LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50 MM F/1:
THE LAST EMPEROR

Text and Product Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

   

Introduced in 1976, the Leica Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is the most luminous series manufactured lens in the world for 35 mm photography, featuring extraordinary traits, specially suitable for ambient light photographs under very dim luminous conditions, being even able to make shots inside indoor spaces only lit with the light of a candle, capturing the whole surrounding area with maximum sharpness and clarity.

DESIGN IN THE BOUNDARY OF THE TECHNICALLY AND PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE
The design of this lens, whose optical capabilities greatly reach the frontier of the physically feasible, was a work by the out of this world German optician Walter Mandler, who created it at the Leitz factory in Midland, Ontario (Canada), which coexisted with that one in Wetzlar (Federal Republic of Germany).
        Helmut Marx and Paul Sindel had already designed in Wetzlar (Germany) the Noctilux-M 50 mm F1.2, whose first prototype was inscribed in the register of patents of Germany on April 25th 1964, while the definitive design was finished on April 19th 1965, being presented at the 1966 Photokina Köln (although there are some clues suggesting that Walter Mandler could have also made at least a different prototype of Noctilux 50 mm F1.2 with aspherical surfaces in Midlands (Ontario) in 1963 -built with different very skillful techniques-, but finally abandoned his own project of Noctilux 50 mm 1.2 Asph because of the brutal cost of production and the huge difficulties both to produce it in significant numbers and to make it commercially profitable).
    The Noctilux-M 50 mm F1.2 Asph designed by Helmut Marx and Paul Sindel in Wetzlar (Germany) was a good quality lens at maximum aperture, sporting 6 elements, which had two built-in aspherical elements -something revolutionary and hugely expensive in that period, but imperative to remove the spherical aberration and not the desired flare at large apertures- whose manual grinding was rather slow, demanded a huge experience and fairly deep optical knowledge, implied a strenuous work and showed a certain proneness to errors. It was a very weighty and king size lens, because of its outer area in black colour anodised aluminium and its inner one with bronze and stainless steel to assure a smooth working to the greatest degree, and besides, its performance at closer diaphragms didn´t match the optimal levels typical in the elite Leica lenses, apart from exhibiting a medium-high contrast and a rendering of the image fine details that wasn´t up to the reference standard lenses in Leica array. And if it wasn´t enough, only very few opticians were able to build it at Wetzlar, and besides, a lot of lenses had to be rejected in the manufacturing phase until getting to build the correct one.
        But in 1976, Mandler redesigned utterly the optical formula of Noctilux, creating the first version of the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 (a much better lens than its predecessor Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1.2) sporting seven high quality elements grinded spherically, which included ultramodern optical glasses of the highest optical qualities and very special formulae that helped a lot to solve the many manufacturing difficulties that had posed years behind the insertion of the two aspherical elements featured by the 1966 Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1.2, so this new Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 first version (made between 1976 and 1994 and whose optical formula links up with the Xenon, Summarit designs and the first generations of Summilux lenses, but with the difference that the elements number two and three are not cemented, but but separated by an air space) became in the worldly reference of quality for the taking of handheld shots under low light conditions, getting very spectacular results with excellent contrast at full aperture, virtually impossible to obtain with any other lens.
        And in 1994, also a work by Walter Mandler, was introduced the second version of the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 second version, in which the optical design is exactly the same, but it
has a new mount with a built-in collapsible hood.
        The Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 (a prodigy of balance and reduction to the maximum possible degree of the different optical aberrations and an epitome of the wondrous classical Double-Gauss design taken to its most hidden limits of quality at large apertures thanks to the zenithal optical knowledge of Mandler and the help of powerful computers with specific softwares for optical optimisation) is a historical jewel of world optics, incorporating some optical elements with a very high refraction index of >1.9. And such optical glasses boasting a brutal refraction index and remarkable weight (beating in optical performance even the legendary synthetic fluorite elements of some Canon AF L series lenses) are very expensive to make.
        And besides, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 (whose actual focal length is 52´4 mm) has a negligible degree of distortion, even inferior to the one in a lot of 50 mm f/1.4 standard lenses of other brands considered as references, in which often the choice is to keep an intermediate and even sometimes high level of distortion to be able to compensate the most difficult to correct optical aberrations. But Leica always tries to achieve the maximum optical quality feasible in all the intervening parameters, though logically both the manufacturing and research costs along with the market selling price are hefty.


