50mm Lens comparison II – Overview

16 thoughts on “50mm Lens comparison II – Overview”

  1. I’m excited about this test. I also own some of them: the Tessar, Pancolar (newer black version without thoriatium and yellow tint), Planar (though f/1.7) and Helios. I use them on a Sony A6000 for portraits. Yet, I don’t know which to keep. I only tested the Tessar extensively and it’s very good in the fields, although my model produces heavy haze on bright surfaces wide open to f/4. Maybe I should get a different copy. With the Helios one really need an eye on the bokeh to avoid distraction there. I’ll continue my testing during the holidays.

    Merry Christmas

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you like clean performance, the Planar is a keeper. I really love the character the Helios brings along though, so I will keep mine.

      The Tessar was bad in all my tests so far..


      1. I used all lenses a little bit more over the holidays and it’s still very difficult to decide. All produce very good images but there’re also very little differences in every-day usage (eg. general rendering, colors). When it comes to edge-cases, there you see differences. But there’s not on single superior lens but every one has its own strengths and lows.

        For example, the Planar is super sharp wide open, which makes it very easy to focus (I open the aperture, focus manually with magnification and close aperture to the desired DOF). But OOF backgrounds can be very busy. The Helios is a great lens for portraiture with unsharp corners and nice bokeh rendering (due to the 8 blade aperture). But you always have to keep an eye on your background. It’s also not very sharp wide open, prone to veiling haze and flares a lot. However, the glare (low contrast in backlight) is quite nice. And it’s not a general purpose lens because of the poor corner performance and build quality is also nowhere near the Zeiss lenses. The Pancolar sits somewhere in-between them: not as near as sharp as the Planar wide open but doesn’t get too busy in the background and is significant larger than the others. In comparison with the others, it lacks a little bit purpose. The Tessar however has a very nice rendering, unobtrusive OOF areas, quite resistant against flare, has nice glare, nice color rendering in low light … but slow and (at least my copy) has strong veiling haze up to f/4-5.6.

        So we have the clean sharpness-king, a portraiture specialist, a character lens and a jack of all trades but master of none – for now. I have to do some side-by-side comparisons to get a more concrete feeling about colors, rendering, edge cases and stuff.

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      2. Your findings don’t overlap with mine that much. Although I agree about the bokeh rendering on the Planar, the Pancolar and Voigtländer both beat my 1.4 wide open. But I’ve heard a lot of good things about the 50/1.7 so I’d probably keep that one.

        On the other hand, my Pancolar is very compact and so far the most fun lens to use.

        My Helios is really sharp wide open, and stopped down delivers stunning landscapes, but sample variation was extreme.. And my Tessar.. Well, never mind that one.

        I’ll get two more Helioses (silver with 13 blades and a new 44-2 version) and will do a comparison of these.


      3. Yes, sample variation is an issue with these old lenses. I read, you have troubles with some of yours as well. Maybe/surely that affects the image as well.

        And the F/1,7 Planar is completely different to the F/1,4 and the Voigtlander 1.8. I bought it intentionally instead of the F/1,4. Maybe it’s also a future candidate for your list.

        I’m exited about the other Helios’ and interested to read about the differences. I just bought any copy, didn’t even know the version from memory now, and didn’t read much about different renderings of each version. Let’s see.

        I found a 13-blade Tessar the other day on eBay but very old. I also think the heavy haze on my Tessar copy is not normal (otherwise its nickname “Eagle eye” would be a joke). But I didn’t managed to figure out a proper copy (Early or later versions? Export version?). I even contacted a Carl Zeiss Jena specialized dealer on eBay but he couldn’t answer my questions too. Maybe I’m just a little bit more picky about haze, CA and flare as I don’t find it easy to remove, and am not a fan of super-thin DOF, bokeh for bokeh-reason and use them on APS-C as a short telephoto lens. For me, character and depth is much more important. Do you plan a dedicated test on depth/volume/3D-pop rendering? IMO that’s the part where the wheat separates from the chaff.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello. A very interesting blog. I, too, have more than a dozen normal lenses in 50, 55, and 58mm focal lengths. I very much like the Takumar 55’s especially the f2 and the f2.2 because of their special color palette. They are also very sharp. My most recent acquisition is a CZJ Tessar 50mm f2.8, a silver copy with 12 aperture blades and a 43mm filter size made between 1955 and 1958. I am very impressed by this lens, its sharpness, color and contrast, so much so that I bought a zebra copy made between 1970 and 1975 for comparison. Only five aperture blades apparently but a 49mm filter thread, and a significantly shorter minimum focus distance. All that being said, I’m writing because I have a question. You mentioned that you bought a Helios 44 and found that it had an m39 thread. My question is: can it focus at infinity? I bought a Mir 1 with an m39 thread and find it very unsatisfactory/unsharp at infinity. I am wondering if there is a different registration distance for the m39 versions of early lenses. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey

      Thanks for the feedback. Would love to have a usable Tessar..
      Afaik, the registration distance should be identical for m39 and m42 (obviously LTM 39mm is much shorter) but my zebra Helios also couldn’t reach infinity.. have never tried this with the silver version, but I’ll check if I get a chance.

      If I remember correctly, there’s a way to adjust this on the lens barrel, but I’m not sure.


