Superfast lenses – the original Noctilux 50mm f/1.2

When it was released in 1966, the Leica Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 was an altogether different animal. It was great at shooting in low light, expensive and difficult to make. That’s probably why less than 2000 were made. By the mid 1960s, there were a number of players in the sub-f/1.4 field, primarily for shooting in low light. Nikon, Canon, and Minolta all had f/1.2 lenses. Work on the use of aspherical elements in lenses began in the late 1950s.

The Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 was produced from 1966 until 1975, and was the worlds first lens to feature aspherical elements. The name Noctilux is a combination of Nocti, which is derived from the word nocturnal, while Lux is Latin for light.

“Even at f/1.2 the NOCTILUX produces so very little flare that strong light-sources are imaged with only minimum halo surround. Brightly back-lighted subjects, anathema to poorly corrected high-aperture lenses, have clear, accurate outlines.” [2]

This was supposedly the first Leitz lens to sacrifice some resolution in order to gain contrast. Bill Pierce who wrote a brief article on the new lens in 1967 remarked: “To the best of my knowledge, rather extensive in this tiny field, none previous to the Noctilux could deliver a clean, biting journalistic image at maximum aperture.” [1]

“Superior optical contrast due to high correction for coma and all other critical aberrations and due to freedom from internal reflections, make the NOCTILUX the ·ideal high-aperture lens for use with high-speed available-light films.” [2]

The first prototypes were made in April of 1964 Designed by Helmut Marx and Paul Sindel (Helmut Marx was Professor Max Berek’s successor as head of the photographic lens design in Wetzlar, and creator of the first Summicron 50 in 1953). The Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 was released in 1966. The Leica Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 is a 6-element Gauss variant with 4 members. It has two aspherical elements (front and rear) which were made on a specially built grinding machine that had to be operated manually. There was only one machine, and only one person capable of operating it (Gerd Bergmann), so many elements had to be discarded as rubbish.

It was sometimes claimed to be the fastest production lens in the world, because other manufacturers lenses often proved to be slower than indicated. After the release in 1966 there was much research to produce an f/1 version of the lens with 3 Aspherical elements, but in 1970 the project was abandoned because the aspherical technology was in its infancy, and the production costs were immense. The f/1.2 lens remained in production until only 1975 with 1757 units produced. A new version of the lens, the Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.2 ASPH was released in 2021, with the construction only minimally changed. The new lens sells at US$7900, which is a bargain considering the old lens can sell for upwards of $US70,000.

References:

  1. Bill Pierce, “Because it was possible”, Popular Photography, 60(1), p.135-156 (1967)
  2. Leica brochure, “50mm NOCTILUX f/1.2

Further reading:

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