How It's Made: The $10,000 Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95

Leica certainly has their share of both rabid fans and harsh critics, but no matter what side of the fence you may fall on, there are two undeniable facts tied to the red dot. The first is that they are priced into the stratosphere. The second is that their lenses are almost universally the best in the world. To help illustrate why, Leica has put together a short video highlighting step-by-step what sets their glass apart from the rest of the pack.

Almost no one will deny that portion of that almost $5,000 for one of Leica's Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH lenses (also available in silver) is a luxury tax, but when you put one in your hands and you start taking pictures, you know most of your hard-earned money has the finest engineering Germany has to offer to back it up. A few years ago the now-defunct website Humans Invent interviewed Stefan Daniel from Leica about the R&D and production of their lenses. When asked why it is so important that Leica hand-finshes lenses, he said:

First of all, we do our production in batches, not in serial production. So, we do batches of 50 or 100 lenses and that requires a lot of work by hand. You cannot automate production of a single lens element, or the lacquering of the rim of a lens for only 50 lenses.

It doesn’t make any sense. So we use hand work because it’s more efficient. Also, in doing it by hand, our skilled people know exactly what they’re doing and they can assure perfect quality. Doing it by machine, you have to do control checks afterwards and maybe that’s not getting the result that everybody wants.

The entire interview has been archived by La Vida Leica! and is definitely worth the read for some insight on how the "Rolls-Royce of cameras" thinks when building optical perfection. Even though almost all of their lenses are prime, manual focus only, and have absolutely no frills like vibration reduction, they still have over 100 parts. If the interview and video haven't satisfied your lust for Leica "lens porn," here's an extended video showing how Leica makes and assembles binoculars and rifle scopes:

Feeling saucy and want to buy a Noctilux as shown being assembled in the video? Buy it at the lowest price around from B&H. As with most Leica lenses, it's also available in silver.

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26 Comments

Dr. Dominik Muench's picture

Amazing process and amazing lens, here are some sample shots: http://www.overgaard.dk/leica-50mm-Noctilux-M-ASPH-f-095.html

I do a lot of my work on leica R series lenses, absolutely love their look and feel.

Paulo Macedo's picture

I'm like in that place where there is no fence. I wish i had them, i don't feel i would need them. By the end of the day, my way less expensive Canon L glass will deliver and even the Sigma ART will do so. Nice video though, the process of building something mesmerizes me all the time.

Sean Molin's picture

Most brands build good glass, and some of it is even great. But you can definitely "feel" the difference between a Leica and 'Canikony' lenses. It's the difference between a Ferrari and a Corvette. Both delivery comparable performance, but the precision and attention to detail in the Ferrari shows in every single door panel, leather stitch, and gear change. But you certainly pay for it, along with its world-class engineering and heritage.

And while there is certainly a tangible difference in quality, you're also paying for economies of scale. One of the reasons 'Canikony' can sell their lenses for so much less is because they make so many more of them. A great example of the deviation is Nikon's 58mm f/1.4G lens. It was a pet-project by a senior lens designer. They don't make many of them (compared to other lenses) so you're left with an $1800 50mm f/1.4 lens from a major camera maker. It is an outlier in the pricing scheme, all because of production numbers. If it were made in the same quantities as the regular 50mm f/1.4, It would probably be $600 less.

Sean Molin's picture

I don't understand your argument. The difference between a Ferrari and Corvette is engineering, material quality, fit and finish, peak performance, and price. The difference between a Leica lens and one from Nikon, Canon, or Sony is engineering, material quality, fit and finish, peak performance, and price.

Sean Molin's picture

I've driven Ferraris. The latest was a 458 Italia this summer. I've driven the newest Z06 (my dad has one). You don't know what you're talking about if you think fit and finish is the same or even close. The leather work and trimming in a Ferrari is Hermes-grade. Every panel in that machine (mostly leather, magnesium, carbon fiber) lines up perfectly to even the closest inspection. Even the nicest Corvettes still have a lot of plastic parts and faux-leather that is glued in place. There are still small vibrations and rattles. There are places where the plastic and paneling doesn't line up absolutely perfectly. They're still using fiberglass for a lot of the body, although that's always just been a "Corvette thing" since the beginning.

