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LEGENDARY: Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux Double Aspherical

LEGENDARY: Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux Double Aspherical

This is a lens that most are not going come across. So this write-up is not likely to be useful. Even so, I think that many photo enthusiasts are curious about the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux Double Aspherical lens. It's like the unicorn of the Leica lens universe. Admittedly, not as rare as a unicorn, since this lens is real and not make believe. However, this first generation Noct might as well be considered fabled, given that it's never seen out in public attached to a camera taking photos. In fact, the usual habitat of the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux is locked inside a dry box or humidity controlled display case. And to me, that's just a crying shame. That's just not right.

Since the 50 f/1.2 Noct is usually locked away, not much has been documented online about the lens. I mean there are some scattered sample images online. And there is data about it on various sites. However, I don't think I've ever seen any sample images of this lens used as an everyday lens - much less as a lens shot on the street. I guess it might be too much of a risk to do that. Let's face it, the minute you scratch the finish on this lens, the resale value drops from "mint" to just "like new".

Given that I have a copy of it, I feel it's my duty to use this lens, and post sample images of how this lens renders images - if for no other reason than to document it for online reference. In fact, I've already used this lens and posted sample images shot wide open on my Techart Autofocus Challenge and the Rematch write-ups. However, I didn't really write anything meaningful about the lens. So this time around, I will concentrate on just the lens, and nothing else. I'll try not to stray off topic.

So for the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux lens review, I will start off with the "burning" question that must be on every photo enthusiast's mind. Is the first version Noct any good for street photography? To answer this question, I will bring the Noct with me on my daily commute through New York City, photographing street style, hopefully in varying light conditions (which is a euphemism for f/4 to f/8 outdoor and f/2.8 in the subway train and station), all in an effort to see how this lens performs optically and ergonomically. And since I'm on a Sony A7 kind of mood, I'm no`t going to put it on a Leica M body for this review.

For street shooting, I've never really liked the 50mm focal length. At times, I find it too tight, especially when you're in the subway car. In addition, I also find it difficult to zone focus at the 50mm focal length. This was especially true on the APO 50mm Summicron ASPH, when shooting from chin level to waist level. For some reason, the pitch of my camera is always off, resulting in unleveled images, requiring rotational correction.

Commuting on a downtown local train towards Union Square. I would have preferred a 35mm focal length, but your best lens is the one you have with you. So I had to stand all the way pressed up against the subway train door, with the back of my Sony A7rII shoved against my chest, in order to increase my distance from the subject, just to get as much of her into the frame. Shot at f/2.8 at ISO 12,500. Missed focus by a hair, since I couldn't focus in camera. Full crop.

Strangely though, I found the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux to be perfectly balanced with the Sony A7 body. I seem to be able to shoot more leveled than with the smaller 50 Cron. Admittedly this could just be a coincidence, but whatever the reason is, my hit rate seemed significantly better on this than any other Leica 50mm lens.

From the perspective of balance, you would think that this lens is the perfect Leica 50mm street lens. It's relatively small for the speed. But then you realize that you can only use filters while the lens hood is attached, given that there's no filter threads on the lens. So encumbered with this rather obvious vented hood, the lens does attract its share of attention. It's not necessarily a bad thing. I like the attention, though some may not like it.

Alternatively, you could shoot without the filter and the hood. But you already know that I prefer shooting with a filter.

Above ground again, and the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux zone focuses like a champ! Shot from the chin, at f/5.6. Full crop. I shot this subject because I liked her distressed jeans.

What's not so good about the lens is it's focusing response, when unexpected opportunity arises outside your depth of field. Like the current edition Noctilux, this first edition has a long focusing throw. So you can't just flick the focusing tab (since it doesn't have one) and get focus quickly. But of course I understand why this is the case. The lens needs a longer focusing throw for more accurate focus when shooting wide open.

So for the sake of accurate shooting wide open, the Noct is not well adapted to the changing conditions of street shooting. You're pretty much stuck within your depth of field as your only recourse to getting focus quickly.

And because this lens is a fast 50mm, the depth of field isn't very generous to begin with. In general, this makes it more difficult to get the image in focus, since you need to be more accurate when you judge your distance from the subject.

The subject is out of focus, because he was moving too fast out of my depth of field for me to react and refocus. Still, I'm happy with this photograph. Shot also at f/5.6. Full crop.

Just missed focus on this shot. I forgot to refocus, after having focused on something earlier that was further than 12 feet away (my preferred prefocused distance at 50mm), Still, you can look at the corner sharpness at f/5.6. Out of camera RAW file. Full crop.

Once you hit focus (or rather in the zone of focus), the image appears sharp. However, stopped down from f/4 to f/8, under ideal outdoor light conditions, the Leica 50mm f/1.2 loses that unique quality that makes it a Noct. The rendering doesn't look significantly better or worse than any other 50mm focal length lens. But then again, that is expected. Once stopped down, lens sharpness from the center to the corners becomes the focus of rendering - not bokeh. And with sharpness being objectively quantifiable, differentiation in rendering can't be that different between high quality lenses.

Besides, you can't always shoot wide open. There's an entire photographic spectrum beyond bokeh. You may for example want to shoot environmental portraits. You may for example want to shoot full body shots. You may also want to shoot group photos of more than one people in slightly different focal planes. In fact, you may even want to shoot landscapes. And you may want to do all that, on this lens, in optimal light conditions - even though it's made for low light photography.

