Ultrafast lenses – the Noctilux 50mm f/1

After Canon and Nikon gave up on their sub-f/1.1 lenses, there was a lull for a while. In all possibility it was likely considered that film would just get so fast there would be little need for these light behemoths. But high ISO film was only introduced in the mid to late 1970s – Fujicolor 400 (1976), Kodakcolor 400 (1977). Indeed faster films begat faster lenses.

The Leitz 50mm Noctilux f/1 for Leica M cameras appeared in 1976, designed by Walter Mandler (1922-2005) and produced by Ernst Leitz Canada. It was a successor to the earlier Noctilux f/1.2. Bob Schwalberg reviewed the lens in 1976 [1]. His observation was that it had a high optical contrast and almost no flare at f/1, “outimaging” its compatriots the Noctilux f/1.2 and the Summilux f/1.4.

The lens was manufactured for a long time, from 1976-2007. The name Noctilux, was designated for three lenses with differing apertures:

  • Leitz Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 aspherical (1966-1976).
  • Leitz/Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.0 (1976-2007).
  • Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95/50mm ASPH (2008- )

The lens was constructed using only spherical curvatures, as opposed to the f/1.2 which used two aspherical surfaces with a 6/4 design. The earlier design was likely changed because the aspherical lenses were too expensive to manufacture. The f/1 uses a modified Gauss design of seven elements in six groups with an “air-lens” between the second and third elements. The second and fifth elements were made using Noctilux 900403 glass. The 1st, 6th, and 7th elements were made with Lanthanum glass (LaK12, LaF21). The 900403 glass, developed at the Leitz Glass Laboratory had a higher zirconium oxide content giving it a refractive index of 1.9005 and a dispersion value of 40. (This glass had a melting point of 1600°C, and had to be cooled in a controlled manner over 10-12 days).

But it was no light lens. It was 63mm in diameter, and weighed about 600g. It still suffered from the one thing all ultrafast lenses suffer from – a narrow DOF (2” at 5 feet). When released it sold for US$855. They now routinely sell for C$8,000-11,000.

References:

  1. Bob Schwalberg, “50-mm Noctilux f/1: Sharpest superspeed lens yet?”, Popular Photography, 78(2), pp. 80,81,105 (1976) Dominique Guebey Jungle, “Leitz Noctilux 50mm f:1.0”

Further reading:

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