For many people, taking photographs with a Leica M camera has always meant low-light photography, being able to take advantage of Leica’s superb fast Summilux and Summicron lenses to photograph indoors or at dusk without having to use a flash. But there is one lens above all that Leica photographers, for the most part, love and admire, and it’s the 50mm Noctilux, which with its large aperture of f/1, was legendary for its gorgeous bokeh (selective focus, with the out-of-focus area pleasingly blurred.) I say it was admired for the most part, because there were a few downsides to the f/1 Noctilux, namely that it was a one-aperture camera (it was sort of average, compared to the 50mm Summilux, when stopped down to a smaller aperture), and very difficult to focus, especially in the low-light settings in which its performance was optimal. Hence its reputation as a “soft” lens — not only did it have a wonderfully creamy bokeh, but it was often difficult to get the damn thing to focus, so many images with the classic Nocti look were… out of focus. I should know; for several years I had one, and never could quite get the hang of using it effectively. So one day I traded it as part of a complex deal to acquire the 21mm Summilux.
But then at Photokina 2008, Leica came out with a new and improved Noctilux, moving it a notch faster (f/0.95), but with the advantage of also rendering it both easier to focus and with dramatically higher performance stopped down. (At f/8, it is difficult to differentiate it from either of the less expensive Summicron or Summilux Leica 50mm lenses.) Yes, it is pretty ridiculously expensive. But one year ago, I basically traded in every lens I could not bear to part with in order to procure one, and in the year that has just ended, I have grown to believe that the f/0.95 Noctilux is the apogee of photographic glass, the ideal lens. I have grown to believe that it is, in fact, worth taking out a second mortgage to procure.
The first thing one does when putting a new Nocti on a Leica M9 is to go play, to rediscover the joy of photography.
The ability to choose just that area of an image you want in focus, while knowing that the out-of-focus area will prove to be far more interesting, liberates one to invert his normal priorities.
The lens is also so fast that sometimes, when shooting a particular image, a near miracle occurs. Yes, the beauty of rangefinder photography is the ability to keep one’s eye on what is moving into the image, but with the Noctilux, the sense of kismet is profound. In the picture below, I would have been happy just to capture the flower. But something else happened.
As the autumn progressed, I grew to love how carrying the Nocti on my M9 enabled me to slow down the world and see things differently.
Walking around my neighborhood offered new possibilities, new ways to look at things I might otherwise take for granted.
It wasn’t enough to see a pumpkin patch, now I had to play with the possibilities.
But it became very clear quickly that, with the ability to focus faster and more precisely than with the previous Nocti, this truly could be, if not a reportage lens, at least one not to be afraid to take into fluid situations.
And something new began to be clear. Yes, I still enjoyed taking the lens into boring places like malls just to see what the possibilities were.
But as the first photo in this post — showing girls in my neighborhood at an evening Christmas event — makes clear, the Noctilux really is for taking pictures not of inanimate objects, which look cool blurred, but people, who deserve to have their portraits stand out from the background.
It is a wonderful lens for capturing children in all their delightful mischief.
While it might not be perfect for street photography — it is big, and somewhat unwieldy, and while it focuses faster and more assuredly than its predecessor, it still needs some skill in capturing someone moving — it could absolutely shine in an event photographer’s kit.
With the old Nocti, I never would have thought to bring it to a rodeo. With the new Noctilux, I wanted to go to the rodeo just to see what the lens could do.
It draws light like no other lens I have ever seen, and can capture the essence of its subject — separate and apart from her surroundings — in a way that, to me, is almost breathtaking.
There is no other camera and lens combination [insert edit: that I am aware of] that could have captured the following image (well, other than a Nocti with any other Leica M camera built since the Second World War).
I used to laugh (sort of) when hearing the Charlton Heston line about his pistol invoked, that someone would have to pry it out of his cold, dead hand. After a year of working with a Leica Noctilux, however, I know just what he meant.