Why I spent $14,500 on a camera lens that can see in the dark

Leica’s Noctilux 1:0.95. Photo: Franz Scheurer

The 35mm camera we take for granted today (consider it the godfather of your smartphone) is the result a German optical engineer, Oskar Barnack, wanting to use 35mm ciné film horizontally, instead of vertically, in a small camera for street photography and expeditions.

Ernst Leitz, his boss, agreed to build a prototype and thus history was made.

The name Leica is a composite of the first three letters of Ernst Leitz’s surname and the first two letters of ‘camera’. The Zeiss lenses of the time did not cover the horizontal format properly. so they had to design and build their own lenses. The first one was a 50mm f3.5.

Leica Camera AG, as it is known today, has always had a reputation of field-leading quality, innovation and solutions for every photographic problem. A long line of world-famous photographers used the venerable range-finder camera, which, by the way is still going strong in its current form. When they started to build DSLR cameras, medium format cameras and mirror-less cameras one thing stayed consistent: absolute attention to detail and building the best in each class.

Leica’s optical glass and Leica lenses are universally accepted as the best in the world. Today you will find Leica cameras and lenses in advertising and fashion studios, on war fronts being knocked about by reporters, at the North Pole, in scientific labs, and even at the end of telescopes.

In 1966, Leica started to experiment with really fast lenses and created the Noctilux lens with an aperture of 1:1.2, followed by one with the aperture of 1:1 in 1975.

Now we have the Noctilux 1:0.95. Yes, that’s right, a lens that allows more light onto the sensor than we can see with our eyes. This beauty is all made by hand in special, sterile rooms in the basement of the Leica Camera AG in Wetzlar.

There is no doubt that the Noctilux 1:0.95/50mm lens is one of a kind and the fastest aspherical lens in the world and maybe, just maybe the best photographic lens ever built.

So, what’s stopping people from going out and getting one?

Perhaps it’s the fact that it is a totally manual lens. Yes, you have to focus it. Yes you have to set the aperture manually.

And maybe the cost. This lens (in black or silver) has a cool $14,500 price tag.

And it’s heavy and almost impossible to focus accurately – until now with the release of the Leica SL mirrorless camera body.

So, unless you have more money than sense why would you buy a difficult to use, slow to operate, manual lens for a king’s ransom?

Because it’s one of a kind, giving you a unique and superb result of unrivalled aesthetic quality not achievable with anything else.

Interestingly, almost every Leica pro-shooter owns one and invariably shoot fully open i.e. at 1:0.95.

Due to the wide aperture, you end up with an extremely narrow depth of field. (e.g. if you shoot a face, then the eyes will be in focus and nothing else). The contrast and colour rendition, even fully open, is remarkably good. The bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus areas) is simply stunning and the narrow focus will give your images a 3-D feel not achievable with any other lens. As it is a 50mm focal length, it also captures a very natural perspective, giving a true-to-life rendition under normal lighting conditions.

Once stopped down, it behaves almost exactly like the 50mm Summilux, long considered one of Leica’s reference lenses, and the contrast and saturation might even be a little better.

So yes, you could use it as an all-purpose ‘standard’ lens for the 35mm format, but in reality, having the super narrow depth of field and the absolutely superb bokeh, this lens might as well be taped at 0.95. Once you own one, that’s what you will use.

Since Leica has released the SL mirrorless camera you can attach almost any Leica lens ever made, from the native SL lenses to the M, T, R and S series lenses and the Noctilux with the SL to M adapter suddenly becomes immensely useable and easy to focus.

The SL’s electronic viewfinder is the best and brightest on the market; activate its easy magnification option to quickly give pinpoint accuracy. Suddenly the Noctilux becomes a lens for almost anything where you want to isolate the subject and blur the background, from street photography to portraits to food photography.

The only drawback I have found so far is the minimum focusing distance, but I suppose the design of this lens already stretches the boundaries of optics.

So, would I spend AU $14,500 on just one lens? Yes, I would and did.

And I would spend an extra $20 for a Lenstab (the ‘TAAB HEFTY fits and it’s a rubber ring that slips over the focusing ring with a holder for your finger and facilitates quick focus.

If you’re a Leica shooter, sell the car, the spouse, the dog, whatever you can and get one.

Here are some shots I took using the Noctilux 1:0.95.

Photo: Franz Scheurer
Photo: Franz Scheurer
Photo: Franz Scheurer
Photo: Franz Scheurer
Photo: Franz Scheurer
Photo: Franz Scheurer

* Leica recently opened its first store in Sydney in the Queen Victoria building.

* Franz Scheurer runs Franz Scheurer Photography and FSP Advertising Agency. He also writes about food, wine and travel at Australian Gourmet Pages, the website and e-newsletter he founded in 1998.

Franz is on Twitter as @blues_junkie.

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