By now I have acquired 12 vintage 50mm lenses based on appraisal and ravings found all over the web, loved or even worshipped by many people around the globe, some more and others less famous.
(I’m aware that I didn’t include any Leica R glass, but the financial hurdle was simply too high. Also, Minolta and Canon FD lenses were left out because of incompatibility with the Canon EOS system. See this article for more information.)
Even though I would’ve wanted to go on collecting and comparing more lenses, I decided that it’s time to stop before it gets out of hand.
(Keep in mind that I have to redo all the comparisons when I add a new lens because I don’t have a stationary “studio comparison scene” that I can always come back to.)
I will therefore put most of my collected lenses up for sale in the near future to be able to afford a very specific one, while keeping a selected few for their own special purposes.
Why another comparison to begin with?
Instead of updating old articles and adding even more bulk to my existing comparisons, I decided to start a new round with all lenses competing in identical tests.
I took new pictures (true to scale) of all my lenses and listed them below in no specific order.
All images were captured using the Mamiya M645A 120mm f/4 macro lens and a Yongnuo YN560-IV shot through an umbrella with a silver reflector on the opposite side for fill. The white background was lit with another YN560-IV.
This is the beginning of the end, because I already collected most of the image material I’m going to use for the upcoming comparison articles.
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 – on the lower end though – 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 plastic 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 its manual focus ring. Accurate focusing 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 known 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
I bought this lens in Exc+++ condition for my Nikon F2 because I considered the 50mm f/1.2 Ai to be too expensive for first steps into film (as my test show’s, it’s also not really worth the premium).
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. Additionally, it has a comfortably long focus throw for precise manual focusing.
With some modern Nikon DSLRs you get aperture control so that you can compose and focus wide open and the camera will close the aperture only when you push the shutter down.
3. Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S
The most expensive lens in the line-up, but also the fastest and only lens sporting a maximum aperture of f/1.2.
It’s also the only lens that can still be bought new in the exact same version, so it’s not really “vintage”.
It’s an Ai-S version, meaning that it came with a more sophisticated aperture mechanism to accommodate modern SLRs. This revision also included the following changes for the 50mm f/1.2:
– 9 instead of 7 aperture blades (which is great)
– a noticeably shorter focus throw (which sucks)
It could be considered the big brother of the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 if it weren’t for the Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2 (although I’d rather get an Otus for that money..). Also, if you have read my comparison for the two Nikkors, it’s not really worth the premium price over the much more affordable Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Ai.
4. Asahi Pentax Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4
A member of the legendary Super Takumar family, the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 was the first 50mm lens by Asahi Opt. to sport multi-coated surfaces. However, after only one year, the designation was changed to SMC (I wonder why?) and they introduced a rubber focusing ring.
I wanted the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar for the multi coaring, its radioactive glass (curiosity) 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 (Note, that not all Takumars have 8 aperture blades).
My lens came with some issues, though. The front element has a scratch, the distance scale is not fixed, so you cannot zone focus nor tell at what focus distance you currently are. Shouldn’t be too hard to fix that though. Also, the Takumar has an Auto/Manual-switch for auto-aperture cameras. Unfortunately, my lens came with a defect in that departement too, so at first I couldn’t set it to manual and use it properly.
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.)
5. Ricoh Auto-Rikenon 55mm f/1.4
The Ricoh Auto-Rikenon 55mm f/1.4 was built by Tomioka and branded under various company names. You can find this lens with different inscription in the front ring all over the world. (Similar to what you see with Samyang these days (Bower, Rokinon, Walimex, etc.)
I paid quite a lot for mine (100 bucks) and haven’t gotten around to properly use it so far, but I really like the build quality, the metal focus ring and how good it feels in my hands. It’s also the heaviest of all the lenses in this comparison.
The lens is only single coated and comes with only 6 aperture blades, which is a pity.
6. 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.)
The lens offers, in contrast to almost all the rest of the field, half stop increments for the aperture, but it only has 6 aperture blades and the coatings aren’t that great either.
7. 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. While the coatings don’t look as stunning as they did before, the lens outperforms its predecessor by a long shot in this test I did previously. There were two revisions between my two specimen: a non-radioactive non-EBC-coated and a radioactive EBC-coated version, but I own neither of these.
The 50mm f/1.4 EBC has a rubber focusing ring and focusing as well as setting the aperture are a pleasure. Unfortunately, Fuji dropped the half stop aperture and kept the hexagonal shape.
8. Voigtländer Color-Ultron 50mm f/1.8
The Voigtländer Color-Ultron 50mm f/1.8 is basically a Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.8. Zeiss owned Voigtländer when they built the first version (m42 mount) of this lens. Later, they sold the company to Rollei, who continued producing the lens, now with a QBM mount, before they dropped the designation and released the same lens under the name “Rollei Planar 1.8/50 HFT“.
I wanted a Voigtländer for the name’s sake and got one in an amazing condition. The lens is full metal and its handling is phenomenal. 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 (although, I encountered some issues with my lens).
