Camera systems are defined by their lenses. Generally, each system has one lens that sits atop the hill.
Leica’s M-mount system, for instance, has the heralded 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. Canon has the widely loved 24-70mm f/2.8L. Nikon has the 105mm f/2 DC. Fuji has the 35mm f/1.4. Sony’s full frame E-mount system has the Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T*.
And the Micro Four Thirds system has the Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2. This lens is the best lens in the system. Full-stop. It may even transcend the Micro Four Thirds system and be one of the best lenses made for any system. For portraiture and other short-telephoto applications of photography, the Nocticron is the best lens money can buy.
Steve Huff adores the Nocticron. Zach Arias, a prolific and superbly talented Fuji photographer, says the Nocticron has magic inside it. My favorite reviewer, Jordan Steele, says the Nocticron is “one of the finest lenses I’ve ever had the pleasure to use.”
The Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 offers some of the fastest autofocus I’ve seen on a lens in the Micro Four Thirds system, either tying or at least getting close to the speed seen on Olympus’ PRO zooms and the venerable 75mm f/1.8. The Nocticron is tack sharp right from f/1.2, eliminating the worry of softness when shooting for that pleasing background. And the Nocticron’s f/1.2 aperture makes it one of the fastest autofocusing lens available to purchase for any system.
On the downside, the lens’ substantial width makes some camera accessories non-functional, like the original E-M5’s horizontal grip. The Nocticron’s built-in optical image stabilization and perfectly executed aperture ring don’t function on non-Panasonic cameras. And, perhaps most importantly, the lens’ price is set out of range of the casual Micro Four Thirds photographer. At $1400 brand new, and with very rare discounts, the Leica-branded Nocticron is priced like a full frame prime lens found in Sony’s new full frame FE system.
The lens’ price alone is my largest source of ambivalence. This would be an expensive lens in any system and stands as the most expensive prime lens for Micro Four Thirds shooters. Up until the launch of the PRO zooms from Olympus, the Nocticron was the most expensive lens in the system period.
So is it worth the extra cash? Before I made the purchase, everyone told me the Nocticron couldn’t justify its price. The jump from the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 to the Nocticron f/1.2 causes considerable pocketbook pain, and the improvement in your photos — it was said — wasn’t worth the extra $1100.
After eight to nine months of use, I’d say the Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 is right on the cusp of being the worth the money. Because without fail, every bit of light that flows through the Nocticron comes out magic on the other side.
A $1400 prime lens better come with top notch build quality, and the Nocticron mostly doesn’t disappoint — “mostly” because the lens isn’t weather sealed.
Although Panasonic’s first major foray into speedy prime lenses (the Leica 25mm Summilux f/1.4) was made of plastic, the company’s latest Leica-branded lenses have sturdy materials that feel nearly bullet proof. The Nocticron is the embodiment of this move to higher-grade materials. The lens is made of metal, from its mount through to its front element. Therefore, the lens is fairly heavy, weighing in at 425 grams or 15.04 ounces. I’d say the lens feels about the same weight as the Olympus 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO.
The Nocticron’s design is very reminiscent of Leica’s legendary 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. The lens is relatively short and very stubby, but feels well balanced when attached to a camera body with a grip. The Nocticron comes by its stubby personality thanks to its built-in optical image stabilizer. When you pick up the lens, you can actually feel the built-in stabilizer shake slightly, giving the impression there is something wrong with the lens. In order to make room for that stabilizer, Panasonic increased the width of the lens body.
From Panasonic’s standpoint, I think I understand this thought process. Panasonic camera bodies do not come with built-in image stabilization, so any stabilization has to be housed in the lens. With the Nocticron being their pride and joy, it’s logical to assume image stabilization would be built into the lens.
Yet, the added size and weight are substantial, to the point that the lens’ width often gets in the way of add-on accessories or front function buttons.
To add insult to injury, the optical image stabilization doesn’t work correctly with already-stabilized Olympus camera bodies, meaning the feature is lost on anyone with a non-Panasonic body. In conclusion then, the Nocticron has a lot of extra size and weight thanks to a feature that many people won’t be able to use.
