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50mm Shootout

Dustin Abbott

March 10th, 2015

Which Fifty is the Most Nifty?

People have been using 50mm “normal” lenses for most of the past century, and no focal length has been more popular. 50mm lenses are called “normal” because they roughly approximate the typical human field of view. That makes the focal length very popular because people find it very easy to visualize and compose with a 50mm lens. It is often the first prime lens (and many times only prime) that people own. Due to decades of engineering and a relatively simple design, 50mm lenses are often quite inexpensive, with Canon’s own EF 50mm f/1.8 only costing about $125. There are some newer designs that have pushed the envelope in terms of optics, size, and price (Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 and Sigma ART 50mm f/1.4). The newest 50mm to hit the market is from Korean manufacturer Samyang/Rokinon. The Rokinon 50mm f/1.4 AS IF UMC lens has a lot of “old school” sensibilities. It is manual focus only, has a genuine aperture ring, and absolutely no electronics (in all mounts save Nikon F). But it is also thoroughly grounded in the present, with a fairly large build, weight, and front element.  It also has some killer optics.  Because it is new, it will cost a bit more than the old fellows, but it is cheap enough for people consider it as an alternative to vintage glass.  You can read my full review of that lens here.

But since it has some throwback sensibilities I thought throw it into the ring with some of my vintage favorites for a 50mm Shootout.  These are some of my favorite vintage lenses, including:

  1. SMC (Super-Multi-Coated) Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (M42)
  2. SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (M42)
  3. Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 (M42)
  4. Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm (M42)

Using vintage lenses comes with a few quirks that you should be aware of. For example, the SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4 and the Helios 44-2 will hang on the mirror of the camera (a full frame Canon EOS 6D) near infinity focus, so you have to be careful to switch to live view if you want to focus to infinity (all of these tests were done with live view 10x focus anyway). The copy of the SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4 that I ordered for this comparison arrived in extremely disappointing shape. It was full of internal fungus that probably adds a bit of haze. In fact, it had been obviously disassembled by someone and they mounted the aperture ring upside down when they put it back together!

My preferred old school mount is M42 (screw mount), because the mounted adapts very solid and securely because of the threads. My Zeiss lens is a native Contax/Yashica mount, a bayonet mount, and I don’t find that the bayonet mounts are as secure in their adapters. My adapter, for example, allows the lens to sag just a little, which effectively (and exasperatingly) limits infinity focus. I discovered just how much it was affecting this during the test and remedied it afterward with some double sided tape between the bayonet mount and the adapter. I wish I had done this sooner, as it provides a much more secure adapting.

Finally, the Helios 44-2 (an old Soviet lens [mine says “Made in USSR in English!!!”] that has an Biotar optical formula originally stolen from Carl Zeiss Jena) is a “preset” lens, which means that it does not have traditionally defined hard stops on the aperture ring but instead functions like a “declicked” cine lens. In theory one could set move it to the position of traditional aperture values on a second dial, but on my old copy that ring is loose and leaves one guessing. I have learned to eyeball the aperture as compared to other lenses and I think I must get it fairly close as the shutter speeds seem to match.

These issues certainly affect the outcome, and obviously having a native Canon mount is one clear advantage for the modern Rokinon. One disadvantage, however, is the very clear philosophy change in modern lenses that makes everything, well, massive. The Rokinon is easily twice the size of all of the other options, and its filter size is 77mm compared to 49mm for most of the old lenses. The largest of the vintage glass is the Zeiss, at it is only 55mm.

So can the modern giant easily defeat the vintage competitors? Let’s take a look.

Test Notes: Canon EOS 6D mounted on a tripod (Vanguard ABEO Pro 283AT Tripod + GH-300T Head), focused via Live View 10x (mirror up), 2 Second Delay to eliminate vibration. All shots done in Medium Fine JPEG setting (no post production). Note that one of the lenses is 55mm and another is 58mm, so the framing in all of these tests won’t be identical.

