I would like to open my blog with an extensive comparison of several old 50mm lenses that are available at low prices (generally below 100 USD) over the internet and have received lots of praise for their alleged quality, sharpness, character, value, bokeh and so on.
To start I would like to introduce you to the field of contenders (pictures were taken using a Nikon micro Nikkor 105mm f/4 on the 1Ds III):
1. Yongnuo Lens EF 50mm f/1.8
The only lens with AF in my roundup. Being built in China and optically resembling the Canon nifty fifty people often claim it to be a cheap copy. Several reviews have since proven them wrong and some have shown the Yongnuo to be far superior in some and inferior in other regards. Because it’s in a similar price range as most of the other contenders and because I happen to still have one I decided to include it in the tests. The lens is made of plastics mostly (except for the glass elements) and is light as a feather. The focusing is loud but quite fast and rather precise which can’t be said for the manual focus ring. Precise working is almost impossible with the exctremely short focus throw and the tiny focus ring. (at least it’s rubberized which the Canon version isn’t.)
Yongnuo is best know for their affordable speedlite systems that deliver great quality, reliability and sell for ridiculously low prices. I only use manual speedlites from Yongnuo (560 III and 560 IVs and a YN-560 TX wireless trigger that can set zoom and power on all flashes remotely).
2. Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai
When I decided to try some film photography I bought a Nikon F2S (I might write about that too some day). To accompany that camera I first wanted the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S but hesitated for the simple reason of pricing. I wasn’t sure whether I’d like the film experience after all.
I ended up buying a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai and am quite happy with that lens. However, I’ve mainly used it on the Canon and only finished one film with the Nikon F2 so far.
The lens is very solidly built and I was told that Nikon used the same optical formula for the following Ai-S version as well as the (screw-driven) AF version (50mm f/1.4D) that is still sold new today.
3. Asahi Pentax Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4
The lemon in the collection… I bought this lens off of ebay from a guy who claimed it was his uncles treasure and that it was in perfect condition and so on. I paid over a hundred bucks for the lens with shipping, tax and customs.
When I took a closer look I realised that there’s a scratch (cleaning mark) on the front element, that the pin that controls the A/M-switch of the lens is broken and after a little use (20 pictures) the distance scale on the focusing ring came loose. Because of the broken A/M-switch pin I had to replace the flange-less adapter for one with flange and then had to work on that one in order for the lens to be usable. (you can read more about adapters in this post.)
I wanted the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar for its radioactive glass and the metal focusing ring. Some people claim it to be the sharpest 50mm for M42 mount, so that’s another reason. Also, it has an 8-bladed aperture and I really want that bokeh to be pleasant.
4. Fujifilm Fujinon 50mm f/1.4
A real beauty of a lens. Built like a tank and really nice to work with. I have the early non-ebc version of the Fujinon which also contains thorium dioxide and therefore will emmit quite a bit of alpha particles. (More about the radioactivity and its potential dangers in this post.)
In case you wondered about the pictures: yes, the coating really is that amazing! It towers over any other lens I have in my repertoire. Also, the metal ring isn’t pure silver, it has some yellowing to it but I didn’t get around to clean the lenses externally yet.
Additionally, the lens comes in a full metal construction which I really prefer over rubber and, eeks, plastic!
If it only had a better aperture and not only 6 unrounded blades.
5. Fujifilm Fujinon 50mm f/1.4 EBC
I got this lens at a great price and in perfect condition. It’s the last version of the Fujinon 50mm f/1.4 in M42 mount and it’s not radioactive anymore. However, it has the famous, if not legendary, Fujinon EBC coatings and should therefore deliver much better pictures than my old non-EBC Fujinon lens. To my knowledge, everything else about the lens is similar to the older one.
It has a rubber focusing ring and the focusing as well as the aperture are a pleasure to use. I also got a free metal Fujica lens hood (though it was designed for a 35mm lens) with it and will certainly use it.
6. Voigtländer Color-Ultron 50mm f/1.8
The Color-Ultron was only my second choice because the Zeiss Ultron is so dramatically overpriced these days.
