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:

Was this the fastest lens ever?

In the May 1975 issue of Popular Photography, Norman Rothschild talked about this lens [1] – the Zeiss 40mm Super-Q-Gigantar f/0.33 for Contarex cameras. A truly remarkable fast lens. Or was it?

The lens was a complete gag. It was first shown at a press dinner at Photokina 1968, but the lens is nothing more than an aspheric condenser lens, “capable of little else but woozy images” [1]. Rothschild actually carried the lens, mounted on a Contarex, around with him for a number of days at Photokina, with lots of people admiring it. He recalls people whispering excitedly that “It must be some new kind of fisheye lens!”, or a newly designed superspeed lens. But few asked what it was, and fewer still asked to look through the viewfinder.

It was the brainchild of Zeiss Ikon’s manager of Public Relations, Wolf Wehran. At Photokina 1966, many of Zeiss’s competitors had displayed their new light gathering heavyweights with apertures of f/1.2 or faster. Wehran, together with a friend in the lens making department then created a lens so unorthdox it could not be ignored. His point was to illustrate that lens speed was not the most important feature of a lens. The lens was always a physical impossibility – it had a diameter of 125mm, and was a 2-element, 1 group lens. The images produced were similar to that of a normal lens with a Softar soft-focus/diffusion filter attached.

The “Q” stands for “Quatsch,” which translates to “nonsense” in German (derived from quatschen – to talk nonsense). The lens itself went up for auction in 2011 at the famous WestLicht Photographica Auction where it sold for €60,000. Not bad for a lens that does nothing!

  1. Norman Rothschild, “The Super-Q-Gigantar lens – it’s a gag, but some people took it rather seriously”, Popular Photography, 72(5), pp.58,62 (1975)

Vintage superfast sub-f/1.4 lenses – big light with a side of skepticism

There are a whole lot of contemporary super-fast lenses, but that is to be expected from modern optical technology. For example the Voigtländer 50mm f/1.2 Nokton E is still a simple 8 element lens, but contains two optical elements each with two aspherical surfaces, helping to reduce lens aberrations. The Nikon Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 on the other hand has 17 elements in 15 groups, with three aspherical and two low-dispersion elements (but at 150mm in length, and 1090g it is a true monster). These lenses are now commonplace, but what about their vintage counterparts?

By the mid 1950s, lenses with speeds of f/2 and f/1.4 were commonplace. Lenses with large apertures such as f/1.0 were also available for applications such as radiography and motion-pictures. Sub-f/1.4 lenses for the 35mm “miniature” cameras had also started to appear. The literature of the period, such as Popular Photography, wrote a series of articles over the years, investigating these new fast lenses. Many of these technology reviews were not damning, but neither were they an acclamation of a new era in photography.

The September 1955 issue included an article “The new superspeed lenses – how useful will they be”, by Bob Schwalberg [2]. Schwalberg describes the rumours that superspeed lenses with apertures of f/1.1 and f/1.2 were in the offing from three different Japanese manufacturers. He suggested that although an f/1.4 lens should mathematically pass 100% more light than an f/2 lens, the actual results are more like 50%. Using the pretext that actual light transmission is 50% of that indicated, he surmises that an f/1.1 lens would only be 30% faster than an f/1.4 lens, but maybe even less due to more elements, and an increased number of light absorbing light-to-air surfaces. These tests were made by comparing exposures at different apertures changing nothing else. Schwalberg concedes that the lenses would be good for use with colour film, however doubted whether the same could be said for black-and-white film. One of the reasons was the reduced depth-of-field, although he concedes it is no worse than for the f/1.4 but regardless both require very close focusing for sharp pictures.