Inside the Nocticron’s heftier package is some impressive innovation. The Nocticron has 14 elements in 11 groups, including 2 aspherical lenses, 1 ED lens, and 1 HUR lens. I’m not sure what any of those do specifically, but I know 14 elements in 11 groups sounds like a complex array of glass and metal.
I do know, however, that aperture blades matter significantly to the output of an image. The Nocticron comes with nine diaphragm aperture blades. In essence, the more blades, the more circular the out of focus “bokeh balls” appear in images. As we’ll see, the Nocticron’s out of focus regions are truly spectacular, and this will be impacted by its aperture blade count.
The Nocticron’s front element is large in diameter, measuring in at 67 millimetres. For a Micro Four Thirds lens, this front element is almost as big as it gets.
As a portrait lens, you may find you want to use the included lens hood from time to time to eliminate flare and increase contrast. The Leica Nocticron’s lens hood is made of solid metal, unlike Olympus’ PRO zooms. Again, at this price, you’d expect a highly durable lens hood to match the highly durable lens body.
Unfortunately, the lens hood attaches via a screw on nob on the exterior of the hood. The nob doesn’t tighten via a screw head digging into the lens, luckily. Instead, tightening the nob tightens a large, flat ring that spans the circumference of the lens hood, applying equal tightness around the lens body and thereby eliminating scratches and extra friction. I haven’t had any scratching on my lens body, so I appreciate the application of the tightening nob in this instance.
That said, screwing and unscrewing the nob is more work than quickly tightening, say, the Panasonic Leica 15mm Summilux lens hood or any of Olympus’ PRO zoom lens hoods. I’m not sure why Panasonic would opt to go with this style of lens hood and, more often than not, I find myself leaving the lens hood at home.
From a materials point of view, the Nocticron is built like a rock. Its metal build feels extremely solid in the hand and is noticeable in any bag you carry it in.
Yet, for some odd reason, the Nocticron isn’t weather sealed. This is baffling to me. At $1400, you do get great build quality, but not great enough to take with you when Mother Nature gets a little testy. Many shooters who double down on the Nocticron will likely pair it with one of Panasonic’s or Olympus’ high-end bodies, all of which are completely weather sealed. It would only seem natural for Panasonic to include a few extra ingredients to make the lens fully bullet proof. Instead, I’d recommend keeping one of Olympus’ PRO zooms around for those times you need to head into the treacherous outdoors.
Lack of weather-sealing aside, the Nocticron doesn’t disappoint from a tangible perspective. The lens feels like its worth the money you’ve paid for it, and it pairs very nicely with an expensive camera body with some heft of its own. If this lens were weather-sealed, I’m not sure it would ever come off my camera.
I didn’t touch on the Nocticron’s dedicated aperture ring above because it’s a bit of a special case.
In short, the aperture ring doesn’t work with any of my Olympus camera bodies. All of Panasonic’s newer Leica-branded lens have a clicky aperture ring built into the lens, but those rings only speak to Panasonic camera bodies.
This is a major disappointment, as the Nocticron’s aperture ring feels magnificent. It clicks four times between f/1.2 and f/2.0, giving plenty of physical feedback as you spin through your apertures. Even though the ring doesn’t work on an Olympus body, I often find myself spinning the aperture ring from one end of the spectrum to the other thanks to that brilliantly clicky feel.
Video professionals may be disappointed in that the Nocticron’s aperture ring does not include a click-less option. Transitioning from one aperture to the next when doing video work will surely result in an audible click every time the ring is spun, so I’d assume video professionals would stick to camera body adjustments instead of the aperture ring.
Again, the aperture ring itself should have no bearing on a lens purchase, especially if you’re an Olympus owner. It’s an amazingly great ring to use, and I can only imagine how great it would be if it actually worked on my camera.
The Leica Nocticron’s manual focus ring looks and feels beautiful. Its indents are wider and sharper than Olympus’ manual focus rings, giving extra friction for turning with gloves or with sweaty hands. For touchy shooters, the manual focus ring is focus by wire, meaning turning the ring doesn’t directly shift the glass inside the lens. It takes away slightly from the feel of manual focusing apparently, but it’s the only mechanism I’ve ever tried.