DIFFERENT BEHAVIOUR COMPARED TO THE REST OF SUPERLUMINOUS LENSES
The Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 has among many others one feature becoming it into a superelite lens, certainly unique and uncomparable: its optimal behaviour at full f/1 aperture and its slight improvement in quality after stopping. This is something absolutely exceptional and very spectacular, since practically all the lenses considered as being very luminous (between f/1.2 and f/2.8) improve clearly on stopping and usually reach their top level of quality at f/8.
        Therefore, it is evident that the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 has been conceived with the basic premise of attaining the best possible results at the biggest apertures, using the best technology and optical glasses available in the world, in such a way that incredibly, if any margin has been left for compromise, it has been for the performance at closer f stops. All the priority and the brutally complex optical calculus has been focused on achieving a full working of this fabled lens at f/1 and f/1.2, with utter consistency and reliability regarding the good quality of image achieved at such extremely open diaphragms. And it undoubtedly sets up one of the greatest optical feats throughout the whole history of photography, since it is already difficult to avoid the flare and distortion in lenses of maximum aperture of f/1.4, but at f/1.2 and not to mention at f/1, it becomes almost impossible to fully eliminate the coma, the spherical aberration, the transversal chromatic aberration, some curvilinear distortion and a certain degree of vignetting, which in the case of Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 reaches a three stops drop of luminosity on the corners of the frame at full aperture, though such a darkening disappears completely stopping from f/2.
        Hence, taking into account the fairly special circumstances, in spite of being beaten in global optical quality –it couldn´t be other way, since it is much more difficult to make- by flagships as the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2, the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 or the newest Bugatti Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is a superlative quality top-notch lens, above all at the widest apertures and able to take shots under low light circumstances impossible for the rest of photographic lenses on earth, specially if it is combined with a Leica M3 or Leica M6 x0.85, always taking into account the great advantage entailed by rangefinder cameras on shooting handheld at very low shutter speed, due to the lack of a tilting mirror and with superlative optical qualities, since the lenses follow pure non retrofocus designs, created without any sort of compromise.


NUMANTIAN RESISTANCE TO FLARE AND SUPERB RENDERING OF SUBTLE DETAILS
The Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 has an incredible ability to eliminate flare under all kinds of light conditions, beating in this aspect even the gorgeous Summicron-M 50 mm f/2, and being only very slightly overcome in the quoted wiping out of flare by the new best standard lens in the world Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH.
        As a matter of fact, the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1 allows to make photographs without a hint of flare, even in situations in which a light shines almost directly in front of the lens and even in cases in which a source of light falls directly onto the surface of the frame.
        On the other hand, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is able to capture the most concealed gradations and nuances of colour, both on the areas of the frame with dark shadows and on the areas with most pronounced high keys.
        Another incredible breakthrough attained with the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is the excellent contrast that it manages to render, which noticeably contributes to the great quality of image achieved. In fact, the contrast of the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 at full aperture beats the one of elite lenses from the fifties as the Summarit 50 mm F1.5 and the Summicron 50 mm f/2 (7 element version) at f/2. And we mustn´t forget that these two lenses were deemed world level lenses coupled to the fabulous Leica M3.
        And also in this respect, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 shows its clearly unique optical character and behaviour, for the optimal contrast values are reached at f/2.8 and f/4, instead of at f/5.6 and f/8 which is the usual thing in most standard lenses.

   