Norman Rothschild described the Zunow 50mm f/1.1 lens in a 1956 article [4], putting the lens through a series of tests, and exploring whether the addition of new optical elements would effect the speed advantage of the lens. He used an exposure meter (Norwood Model A) taped to the back of a Leica M-3 to measure light-transmission of the Zunow, and two control lenses (f/2, f/1.8). The findings indicated that the readings for the f/1.1 proportionally higher than those for the f/2. He also performed a number of practical field tests. Colour photos made with the lens were found to be ”warm, or reddish, but not displeasingly so”. Rothschild questioned the practicality of the lens, with its shallow depth of field, but concluded that while focusing was challenging, it is “no more severe than a press photographer using an f/3.5 lens on a 4×5 camera”.

When asking why these lenses weren’t more popular during the period they were developed, there are likely a number of differing factors. Foremost was cost. Lenses such as 50mm f/1.2 may have tested the limits of both manufacturing processes, and price to consumer. Making lenses with apertures larger than this may have been an act of sheer folly, as is testament to the few that were manufactured. Development costs associated with these lenses were likely steep, as was the use of optical elements containing rare-earth metals, and ultra-precise manufacturing techniques. To all but the professional photographer, these lenses were prohibitively expensive (and still are). When these fast lenses started to appear there was as much skepticism than there was praise. In a follow up article in 1956, “Another look at superspeed camera lenses”, Bob Schwalberg made the following points [3]:

  • The exposure gain obtained from f/1.1 and f/1.2 lenses was easier to obtain from additional development of f/1.4 and f/1.5 negatives.
  • Apertures larger than f/2 were seldom used for B&W work, but would be advantageous in colour work.
  • The reduced depth-of-field which limits the usefulness of f/1.4 and f/1.5 lenses at full aperture will further limit the usefulness of the f/1.1 and f/1.2 lenses.
  • The lenses are large and heavy, sometimes obscuring the rangefinder and viewfinder windows.
  • The lenses are “extraordinarily” expensive. A 50mm f/1.1 lens retailed for $3 more than a Leica M-3 with aa 50mm f/2 Summicron lens.
  • Lens apertures greater than f/2 with a small amount of over-exposure can lead to drastic loss of definition and detail resolution. Tests shows that “at f/1.4 as little as 1/2 stop overexposure can kill sharpness”. Three times as much overexposure is required to produce the same ill-effects at f/2.

Schwalberg called it the “super-aperture problem”. He goes on to suggest that what was needed was not faster lenses, but better lenses, citing that film resolution was increasing to the point where lenses were not capable of producing.

In another Popular Photography article in 1956, it was suggested the ultimate value of f/1.1 and f/1.2 lenses was still a matter of conjecture [5]: “Speeds of f/1.4, f/1.5, and f/2, have long been with us and have proven extremely practical. Unless you are in the darkest, blackest, dingiest location, and unless every bit of shutter speed counts because of subject movement, it is highly advisable to limit black-and-white shooting to a maximum aperture of f/2.” The article cited a series of limiting factors that made photographers wary of the usefulness of sub f/2 lenses [5]:

  • Depth of field – this only comes apparent at close distances, but a larger opening will result in a shallower DOF. A 50mm lens focused at 4ft has 3.5” of depth at f/1.5 and 4.75” at F/2. A smaller DOF will require more precision in focusing.
  • The gain in light transmission is often less than can be expected. Light transmission is directly proportional to the square of the f-number. f/2 squares to 4, and f/1.4 to 1.96. Theoretically then, f/1.4 should transmit approximately 100% more light, however tests have shown that it is likely only 50-60%. The reasoning is that the more the diaphragm is opened, the more we depend upon light rays from the periphery of the lens. These rays enter at a steeper angle of incidence than those on the edges at smaller f-stops. There is therefore greater loss through internal reflection.
  • The other issue is that apertures greater than f/2 require exacting levels of exposure. overexposure at f/1.4 can ruin crisp detail. Errors at f/2 are more forgiving.

The other issue was weight – these lenses were heavy. The SMC Pentax 50mm f/1.2 (1975) was 385g, and had a maximum diameter of 65mm. The f/1.4 of the same era was only 266g, meaning the f/1.2 was a 45% increase in weight. When the Nikkor-N 50mm f/1.2 first appeared, its internal mount was problematic, with the mount not really able to support the weight of the lens, causing the mount to bend. In addition, the focusing wheel on the camera could not be used because it could not handle the weight of the lens. The weight of the lens was 425g, in comparison a comparable 50mm f/2 was around 200g.

