The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Great 50mm lenses

Apropos of yesterday, I hate to say this, y'all, but whether you shoot with this lens for $2,795 or with this one for $25 [the link is broken now, but it was an old screwmount Super-Takumar —MJ] really doesn't matter. In this game it's pictures that count, and what you do with those pictures, and how you publicize and market them. You get very little extra credit for which lens you happen to choose.

A lot of people who read it aren't going to like this, but in many cases, nobody can tell the difference. I wish I had the funding to do a double-blind experimental study along these lines (well, okay, not really), but I've tested the proposition pretty rigorously, and I can tell you that even many photographers can't reliably distinguish good expensive lenses from good inexpensive lenses just from looking at pictures (although a lot of them think they can). And when it comes down to the general public, fuggedaboutit—people just don't see.

When it comes to an enthusiasm for lenses, it is something we do for ourselves, for fun, for status, for personal satisfaction...not because it matters to the work.

That said, what follows is a list of some of the best 50mm lenses I know of. I'm leaving off the Zeiss ZM 50/2 Planar that I wrote about yesterday, as I really don't know where it belongs relative to this list yet. (Probably somewhere in the middle.) Note that this list is not consistent with regard to specific properties, and leaves off some fine lenses that might have a few nagging weaknesses that interfere with their overall excellence (I can coax some pretty alarming bokeh out of modern Summicrons, for instance—I've owned four of those at various times). I've also left off some nice 58mms such as the Topcon ƒ/1.4 and a couple of great classic lenses such as the Summarit and the Zeiss 50mm ƒ/2 for the Contarex. I've owned all these lenses except for #1 and the "F" versions of numbers 6 and 7.

1. Leica 50mm ƒ/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (provisional)

2. Olympus Zuiko 50mm ƒ/2 Macro

3. Pentax 50mm ƒ/1.4 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar (M42 screwmount)

4. Konica M-Hexanon 50mm ƒ/2

5. Leica 50mm ƒ/1.4 Summilux-R (55mm filter thread—I don't like the newer one as well, although it measures better in several respects)

6. Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.4

7. Pentax A/M/F/FA 50mm ƒ/1.7

8. Pentax A/F/FA 50mm ƒ/1.4

9. Nikkor 50mm ƒ/1.2 AIS

10. Leica 7-element Dual-Range Summicron-M

You can find more about lenses here, or here, or here.

As for #1, I'm picking it based on faith, MTF charts, and scanty evidence. A perilous thing for a critic to do, for sure—but then again, I'm going to be helped along by the fact that those who've chosen to make that particular investment are unlikely to quarrel with the choice.

Cheers, and a bit of parting advice—if any of this makes you feel hot under the collar, get out your favorite camera and go out and shoot a bit. You'll feel better. I promise.


P.S. Not all these pictures were taken with 50mms. From top to bottom: AF-Nikkor 80-200mm ƒ/2.8, Kodak Tri-X; Carl Zeiss Contax 85mm ƒ/2.8, Tri-X; 1979 (tabbed) Leica 50mm Summicron, Ilford XP-1; Olympus Zuiko Macro 50mm ƒ/2, Tri-X; Olympus Zuiko Macro 50mm ƒ/2, Agfapan APX 100; and Carl Zeiss Contax 35mm ƒ/2.8, Kodak Plus-X.


Blogger Michael said...

I must be a real photography nut because though I've only used a very few cameras in my life (and not because I'm cool, just financially challenged), I love reading this stuff. Or maybe I'm just an American prose nut, because I like the way you write. Either way, I really wanted to say how much I enjoyed the photos you've laced this with. But I do need to know about the canoe shot. Please tell us about the canoe shot.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Impasse Lebouis said...

Hi Mike,

I simply love this story which rabbi historian Frank Dabba Smith and others have uncovered that I've read about in this morning's paper. Could there be a new Schindler in the Leitz familly?

Although I've just heard about him, it seems the internet is full of links about him.


9:23 AM  
Blogger Impasse Lebouis said...

Hi MIke,

Too bad 45mm lens don't count in your list because a normal lens like the Contax Zeiss Planar 45mm 2.0 T* Lens would have been right up there with the others.

