For well over half a century, one of the chief attractions of the venerable Leica M rangefinder system has been its acclaimed line of interchangeable Leica lenses. This week, we look at three of the latest.
Certainly optics like the old (or current) 50mm f/2 Summicron-M set a high standard for image quality, and the current 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH has been widely hailed in the press as one of the best, if not the best, 50mm lenses ever produced—and it ought to be at a street price just shy of $3,600!
This brings us directly to the optical trio of super-speed Leica-M lenses that we’re going to explore over the next three days. All carry the ASPH designation, denoting the presence of one or more ground and polished (not hybrid or cast) aspheric surfaces used in its construction. These lenses also employ exotic glass (some of it produced in tiny batches exclusively for Leica) that must be laboriously fabricated into precision elements.
Such manufacturing processes are extremely demanding, time-consuming and undeniably expensive, and so is bench assembly of the final lens by hand, and 100% testing. The bottom line, of course is performance and the question is whether all these heroic measures have resulted in something truly special, namely lenses that combine unsurpassed speed, extraordinary image quality, and unmatched picture-taking capabilities. Ultimately, whether these lenses are worth $6,000-$10,000 apiece hinges on whether they can capture unique images of surpassing quality.
We’re going to spend the next three days putting three of Leica’s fastest prime lenses through their paces, starting with the priciest model.
The Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH
Yes, at f/0.95 this is the fastest lens in production for full-frame (24x36mm) sensor digital or 35mm photography. It’s 11 percent faster than the previous 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux-M,, and its extremely wide maximum aperture allows you to shoot handheld available light pictures in fairly dimly lit interiors even at ISO 200 or lower. Perhaps even more important, its extremely shallow depth of field when shooting wide open lets you diffuse background details to create stunning pictorial effects, and direct the viewer’s attention to whatever you have focused on.
Hefty Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 handles surprisingly well on Leica M9 and delivers awesome performance, but minimum focus distance of 3.3 feet will cramp your close-up style and $10K price for lens alone is daunting.
Can an f/0.95 lens be sharp?
Even at its maximum aperture, the Noctilux is capable of capturing crisp, high-contrast detail, especially in the broad central area of the image field, with definition falling off very slightly only in the extreme corners. For a lens of this speed, performance of this caliber is astonishing.
Stop this lens down to f/1.4 and the Noctilux ASPH gives the vaunted 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH a real run for the money, and its performance is nearly equal to the benchmark Summilux until about f/11. At f/11 and at its minimum aperture of f/16, the Noctilux still delivers very good sharpness and contrast, but at slightly lower levels due to diffraction. Granted, few photographers will be inclined to spend 10 grand on a Noctilux if they don’t require its super speed and/or the gorgeous pictorial effects possible with its razor-thin depth of field and excellent bokeh.
However it’s also remarkably versatile for a super-speed lens, delivering top-notch performance in general shooting. And it’s extremely well corrected for flare, thanks to its advanced optical design and the use Leica’s proprietary multi-coating on all surfaces.
Wide open at f/0.95! With superb definition at the point of focus (see 100% enlarged eye section, below) plus extremely shallow depth of field the subject seems to pop off the background.
While the Noctilux clearly succeeds in it mission as a unique lens capable of capturing distinctive images (as well as being a notable optical achievement that exalts the entire Leica-M lens line) it is also one big cahuna for a 50mm lens. This 8-element, 5-group masterpiece is 2.9 inches wide, 3-inches long, and tips the scales at a hefty 1.54 pounds—more than a Leica M7 or M9 body, although it balances quite nicely on either camera.
Due primarily to its girth, it also obscures a fair chunk of the lower right-hand area of the 50mm finder frame, which can, at times, make composing the picture a bit dodgy. However, the most frustrating spec is its longish minimum focusing distance of 1 meter, or 3.3 feet. While there may be sound optical and mechanical reasons for imposing this limit, it’s simply not close enough for a tight head shot, a close-up portrait that could otherwise be a thing of beauty, especially if you shot it at f/0.95.
So, should you run out and buy this monster?
Because of its size, price, and close focusing limitations, most Leica fans will be happier with the justly acclaimed 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. That lens is is a lot handier, doesn’t intrude on the 50mm frame line, focuses to 0.7 meters (2.3 feet), and costs less than half as much as the formidable Noctilux.
Nevertheless, once you spend some time with this lens and take a close look at the images you’ve created with it, all its foibles (even its excruciatingly high price) pale into insignificance. Clearly the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH is a lens in a class by itself, and in terms of sharpness, contrast, detail rendition, and its unique picture possibilities, it takes the whole concept of a super-speed normal lens to an entirely new level.