Lens Love #4 – Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42

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.

Up today –

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42

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Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

The reason M42 mount are my favourite lenses can be summed up in two words. Takumar and Zeiss. 

Let’s leave Takumars are for a different post (or 10).

On the Zeiss front, in M42 I have the holy trio of the Flektogon 35/2.4, Pancolar 50/1.8 and Sonnar 135/3.5. These three could form my entire lens collection and I would be abundantly equipped to shoot beautiful photographs for the rest of my life.

I recently wrote about my six strong stack of 135s and the Sonnar is as good as any of them.

Indeed if I had to pick just one, based on the results I’ve got so far and the general feel and handling, it would be the Sonnar.

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What I love

Final image. The Sonnar has a near perfect balance of sharpness of focus and softness of bokeh, in my view. Despite having six aperture blades, which with some lenses can often lead to abrasive polygons in the background, the Sonnar manages to almost entirely avoid this. And the sharpness is delicious, though not in a sterile or clinical way.

Size and form. This Zeiss is very compact for a 135mm lens, and cleverly uses much of its length as the metal knurled focusing ring. It feels well built, all metal and glass, the focusing is pretty smooth, and the aperture clicks are subtle yet reassuring. It doesn’t feel like a cheap or hastily made object.

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Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

Close focus. I’ve had a few 135s that have performed very well but the minimum focus has been 2m plus. The Sonnar focus down to a fraction under 1m, which is excellent given the extra reach a 135 lens gives anyway. It makes close ups of flowers, decaying doors, gravestones and the other textures I enjoy very easy and very rewarding.

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Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

Adaptability. It’s an M42, probably the most adaptable lens mount any ever made. In native M42 mount you have fabulous 35mm film cameras like the Spotmatic and Fujica ranges.

If you prefer a later, more compact Aperture Priority (Av) body, take your pick from Pentax K, Contax, Canon EOS and more, via very simple and cheap adapters. Flip the Sonnar’s A/M switch to M (Manual), stop down to the aperture you wish to use and the camera will select the correct shutter speed for you.

On the digital front the choice is even wider. I’ve used Sony NEX, Sony Alpha and Pentax K DSLRs with M42 lenses, all with fantastic results, and again via cheap plentiful adapters.

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Sony α100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens plus LightRoom Preset

What about the downsides? 

No lens is perfect of course. My Sonnar, in near mint condition, cost me £50.

I’ve bought other 135mm lenses for under £15 that have made wonderful pictures.

But since none of them focus as close, or are quite as compact, the Sonnar just about justifies its higher price tag.

You might find one cheaper if you’re patient, lucky or both. But they’re nowhere nearer the plentiful budget end of M42 135s.

My other two Zeiss lenses I mentioned both developed faults with the aperture blades and became stuck open.

I had both services and fixed, at a cost of around £45.

Though the Sonnar feels good quality, I’m always waiting for the day it goes the way of the other Zeiss, and adding another £45 would take my total outlay to near £100. Still a bargain in the grand scheme of things, but if you’re on a tight budget, there are other 135s with as good performance for far less, in M42 mount, Pentax K mount and beyond.

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Sony α100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens plus LightRoom Preset

A minor annoyance is the plastic pull out hood.

Zeiss obviously felt it was necessary to have or they wouldn’t have designed it. But if you ignore it, it quite often slides out anyway. And when it is out it doesn’t easily stay in position. A simple turn to lock in place system would have been easy to incorporate and would mean you could leave it extended when in use and not see it sliding in and out.

To be fair this is not an issue exclusive to this lens, I have other brands that are similar, bit it does seem a bit of a flimsy afterthought and doesn’t fit with the otherwise solid all metal body.

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The final downside is simple. It’s not a Takumar.

If I’d never had a Takumar I wouldn’t know to compare. But I do have them, and they remain my favourite lenses for their luxurious smoothness and build quality, let alone the fantastic optics.

The later K mount Pentax 135s I’ve had (an SMC Pentax 135/3.5 and a Pentax-M 135/3.5) have also been beautifully smooth and confidence inspiring.