First Test: Close Focus – Contrast and C/A Testing

Order:  1) Rokinon, 2) SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8, Helios 44-2, Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm

Our first test is an excellent one for determining a few things. This simple test is of a page of text with a bright white background. There is a huge amount of contrast between the white paper and the black text. This test is great for revealing chromatic aberrations or bokeh fringing that is very common to large aperture lenses. It also quickly shows the amount of contrast the lens is capable of. Because the depth of field is so small the bokeh fringing in the fore and backgrounds is easily revealed. A great result, obviously, is one that shows bright whites, deep blacks, and little to no green or purple fringing in the out of focus areas. The best result that I have seen in this test is the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4. One of the worst performances was from another Zeiss, the Planar T* 50mm f/1.4. I often just do this test wide open, but I thought it would be interesting to see these results at a few apertures – wide open, f/2, and f/2.8. For one thing, we have a total of four different maximum apertures (2 @ f/1.4, 1 @ f/1.7, 1 @ f/1.8, and 1 @f/2). I did a series of three shots for all lenses save the Helios, for which I did two. The reason for this is that maximum aperture for the Helios is f/2.

The winner here wide open is the Rokinon, in a pretty strong performance. Its advantage isn’t huge, however, and it shows perhaps the most purple fringing before the plane of focus. The clear loser here wide open is the Zeiss, with noticeably less contrast than the others. Both of the Takumar lenses fair quite well, too, as does the Helios. The Takumar 50mm f/1.4 is losing some light (due to the fungus and aging of the glass?), and is noticeably dimmer at the same exposure value as the other lenses (save the Helios, which should be compared to the f/2 values of the other lenses). The Zeiss’s light transmission doesn’t seem any different than the Rokinon’s light transmission. I expect DXOMark to rate the T-Stop of the Rokinon at something closer to 1.6. One final observation is that almost all of these (save the Zeiss) show a huge leap forward in contrast when stopped down to f/2; the result is noticeably better with much crisper contrast between the page and text along with reduced fringing. The Zeiss doesn’t make its quantum leap forward until f/2.8. Still, a close comparison shows the win even at f/2.8 belongs to the Rokinon, although the Zeiss delivers the most light transmission at f/2.8 of any of the lenses (Zeiss’s coatings have always been very good!)  Here are a look at the crops from the wide open examples here:

Order:  1) Rokinon, 2) SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, 3) SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8, 4)  Helios 44-2, 5) Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm

Second Test: Portrait Length Performance

In the second test I set up our “portrait subject” six foot away from the camera. I felt this was a fairly typical distance for using these lenses for portraits. Using an actual portrait subject is next to impossible for this type of test because of their movement, so I used a static subject that has a fair amount of detail. I used a solid background that would also give us a peak at vignetting. Once I again I used the same aperture values as before, so there is only two from the Helios.

Order:  1) Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm, 2) SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, 3) SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8, 4)  Helios 44-2, 5) Rokinon

The Rokinon is again the clear winner in the overall image quality save one detail that I’ll note in a moment. It shows the best sharpness and contrast. That large front element shows its value here as the lens clearly shows the least amount of vignetting. This is a very good performance; viegnetting is clearly not an issue with this lens. The light transmission between the Zeiss and the Rokinon is again near equal despite the Zeiss having a maximum f/1.7 aperture vs. f/1.4 for the Rokinon. The most heavy vignetting is from the SMC Tak 1.4 and the Helios, with the Zeiss and the SMC Tak bringing up the middle.

As I have noticed previously with other Rokinon lenses, the lens renders colors fairly warmly when compared with other lenses. The most accurate (neutral) color unsurprisingly comes from the Zeiss. The Helios is definitely the coolest, while the two Takumars are warmer than the Zeiss but not as much as the Rokinon. This is, to me, is the only mark against the Rokinon here. When pixel peeping the f/2.8 images the details are better (much) on the Rokinon, but I prefer the overall look of the image from the Zeiss, which just seems more balanced. Ironically the Rokinon gives the appearance of more vignetting at f/2.8, and the Zeiss has better light transmission here. It is the great look from the Zeiss that makes it my typical choice when I am shooting video for my video reviews. One final note: only the Zeiss exhibits any noticeable focus shift as it is stopped down. When one is shooting RAW, white balance is less of an issue.

The SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8 delivers the best overall performance from the vintage lenses in terms of resolution and contrast and is reasonably close to the Rokinon, but the Rokinon delivers a clearly brighter image, less vignetting, as well as better contrast. The SMC Takumar f/1.4 delivers the “haziest/dreamiest” image here, and while the fungus is somewhat of a culprit here I do know from previous copies that this is somewhat typical for the lens. Some like this particular look for portraits, but I personally prefer a sharp, contrasty look out of the lens. One can easily reduce contrast in post, but creating contrast and resolution is a far more difficult task. The Rokinon is your choice for portraiture, although the Zeiss produces an overall very pleasing look.
One final thing: I love the Helios for portraits, and the reasons won’t show up in this test. At the 6-10 foot distance with the right background the Helios will produce a unique, “swirly” bokeh that is the signature look for the lens. It’s an aberration, yes, but an awesome one that creates very unique and artistic results. It has long been my favorite vintage portrait lens.

Here are the center crops from the wide open results.

Order:  1) Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm, 2) SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, 3) SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8, 4)  Helios 44-2, 5) Rokinon

Third Test: Real World Resolution at Infinity

In our third and final test of the 50mm Shootout we will examine how that contrast and resolution works out in the real world. I wanted to test the lenses at infinity focus and see how they perform when stopped down further. It was here that the infinity focus issue with the Zeiss became clear. I shot a series of four shots each: wide open, f/2.8, f/4, F/8. The wind was just whipping in gusts over the open expanse of the river, and the light was in a constant state of flux. During some sequences the wind would be driving snow and some of the snow resolution could be obscured. Despite that variability I feel confident in drawing a few conclusions.

The focal point here was the lighthouse, so in the wider apertures it is that plane of focus that we will examine the closest.

Order – 1) Rokinon 2) SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8, SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, Helios 44-2, Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm

The first conclusion is that the Rokinon really, really showed off in this setting. The f/1.4 image is somewhat diminished by the limitations of a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th on the 6D body that I was using. It could have used a faster shutter speed. The f/2.8 and f/4 images both look amazing, however. The closest competitor is the SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, which makes an amazing jump from wide open to f/2.8 in terms of contrast and resolution. Both the f/4 and f/8 images from it are very impressive. This was very revealing to me considering the fungus in the lens, although I do find the color a bit muddier here than any of the other images.

The first two images from the Zeiss are complete throwaways. It was extremely bright out there and pretty hard to see the LCD screen, but I could tell that something wasn’t right with infinity focus. I discovered the “rocking” issue with the mount in between the f/2.8 and f/4 shots, and you can see a huge difference between them that has nothing to do with native resolution. The Zeiss ends up showing some of the best contrast in the focal plane objects (lighthouse and ice shacks), but for some reason doesn’t show nearly as much detail in the snow. The Zeiss has great color, but comparing the Rokinon and the Zeiss shows a very clear win for the Rokinon. My favorite image of the whole series is the f/4 result from the Rokinon; it is a fabulous looking image. If I were sharing one of these images and adding it to my personal portfolio, it would be that one.

Amongst the vintage lenses my favorite image is the f/4 result from the SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4. I was quite surprised by this result and how it performed from f/2.8 on. It is a remarkably sharp lens when stopped down. I would expect a better example of the lens to perform even better. As I go over the images again, however, I realize that the shifting light made a huge difference from image to image on how the foreground textures in the snow would render. The Rokinon f/4 results look much crisper than the f/8 results, but the actual resolution difference between those two apertures is probably minimal at best. Processing the images to recover highlights and enhancing shadows would minimize these differences. The real world isn’t very “scientific”, but we all shoot in the real world.

