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Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2 Gordon Laing, Jan 2014
 
 

Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2 review

The Leica Nocticron is a premium short telephoto lens for the Micro Four Thirds system with a 42.5mm focal length and bright f1.2 aperture. When mounted on a Panasonic or Olympus Micro Four Thirds body, it delivers equivalent coverage of 85mm, making it ideal for portrait work or capturing tighter views than a standard lens. The bright f1.2 focal ratio gathers twice as much light as f1.8, making it ideal in low light, while also delivering shallower depth of field effects, again perfect for portrait work.

The Nocticron features optical stabilisation to iron-out any wobbles when mounted on bodies without sensor-shift stabilisation, and also boasts fast autofocusing; indeed it's the brightest Micro Four Thirds lens with autofocus, and the only short and bright telephoto prime I can think of with optical stabilisation.

The Nocticron is the third Micro Four Thirds lens designed and manufactured as a joint effort between Leica and Panasonic. Like the 45mm f2.8 macro and 25mm f1.4 standard primes before it, the Nocticron is designed and certified by Leica in Germany, and manufactured by Panasonic in Japan. As such it may not be 'pure' Leica, but the optical and build quality - which includes a metal body and metal lens hood - is of a very high standard. The big question though is how it compares to considerably smaller and cheaper options like the Olympus 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8. Find out in my in-depth review!

   




 

 

Leica Nocticron design and build quality

The Leica Nocticron is one of the largest and heaviest Micro Four Thirds lenses to date: measuring 74mm in diameter, 77mm in length and weighing 425g (without hood), it's heftier than any of the autofocus primes. The closest AF prime in size is the Olympus 75mm f1.8 which is still comfortably smaller at 64mm in diameter, 69mm in length and 305g in weight. Suffice it to say the Nocticron is a giant alongside the Olympus 45mm f1.8 which measures just 56mm in diameter, 46mm in length and weighs only 116g.

 
 

I've pictured the three above, with the Nocticron flanked by the 45mm on the left and the 75mm on the right, and it's clear how the Nocticron is by far the largest of the group. To be fair though, it is closer in vital statistics to the Voigtlander 42.5mm f0.95 which measures 64mm in diameter, 75mm in length and weighs 571g - so the Voigtlander retains the title of the heaviest Micro Four Thirds prime, although it is almost one stop faster than the Nocticron, if lacking its AF and OIS. Just for the record, the Canon EF 50mm f1.2 measures 86x66mm and weighs 580g, although it is corrected for use with a full-frame sensor area four times larger. As an aside, I believe the reason the Nocticron performs so well in the corners is in fact because its imaging circle extends way beyond the M4/3 frame and could probably accommodate larger formats.

 
 

In terms of size and weight, the Nocticron, like the Voigtlander, feels most at home on Micro Four Thirds bodies with a decent grip. It's a perfect fit on the Lumix GH3 and Olympus OMD EM1 (left), and feels relatively large but still usable on the Lumix GX7 or Olympus OMD EM5. Mount it on one of the smaller bodies though, like the Lumix GF or GM or Olympus PEN series and it looks massive, becoming quite unwieldy. For a laugh I fitted it onto the tiny Lumix GM1 where it felt like one of those vintage Sony cameras where you supported the lens and just tapped at the body to make adjustments. If you own one of the smaller bodies, the 45mm f1.8 will look and feel much more appropriate.

In terms of build quality the Nocticron feels very solid with its metal body adding a degree of solidity and classiness over plastic-bodied models like the Summilux 25mm f1.4. It's not quite up there with 100% Leica products, but then neither is the price - remember while the Nocticron clearly tips a respectful hat toward the legendary Noctilux f0.95 in terms of design and style, it costs almost seven times less. I'd rank it as being similar in build to the Olympus 75mm f1.8, and while that's obviously in a different league to pure Leica, I have no complaints with that lens.

Despite the price and premium specification though the Nocticron is not weather-sealed. In this regard it's no different from the previous 45mm macro, 25mm f1.4, or indeed the Olympus 75mm f1.8 or 45mm f1.8. Sadly while the Micro Four Thirds catalogue includes many lenses with high quality optics, very few of them feature weather-sealed construction.

There's a generously-sized manual focusing ring that feels smooth and nicely damped in operation. I'd say it feels similar to the Summilux 25mm f1.4 and slightly better than the Olympus 45mm f1.8, but on my own set of sample lenses, the Olympus 75mm f1.8 focusing ring felt smoothest of all. Used in isolation you're unlikely to notice the difference, but it is interesting to compare them side by side. I should note the focusing ring on my sample sometimes felt a little scratchy when pulling focus for video - it was rarely an issue for stills, but I could feel it from time to time when constantly turning the ring from unusual angles.