PECULIAR IMAGE OF EXCEPTIONAL BEAUTY
The Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is a very special lens in nearly 100 % of its features and capabilities, and as it couldn´t be other way, the aesthetic of beauty achieved with it is something singular, a world apart difficult to explain with words.
        It is due to a high degree to the extraordinary sharpness this formidable lens attains
-similar to that obtained by the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2- and to the smooth rendering even of the finest details of texture, so you can get images impregnated at the same time with both an enormous faithfulness to reality and a ´momently impressionist poetic touch´. And this uncommon aesthetical binomial of perfect synergy, utterly proved and lacking any type of subjectivity, produces a kind of photographies and images, both in color and black and white, that exceed the possibilities of the rest of lenses from different brands at world level, without it implying any sort of underrating to the other high end optics of the rest of firms.
        This also entails an optical prowess of colossal dimensions, since it is hugely difficult to simultaneously carry out an excellent level of resolution power (managing to accurately capture the finest structures and textures of the subject) with a superb and progressive tonal gradation (with a very faithful separation even of hardly perceptible differences in colour), specially in a lens sporting such a huge maximum aperture. But in the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1, both sides have been optimised to feasible extent, albeit it has been impossible to correct completely the oblique spheric aberration in sagittal direction, the astigmatism and the field curvature, which makes decrease slightly the quality at full aperture at the minimal focusing distances, with some contrast reduction, which is unavoidable, because usually the vast majority of lenses – and the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is not an exception- are optimised for infinite position, except the specialized macro lenses.
        In another direction, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 was designed to get top quality photographic art, specially under low luminosity conditions, being excluded in advance the choice of using flash, and always trying to depict with the utmost possible beauty even the finest tonalities of the deep shadows. It is undoubtedly a purist concept of photography, but virtually unbeatable results are achieved with it, preserving the authentic atmosphere of the place or instant captured by the photographer, as well as being able to use 25, 50, 64 and 100 ISO films offering finer grain, better contrast, sharpness, more vivid colours and superior tonal gradation than the 400, 800 and 1600 ISO films.
        It all allows to attain impressive photographs with superb clarity and lavishness of colours under low light conditions, without using any type of artificial light, something incredible setting up the main definite character of the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1, an authentic optical Rolls-Royce for the taking of twilight and even night shots without any light, since the light of an only candle allows its use without any problems.

   

FOCUSING SHIFT
Due to the huge aperture, Walter Mandler had to take into account an enormous myriad of factors on designing the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1, so it was impossible to reduce the focusing shift to the level of a Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 for instance.
        Notwithstanding, this parameter has also been reduced in the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 almost to the optically possible minimal levels.
        Actually, the Blendendifferenz (a phenomenon through which the point focused by the lens experiences a little progressive shift on stopping) implies a minute problem –not relevant to practical effects- between f/1.4 and f/4 (a focusing shift around 0´32 cm), because from f/5.6, though the focusing shift is even more pronounced, the bigger depth of field renders it suitably neutralized.
        And it must be underlined that during its already long life span, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 has been successfully used both at full aperture f/1 and at f1.2, f/1.4, f/2 and f/4 by many professional and advanced amateur photographers all over the world, and the mentioned focusing shift hasn´t hardly posed any drawback.

AMAZING IMAGE EFFECTS
Among its many qualities -which sometimes border on out of this world features- the strongpoint par excellence of the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is its incredible ability to get photographs with different limited depths of fields, in which the subject appears utterly sharp but all the rest out of focus, bringing about the marvellous momently ethereal and absolutely distinctive bokeh that this dream lens is able to generate, specially between f/1 and f/2.
        And bearing always in mind that ISO 100 film can be used in contexts of low or very low light, exceeding the working limits of less luminous lenses which under such circumstances are bound to use almost compulsorily 400 or 800 ISO films.

ELITE MECHANICAL MANUFACTURE
Traditionally, one of the most exclusive features of the Leica M series lenses has been their top-notch mechanical building and the one sported by the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is simply superb, with a smoothness and accuracy in the focusing helicoids bringing about indescribable feelings on handling the binomial Leica M camera + lens. It´s the legendary ´Leica Feeling´.
        Also first rate is the inner construction of the lens barrels and of course every metallic area in it is made with the best possible noble metals and alloys.
        It all enables the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 being capable of frequent use for many decades. Actually, there is a significant supply of second hand Leica Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 first version units, in perfect working condition, which have kept intact both their incredible mechano-optical qualities and their reselling value, without any operating problem, being needed anyhow the revision of the camera rangefinder by an expert from time to time for its perfect adjustment, specially the vertical one, which uses to be the most critical one.



