Leica 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux-M ASPH - A Question of Justification, Part I
Justification - the process of convincing yourself to do something that others may think you shouldn't do. When I first heard the announcement of the Leica 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux-M ASPH, I knew immediately the first question on everybody's mind is how anyone is ever going to talk themselves into getting one. Given the sticker shock, I knew this lens wasn't going to be an impulse buy. For most, some soul searching will be involved.
Of course, the same can be said about the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH or the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH. Both are burdened with the same issue of sticker shock. But since both are normal focal length lenses made for general purpose use, the reason to get one, despite the noticeable premium, isn't as difficult to justify. Because of that, both lenses are rather popular amongst Leica enthusiasts.
However, the same cannot be said about the 75 Noctilux. Unlike the 50 Noctilux and the APO 50, the 75 Noctilux is not a general purpose lens. At the 75mm focal length, it is a medium telephoto lens typically made for portraitures. Because of that, the reason to get one isn't as convincing as the 50 Noctilux or the APO 50. Therefore, finding the justification to get one isn't going to be as immediately apparent - if at all.
Then there is also the issue of weight. At 2.33lb (roughly 1kg), the 75 Noctilux is a hefty lens. To put that weight into context, it is slightly heavier than a 33.8 fl oz (1000ml) bottle of soda. This is not to say that the 50 Noctilux isn't similarly hefty. However, the 50 Noctilux is still roughly 35% lighter than the 75 Noctilux. To put that into context, the difference is roughly the weight of a 12 fl oz (355ml) can of soda.
And when you compare the 75 Noctilux to the Leica 75mm f/1.4 Summilux, produced in various versions from 1980 to 2005, finding cause for justification is even more difficult. At a little more than ½ the weight and ⅓ the price of the 75 Noctilux, the 75 Summilux is only ⅓ of a stop slower in maximum aperture. Because of that, how could anyone justify getting the 75 Noctilux? It makes no sense to accept a higher premium and more weight for only an incremental increase in speed.
As for the size of the 75 Noctilux, it doesn't fare much better. But to be fair, the difference isn't as extreme when compared to the 50 Noctilux and the 75 Summilux. Still, at 3.58in (91mm) in length and 2.91in (74mm) in diameter, the 75 Noctilux is longer and wider than the 50 Noctilux at 2.95in (75mm) in length and 2.87in (73mm) in diameter, and the 75 Summilux at 3.15in (80mm) in length and 2.72in (69mm) in diameter. This makes the finder coverage of the 75 Noctilux noticeably worse.
At this point, you'd probably think there's no reason to get the 75 Noctilux. On the contrary, the 75 Noctilux does offer something that no other lens can replicate. It can render bokeh like the 50 Noctilux and the 75 Summilux, while at the same time resolve detail consistent to the standards of contemporary Leica lenses. Both the 50 Noctilux and the 75 Summilux are already showing their age, with their optical design ten years old and over twenty years old respectively.
From the perspective of a portrait photographer, this puts the 75 Noctilux at a distinct advantage. When shot wide open, the rendering is both critical and flattering. This can be accomplished, because of its paper thin depth of field and ability to resolve fine details with extreme definition. So when used as a portrait lens, the 75 Noctilux can limit focus on only the subject's lead eyes, while incrementally blurring out nearby facial details.
What this blurring does is soften facial features, while reduce unwanted details on the skin, like wrinkles, facial hair, pores, and blemishes. And at the same time, the increased resolved definition of the focused area brings out the detail of the lead eye. The contrast between highly resolved details and blurred details draws attention away from the rest of the image, and straight onto the heart of the image. However, this assumes that the lead eye is in tack focus.
Mind you, achieving tack focus isn't effortless. In my opinion, the 75 Noctilux is unrelenting in pushing you to practice proper shooting technique on each and every shot. That said, getting tack focus at closer focusing distance wasn't any worse than what I would expect, at such thin depths of field. But, what surprised me was how difficult it was to get tack focus at longer focusing distances.
Typically, getting tack focus wide open at longer focusing distances is less difficult, given slightly increased forgiveness in depth of field. But on the 75 Noctilux, it almost appeared as if the depth of field was no more forgiving at longer focusing distances than closer up. However, I suppose one could argue the ability of the 75 Noctilux to resolve greater detail has made the balls of confusion outside the plane of focus noticeably finer, thereby making its depth of field perceptibly less forgiving.
