There’s something irrepressibly magnetic about the numbers 0.95, and Leica knows it all too well.
Their 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M has been marketed to the point where it’s almost become a mockery of itself, and the lens is quickly becoming more of a luxury good than a tool for photographers.
By that statement I don’t mean to slight the quality of the glass, but the Noctilux has become such an icon of Leica’s extravagance that it’s almost symbolic of an intangible pinnacle—the summit of Mount Everest, rising just above the clouds—something feasibly attainable, but realistically out of reach for most mortals since it will cost you over US$10,000 for the privilege of owning one.
The mere existence of the 50mm f/0.95 enables Leica users to feel emotionally tethered to the brand, akin to how Mercedes owners might feel a tinge of pride when Lewis Hamilton wins in F1 with a Mercedes-made car.
The funny thing is that Leica weren’t the first major brand to make an f/0.95 SLR lens—that unique honour goes to Canon, who introduced the legendary 50mm f/0.95 “dream lens” for the Canon 7 rangefinder system back in 1961. Leica only introduced the f/0.95 Noctilux in 2008, since their first edition of the Noctilux was a more drab, f/1.2 lens that was in production from 1966-1975.
Canon’s f/0.95 classic has long been discontinued, and as a result is a legitimately rare collectable item. On the other hand, Leica are busy churning out the Noctilux, allowing Leica to basically trademark the f-stop with their crass accessories.
Jumping on the bandwagon
It was only a matter of time before more marketing-savvy companies started producing f/0.95 lenses of their own, since traditional companies like Nikon or Canon are too practical and stolid to make such arguably whimsical lenses.
By making the Noctilux so expensive, Leica priced out amateurs and subsequently made f/0.95 more desireable for wealthy collectors—but that has never meant that ordinary photographers don’t want to the ability to shoot at such a shallow depth-of-field, especially since many are initially beguiled by images from the Noctilux online, only to be put off by the prohibitive Leica price tag.
Voigtländer have their 25mm f/0.95 Nokton for Micro Four Thirds (the first came out in 2010, and the second iteration was introduced in 2014), SLR Magic have their 50mm f/0.95 Hyperprime, Zenit will be coming back big with a 50mm f/0.95 of their own, while Mitakon have both a 50mm f/0.95 and a 35mm f/0.95—the latter of which is for APS-C bodies.
Just recently Mitakon updated their original 35mm f/0.95 and released the Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 Mark II, which we’ve been playing with for a week and will be reviewing in-depth soon.
Not even the fastest kid on the block
So within a decade five companies have made f/0.95 lenses, and the hype that follows each one increases in correlation to how cheap it promises to be.
Personally, I don’t get it. It’s like a 99¢ sale at the supermarket—you know an apple basically costs a dollar, but psychologically you feel it’s cheaper anyway if it’s 1 cent less.
The difference between a f/0.95 lens and a f/1.0 lens is almost negligible—around 1/7th of a stop. In terms of marketing, f/1.0 might be less sexy, but as consumers we shouldn’t fall for such a cheap ploy. This only allows opportunistic companies like Leica to play with our emotions and gouge us, for what is essentially just a slightly faster standard 50 with a distinctive bokeh pattern.
Interestingly, photography historians and film trivia buffs may quip that f/0.95 isn’t even the fastest one can go; that honour goes to the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7, and the lore surrounding that lens is legendary.
Only 10 copies of the Planar 50mm f/0.7 were ever made, and they were originally designed so that the NASA Apollo lunar program could capture the far side of the moon back in 1966. Six were sold to NASA, one was kept by Carl Zeiss, and three were sold to Stanley Kubrick for his film Barry Lyndon.
For something actually affordable, in 2014 a company called Handevision made a niche lens called the Ibelux 40mm f/0.85, which was designed in Germany and manufactured in China.
Despite this, the Ibelux is little-known, and I’m going to wager that it would have been a bit more successful if Handevision had opted for the slower, but more memorable branding of f/0.95.
If we assume that everyone wants a f/0.95 lens simply because it promises the most shallow depth-of-field, the Ibelux 40mm f/0.85 should be in huge demand. However, this isn’t at all the case—perhaps photographers don’t trust Handevision or the ability of f/0.85 lenses to perform, while the 0.95 aperture has been “vouched” for by Leica.
Break free of the system
It’s undeniable that the Noctilux is a beautiful lens that can take beautiful photos, but at the same time, it’s just amusing how marketable those arbitrary digits have become.
Presumably, new manufacturers will keep pushing the envelop to make faster, more headline grabbing lenses. Kudos to them for doing what even innovative companies like Sigma won’t, but take a moment to also consider why more established manufacturers don’t enter the rat race.
Gear should help you with a photograph, not define the entire image. So many images online that feature a f/0.95 lens are dominated by the bokeh—so much so that almost nothing else matters.
For a series or for situational use, there isn’t a problem with that at all—it’s like how even Lomography’s Petzval lenses have their time and place. But for $10,000?
Let’s see if Mitakon can offer a realistic alternative.
Cover image by Flickr photographer Dave Doe.