This is the third lens in Leica’s historical lens series where they revisit classics and remake them with modern glass and coatings, but with the original basic design. The two previous lenses are the 28mm Summaron which is a tiny lens, originally released in 1954 with a screw mount. Then came the Leica Thambar M 90mm f/2.2, a quirky soft-focus portrait lens from the mid-thirties.
The Leica Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 is rather a different beast. Released in 1966, it was the state-of-the-art lens for shooting in low light; it was very expensive, and very difficult to make, estimates of how many were produced vary between 500 and 2,500. But I understand that the actual number was 1,757.
As a result of this, it has become a photographic legend and a serious collectors’ item with production lenses selling for well over $20,000 and even lens hoods changing hands for around $4,000! Sadly I do not have an original lens to compare with the new one, but I guess that will be true of most people who buy this lovely lens.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a prototype copy of the Noctilux for almost the whole of the lockdown. I’ve used it on both the SL2 and the M10-R and have very much fallen in love. Of course, it has its vices and would not come out well in a technical comparison between the current f/0.95 Noctilux (or the 50 f/1.4 Summilux come to that). Just a glance at the MTF curves shows that pretty clearly. But this lens is an important part of Leica’s history, and it’s great that Leica should re-make it so that we lesser mortals can have a go with it.
In 1966 Leica was still a big player in the photojournalism world, and there was an increasing demand for fast lenses for shooting in very low light. Nikon, Minolta, Canon and Leica all produced f/1.2 standard lenses in the 1960s. Canon was first out of the block in 1962 with the 58mm f/1.2, they improved it to 55mm in 1968, but it was not until 1980 that the focal length was changed to 50mm. Nikon hit the market in 1965 with its 55mm f/1.2, in 1978 they managed the 50mm f/1.2 AI Nikkor. Minolta brought out their 58mm f/1.2 in 1966, the same year that Leica trumped them with their 50mm f/1.2 double aspherical.
Work started at Leica in 1957 on the production of aspherical elements: The first lens prototype produced in 1958 was the Summaron 35mm 1:2.8 ASPH. This featured two aspherical surfaces, but never went into production.
A 52mm f/1 ASPH prototype, also featuring two aspherical surfaces, was produced in 1959, but Leica realised the image quality wasn’t good enough at f/1 and settled for f/1.2.
The first prototypes were made in April of 1964. It was designed by Helmut Marx and Paul Sindel. Helmut Marx was Professor Max Berek’s successor as head of the photographic lens design in Wetzlar, and creator of the first Summicron 50 in 1953. The Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 was released as the 11820 in 1966.
Professor Helmut Marx used an Elliott 402F computer to help design and save lots of time ray tracing. This was before he had begun to develop his COMO optimisation program for lens design in the late 60s
The Leica Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 has two aspherical elements (front and rear) which were made on a specially built grinding machine that had to be operated manually. There was only one machine, and only one person capable of operating it, Gerd Bergmann. He had to discard many elements as rubbish.
After the release in 1966, there was much research to produce an f/1 version of the lens with three aspherical elements. Still, in 1970 the project was abandoned because the aspherical technology was in its infancy, and the production costs were immense. The f/1.2 lens remained in production only until 1975.
In 1975, Walter Mandler in Canada designed an f/1 Noctilux without any aspherical elements. It was launched in 1976 and was a great success, staying in production until 2008. In 2009, Leica introduced Peter Karbe’s stunning f/0.95 Noctilux, a double Gauss design with two aspherical elements.
The modern lens
The original Noctilux did not have a filter thread on the front element; it was part of the clip-on lens hood. The new lens does have a filter thread, and as far as I’m aware, that’s the only obvious difference between the new and old lenses. Even the lens hood is superficially identical (although it says “LEICA CAMERA WETZLAR” and misses out the ‘GERMANY’ on the original lens—or at least my prototype does). Otherwise, the size, handling and appearance of the modern lens are just the same as its illustrious predecessor.
It’s a small lens by modern standards, about the same height as the current 50mm Summilux ASPH and only a little fatter. It handles beautifully on an M body, perfectly balanced, but with a much longer focus throw than the more modern M lenses. It focuses down to only one metre. I was hoping it would focus closer, but apparently, that wasn’t possible.
First of all, I should say that I had quite an early prototype lens, but I expect that the image quality is pretty representative. It almost behaves like two different lenses.
At f/1.2, nothing is quite sharp, even in focus at the centre, by the edge of the frame it’s very soft, and there is quite a lot of vignetting. It doesn’t sound so good, but it’s actually rather a lovely dreamy look.
By f/2, the centre is quite sharp, and the vignetting has mostly gone. However, the edges and corners are still quite soft. At f/2.8 things have improved further and by f/5.6 everything but the corners is incredibly sharp. The corners, however, are still soft and remain so at all apertures.
Overall contrast is fine, but not like a modern Leica Aspheric. However, stopped down, in common with the rigid Summicron, the Noctilux has incredible micro-contrast and really great acuity. In fact, the image quality is very comparable to the rigid Summicron from about f/4 and on.
Bokeh is lovely (well, I think so, it’s rather a personal subject). Stopping down a little, the 16 aperture blades ensure that the aperture remains completely circular.
The Noctilux f/1.2 is coming in two versions. The simple version is £6,500 and is black with an aluminium body. This is the one for normal mortals! There is also a silver-chrome version with a brass body in a strictly limited edition of 100 copies. This will retail for €15,000. Being brass, I imagine it’s pretty heavy; lovely, but more for collectors than for everyday use. I suppose one could buy both.
I really like the concept of remaking classic lenses, and this Noctilux is a lovely example, especially as the second-hand price of the original lens puts it well outside the range of the average photographer.
At £6,500, this lens seems like a something of a bargain, especially considering its rather exotic double aspherical design. (Apparently, it is still pretty difficult to make).
Unlike the 90mm Thambar or the 28mm Summaron (lovely as they are), the Noctilux is very usable as an everyday lens, both on M and SL cameras (and I guess it might also be fun on the CL). Dreamy and strange wide open, stopped down, it is wonderfully sharp, and if you like the look of the classic Leica lenses from the 50s and 60s, this would be an exciting addition. I’m going to start saving.