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Archive for June, 2018

I am not sure if anyone has started a support group for people with too many 50mm lenses… I stand up and say, “Hello my name is Rod and I have more than dozen fifty millimeter lenses” The group says in unison, “Hi Rod!” And so the therapy begins. I just shoot pictures for therapy and what better way than with a whole tanker load of lenses!

Today I want to chat up the fabulous fifties and as you can already ascertain, I’m not talking about Elvis, malt shops, drive in dining, or rockin’ around the clock. I am talking about the 50mm lenses and their impact on photography. For 35mm and full frame digital this is a standard or ‘normal’ lens. Standard is probably the better name as one can ask, what really is “normal?” The theory has always been that 50mm on FF closely approximates the angle of view for human vision excluding peripheral vision. Standard seems to encompass the focal range of 45mm-58mm, the best of which depends on who you ask. The 50mm lens on full frame offers an unexaggerated perspective and sometimes that’s just perfect.

In our modern expanded photo universe of adapters and crop sensors like APS/c and MFT the 50mm focal length pushes its way into the portrait length as well. 50mm lenses are as versatile as ever before. The best thing about the fabulous fifty is the wide availability and thus relatively inexpensive pricing. The modern camera no longer comes with a 50mm as the “kit lens” like the old 35mm film days when a 1.8/50, 1.7/50 or 2.0/50 were standard fare for a new camera buyer. These days cameras typically come with a standard zoom kit lens. For FF that might be something like Canon’s 24-105 F/4 L USM IS on a 5d series body or on a crop sensor body like a rebel, maybe a 18-55mm kit zoom.

These kit zooms are surprisingly good optically even on cheaper cameras, but they lack one very important feature; a wide aperture. Typically an 18-55mm kit lens on a camera like a Canon Rebel will have a variable F stop from f/4 at the wide end to F/5.6 at the tele end. Soft backgrounds with good subject isolation can be difficult and sometimes impossible with 55mm F/5.6. A 50mm lens with the modest F/2 will deliver a world of difference in isolating your subject.

So why exactly do I have this ridiculous collection of a dozen or more lenses in the 50mm range? Well in a word, “Character.” No not personal character, lens character. Modern lenses tend to be very similar as computer lens design and modern manufacturing efficiency has led us to a world of near perfect lenses. Sometimes however, perfect is boring. Sometimes a little character goes a long way. Today I am going to compare this group of lenses and what makes them desirable and fun, at least for me. I will be using very subjective measures for the most part but I also have some basic objective analysis as well.

The lenses are as follows with links to past posts about them:

  • Bell and Howell 50/1.2 (16mm projector lens, covers APS/c mirrorless) 
  • Canon EF 50/1.4 USM (full frame DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Canon LTM 50/1.8 (full frame rangefinder/mirrorless)
  • Canon LTM 50/1.2 (full frame rangefinder/mirrorless)
  • Canon FD 50/3.5 Macro (full frame DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Cosmicar TV 50/1.4 (C-mount televsion lens covers APS/c mirrorless)
  • Jupiter LTM 50/2 (full frame rangefinder/mirrorless)
  • Kamlan 50/1.1 (APS/c mirrorless)
  • Pentax SMC 50/1.4 (full frame K mount SLR)
  • Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 (Y/C mount) (full frame DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Zeiss Jena 50/2.0 Pancolar (zebra pancake, Exakta mount) (full frame DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Zeiss Jena 50/2.8 Tessar (Exackta mount) (full frame DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Zeiss Jena 58/2 Biotar T (Exakta mount) (full frame DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Zenit Helios 44-2 58/2 (M42 mount) (full frame DSLR or mirrorless)

The street price for these lenses runs from well under $100 to maybe $700 for a really pristine example of the Canon LTM 50/1.2.

The Bell and Howell projector lens and Cosmicar TV lens are those fun projects for mirrorless that make owning a mirrorless camera so much fun. The lenses have crazy bokeh and get real soft at the edges and that can make for fun artistic representations. Both of these must be used on mirrorless due to a short flange to sensor distance and they will not cover full frame so APS/c or MFT only. These kinds of lenses can be found for less than $50 or maybe up towards a hundred if they are already custom converted for you camera. I have a C-mount adapter for my EOS M5 so I can mount many C-mount video lenses easily. When mounting an odd lens, be very careful to make sure that the rear of the lens will not come in contact with your camera’s electronic contacts or the sensor. When in doubt, abort the mission 😉

The Canon EF 50/1.4 USM is a solid performer with a fast aperture and quiet and quick auto focus. This lens is still available new from Canon in the $300 range but used examples are around in the $150-$250 range. The lens is notorious although unfairly so, for AF failure and Canon repair will run $150ish. The lens is not as sharp as the cheaper EF 50/1.8. It is better built, and has the USM instant manual focus motor. it is a half stop faster as well at F/1.4. For Nikon users the AF Nikkor 50/1.4 lenses are a bit better optically than this Canon EF 50/1.4. This lens is a full frame DSLR lens and as such it can work on focal reducers with APS/c and MFT mirrorless cameras. With a 0.72x unit you end up with a 36mm f/1.0.

