (in which case the EVF does help enormously). On one thing I do disagree. The grip on the SL is just right for me (and I don’t have particularly large hands). It makes the camera feel much more stable, even more so than an M fitted with the optional grip, and I see it as one of the greatest assets of the SL. As you imply, each to his own.

  2. Thanks Mike
    There are of course 2 Noctiluxes (3 if you include the super expensive and rare early f1.2 version). I view the Karbe 0.95 as a Summilux Asph on steroids, whereas I find the f1 (which I prefer) draws in that inimitable Mandler way, much like the 75 Summilux which it is said was Mandler’s favourite.

    I am inclined to agree with Stephen that the Noctilux can become a bit tiresome (and tiring) and imho should be savoured when the occasion or mood takes one. For the rest of the time I find the 50 Lux (and now my new 50 APO) just the ticket.

    I like the new 1/16000 shutter speed on the SL; I’m looking forward to trying that out with my faster lenses in the brighter weather to come….

    Regards

    John

    • Useful extra info, John. I hadn’t thought to mention earlier versions of the Noctilux and I’m grateful for you adding that. I must try out the Summilux 50 with the SL.

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