The Z06 is awesome. It's a great car, and it's come a long way in quality since they re-issued in in 2003 (daily driver for a couple years). It's fun to drive, and it's built well. But it's not as close in quality to a Ferrari as you think. And it shouldn't be. It's 1/5th the price.

I get that a core part of your argument is that "every manufacturer builds their parts with machines and computers" so in theory everything should be on a level playing field when it comes to fit. I've personally owned probably 30 lenses from everyone including Tokina, Sigma, Nikon, Leica, Zeiss, Pentax, Voightlander... and this just absolutely isn't reality. You get wiggles and wobbles. You get places where the gap between focus/zoom rings aren't the same. You get focus/zoom rings that don't click into place very assuredly or don't spin perfectly smooth the entire way around. You get mounts that loosen up often. You get rubber that falls off or loses up. You get switches that move too easily or are finicky. Don't even get me started with autofocus issues out of the box (I'm looking at you Sigma).

Sigma still doesn't weather-seal their Art lenses. They also don't have the world's most pleasing bokeh (especially the 50mm).

Ultimately, we're not talking about "near quality". That's a bang-for-the-buck argument which we're not having. There is absolutely no contest that Leica lenses are terrible "value". We are talking at a level where people are paying big bucks for small improvements. We are talking about absolute raw quality and perfection.

Aside from the best quality raw optical glass money can buy, Leica lenses are solid brass. Everyone else uses aluminum and plastic. When you put one in your hands and play with the aperture and focus rings, you can immediately feel the difference between them and virtually anything else, sans some high-end Zeiss lenses. I can't stress enough they are perfection, and you don't realize how imperfect Nikon/Canon/Sigma/Tamron lenses until you actually use world-class lenses. Just like it's hard to compare a Corvette to a Ferrari without actually driving a Ferrari... or an Invicta or Seiko to an Omega or Rolex.

I don't know how to stress enough that you're position is pure conjecture. Leica lenses (in general) being of the best quality is no myth. And it's not about where they're made or anything. I haven't once brought up that they're magical because they're "Made In Germany."

Paulo Macedo's picture

When i've logon today into fstoppers i was like "scared", 5 notifications...what in the hell did i do?
Well, i like the leica lenses, they are good, just like Zeiss. German engineering is what it is, exceptional, and if it works good, let's not make a fuss about it. Leica are taxed as luxury items here in europe, they are very expensive but yeah, they are good, very good.
Please don't compare a Ferrari to a Vette, one thing is an italian super fiat, the other an american muscle. I love ferraris as much as i love vettes, specially when your car is a damn Seat Ibiza 6L.

Sean Molin's picture

Corvettes are definitely not muscle cars. Haven't been since the 70's C3 Stingrays. ;-) They're definitely the closest thing America has to a Ferrari killer these days.

Anonymous's picture

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Making a good manual lens in 2016 still can not be compared to making a top performer AF lens with stabilisation. Especially if your budget is 5000 USD per lens.
I guess even Canon or Nikon can make a 5000 USD manual lens in series of 100 that would match Leica but they chose not to.
If I make a little joke: If Leica would build AF lenses they still would be screwing together their first batch. :)

"One of the most impressive lenses I ever owned was a Tokina lens. Incredible build quality."

Perfect example of why the weight (people assume heavier equates to stronger materials) and feel of a lens is only a partial picture of the build quality. Roger at lensrentals.com has stated that Tokinas are strong on the outside but poorly designed and manufactured on the inside, causing them to need repairs more frequently than other brands.

Sean Molin's picture

They're also the cheapest *looking* lenses on earth. They've really got to get rid of that crappy lettering.

Sean Molin's picture

We're arguing two totally different things. Sigma is impressive, indeed, in that they are creating stellar optics that are beating the long-reigning brands at their own game for considerably less money. I own two Art lenses for my Nikon bodies, and when one broke during a wedding I immediately replaced it with another. But Sigma still have price points to meet resulting in corners to cut, and they're pumping them out very fast.

Sigma is impressive in the sense of bang for the buck. Leica is impressive in the sense of being the height of optical engineering and not sparing any expense or cutting any corners.