The lens was in an amazing condition and being a full metal lens I already love it alot! Focusing is a real joy and the pictures look sharp and contrasty directly out of camera and shot wide open.
I got the QBM mount version of this lens simply because it can be had for half of what people charge for the M42 version. Additionally, for a mere 15 bucks I got a conversion kit (not an adapter!) that replaces the QBM mount with a Canon EF mount and it even comes with an EMF AF confirm chip (more about that in my post about adapters). The conversion requires almost no skills and can be done in 2 minutes with a simple screwdriver.
The only drawbacks I found so far are the 6-bladed aperture and the fact that the mirror gets stuck on the rear element when focused to infinity.
7. Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f/1.8
No, unfortunately not.
The lens does, however, contain two thoriated glass elements and therefore emmits a lot of radiation. It also comes with an 8-bladed aperture and a massive yellow tint (more about that in my articles about color casts and radioactive lenses).
It’s pretty small when focused to infinity and the focusing is a joy to use.
I took tons of pictures with this lens in my photography classes and loved the results so far.
8. Helios 44 58mm f/2
Update: I just realized that it’s in fact the first generation Helios 44 and not the 44-2. They can easily be confused because the only difference is the lens mount, being an M39 for the first generation and M42 for the newer one.
The fake “zebra” from russia. As you might imagine, this lens is built like a tank and will most likely still be there when everyone else on the planet has perished. I got the “zebra” version because I liked the look of it with the white/red markings instead of the typical green ones on other Helios lenses. It also comes with an 8-bladed aperture and is fun to work with having a preset aperture that you don’t see so often anymore.
I was first looking for the “unicorn” in the family, but those prices…
Which one’s the unicorn you ask?
The 13-bladed silver version with the red Π. (Link)
The Helios 44 is famous for its optical flaws. Being a blunt copy of the Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f/2 it also comes with the same problem that is optical vignetting INSIDE the lens barrel.
This causes the out of focus highlights (bokeh balls) to not be round at all but show some similarity to cats eyes. In addition, due to this effect getting stronger toward the image borders the bokeh balls looks as if they were circling/swirling around the center. People call that swirly bokeh and quite a few Hipsters are willing to pay a premium for the new lomo petzval lens that overdoes that effect.
The Helios 44-3 to 44-7 are said to have better resolution and optical quality (They named the lenses after they were built and tested in the factory) but also less of that swirly bokeh look.
In my opinion the only reason to get that lens is because of its optical deficits and therefore one shouldn’t care much for optical quality.
9. Olympus OM-System G.Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f/1.4
Patience is not my strength and so it came that I got punished for buying this lens. It has oil spots on the lenses, a lot of dust is trapped inside and the aperture ring has no clicks.
I will try to to the comparison anyways and if it were to blow me away, I might consider getting the 50mm f/1.2 instead.
10. Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm f/2.8
My budget lens in the roundup. I got the “zebra” version because of the looks and because I like metal – I might have mentioned that already. The lens can be had really really cheap (in other versions especially) and is nothing special construction wise either.
It has the least complex optical construction, only opens up to f/2.8 (two full stops slower than the fastest contenders) and comes with an ugly 5-bladed aperture.
The focusing mechanism of my copy sucks because the lubricant turned bad/sticky (as it did in my micro Nikkor 105mm f/4) but I will have that fixed soon.
And here is an overview of the field:
And for the sake of comparison I collected some information on all my lenses in the roundup:
Overview of my Blog posts regarding my lens collection
In the first post I investigate the color casts that especially the radioactive lenses in my collection suffer from and I will present a way to get rid of most of that color cast and the light loss it brings along.
In a second post I talk about adapters and their limitations for certain lenses.
Then I dive into radioactivity in general and with a special focus on photography. I also try to explain the reason for the color casts found in radioactive lenses and the reason why the curing with an LED lamp works.
In a next post I investigate the radioactive lenses in my collection and present measurements and thoughts on this matter.
To compare the Bokeh quality I set up a globe with stars and took pictures at various apertures with all my lenses.
In a further comparison I tried to find the famous “Zeiss colors” and compared the color rendering capabilities of my fifties.