A Second Look at the Nocticron

Controversial to some, magical to others there’s no doubt that the Leica Nocticron is welcome addition to the high end of the M43 system. Reading about the lens online I see two types of people commenting –

1 – those who have used the lens/understand what it is

2 – those who have not used the lens/do not understand what it is

Seems those who have used the lens understand the importance of this lens and those who have not used it seem to point at the price point – $1699. There are plenty of value lenses and cameras available for M43 and for those that are happy with that gear awesome, but having gear on the high end available increases the overall value/longevity of the system.

The only way for a camera system to survive long term is to have both pros and non pros working with the gear. Pros will use the gear to make money, will push the system to it’s limits and will demand high end gear that can produce results reliably. Most enthusiasts will want a system that is light, easy to use and affordable. With gear like the GH4 and the Nocticron we have native M43 gear that aims at the high end of the spectrum yet are affordable by enthusiasts either wanting the best the system has to offer or that are interested in the business potential of hybrid photography.

Looking at the history of photography for a moment and what happened when 35mm cameras were introduced will give you some perspective on what’s going on with M43. The 35mm system was introduced as a lower cost, smaller system for photographers vs medium format cameras. Eventually the benefits of the 35mm system caught on with pros and although the cameras got larger, the benefits of the technology outweighed the tradeoffs – smaller film size, lower image quality, faster operation, AF…sound familiar?

The Nocticron in the Real World

I had the luxury of using a prototype Nocticron in the past and loved it. Unfortunately I had to send it back to the mother ship but I’m excited for the day I get it into my hands again. In fact I’d say I’m more excited about the Nocticron than the GH4 :-0. Good optics are good optics and will remain good optics for many camera generations to come. Put a killer lens on any body new or old and you instantly upgrade the image quality of your system.

Shot live at CES 2014, this image of Olesea is a SOOC JPEG. Lumix GH3, Nocticron - f/1.2, 1/100th @ ISO 200. Click for full res
Shot live at CES 2014, this image of Olesea is a SOOC JPEG. Lumix GH3, Nocticron – f/1.2, 1/100th @ ISO 200. Click for full res

The images that the Nocticron produces are simply stunning. I’ve never in my career used a lens with such character and now that I got a taste there’s just no going back. The transition from sharp to blurry is smooth like buttah, the sharpness is tops and the AF is fast. Speaking of AF, it works very well with video on any of my Lumix cameras I’ve used and with cameras like the GH3/4 GX7/GM1 continuous AF in video is killer and everything is stabilized as well.

The Animated Portrait of Nadine below was shot live at CES with the GH3, Nocticron wide open

As a photographer who’s shooting video like a photographer I rely on auto focus in video, good IS in a lens and the ability to preprocess my work in camera. Working fast, shooting well, creating multimedia content means I’m a value to my clients. In order to do so I need to rely on my gear. I need to know that my AF will work in video so I can move freely between shooting still and animated portraits. I need to know that my work will reflect my unique view of the world and that my work is an extension of my personality. I get it all with the Nocticron but there’s now this problem: I want all my lenses to be like the Nocticron. I want a 25mm to be built like the Nocticron, I want a zoom lens too and I hope the camera gods deliver on my fantasies. I think there’s a possibility that we’ll be seeing more lenses like the Nocticron though. The new Leica 15/1.7 is built like a mini Nocticron and has much of the same character too and I’ll take the mini 15 over a new body as well.

You can support Small Camera Big Picture by ordering the Leica Nocticron through this Amazon link.

Leica 42.5/1.2 Nocticron

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The GH3 looks hot with the Nocticron and red Pro Dot

WOAH. This is one badass lens, is what I first thought when I first played with the Nocticron at Photo Plus…unfortunately I was not able to show the working lens online so when I was on Lumix Lounge Live at PPE I appeared with a mock up. My contacts at Panasonic were under orders from the mothership in Japan not to release the real lens out in the wild yet. I had an idea…

A Photographer Walks Into a Bar

Soooo a few weeks later I’m this awesome bar in Jersey meeting with my contact. We’ll call him “Bob” who’s been with Panasonic pre-Lumix days. We’re having some tasty craft beers, talking photography – how awesome the GM1 is (his is all black BTW), hybrid photography and some stuff I can’t mention until next year. A few brews later he passes me something across the bar. It’s the working Leica designed Nocticron 42.5/1.2, the most premium Micro 4/3 lens to date and one that is designed for a new level generation of Lumix, however since its Micro 4/3rds it works on any M43 body.

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The bottles are actually touching each other. Amazing how shallow the DOF is.

First thing I do is put it on my Gx7 and make some quick snaps of what happened to be in front of me…beer! It’s near dark in the bar but to my surprise the GX7 is able to focus quite quickly and lock onto objects with low contrast like a glass or bottle. Excited, I snapped some shots of the setup with my iPhone, even some of the GM1 with the Nocticron just for laughs. The barrel of the Nocticron is so large, when I set the camera with lens onto the bar the lens rolls to one side until the GM1 makes contact with the bar. While the GM1 on this beastly lens is cute it’s totally impractical. Speaking of the lens barrel its made of machined metal and has the text laser etched into the barrel. My contact “Bob” was nice enough to let me hold onto this amazing lens for the weekend. The test ended at Panasonic’s new HQ were I got to visit the new labs and see some stuff that you’ll see next year or two. Look for that post on Small Camera Big Picture very soon.