The only drawbacks are the 6-bladed aperture (why would they do that?!) and the fact that the mirror gets stuck on the rear element when focused to infinity. Also, it does not seem to have Zeiss T* nor Rollei HFT coatings after all, because it flares like nothing I’ve seen before.
9. Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f/1.8
The first of my “zebra” family (Also the first M42 50mm that I bought, before I decided to go on a testing spree). It’s a full metal beauty in great condition and it glows in the dark.
No, unfortunately not.
The lens does, however, contain two thoriated glass elements and therefore emmits a lot of radiation. This also caused 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. The lens has 8 aperture blades, very sharp, contrasty and great fun to use.
10. Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4
This is the lens I never even considered buying because of the common prices it sells for on eBay. However, when I was browsing for a 50/1.7 Planar – to have the Western Zeiss covered – I stumbled over this auction. The lens was in mint condition and practically nobody placed a bid. It was late at night and I ended up paying a little more than I had intended for the 50/1.7, but still much less than the 50/1.4 usually sells for.
This lens shows what the name ZEISS is all about. Perfect construction, great handling, great performance. It has the famous Zeiss T* coatings too and handles flare quite well.
But, they only put in 6 aperture blades *sigh*.
11. Helios 44 58mm f/2
This one was on top of my wishlist for the 50mm lens comparison. The famous Helios 44-2 with the swirly Bokeh. I bought a Helios 44-2, only to realize after a short while that I had in fact bought a first generation Helios 44, with m39 screw mount (not Leicas LTM mount).
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.
Being a blunt copy of the Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f/2 it also comes with the same problem, the swirly Bokeh.
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.
12. Olympus OM-System G.Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f/1.4
I wanted to get one with multicoating and the improved optical formula, but ended up buying the older version instead, because the other auctions ended up beyond 100 bucks or were won 1 sec before the end by someone else.
Patience is not my strength and so it came that I got punished for buying this lens. The lens isn’t any fun to use, the aperture mechanism was probably opened previously, because the shape is not uniform and the aperture ring is “clickless” because of a missing ball bearing, which might be great for video but not so much for my purpose.
Also, the lens has terrible coatings and suffers from immense flaring even with the sun far outside the frame (I blame the protruding front element for that flaw).
13. 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) if you’re patient (I’m not..). Also, there are quite a few people raving about how great this lens is because of the very short minimum focus distance (only 35cm, like the Pancolar) and the light weight combined with exceptional build quality.
The Tessar formula is rather ancient and has been there for over 100 years now. It has the least complex optical construction, only opens up to f/2.8 (over two full stops slower than the fastest contender) and comes with a simple 5-bladed aperture.
The focusing mechanism of my copy is totally stuck by now because the lubricant turned bad/sticky (as it did in my micro Nikkor 105mm f/4) and requires me to use the force to turn it.
And here is an overview of the field:
The images were processed, cropped, framed and exposed identically, so you can really compare the size and appearance of the lenses in this overview. All lenses are mounted on their EOS-adapter ring with an EOS rear lens-cap. Note that I got cheap front lens caps for all the lenses that came without any or only had one of those annoying slide-on caps.
(Yes, I shot the Takumar first and it’s the only one that wasn’t correctly aligned with the focus scale facing the camera head on.. I only realized that once I had put all the stuff away and transfered the images to my computer.)
Because it’s so pretty, the front view again:
And for the sake of comparison I collected some information on all my lenses in the roundup:
Overview of articles:
In one article, I simply look at how the lenses handle out of focus highlights, so-called Bokeh balls. In a future article, I will compare the rendering of out of focus areas with a busy background at different focal distances.
I have three articles covering bright light sources inside or slightly outside the image frame. In a first article, I look at how the lenses control flaring introduced by a light source directly pointed at the lens. A second article focuses on the rendition of so-called starbursts, star shaped pointed lightsources that usually occur when the lenses are stopped down. In a last article, I will cover the handling of flaring with the source of light outside the image frame.
A first article, coming shortly, will cover the colour cast introduced by my lenses. It’s already known that the radioactive specimen bring some yellowing to the images captured, but what about the rest?
I haven’t yet come up with an idea for a new testing method to reliably compare the colour rendition capabilities of my lenses. In the last test there was no noticeable difference.
I have looked at the vignetting behaviour of my lenses thoroughly and posted an article related to that. A second article will cover the actual amount of light that passes through the lens. In the past, I realized that my radioactive lenses with their yellow colour cast suffered from a significant loss of light, but some other lenses seem to produce noticeably darker images at identical settings.
Head to head comparisons
Because of their close relation, I did a direct comparison for both the Fujinon lenses as well as the Nikkor lenses. I also measured the radioactivity in my three radioactive lenses and wrote an article about that.
For the fans of the Helios 44 58mm f/2 lenses, I wrote a small review focusing only on that very precious lens.
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