As for me, I'll take a Minolta MD 50mm/F1.7 lens anytime (eBay $18.95 in pristine condition, seller titterington). It's small, light and sharp and produces images just as good as any other normal lens.


9:42 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"But I do need to know about the canoe shot. Please tell us about the canoe shot."

Glad you like that, as it's a personal favorite. I adopted a habit years ago...when I'm really concentrated on shooting something, really zeroed in on it, when I finish I try to force myself to look at "what else." What else is around, that is. I can't remember what I was shooting when I took this...probably someone on the dock. This was the result of that habit of looking up to see what else is around me.

It's also an example of finding a shot on my contact sheets years after taking it. I didn't notice or print this frame after taking it--I probably took it in about 1983 and didn't print it until maybe the mid-1990s. I found another great shot on that particular pass through the old contact sheets, but I don't have that one digitized.

As for what it is, it's a completely straight photograph. The canoe was tied to the dock, the water was clear that day (offshore wind), the overhead sun was bright and clear, and the shadow on the bottom of the lake "separating" from the canoe itself created a nice illusion that the canoe was, well, I guess it WAS floating, but you know what I mean.


10:34 AM  
Blogger Tim Anderson said...

You are right, again! I have never nbeen one to subscribe to the "bigger (or more costly) is better" syndrome. As you know, a lens does not make the photographer. When you take a look at all the GREAT images that are being produced by pin-hole and other plastic "toy" cameras, the results are in. About the only time money makes a differnce in "glass" choice is when you need one for a very specialized genre of photography. but with most areas it really doesn't matter. Keep up the great writing!

10:42 AM  
Blogger Magumi said...

I agree completely that non-photographers do not care about lenses or any other equipment needed to take or print the shot. And why should they? Still, I cannot even remember how many times I heard a sentence: "Nice pictures! You must have a great camera!" :-)

10:47 AM  
Blogger Player said...

I always believed that bigger enlargements separated the men from the boys. Blow those pictures up and then see what ya got.

I never used a Leica-M 50, but I did have a 35 Summicron-M, and I've never experienced that creamy Bokeh in any other lens I've ever tried. So in that instance I'd have to say that the more expensive 35 Summicron is clearly the best.

Back in the 80s I was a Pentax guy (SF-1n/SF-10), and I did own #7 on your list (PTX 50/1.7), and I always thought it was an outstanding performer, but I wasn't savvy enough to truly appreciate it. Plus it was pretty cheap, which supports your thesis.

Great blog!

10:49 AM  
Blogger Frithstool said...

Now I know I'm waaaaaay cooool, as I've owned 3 of your top ten (but I won't say which as that makes me less cool).

BTW, I really agree with IL's comments. The Minolta 50mm F1.7 MD mount(mid-1980s version) is an all-time favorite (and my first lens ever!!). I don't care about MTF charts and technical details, that Minolta lens made pictures that just looked right!! Or maybe, since it was the first, I judge all others by the look of the Minolta 50mm.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Wituniasty said...

Marvellous reading,
thank you!

Got one question though.
Do you find 7 element DR 'cron and 7 element collapsible 'cron optically different (I mean the results, not the formula)?


11:40 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Do you find 7 element DR 'cron and 7 element collapsible 'cron optically different (I mean the results, not the formula)?"

Don't really know, as the collapsible I had was one which has been re-coated by a third party (reportedly at great expense) many years after its date of manufacture by Leica. So it wasn't characteristic. All of those 7-element Summicrons were really beautiful if used within their limits, but they had a lot of aberrations at wide apertures and could do highly interesting things with flare. There are some situations in which they're almost unusable.

Cartier-Bresson used collapsible Summicrons for most of his career, but I've always suspected (just from the evidence of the pictures, not knowing anything) that his were always modified with the best and latest coatings.

Then again, I had a modern Summicron (in the most recent lensmount) that flared like a sonofabitch. I was never sure what was going to trigger it, but when it flared out, man, it was bad.


11:51 AM  
Blogger Wituniasty said...

Maybe some of those pictures, HCB took with his Sonnar 1.5 (only 6 air/glass surface edges and harder coating than Leitz's of that time).

And interesting thing is, that you mention Summarit, but nothing 'bout Summiluxes that were based on it (ASPH is rather different concept, so do not count it).

