In this article we’re going to take a very close look at my favourite Bible text again. This test is great for comparing sharpness, contrast and colour fringing all at once.
However, I will only cover the center performance in this article.
What is Sharpness?
To me, sharpness is all about fine details such as eyelashes, freckles, wrinkles, hairs, etc. I want a lens to be able to resolve said features as best as possible to deliver a sharp, high quality image.
It’s always easy to soften an image in post processing, but if you don’t have a sharp image to begin with you won’t get a crisp look.
Like in this macro shot of a friends eye:
This article over at luminous landscape nicely explains the whole thing in words I could never find.
What is Micro Contrast?
When we speak of contrast in relation to photography, we usually mean global contrast all over the image, as in the difference between highlight and shadow brightness (put in a very basic way).
Micro Contrast is the ability of a lens to differentiate between lighter and darker details directly next to each other, e.g. freckles or specks of pollen on a flower.
As a consequence, a lens capable of high micro contrast will also appear sharper overall, because said details are rendered more clearly.
This thread at the mu43-forums covers the issue nicely.
What is Colour Fringing?
Colour (or color) fringing is caused by longitudinal chromatic aberration of a lens. This is a result of a lens not being able to focus light of different wavelengths (colours) on the same spot (an extreme example of this would be a prism).
This leads to magenta/purple fringes in front of and green fringes behind the focal plane.
These aberrations are especially pronounced in large aperture prime lenses, but they can usually be removed in post processing without much trouble.
This article at photographylife covers the whole LoCA-issue very nicely.
How did I test?
Using a printed sheet of paper with the four horsemen text placed on my slab of slate lit with two Yongnuo YN560-IV flashes through umbrellas.
I had a flash set up on both sides of the text sheet with the greycard next to it to adjust the white balance. The focus distance was around 0,8 metres.
My setup looked like this:
I then cropped the exact same frame out of all the images to offer a comparison.
Results wide open
First off, I forgot to shoot this comparison with the Yongnuo.. I only realized this once I had put away all my gear, so there was no way that I could’ve replicated the whole setup identically. Because of that, I added the image from the last sharpness comparison. (I will not add the old Yongnuo images to the other comparisons, however. Read my first sharpness-test if you are curious about this lens.)
Let’s look at how the lenses perform shot wide open, before we go by aperture.
*Note that the Yongnuo has a slightly different frame with badly corrected white balance. But it handles itself quite well, with acceptable aberrations, sharpness and contrast.
The Helios delivers one hell of a punch wide open! Colour fringing is almost inexistent, the contrast is impressive and the letters have sharp borders.
The Pancolar comes in second, clearly beating the Color-Ultron sharpness- and contrast-wise. Additionally, the colour-fringing with the Color-Ultron is very strong and produces a coloured haze over the oof areas. The Pancolar is not free of colour fringing either, but its handled much better.
The Zeiss Planar T* can’t keep up with the best of the bunch. It lacks contrast and sports massive aberrations which both deteriorate the impression of sharpness. It’s very similar to the Color-Ultron (who would’ve thought, both being Zeiss Planars?!) but not quite as sharp as its slower cousin.
The Auto-Rikenon delivers punchy contrast and impressively sharp edges on the letters that are in focus. However, the colour fringes are quite intense too and the text in front of the focus area looks really messy, with some kind of ghost image overlayed.
The Takumar is slightly sharper and boasts a little more contrast than the Olympus, but both lenses suffer from significant fringing that kills the overall impression.
The non-EBC Fujinon is a soft mess, quite possibly the softest lens in the entire test. It also has to deal with massive colour fringing. The EBC-coated version is noticeably sharper, but the colour-fringing and contrast look just as weak.
Both Nikkors are quite soft in comparison with the top performers, and they both suffer from a lot of colour fringing and a lack of contrast.
The Tessar, on the other hand, while not suffering from strong colour fringing, lacks in contrast and the letters seem a little “dreamy”.
Now let’s see how the lenses handle at a given aperture value.
Sharpness @ f/1.4
Let’s look at the fast bunch only, this time with full-sized crops.
In this comparison, the Nikkor 50/1.2 Ai-S has a slight advantage, because it has already been stopped down a little. It’s contrastier than the Nikkor 50/1.4 but appears less sharp and suffers from stronger LoCA and both lenses don’t come even close to the Planar T*.
The Takumar still follows closely behind the Planar with less contrast. The Rikenon offers loads of contrast and sharpness is quite impressive in the very small area in focus but the weird bokeh in front of the focal plane is very disturbing and the sharpness is negatively influenced by that.
The Fujinons both suffer from loads of LoCA and can’t deliver much contrast-wise, but the EBC coated version is acceptably sharp whereas the non-EBC coated Fujinon is very soft.
The Zuiko (Olympus) is actually pretty close to the EBC Fujinon, which is quite impressive regarding how terribly it fared so far in my other tests.
Sharpness @ f/2 (or f/1.8)
Because the Color-Ultron does not offer an aperture position of f/2, I had to shoot it wide open, whereas the Pancolar can be stopped down to f/2.
As I’ve said before, the Helios delivers nice contrast and sharpness and handles the fringing quite well, but now things have changed. Stopping down to f/2 helps many of the contenders a lot regarding sharpness.
For example, both the Nikkor lenses now deliver very sharp images with nice contrast, on par – if not superior – with the Takumar. All three of them still suffer from heavy fringing though.
