- Feb 21, 2012
- NYC Area
- Real Name
- Napier Lopez
The Panasonic Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm F1.2 is a peculiar lens. In a system that has traditionally been most known for its size, weight, and price advantages, the Nocticron seems antithetical at first glance. It’s larger and heavier than some similar lenses for other systems, and in several cases more expensive. For example: the Fujinon 56mm F1.2 is by all accounts excellent, and that lens comes at $600 less than the Nocticron, while being smaller and lighter *and* covering a larger sensor to provide shallower depth of field. Then you have the competition within Micro Four Thirds itself, primarily the venerable and miniscule 45mm F1.8, coming in at less than $400. Does this lens really make sense?
The problem with making these superficial comparisons, however, is that doing so betrays the merits of the Nocticron in the field. From the subtler technical advantages you won’t find described on any MTF chart, to the quasi-ineffable rendering aesthetic befitting its Leica branding, virtually every facet of the lens exudes a sort of masterful quality. I’ve spent the past 3 weeks working with the lens almost every day, and it’s been nothing but joy.
In Part 1 of my review, I discussed many of the technical details of the lens, and how it compared to the two other main AF lenses for the system, the Olympus 45mm F1.8 and 75mm F1.8. In this second part of the review, I detail my experiences using the lens as I do my regular work.
Note: All images are at F1.2 unless otherwise stated. I've also avoided cropping or kept it to a minimum on images showing shallow DoF, in order to assure realistic DoF expectations.
My usability impressions from my first post on this lens have not changed, but I can now supplement it with some real-world experience. Firstly, somewhat to my surprise, I didn’t really notice a huge difference in weight for my kit; of course, it’s heavier than the 45mm F1.8, but still not unwieldy. In fact, contrary to my expectations, I felt the lens balanced almost perfectly on my E-M5 without grip. Maybe that’s because I was already used to using the even heavier Voigtlander 42.5mm, but the Nocticron didn’t make my kit feel nearly as front-loaded as the Voigtlander.
Autofocus has also been surprisingly satisfactory for such large, bright lens. While it’s noticeably slower than the 45mm F1.8, it’s still very fast; it feels very similar to the Panasonic 25mm F1.4 or the Olympus 75mm F1.8 in most scenarios. Indeed, I shot plenty of street photos with the lens wide open, and had no trouble locking onto walking targets immediately in S-AF and getting my subjects in reasonable focus.
It’s accurate too; one of the wonderful benefits of mirrorless is the ability to use reliable face detection, and Olympus perhaps does this best by allowing focus on either the nearest eye, or the eye of your choice. Shooting with lenses providing similar shallow depth of field on other systems, DSLRs in particular, often forces you into manual focus if you’re trying to capture a passable headshot. I had no such trouble here.
And mind you, I’m a heavy manual focus user, but for very close headshots, I found focus “pumping” using face detection on my E-M5 to be much less painless than trying to maintain a razor-thin focus plane on the nearest eye, something I would have to with the Voigtlander. There have been too many times where, for all my carefulness, my subject or I will move slightly forward or backward, and suddenly focus is lost. That’s where AF really comes in handy. Heck, even continuous tracking on the CDAF-only E-M5 worked decently.
I love using short telephoto lenses. I got my start using a 50mm F1.4 on Micro Four Thirds (a 100mm equivalent) and in my early days, I did everything from portraits, to street, to architecture with just that one lens. While I now have a larger selection to choose from, I feel the short-tele is more versatile than people give it credit for. And it just so happens that this is the best short-tele I’ve ever used.
Seriously, this lens just blows me away.
I’ve detailed a lot of the technical aspects of the lens’ performance in my first half of this review, and more technical comparisons have been cropping up online since. Those invariably show the Nocticron to be an excellent performer, but somehow, that doesn’t seem enough.
Of course, there are the obvious characteristics, like having an F1.2 aperture for decent exposure and quality in low light:
F1.2 – 1/13 – ISO 6400 - +0.6 exposure in LR. Yeah, this was low light.
Or the shallow DoF the aperture enables:
And while those abilities are lovely to have, it’s something about the way the lens renders the world that really gets to me. For one, there’s the intense contrast that begs for a B&W conversion:
Or how impeccably sharp it is:
Of course, portraits are the primary raison d'être for this lens, and in no way does it disappoint on that front.
F2 - Cropped
See, the thing about the Nocticron isn't so much that it does anything leaps and bounds above its competitors, but rather that it does so little wrong, and that it performs with a sort of finesse most other can't quite match. A lot of it is more subtle than you usually see in reviews. I mentioned the contrast right from wide-open before; there are other qualities, such as very minimal longitudinal CA on in-focus areas and out-of-focus areas, creating smoother bokeh and much more appealing foreground blurring. The transition from smooth to blurred on this lens is so clean it almost reminds me of gaussian blur. Even still, I noticed the lens less for how much bokeh it produced or how sharp it was than for how relatively little I had to adjust my images in post to get something I was happy with. If anything, I found myself lowering contrast more often than I've ever done before, and performing more skin smoothing than I generally do.
I've surprised myself with how much I ended up liking this lens. I expected it to be a great performer, but at the announced price tag and large size, I never thought I'd be interested in actually buying it. After all, my personal photo aesthetic tends to be so heavy on filters with a faded look and tons of grain; after crossing the "decent" threshold, why would any additional optical performance matter to me?
The truth is, I don't know. All I know is how much I like the shots coming out of my camera since I started reviewing the Nocticron. I almost don't think it's fair to compare it to the Olympus 45mm; to me they serve totally different purposes. The Olympus 45 is like a delicious meal you can afford to eat every day from your favorite diner around the block. The Nocticron is more like eating at a world class restaurant serving your favorite type of food. Generally, your diner food is great. Going to the fancy restaurant will be more expensive and take more effort to get to. But once you've tried it, you'd be lying if you said you weren't a little spoiled.
Crude analogy being made, I think these two lenses can easily coexist in somebody's kit. For example, I might use the 45mm for my daily shooting when I want to travel light, and the Nocticron for my paid work. It's a testament to the versatility of Mu-43 that the Olympus can perform so well in most scenarios, but you also have the Nocticron performing better than almost every other lens out there.
Likewise, the Voigtlander 42.5mm F0.95 and this lens seem completely removed from one another; other than both having impressive light-gathering abilites and full-frame-ish DoF, the results of shooting with these two lenses are completely different. The Voigtlander seems to revel in its flaws with the ability to clean up when it needs to. The Nocticron aims to perform at its best all the time.
And I mean, it's not just me; look around all the reviews for this lens, and you'll find only universal acclaim. There's just "something" about it, and even if my personal aesthetic preferences may lie closer to something like the Voigtlander, there's no denying the excellence of the Nocticron. This is a lens meant to show that Micro Four Thirds is as serious a system as any, a lens that doesn't compromise on image quality just to downsize.
Simply put, this is the best lens I've ever used, over any L glass or premium Nikon optics. But perhaps the best compliment I can give the Nocticron is that it just makes me want to go out and just take pictures, if only to see what it will churn out next. Whether working on street, portraits, events, or weddings, I've felt like I've consistently gotten more keepers from this lens than any other before, while saving me a lot of time in post, too.
That, to me, makes it worth $1600.
But as always, your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, there's no denying that if you're on Micro Four Thirds, you have a great collection of options.
The Nocticron 42.5mm F1.2 is available for $1600. Please note that purchasing any items by going through the links in this review (or throughout the website) helps Mu-43 keep growing.
More samples in the Nocticron Sample Image Archive Thread, as well as my Flickr account.
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