I’ve included both the wide open crops along with the f/4 results here:

Order – 1) Rokinon 2) SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8, SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, Helios 44-2, Zeiss Planar T* 1.7/50mm

Real World Conclusions and Mini-Reviews

I wanted to conclude by showing you why I love these old lenses.  Here is a little mini review of each lens along with a gallery of favorite images I have taken with it.  Many of these images are processed; some are not.  I want you to see, however, the character of the images that can be achieved with some of these old lenses.

The Rokinon 50mm f/1.4 AS IF UMC is easily the best lens of the bunch in terms of its optics. After close examination I would say that it is very close to rivaling the optics from the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART series lens (I think CA is a better controlled on the Sigma). The Rokinon has better looking bokeh than the Sigma. Ironically the challenge for both of these lenses is getting them focused. The Rokinon is a fairly demanding lens to manually focus; the Sigma has sometime erratic autofocus. The Rokinon has better contrast, resolution, and consistency than these older lenses. It also has beautiful drawing and bokeh that matches and even bests the old fellows, and does a better job of retaining round bokeh highlights when stopped down. I wish its price were $100 less; I would enthusiastically endorse it if this were the case. The modern size has helped to overcome some of the optical shortcomings of the older lenses, but I really like the fact that it has beautiful drawing and look to the images that feels old school at the same time.  As this gallery shows, it is easily capable of producing stunning images.

The SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4 is a beloved lens by a lot of people for a reason. It’s got personality, including a “radioactive” thorium element in some copies. It is somewhat dreamy (low contrast) wide open, but has nice bokeh and color and sharpens up drastically when stopped down even one stop. It is also tiny for a f/1.4 lens, with a 49mm front element and a size so compact that is very easy to drop it in a pocket and bring it along. It has a beautiful build quality as well, with a very smoothly focusing metal focus ring that is usually damped just about right. I’ve owned three or four copies (all much better than this one), and will probably replace this one (I’m sending it back to the seller) with a better copy. Just know that if you are using it on a Canon full frame body you will probably have a minor issue with mirror hang at or near infinity focus. This is one place where mirrorless bodies are much better! There will also be some vignetting, but this is both easy to fix in post and often produces a very stylish effect for portraiture. A decent copy will typically cost between $75-$150 on Ebay. Some of these have 8 aperture blades which helps a bit in keeping apertures rounder until f/5.6 or so.

The SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8 in many ways scarcely seems like an old lens (other than the fact it is really tiny). It has few optical imperfections. I wouldn’t mind it having a bit more contrast wide open, but it produces beautiful images. It also focuses down very close, and is a great lens to throw an extension tube and use as a cheap macro option. It resolves very nicely near minimum focus, and stopped down a bit produces contrasty, sharp images. Nice color rendition. It functions perfectly on modern bodies. No mirror hang issues, focuses to infinity fine, and has moderate vignetting. Light transmission seems pretty good. My only real beef optically is that bokeh highlights get hexagonal pretty quick because of the six non-rounded aperture blades. It is the worst of the group in that regard. It too has a beautiful build that has lasted decades without issue. The focus ring is very accurate and beautifully damped. Best of all, you can find a copy any day of the week from Ebay for under $50. I’ve mounted mine on at least six different cameras and gotten some great pics on all of them. It stays around because it is low risk, fairly high reward.

The Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 has been my favorite vintage prime for one main reason – it produces incredibly unique images that people tend to fall in love with. Almost every image I have shared on photo sharing sites from the Helios have had a very enthusiastic response. I paid less than $30 shipped for mine (straight from Russia!). It is a great portrait option, a great fine art lens, and just a fun lens to play around with in general. It has any number of optical aberrations (swirly bokeh, highly flare prone) but these all seem to have a lot of artistic merit and end up being, to me, strengths for the lens instead of weaknesses. One of my common criticisms of many modern lenses is that they are too sterile, too clinical, and lack personality. The Helios has that in spades, and if you can get your hands on the 44 (85mm f/1.5), it has even more (but at a price usually 10-15x higher). Like the 50mm f/1.4, it will hang near infinity on the full frame bodies I have used it on. On the rare occasions I am shooting at or near infinity, I just switch to Live View (make sure to back focus off infinity before exiting Live View). If you do hang on the mirror a bit, don’t panic. I’ve done it dozens of times before with no damage to my camera or the lens. My copy looks like garbage, but shoots like magic. By the way, the Helios was before its time with curved aperture blades that stay quite round until around f/8 or so, so the bokeh is pretty great from this lens. This one probably won’t ever leave my kit. It costs me little and produces images like nothing else I own. (There are two galleries from this one because I have so many favorites!)