The Zeiss Planar T* can’t keep up with the aforementioned lenses, neither regarding contrast nor sharpness, and the fringing is just as bad.
The Rikenon handles the fringing quite well, but the sharpness didn’t really improve. On the other hand, the Olympus also produces a very sharp, contrasty text, although accompanied by heavy fringing.
The Fujinon lenses both aren’t as sharp as the rest of the 50/1.4 at f/2. They also lack contrast and are still heavily plagued by chromatic aberrations. The non-EBC Fujinon delivers in fact the worst performance of all the contenders here.
The Pancolar at f/2 only marginally improves over the image at f/1.8, but it’s still superior to the Color-Ultron. Both lenses are quite sharp, with the Pancolar having the edge contrast-wise and handling the fringing better.
The Takumar and both the Nikkors take the lead by f/2, followed by the Helios, Pancolar and Olympus.
Sharpness @ f/2.8
Considering that the Tessar already was the weakest in the wide open comparison, this here will likely be a slaughter with all the contenders stopped down 1 to 2 stops.
As I already mentioned in my Nikkor-Shootout, the two Nikkor lenses can’t be distinguished anymore sharpness-wise after f/2. They both deal with a little more fringing than the Helios, but the text appears to be sharper too.
The Takumar didn’t improve much over f/2 and the fringing didn’t get better at all. On the other hand, the Planar T* improved quite a bit, to an extent where it’s on par with the Nikkors.
The Rikenon delivers an impressive result with almost no fringing and great contrast once again. The Olympus seems to be slightly superior to the Takumar with just as much fringing to battle.
The EBC Fujinon made a huge jump up to where the Takumar resides, all sharpness-, contrast- and fringing-wise, leaving the non-EBC behind due to its mediocre sharpness.
The Pancolar and the Color-Ultron both deliver impressive results with only minor LoCA issues and nice contrast paired with superb sharpness. They can clearly keep up with the best of the best here.
The Tessar.. well, it has almost no aberrations, which is a good thing. Too bad that these are easy to correct in Lightroom whereas the complete lack of contrast and the soft resolution aren’t.
Sharpness @ f/4
Let’s look at the results with all the lenses stopped down at least 1 stop.
The Helios delivers a perfect game here. No LoCA, great contrast and even the ink jet borders on the letters are visible.
Both Nikkors still look identical, with only a tiny bit of fringing left. The sharpness is amazing.
The Takumar has to deal with a little stronger LoCA but it’s just as sharp and contrasty as the Nikkors now.
The Planar T* also delivers a perfect result by f/4, too bad it couldn’t impress so much at larger apertures. Same goes for the Rikenon: no fringing, excellent sharpness and great contrast.
The Olympus doesn’t quite reach the top performers resolution-wise and it still has to deal with some LoCA (comparable to the Nikkors), but it still offers a nice result here.
By f/4, the non-EBC Fujinon finally wakes up to deliver what one would expect from a radioactive high-end lens. Great sharpness, contrast and almost no fringing left. The EBC-coated version can’t be told apart anymore, except maybe for the difference in the colour-tint which is visible in this comparison.
The Pancolar delivers a perfect result, with no fringing, great sharpness and contrast and an overall great look. The Color-Ultron also delivers exceptionally well, however it comes with a little less sharpness around the letters and there still seems to be some fringing left.
The Tessar improved significantly regarding contrast and sharpness. But now it also shows some LoCA which were probably not visible wide open due to the abysmal contrast.
Wide open, the Helios is the clear winner of this comparison. While sporting a longer focal length (58mm vs 50mm) might have some influence, there’s no denying that this lens offers impressive contrast and sharpness and handles chromatic aberrations very well.
The Pancolar already impressed in my last sharpness-comparison and it did so again. It also beats the Color-Ultron which is slightly superior to it’s big cousin, the Planar T* 50/1.4.
The Nikkors are both quite disappointing wide open, but they quickly rise to the top once stopped down to f/2 and stay there with the best sharpness performance. While they struggle with LoCA, these can be removed in Lightroom quite easily.
The Planar T* 50/1.4 seems to be the best of the super fast fifties @ f/1.4 in my lineup, but it falls behind at f/2, only to catch up with the leaders again by f/2.8 and to take over the pole-position from f/4 onwards. While this is quite impressive, I don’t feel like jumping around with my hands in the air, because this lens costs several times as much as all the others do (with the exception of the Nikkor 50/1.2 Ai-S) and wide open it can’t even compete with the cheap slow lenses that surprised us all here.
The Takumar and the Olympus both deliver good sharpness throughout, although they suffer from heavy fringing and can’t quite boost the same contrast as most others in the test.
The Fujinon lenses, despite all the high praises all over the internet, can’t really keep up with the rest of my contenders. They have massive LoCA, weak contrast and even the EBC-coated Fujinon can barely keep up with the lower end of the other fast fifties sharpness-wise. The non-EBC really is a “dreamy” lens after all and takes the last place wide open as well as at f/2.
The Rikenon is a bit of a wildcard here. It impressed wide open while at the same time confusing me with the way it renders the oof areas of the text. I’m really curious about the Bokeh test with this lens.
The Tessar seems to be an okay lens once stopped down to f/4 or even f/5.6, but that’s not where I want to use my lenses.