There were many factors which contributed to the lack of interest in fast lenses. By the mid 1960s colour film was faster, and so there was less need for faster lenses. There were a number of f/1.2 options, but also many more options are f/1.4 at a much lower price point. So why bother purchasing a vintage sub-f/1.4 lens? One reason is for the character it provides, or for shooting in extreme low-light conditions. Why not to buy them? Mostly they are expensive.

Further reading:

  1. G.H. Smith, Camera Lenses: From box camera to digital (2006)
  2. Bob Schwalberg, “The new superspeed lenses – how useful will they be”, Popular Photography, 37(2), p.48 (September, 1955)
  3. Bob Schwalberg, “Another look at superspeed camera lenses”, Popular Photography (April, 1956)
  4. Norman Rothschild, “Meet the Zunow f/1.1”, Popular Photography, pp.126/128 (February, 1956)
  5. “The Versatile 50-mm Lens”, Popular Photography, 39(2) pp.40,41,84 (August, 1956)

A list of vintage super-fast 50-60mm f/1.2 lenses

So who made f/1.2 lenses? The answer is that most manufacturers had some lenses with this large aperture, usually in the 50-60mm range. Most of these lenses came from Japanese manufacturers, who led the way in fast lenses. The only real exception is the Leitz Wetzlar Noctilux 50mm, and they are expensive, to the point where it is cheaper to buy a new Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.2 ASPH (for US$8k).

These lenses are sorted by focal length and years up to 1985. Up until 1975, there were few if any 50mm f/1.2 lenses for SLR cameras, but there were a range of 55/58mm f/1.2 lenses. Note R indicates a lens for a rangefinder camera.

50mm

  • 1954 – Fuji Fujinon 5cm f/1.2 R
  • 1956 – Canon 50mm f/1.2 R
  • 1966 – Leitz Wetzlar Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 R
  • 1975 – Pentax SMC 50mm f/1.2
  • 1978 – Minolta MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1978 – Nikon AI Nikkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1980 – Canon FDn 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Minolta MD 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Nikon AI-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Fuji Photofilm EBC X-Fujinon 50mm f/1.2 DM (+Porst UMC)
  • 1982 – Olympus OM Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f/1.2
  • 1984 – SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.2

55mm

  • 1962 – Canon R Super-Canomatic 58mm f/1.2
  • 1965 – Nikkor-S Auto f/1.2 55mm
  • 1968 – Canon FL 55mm f/1.2
  • 1970 – Tomioka Auto (Chinon/Cosinon/Revuenon/Yashinon/Cosina) 55mm f/1.2
  • 1970 – Tomioka Kogaku Auto Tominon 55mm f/1.2
  • 1971 – Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 (+AL)
  • 1972 – Olympus OM G.Zuiko Auto-S 55mm f/1.2
  • 1973 – Tomioka Auto Yashinon DS-M 55mm f/1.2
  • 1974 – Nikon Nikkor 55mm f/1.2
  • 1975 – Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 Aspherical
  • 1976 – Yashica ML 55mm f/1.2
  • 1977 – Nikon AI Nikkor 55mm f/1.2

57-60mm

  • 1956 – Konishiroku Hexanon 60mm f/1.2 R
  • 1960 – Tamron 58mm f/1.2
  • 1962 – Canon Super-Canomatic R 58mm f/1.2
  • 1964 – Canon FL 58mm f/1.2
  • 1967 – Konica Hexanon/Hexar 57mm f/1.2
  • 1968 – Minolta MC Rokkor-PG 58mm f/1.2
  • 1973 – Minolta MC Rokkor(-X) PG 58mm f/1.2
  • 1977 – Nicon Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Nikon AI-S Noct_Nikkor 58mm f/1.2

Why are vintage super-fast lenses so expensive?