The Zeiss Distagon T* 1.7/50mm is my newest vintage lens addition (the gallery will be a little smaller for it). I’ve been reviewing a lot of Zeiss lenses in the past year, and I wanted to try an older Zeiss lens (it was first manufactured in 1975; I’m not sure when mine was produced). I’ve noted some of its strengths and weaknesses throughout this review, but in many ways I am very pleased with it. I’ve long noted the strength of Zeiss lenses when it comes to their color fidelity. This lens doesn’t have the biting contrast of some more expensive Zeiss lenses that I have reviewed, but the images just have a look about them that I’m partial to. I paid a little more for it than any of these others, but I still got it for about $170, which is, by Zeiss standards, quite a bargain. I love it as a video lens. It produces very nice, very crisp video with great color rendition. I typically use it at about f/2.8 to f/4 for this setting. Bokeh is quite good but not the best I’ve seen, and by about f/5.6 it will start to go hexagonal, but it does keep a round shape longer than the SMC Tak 55mm. Images from the Zeiss are just very pleasing for that indefinable reason, so I expect this lens will be hanging around my kit for that reason. The damping on my lens’ focus ring is quite light, so while I don’t like the weight overall as well as the Takumars, I do find the lens very quick to make extreme focus changes. It doesn’t feel as robust as the other vintage lenses, but also feels more modern in a number of ways. It has better flare resistance than the other lenses, and the Zeiss coatings (T*) have long been amongst the industry’s best. This lens has no issues on a modern full frame body with mirror hang.  If you find a good deal on one, it would be worth getting and playing with. The one challenge is that if you are a couple of hundred dollars into one you are halfway to the cost of the modern Rokinon, which is clearly a superior lens in every way save overall color rendition.

One final reason for sharing these galleries is to inspire you.  There is a lot of character and a lot to be loved in some of these old primes from yesteryear.  They are easy to find, inexpensive, and can produce some marvelous images on modern digital bodies.  We get caught up in optical perfection and test charts, sometimes, but there is more to great images than optical perfection.  I note that some new lenses are almost too perfect for their own good.  I call them “clinical”.  They are digital, not analog, and lack some of the character and charm of these old lenses.  What endears the new Rokinon to me the most is that it seems to have some of that same charm.  It is the “winner” amongst these lenses, but really, they are all winners.

Gear Used:

Canon EOS 6D DSLR Camera (Body Only)
Rokinon 50mm f/1.4 AS IF UMC Lens for Canon EF Mount
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 Software for Mac and Windows (Boxed Version)
Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 1-Year Subscription
Alien Skin Exposure 7 (Use code “dustinabbott” to get 10% off)

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3 thoughts on “50mm Shootout

  1. Harry van Gastel says:

    Hi Mr. Abbott !
    I agree concerning the focus issues (with the Samyang 135mm f/2 – I don’t own the 50mm) even when using the “specialized” Canon focusing screen. I did not get many well focused shots with it though and decided – after talking to a Zeiss engineer during a (Zeiss !)demo – to order a modified Canon screen at focusingscreen.com. Slightly more expensive but it really works on my 6D. If you did not already, maybe you should look into that.
    I’m also into old glass, using – among others – an aluminium 13 aperture blade Helios 58mm f/2. Several optical shortcomings that don’t matter when you get to see the results.
    Love your site !
    Grtz, Harry

  2. Dustin Abbott says:

    Harry,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’ll definitely take a look at that site, too.

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