Three 50mm f/0.95 Lens - Leica, Canon, and Angénieux
All good things come to those who wait. If that is really the case, then this tête-à-tête had better be worth the delay. Right from the start, all my best efforts had been fraught with misfortune at every step of the way. I really didn't think it was going to take this long when I first hatched up my plan to conduct this demonstration. But it did. I mean, the genesis of this harebrained idea was incubated more than a year ago. And it's only now I've written about it.
Of course, why go through the trouble when life throws up roadblocks? Simply put, its because we can. I mean, when fate brings together a trio of special purpose lenses like the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, the Canon 50mm f/0.95, and the Angénieux Paris 50mm f/0.95 Type M1, how could anyone not want to pit them against each other? Given the opportunity, wouldn't a shootout make perfect sense?
That being said, there was still a tiny little snag I had to address before I could proceed. You see, both the Canon and the Angénieux are not M-mount lenses, which meant they both have to be modified. Originally, the estimated wait time to convert the lens mount was somewhere in the neighborhood of three to four months. And like clockwork, the Canon was done without a hitch. However, the same could not be said of the Angénieux.
Much to my chagrin, the parts required to modify the Angénieux were not forthcoming. It was ridiculous how long the wait had become. And so with the passage of time, with weeks turning into months... and seasons changing... a full year had come and gone without so much as a hint of an update. But then out of nowhere, right before the start of my hectic summer travel schedule, news had reached me that the modification had finally been completed.
With closure finally in sight, my enthusiasm relumed alight once more, now with the game afoot. So excited with anticipation I was, I made a beeline to Tokyo (which was where the modification had been carried out) dragging my partner in crime in tow. Seeing that a shootout was imminent, I figured that the bright lights of Tokyo would offer a more spectacular backdrop for wide open documentation past dark.
Sadly, my plans were thwarted by the summer monsoons and a late dinner reservation with Japan Camera Hunter on the only dry night of my visit. Of course, I could've skipped dinner and stayed focus with my objective. But then, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to dine al fresco, with Vera Lynn and Bert Ambrose emanating in the background, at this bizarre Tudor decor restaurant reminiscent of wartime England - albeit minus the rationing and the sirens sounding the all clear.
Rained out in Tokyo, my long awaited shootout had to be brought back to Hong Kong. But again, the summer monsoons just wouldn't let up. Eventually, I didn't have much of a choice, but bite the bullet. With time running out before another long haul flight, I was forced to cut my losses and conduct this shootout in the storm. It really wasn't the most ideal situation, since it meant certain exposure to the elements for this trio of special purpose lenses.
In order to escape the heavy downpour, we took cover up an elevated pedestrian roundabout. Even so, the rain sprayed sideways onto us. That said, the pitter patter of rain offered an added dimension of texture to the rendering of the rain-drenched background. It was an unexpected blessing from a night not fit for man nor beast. I mean, who'd have thought that drops of rain when caught at the right moment can refract the background light to render additional bokeh?
Fortune rewards those who are persistent despite constant delays and poor shooting conditions. Had I wimped-out and pushed off this shootout yet another night for clearer skies, I wouldn't have discovered firsthand how bokeh can be enlivened on a stormy night. And isn't that really the main reason why these special purpose lenses are so popular in the first place? It's for how they render bokeh in low light situations.
For this reason, I didn't stop down in this shootout (except for the set shot at f/1.4). I mean, what would be the point? If I wanted to shoot stopped down, I might as well have gone with a smaller and slower lens. If not for bokeh, the only other time these special purpose lenses would ever be in need is if one is still shooting film in low light, or if one is shooting near pitch black darkness beyond the usable range offered by high ISO sensors.
In comparing the three lenses, it's obvious that the Leica has the most contemporary rendering. It's sharper at maximum aperture across the frame, has less vignetting, and appears to blur out background details with increased diffusion. To my eyes, the rendering of this lens has a familiar look. Subject details within the plane of focus is clearly the most defined, with background details increasingly less defined, the further it moves away from the plane of focus.
As for the Canon, it is by far the softest at maximum aperture of the three lenses, especially away from the center of the frame. That said, the lens really does have that dreamlike quality consistent to its namesake. Personally, I'm not especially partial to its rendering wide open. However, when stopped down to f/1.4, the Canon really shines. In my experience reviewing lenses, I've never seen a lens that isolated a subject with as much subtlety as this one.
As for the Angénieux, it should first be noted that it isn't a full frame lens. The corner of the frame is cut off by the edge of the lens barrel. However, when shot wide open, the edge of that barrel softens. So when the Angénieux is shot in very low light situations, the the cropping could be mistaken for vignetting. That being said, why else would you use this lens. It only makes sense to shoot it in very low light.
Strictly speaking, it is a C-Mount cinema lens that's been modified for M-mount use. Because of what it’s intended to do, the Angénieux appears to have a more cinema-like quality in the way it renders. In other words, it's far more contrasty and saturated in look, as if designed to render images for optimal visual recognition when viewed from a distance. It's not a subtle lens at all in the way it seems to animate a static image.
Overall, all three lenses are very different in characteristic, despite being equally fast. If I have to pick my favorite of the three, it would be a tossup. The Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M is the most conventional of the three lens, offering contemporary rendering. The Canon 50mm f/0.95 is the most forgiving, offering a more flattering rendering. As for the Angénieux 50mm f/0.95 Type M1, it is by far the most impactful in rendering, but a handful to use.
When it comes right down to it, it's really a question of personal preference. Having said that, the Leica is the safest option, the Canon is the most practical option, and the Angénieux is the most indulgent option. I mean the Angénieux must be the most indulgent option, given how soft it is in definition away from center, and given how much barrel distortion it has. And on that note, I can finally put this long awaited harebrained demonstration to rest.
REVISION - Earlier, I said that the Angénieux when stopped down can mitigate the blockage of the lens barrel in documentation. On a haunch, I double checked. I was mistaken. In fact, it's even worse when stopped down and shot under normal ambient light. My apologies. Truly a rookie oversight.
Exposure, highlight, shadows, white, and black values have been tweaked on Adobe Lightroom. Some images have been cropped and leveled slightly. Images shot on the Leica SL have had some tweaking in color balance in order to better match the color balance on the Leica M10. Contrast, clarity, and saturation have not been edited. All images have been shot at maximum aperture unless stated otherwise. Film negatives have all been digitized on a Pakon F135 scanner.