Leica has always had a very high reputation for making some of the fastest lenses on the market. The current 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux is the fastest aspheric production lens available from any manufacturer. But not only is it very fast, it is also an amazingly well performing lens, even wide open. The performance at f/0.95 combined with some of the high ISO setting available on the M9 or even more so, the New Leica M, allows the photographer to shoot under available light conditions that were impossible to take advantage of in the past.
Noctilux 50mm f/0.95
The Noctilux f/0.95 replaced the famous Noctilus f/1 which was first introduced in 1975. It too was an amazingly well performing lens, including the f/1 aperture, and many owners of this lens can consider themselves very lucky indeed. The Noctily f/1 was one of the crowning achievements of Dr. Mandler, chief lens designer of Leica in the 70s and 80s. He set out to make a replacement of the original Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 that was not only 50 percent faster but also better in overall performance, all without the aid of aspheric elements. He succeeded to do so, but not until the Leitz glass laboratory was able to develop a glass that enabled the production of the lens. To my knowledge, this glass is still of the highest refracting index ever produced and used in actual lens production. The refracting index was a previously thought of as unattainable ne 1.9005.
Noctilux 50mm f/1
The predecessor of this lens was the original Noctilux 50mm f/1.2. Introduced in 1966, it was the first production lens with aspheric lens surfaces. At that time, this was an incredibly complicated process that required a fair amount of hand grinding of the elements. Subsequently the lens was priced accordingly. Even by today’s standards the lens was an incredible performer.
Noctilux 50mm f/1.2
But the Noctilux lines of lenses are not the only extremely fast lenses ever made by Leitz. There were several others which have come and gone. These were mostly special application lenses that had only limited use for general photography.
One such lens was the ELCAN 90mm f/1. ELCAN was the trade name for Ernst Leitz Canada, the Canadian branch established by Leitz in 1952 in Midland, Ontario. The lens was made for the US Air Force as a special night photography application lens. Since focusing is very critical at that wide an aperture, and since the lens blocked most of the viewfinder because of its massive size, the lens had no focusing mount. Instead it came with three focus rings, engraved 50 meters, 100 meters and infinity.
ELCAN 90mm f/1 with the infinity focus ring installed and the
50 meter and 100 meter focus rings in the foreground
But there were lenses with even higher speeds like the Leitz-IR 150mm f/0.85 and the Leitz Summar 75mm f/0.85. Very little is known about these two lenses. Apparently the 75mm f/0.85 Summar was used for x-ray photography while the 150mm f/0.85, considering the IR designation, appears to have been used specifically for infrared photography.
Leitz 15cm (150mm) f/0.85
Leitz 7.5 cm (75mm) f/0.85
Finally, the two Leica speed champs were a 65mm f/0.75 and a 50mm f/0.75 lens. Both appear to have been designed specifically for x-ray photography. But I have seen regular color photographs made with one of them which looked quite interesting. They were mostly close ups of flowers, taken wide open. Needless to say, the depth of field was extremely shallow. Yet the in-focus areas actually looked quite good.
ELCAN 65mm f/0.75
Thus we reached the end of this excursion into the world of super fast Leica lenses. It is doubtful that we will ever see anything faster than the Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 in the future. With the ever increasing high ISO capabilities of modern digital cameras, the need for any such lenses is diminishing quickly. So, if you are interested, get what you can now. Tomorrow might be too late.
Additional information can be found here:
In Memory of the LEITZ GLASS LABORATORY
ERNST LEITZ CANADA LIMITED