I suspect part of this problem can also be attributed to the relatively short focusing throw of the 75 Noctilux. Strangely, for a lens with such a thin depth of field at maximum aperture, the focusing ring isn't especially precise at longer focusing distance. Given the short focusing throw, I found turning the focusing ring to get tack focus required greater sensitivity in hand-eye coordination. This was ironic in my opinion, because in no other lens is getting tack focus more critical than the 75 Noctilux.
Indirectly, a shorter focusing throw shows the the 75 Noctilux wasn't intended to shoot at longer focusing distance. In doing so, it proves the 75 Noctilux is intended to be used as a portrait lens - for close to moderate focusing distances.
Also worth noting in this review is how seldom I stopped down. From my perspective, doing that makes no sense, given its added weight and premium. However, if one had to stop down - like in a group situation (which would make no sense on this lens) - the background bokeh is relatively smooth up to f/2.8. At f/5.6, definition in background detail begins to emerge, while still providing subject isolation. At f/8, definition in background detail becomes more defined at more modest focusing distances, but still provide sufficient detail for subject isolation.
As for corner sharpness, I didn't test that across the aperture range. It wouldn't make sense, since this lens was designed for subject isolation. However, just for fun, I did test corner sharpness at maximum aperture. Mind you, I don't believe I was successful, given how difficult it was to maintain focus at the corners with a rangefinder. But from what I can observe, I believe there is evidence of light fall off and reduced definition in details at the corners.
Also worth noting is how well the 75 Noctilux deals with chromatic aberration at maximum aperture. That said, there were still some evidence of it. Although to be clear, I really don't know if what I'm pointing out is actually chromatic aberration, since it doesn't seem characteristic or consistent of what it should be. The first example is the purple colorization of the herringbone weave on Anna's jacket, which would seem like an atypical place for chromatic aberration.
The second example appeared typically at an edge separating extreme highlight and shadow. However, given the prominence of purple colorization throughout the frame, I'm not quite certain that it is chromatic aberration.
Overall, it is difficult to fault the Leica 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux-M ASPH. It seems to do everything well. As a portrait lens, it isolates the focus area exceedingly well, it eliminates background details at maximum aperture, and it is extraordinarily sharp. However, to justify whether the 75 Noctilux is truly worth getting, one needs to see how it compares to 50 Noctilux and the 75 Summilux, since they can both be regarded as possible substitutes.
With regards to color rendering, I believe the 75 Noctilux is similar to the 75 Summilux. But to my eyes, the rendering of the 50 Noctilux appears rosier and more pleasant to me. That said, bokeh at maximum aperture appears to render similarly between all three lenses. What the 75mm Noctilux loses in maximum aperture to the 50 Noctilux, it gains from having a tighter angle of coverage and a closer minimum focusing distance.
And at the normal 24 megapixel resolution, sharpness appears to be consistent between the three lens. However, at 42 megapixels, it is clear the 75 Noctilux retains more details at high resolution. This is evident from the scaled magnification, where there is greater definition in the details on Anna's eyelashes. By comparison, the 75 Summilux has noticeably less definition in detail at high resolution.
That said, it's worth noting the sample from the 50 Noctilux was shot at the same focusing distance as the other two lenses. Because of that, I won't be able to make any definite conclusions, given differences in magnification from the angle of coverage.
In conclusion, we return back to the question of justification. Is the Leica 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux-M ASPH worth getting? From the context of practical considerations, it doesn't make sense. The 75mm Summilux comes close to what the 75 Noctilux can do at normal resolution - without the added weight and premium. And compared to the 50 Noctilux, it doesn't make sense too. The 50 Noctilux is much more versatile and faster, with a little less girth.
However, if you want a portrait lens like the 75mm Summilux, with sharpness consistent to the standards found in contemporary Leica lenses, then this lens is for you. Believe me, there is no other lens like the 75 Noctilux. It is very special, despite the added weight and premium. So by that standard, justifying one's desire to get the Leica 75mm f/1.25 Noctilux-M ASPH isn't as bizarre as it seems.
Images have been tweaked in Lightroom, if mentioned in the caption. However, most images are direct jpeg conversion from raw files. Only the title image have been cropped. Also worth nothing is how the blurring at maximum aperture reduces the need for retouching. As a tool, the 75 Noctilux is particularly well suited for portraitures, given the time savings it can offer.
Last, I did not include the Leica APO 75mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH in this review, since I don’t have a copy of it. But, I will include the Leica APO 75mm f/2 Summicron-SL ASPH on the follow up, next week.