Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct: Noct, Noct, Knocking on Heaven’s Door…
Perhaps a proof-of-concept lens for the Z-mount, the Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct is absolutely brilliant. K Madhavan Pillai puts it to the test.
The f/0.95 aperture is hallowed ground for lens makers, for many reasons. It is incredibly difficult to engineer optics with apertures this large, that can withstand scrutiny with sensors 50 megapixels or greater. In fact, very few lenses of this aperture were ever made. I thought of the Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct as a lens to prove the advantages of Nikon’s Z mount (the largest diameter and the shortest flange distance among all mounts)—in effect, a proof-ofconcept lens. But this could also be an indispensable lens for professionals.
Among lenses available today, apart from the Nikkor, Leica makes the Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH (twice the price, but only for the M mount), and Mitakon makes the Zhongyi Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 III (for the Z mount, among others, for about one tenth the price of the Noct). Others, but at f/1.4, and all requiring the FTZ adaptor, are the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, and the AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G.
Let me dwell a bit on the name Noct. And the 58mm focal length. Taking after the word nocturne… musical compositions reminiscent of the romance of night… Again derived from the word nocturn or nocturnal, or ‘of the night’. 58mm is not a new focal length for Nikon. Nikon’s famous Noct Nikkor f/1.2 lens released in 1977, is also 58mm. So is the more recent AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G, released in 2013.
The Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct is already winning laurels. It was declared ‘Best Mirrorless Prime Standard Lens’ at the TIPA World Awards 2020. As a member of TIPA, we second that wholeheartedly. The Noct is also a Red Dot Winner in 2020, for both its performance and design. While that says a lot, I personally wanted to experience the lens.
In lenses like the Noct, features often tie in with design, handling and performance. The Noct has a maximum aperture of f/0.95. Let me explain what that means to a critical photographer. It is a bit more than one stop faster than f/1.4, two stops faster than f/2, and three stops faster than f/2.8. Essentially, the lens allows eight times more light at f/0.95 than at f/2.8, or four times more at f/2, and twice the light than at f/1.4. This is the difference between a shutterspeed of 1/4th second (impossible to handhold for a sharp image) or 1/30th second, where sensor shift stabilisation of a Z mount camera allows handheld photos, even with a lens as heavy as the Noct. It is the difference between ISO 100 and 800, when I don’t want to compromise on dynamic range. Or ISO 1600 and 12,800, when I don’t want to compromise on noise.
An aperture of f/0.95 makes a huge, huge difference in both foreground and background blurs and bokeh. Be it close-up, nature, product, street, or people photos… It dramatically separates the areas in focus from the background or foreground. This is especially true of mid and full-length portraiture at 4 to 12 feet, where getting distinctly separated or pleasing blurs in the background is difficult at f/2 and often, at f/1.4, as well. For example, f/0.95 will deliver bokeh that is about twice as large at infinity as that of a lens of similar focal length at f/2.
The 58mm on a full frame sensor offers a very slightly narrower angle of view (40°) as that of the human eye. It has a minimum focus distance of 0.5m or 1.64 feet, with a maximum magnification of 0.19x. While far from being a macro lens, it works well for close ups, for details, textures, and close portraits.
The Noct is composed of 17 elements in 10 groups, with 4 ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and 3 aspherical elements to control aberrations. Nikon’s new ARNEO coating and Nano crystal coatings improves light transmission and reduces flare, especially eliminating sagittal coma flare for improved night and astronomical photography. The front element is also treated with a Fluorine coat to repel grease and water.
The Noct is manual focus only. It works using helical threading, with hard stops at either end of the focus. The focus is not internal, and the lens extends at the front. With the hood on, the lens extend into the hood, so that the overall length of the lens remains the same.
Distance markings in feet and metres are nicely engraved and clearly visible on the lens barrel, but it could have had more detailed distance values on it for follow focus operators. Facing upward, an OLED display selectively shows aperture, focus distance or DOF values, in feet or meters. Around the barrel, about where the thumb would sit under the lens (if you have large hands) is the L-Fn button, and this can be programmed for various functions through the camera menu.
The lens also features a customisable control ring with no click stops. It can be set to adjust aperture, compensation or ISO. Aperture control uses an electromagnetically enabled 11-blade diaphragm (excellent for smoother bokeh). This is useful for advanced filmmakers who need silent aperture control with smooth transitions across the aperture range.
The Noct comes in an excellent, dedicated, Pelican-styled hard case, with scooped out foam interiors to protect the lens. There are few additional compartments in it that can readily double up for a couple of lenses, or a Nikon Z body, charger, cable, and a few accessories. A screw-mounted hood is included in the kit, and it is well-made and goes well with the overall appearance of the Noct.
This is a large, heavy lens. On its own, it weighs two kilos, and has its own tripod collar. If you are not used to handling heavy gear, it can tire you out. Yet, it is all metal, finished superbly, weathersealed, with a design that makes it comfortable to use with the Nikon Z7.
The focus ring is large and grooved, and can accept a follow focus rig for video. The rotation is extensive and will not allow you to move from infinity to closest focus in one rotation, but will ensure precise focus control. It is smooth, with just the right level of torque.