My inner photographic jury is still out as to whether the Sonnar is optically superior to my preset Takumar 135/3.5, as I’ve only had the latter a couple of weeks. The Sonnar retains all the pros outlined above, but just simply isn’t as smooth and reassuring as a Takumar.

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Pentax K10D, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens

Lastly, a note on variations and naming. 

Whilst I’ve referred throughout this post to the Sonnar as a Sonnar, my version’s full name is the Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Electric MC S 135/3.5. I understand there were periods where disputes between Zeiss companies in East and West Germany meant there were restrictions on the use of various names. Similarly, I have a Tessar which is called simply a Jena T.

So if you find one like mine that only has S 135/3.5, not Sonnar, rest assured it is the same optical formula.

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Sony NEX 3N,Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5 M42 lens.

Overall, on the photographs I’ve been able to make alone, the Sonnar comes highly recommended. 

The downsides are relatively minor, and the pluses in abundance. If you like 135s and haven’t tried a Sonnar, I’d definitely suggest you seek one out.

Have you tried a Sonnar 135/3.5? 

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

A Stack Of 135 (And How To Choose Between Them)

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Over the last few years of shooting SLRs, my predominant favourite focal length has been 50 and 55mm.

But after trying a 135mm, I was quickly hooked.

The up close and personal field of view, plus the potential for very shallow depth of field and dreamy bokeh made them instant winners for my style of photography.

I’m at a point now where, although I’ve thinned out my 50s pretty well, I have work to do on the 135 front.

I simply don’t need six!

My gut feeling is I’ll keep three, two in M42 and the one Pentax K mount.

To help myself choose which to keep and which to let go, here’s each one in summary, plus some favourite shots.

Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5 (M42)

Beautifully made and feels almost like new, very smooth focus down to 1.5m, preset aperture from f/3.5 to f/22, eight rounded aperture blades. Tiny body, especially for a 135mm. Very similar in use and look to my Takumar 105/2.8, which I love. A class act, a true classic lens, as all Takumars I’ve experienced have been. Being very new to me though, as yet I’ve shot very little with this one.

Jupiter-11 135mm f/4 (M42)

Quirkily shaped Former Soviet Union (FSU) lens, with 12 aperture blades which close down in an almost perfect circle, and preset aperture. Focus is fine but crude compared with the best here. Minimum focus of 1.4m. Capable of lovely images, but not high contrast and punchy, more muted, subtle and vintage.

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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-11 135/4, LightRoom preset
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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-11 135/4

Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 (M42) 

Similar to the Jupiter-11, though the body is more regularly shaped and compact. Smooth focus (but not Takumar or SMC smooth) down to 1.2m. Again like the Jupiter-11, 12 very rounded aperture blades, meaning deliciously smooth backgrounds. This one on the optics front performs better than the Jupiter-11 (I think) but physically lacks much of the personality and charm of the slower lens.

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Sony a350, Jupiter-37A 135/3.5, LightRoom preset
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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-37A 135/3.5, LightRoom preset

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Electric MC S 135 f/3.5 (M42)

A Sonnar, but most (all?) of these lenses from this era just have a solitary “S” marked, due to trademark wrangles between Zeiss East and West at the time. Close focus of just 1m, and my example is very smooth for a Carl Zeiss Jena, but still not Tak/SMC Pentax class. I love the non-nonsense knurled focus ring. Regular aperture click stops, though on mine f/3.5 and f/4 are identical. Alas only six aperture blades, and not especially rounded at f/8 and beyond. Very capable in the final image.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5
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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film

Pentacon Auto 135mm f/2.8 (M42)

Fastest lens here, and the biggest, heaviest and most serious feeling. Focus is smooth enough for a Pentacon, but disappointingly only down to 1.7m. The aperture ring has subtle clicks meaning it’s easy to overshoot the setting you want, if you’re not used to it. Six very straight aperture blades, but interesting on the bokeh front at the wide end.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 135/2.8, LightRoom preset
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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 135/2.8, LightRoom preset

SMC Pentax 135mm f/3.5 (Pentax K)

One of the original SMC K mount range, before the M series. I had the M 135/3.5 and whilst it’s good, this SMC version I far prefer, is even smoother than the M, and optically is significantly superior.

