Lenses

Leica 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Noctilux-M Review and Bokeh Worship – By Steven Bleistein

August 18, 2019

While bokeh often fascinates the photography enthusiast, it is only lesser photographers who worship bokeh, venerating it to such a degree as to displace the art of photography with engineering prowess. For most photographers however, professional or not, bokeh is appreciated, and rarely considered essential to their art.

People make art, not lenses. You can make lousy art with the Noctilux just like you can with any other lens, even shooting wide open. While the Leica Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. can render such a distinct image because of its technical and engineering excellence, in the hands of a mediocre artist, the Noctilux is unforgiving, magnifying his or her mediocrity. It is only the human artist who can use the Noctilux’s imaging capabilities to make art, and even in the hands of the most adept, it can take some time to learn to create art with the Noct’. Personally, I’m still learning. 

LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. @f/0.95, Leica M3, Kodak T-Max 100 film box speed

Why is it hard to make art with the Noct’? Making art is always conceptually demanding, but shooting with the Noctilux is also physically hard.

What do I mean by hard? Well first, the Noctilux is a beast of a lens. It weighs in at 700 grams, and its length is just over 7.5 centimeters. It’s diameter is 7.3 centimeters give or take and it takes an E60 filter. It is like putting a medium sized DSLR lens on a Leica M body, except the Noctilux is heavier than most DSLR lenses. The Noct’ is unwieldy in street photography for which it is either the 35mm or 50mm Summicron f/2 that excel as well as others from Zeiss, Voigtlander, and even 7artisans. 

If you are going to use the Noctilux, attach a sturdy grip. Mine is the ML-Grip from photoequip.net. The ML-Grips are not the cheap, plasticky grips that Leica makes, but rather machine tooled in the United States from a single solid hunk of aircraft-grade aluminum. They were designed in consultation with Leica connoisseurs.

As if wielding the Noctilux weren’t challenging enough, focusing this beast of a lens is also a bear of a task. The throw of the focus ring is like the run of a racehorse circuit just because of the circumference of the lens barrel. What’s worse, the aperture ring is right next to the focus ring, and my fat fingers tend to accidentally adjust the aperture while focussing, knocking it from f/0.95 or f/2 or f/2.8 without my noticing.

LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. @f/0.95, Leica M3, Kodak T-Max 100 film box speed

Finder blockage is also a problem. On the M3, the Noctilux blocks half the lower right quadrant of the frame. Even on an M7 with a .72x finder, while the blockage is less, the lens barrel creeps into the frame making composition a problem. The advantage of the M3 is its superior finder patch that is large and easy to see. You can focus more accurately, which is critical at f/0.95. The advantage of the M7 is its low finder magnification which makes composition easier. However, the M7’s inferior finder patch also makes it easier to miss the mark when focusing. 

All in all, I prefer to nail the focus and take my chances with composition, so with the Noctilux, I prefer my M3. It is no wonder that people who shoot with the Noct’ prefer a digital M with an EVF. Yet the digital solution has its drawbacks too. The Leica EVF accessories are painfully slow—even the latest one for the M10. The Leica EVFs are vastly inferior to the lightning fast EVFs of Sony or Fujifilm cameras, but let’s face it. Leica Ms are meant to be used with the analog finder, not an EVF. You can of course attach a Noctilux to a Sony with an adapter, but Leica glass never performs optimally on any bodies other than Leica. It seems crazy to me to purchase a Noctilux to shoot on a Sony, but people do—or so I hear. 

LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. @f/0.95, Leica M3, Kodak T-Max 100 film box speed

Now don’t take my griping about the Noctilux as lack of endorsement. It is not my intention to dissuade but rather to inform. The Noctilux excels at f/0.95, where it renders an image unlike any other ultra-fast lens. Not even the old screw mount Canon 50mm f/0.95 can match it. 

It is not just the bokeh. The shallow depth of field of the Noctilux also renders a kind of dreamy and surreal look to images that draw the viewer into what seems otherworldly—that is if the photographer is an artist rather than a technician. The dreamy surrealism of the Noctilux is even more striking than the Summilux 50mm f/1.4 wide open, and it is what makes the Noctilux look unique and without substitute. 

Artists like Mark de Paola shoot only with the Noctilux, only at f/0.95, and usually at no more than a meter from his subject, the shortest distance to which the Noctilux will focus. Mark de Paola goes for emotion. His images are often out of focus, and that is the point. It is not sharpness that grabs people emotionally. Mark de Paola uses the uniqueness of Noctilux to realize his art, and his work consists of some of the most powerful images I have ever seen. 

In Mark de Paola’s hands, the Noctilux flies. In my hands though, maybe not so much, but judge for yourself from my photos. I live in hope and continue to learn. 