      1. Thanks for the reply. There are many Tessars on eBay. I would recommend the one I have with the twelve blades if you can find a clean copy. It has just a simple coating but it seems enough. I’ve only had it for a week, but it’s a favorite. (Photos on Flickr, “William Bolton – Andrew Oid”)
        My favorite lens of all time I think was an uncoated Tessar on a fixed lens Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK made in the early 60’s. It rendered light and color beautifully especially when used with a Skylight filter. If you find or remember anything more about infinity focus with the m39 lenses, please let me know and thanks.
        I have to add that while it’s easy to separate the qualities of a lens and compare them, it is the aggregate of the qualities that determines how good the shot is.
        All the best.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I just discovered that my silver Tessar has a 40.5mm filter size. (For anyone who might want to get one.) Surprisingly, a short time ago one of the Chinese eBay vendors of Tianya filters sent me a 40.5mm CPL filter instead of the 67mm filter I’d ordered. At the time, I thought, who can use this?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi,
    your blog is very interesting. To me mostly the part about the vintage 50s. I find myself in the same situation. Having collected plenty of 50s (I think I’m at 55 optics now), I’m trying to conduct some testing. I proves to be very difficult. I’ve never wanted to do testing in a studio environment, but wanted to go outside to take real world images. I still do.
    With over 50 lenses some very difficult to adapt (and needing to be switched) it is an almost impossible task. So now I’m trying to do the testing at home, out of my window. I still find it very difficult to have the same circumstances for all lenses. It is very difficult to have the same light conditions (I shot on a sunny day – which I still prefer for the nicer colors). Also the different focal lenths make edge comparison impossible, because the edges aren’t at the same spot (I’m shooting my neighbors garden, no wall).
    I figure since you have already done some extensive testing, you might have some behavioral rules for me.
    By the way, I’m also a teaching lens-, photography- and TV-show addict. If you’d like to see some first results, you can check out my flickr:


    1. Thanks a lot. I’m about to buy into a Nikon fullframe system and need some money, therefore I’m currently selling some of my vintage 50s. I will keep the Helios triplet, the old Fujinon and Pancolar and the Nikkor, plus my Leica lenses, but everything else has to go.

      Well, that’s an impressive collection, 50+ normal lenses?!
      You see, that’s why all testing should be conducted indoors with artificial light. You simply cannot ensure to have identical conditions over 6+ hours outdoors. (And I guess, 6 hours is what it takes to take pictures with all lenses..)
      If you shoot outdoors, comparisons in colour reproduction are impossible, as are distortion and sharpness tests, because plants and flowers move and aligning to a wall isn’t that easy.
      You can do vignetting, but nobody really cares about that.

      Bokeh is a different matter.
      I really feel bad that I never did this outdoors comparison.
      Wide open and stopped down by one stop would be enough.
      Have a subject at maybe 1.5m and the garden as a background. This would be really nuce for comparison.
      Also, if your subject has some fine detail you can focus on, you can also draw some conclusions about sharpness.

      Good luck


  5. Thank you very much for your answer and your insight. Still for my purposes I won’t test inside in artificial light. I’d rather show what real life images look like.
    I already did an outdoor (well, half in- half outdoor) bokeh comparison. The only difference is that I chose a subject distance of about half of what you’re suggesting. Just check out the images in my flickr account linked in the above post.
    Testing the sharpness won’t take as long as you think. If I leave out the complicated adaptions (my guess: about 10-15 lenses), one round of testing won’t be longer than 1 hour. So I will try to do so outdoors.
    The problem with being indoors is that sharpness can only be tested at a distance of maybe 2 m (due to missing space). That kind of sharpness won’t be what a landscape fotographer is looking for. In my experience many vintage lenses are either good at short distances (for portraits) or at a longer range, that being an exclusive “or”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, the sharpness test with the house looks good.

      I downloaded the huge bokeh test overview. Great job there! However, I feel like some lenses were labeled wrong. (Canon FD 50 1.2 and 55 1.2 instead of the same lens, Helios 44 2 50, and maybe some more)

      I’m really, really impressed that super fast Canon, it’s very sharp and the bokeh is perfect.
      Too bad it doesn’t really work on my Canon DSLR..


  6. Thanks for the hint about the false labeling. I will look for mistakes and correct them. And yes, it is definitely one of my findings, that the two FD lenses in my test are among the sharpest. About the Helios: I have a similar one you have a M39 Helios 44 (no “2”9). It’s not “Zebra” though, but has a plasticky glossy black finish.
    You could use FD lenses on your Canon if you’re willing to spend about 100 EUR extra for an EDMIKA kit and don’t mind the conversion (which in theory is reversible). I did one on my FD 2/24. Once about 50 miniature metal balls fell out I knew: Reversing the process will be “impossible”. I don’t mind. I want the lens for photography, not collection.
    Nowadays I use an A7, so I don’t really care about whatever bayonet a lens has and lens conversions lie in the past.


    1. I once considered getting a Canon nFD 500/4.5L with EDMika conversion kit, but he never replied to my mail (over a year ago), so I dropped these plans.

      For now, my plans to adapt vintage lenses are on ice. I’m currently selling most and am about to switch to a Nikon DSLR system (never liked the Sony stuff). I’ll keep my Helios lenses, some of the radioactive ones and obviously my Leica stuff, to be used with the Canon, but I will not buy any new 50mm lenses in the forseeable future.
      Also, I just missed a chance to get an affordable Zeiss Jena Biotar that I wanted to compare to my Helios family. Others were too quick to grab it.


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