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Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax 135/3.5
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Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax 135/3.5

So which to choose? 

All six lenses are very capable, and if I had only one 135mm lens, any one of these would give me lovely results time and time again.

If I had to have just one, based on the results I’ve got so far, plus its minimum focus, it’s probably be the Carl Zeiss MC Sonnar.

But the Jupiter-37A is very very close. And then the Jupiter-11 has far more charm to use than any of the others here, arguably and does make endearingly subtle images.

Then the newest to me, the SMC Pentax, has got off to a flying start with my Pentax K10D, and has already produced enough evidence to become my sole 135. Plus, when used on a  K mount film or digital camera, the open aperture metering is an useful focusing advantage over the rest of the lenses here, which are all M42 and require manually stopping down.

You see the problems I have choosing!

The two least likely to stay are the Takumar and Pentacon.

The former because it’s near identical in look and use to my Takumar 105/2.8 (which I want to keep as it’s unique in its focal length), and the latter because it’s big, heavy and lacking in min focus. But the Takumar may surprise me, and the Pentacon already has made some interesting and different images, that beg further experimentation.

I may post an update in a few weeks, which could just as likely reveal I have a total of 12 135mm lenses as three.

What are your experiences with 135mm as a focal length? What are you favourite 135mm lenses? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Five Way 50mm PK Showdown

Some weeks back I experimented with four M42 50mm lenses to see how they compared shooting the same scene at a range of apertures.

The results were, at least in part, quite unexpected, and the all round victor was the wonderful Asahi Super-Takumar 55/1.8.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens

With that in mind, and with my 50mm lenses in Pentax K Mount multiplying like rabbits is springtime, I thought a similar showdown might be interesting, and helped me to thin the herd, or the, er “fluffle” if you’re reading in North Canada.

The Lenses

Auto Chinon 50mm f/.7. Very affordable, small, smooth, an overlooked genuine rival to the Pentax-M 50/1.7. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.45m.

SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.4. Far more expensive (2-3x) than the A or M 50/1.7. The most expensive PK 50mm I’ve ever bought. Eight aperture blades, min focus 0.45m. Smooth enough focus but plasticky aperture.

SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.7. Cheaper than the 50/1.4, generally a bit more than the M version, due to its additional program modes on compatible bodies. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.45m. Like its 50/1.4 sibling, a cheap feeling aperture ring (my example doesn’t go past f/8 either), but pretty smooth to focus.

SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7. Optically like the A version, but more metal and as a result it feels much smoother in the aperture ring especially. Very classy. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.45m.

Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2Small, very light, simple full stop plastic aperture ring, very affordable and plentiful. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.6m

The Experiment

Simple, as before, one scene that I might typically photograph anyway (rather than a brick wall or newspaper taped to a wall!) at close focus with enough light in the background to create bokeh highlights.

Because the Rikenon only focuses to 0.6m, I chose that distance for all of the lenses, not measured, just going by the scale on the lenses.

I shot wide open, then full stops to f/8, as I hardly ever shoot beyond this. Oh and I used my ever reliable Sony NEX 3N plus PK > NEX adapter, shooting RAW at ISO400 then converting to JPEG in LightRoom, my usual set up.

The Results

The simplest conclusion is obvious – any of these are an excellent option for a 50mm prime lens, not just in Pentax K mount.

Trying to differentiate between the images, at my level of analysis and requirements, was very difficult.

In terms of colours and contrast and sharpness, there’s so little between all the lenses, they’re close to identical.

Where I did notice differences was in the bokeh. 

The Pentax-A 50/1.4, to my eyes creates prettier images at nearly all apertures than all of the others, because it has extra aperture blades that make the bokeh highlights rounder, less aggressive.

