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

Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2 verdict

The Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2 is an unashamedly high-end lens for Micro Four Thirds that delivers excellent performance across the board. Unlike many fast primes that have come before it for various systems, the Nocticron is not about delivering a dollop of creamy bokeh at the cost of soft details once you move away from the center. It's not about suffering from slow autofocus, nor having to worry about camera shake. It's not about having to stop-down to achieve the sharpest results. No, the Leica Nocticron is about having your cake and eating it - and what a delicious cake it is too.

You want light gathering power? You've got it, with an f1.2 aperture that gathers twice as much light as an f1.8 lens, letting you shoot in dimmer conditions without slowing the shutter or bumping-up the IS. You want creamy bokeh? No problem, you'll get a shallower depth-of-field than the Olympus 45mm f1.8 and nicer rendering of out-of-focus areas too. Oh hang on, you want pin-sharp details as well? Consider it done: the Nocticron is as sharp as the best Micro Four Thirds lens, the Olympus 75mm f1.8, only it'll deliver that performance with a more usable shorter focal length, wide-open at f1.2 and right into the corners. The icing on that cake I mentioned a moment ago? Decent build quality with a matching metal lens hood, fast autofocus, minimal aberrations, and optical stabilisation for owners of bodies that don't have it built-in.

So while the Nocticron is the most expensive Micro Four Thirds lens to date, when you look at its superb performance across the board it doesn't seem that unreasonable. Physically my only complaints are that it's not weather-sealed, the manual focusing ring (on my sample) wasn't quite as buttery smooth as I'd hoped, and the optical stabilisation was only good for a stop or two. Optically when wide-open there's the cats-eye rendering of specular highlights, a little vignetting, a tiny amount of coma and some longitudinal chromatic aberrations (albeit only on close-ups) that you'd expect from a very large aperture lens, but any aberrations are minimal and in terms of sharpness across the aperture range I can't fault it. So should you invest in a Nocticron? Before my final verdict, here's how it compares to three other lenses you may already own or are almost certainly weighing-up.

   




 



Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2 vs Olympus 45mm f1.8

     
 
 
     

The most obvious rival to the Nocticron is the Olympus 45mm f1.8. Both share roughly the same focal length and sport bright apertures ideal for blurring the background on portraits. Both are also sharp enough to make great walkaround lenses for capturing tighter views of urban and natural landscapes.

But beyond this they couldn't be more different. The Olympus 45mm f1.8 is everything the Micro Four Thirds system promised: it's an absolutely tiny lens that's almost one quarter of the weight of the Nocticron. It's sufficiently small to take anywhere with you - I've squeezed it into trouser pockets at times - and feels absolutely fine mounted on the smallest bodies including the GM1, GF and PEN series. With the aperture open the detail in the corners is soft, but the center is sharp and the background can be blurred nicely - and if you can stop it down to f4-5.6 it'll deliver decent detail across the frame. Best of all is the price, around one quarter the Nocticron, or even less if you find it discounted, and the smaller filter thread makes accessories cheaper.

You'd be mad to buy the Nocticron then, right? Not entirely. In its favour, the Nocticron has a brighter f1.2 aperture that should gather double the light of the Olympus (closer to two thirds more in my tests), it can deliver a shallower depth of field for greater subject isolation, it's sharp right into the corners even at its maximum aperture, it features optical stabilisation to iron-out wobbles on bodies which don't have it built-in, has an aperture ring (only supported on Panasonic bodies right now) and it comes with a metal lens hood. The downsides are the considerably higher price and much heftier body that's best-suited to the larger Micro Four Thirds bodies.

So while the Nocticron will optically out-perform the Olympus 45mm f1.8, the cost will simply rule it out for most photographers, and the size will alienate it for others. The little 45mm f1.8 remains a fantastic performer for the price and size and will continue to delight Micro Four Thirds owners.

See my Olympus 45mm f1.8 review for more details.

 

Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2 vs Olympus 75mm f1.8

     
 
 
     

Until the Nocticron came along the Olympus 75mm f1.8 was arguably the sharpest lens in the Micro Four Thirds catalogue. Rather than rely on software corrections, the 75mm simply delivers highly-corrected optical performance. When it was launched, the price seemed expensive compared to what came before it, but now the Nocticron has arrived it sounds relatively affordable. So how do they compare?

I'm still analyzing my 75mm results for an upcoming review, but from what I've seen so far, the Olympus performs very well indeed. Unlike the 45mm f1.8 which is soft in the corners wide open, the 75mm delivers much sharper results across the frame even at the largest apertures. The detail is crisper than the 45mm too and there's less distortion and fewer aberrations to worry about. In these respects it's very similar to the Nocticron.

