I have gone through the gear of almost every major brand during my early photography journey, buying my way through cameras and lenses until I arrived at my current setup, which has remained more or less the same for my entire professional career. Despite settling on a brand known for its high price point, I have been comfortable with all of my camera and lens choices except one, which is what I’ll be discussing here.
Buying the Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 was a decision I made early on after I decided that the 35mm focal length (which had served me well while learning) did not work for me on a rangefinder or for general-purpose photography, I felt that 50mm made the most sense.
My exposure to the Noctilux was through the work of fashion and portrait photographers, and I can’t say I can name any exemplary (in my opinion) examples of street photographers or photojournalists who use this lens as their mainstay. Nevertheless, at the time I wanted to have something extreme, and the Noctilux represented to me a piece of optics that was on the edge of what is possible in terms of light gathering with a distinct aesthetic and the potential for unique applications.
The Noctilux was one of the first lenses I used with my rangefinder system and it has stayed with me in more or less consistent use until very recently. When I started out, the majority of my work was in fashion, and I used the Noctilux for both runway and portraiture. It was perfect for the low light environments here, and shooting catwalks with such thin depth of field became a non-optional crash course in rangefinder focusing.
As time went on I began to become more and more comfortable with what this lens offered me, and I used it for many of my early street photography attempts. However, the Noctilux almost demands to be shot wide open to fully take advantage of that f/0.95 aperture. As a result, I became lazy, relying on the bokeh to obliterate my backgrounds rather than carefully composing my work. My earliest street photography definitely suffered from this and it’s only when I began to use lighter lenses and smaller apertures that my composition was able to become as precise as it is today.
Leica lenses are optimized to be used wide open, where many lenses may reach their “peak” performance at f/4 to f/8, and the Noctilux is no different. Although mine suffers from higher chromatic aberration as a non-APO corrected design, it still has incredible sharpness at all apertures, and in black and white especially it can produce some really special images. The “look” of the Noctilux resides in the images produced at its widest aperture and is what makes the lens (and images made with it) so unique.
The background of an image is often essential for providing context to an image. It allows the subject to rest in a location, in and around points of interest and other characters through framing and composition. The alternative to specific context would be atmosphere, to provide a general feeling about where the subject could be, whilst drawing almost all of the attention to the subject with nowhere else for the eye to rest. This is one of the reasons the Noctilux is so popular for portrait photographers. The Noctilux turns any context into a dreamy atmosphere and thus can be a powerful storytelling tool when implemented well.
It definitely takes a while to “break in” the Noctilux, to learn it’s strengths and weaknesses before bending it to your will and making it work in a way that works for you. I found focusing difficult without a focusing tab but was able to add a third-party rubber option which made it much easier (I have done this will all of my lenses that do not have one built in).
Once you have, though, it is a joy to use and the images are a joy to review. The signature of the lens is its intimate field of view — 50mm is a perfect distance for many who want intimacy with their subject, and it provides an undeniably close-to-medium-format look in such a relatively tiny and lightweight package.
Having shot the Noctilux for so long in so many situations, and having traveled with it to as many countries as I have, it is only natural that I feel a sentimental attachment both to it and the work I produced through it, especially from early in my career. I am not usually sentimental towards my gear, and I feel like this attachment is one of the few reasons I still shoot this lens. Having just described the incredible positivity I feel towards this lens, it might be strange to hear that I am finding it harder and harder to justify its continued use and place in my gear collection.
The main reason for my second thoughts is (perhaps obviously) financial. Selling this lens would fund my travels for at least a year — likely more — and that would do more for my photography and well-being than holding onto it. Having used the Noctilux for my early jobs it has paid for itself a few times over at this point, and I still think that for a professional who understands exactly what is offered by this lens, there are few better options.
I now own many alternatives, which offer close to the same experience at a fraction of the cost – although none match the aesthetic offered by the Noctilux exactly. Although my favorite focal length for shooting street photography is 90mm, when it comes to my professional work shooting weddings, fashion, productions, and other close quarters documentary, 50mm is my go-to.
As such I have built far more of a collection of 50mm lenses around my Noctilux, which I now use less and less frequently. High ISO capabilities of digital cameras, or pushed film, mean that I can often shoot in low light without needing the extra stops that are offered by an f/0.95 lens. I only really use the Noctilux now when I am trying to achieve a certain aesthetic to my images.
Other 50mm lenses I use more frequently today include the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 C Sonnar, Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar, 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1, and Jupiter-8 50mm f/2 – all of which are available for much, much less than the Noctilux. The 7artisans 50mm f/1.1 is a particularly fantastic option, especially on film, with its own unique aesthetic as well as its incredibly reasonable price. For rangefinder beginners and hobbyists, I think my recommendation would be the 7artisans.
Despite this, and despite being skeptical of my sentimentality, every time I bring the Noctilux out for another shoot I feel rewarded. The Noctilux look shines in every photograph I create with it, and for now, this is enough to keep me shooting it. I’ll be holding onto it for the moment, and seeing whether or not it continues to find work over the next few years.
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.