The Pentax-M 50/1.7, A 50/1.7 and Auto Chinon 50/1.7 were virtually identical in every way, at all apertures tested.

If I mixed up the results I wouldn’t be able to tell you which lens took which picture. From this point on, there’s little point separating them in terms of optical performance.

At f/5.6 and f/8, the Rikenon 50/2 also was close to indistinguishable to the three above.

At wider apertures though, the Rikenon impressed more than the three 50/1.7s.

Though it also has six aperture blades, because its “only” f/2, at f/2 the bokeh highlights are perfectly circular whereas the others are starting to become hexagonal.

At f/4 this is becoming far more obvious, and in fact at this aperture the bokeh from the Rikenon is more appealing than the Pentax-A 50/1.4 too.

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Pentax-A 50/1.7 @ f/4
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Pentax-A 50/1.4 @ f/4
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Ricoh Rikenon 50/2 @ f/4

So how do I rate five lenses that performed so equally? 

It simply comes down to the fine detail, of the lenses themselves, and of the image.

Images first.

Wider than f/4 there’s so little between them all there’s nothing to discuss. At f/4 though, where I probably shoot more than at any other aperture, the Pentax-A 50/1.4 and Rikenon 50/2 I like most, because of the much smoother and less invasive bokeh.

At f/5.6 and f/8, the Rikenon becomes as hexagonal as the three f/1.7s. At these apertures, the 50/1.4 gives the most pleasing results, and the most subtle bokeh.

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Pentax-A 50/1.4 @ f/8
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Pentax-M 50/1.7 @ f/8

So on the image front, overall it’s the Pentax-A 50/1.4 first, Rikenon 50/2 second, the three 50/1.7s joint third.

Let’s turn to the spec and feel of the lenses. 

All five are a pleasure to use, to an extent. In terms of luxury and smoothness of feel, the Pentax-M 50/1.7 is the winner. Joint second are the Auto Chinon and Rikenon, and joint last the two Pentax-As, with their disappointingly flaky plastic aperture rings.

Spec wise, there’s very little difference, again.

The obvious standout (or rather fall down) is the Rikenon with only 0.6m close focus compared to all of the others going down to 0.45m. If Ricoh had made this lens focus down to 0.45m it could be the overall winner here, amongst illustrious company.

(Ricoh do make a 50/1.7 that focuses down to 0.45m, but whilst competent, I haven’t found it to be as good as the 50/2.)

The Pentax-A lenses of course have added electrical contacts so that compatible cameras can shoot Shutter Priority and Program modes.

If you use an A series or later Pentax film body and/or a Pentax DLSR this is legitimately a serious advantage to consider.

On my Sony NEX, with the same adapter and the same process of manually stopping down the aperture, the difference in using all five lenses is non existent.

The slower max aperture of f/2 on the Rikenon, plus the fact that it performs very well at this aperture, actually give it an edge over the f/1.7s, as explained in the bokeh quality above. 

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens @f/2

The extra speed of the Pentax-A 50/1.4 in itself is redundant for my needs, and as I spoke about recently, we probably don’t need an expensive f/1.4 over an f/1.7 or f/2 on any level.

But what it does have that genuinely makes it stand out here are the extra aperture blades.

And for someone like me who shots up close very often, with a relatively shallow depth of field, this is a very important distinction. I wouldn’t care if it’s max aperture was f/2 (or even f/2.8), it’s those extra blades (and the shape they form) that make a difference.

Summary

If I was going to recommend just one of these lenses, I would advise you to use whichever you already have, or next come across. They’re all excellent.

For my needs and style, I can clearly see that I don’t need three 50/1.7s that are near identical.

If I used just M series Pentax film bodies, I’d pick the Pentax-M. It has the best feel of all the lenses here. 

If I used A series film bodies, and needed those extra exposure modes, I’d go with a Pentax-A lens. Same story with a Pentax DSLR – the A lens gives more exposure options, if you need that.

