When I recently borrowed a Panasonic Lumix GH4 for review there was a surprise waiting for me in the courier bag – the wrong lens. In this case the wrong lens turned out to be the right one – it was the Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 Aspheric Power OIS.
The Nocticron proved itself to very much be exactly the right lens when I took it out for a spin. Sydney’s cold, wet, dark winter was still in full force and the only photographs and footage worth shooting proved to be lurking in the shadows, indoors, in relative warmth.
The very first photograph I made with the Nocticron proved to be the best of them all, a snapshot in our local hairdressing salon. The light there is challenging at the best of times and I generally don’t bother even when something picture-worthy happens as it did that day.
Leica lens design, not quite Leica lens barrel
I had the camera ISO set at 200, focusing and exposure modes at manual, focus peaking switched on and the lens set to wide open at 1.2. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) was on. The action was occurring in poor light with most of my subject heavily shadowed and back-lit by shop windows and mirrors reflecting dim, grey daylight. The event was happening fast and unpredictably.
Time to act fast, intuitively. I raised the camera and snapped. The exposure wasn’t perfect – if I had taken time to do it properly I would have lost my opportunity – but it was good enough. A little bit of work in DxO Optics Pro and DxO FilmPack made the image shine.
When I picked the Nocticron up the first time, I was reminded of how those two lenses looked, felt and even smelt. But that pleasant illusion soon dissolved. The Nocticron has features neither Leica lens could have – an A for automatic on the aperture ring, a switch for manual or autofocus and another for OIS, the Made in China engraving near the bayonet mount end.
Other differences and similarities
There were other differences too – the slightly harder feel of the aperture click stops, the way the plastic material inside the lens shade rubbed off on the lens barrel, the rougher finish than a Leica lens would have. The Nocticron is not a cheap lens by any means, compared to other Micro Four Thirds optics, but compared to the current Leica lens it most resembles in maximum aperture and optical quality – the Leica Noctilux – its price is a bargain.
It has been years since I picked up a telephoto lens with serious intent. My work for quite some time has demanded being up close and personal, and wide to normal lenses have suited that well. Likewise fast apertures, long reach and creamy bokeh have not been requirements.
A change in vision
Now all that has changed. The all-too-brief time I spent with the Nocticron has changed the way I view the world. I can see the point of singling out objects or people from the crowd and how to use the contrast of sharp against blurred to describe the world with a sensuousness evocative of touch and smell.
A friend has, fortuitously, bought himself a Nocticron to use on his Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera and I hope to borrow soon it for an atmospheric short movie set in the city. I hope to also put it to the test by making some portrait footage, so close and lens so open wide that all that is sharp will be one eye or a lip or an earlobe.
I discovered that such a radical shift in vision takes practice – my fail rate was far higher than usual during the time the Nocticron was sitting on the front of the GH4. But I will persist given how liberating this new direction is.
I am not in the market right now for a prime lens for video – my current and coming documentary projects demand zoom lenses – but when I am I will take another serious look at the Nocticron and other lenses designed by Leica and made by Panasonic.
And who knows, by then there may be more of them, with the two standout features that make the Nocticron so alluring – repeatable manual focus and aperture ring. I certainly hope so.
(cover photo credit: snap from Panasonic)