No one ever buys a Noctilux because it makes sense economically, unless they are making a living from photography—and even then I have to wonder. For most people, the Noctilux is a lens that they want, and not a lens they need—that is unless they happen to be Mark de Paola.

LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. @f/0.95, Leica M3, Kodak T-Max 100 film box speed

Did it make sense for me to buy a Noctilux? Probably not, but then again the best things in life are rarely rational. Does it make sense for you to buy the Noctilux? Well, only you can say for sure. If you can afford it and you want to use the Noct’ to make art rather than just to make bokeh, sure. Why not? But think about it before you cash in the kids’ college fund or risk being disowned by your spouse.

Shooting the Noct’ you will likely need a 16x neutral density filter to shoot wide open, which brings the exposure down four stops. The only manufacturer of an E60 16x ND filter I know is Leica, and it is only for the Noctilux. With an M5, M6, M7, and MP you can meter through the lens. For the M2, M3, M4, and M-A however, you have to compensate manually. So for shooting say Kodak T-Max 100 at box speed, you meter for—wait for it—ISO 6! Yes, that’s right. Amazingly, the Leicameter actually has a setting for ISO 6! These meters clearly come from another era.

LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. @f/0.95, Leica M3, Kodak T-Max 100 film box speed

Should you ever get the chance to try the Leica Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH., I highly recommend you do so. The Noctilux truly is like no other fast lens, caveats and all, but whatever you do, remember that photography is about making art. Bokeh for its own sake is for the birds.

I am a street photographer who lives in Japan. If you would like to see more of my work, have a look at my website bleisteinphoto.com, or my Instagram @sbleistein

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    thorsten wulff
    August 18, 2019 at 11:55 am

    Very nice Steven. I like to shoot my portraits wide open, so when I met Joel Meyerowitz of course I had to shoot him at 0.95 with the M10. I was lucky and managed to focus on his eye.
    http://thorstenwulff.com/albums/people/content/joel-meyerowitz/lightbox/

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      August 18, 2019 at 6:59 pm

      Thanks. You have some beautiful portraits on your site.

  • Reply
    maximilian
    August 18, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Well, quite a weird post. Feels like an advert for those American aluminum grips..

    As for the images – they could have been taken with any Canon DSLR with 85/1.2 on it, and processed with the RNI’s Kodak T-Max film profiles in Lightroom – no one would be able to spot the difference or say that there is less art in them now.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      August 18, 2019 at 7:09 pm

      If you think shooting with your Canon and mimicking the Kodak with film with Lightroom presets would make a compelling article, write it up and submit it! Actually, I’m not sure a the Canon is even necessary. Recently, I have been playing with the iPhone X and portrait mode with VSCO filters. Not bad at all!

      As for ML-Grip, I have no relationship with the company–professional, financial, or otherwise. I think they make good products for Leica M owners, but don’t think a lot of people know about them. They make nothing for Canon cameras as far as I know, and if you shoot with your iPhone, who needs a grip?

    • Reply
      Mike Hinkleman
      August 18, 2019 at 7:51 pm

      Could you post some of those RNI’d images?

      Thanks

      • Reply
        Steven Bleistein
        August 18, 2019 at 8:29 pm

        I might be a bit dense, but what do you mean by “RNI?”

        • Reply
          mike hinkleman
          August 19, 2019 at 1:08 am

          RNI really nice image
          just some Lightroom presets
          i use Lightroom but with silver efex pro for leica mm
          for digital it’s an attempt to make a degitially generated image look like film
          sort of like fuji’s software to make an image look more like neopan or

          i tried a 7arts 50/1.1 but nothing looked like yours.
          not sure if you have a 7.3cm hektor. it can produce very pretty images wide open

          fwiw i think your noctilux images are beautiful.

          • Steven Bleistein
            August 19, 2019 at 2:06 am

            I’m glad you like the photos. You can see more of my work on my web site and Instagram feed.

            It is not the lens that makes an image beautiful. It is the photographer, and that is the point of my article.

            I know that I can get film-like results with digital cameras if I want, but it is not for the so-called “film look” that I shoot shoot film. Rather, the reason I shoot film, when I choose to do so, is because I enjoy the experience of shooting with my Leica M3, my Nikon S2, my Rolleiflex, my GR1s, and any of the other film cameras I own. Enjoying the experience of photography has priority for me, and the experience of shooting some of these old film cameras might be approximated but simply cannot be replicated with any digital camera.

      • Reply
        Maximilian
        August 20, 2019 at 8:39 am

        Sure. Just a few examples (not much of art, just to illustrate the point). All taken with 85/1.2 and processed in LR with the Kodak T-Max film profile by RNI. I guess Silver FX could do similar too.

      • Reply
        Maximilian
        August 20, 2019 at 8:40 am

        Mike Hinkleman, commenting system here is a bit weird. I tried but not sure my html embed above has come through.