Despite the reputation of the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux shot wide open, the lens does cover an entire aperture range. Below is a sample of images shot from f/2.8 to f/8 - mostly f/8 since it has been exceptionally sunny all week. Images are a mix of full crop and cropped images. Full cropped image are for those seeking corner sharpness samples. As for cropped images... well... I think that they're just nice to look at.

First - a couple of full crops...

Full crop, shot at f/4. At this aperture, the corners don't look particularly sharp. This subject caught my attention, because of her platinum blonde braided pigtails and Thrasher T-shirt.

Full Crop, shot at f/5.6. At this aperture, the corner begins to look sharper. This subject caught my attention, because it seems so very SoHo to me, from her stylish black dress, to her black ankle boots, to the metal steps, to the vermillion painted brick wall.

Full crop, shot at f/8. Stopped down to f/8, the image looks sharp, but the background corner is beyond the depth of field to determine corner sharpness.

Now, a couple of cropped images...

Shot at f/2.8. Cropped for composition. I just missed shooting the subject without having to crop for composition - anchored on the top right hand corner. The train arrived a step to soon before I could reach the optimal focus distance.

Shot at f/4. Cropped slightly for composition. More eye candy images... I liked it because it looked very SoHo to me.

Loved the ink... Shot at f/5.6. Cropped for composition to get the head on the left out of the frame. It was grabbing focus away from the subject.

Shot at f/8, cropped for composition. This image was shot under the blazing noon sun. I had a shopping bag with me at the time, so the image was shot with a slight rotation. I had to level the image a tad in Lightroom.

Last, a couple of multi subject shots that required stopping down for depth of field wiggle room.

I shot this in the subway station, with no more room to back up to get the two subjects into the frame. I got her into the frame. Unfortunately, part of his head was outside the frame.

I shot this image because it was just the cutest thing to see - visitors taking picture of the Flat Iron Building, on a cropped sensor Nikon. Love the photography theme in the image.

Friends having lunch. 

Friends taking a rest. At the time of shooting, I didn't notice the tourist in the empty fountain photobombing my composition.

Yellow dress and yellow cab. Same yellow. Enough said!

SO THE VERDICT - how well does it shoot on the street. Other than giving me a good excuse to use it for a review, I really can't say that the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux is all that well suited for street photography. Surprising, isn't it? I mean ergonomically, it's much better than the current edition Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. But, that isn't saying much. 

For the street, the 35mm and the 28mm focal lengths are much better suited, ergonomically. However, this is not to say that the 50mm focal length isn't good ergonomically on the street. It's just not for me, because I like to shoot quicker, and don't mind shooting closer. If I had all the time in the world, with very cooperative street subjects, the 50mm focal length would be great. And because I was shooting further away, I had less eye contact with the subjects in my photos. I suppose I could shoot closer, and get a tighter crop, but that means I wouldn't get my subject's outfits in the frame, which pretty much defeats the purpose of street style photography. It already upsets me when I forget to include the shoes into the frame!

Optically, the 50mm f/1.2 performs well. It is sharp. I can't really determine if it's more or less sharp than more modern lenses, just from scanning these sample images. However, I do know from my normal resolution vs high resolution write-up comparing the current version 35mm Summicron with the previous version, that the newer lenses resolve details better at higher resolution. Therefore it's likely that this older version Noct, made during the film era, doesn't resolve detail better than the current version Noct, on high megapixel digital sensor.

As for my subjective assessment on optical performance, I think there is an analog quality to the way the lens renders images. On close inspection, the lens doesn't appear to have that higher contrast look of more contemporary lenses. However, it's not something that Lightroom can't repair. So I don't think it's such a big issue.

One observation worth noting is the evidence of barrel distortion. For now, I am only saying that there is evidence, only because I haven't yet determined that the lens is the cause of this distortion. I have been experiencing weird distortions lately in some of my images, so it might not necessarily be the lens.

This image was shot straight on without at f/4. There appears to be some evidence of barrel distortion. But I'm not definitely sure that the lens is the cause of it. 

Okay... let's get real... no one really cares about how the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux shoots stopped down. It's shooting wide open at f/1.2 that everyone wants to see. Unfortunately, I wasn't proficient enough a photographer to shoot wide open without cooperation from the subject. I did try all week. But I finally gave up and photographed two willing musicians that caught my attention - largely because of their very World War Two styled appearance, and matching musical style. They were just too cool, that I couldn't pass up the opportunity. But given that they were busking, I didn't want to take advantage of them. They were so cool that I even offered to hire them for a session. Sadly, that was not meant to be.

All day I've been trying to hit focus wide open at f/1.2. Unfortunately, with this lens, it's impossible to purposely get focus wide open without help from the subject staying perfectly still. In the end, I just gave up, and decided to photograph the subject in this image - two very talented musicians at Washington Square Park. Even so, they were singing and strumming along, so they weren't exactly still for the wide open shot. Shot wide open at f/1.2.

My next review of this lens will be a couple of weeks from now, when I am in Hong Kong again, where the night lights are more vibrant than in New York City. That review will document the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux shot wide open at night on an adapted Leica SL. So please stay updated for that. And again... thank you Craig @LeicaStoreNewYorkSoho for "convincing me" to get the Leica SL.

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