Now that Nikon is releasing a 58mm f/0.95 Noct for their Z system, it’s worth taking a look back at their older Noct lens – the 58mm f/1.2 – if only for curiosity’s sake. This is one of Nikon’s most famous lenses, especially for portraiture and nighttime photography, where its output is difficult to match. Recently, for a memorable week of photography, I had a chance to bring the 58mm f/1.2 Noct into the mountains and aspen groves of Colorado.
Interestingly, Nasim reviewed the Noct a few years ago and appears to have been the first (and perhaps only) person to measure its exact optical characteristics like sharpness, vignetting, and chromatic aberration performance. Read the review if you like; it is quite interesting, with several good sample photos as well.
But those measurements are not what I will cover below. Objectively, the Noct is not a very sharp lens, particularly at f/1.2. The widest apertures have high levels of vignetting and a hint of swirl to their bokeh, and the corners never really get good at any aperture. That, though, is not the point of this lens. You don’t use it to capture maximum sharpness, but because there is no other way to get this sort of look – somewhere between a tack-sharp Nikkor and a Petzval lens.
It feels a bit strange to write about taking this lens into the mountains, then show photographs that are primarily close-ups and intimate details rather than larger scenics. But that turned out to be the best way to use the Noct and its f/1.2 aperture – the real reason, in my opinion, to have a lens like this in the first place.
That said, I did try to photograph some scenes closer to infinity, really just to see how the lens handled them. The answer is perhaps underwhelming. At farther focusing distances and smaller apertures, the Noct hides its most interesting characteristics and behaves like an ordinary, even somewhat below average lens. I don’t mean to say that it is only possible to take good photos with this lens shooting up close and wide open, though – just that there are few reasons to bring along the Noct if you don’t plan to shoot primarily at f/1.2.
What about nighttime and Milky Way photography? Darkness is an integral part of this lens; the very name “Noct” is based upon the word nocturne, referring to music which evokes the beauty of the night. The designers for this lens also stressed its minimal coma, something relatively rare among wide aperture lenses at the time. However, although the Noct was among the best on the market for nighttime photography when it was released, it isn’t at the same level as other options today when it comes to star photography. Although the f/1.2 aperture is fast enough that it allows good shutter speeds at night, that aperture has pretty severe vignetting and purple halos around the stars. It works for a web-sized image – a feat in and of itself – but you won’t get perfect definition throughout the frame:
At f/2, though, the Noct holds its own for nighttime photography, even compared to modern lenses that are much newer in design. But at f/2, it almost is no longer the Noct, and many modern 50mm lenses are able to accomplish this same feat:
So, despite the relative success of f/2 Milky Way shots, I kept returning to smaller scenes and f/1.2 with this lens, which is where it really produces unique results. And since the Nikon Z7 and FTZ adapter had arrived at our campground in the middle of the week, I even had a chance to use the Noct for a few photos on a camera with focus peaking and in-body image stabilization – modern amenities that were quite welcome, even if they felt somehow a bit out of place. That such an impressive degree of technology can be used with a seemingly all-manual lens is something I suspect the Noct’s engineers never would have predicted.
And then the week was over, and I returned the 58mm to Nasim, who generously had lent me his copy for the trip. It isn’t a lens I ever plan to own myself, nor one that is particularly practical in today’s world. Even at the time it was announced, this was always a specialty lens, targeted at those who needed the f/1.2 aperture more than anything else. Now that Nikon is releasing an f/0.95 version of the Noct, and with this old 58mm f/1.2 already so expensive on the used market, the justification for buying one is decreasing even further, unless you’re simply a collector.
Still, there is something to be said for the enjoyment of handling the Noct, making the most of its features and flaws. It doesn’t turn the user into a better photographer or lead directly to better photos (almost the opposite if you aren’t careful), but it does lend a sense of purposefulness to some aspects of photography that can be easy to forget when you’re caught up in the technical race. The Noct is a fun lens to use, with – as it is impossible to deny – a bit of a legend behind it. It’s always worth trying out unique equipment if you get the chance, impractical or not, just because it offers a chance to explore something of a different side to the art of photography.
I’ve owned a couple of copies of the 58mm Noct Ai-s and neither delighted me. In fact, I prefer my regular 50mm f/1.2 Ai-s for wide open sharpness and overall usability.
I on the contrary have sold my 50mm f1.2 Nikon replacing it by 58mm f1.2 Noct. Although the former is sharper (for apertures smaller than f1.8) and definitively more accessible I really didn’t like its very busy OOF rendering (bokeh) in mid to long ranges. The Noct is much better in this respect and photos taken with it are more pleasing to my liking. When I am looking for a sharp all purpose 50mm lens, I use 50mm f2.
I own a Noct which is used on a Nikon df and gotten some great photos with the combination. I’ve only been able to get properly focused shots at f 1.2 by using live view in maximum magnified mode. I wish this technique were easier and faster. When properly focused, I find the sharpness wide open to be surprisingly good. Perhaps the lens’ high contrast makes it appear sharper. I’d like to know if it is any easier to focus when used on a Z7 (or Z6)? Also, since it is so large and heavy, whether the camera feels unbalanced when used on the Z7?