        • Reply
          Steven Bleistein
          August 20, 2019 at 9:04 am

          The links are not going through but I can see them from the moderation panel. The photos are nice.

          Try commenting with just the URL without trying to embed them. I believe that will work.

  • Reply
    Patrick
    August 18, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    Gorgeous images, and fascinating review. This almost makes we want to shell out $11,595 🙁

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      August 18, 2019 at 7:02 pm

      Thanks. I bought my Noct’ used at Map Camera in Tokyo for a lot less than $11,585–but still a lot nonetheless! If you are serious and are patient, you can save a few thousand dollars.

  • Reply
    Anais Faraj
    August 18, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    Beautiful. Like dioramas from a tilt-shift lens. Is that vignetting just the Noctilux and NDF at work?

  • Reply
    Anais
    August 18, 2019 at 10:42 pm

    Beautiful. Like dioramas from a tilt-shift lens. Is that vignetting just the Noctilux and NDF at work?

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      August 18, 2019 at 10:56 pm

      Thank you. All ultra fast lenses vignette, and the Noctilux is no exception. The neutral density filter should have no effect on vignetting.

  • Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    August 19, 2019 at 8:09 am

    Fascinating!! Now you have inspired me to try my 5cm f/2 Summitar wide open, which produces effects somewhat like your examples (but with far more coma and aberrations). Nice photographs!

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      August 19, 2019 at 9:31 am

      I would be interested in seeing the results! Never tried the Summitar before.

  • Reply
    Laurence
    August 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

    Nice. I love photog where the look from particular glass gives an aesthetic gratis. E.g. in my budget poor limited experience I found Canon 55mm 1.2 FL. Nothing else can match its particular look. Same for the Noct .95.A metaphor: In Mendicino,Ca you can find a zone where the fog bank off the ocean is about to end where the surreal light is nothing like anything I’ve seen.You can make a career of portraits in just this light.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    August 20, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    When your post first landed in my email inbox, I thought Oh, No, another bokeh worshipper spending thousands on a lens just so he can promote the (dubious) merits of its bokeh. How pleased I was to find this was not to be the case, and it was to be a personal appraisal of the lens as a true photographic tool. It doesn’t matter what the lens is, use it because it renders subjects in a way that you like, not because it gives twirly bokeh, or whatever.

    At a personal level, I have to admit, and hope I don’t upset you too much, that I don’t find the first three images to my taste. The overall darkness of them I find somewhat oppressive for the subject matter, but I admit this is very personal. Placing potentially uninteresting subjects (for a third party audience) in the centre of the image is leaving too much to chance. Re the third image, why all the unfilled space in the right hand third? Better, perhaps, to have moved in closer and make the cycle more of a feature, or even cropped it appropriately? Would the first three images get me interested enough to want to check out the Noct? Image four, due to its simplicity, I feel cries out for colour, and really got me asking just what this would have looked like in colour.
    But your final image is something else. Well balanced and the moody lighting very much adds to its power. And for me, it really works as “art”.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      August 21, 2019 at 11:51 am

      I think you got the point of my article.

      I don’t shoot photographs to please other people, only myself. If others happen to like my work, that’s nice. If they don’t, it makes no difference to me. I am not upset if you are not pleased.

      If you found the darkness of the first three photographs oppressive and dissonant with the subject matter, then I have succeeded. That is precisely what I was trying to convey. If you found the images disturbing, all the better!

      I don’t understand why you are distracted by the unfilled space in the right of the third photo. There is nothing there! It is the left you ought to be paying attention to! Look carefully!

      Image four would not have worked in color at all, and in any case, the point is moot. I was shooting B&W film! I made that image to appeal to a Japanese esthetic. The background on the left, which granted is out of focus, still clearly delineates a series of torii, which are gateways to religious Shinto shrines. The darkness as you look through the torii that shrouds a shrine adds to the mysticism of Shinto. Only the immediate foreground in the light is tangible and clear, much like life itself. Understandable if you did not pick up on that. Doing so might require a certain degree of sophistication about Japan.

      The final image is my favorite. Yes, it is moody and powerful. You would have been surprised by the actual scene I shot. It was in fact quite mundane.

  • Reply
    Jonathan Leavitt
    November 27, 2019 at 3:06 am

    You have some great photos there with the Noctilux. Nothing need for apologies. The w-Nikkor F1.4 from the 1950s was redesigned and reissued as a commemorative for the Nikon S rangefinders in the year 2000. But you can use it with an Amedeo adapter on the Leica and it focuses perfectly. The lens has a wonderful atmospheric quality at F1.4. I’d had some great shots with it. No it’s not F 0.95 but I look forward to comparing it with my Voigtlander F1.1 as soon as the Voigtlander comes back from the shop. You know, the Voigtlanders are not always properly calibrated.

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