Noctilux-M: Homage to the iconic lens

Avi Yap, a member of the Leica Guild, shares his experience with the Noctilux-M 50mm f0.95 Asph., along with some tips and tricks for the ideal shot.

For me, the Noctilux is one of those lenses that I seriously feel can never be replaced. It has this magical ability to turn whatever it points at into a scene straight out from a fairy tale story. It has this ability to spotlight the subject in the frame and make everything else seem insignificant. Its prowess is well known across the industry, but this fame could very well be its downfall. You see, when someone says the name “Noctilux”, a previsioned look of a “Noctilux photo” immediately surfaces in our heads. That buttery smooth fairy-tale like bokeh look is almost synonymous with the name of the lens. And being priced so high, further seals its fate as people who buys this lens are often stubborn to close down its aperture, even if it's just half a stop. Everything MUST be shot at f0.95 otherwise the money paid for makes no sense. And the truth is, I was and still am one of these stubborn users. But after spending so much time with this lens as a commercial photographer, I’ve learnt that this mindset really only does more harm than anything else. Yes, at f0.95, the Noctilux opens up and shows you a world you have never seen before, but photography is not always about that; sometimes it’s showing what the world truly is. 

Therefore in this review I’ll share with you my experiences with the Noctilux, some tips and tricks that I’ve learnt along the way to tame this beast and most importantly show you what the Noctilux is truly capable of doing. I’ve broken down my review into how the lens performs in the different genres that I’ve shot it in. As a commercial photographer, I’m really in a position where I have to shoot whatever my clients pays me to shoot. But that also means I get to really put my equipment through its paces.

Portraiture

Portraiture - Shot on the Noctilux-M lens

I’ll kickstart the review with a genre where the Noctilux is known to shine in; Portraiture.

Well what else can I say that has not already been said? For starters, as mentioned above, this lens does have the magical power to spotlight the subject in the frame and make everything else seem insignificant. The background just becomes a beautiful canvas of creamy bokeh and colours due to the extremely shallow depth of field.

Yes, this lens isn’t pin sharp by today’s standards, but it is definitely sharp enough even at f0.95 and the fact that this lens was released in 2008 further proves it’s optical prowess. Stop it down a few stops and it’ll be as sharp as a lens can get. But let’s be honest, most photographers probably won’t even stop this down when shooting portraiture. So I’ll just stick to it being shot at f0.95. The buttery smooth and creamy bokeh is very pleasant to the eyes and does not make the out of focus areas look busy. 

This lens does have some noticeable vignetting, but for portraiture, it’s not necessarily a negative. In fact, I personally feel the vignetting actually makes this a very beautiful “portrait lens”, because the dark corners actually further drives the viewers' eyes to the subject itself and it also adds a lot of “mood” to the image.

Pair that with all the attributes mentioned above, you’d really get the ultimate lens for portraiture that pulls all eyes to the subject and nothing else. 

Street Photography

Moving on to the next genre, I’m going to talk about how the Noctilux fares in Street Photography. Let me put it out there first. Yes, using this lens for street photography can be challenging, but definitely not impossible. I’ve been using this lens almost exclusively on my M10-P for the past year and I’ve shot tons of street photography with this. While it was really indeed challenging at first, given that street photography often requires spontaneity quick focusing, it got better with practice. I was soon able to focus rather quickly with an acceptable “hit rate" whenever I see a scene happen, and even successfully track focus for moving subjects coming towards me. And the “hit rate” is still climbing the more I practice. 

Shooting street photography with this also has one more challenge; the weight. This is one of Leica’s heaviest M lenses, coming in at about 700g, it’s near a full kilogram! So for those who aren’t inclined to carry around a large and heavy lens, then this is probably not for you. But I must say that, while the Noctilux is indeed a lot more bulkier and heavier than most of the other M lenses, It is in fact considered light comparing to other brand’s “normal” lenses and considering the f0.95 aperture, the Noctilux is really impressively light. That is if you won’t be comparing to the Summicron M lenses of course. So if you have shot camera’s from other brands and you’re holding the Noctilux for street photography? The weight is completely manageable or if not even lighter than other setups. 

Now that I’ve cleared what I feel is the two biggest challenges people face when using the Noctilux for street shooting, let’s talk about what it can do!

Street Photography - Shot on the Noctilux-M lens

The strengths of the lens mentioned above in the portrait section actually carries over to street photography too! The way this lens shows you a completely different look at the world is really breathtaking and refreshing. You’re able to isolate certain moments captured in the photograph due to the lens' depth of field and vignetting. Those two attributes really work well together when shooting street, providing the image with a lot of “mood” and a new refreshing look to what would be otherwise mundane moments on the street. 

However for all that Noctilux magic to work well on the streets, you got to make sure your camera’s rangefinder is perfectly calibrated to the lens. With that shallow depth of field, if your system isn’t calibrated well then you’re in for a hell of struggles just trying to nail focus shooting inanimate objects, let alone moving subjects on the street. So Noctilux tip number 1? Make sure your system is well calibrated!

Another very important point to note is that if you are shooting the Noctilux with an M camera on the streets under bright day light, you most probably need to get yourself an ND filter just to be able to get the correct exposure under bright sunlight at f0.95. One way round this is to use the SL system where the camera has an electronic shutter that goes way past the M’s 1/4000s.

Commercial Photography

Lastly I’m going to talk about using the Noctilux for commercial photography. This is where I learnt that the Noctilux can do so much more than just “Bokeh” and “Bokeh”. I’ve shot many commercials and ads for various clients, with the image being used small for social media and blown up big covering the side of a double decker bus. The details that the lens can resolve are really truly astounding.

When shooting in a studio setting, I’d rarely open my aperture to f0.95, unless it’s a look that my clients require. Due to the nature of the work that I do in a studio, I find myself hovering around f5.6 to f8. At that aperture, this lens is as sharp as any lens can get. Well yes, it’s not like its’ quality is miles ahead of other lenses, but this was like a waking up call to me, telling me that while the Noctilux is indeed a beast when it’s at f0.95, it can be just as versatile as any other lens out there. It really comes down to the photographer itself. Whether or not he/she will be flexible and be willing to step out of the unwritten rule that a Noctilux has to be shot at f0.95. 

So there you have it, a brief review on the Noctilux based on my experiences shooting different genres. To me, taming the Noctilux was difficult but also a very rewarding journey. I am still learning more and more about the lens till this day, and that is how it should be. This lens needs time and effort from you! It almost feels like she is my wife, only rewarding me with magic when I spend enough time with her. But it’s always worth it!

The Hero Within

Avi Yap, Leica Guild member, is currently exhibiting his work "The Hero Within" at Leica The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. The exhibition features members of the Singapore National Wushu Youth Team. All effects captured were done on the Leica M10-P with the Noctilux-M lens. No Photoshop was used.

Find out more about the exhibition here.

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