Undoubtedly, there’s no issue with the manual focus ring’s feel, aside from its infinite turning. I greatly appreciate Olympus’ move to hard-stop manual focus rings. Hard-stop manual focus rings give you instant feedback to where you are focused in the frame, and they also make adjustments quicker and easier. The Nocticron doesn’t include this feature, which is a bummer for those few times I switch to manual focus.
The other physical controls built into the Nocticron are two switches close to the lens’ mount. The top-most switch switches from autofocus to manual focus and the bottom-most switch controls the lens’ built-in optical image stabilizer.
I leave the power O.I.S. switch in the off position at all times, as I don’t want anything messing with Olympus’ top-of-the-line in-body image stabilization. I’ve read that having the O.I.S. turned on when shooting with a tripod can actually be detrimental to image sharpness, so I steer clear of this switch at all times.
Both switches have a good feel and won’t be accidentally changed by a simple bump or graze.
Overall, the Panasonic Leica Nocticron’s physical build and design more or less fit the given price tag. The physical materials feel great in the hand and don’t exude any feeling of cheapness. Instead, even the lens’ accessories have been given an extra durable treatment. Clear thought has been given to the lens’ aperture ring, manual focus ring, and built-in switches, which goes to show Panasonic didn’t cut corners with this lens.
They did, however, cut out weather-sealing. This has and always will baffle me. As a portrait lens, I can see Panasonic aiming this at the studio shooter or for those shooting in a relatively controlled environment. However, thanks to the intangible features this lens provides, I want to shoot with it wherever and whenever. A lack of weather-sealing drastically limits the application of this lens’ greatest strengths.
Ergonomics and Handling
I admit I complained about the Nocticron’s size and heft earlier, but there are areas where this size pays dividends. In regards to ergonomics, the Nocticron feels like a lesson in precision.
I generally shoot with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. In my review of the camera, I talked about the add-on HLD-8G grip. The grip provides many of the ergonomic benefits of the OM-D E-M1 camera body, but also allows you to take it off and enjoy a tight, compact camera with ultra portability.
When I made those statements, I made them specifically with the Nocticron in mind. Although the add-on grip is essential for big lenses like the 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO or even the heavier 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO, I also feel it’s essential for the Leica Nocticron. With the add-on grip, the Nocticron provides a fabulous camera-to-lens weight balance that feels incredibly precise when your eye is to the viewfinder.
There’s also very clear evidence of thought put into the placement and the size of the manual focus ring. I have average to small sized hands, so the Nocticron fits perfectly between my thumb and index finger when held to my eye. Then, with my left hand middle finger, I can spin the grippy manual focus ring with extreme ease, and my index finger and thumb can quickly change the aperture ring (if my camera supported it). The placements of these rings are beautiful and are better yet than the venerable PRO zooms. The PRO zooms do have that incredible manual focus clutch mechanism, which takes the cake in terms of ergonomics. That aside, there are no issues with how the rings are positioned on the Nocticron or how they feel in your hand when shooting.
The only downfall of the Nocticron’s handling rests again in its width. With the HLD-8G add-on grip attached to the E-M5 Mark II, I find it extremely difficult to reach the front facing function button. The button is hidden conspicuously behind the angled part of the lens which tapers towards the lens’ mount. If I didn’t know the function button was there, the Nocticron would do a mighty job of hiding it and rendering it useless.
Further, the amount of space between the grip and the Nocticron will surely be problematic for those shooters with larger hands. My fingers fit exactly in the space between the grip and the lens, but anything bigger would cause a problem. For those few times when I’ve ventured into the colder outdoors with gloves on, my covered fingers are constantly unable to properly grip the camera with the Nocticron attached.
Just like the Nocticron’s build quality, actually using the lens feels like a million bucks. The lens’ weight beautifully balances to a camera with a more substantial grip and with an all-metal build quality like the E-M5 Mark II. I don’t particularly like the heft of the Nocticron when attached to an all-plastic camera like the E-M10 Mark II — the lens is a bit forward weighted with this kind of body, but not to the point of it being a detriment. Putting this lens in your hand and bringing your eye to the viewfinder will make you feel instantly comfortable, especially with an all-metal camera body to offset the weight.