Sean Molin's picture

The evidence is to just join any major photography forum or group and realize that almost everyone who is even a serious hobbyist owns at least one. They're the most talked about and recommend lenses on the entire internet.

Here's a factory tour and you can see how they're made in large batches: http://www.dpreview.com/articles/0773575852/making-art-inside-sigma-s-le...

And of COURSE there's some amount of "luxury tax" on Leica stuff. That's never been an argument, either. No one ever said Leica was bang-for-the-buck. We just said they're the best there is bar-none. And you pay for it.

Nope. Zeiss Otus lenses are the best there is. Most Leica lenses are way overrated when it comes to actual performance (some are still great). The combination of extremely high build quality and super high prices make people assume that the optical quality is great, but they are quite hit and miss. I'd rather have the 50mm f/2 summicron ANY DAY over the piece of crap (optically) 50mm f/.95 noctilux. The noctilux is only useful for people that stick to portraits with people centered in the frame because that is the only part of the lens that isn't mush at apertures larger than f/2.8. Don't believe me? See review at photozone for yourself and compare to other lenses. http://www.photozone.de/leicam/860-noctilux50asph?start=1

Sean Molin's picture

The Zeiss Otus are definitely in that upper echelon. And I'm definitely speaking in generalizations with brands because EVERY brand has their weak links and strong ones.

And I'm a huge proponent of the "sharpness is overrated" camp. My favorite lenses (Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 and Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G) are my softest ones.

Paulo Macedo's picture

They sure are good, thing is, how many often you hear about a Leica "bad copy" of a lens? It's not i don't like them, my original comment was like "they don't make me want them". There is no fence to me, just as i don't get behind any brand. I use Canon, i wish i had a Nikon D810, a Phase One IQ180 and next to my 8 core 16GB RAM PC a nice iMac 27" 5K LOL, i'm not a brand kind of person, i just like the job done. Leica has quallity, from the building process to the usage of the lens. Other brand is Zeiss, a bit cheaper and still damn good.

They go through all the trouble with excellent craftsmanship only to assemble the final product without protective finger covers at the end!

I think the Fuji lens film even had more protection (clean rooms and suites) only to do the same thing also.

And yet, that doesn't seem to be a detriment, does it?

Sean Molin's picture

In my research for the post, I found a few people who had visited the factory and confirmed it's all done in clean rooms. Gloves are used where needed, but in actual assembly they slow you down and hinder the ability to work with tiny screws and tight fitting precision parts. While I'm sure they clean their hands regularly anyway, any part they touch is either totally hidden out of view or wiped down during inspection.

I've never seen anyone complain about visible fingerprints on their new Leica glass, so I have to assume they're doing something right.

So you're suggesting that they design and build a machine to complete a function 50-100 times? And you're choosing to overlook the comment about quality control. By hand, they can ensure optimum quality for each step, rather than hope the finish lens passes QA. And before you argue that Canon/Nikon/Sigma, etc.all automate their production, I don't think I've ever heard anyone say they had a "bad copy" of a Leica lens.

Would I buy this lens? No. But I just received a $680 pair of sunglasses. 33 parts, assembled by hand in Italy, with my Rx in lenses that wrap around my face. The price covers design, materials, labor, optics, and the intangible feeling of owning something exclusive and handmade.

andreas's picture

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andreas's picture

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Filipe Nogueira's picture

Amazing process indeed, fantastic engeneering and planning too. I just not very fond on the aparent general appeal of people shouting Sigma as a caption for people who dont use Leica's system. Do you even eard of Samyang?

Filipe Nogueira's picture

yesm you're right. "Photographic community" is commonly best known for rational choice.

Lars Daniel Terkelsen's picture

As a musical person, I find it amusing (or sad, really) that a super prestigeous brand spends like 5 dollars on the soundtrack. I am impressed, if anyone can watch the whole clip without feeling some kind of annoyance.

I see the price tag, which is a lot for a still lens. Then I realize I work a lot in the cinema world now, where lenses like the Leica Summilux-C Primes go for $33,000 to $39,000 each & where an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm t2.8 can go for almost $90,000!

http://www.ducloslenses.com/collections/summilux

https://www.abelcine.com/store/Angenieux-Optimo-24-290mm-T2.8-Zoom/

Apples and oranges, of course =)