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This is a legit Leica and is Built Like One

Like the Leica 25/1.4 and 45/2.8 this is a Leica designed, Panasonic built lens. This means that Leica engineers design the optics and some mechanical operations while Panasonic designs the electronics like AF and OIS. The lens is built by Panasonic to Leica standards. Another difference between the Panasonic lenses with the Leica badges and without is that all optical corrections are done within the optics. There are no firmware adjustments going on behind the scenes with the Leica lenses. This means there’s less a jump in sharpness from one f-stop to another and that regardless of M43 body the optical performance is the same. These are lenses that you invest in while other M43 glass are just lenses you buy.

 

High End Sharpness and Bokeh

The proof is in the pudding and the pudding is so sweeeeet! I’m not crazy about pixel peeping but for a lens that is supposed to be the best in the M43 line I had to. For my real world test I photographed my friend and fellow Lumix Luminary Rick Gerrity. Let’s look at this screen capture from Lightroom. Notice that my sharpness and noise reduction is on zero. What you see is the actual optical performance of the Nocticron and it is AWESOME.

Click for full res
RAW with no sharpening or noise reduction. Click for full res

When you can see individual hairs its plenty sharp and there’s many advantages of not having to post sharpen. Not having to post sharpen keeps away any strange file artifacts like jagged edges, reduces overall noise and if you’re photographing a female model this means less retouching. The transitions from sharp to blurred at all f-stops are smooth and silky, again a result of no firmware corrections. Wide open? OMG it’s not only sharp but the bokeh is lovely.

GX7, Natural Light, WiFi JPEG transfer to iPad, iPhoto and Snapseed. Click for full res
Pre-processed GX7 JPEG, WiFi transfer to iPad, Post-processed in iPhoto and Snapseed. Click for full res

I usually shoot at f/4 so to test I compared the same portrait at f/1.2 and again at f/4. As you can see the eyes are sharp in both but at f/1.2 the image starts to get burred just past the eye. As I stated, my preference is f/4 and in the example below the image is sharp – naturally – yet the image gradually transitions to a nice blur in the background….simply beautiful.

The shallow DOF is nice with the right portrait. My preference here is f/4. Click for full res
The shallow DOF is nice with the right portrait. My preference here is f/4. Click for full res

 

At 100% you can see how sharp the lens is at f/1.2 and how smooth the transition from sharp to blurry at f/4
At 100% you can see how sharp the lens is at f/1.2 and how smooth the transition from sharp to blurry at f/4. Click for full res

Handeling and Accessories

The lens has OIS which is very welcome since this is a heavy lens. Any lens that is built out of metal and glass is going to be heavy. Filter size 67mm  which will work nicely with a Heliopan polarizer. I don’t use UV filters, more glass to pass through and increased possibility for optical aberrations. If I drop the lens its going to suck regardless of the filter. Plus if you drop the lens the glass from the filter could actually push into the front optical element of the lens which would cause damage. Best bet is to get a good polarizer to help absorb bright sun since at f/1.2 your shutter speed can easily get to 1/8000 at ISO 200 and for protection get some no fault insurance many dealers offer. Size wise it’s bigger than the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 X which I don’t think is a large lens to begin with (coming from a DSLR) but the Nocticron is going to be a bit larger.

The Nocticron is larger than the 12-35/2.8 as expected
The Nocticron is larger than the 12-35/2.8 as expected. Click for full res

Although its a big lens for the GX7, on the GH3 it fits very well which makes sense. The Lumix GH line is Panasonic’s pro hybrid cameras which is the level of body the Nocticron was designed for. The Nocticron should come with a lens hood or let me put it this way. If a lens hood is made it will be included in the lens. No need to spend upwards of $100 on a lens hood. I’m also certain it will come with a lens pouch as well.

It's a bit big on the GX7 but it's well balanced and easy to handle. Click for full res
It’s a bit big on the GX7 but it’s well balanced and easy to handle. Click for full res

Price and Availability

While I can’t say exactly how much retail for and when the Nocticron will make its debut here’s what I can say. Expect the lens to be more than the Voightlander 42.5/f.95 because of the Leica optics, AF that works identical in still or video and OIS. This is a high end pro lens made for those that make money with their photography. That said the build quality, optical performance and reliability is well worth the price. Start saving now.. The Leica Nocticron 42.5/1.2 will hit the streets the first half of 2014 and I’d say sooner than later. These are not easy lenses to make so expect the supply to be low. As soon as I can I’ll post links to preorder which I strongly suggest.

GX7, Natural Light, WiFi JPEG transfer to iPad, iPhoto and Snapseed. Click for full res
Pre-processed GX7 JPEG, WiFi transfer to iPad, Post-processed in iPhoto and Snapseed. Click for full res

The Leica Nocticron 42.5/1.2 can be described as the finest native Micro 4/3 lens with autofocus. The optical performance is second to none the AF is fast for a lens this size and the build reminds me of an old school lens. Think of the Voightlander with killer optical performance, OIS, AF and you’ll get an idea of the magic that’s in this lens. While the Nocticron is not going to be for everyone (due to price) it is a lens that will be in high demand by the growing number of working pros and enthusiasts who want the best of the best for the M43 system. I’m very much looking forward to getting my hands on a final version as soon as they are available.

Want to play with Lumix gear before they hit the streets?

GX7 Handheld. RAW Processed in Lightroom. ISO 200, f/1.2, 1/1250 click for full res
GX7 Handheld. RAW Processed in Lightroom. ISO 200, f/1.2, 1/1250. Click for full res

Come to any of my events and you’ll often get to play with prototype gear before they get released. Sometimes you get to meet the talented engineers who design them as well. Panasonic wants your feedback so leave them a comment here.