Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA or Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA
Is the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA worth it? Is the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA worth it? Which one would you pick between the two? Admittedly, this might not sound like the most frequently asked question in the world of photography. But, you'd be surprised how often I get this question. So for this blog post, I will address this question, which I've been regularly fielding over the past 18 months. Would I pick the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA or the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA?
I know what you're all thinking. Poor unfortunate souls. How could they be so unlucky to be in such an unenviable position. They must be so lost in despair - barely holding their wits together with only the understanding embrace of their sixteen year old single malt whiskey dulling the edge. How could they live with themselves, crippled with such indecision? I know when it happened to me, I didn't know what to do. I had no one to turn to. If only I had some way to relieve myself of such mental anguish - all those years ago!
With all kidding aside at the expense of prospective and current owners (present company included), both the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA are remarkably exceptional lenses deserving this distinction, not to mention the steep valuation they both currently demand in the secondary market. Because of that, reviews of the 35mm Summilux AA and the 50mm Noctilux AA with sufficient sample images are scant on the internet, since they're generally locked safely away from the threat of any depreciable harm.
That said, I have posted a couple of reviews of the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA, and I've posted a couple of comparison shot with the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA. However, I haven't shot either of these lenses on the Leica M10, as pointed out by many readers of this blog. Apparently, posting images of the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA on the Leica SL, Leica M240, the Sony A7R Mark II, and film isn't providing enough reassurance.
Although to be fair, I am likely the first person to point out that rendering is a combined effort between lens and medium of capture. So, unless the sample images of these lenses are shot on the Leica M10, how is one to know with absolute certainty? For all anyone knows, the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA could render less favorably on the Leica M10. I mean, it's not likely. But, proof is proof. And without evidentiary support from sample images shot wide open and in low light, how these lenses perform on the M10 is only speculative at best.
And yes, the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA can only be shot wide open and at night. To use them at any other time at any other aperture setting would be an affront to human decency. I mean you could conceivably shoot it stopped down in the middle of the noonday sun? Why would you? It would be akin to making bœuf bourguignon with a bottle of 2012 Chateau Margaux. So, if it's your intent to shoot either lens during the daylight hours, these lenses are clearly not for you.
But, what do I know. I don't eat meat and I don't drink anymore. And besides, my most popular review of the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux was shot stopped down - which really is rather embarrassing!
Still, why should anyone even consider the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA or the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA? From the perspective of value, isn't the asking premium disproportionately high compared to contemporary versions of those lenses? For what is required of the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA, you could probably get the current version 35 Lux with a new Leica M10 in tow. And with the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux, you could probably pick up the current version 50 Noct in addition to the current version 35 Lux and a Leica M10.
However, if you're already on the fence considering either the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA or the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA, the issue of value is likely no longer a material concern in the conventional sense of practical use. Instead, the motivating factor for consideration is more an issue of appreciation in what these classic lenses offer - or rather what contemporary lenses can no longer offer - especially in our high definition world of ever increased resolution and greater resolved details.
With greater push towards documentary accuracy in rendering, what seems to be missing today is a certain uniqueness in interpretation beyond the uniformity typical of contemporary lenses. So as you can imagine, the appeal of the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA isn't founded on measurable specification - being the current yardstick of everyday comparison. By contrast, the appeal of the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA is the personality it exhibits - especially wide open in low light - which differentiates it from every run-of-the-mill vanilla flavored lens across the optical spectrum.
Both the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA share similarities in rendering, when shot appropriately wide open and in low light. They both have the same predisposition to render the same color palette, and they both appear to sculpt the image capture with much the same classical look. Where they noticeably differ is how they render at closer focusing distance under the same conditions. In comparing bokeh, the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA is by far more distinctive, with the background melting away into its signature swirls of light.
That said, the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux can quickly turn into a one trick pony. In this particular photoshoot, I shot four times more pictures with the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA than the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA. Much of the reason can be attributed to the more usable angle of coverage characteristic of the wider 35mm focal length. In other words, it was just much easier to use a 35mm lens in an urban setting, where shooting closer up meant the difference between a clean image capture and one ruined by a photobombing.
Though to be fair, the only comparative advantage of the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA isn't just its more usable focal length in the urban setting. When this lens "gets it right" in documentation, it really gets it right. To articulate what I'm expressing colloquially, it's the flattering color palette, and the subtlety in resolved details, which seems to bring out a sense of rose-colored reality without the harshness of true documentary accuracy. From my perspective, it provides just enough reality without reality getting too real. I know I'm gushing, but this is why I love the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA.
So, does that mean I prefer the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA? Well, not quite. Even though the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA is arguably more useful, the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux is still the consummate portrait lens. The way it isolates its subject is truly phenomenal. In the end, which lens is better depends on each individual photographer's specific need. If you shoot more portrait at the 50mm focal length, the Noct is better. If you prefer environmental documentation, the 35mm focal length is better.
Still, that opinion doesn't quite sit well with me. Please allow me to elaborate. If you're one of these poor unfortunate souls on the fence deciding between these two lenses, your specific needs as a photographer won't deviate from what's typically wanted by most, if not all photographers. That is to say, if most photographers have trouble choosing between the 35mm and 50mm focal length regardless of price sensitivity, and generally end up getting both as a result of desire more than necessity, what makes you think the decision making process would be any different with these two lenses? The truly unfortunate reality is this. If you're now sitting on the fence deciding between these two lenses, you will never be satisfied unless you get them both. As you can clearly see, they work well as a team on the Leica M10.
Sorry for the bad news... well... unless if this is what you wanted to hear all along. So on that bombshell, happy hunting.
Last, the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux AA and the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux AA are characteristically low contrast and naturally well saturated in rendering. And when the raw images are tonally optimized, the resulting edit has an almost cinema like quality to it. Yes, I should have stuck it up somewhere in the main text... but I got too carried away with the writing... that I just forgot. Well, at least I remembered to add this morsel of observation at the very end.
All tonal values have been optimized in Lightroom. Colors have not been altered. Images have not been cropped, except for the title image.
Also, special thanks to Judit for filling in this week. Anna is away visiting her folks for - I don't know - seems like weeks and weeks.