Would it be that magic of the first era of Wetzlar designs :) ?


12:32 PM  
Blogger Ira Crummey said...

I have the Pentax 50mm f1.7 M lens, guess it is time to dust it off. I must also say that the Minolta Maxxum (first series) 50mm f1.7 is very sharp and gives nice results as well.

When shooting film I must agree that I had a much higher percentage of really good shots from the 50mm, since switching to a dSLR I have been using mostly zooms, now might be a good time to reexamine my older lenses.

Still wondering what makes the best APS-C digital lenses however.


1:27 PM  
Blogger Studio19 said...

I agree.

It is like people who say "If I only had a better camera."

3:20 PM  
Blogger mzsupa5 said...

I take a perverse delight in screwing the ultimate anti-snob lens onto my 5D. An Industar 50-2 f3.5 rescued from the council tip for £1

What would a photographer have on his gravestone?

4:21 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

"This was the result of that habit of looking up to see what else is around me."

Excellent habit.
I always try to photograph the stuff which is *between* what people normally look at. The light on the lawn *next* to the sculpture, or whatever.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Yo, mzsupa5!!
You're the guy who shot the striding conductor in the blue suit! I dig that shot. I saw it somewhere on the web once--photoSIG or pbase or some forum or something. Nice shot.

Nice photoblog too, actually.


4:34 PM  
Blogger Alamode said...

I agree totaly with your thoughts on 50mm lenses virtualy all 50mm lenses are great no matter what the make. A good photographer can take a good photograph with any lens as long as he knows its limitations

5:52 PM  
Blogger DonovanCO said...

I agree with IL that the Minolta MD 50mm 1.7 is very good. I wonder whether their auto focus 1.7 is any different, except for the autofocus capability. I have one of these that seems to do as well as my old MD lens.

8:31 PM  
Blogger mskad said...

I too like the 50mm and around lenses (owned about 20, still own 9)... and not only because of the field of view or the overall quality, but also the feel and size and weight.

The funny thing is that it was my favorite focal length with film and it still is with APS size sensor DSLRs!

Some great 50mm lenses I use (used) that are not in your list are the Olympus 50mm f/1.8 and the Pentax 40mm f/2.8.

Thanks for posting!

12:53 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Nice to see some more of your pictures in this post, meeting the photographer behind the blog is fascinating. Or is there some other site I don't know about that has 100000 of your photos indexed and searchable in 57 different ways?

1:03 AM  
Blogger Abdee said...

I would include Canon EF 50mm f1.8 version because it cost's less than one glimpse at all those Leica fifties :)

2:44 AM  
Blogger Boris Liberman said...

Mike, though I have Pentax FA 50/1.7, currently my 50 mm lens of choice if Pentax FA 43/1.9 Limited. I really like it much more. Though, technically it is not 50 mil, of course ;-).

3:04 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

Another home run, Mike! The differences that seperate lenses on a computer monitor at 100% magnification are rarely, if ever, visible in the size prints that most people make, and prints are still the real world for me. I rarely print larger than 11x14, and have never had one printed larger than 16x20, so maybe I'm just easy to please. Personally, I'm glad I don't need a multi-thousand dollar lens to get a really good 11x14.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Or is there some other site I don't know about that has 100000 of your photos indexed and searchable in 57 different ways?"

No, but don't think I haven't thought about it. Another idea that's been swimming around in the old brain is to let TOP readers help me edit my pictures for a book. I don't think I could handle the web page set up for that, but I think it would be fun and educational--from both directions.


6:39 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

I used a Rollei 35 at one point. A 40mm pull-out lens with zone focusing and I never did learn to easily insert film in it. Does that make me cool or what?

7:06 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

the starting paragragh, is the truth. Look at any newspaper, magazine etc. Does it tell you the camera used, or the lens, unless it's a photo mag, ?. NO ! Just the name of who took it.

All that matters is if U get the shot. A $25,000 camera system means very little if U don't get good shots. I don't mean how sharp etc., I mean the shot itself. A once in a lifetime shot captured by a $10 camera is worth far more than 100 shots taken by a shooter with a high end sys who takes average shots.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

"Another idea that's been swimming around in the old brain is to let TOP readers help me edit my pictures for a book."

