Saturday, February 6, 2021

THE FASTEST LENSES LEICA EVER MADE


By Heinz Richter

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, full frame aspherical 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 latest Leica digital cameras, 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 design 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 aspherical 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 of ne 1.9005 was a previously thought of as unattainable .

 
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 aspherical 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 line 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.  For a while it was doubtful that we will ever see anything faster than the Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 in the future, but the rumor mill seems to indicate that Leica might be working on additional f/0.95 or even faster lenses.  With the ever increasing high ISO capabilities of modern digital cameras, the need for any such lenses appear to be diminishing, on the other hand, the ability to isolate the subject from the background (and foreground) with such lenses has enabled an entirely different style of photography, previously unavailable.  Stay tuned.


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11 comments:

  1. Have there been any lenses faster than these Leica lenses?

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    Replies
    1. Yes, there have. The fastest lens on record is an 81mm f/0.38, a solid Schmidt mirror lens, made by American Optical. The Signal Corps Engineering once used a 33mm f/0.6 lens. If you google ‘fastest camera lenses’ you will find a long list of such lenses.
      Probably the most famous one is a 50mm f/0.7 lens made by Zeiss for NASA. A version of this lens, converted for use on 35mm motion picture cameras, was used by Stanley Kubrick for some candle light scenes in the movie Barry Lyndon.

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    2. What is a Schmidt mirror lens?

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    3. I am not quite sure what this is referring to either. The basic Schmidt design is a telescope (or lens) with a spherical mirror on one end and an aspherical corrector lens in the front. The focal point or film plane is inside the lens between the mirror and the corrector lens. I think what the listing is referring to is a Schmidt Cassegrain design. This is essentially the design that all mirror lenses for cameras use. Here too we have usually a spherical mirror in the back with an aspherical corrector lens in the front. Inside is a secondary, convex mirror that reflects the light back towards a hole in the center of the main mirror to the focal plane outside the lens, in back of the main mirror. In some designs the secondary mirror is attached to the center of the corrector lens. This allows the lens to incorporate a solid glass interior. Vivitar several years ago sold a solid glass mirror lens of such a design. The advantage of a solid glass mirror lens lies in the fact that the two mirrors and the corrector lens cannot get out of alignment and are therefore more reliable in the long run.

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  2. Very interesting and informative. I am one of the lucky ones with a Nocaloux 50mm F1. I used it on my M6 in many dark places around the world

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    Replies
    1. More amazing than the fact that the current f/0.95 Noctilux performs well wide-open, is that it also performs well at small and medium apertures and at all distances. Other than the weight and 1 meter minimum focus distance, it has very few disadvantages over the slower Summilux

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    2. The performance of the Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 stopped down actually is not all that surprising. Large aperture lenses do present the problems of increased aberrations which are easier to control with smaller apertures or by stopping down. The Noctilux was designed from the onset as a well performing lens, even at its maximum aperture. The amazing fact is that there is little improvement in performance when the lens is used at smaller apertures. The absence of performance differences at different distances is due to the fact that the lens uses a floating element group which compensates for these differences that do regularly occur with conventional lens designs.

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  3. What.s about the combination Leica SL and Noctilux? Did anyone has excellent experiences?

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    Replies
    1. It won't make much of a difference. You still have to focus manually with the biggest difference being focusing with an electronic viewfinder instead of rangefinder focusing. Performance wise there is no difference.

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    2. Aren't electronic viewfinders inferior?

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    3. Some are. But the resolution of the EV in the Leica is so good, it is almost indistinguishable form an optical
      finder.

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