The Canon LTM 50/1.8 was a lens made for the Canon rangefinder cameras. The design was one of Canon’s best achievements historically. The version I have is one of the later models but I have owned several over the years from early 1950s up to this early 60s model. The early models had a shiny polished look and were very heavily built, Canon went to a lighter build in the sixties, not to cheapen the lens but to literally lighten it, those early lenses were HEAVY! The historical significance of the lens is that it can arguably be said, it changed Canon forever! This lens marked Canon’s emergence as an innovator rather than a copycat. Canon’s history of making Leica clones would change in the 1950s as Canon began to experiment with unique designs for rangefinder cameras. The 50/1.8 lens designed by Itō Hiroshi shocked the world in 1951 and most importantly, Leica. The lens is demonstrably sharper and more contrasty than the Leica Summar and Summitar F/2 lenses that were available in the early fifties. Oh and an extra 1/2 stop of speed to go with those sharper images. Without Mr. Hiroshi’s magnificent design we might not have gotten the Summicron 50/2 which Leica brought to market in 1953. The game was now afoot. These amazing lenses are available in the $150-$250 range as good as a similar vintage Leica Summicron for a fraction of the cost.

The Canon LTM 50/1.2 is not as sharp as the legendary 1.8 unless you stop it down to F/2. But why carry a 400g (15oz) lens if you are not going to take advantage of that HUGE aperture? I owned one of these, sold it, missed it, and bought another one. What I missed was the bokeh. It can be a little busy, but in the right types of shots the bokeh seals the deal. The bokeh has a nice artsy look that sometimes makes the image pop. The lens also produces a coma glow on the edges at wide apertures and that can be really cool in an artsy sort of way. I really love this lens.

The Canon 50mm Macro lens is what it is, a lens that is design for higher magnification ratios and very close up photography. For what it does it does so well. Macro lenses are not really supposed to have any “character.” They are designed to render flat field sharp images with mag ratios of 1/4 to 2x life-size on the sensor. The Canon FD 50/3.5 is adequate, not outstanding, but pretty good, you can find minty examples for under $100 and that makes it a tremendous value. You could use this lens on a 0.72x focal reducer to get a 36mm F/2.5 macro not sure why you would though.

The Cosmicar TV lens was originally a C-mount lens for closed circuit TV cameras. My friend and fellow PhotoFair exhibitor Ashley Anthony modified it to permanently fit Canon EF-M so I bought it from him at the last show. It has a cool three blade aperture that makes wonky triangle football bokeh highlights. Very distracting but very cool. The lens is not real sharp but it is sharp enough and the strange backgrounds are worth paying $50 for something like this. The lens is a fun distraction from all this modern optical perfection we have to deal with 😉

The Jupiter LTM 50/2 is a little Russian lens for Zenit 35mm rangefinder cameras (Leica copies). It can be used on old Leica and Canon LTM bodies as well. This lens is not super sharp, but is decent enough. It has a very soft and non distracting bokeh. It’s really creamy and dreamy and that makes it worth the $50-$75 you spend on these. Mine has a very highly polished barrel that almost looks chromed. This lens also needs the photographer to be diligent about where you point it/ Keep the harsh light behind you and the lens does OK.

The Kamlan 50/1.1 is an APS/c and MFT lens available new for around $160-$180 in Sony E, Canon EF-M, MFT, etc. This is a value champion. Shoots like a 75mm-80mm on Nikon/Sony and Canon respectively. Feels like a 100mm on MFT. I wrote the lens up on this blog and it is soft wide open but still manageable. Corners are useless but for portrait sharp corners are unnecessary most of time. I still have this lens an I really like how small and light it is yet it remains reasonably well made. I love the creamy bokeh and the super shallow depth of field is challenging to focus, but awesome to utilize.

The Pentax SMC 50/1.4 is a solid lens. What I have always liked about Pentax brand lenses is the crazy small size that company manages. Why is every other major camera maker’s SLR 50/1.4 HUGE compared to Pentax? OK, Zuiko has a small 50mm as well but Pentax has always had these amazing compact lenses and they perform really well. They did have a bad habit of using crappy 6 blade aperture systems. Stop this lens down and out of focus highlights are ugly hexagonal blotches. Yuck! But this is a 1.4 lens and if I want to shoot at F/2 I can save a tone of cash and a bit of weight and buy an SMC 50/2. Wide open the bokeh is moderately smooth and the lens is pretty sharp too.

 

The Zeiss Planar 50/1.4 is one of the first lenses I reviewed on this blog way back in February, 2014. What can you really say about Carl Zeiss that hasn’t been said already. legendary performance and with these Contax/Yashica mount lenses from the late 70s- early 90s you get gold standard performance at an almost affordable price 😉 This lens is very sharp right out to the edges, has exceptional color and contrast, built very well with smooth controls, and is just an all around stud. You will find rough ones selling for around $200-$250 super clean ones in the low $300s. You might also seek out the F/1.7 version to save a few bucks. This lens was built for an SLR and as such it can be effectively used with a focal reducer to yield a 36mm F/1.0 ZEISS! Zeiss is still making these and several other classic lenses for modern camera mounts like Nikon, Sony, Canon. They have the chip inside to offer focus confirmation and will interface with the cameras electronics. They won’t AF though. The modern versions can be quite spendy so I like grabbing to older Contax/Yashica mount versions and pocketing some gold.