Now there's a thought... not sure how you envision this, but I haven't heard of that kind of interactivity being done before in publishing a photo book! Count me in for both the process and the result.
Best, Nick

7:53 AM  
Blogger David A. Goldfarb said...

My favorite 50 was the 50mm/2.0 Ultron on the Voigtlander Vitessa-L. I sold the camera because I wasn't really shooting much 35mm except for bird photos and wanted to concentrate more on large format, but lenses don't get much better than this, in my opinion--

8:34 AM  
Blogger Olaf Ulrich said...

> Another idea [...] is to let
> TOP readers help me edit
> my pictures for a book.

Over the years, I saw a few of Mike's photographs, most of them here or on Luminous Landscape. Three of them have burnt themselves into my visual cortex: the canoe shot (I swear I saw that one before somewhere on the Internet), the cover photo of The Empirical Photographer (I'd love to have a medium-sized print of that one), and the young woman photographed across a car roof in a place in Chicago that looks like a mall's or a supermarket's parking lot (seen last year here on T.O.P.).

-- Olaf

9:27 AM  
Blogger Olaf Ulrich said...

> The funny thing is that [50 mm]
> was my favorite focal length with
> film and it still is with APS-size
> sensor DSLRs!

Same here. I tried to get used to using 35 mm (54 mm-e) and 28 mm lenses (43 mm-e) as an image-format-adjusted standard lens on my APS-C-format DSLR camera ... but I keep falling back to the good old 50 mm lens (the Minolta AF 50 mm 1:1.7 in my case, 77 mm-e).

I keep wondering why this is. A possible explanation is viewfinder magnification. Most APS-C DSLRs' viewfinders have more or less the same magnification as their 35-mm-format counterparts but smaller fields of view. So with a 35 mm lens you'll get the same coverage as with a 50 mm lens on 35-mm format---but only with a 50 mm lens you'll get the same magnification presented in the viewfinder. Maybe we're thinking, or seeing, more in terms of magnification rather than field of view ... (just speculating).

On the other hand, back in pre-digital days I always preferred the 58 mm standard lens over 50 mm or even 45 mm (yuck!). So for analog work, my favourite standard lens is the Minolta MC Rokkor-PG 58 mm 1:1.2 from the early '70s. It performs admirably, it weighs over a pound ... and it does look so cool!

-- Olaf

P.S. Yes, I know using a lens for the cool look sure is uncool ... I keep using it anyway ;-)

10:02 AM  
Blogger mlougee said...

Re letting TOP readers "judge" your pics, there's an easy capability w/ SmugMug to let viewers "vote" (just thumbs up/down) on images, which might be interesting.

Smug is also interesting because it has no limits on download volume, storage volume, etc, all for a reasonable annual fee.

1:07 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Very nice shots, Mike. I notice at least four emulsions represented in this selection (and possibly more than one version of Tri-X). I bet a retrospective of your favorite film/dev pairs would be a far shorter list, but (to some of us anyway) might be interesting as well.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Richard Sintchak said...

"Another idea that's been swimming around in the old brain is to let TOP readers help me edit my pictures for a book."

I personally think this is an awful idea, unless you want a "Top 40" concept to your work instead of your book representing a cohesive, well thought-out artist's statement of your work. Sure, you, might sell some off the bat as most people who voted might feel some "affection" towards making the result, and perhaps "Top 40" stuff sells, but is that what you want? To sell books? Yes, to some extent I imagine. But I'd personally want to balance that against a book of photos I'm particularly proud of, that are chosen for a purpose and direction (mine) and that people buy it for my personal vision and way that I structured the book as a whole piece of art, not a result of a popular vote of anonymous people. Just my thoughts....

2:31 PM  
Blogger Glenn Twiggs said...

For some perverse reason (that I'm sure you're familiar with) I was excited to see that I own two of the lens' mentioned :-) I also agree with the comment about the Contax Zeiss Planar 45 ƒ2.0. That is one of my favorite lenses.

Please, stop these posts. My credit card is fighting it's way out!

2:59 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

That looks interesting. Important question, though: Is the gallery owner / poster told what the exact score is? I mean, number of thumbs up and thumbs down votes a picture got?


3:04 PM  
Blogger Adam McAnaney said...