I want to like the shots but the background blur is pretty terrible to my eyes. It is angular and sharp and really really distracting. The 3rd to last one especially.
Yes, I see what you’re saying about the bokeh! It’s an odd look, no doubt, and one that I like in a number of the images I got from this lens – but it doesn’t always work, nor do I suspect all photographers would like it on balance. At its worst, it can look like a slightly defective Petzval lens.
Older lenses are often just very nice. Am I the only one finding the newest ultrasharp lenses too sharp? I.m.o. older lenses often render more natural results with a nicer feeling of reality.
I certainly liked the unique look from this lens, particularly with the background blur at f/1.2! Though as a landscape photographer, I certainly do appreciate the sharpness of newer lenses by comparison, at least for scenes with a lot of details. I’m glad that we have so many options, depending upon the look we want in an image.
Colorado has some great scenery for adventure and cameras. Especially now that I live here. Nice shots! I think i recognize some of those places. The display panel on the lens is an interesting idea. However, I don’t even have my hands on a Z series. Still going back and forth on the D850 and Z7 as I have a D810. I like some of these comp shots too, thank you!
Thank you, Jon! Nasim and I have been using the Z7 for the past few weeks and are working on the review, so I might be able to shed a bit of light. Between the D850 and the Z7, the D850 is decidedly better if you tend to use AF-C for any sort of subject or need good autofocus; that is, in my mind, the most significant benefit it offers. The Z7, in turn, has great IBIS if you shoot handheld at all – not merely good, but excellent – and the electronic viewfinder is something I find useful for landscapes. I’m a big fan of the lightweight 24-70mm f/4 lens, although the overall Z system doesn’t weigh much less than a DSLR if you have the FTZ adapter too, which is practically a necessity at this point. So, a case can be made for either; I’m personally sticking with the Z7, but with the knowledge that it won’t be a fully fledged system for another couple years at least.
I generally really appreciate the great articles I see here, but to me this one misses the mark. I want to see articles that help me improve my photography or that evaluate equipment that I may consider purchasing. Hardly anyone will ever own this lens, so why spend so much time on it??
No worries, Mark! This wasn’t meant to be a major article, although we’ve been traveling and haven’t posted as much in the last couple weeks, so it might have seemed that way :)
We’ll get back to doing more detailed articles and tutorials soon, including of more practical equipment!
I totally disagree with a Mark as I enjoyed the article. I still have all of my manual focus lens that I have used for photographing lunar and solar eclipses. You can st them at infinity and they are at infinity, which is not true for today’s auto-focus lenses. They work for that purpose. So to see and hear about the Noct was indeed interesting.
I love my Nikon 55mm f/1.2 — the poor man’s Noct :)
I use it almost every day on my Fuji X-T20 but it jumps to the D810 once in a while too. (it doesn’t fit on the D810 until you have it modified to AI, which I did, but it fits perfectly on the D7100 before the AI conversion — someone should write an article about that!)
One of my takeaways from doing this is that the 55mm f/1.2 would be just as good for most practical purposes, since the Noct is not sharp nor even very low in coma by today’s standards – the only reason to get it is for the unique look at f/1.2, which also appears to be good on the 55mm! Very interesting to adapt that lens to the X-T20, that sounds awesome.
Realy The 55 mm F1,2 is a Nice lens but The Noct is also pin Sharp at F1,2 on The sensor of a d850 i have but maybe its not for al of us
Are you sure it’s pin sharp at 1.2 on the D850, that’s a 40+MP sensor. Even today’s lenses can barely satisfy the cravings for detail that that monster of a sensor has.
I’d say that the 1.2 Noct could manage about 20MP tops, at least with the two copies I’ve ever used. (By that I mean you could down sample a D850 image taken with the Noct 1.2 and scale it down to 2/3 of the original and not lose any appreciable detail.
The 1.2 is a great lens, but it is after all, at the end of the day, a product of the 70s and was not made for such hi-res use cases.
In the first landscape photo, how did you get 13mm? I’m guessing a typo.
Ah, good eye, Keith! I was switching between this lens and the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 during this trip to get some sample photos. And the D810 doesn’t let you enter 12mm for adapted lenses, so I had it set at 13mm instead. And it seems I forgot to change CPU data before swapping to this 58mm! Just changed it in the article.
I know I’d too be curious to try it just once as it’s quite the unique lens; then again I’m using a Helios 44-3 on my aps-c and I’m loving it for what it does (even considering that it can’t focus at infinity), close ups of flowers/plants (with even the random macro thrown in for good measure) look really sweet and the cats and dogs I managed to convince to stand still while acquiring focus were also quite complimentary of the results :) manual focus-only lenses are not exactly all that great for quite a few occasions (especially when one doesn’t have time and a tripod to focus via LV) but there’s something extremely satisfying in using them.
I personally would suggest you ask Nasim to lend you one of his cats along with the lens, you might enjoy your experience a fair bit more ;)
Absolutely, it was a lot of fun to use! That Helios sounds awesome, I bet the close-ups with it have an awesome character. And you are quite right, Tomáš, I should have grabbed a couple photos of his cats before giving the lens back. Next time :)
I STILL BELIVE THE NIKON 810 IS THE BEST CAMERA,