The Nocticlones have arrived. And the new LLL 50mm f/1.2 is a brave attempt to equal Leica’s retro version of the fabled 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux which was unveiled in 2021. Light Lens Lab kindly sent me a pre-production model of their own f/1.2 nifty fifty for review.
When Leica reissued the retro 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux in 2021, I had my heart set on getting one. The depth of field wide open was quite shallow enough for me these days, and beatific bokeh beckoned. So did the smaller size and weight in comparison with my pre-2008 Noctilux f/1.0.
All the photographs in this article, apart from the product shots and the image of the dog’s eye, were taken with the Light Lens Lab 50mm f/1.2 at maximum f/1.2 aperture
I envisioned selling the f/1 and sort of slipping fairly economically into an old but new groove. It was only when I saw current images from both the older and new Noctilux f/1.2 that I wavered and then abandoned my fantasy. The reason? The f/1.2s, both of them, seemed simply too soft wide open for me.
What may have been deemed the cat’s whiskers in the 1960s versus the competition had now become, for me at least, a type of lens I could not see myself using for aesthetical reasons very often. Whereas my f/1.0 was sharp when I needed speed and the effects of a very shallow DOF.
Such was my reasoning then.
After the 2019 Leica Society Annual Meeting in Boston, Kevin Xu, then Light Lens Lab’s roving ambassador, told me that he had three lenses he wanted LLL to re-make: the 8-element 35/2 Summicron, the 50/2 ELCAN, and the 50/1.2 Noctilux.
The first two have been made successfully, and indeed I use them regularly. Now, LLL’s current North American contact, David Yu-Heng Chen, informed me in January 2023 that, yes, they are making a clone of the Noctilux f/1.2 as well, the LLL 50mm f/1.2, and that I will get to test one should I want.
What was most intriguing in what David said was that their lens was sharper centrally than either the Leitz or Leica lenses, but “retained characteristics” of the original’s bokeh. I was shown side-by-side images, and such seemed to be the case.
Of further fascination was the Light Lens Lab backstory, at least as forwarded to me through David from LLL’s owner, Mr. Zhou. His company said they had dissembled one lens from each Wetzlar batch – original and copy – and found what they felt were deficiencies in the current Leica lens, presumably optical ones in their opinion. So, as you will read below, they ultimately decided to try to remake the original in much the same way that Leitz itself had done it in the 1960s.
Recall the urban legend (but likely true) that for the f/1.2 there was only one Leitz employee, Gerd Bergmann, who could successfully operate the special grinding machine for making its two aspherical surfaces. There were so many rejects, that only 1000 lenses, plus or minus a couple of hundreds, were manufactured (according to Erwin Puts). Or perhaps double that amount according to others.
Well, and this is a scarcely believable story today: LLL say they have decided to do much the same thing. They are hand-grinding, with machine, the aspheric surfaces in the lens elements after having first made the spherical blanks for this by CNC. Therefore, they do not expect a huge production run, any more than Leitz did. David adds: “Quality control-wise, we are looking at the lens elements on a microscopic scale…”.
Mr. Zhou on the LLL 50mm f/1.2
Following are excerpts from a translated discussion with Mr. Zhou:
“As of now, the majority of camera manufacturers have the ASPH process. However, there are only three significant suppliers for the ASPH CNC polishing and grinding machines. One is LOH (which is Leica’s proprietary machine), the others are Schneider Kreuznach, and Lockheed Martin (which is not for civilian use).
“The spherical grinding and ASPH polishing machines cost millions of dollars apiece to purchase… Light Lens Lab’s ASPH and spherical elements are produced instead using a polishing/grinding process that is proprietary to our country…
“We use laser and probe machines to test and quality-control our grinding and polishing processes (such as determining the thickness of the elements), making our product more consistent in its rendering… Every ASPH element must have an exact configuration in diameter, size, and thickness…
“We have now acquired machines to measure data for each spherical/aspherical element, and we use that data during our assembly to ensure a more precise product. Also, these data will be used during our testing/quality control procedure before shipping to ensure our tolerance will remain consistent…
“However, there are still quite a substantial number of defective elements. First, the initial spherical element process (grinding/polishing) produces its own initial small batch of rejects. Then, the remaining spherical elements are subjected to the even more demanding ASPH grinding and polishing process. The two steps create a massive number of defective elements that cannot be recovered. Assembly and mounting of the lens can also lead to defective lenses, as we need to mix and match each element to attain the required specification. All defective lenses are processed and destroyed…
“We should also discuss polishing “grooves” at the submicroscopic level and their effect on the overall rendering of lenses. Unfortunately, with most ASPH element grinding and polishing methods, especially with moulded optics, such is unavoidable. Every single optical manufacturing company, including Leica, or companies that specialise only in methods of grinding/polishing ASPHs will have a specific “groove” problem.