As a TOP reader, it would certainly be fun to "help" you put together a photo book. BUT - depending on what you are after - I think it can defeat the purpose of the book.

Everyone here would love to be able to put together a collection of your pictures that we like best. But other than as a social experiment and for our personal (though likely fleeting) gratification, I'm not sure I see the point. Selecting the photos to include in your book isn't (or shouldn't) be an exercise in figuring out what your greatest hits (in the sense of most popular) are. I frankly think that the choice of which pictures you present to the world says almost as much as what you choose to shoot in the first place. I assume that photographers are trying to communicate something when they select those pictures. What statement about your art can any of us make? And what statement can we make as a collective group? Even after reading posts from you every day, I still wouldn't venture to put words (or pictures) in your mouth that way.

For example, I agree with Olaf's statement that the picture of the woman across the car roof was one of your best pictures. But it was your choice to present that picture that really said a lot to me. I fear the homogenization of taste through collective decision-making, and this is particularly dangerous when it comes to art. If you put up the car roof picture up on DPReview along with a macro picture of a flower with nice bokeh but that is otherwise unremarkable and asked people to vote on which picture should be included in an upcoming photo collection, which do you think would win?

Look, I don't always agree with you on stuff, but I respect the fact that you are saying something. As a group, we say nothing. And the worst part is that you can't even disagree with a collective opinion. There is nobody to engage with on the other side. There isn't an intelligent mind on the other side that had a reason for choosing what it chose, there is only a statistic that says, "78% of visitors to this website liked this picture enough to vote for it by clicking this button."

So...even if it means that the book doesn't come out for another 20 years, I hope you will understand when I say,

"Sorry, Mike. You're on your own. Do the dirty work yourself!"

That said, I look forward to enjoying the fruits of your labor!!!

Best regards,

P.S. By looking at the word verification thigamabob below, I can already tell that I am going to get it wrong. It seems to be a collection of m's, n's, u's and w's, but I can't tell where one ends and the other begins in order to differentiate the individual letters...

3:14 PM  
Blogger Michael Canyes said...

I had a Retina - probably IIIC or IIC - that just made images look good. Hard to explain.

Also, what about the lenses for the little Contax RF that was around for a while. I had one of those and really enjoyed it.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Jerry Thirsty said...

Hi Mike,

In your SMP article "A Recipe for the Glow", you recommended the Super-Takumar 50/1.4 as a cheap lens for that method, then said to "stay away from Nikon lenses". I had interpreted that to mean that the Nikon 50/1.2 was somehow not a good option, but I see it made your list. Can you elaborate on what you meant in that article?


9:53 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

I'll put another vote for the Minolta-Rokkor 58mm f1.2 MC PG

My copy wide open has that soft yet sharp quality that makes human skin seem milky smooth and has a dreamy out of focus characteristic; it makes this lens on of my favorites for portraits especially at 1.2

I don't know if its the 58mm focal length but it also has a very interesting three-dimensional quality that is hard to achieve with the 135 format.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

a note on your ranking of Pentax/Asahi lenses:
I feel that the K version of the SMC 50/1.4 should be here somewhere. It's better in my opinion than the A version, bigger and brighter, better built quality maybe also.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Amin said...

I really wish you would review some of these old lenses with examples. There just isn't much good information out there. On the one hand, they're all good, and I probably can't tell which is which from the images. OTOH, you ranked them! It would be a great feature for TOP if every once in a while you pulled one lens out from the vault and reviewed it.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Furachan said...

Hi Mike:
A tad confused reading your evaluation of the top 10 50's here against what you said about the ZM Planar just before. In your previous post, the Planar was the ne plus ultra. I mean pretty much the best you had ever handled (among 50 or so), and that included "bokeh".
Now you come up with a top 10 list that does NOT include the vaunted Planar, and you hint that it would fit somewhere in the middle...?

For what it's worth I just acquired a ZM Planar 50 in Tokyo to replace a Sonnar f1.5 that focused correctly maybe 30% of the time, though it had heartbreakingly magical bokeh. The Planar in comparison has really harsh bokeh (I agree with Erwin Puts on that). You just can't win I guess...
Anyway my 02 cents for what it's worth.
Francis Harrison

1:27 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home