The longer focal length also lets the 75mm deliver a shallower depth of field than either the 45mm f1.8 or Nocticron, allowing you to better blur the background. The metal build quality is similar to the Nocticron too, and while it doesn't sport optical stabilisation or an aperture ring, neither of these will bother owners of Olympus bodies. The 75mm is also smaller and about two thirds of the weight, and while the 75mm looks expensive compared to the 45mm f1.8, it is roughly half the price of the Nocticron. I also felt the manual focusing ring on the 75mm was a little bit smoother than the Nocticrons'.

In its favour, the Nocticron has a brighter f1.2 aperture that can gather twice as much light as the 75mm f1.8, and it's usable at f1.2 as well, delivering sharp results across the frame. With a similar composition the distant background may not be as blurred as the 75mm, but I preferred the Nocticron's rendering of objects closer to the main subject; you can see this in my Nocticron bokeh comparison. The Nocticron also sports optical stabilisation and an aperture ring, although both are benefits which mainly apply to Panasonic Lumix G bodies. It also comes with a lens hood, an accessory Olympus really ought to bundle with all its premium lenses.

So far the 75mm sounds like the bargain, but the most important difference is their focal length. With an equivalent coverage of 150mm for the Olympus vs 85mm for the Nocticron, the Olympus 75mm is simply less flexible. For portraits you really need to stand back especially if they're waist-up (which makes it harder to engage with the subject), and it's less practical for shooting around town. You'll also have to be more aware of camera shake at the longer focal length.

While the 85mm equivalent focal length of the Nocticron is longer than a standard lens, I personally found myself using it in a lot more situations, whereas I tend to only get out the 75mm when I know it'll work for the effect I'm after. Ultimately the Nocticron's shorter focal length is more flexible and its extra stop of light gathering means you can use it in dimmer conditions without boosting the ISO or slowing the shutter.

This could be the deciding factor for those who can afford either lens. For me the Nocticron's shorter focal length and brighter aperture make it more practical, but if you can stand back to accommodate the 75mm and don't need the Nocticron's extra stop of light gathering power, then the Olympus is the more sensible choice. After all it's smaller and lighter than the Nocticron, it delivers similarly detailed results across the frame, and crucially it costs half the price. Suddenly a lens which initially seemed expensive is looking like a bargain for optical aficionados - I just wish it came with a lens hood.

See my upcoming Olympus 75mm f1.8 review for more details.

 

Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2 vs Voigtlander Nokton 42.5mm f0.95

     
 
 
     

If you’re drawn to the Nocticron for its larger aperture, then you'll almost certainly also be considering the Voigtlander 42.5mm f0.95. It shares the same focal length as the Nocticron, but boasts an even brighter aperture that's numerically one-stop faster and the price is cheaper too at roughly two thirds the cost.

Beyond its brighter aperture and lower price, the Voigtlander also enjoys a closer minimum focusing distance and an aperture ring which can be configured for step-less operation, which all suggests it could be a more versatile lens. But the Voigtlander is manual focus only, lacks the Nocticron's optical stabilisation, and most importantly is nowhere near as well-corrected. It really is all about focusing on a subject and obliterating everything in front or behind into a blurry haze. The Voigt can deliver sharp results across the frame, but only if you stop it down significantly, and even when using it wide open some may find the bokeh on the busy side.

The better-corrected optics of the Nocticron make it more flexible beyond just ultra shallow depth-of-field shots, while the AF and optical stabilisation make it much easier to use too. To me the Voigtlander is a specialist lens which you'll only use to achieve specific effects - and for that it's fine - but I feel once you're spending this sort of money it's worth going the extra mile to reach the Nocticron for a lens you'll be able to use in many more situations.

 

Leica Nocticron final verdict

Let's not beat about the bush here: the Leica Nocticron is an expensive lens and only looks affordable when compared against stratospherically-priced options like the Zeiss Otus. Indeed once the Nocticron price was known, many commented it was around four times more expensive than a Canon or Nikon 85mm f1.8 which, lest we forget, were corrected for a sensor four times larger and delivered a shallower depth of field; after all the Nocticron is equivalent to 85mm f2.4 in terms of depth of field on a full-frame system.

So it's ridiculously over-priced, right? Not quite. The Nocticron may 'only' be equivalent to f2.4 for depth of field on full-frame, but in terms of exposure it's still f1.2 which gives it an extra stop over f1.8 lenses. In terms of sharpness I've not tested an 85mm equivalent at a lower price that's this good in the corners especially when wide open. There's also not many short telephotos I can think of with optical stabilisation, metal bodies, nor many which offer all of the above and work on bodies which support fast and very low light autofocusing with benefits like face and eye detection.