But coming back to my own requirements, this test has highlighted that against what I first thought – that the extra speed alone of the A 50/1.4 was not worth the extra expense – it’s this lens that appears to have triumphed.

I can live with that plastic aperture ring for the bokeh advantages.

For times when I want to be lazier and shoot an SLR (or DSLR) like a point and shoot with Program modes, it makes the most sense too.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.4 lens

The Rikenon is a little wonder, and I doubt I’ll let it go because it is so small, light, cheap and so good wide open. 

My first Pentax 50mm lens was a Pentax-M 50/1.7 and for a long time I’ve considered them the benchmark. Maybe for slightly nostalgic reasons I’ll be holding on this example, plus its undoubtable quality of build and feel.

The Chinon and Pentax-A 50/1.7s – as great as they are – offer simply too much duplication in my current collection, so will soon be sold on, leaving the A 50/1.4, Rikenon, and for now the M 50/1.7, to join my Pentax-M Macro 50/4 in PK mount at 50mm.

I considered including the Macro 50/4 this test, but with its much closer focus and max aperture of f/4 it’s too different to be a fair comparison, plus I love it so much it’s a no brainer keeper anyway.

No doubt that lens, plus the A 50/1.4 that’s triumphed here, will have their own Lens Love posts in the near future, and in all honesty are the only two lenses I need – or will ever need – in Pentax K mount.

Which is your favourite image of those above? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Lens Love #3 – Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 PK

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.

Today’s lens –

Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 Pentax K Mount

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens

When I first held a Rikenon 50/2 I was underwhelmed, to say the least.

A lot of plastic, “only” f/2, “only” full stops on the aperture ring, and a minimum focus of “only” 0.6m.

Against the likes of the lovely SMC Pentax-M 50/1.7 and almost as lovely Auto Chinon 50/1.7 – both of which are faster, better built (plus more metal) and focus to 0.45m – I didn’t expect the Rikenon to hang around long.

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But then I shot a roll of film with it.

And was highly impressed with the photographs.

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Pentax ME, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film 

Then I tried it on my NEX, and got a lucky “right place right time” shot of a robin with the Rikenon wide open at f/2 that remains one of my favourite ever images I’ve made.

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What initially seemed weaknesses turned into pluses.

The plastic aperture ring is actually the smoothest plastic aperture ring I’ve tried, way better than a Pentax-A 50mm. It’s perfectly usable, and always slots in reassuringly to the next stop.

Intentionally I think, and very cleverly, Ricoh enhanced the assured feel by making it only full stops.

Plastic aperture rings with half stops I’m often over shooting where I intended to turn the ring too then going back and forwards (you know like when you almost bump into someone, then both move one way, then both the other way, until finally four or five sways later, the improvised stranger dancing ends, and you pass your separate ways) before finding the right setting. Yes I’m talking to you again Pentax-A lenses!

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens

The full stops actually make it lovely and simple to use (again I wonder if Ricoh intended this in the design).

I hardly ever use f/11 or smaller, so the most I have to click is four stops from f/2 to f/8 or vice versa. Meaning it’s very easy to remember where you are on the scale even if you’re not looking at it. My SMC Pentax-M 50/1.7, for example, needs eight clicks to go from wide open to f/8.

The expansive use of plastic make it very light – around 135g.

The smaller version (there are two sizes, to my knowledge) is very compact too, protruding less than 30mm from the camera when focused at infinity.

It’s approaching what you might call a Pancake, for a 50mm lens. The so called Pancake Pentax 40mm f/2.8 is only 25g lighter and 12mm flatter, and by all accounts is not a great performer.

That “slow” speed of f/2 virtually disappears as a barrier when it’s makes such pleasing photographs wide open.

The first photograph in this post, the robin photograph, and the tap shot below, were all shot wide open at f/2.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens

I really, really like the bokeh of these lenses wide open, and the sharp areas are plenty crisp for my needs.