In a move that will delight retro fans, the Nocticron features a manual aperture ring, with the values proudly printed in the angular Leica font; there's three clicks between the single EV increments, and four between f1.2 and f2, although there's no smooth step-less option. When mounted on a compatible Lumix G body, you can use the ring to manually set the aperture value, or turn it to the A position when you want the camera to take control. Mount it on an Olympus body though and the aperture ring is ignored (at least at the time of writing), with the body performing control as usual, regardless of where the ring is set. Note the Voigtlander 42.5mm f0.95 features an aperture ring that can be switched from clickable to step-free which will delight video professionals, and thanks to an absence of electronic contacts the ring works - indeed is necessary - on all bodies.

The filter thread measures 67mm, making it the largest of its peer group: the Voigtlander 42.5mm f0.95 and Olympus 75mm f1.8 use 58mm filters, while the tiny Olympus 45mm f1.8 uses 37mm.

The Nocticron is supplied with a classy metal lens hood that fastens with a thumbscrew rather than a bayonet, and can be reversed snugly around the barrel for transportation. The generous length which is almost the same as the lens itself means you won't be able to access any of the controls or the aperture or manual focusing rings when reversed.

 

Leica Nocticron focusing

I compared the Nocticron autofocusing against the Olympus 45mm f1.8 and Olympus 75mm f1.8 lenses when all three were mounted on an OMD EM1. In good light, all three focused at roughly the same speed, which is to say very quickly for Single AF acquisitions. It's easy to take this for granted, but if you've ever used an f1.2 EF lens on a Canon body, you'll know the AF can be quite a laborious process. To be fair the Nocticron has a broader depth of field thanks to the smaller format, but it's still the brightest Micro Four Thirds lens with AF, so it's good to find it focusing as swiftly as other primes.

In dimmer conditions all three lenses slowed down as expected, with the 75mm taking the longest to lock-on. The Nocticron was faster than the 75mm, but the 45mm f1.8 was a tad faster still with less vigorous hunting. Moving onto extremely low light the three slowed down again, although still with the same order of 75mm being slowest and the 45mm f1.8 being a tad faster than the Nocticron. Reassuringly though we're still taking about reasonably quick speeds for all three lenses.

In terms of focusing sound, all three were very quiet, but there were audible differences: the 45mm f1.8 was the quietest (perhaps not surprising given the minimal weight of optics to shift), followed by the Nocticron, leaving the 75mm as the noisiest. Although again noisiest seems a bit unfair as all three are very quiet at focusing and the sound of any stabilisation in action - especially the in-body Olympus system - will drown them out.

A generously-sized manual focusing ring lets you make fine adjustments, and at first touch it feels very smooth. However I found if you pushed or pulled the manual focusing ring while turning it on my sample, it was easy to make it feel a little scratchy. I found myself doing this when pulling focus for video when the camera was mounted on a tripod and I was to the side. Now again I have to put this in perspective. By scratchy I don't mean anything like a basic kit zoom, I'm talking about something just a bit less than buttery smooth. But at this price I expect close to mechanical perfection, so I was a little surprised to find it wasn't quite as smooth as the Olympus 75mm f1.8 under the same conditions - it's much more like the 45mm f1.8.

 
Leica Nocticron sample video: manual focus pulling
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In this clip I mounted the Nocticron on an Olympus OMD EM1 and manually pulled-focus from the foreground to background and back again. The Olympus bodies don't make this easy as they disable a magnified focusing view and focus peaking for video, but the EVF is sufficiently high resolution to just about nail it. The clip illustrates the depth of field characteristics of the lens as the focus is racked from near to far and the effect is certainly nice if you're into isolating subjects. Annoyingly though when operating the manual focusing ring from the side, rather than behind as you normally would for stills, I found it could become a little scratchy at times. Nothing as bad as a kit lens of course, but certainly not as silky smooth as I'd hoped. This has been responsible partly for the slight variation in focusing speed. Note this may only have affected my early sample, and again I didn't notice it when operating the camera normally from behind.

 

In the video above, I manually pulled focus using the Nocticron mounted on an Olympus OMD EM1, using the viewfinder for guidance - unfortunately there's no magnification, nor focus peaking to help once you start filming on this model. I just about nailed the closest and furthest focusing points, but found the focusing ring wasn't 100% smooth when turning it from the side - as such you can see the speed of focus pulling vary a little during the clip.