In the 1940s, a lens speed of f/3.5 was quite normal, an f/2 very fast. The world first f/1.4 lens for a 35mm camera appeared in 1950, when Nikon released the NIKKOR-S 5cm f/1.4. That sparked a series of f/1.4 lenses from most manufacturers. But this wasn’t fast enough. In the world of vintage lenses, f/1.2 lenses are almost the holy grail. Fujinon was the first to introduce an f/1.2 5cm lens in 1954 for rangefinder cameras. Canon introduced a 50mm f/1.2 lens, for the Canon S series in 1956. Many manufacturers followed suit, producing one or more lenses in the decades to come. Japanese camera companies lead the way in super-fast normal lenses. Some milestones:

  • First f/1.2 lens (1954) – Fuji Fujinon 5cm f/1.2 (35mm rangefinder)
  • First f/1.2 for SLR (1962) – Canon Super-Canonmatic R 58mm f/1.2
  • First f/1.2 55mm lens (1965) – Nikon Nikkor-S Auto 55mm f/1.2
  • First f/1.2 50mm lens for SLR (1975) – Pentax SMC 50mm f/1.2
Fig.1: The ever increasing complexities of optical elements in lenses with large apertures from f/2 to f/1.2 (Asahi Pentax)

Aside from the fact that these f/1.2 lenses represent the pinnacle of wide-open lenses of the period, what makes them so expensive (both then and now)?

  • Rarity – Although a large number of manufacturers developed f/1.2 lenses, in may cases fewer were manufactured than slower lenses. For example, the Fujinon 5cm f/1.2 lens was made in limited amounts, less than 1000 by all accounts, but because of this ranges from $4000-20000.
  • Larger glass – As the speed of a lens increased, so too did the size of its optical elements. An f/1.2 lens had much more glass than say an f/2.8, e.g. a 50mm f/2.8 lens would have an effective aperture of 25mm, while an f/1.2 50mm would have one of 41.7mm. This means the optical elements had to be much larger for an f/1.2 lens.
  • Better glass – Larger optical elements also mean they had to be of a higher quality, with less tolerance for defects such as bubbles. Some optical elements may have been made of rare-earth metals to improve optical qualities, and reduce aberrations.
  • More optical elements – As lenses got faster, more elements needed to be added to counter optical aberrations.
  • Inner mechanisms – Larger optical elements meant one of two things for the lens housing (i.e. barrel): (i) make it a lot larger, and therefore increase the size of all the components, or (ii) make it marginally larger, and reduce the size of the mechanisms within the lens, e.g. aperture control, so they become more compact.
  • Complex manufacturing – Specialized glass needed new processes to ensure high manufacturing tolerances, e.g. finer levels of polishing.
Fig.2: The ever increasing size and weight of lenses with large apertures (the Canon rangefinder series)

All these elements contributed to an increase in the cost of these “revolutionary” lenses. However, although we consider them expensive now, f/1.2 lenses were always expensive. In 1957, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 rangefinder lens sold for US$250, with the Fujinon 50mm f/1.2 at $299.50 [1]. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 on the other hand sold for $125, and a Canon V with a 50mm f/1.8 lens sold for $325. A 1970 Canon price [2] list provides a better perspective, with information for the lenses for the Canon 7/7s rangefinder. The slower 50mm lens sold for $55 (f/2.8), and $120 (f/1.8), while the f/1.4 sold for $160 and the f/1.2 for $220 (the f/0.95 was the most expensive at $320). SLR lenses were cheaper, although Canon did not make a 50mm f/1.2 (until 1980), it did make a 55mm f/1.2, which sold for $165.

Note that $220 in 2022 dollars is $1608. Today, some of these lenses fetch a good price, depending on condition. The Canon 50mm f/1.2 sells for around $400-600 based on condition. The series of f/1.2 lenses made by Tomioka Kogaku circa 1970 regularly sell for between C$800-1700.

The price of nostalgia.

Further reading:

  1. “Photographic Lenses”, Popular Photography 40(4), April, p.168 (1957)
  2. Canon Systems Equipment, Bell & Howell Co. March 1970