I’ve shot far more photographs with 50mm lenses than any other focal length. But switching 50s more often than underwear can become an exhausting and hollow experience.
Here’s why my 50s philandering days are done, and how I’ve settled on my ideal.
It took me a while to realise, but after something like seven or eight different mounts and over 50 lenses, I realised that in the final image, there’s not a huge amount of difference between one 50mm prime and another.
Some of the lenses I considered humble and expected little of, impressed me greatly.
So when so many 50mm lenses can produce very satisfying results, should we just pick the first decent one we come across and look no further?
If so, why didn’t I do this four years ago?
This wouldn’t be a bad plan at all. But the curious and lustful side of me kept want to try more, to see if they were different.
When the basic optical performance is more than good with even the most mundane sounding lenses (like my three underdogs mentioned above), I started to look further at what separates them.
What makes one lens a forgettable fling, and another destined for a lifelong romance?
Photography for me is very much about how the equipment feels, the whole sensory and tactile experience. The final image is only a fraction of the appeal, for me.
Also, this is as much a reason (probably bigger) as to why I use and love vintage film cameras over digital, in comparison with the end look film photographs have compared with those made via megapixels.
So I started looking for two things.
First the luxuriousness of the lens, for want of a better word.
And second, some indescribable aspect of the final image that made a particular lens stand out from the pack.
This led me to the two favourites I have now.
Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8, M42 mount
On the luxury front, the Pancolar is ordinary, at best. But in the final image it delivers something special.
For a long time I was sceptical about Zeiss, and thought that any decent lens would give similar results. Which is true. But, somehow, the Pancolar has something more.
Two other Zeiss I have in M42 mount – the Sonnar 135/3.5 and Flektogon 35/2.4 – bear this out too. Neither are the smoothest or best built I’ve used, but both give a secret something to an image not seen in their rivals.
Arguably these three are the only three lenses I ever need.
Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8, M42 mount
The Takumar is in a different league to the Pancolar in terms of feel. It’s just delicious to use, and oozes quality and charm. It’s quite probably the smoothest lens I’ve ever handled and used.
In the final image, it’s one of the best too.
With the Takumar, it’s not down to drop dead sharpness. The Pancolar in my experience outguns it in that area.
But, similar to the Zeiss, the Takumar images have something special that I don’t see with other lenses.
Conclusions and Recommendations
If you’re relatively new to film photography and/or vintage lenses, what would I suggest, based on my own 50s philandering experience? Would I recommend you rush out and get a Pancolar and Takumar?
Well, not necessarily. What works for me might not for you.
If you’re keen to shoot film and you’re not too fussed about the camera you use, as long as it takes decent, well exposed photographs, then any of the major brands have a body and a standard 50/1.7 or 50/1.8 lens that will give great results.
Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, Konica and Yashica all qualify.
If you’d like a camera that’s small, light, and don’t mind having a later, more plastic body, the Canon EOS are very hard to argue against.
They’re compact, light, ergonomic to handle, offer reliable metering with a very usable viewfinder, if not as big and bright as some of the 70s SLRs.
The major trump card with the EOS system is their adaptability.
With cheap adapters (around £10) you can use M42, Contax/Yashica or Pentax K lenses, to name just three.
They offer tremendous value, and combined with something like a Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 or Fujinon 55/1.8 in M42 or a Pentax-M or Yashica ML 50/1.7 or 50/2 lenses can give you stunning results.
You can read in more depth why I like them and how to get started in film photography for just £27, with a Canon EOS at the heart of the set up.
If you go with the EOS system, you can then also add a digital option at a later today (early EOS digital bodies are currently £50 upwards) and use exactly the same lens(es) and adapter(s).
I regularly contemplate selling all my SLRs (currently down to six, less than I’ve had in about three years) and keeping just my EOS 300v plus M42 and C/Y adapters and lenses. It’s all I/you really need.
After a while, the endless chase for 50s became tiresome, and the urge waned.
Now I’m down to five manual focus 50mm lenses.
Seven, if you include my 55/1.8 Super-Takumar (which I have), and my Minolta AF (AutoFocus) 50/2.8 Macro.
I don’t need any others, and each of these gives something unique in user experience, the final photographs, or both.
If I had to pick one, for the final image it would probably be the Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8.
For the joy of using, the Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is a delight, and up there with the best for the end result too.
My days as a 50s philanderer seem to be coming to an end.
Partly because I’ve realised that virtually every 50mm lens I’ve ever used was capable of more than decent pictures, and partly because those that remain are so enjoyable to use and to make photographs with.
Where are you on your adventures with 50mm? Have you tried one, two, or 2002?
Let us know in the comments below, and feel free to make your own 50mm recommendations.
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