With manual focus as the only option, you need to be somewhat practiced to use the Noct. But with good visual acuity, coupled with the excellent viewfinder of the Nikon Z7, and by enabling focus magnification, achieving accurate focus is not difficult.
There are some advantages that this lens has with the Nikon Z7. Since this is a mirrorless camera, there is no question of recalibration for focus issues. To help with focus, I disabled all other focus modes except single point AF. When focus is achieved manually, the focus point changes from red to green. It flickers rapidly, even with the most steady hands, but it is an accurate indication. The usual method of keeping the focus point at the center, enabling focus, and then recomposing the frame, may cause a shift in focus, especially at the widest apertures and at close shooting distances, because of the critically shallow DOF. Rather, the focus point can also be shifted across the frame, and focus magnifications of 1:2, 1:1 or 2:1 can be enabled at the focus point. 1:1 works best. Turning focus peaking on also helps confirm perfect focus in most situations, with near 100% accuracy.
A couple of niggles… The L-Fn button is not an ideal button for focus magnification. I constantly hunted for it especially when moving from the horizontal to vertical orientation. Thankfully, the OK button on the camera can be customised for this purpose too, and is far more convenient. Since aperture, compensation and ISO control is easily possible from the camera (and considering the sensor of the Z7 and excellent Auto ISO functionality), the control ring is practically redundant, except for aperture control with video. I wish more camera features could be customised to the control ring, for instance, colour profiles. I also kept wishing the OLED display was a bit larger with more detailed info, and that the tripod collar was removable.
On to other aspects of its handling… I have always considered normal primes as ‘discipline’ lenses because they provide an extreme amount of control over your frame, far more than other lenses. The Noct takes it to the next level because of its wider aperture and optical finesse, and because this is a manual focus lens. A mistake with this lens is very, very visible, especially within the 45.7MP images from the Z7.
While this is not a standard focal length, it is quite useful in a studio. It is slightly wider than portrait lenses, and may necessitate wider backdrops depending on how far the subject is from both the lens and the backdrop. The same goes for product photography too. With product photography or still-life within a studio, the 58mm offers a useful view without perspective distortions. On the other hand, the Noct may not have the street shooting genes of a smaller, lighter, wide angle lens, but can deliver some very distinctly poetic results for street and travel. It is a good focal length for astrophotography and landscapes too. I have read several reviewers complain about this focal length as being too wide or narrow. In my opinion, it always depends on the intended use, and on the skill of a photographer to then employ a lens to its best effects.
In a single word… Stunning. From the moment I saw the sharpness at f/0.95 image, and the incredible level of blurs, I started experimenting with the possibilities. It may be strange to say this, and I have experienced this with very few lenses—you need to let go and go wild with this one!
The sharpness is exemplary and so are the blurs and bokeh, delivering exceptional separation. The center at f/0.95 is razor sharp. And it remains outstanding all through the aperture range, with a slight improvement from f/2 to f/8. Corners and edges are excellent fully wide open, but just a little more visibly improved from f/1.4 onwards. With the Noct, there is a very large sweet spot, from f/0.95 to f/8.
One would expect distortions to be minimal at this focal length and it is. What is unexpected, though, is the control over flare. You can use this lens straight into light sources, and barely does it flare. This allows the Noct to have exceptional contrast and colour rendition across the frame, without any softening. At the same time, blurs were smooth, with no granularity or doughnut edges. I ended up shooting into the light through foliage, just for bokeh abstracts.
There is very marginal, but easily corrected fringing and a surprisingly low level of vignetting at f/0.95 (also easily corrected) that all but disappears at f/1.4 .
The Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct is a superb lens. It allows an exceptional level of freedom in creating images, especially with foreground and background blurs. Along with flash and creative lighting, and in the hands of a skilled photographer, the possibilities are brilliant. With apertures f/0.95, there are also very significant advantages for professional photographers and videographers in terms of saving on expensive lighting setups in certain shooting situations. The weight and handling does take some getting used to. But the quality, wide open or stopped down, is exquisite.
Of course, the price is equally, eyewateringly exquisite at Rs. 7,29,995, at which point one just might question the economics of it. And thereby, the reference of knocking on heaven’s door, though, in more ways than one. At this point let me bring in two other lenses, which may not break your bank but would definitely be far more cumbersome to use on the Nikon Z7 with the FTZ adapter, and without several of the features of the Noct—the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, both highly rated. But if you can truly use everything that this proof-of-concept lens can deliver, the Noct is for you.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Better Photography.
f/0.95 maximum aperture, ARNEO coating, MF
Exemplary sharpness wide open, beautiful bokeh and blurs, exceptional flare control
Robust, all metal, weathersealed
Heavy lens, well-designed, lens based controls
|Warranty & Support
Two-year warranty, good service network
|VALUE FOR MONEY||3.5/5|
|Who should buy it?||Serious or advanced filmmakers and photographers in fashion, portraiture, travel, street, landscapes, night and astrophotography,… who need extremely wide apertures and quality without compromise|
|Why?||The Noct is among very few lenses that can deliver this level of optical finesse, and the only one with f/0.95|