The Zeiss Pancolar 50/2.0 is a fabulous lens. I bought a Zeiss Biotar from Pacific Rim Camera, who will be at the Portland PhotoFair Show in September BTW, and I saw he had a Pancolar Zebra as well so he made me a sweet deal on the pair. The Pancolar is one of the biggest surprises I ever got with a cheap old Zeiss lens. This one made to fit Exakta cameras and those are SLRs so I can use it on my EOS 5D Mk III, my M5 where it shoots like an 80mm or on my M5 with a focal reducer whereby it becomes a 36mm F/1.4. This lens has a bokeh similar to the Canon LTM 50mm F/1.2. It can be a little busy, but it also can make the image. It only has a 6 blade diaphragm so stopped down you can get some trapezoid bokeh highlights that kind of suck. Wide open it is very sharp even towards the corners. The lens is a bit of a pancake design so when used on a DSLR it is tiny. These were made in the Jena factory which was in East Germany after WWII. The “zebra” desribes the very cool striped pattern between black and polish metal. I always liked the zebra lenses! This lens is contrasty with great color and razor-sharp. I simply wasn’t expecting that. yes, I know it’s a Zeiss but it’s post war East Germany and it’s 65 years old! These sell in the $50-$75 range GET ONE!

The Zeiss Tessar 50/2.8 is a lens I picked up at a PhotoFair show. These are cheap routinely selling in the $50 range. The lens is made to fit Exakta and as such it works on DSLRs with an adapter and can work on my APS/c M5 shooting like an 80mm and with the focal reducer a 36mm F/2. This is a very small and compact lens that looks more like a rangefinder lens than a SLR lens. Tends to flare a bit and the contrast is sub-optimal. But it is plenty sharp. Keep the light right and the lens pointed away from harsh light and it performs very well indeed.

The Biotar 58/2.0 I mentioned above is one of those classic lenses from yesteryear. These are known as sharp lenses that have a very Petzval style to the bokeh that swirls all around the subject at times. Who doesn’t like swirly curly bokeh, right? This lens didn’t perform optically as well as the Pancolar but it is better than Tessar. The bokeh is the real charm with this lens. This is also a lens for Exakta but you can find it in M42 as well. The M42 version will fetch more money. Like the others you can use it on a DSLR or on a crop camera for a tele that on my M5 shoots like a 92mm or with the focal reducer for a 67mm F/1.4.

The Zenit Helios 58/2.0 is literally a Russian copy of the Biotar made for Zenit SLRs in M42 mount. I have and older version the 44-2 which is a bit soft and has terrible contrast, flat color, and flares like sinking ship. You really have to be careful shooting this lens but it has soooo much charm. The same swirly curly bokeh that the Biotar exhibits without the Carl Zeiss optical quality. I actually love this lens, but make no mistake, you mount this lens you need to be focus on the artistic effects, don’t expect to make a grand landscape with it. Like the Biotar above it is usable on a DSLR and on crop cameras with or without a focal reducer. The chart below organizes data on the lenses. On the scale of 1-10 stuff 5 is average.

There you have it a bunch a cool fifties. I mentioned the use of a focal reducer and I am a big fan of these. Metabones started the craze back in 2012. The idea of a focal reducer goes way back to large Schmidt/Cassegrain telescopes. Back in the 70s you could get a focal reducer to shorten the focal length of your Celestron C8, C11 or C14. Metabones just made one for photographic lenses which require a bit higher grade of glass, design, and manufacturing. Since Metabones began marketing their Speedbooster focal reducers, others have joined the market. Zhongyi Optical makes the Lens Turbo which is very similar to the Metabones units. A number of other Chinese makers are also cranking them out.

They work by taking a full frame or 35mm film lens and focusing all the light onto the smaller APS/c or MFT sensor. When you shoot a full frame lens on a crop camera you are literally “cropping” the image. The lens is still gathering all that light to cover the full frame sensor but the crop sensor only uses between 25%-40%. The focal reducer uses optics to force most of that ‘wasted’ light onto the smaller sensor. This is why the F-Stop gets better. A 100mm lens F/2 has an aperture diameter of 50mm. Focal Length / Aperture = Focal Ratio 1:2 or F/2. When using a 0.72x focal reducer you still have a 50mm aperture but now have a 72mm lens, same formula 72/50=1.44 presto an F/1.4 lens. It does work although T values will not perfectly coincide since we are adding additional air to glass surfaces but that’s a another post. Now if Metabones will just make a Canon EF to EF-M so I can use my L lenses on the M5 with AF and electronic interface, I would be soooo happy. You hear me Metabones?

Be sure to come to the next PhotoFair or a camera show near you to find tables full of these old classic lenses. Modern cameras give these old dinosaurs new life and make cool images for you!

 

 

 

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