“These tiny grooves can result in harshness in bokeh (commonly known as the “onion-ring effect”) under specific lighting conditions. While these tracks are unavoidable, modern optical producers such as Light Lens Lab have a system of computerised tolerance control in place. This takes these microscopic grooves into consideration as a factor during lens assembly for a more minimalist and consistent result.
“Because we strive to create optical excellence, we found we could improve upon the visual performance of the original 1966 design, raising the central sharpness by a small margin with our modern production methods, improved coating, and computerised quality control/selection.”
That special glass
But successfully grinding aspheres is only one half of two intertwined issues that confront any attempt to re-make the 1966 Noctilux. The other, not usually mentioned in articles on the 1966 lens, is making or finding the exceptional glass type needed for the aspheres in the lens design.
Both that special glass, and the aspheric element production, had allowed Leitz to make an f/1.2 lens that was much smaller in diameter and more ergonomic than others of its era. Without both the special glass and the aspheric grinding, the result would have been inappropriately bulky for an M camera, if indeed it was even possible at that time.
According to Mr. Zhou, there are two practical reasons for the exceptional look/unique performance of the 1966 lens:
- The special 900403 glass
- The first use of ASPH elements in a commercial Lens
Therefore, as part of their huge retrograde effort in producing the LLL 50mm f/1.2, the Chinese company had to reverse engineer glass type 900403. It is an exceptional glass that has a refractive index of 1.9005, and an Abbe Number of VD = 40.3, and was developed in Leitz’s own research lab but manufactured for them in small batches by Corning in France.
Glass 900403 has too high a melting/softening point to permit moulding into an aspheric shape; hence it must be ground as it was in 1966. LLL studied 900403’s aspects from the ground up, using historical documents and research done by lens enthusiasts worldwide on the chemical properties of various Leica lens elements.
Then they hired a glass chemical specialist to research and recreate the glass, using as reference an Italian research document which listed its chemical properties, refractive index number, and Abbe number. LLL’s attempt to recreate 900403 took over two years of non-stop research, development, and manufacturing prototypes with different rare element chemical inclusions before they finally achieved an acceptable product.
Why Leitz discontinued the 1966 Noctilux
An interesting historical wrinkle: Mr. Zhou says that it was more the limited availability of the 900403 glass, rather than the failure rate in grinding, that caused Leitz to stop making the 1966 Noctilux. They ceased production because of the high costs and out-of-stock situation of this special element. Glass 900403 is allegedly not used in the current Leica replica.
My thoughts, while waiting many months for a prototype of the lens to appear: not owning either of the German f/1.2 lenses, I cannot run an A:B test with them. What I plan is first to compare this new lens to my own f/1.0 Noctilux, with both at f/1.2, and then secondly to use the LLL Nocti clone for actual shooting, to get an idea of its capabilities.
Finally, in mid-July 2023 the new LLL 50mm f/1.2 lens arrived. Two finished lens prototypes were made by LLL, of which I received No.1 for testing. It is beautifully finished, with an impressive clip-on hood, and its on-camera handling is flawless.
LLL 50mm f/1.2 specification
The lens weighs 487g with hood, 438g without (which is close to what my all-brass LHSA Special Edition 50mm f/2 APO Summicron Aspheric weighs). The original f/1.2 weighed 450g. My f/1.0 weighs 632g by comparison. The front ring on the LLL lens declares: “Noctilucent 1:1.2/50 ASPH 1966 Prototype 01 Light Lens Lab”. The filter size is E49. The hood is also threaded to take a Series 7.5 (I believe) drop-in filter.
The MTF plots sent by Mr. Zhou of the three lenses are quite interesting, and look to my eyes as though the apparent rigorous attempt by LLL to duplicate the signature of the original 50/1.2 has succeeded, at least graphically.
My interpretation of these curves: for the original lens and the LLL 50mm f/1.2, there is similar slightly reduced contrast wide open and loss of the very finest detail. Otherwise, the lens performs well, with coverage that is fairly even, and the LLL lens has less astigmatism. The 2021 Leica lens recreation has a slightly different fingerprint.
For those not immediately in the know, 徕卡 is pronounced “Leica”.
Right off, I ran side-by-side tests with my f/1.0 Noctilux set at f/1.2. The results were not much dissimilar, but understandably the historically later f/1.0 lens (if we assume that the LLL 50mm f/1.2 is a close copy of Leitz’s original f/1.2) seemed to have slightly more central sharpness at f/1.2. It also showed less smudging of fine detail in the field when tested at f/5.6.