My first experience with any of Panasonic’s Leica-branded lenses was particularly painful in the autofocus department. My 25mm Summilux lens is an average focuser at best, and this was only worsened by the horrible clicking the lens’ autofocus gave off when honing in on a subject.
Fortunately, none of that initial experience resides in the Nocticron. The Nocticron’s autofocus system is spot on, lightning quick, and ultra quiet. In fact, when trying this lens out the very first time, I remember being surprised a company could sell both the 25mm Summilux and the 42.5mm Nocticron at the same time. Their autofocus systems are vastly different and the 42.5mm sets the bar for Panasonic’s lenses.
However, I don’t think I’d say the Nocticron focuses as fast or as quiet as Olympus’ PRO zooms. This isn’t a noticeable difference in day-to-day use, but the Nocticron hasn’t blown me away like Olympus’ top-end lenses have in the past.
By now, I’ve spilled a lot of ink regarding many of the Nocticron’s not-so-flattering features: a hit-and-miss aperture ring, lack of weather-sealing, and hefty size, all for an asinine price tag. All these aspects define the Nocticron’s physical presence.
Yet, it’s the Nocticron’s intangible features which make it the greatest lens in the Micro Four Thirds system.
Usually fast lenses like the Nocticron soften drastically when you shoot wide open, especially the Panasonic Leica 25mm Summilux f/1.4. When shooting with the 25mm wide open, I’ve never been truly happy with the level of clarity in the resulting image. This goes for more lenses than just the 25mm Summilux, and is generally the rule rather than the exception.
But the Nocticron is the exception. Images are pin sharp right from f/1.2 and only improve as you stop down slightly. I’ve never noticed a difference between f/1.2 and f/2.0 or f/2.8, to be honest. The only reason I’ve ever stopped down was because of how bright the sun was or to help slow my shutter speeds to create neat effects. The sharpness of this lens is stunning right across its spectrum of apertures.
Bokeh and Depth of Field
Although the Nocticron is known for how sharp it is right from f/1.2, its claim to fame is in its bokeh and depth of field. The Nocticron is one of only a handful of Micro Four Thirds lenses capable of creating that tantalizing full frame, three-dimensional look. Subjects pop right out of the background thanks to the Nocticron’s ability to render light smoothly and softly.
The Nocticron’s out of focus areas are brilliantly smooth and transition to the lens’ sharpest areas with incredible ease.
Out of focus areas tend to be less circular at the edge of a photo and I often find the look of leaves in the background to have a swirling look around the very center of the frame. This is a neat way of creating focus on your subject in the middle of the photo without becoming too distracting.
I think the Nocticron excels in its transition from sharp to blur, mind you. Sure, the out of focus areas are brilliantly smooth and give the Micro Four Thirds system that sense of pop which is so hard to find. But it’s the gradual change from the in-focus regions to the out of focus regions that catch my eye.
Take the above photo of freshly watered flowers, for instance. The in-focus flowers are perfectly sharp and draw your attention instantly. But the gradual fall off of sharpness as you look at the next layer of flowers and then the incredibly soft background behind that give this image the extra kick it needs. It isn’t an overly exciting image right out of the box, but the way the Nocticron renders that bokeh is second to none, at least in the Micro Four Thirds system.
I’m in love with the Nocticron’s ability to separate my subjects from the background behind them. This lens has made me feel artistic more so than any other lens I’ve ever tried, and it’s in its three-dimensional capabilities where this lens truly shines.
Color Rendition and Contrast
I continue to heap praise on the Nocticron’s image quality, but its color rendition and contrast only continue its untenable track record. Very often, I’ve found lenses to lose some of their color pop and contrast when used at their widest apertures. Somehow, the Nocticron maintains its stunning color right from f/1.2 onwards.