 

Leica Nocticron image stabilisation

The Leica Nocticron features optical image stabilisation which helps iron-out any wobbles when mounted on Micro Four Thirds bodies which don't have built-in stabilisation. This is of little consequence to Olympus body owners who enjoy very effective built-in IS, but it's an important factor for owners of Panasonic Lumix G bodies, even the GX7 which has fairly lackluster IS built-in.

To find out how effective the optical stabilisation was on the Nocticron and compare it with the built-in IS of Olympus bodies, I mounted it on an OMD EM1 and took a series of shots at progressively slower shutter speeds, one stop apart. I started with all stabilisation off, then tried the optical stabilisation and finally the body-based stabilisation. I've presented 100% crops from the exposures taken at 1/5 below.

         
Olympus OMD EM1
using Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2
OIS and body IS off
 
Olympus OMD EM1
using Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2
OIS on, body IS off
 
Olympus OMD EM1
using Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2
OIS off, body IS on
OIS off, 1/5, 200 ISO
OIS on, 1/5, 200 ISO

OIS off, body IS on, 1/5, 200 ISO

         

Under the conditions of the day, I could handhold a sharp result without any stabilisation at 1/40, which isn't bad for me considering it's a stop below what conventional wisdom would suggest for an 85mm equivalent lens. With the lens stabilisation enabled, I could achieve fair results down to 1/10, but they weren't 100% sharp.

To match the sharpness of the non-stabilised shot required a shutter speed of 1/20 which only represents one stop of compensation. I was surprised by this result as the view looked quite stable through the viewfinder and I ensured the lens IS priority was enabled on the EM1, but repeated tests saw the same result. I'll retest with a Panasonic body soon to see if there's greater potential to be enjoyed.

Switching to the body-based stabilisation of the EM1 delivered the best result of all, with a sharp image at exposures down to 1/5, representing three stops over my non-stabilised version.

 

Leica Nocticron optical construction

Optically the Nocticron employs 14 elements in 11 groups, compared to 11 in 8 on the Voigtlander, 10 in 9 on the Olympus 75mm f1.8 and 9 in 8 on the 45mm f1.8. This makes it the most complex optical design of the group, although it is also the only one with optical stabilisation. It also features some exotic elements including two aspherical, one ED and one UHR element; I'll see if they have a positive impact in my optical results.

The closest focusing distance is 0.5m, the same as the Olympus 45mm f1.8, although more than double that of the 0.23m of the Voigtlander 42.5mm f0.95. Meanwhile the Olympus 75mm f1.8 focuses down to 0.84m, although of course is more than 50% longer in focal length. Interestingly this means the maximum magnification / reproduction on the Nocticron is roughly the same as both the Olympus 45mm and 75mm lenses, although the Voigtlander can get much closer than any of them, delivering greater magnification albeit with significant loss of quality due to spherical aberrations.

Lenses like the Nocticron are all about delivering a shallow depth of field with attractive rendering of out-of-focus areas, also known as the quality of the bokeh. A key specification in this process is attempting to maintain a smooth circle when closing the aperture iris control. The Nocticron employs nine diaphragm blades with a circular design - a specification it shares with the Olympus 75mm f1.8. Both are classier than the simpler seven blade aperture of the Olympus 45mm f1.8, although it is at least still a circular shape. Meanwhile the Voigtlander 42.5mm f.095 appears to trump them all with a ten blade system although as I understand it the blades don't create a perfect circle.

In terms of light gathering power, the f1.2 focal ratio of the Nocticron should in theory gather twice as much light as a lens at f1.8. It's important to put that to the test though as some designs don't always deliver what you'd expect. For example while I haven't tested the Voigtlander myself, I have seen reports describing its light gathering power as being closer to f1.1 when wide open.

From my tests I can confirm the Nocticron at f1.2 gathers exactly twice as much light as it does at f1.8, allowing you to use shutter speeds twice as fast with the same ISO. But when I lined-up exactly the same composition under the same conditions with the Olympus 45mm f1.8, the Nocticron required an exposure one third of a stop slower than the Olympus when both were set to f1.8. I can't say which one is more accurate than the other, but I can say the Nocticron offers more like a 2/3 stop light gathering advantage over the 45mm f1.8 when both are wide open, rather than the whole stop difference the numbers imply.

But light gathering is only one part of the desire for larger apertures. Most will desire the Nocticron for the shallower depth of field and the way it renders out-of-focus areas. Others will be interested in how sharp it is at bright apertures. To find out, check out my Leica Nocticron depth of field and Leica Nocticron sharpness results! Or skip to my Nocticron sample images or straight to my verdict!

 
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