Satisfied that my direct comparison really would not be helpful for anyone who wants the LLL lens, I proceeded to my step two: making pictures with LLL’s replica wide open.
What I found is that reasonably often one can get quite acceptably sharp centre detail (also into the field at the distance being focused upon centrally) with the LLL lens wide open. It shows almost no flare and some vignetting at f/1.2, and possible minor colour-fringing off axis (with a digital sensor).
I am no bokeh expert and therefore lack the usual reviewer’s refinement and their wine-taster-like vocabulary to describe the bokeh performance of a particular lens, but mostly I found what I got from this lens pleasant and not obtrusive. The LLL 50mm f/1.2 can give a nice pictorial feel and a satisfying “Leica glow” similar to what I observed in images made with Leica’s own re-issue, but it may be a hair sharper. Such an opinion is subjective, since I cannot directly compare the two lenses.
LLL 50mm f/1.2: Hitting focus
As with the Noctilux f/1.0, one needs some practice to “hit” focus, and I made several shots for many of the examples shown here, to get this just right. The depth of field of the f/1.2 is so narrow that often one gets “apparent” softness; for example, in photographing a face, even at the distance of a few feet, the nose may be in focus, but not the eyes.
Therefore, psychologically, the face looks unsharp as we are used to looking at eyes. (N.B.: This is what I was likely experiencing when I looked at images from Leica’s recent replica lens and found the lens wanting).
In the photo of our dog Molly being held, her face appears modestly unsharp and one initially wonders about movement artefact, or simply lens softness. However, upon magnification, one side of her nose and the hairs around her mouth are quite sharp. The DOF is the culprit if one is being picky. Yet, for me, the resulting “softness” in immediate out-of-focus areas is not obtrusive when one takes this into account. There is a relatively short but smooth transition from sharp to OOF.
The LLL 50mm f/1.2 lens seemed to rangefinder-track correctly, as shots made with the Visoflex 2 attached to my M10s were no different from my RF-focus attempts.
With the f/1.0 Noctilux, wide open, occasionally I could get what for me were remarkable images. It is sharper at f/1.0, I feel, than the f/1.2 is at f/1.2, but not by much.
Below is an image of a dog’s eye, taken at a focus of one metre with the f/1.0 on the RD-1 camera when this first came out in 2005. I am not convinced that any of the f/1.2s would equal this, but that is not the issue here. With the LLL 50mm f/1.2 we have both a piece of photographic history, lovingly remade, and a sharp-enough lens with its individual flavour and signature.
Drawn in by the LLL 50mm f/1.2
I must say that as I continued to photograph with it, the drawing of this lens drew me in. I am at a loss to find words to describe that exactly, but I feel first that my learning curve towards predicting what likely will happen technically with it at f/1.2 was fairly short. Unlike my experience with the Noctilux f/1.2./1.0.
Many lenses are not predictable enough for me, without much experience with them, to anticipate such things as flare. How important is it how out-of-focus portions of the image appear (not bokeh, but when you nail focus, how do nearby picture elements look?), and related focus drop-off steepness.
They have a longer or steeper learning curve. I think this lens will be easy for me to use reliably, even at the widest apertures, and more so than my f/1.0. Secondly, it is a beautiful piece of equipment and using it is a pleasure. I get almost exactly what I pre-visualise, and it is as sharp at f/1.2 as I would ever need. It has that Leica glow.
Those who read my reviews already know that, historically, I would see very fast lenses only from the point of view of their utility and believe (I still do) that such was their original rationale. Therefore, I tend to believe that the 1966 50/1.2 can best be considered a steppingstone towards the later, even faster Noctiluxes.
Leitz’s consideration of aspheric lens elements was also given a boost with this particular lens, even if making aspheres economically required further work and development. The f/1.2 was the very best that Leitz could accomplish in 1966. That later photographers admired its particularities (and its rarity and backstory) is another matter, and of course, the rationale for current reissues of this lens.
The images from the LLL 50mm f/1.2
Please enjoy the various images made at f/1.2. I have not included images made at smaller apertures. All the images are hand held, most would be considered grab shots, and most are full frame. Post-processing has been only levels and occasional cropping or removal of small obtrusive background items; there has been no sharpening. The lens has its special character.
The LLL 50mm f/1.2 was on pre-order here on the LLL website. Shipping is due to start soon, although the initial batch is sold out. US dollar prices for the first batch are:
Aluminium Body Black Paint: $2,099
Brass Body Chrome: $2,199
Brass Body Black Paint: $2,199
Titanium Body Grey: $2,499
According to LLL, these prices may change following fulfilment of the initial order batch.
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