Most 50s need stopping down two or three stops before they really perform, negating their f/1.4 or f/1.7 advantage, and losing the shallow depth of field and round highlights you get shooting wide open.

Whilst the focus ring is not quite as smooth as a runny honey dripping from hot toast, it’s silky enough that you never think about it.

The short throw from minimum distance to infinity of around a third of a turn, will please some who like to adjust focus quickly.

Finally, for the skinflints like me, these Rikenons can be had for less than £20 all day long, if you’re patient, less than £10.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens

Are there any downsides? 

That minimum focus of 0.6m is a bit disappointing for someone like myself who loves shooting up close.

But if you really need to shoot nearer than 0.6m, you could use close up filters, an extension ring or a macro reversing ring. I used the latter with a 50/1.7 Rikenon with excellent results, and have no doubt the 50/2 would be at least as good.

I’ve had four or five 50/2s and two 50/1.7s. The f/1.7s are very good, but the f/2s really stand out, and I’d much rather have one of these.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens

Overall I’d highly recommend the Rikenon 50/2, not just if you’re looking for a Pentax K mount 50mm lens, but if you’re looking for any 50mm lens to adapt to digital too. 

Very light and compact, a simple to use and navigate aperture ring, and very good performance from wide open at f/2 onwards.

Plus as they’re Pentax K mount, the film and digital body options made by Pentax alone are vast. Widen the net to Pentax K mount film bodies by other brands (including Ricoh themselves) and digital options (Pentax DLSRs and others via adapters) and there’s a winning combination out there for all of us.

Don’t hesitate to add one to your collection if you have the chance!

Have you tried a Rikenon 50/2? What lens would you recommend in Pentax K mount?

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Speed Myths – Why You Probably Don’t Need That Expensive f/1.4 Lens

Any serious photographer needs at least one 50/1.4 or even 50/1.2 lens in their arsenal. Otherwise, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to create your best pictures, right?

In this post I look into this assumption further, explore some of the pros and cons of fast lenses, and whether we really need them as much as we think, if at all.

Part of my educational background means I love numbers. They fascinate me. So cameras and lenses with their multiple scales of figures are a delight to behold.

Also, lenses as physical objects can be incredibly alluring, especially vintage lenses with all that metal and glass.

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Minolta SR-1s, MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens / Minolta X-700, MD Rokkor 50mm f1.4 lens

Partly because of this, and partly because of the online hype I sometimes succumb to, fast lenses, like the 58/1.4 and 50/1.4 Minolta Rokkors above, seemed essential to me, not only for optimum aesthetic deliciousness on my cameras, but to be able to make the best photographs.

You can’t deny the visual appeal of fast lenses. But the other point, about them being capable of better pictures, I’ve found to be largely, if not entirely, a myth. 

 

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens

Take the sample photographs above, taken with a 50mm lens with, gasp, a maximum aperture of just f/2.8.

Because the lens is so slow, its maximum aperture a whole two stops more sluggish than a 50/1.4, the result is obviously going to be terrible.

There’ll be no way to create a shallow depth of field, the subject will likely be blurred because of the low shutter speed needed with such a slow lens, and all in all it will be ghastly and futile.

But hang on, in fact, this is one of my favourite photographs I’ve made in recent times, and probably the best I’ve made from dozens of shots of this gate I’ve taken with dozens of different lenses.

I couldn’t have done it any better with an f/1.4 or indeed an f/1.2 lens.

What about this next image, with the so humble it can’t be worth bothering with Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2?

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 Pentax K mount lens

To get that shallow depth of field, you’d need to wide open or very close to it, which would mean, as everyone knows, the images will be softer than an ice cream in the hands of a toddler on Brighton beach on an August Bank Holiday.

But no, actually, the Rikenon, wide open at f/2 is actually pretty impressive, even if I say so myself, and again this image is one of my favourites.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Tessar 50mm f/2.8 M42 lens

Next up, another candidate slower than a snail with a hangover, the ubiquitous M42 Zeiss Tessar 50/2.8.