If you need more help justifying it, consider that in traditional terms it performs the role of not one, but two lenses: the one that excels in low light with a very shallow depth of field, and the one which delivers pin-sharp results across the frame even wide-open. These are very rarely the same lens, with the Nocticron joining an exclusive club (including the Zeiss Otus) which deliver close to uncompromised performance whatever it is you're doing, and don't attempt to come in at a low price or compact size.

That said, the Nocticron isn’t without its faults. I think all high-end lenses should be weather-sealed, and I also felt the Nocticron's manual focusing ring wasn't always as buttery smooth as it could be. The optical stabilisation rarely gave me more than a stop or so of compensation, and is of course redundant for owners of bodies with built-in stabilisation; similarly, the manual aperture ring doesn’t work on Olympus bodies, at least not at the time of writing. Revealingly though all of these issues regard mechanics rather than optics. Yes there are some aberrations wide open at f1.2, including vignetting, coma and cats-eye rendering of specular highlights, but all are minimal, and in many situations barely noticeable. It is an extremely well-corrected lens, especially in terms of sharpness across the frame and the bokeh is nice and smooth

Can you match the optical performance at a cheaper price? The Olympus 75mm f1.8 costs almost half and delivers similar sharpness across the frame even at wide apertures, while also being able to throw a background really out-of-focus - indeed more so than the Nocticron thanks to its longer focal length. But it's that focal length which makes it less flexible: a lens equivalent to 150mm is on the long side for engaging portraits or walking around town. You really need room to step back with the Olympus 75mm, although if you can accommodate the length for your subjects and don't need the Nocticron's extra stop of light gathering power it represents better value.

Then there's the Voigtlander 42.5mm f0.95, a lens that's cheaper than the Nocticron despite offering an even brighter aperture, but one which is manual focus only and can't match the corrected nature and sharpness of the Nocticron at large apertures. This makes it more of a specialist lens in my view, and one which you'd only use for certain shots.

Finally there is of course the tiny Olympus 45mm f1.8, a lens which I've described as a no-brainer for owners of Micro Four Thirds bodies; indeed it's arguably my favourite lens for the system. While it can't match the sharpness of the Nocticron nor its light gathering or depth of field when wide open, it still does a sterling job for the money and its size, and remains highly recommended.

So where does that leave the Nocticron? Like all high-priced luxury products only you can decide if it's worth spending the extra. If you're a portrait or wedding photographer who likes to shoot closer than the 75mm allows, then the Nocticron will give you lovely results that are a step-up from the 45mm f1.8 and also lets you shoot in lower light without slowing the shutter or bumping up the ISO. But remember it's not just a portrait lens. Stunning sharpness across the frame with minimal aberrations makes it perfect for capturing urban details around town or of landscapes, again in low light if desired - and again the focal length is much more flexible for general-purpose use than the 75mm. Bottom line? If you like the 45mm f1.8 but wish it were sharp across the frame when wide open, while also gathering twice as much light and delivering a shallower depth of field if desired, then the Nocticron is the lens for you.

Ultimately I think it's this flexibility coupled with the almost uncompromised performance for both portraits and detail shots that really gets me going. This is a lens I could use in a lot of situations and be delighted with the results. It's not a lens which would sit neglected in my bag, and that's critical if you're spending this amount of money. Again only you can decide if it's worth it, but I'm gradually talking myself into it.

Summary

Good points
Superb quality. Sharp right into the corners at f1.2. Best yet for M4/3.
f1.2 focal ratio delivers very shallow depth of field with nice bokeh.
f1.2 focal ratio great in low light: gathers twice as much light as f1.8 lens.
Very well-corrected optics with minimal vignetting, coma or CA.
Great build quality, metal barrel and matching metal lens hood supplied.
Optical stabilisation built-in.
Manual aperture ring for bodies that support it.

Bad points
Most expensive M4/3 prime yet, roughly double the 75mm f1.8.
Modest closest focusing distance of 0.5m means it's no macro lens.
Cats-eye bokeh for specular highlights at f1.2 and f1.4.
Stabilisation only effective for one or two stops in my tests.
Stabilisation and aperture ring redundant for Olympus body owners.
Manual focusing ring was not always as smooth as I expected.
No weather-sealing.

 
 
If you found this review useful, please support me by shopping below!
 
Living Landscapes eBook
By Todd and Sarah Sisson
Price: $29.99 USD (PDF download)
More details!

Todd and Sarah Sisson are two of my favourite landscape photographers and in this superb ebook, they'll reveal the secrets behind their wonderful photos. Over 130 pages, it combines tutorials, field guides and technical advice, using the beautiful scenery of New Zealand as a backdrop. An informative and attractive ebook that's highly recommended for anyone wanting to improve their landscape photography! Well worth the price.
     
All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

/ How we test / Best Cameras / Advertising / Camera reviews / Supporting Camera Labs