Its color rendition is truly Leica in fashion, as well. When researching this lens prior to purchase, I found many sample images on Flickr and throughout the web. Whenever I found myself drooling, I was more drawn to the Nocticron’s color and visual aesthetic than I was its three-dimensional pop. Better yet, these colors are evident right in the viewfinder and rarely need to be accentuated in post-production. This color is a quality you have to see to believe, and if you’re set on “that look”, the Nocticron will quickly become the only lens on your wish list.
Chromatic Aberration, Fringing, Vignetting, and Flare
The only area where the Nocticron falters slightly is in how it handles chromatic aberrations and fringing. Quick fall-offs in light often result in purple and green fringes, but are quickly nerfed in Lightroom after your shoot. I’ve also found my camera body’s ability to limit fringing to be quite impressive, so this has rarely been an issue.
I’ve been fairly pleased with how the lens deals with flare, though. Harsh light at the edge of your frame or just outside your frame can often get caught up in the lens’ glass, but the Nocticron does an exceptional job at keeping flare at bay.
This fast of a lens will surely have darkened corners, especially at f/1.2. That said, this is a portrait lens, and at an 85mm full frame equivalent focal length, many photographers will be pleased with the natural vignetting of the image. I’ve noticed some light fall off when shooting product photos on a white backdrop, but it’s never been impossible to overcome, be it through stopping down the lens to f/2.8 or by hitting a button in Lightroom afterwards.
Real World Usage
It’s become pretty evident that the Nocticron’s high price tag is generated more so in its incredible image quality and less in its build quality. With this in mind, the Nocticron has been my introduction into the reality of photography as an art form.
Looking back, I can remember thinking about photography as a technical game — a game that could be played by numbers and rules of thumb. I purchased professional level zooms with incredible build quality and lightning fast autofocus, somehow thinking they’d improve my images tenfold.
Instead, the Nocticron — although expensive and not without its own durable build quality — showed me how a lens can create art. The Nocticron is the fastest autofocus lens in the Micro Four Thirds system, true. But it’s not winning any races on the autofocus front, and it certainly isn’t winning the weather-sealing or functionality debate.
No, the Nocticron creates art in a better way than any other lens in the Micro Four Thirds system. Attach this lens to your camera and your images will have a different kind of pop to them — they will cause someone to say “Woah.” Be it through color rendition, contrast, or the lens’ ability to create that wonderful three-dimensional look, the Nocticron can instantly have an impact on how you look at your own photos.
Add in how the lens feels when balanced on a heavier OM-D camera body and you get one of the most enjoyable photography experiences money can buy.
Here are a few more image samples worth pixel peeping over. There’s not much editing done here, which should show the brilliant color and soft effect of the Nocticron’s fine glass.
No matter how you slice it, it’s hard to look someone in the eye and tell them they should buy a $1400 lens. $1400 is a lot of money, and to invest it in a piece of glass may cause some discomfort for some people.
Once you get past the cost of the Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 lens, however, you will undoubtedly be pleased. More than pleased, I’d wager. This lens simply offers the very best image quality you can get out of the Micro Four Thirds sensor.
And Panasonic knows it. They know they don’t have to deviate on their pricing of this lens. They know they don’t need to offer discounts. They know this lens will be sold time and again over the lifetime of the camera system.
The lens is simply that good. It’s not thanks to its tangible and physical qualities either, although those qualities can’t be ignored. Instead, the Nocticron derives its value in the form of art, aesthetics, and an intangible magic it provides to your images.
I’m using some pretty flattering terms to describe the Nocticron’s capabilities, but I’m not sure of any other way to convey the brilliance of this piece of glass. It has given me the confidence to shoot portraits without worrying about the final result, and it has ushered in new, experimental types of photography I never saw myself undertaking a short year ago.
Between the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 lens and the Nocticron, I’m set for 95% of the photography I shoot on a daily basis. These two lenses complement each other perfectly and are clearly cut from the same cloth.
If money is no object and if you’re looking for the best image quality the Micro Four Thirds system can offer, the Panasonic Leica Nocticron should be the very first lens you purchase. It’s the best you can get, no matter how hard it hits your pocketbook.