Lens Love is an ongoing series of posts about the vintage lenses I’ve used and loved most.
The dry technical data and 100% corner crops of brick walls can be found elsewhere. What I’m more interested in is what specifically about a lens makes me love using it, and why I believe you should try one too.
First up –
Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 M42 mount
What I love
Close focus. The Pentacon 50/1.8 focuses down to a touch under 0.33m. Most 50s flounder around 0.5m, or 0.45m if you’re lucky, so the additional intimacy with your subject offered by the Pentacon makes it stand out. There’s a whole world of photographic opportunity available that is beyond the vast majority of 50mm lenses. This blog is about hunting for beauty, and most often I’ve found the beauty is in the tiny details.
Colours. Some lenses just seem to deliver better colours than others, and the Pentacon 50/1.8 is a good example. Vibrant and alive, but without being garish, the colours have delighted me time and time again, on film and digital cameras, straight out of camera. None of the images in this post have had any post processing.
All metal build. From an era where lens makers had either not discovered plastic or were unconvinced about its place on such a fine object as a camera lens, the Pentacon is satisfying metal. Impressively though, despite the reassuring build, it’s surprisingly light (sub 200g) and compact.
Sharpness. I’m not the biggest fan of clinical, almost sterile sharpness, but the Pentacon is in my eyes very capable in this area once you stop down a little. Which still allows for a more dreamy and artistic kind of approach when used at wider apertures. Or sometimes both of these extremes in the same photograph.
Availability. Every other Praktica camera for years, possibly decades, came with this 50/1.8 (or a variation branded Meyer or Pentaflex) as its standard kit lens. Which means today, even allowing for those thousands that must have been long since broken and discarded, there are still plentiful supplies for us. Most often they’re still attached to one of those hefty, non-nonsense Praktica heavyweights they haven’t been parted from in 30+ years.
Affordability. As with any lens, price varies depending on the seller’s knowledge and demands, and you will find the Pentacons selling on their own fully working for maybe £50 or more. But be patient and maybe a little lucky and you can still find them for under £10, and far more easily under £20. Even £30 for a clean, fully working example I would still consider excellent value for a lens this capable.
Adaptability. The familiar screw thread of the M42 mount graces probably more lenses than any other in history. Because of this, plus the simplicity of the mount, it means M42 lenses can be easily adapted to a huge range of other film and digital cameras. I have used M42 lenses on classic M42 bodies like Spotmatics and Fujicas, as well as with adapters on Pentax K, Contax/Yashica, Minolta AF and Canon EOS film bodies, plus Pentax K, Sony Alpha/A mount and NEX/E mount digital cameras. As most examples of the Pentacon have an Auto/Manual (A/M) switch, just slide it to M, and you can manually stop the aperture down using either Aperture Priority or Manual mode on your camera. The adapters tend to be very affordable too, from £5-10 for most.
What about the downsides?
There’s much to love about the Pentacon 50/1.8. There are two main downsides to consider. Well, maybe one and a half.
First, they’re not always in excellent, fully working order.
The main issues I’ve encountered have been stiff focus and faulty aperture blades. The former, depending on how stiff, can be lived with, and sometimes a little extra weight in the focus ring aids accurate focusing. But if the lens is unscrewing itself every time you try to focus, it’s not very usable. This can be fixed of course, and the lens relubricated, but this would likely cost twice what the lens would cost to replace, so weigh up your options.
With some examples, the aperture blades are stuck open, so wherever you turn the aperture ring to, it’s wide open at f/1.8.
Again this can be fixed, but again consider the repair cost versus finding another. If you find a cheap Pentacon Auto with excellent glass but stiff focus and/or stuck aperture blades, considering how good they are (in my experience), it might well be worth a CLA. £10 for the lens plus £40 for a CLA is still pretty good value, considering you’d then know you had an excellent lens that would last for potentially years to come.
The other, less obvious, downside is the competition.
Most specifically its German counterpart, the Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8. In their day, the Pancolar was the more expensive option for your Praktica L or M series camera, and these days the cost differential is probably even greater.
The lenses are tied on close focus, general feel and size, and adaptability. The Pancolar, in my experience, just has the edge in sharpness in the final image, though I haven’t shot the two head to head in identical conditions.
If money is no object, buy the best and newest Multi Coated Pancolar you can find. It’ll likely cost £100-150+.
But for 95% of the performance (maybe more) at 10% of the cost, the Pentacon is amazing value.
A final note about variations.
The older examples I’ve had generally have more straight edged aperture blades, so you get bokeh highlights like this –
This is great if you like that sort of thing, and often I do.
But if you want smoother, more rounded bokeh, especially in the highlights, go for a later version which produce images more like the following. Notice the far more rounded hexagons on the far right.
Aside from different versions of the Pentacon (generally, later ones shout MULTI COATING on the front and the lettering around the focus scale is green and white, earlier ones use red and white fonts), I’ve also had a Pentaflex Auto Color 50/1.8 which is as far as I can tell identical to the earlier Pentacons, again with the straighter aperture blades –
It comes down to what you find, and your preference in the starkness of your hexagons!
Overall I would highly recommend the Pentacon 50/1.8 in any of its variations.
It’s arguably as good in the final image as any 50mm lens I’ve used, is excellent value, and with that close focus is almost peerless at this price and availability.
Go get one!
Have you used a Pentacon 50/1.8?
Let us know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.