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.