REQUIREMENTS FOR USE
The Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is an exceptional lens, featuring unique qualities, demanding deep technical knowledge to take advantage of its whole unutterable photographic ability together with a certain talent and previous experience in the capturing of situations at the precise moments. And all that must be complemented by a well calibrated rangefinder, to be able to fully avail yourself of accurate focusings, specially in the photographs made at the widest apertures.
        On the other hand, the M mount Leica rangefinders ( or the classical M39 thread Leicas, or Bessas R, Konica Hexar RF, Rollei RF by means of an special adaptor for M bayonet) need a special using technique, utterly different to that in 35 mm SLR cameras both with automatic and manual focusing, and it is necessary an adaptation period to get acquaintanced with the focusing through coincidence rangefinder, the genuine life epicentre of cameras like the Leica M3, M6, M7 and so forth.
        It´s also important to underscore that the photographs made with the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 at full aperture f/1 are very difficult to securely make handheld, requiring a careful previous planning and the use of a tripod to wholly exploit this fabulous lens (the grade of detail, flare resistance, excellent contrast and formidable separation between shadows and high keys attained at such aperture turn out to be impressive when being careful), since at the quoted diaphragm and with the subject at a distance of 1 meter, the depth of field is very scarce, only 2 cm, and 4,5 cm if the subject is at a distance of two meters. And Even at a distance of 10 meters, the depth of field at f/1 is between 9 and 11´4 meters.
        On the other hand, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 needs a very good darkroom technique so as to achieve optimal results, specially in regard to the superb tonal range.

WORKING ABILITY AS AN ALL- PURPOSE LENS
Albeit the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 was very specially conceived for the making of photographs without any flash under low light conditions, thanks to its utterly uncommon resolution and contrast – together with the excellent tonal range which it is able to render- it is undoubtedly one of the best choices for all kinds of photographic tasks linked to the fixed standard lenses domain, being able to attain very outstanding results, though when stopped from f/2 it is beaten by the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH (the best 50 mm 35 mm lens of all time) and the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 (the world reference until very recently), although if a thorough technical test isn´t carried out, differences shorten remarkably to practical effects, always keeping in mind that the image aesthetics created by the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is different from the one yielded by the two standard lenses previously cited (full-fledged wonders of faithful depiction of reality).

CONCLUSION
The Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is one of the best lenses in all the history of photography, an authentic world referent of quality inside the realm of 50 mm standard lenses and of course, with difference, the diachronic flagship till nowadays of the very selected group of ultraluminous lenses with widest aperture between f/1 and f/1.2.
        Already immersed within XXI Century with a massive spreading of autofocus zooms in different focal ranges, whose quality has been able to be improved more and more by means of the use of multicoatings, aspherical surfaces, prolix computerized optical systems, low dispersion UD elements, synthetic fluorite, etc, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is an already alive testimony and a great homage to the wondrous reference fixed focal lenses (currently still unbeatable in global quality), essentially conceived and manufactured thanks to the superlative talent, hugely deep optical knowledge and a bombproof working capacity of the super elite optical designers like Walter Mandler, who besides the research and scientific tests in optical laboratory to fulfil the proper corrections, kept in mind the needs of professional photographers from diverse sectors when the time was ripe to create their lenses.
        It´s true that there have existed other superluminous manual focusing lenses, huge aperture and excellent quality, both for rangefinder cameras (Canon Rangefinder 50 mm f/1.2 in Leica screw mount, Nikkor 50 mm f/1.1, Zunow 50 mm f/1.1) and reflex ones (Canon 55 mm f/1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical, Canon FD 50 mm f/1.2 L, Nikkor 55 mm f/1.2, 58 mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, etc), along with the Canon EF 50 mm f/1 autofocus and even the fabled Carl Zeiss 50 mm f/0.7 manufactured for the NASA and subsequently acquired by Stanley Kubrick – who adapted their mount for the 35 mm Arri cinematographic camera and used them in the famous scene of the candles in Barry Lyndon film.
        But from them all, the one contributing more optical quality at f/1 and f/1.2 –authentic touchstone to evaluate the performance of an ultraluminous lens- is with difference the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1, which has been occupying the throne for thirty years, virtually unbeatable at such diaphragms and that probably will go on being The Last Emperor.



SPECIFICATIONS

Focal length and maximum aperture:
Nominal of 50 mm (actual of 52, 4 mm) f/1
Construction: 7 elements in 6 groups
Angle of image: 45º
Diaphragm: Manual
Scale of Apertures: f/1-f/16
Weight: 630 g
Scale of distances: Graduated in meters
and feet, from 1 m to infinite
Entrance pupil: 42´9 mm (linked to the first surface of the lens in the direction of the light)
Filter size: E60
Minimal focusing distance: 1 metre
Magnification: 1:17
Size: 62 x 69 mm
 


© Copyright José Manuel Serrano Esparza