Again though, shockingly, the results are pretty good, and there’s little, if anything in the photograph to suggest it was made with such a slow and therefore inferior piece of glass.

With this initial evidence laid out then, here are some of the myths of fast lenses, and why, in my experience, they don’t stack up.

1. You need a fast lens to be able to shoot handheld in low light.

Yes, this is true. If you shoot all the time indoors and/or at night, you’re going to be able to take shots at f/1.4 or f/1.2 that you couldn’t keep the camera steady enough for at, say, f/2. But I rarely shoot indoors, and virtually never at night, because in my experience, colours look best in good daylight, to our own eyes, and to the lenses of our cameras.

So for my style of available daylight shooting, this is a non-issue.

2. You need a fast lens so it’s super sharp two/three/four stops down, where you’ll really take most of your shots.

This is based on the logic that all lenses perform at their best two/three/four stops down. But many lenses, like the humble, plentiful and super affordable Rikenon 50/2 that made the Robin photograph above, are more than usable wide open at f/2.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/4 Macro Pentax K mount lens

I very recently bought a Pentax-M 50mm f/4 Macro lens, which is stunning sharp, contrasty and colourful at f/4. I could shoot with it virtually all the time wide open and be delighted with the results.

The main reason I stop this lens down one or two stops is to get a larger depth of field at very close distances.

Some lenses are indeed at their very best at, say, f/5.6.

My recent experiment with four 50s showed that my Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 is really impressive at f/5.6, But at f/1.8, even f/2.8 it’s a bit of a mess.

Conversely, my Asahi Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is very usable wide open at f/1.8, and brilliant at f/4, when the Pancolar is only just beginning to get its act together. It wouldn’t matter if the Pancolar was f/1.2, if it wasn’t particularly usable until three stops down.

Surely it’s smarter to choose lenses like the Takumar 55/1.8 (or its near identical sibling the 55/2) that might be slightly slower than f/1.4, but perform well from wide open, or close to wide open onwards? 

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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-11 135mm f/4 M42 lens

3. You need a fast lens to be able to create beautiful bokeh.

Take a look at any of the images in this post. I think you’ll agree the out of focus backgrounds are far from unpleasant!

If you want shallow depth of field, use a longer lens, and/or compose and focus a bit closer (either with the lens, like the Pentacon Auto 50/1.8s that focus down to 0.33m, or by using an extension tube, close up filter or macro reversing ring).

The image of the magnolia above was taken with a 135/4 Jupiter-11. You don’t need f/1.4, f/2 or even f/2.8 with such a characterful 135mm lens.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50mm f/2 lens, Fuji Superia 200 expired film

4. You need a fast lens to be able to see and focus properly through the viewfinder. 

With film cameras, where the viewfinder might not be great anyway (for example pretty much every non-pro SLR after about 1984!), then focusing with a 50/2.8 or 135/4 is of course going to be more challenging than with a 50/1.4.

The options on the film front are to use AF lenses, and/or choose cameras with the best possible viewfinders. The best that come to mind from those I’ve had are the Minolta X-700 and X-300, Contax 139 Quartz and many of the Pentax M range, like the ME Super etc. All of these are very usable with f/2.8 and f/3.5 lenses, and super bright with f/2 and faster.

Again it depends on the kind of photography you favour.

With digital, at least with mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX, the excellent focus peaking feature means less light coming through the lens is all but irrelevant, so a lens like the Jupiter-11 135/4 is just as easy to focus as a 50/1.2 would be.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/2 M42 lens

 

5. You need a fast lens to gain street cred / kudos with other photographers / attract potential future partners. 

As I mentioned at the outset, fast lenses mean bigger glass, and few can deny the appeal visually of these beauties.

But let’s get to the point of why we photograph.

Speaking for myself, I rarely photograph where there are many other people around anyway, and when I do, I try to be discrete. My camera is a tool to make find and capture beautiful compositions with. How it looks to others is largely irrelevant.

If I cared about what others thought about my camera I would have probably sold all my photography, and my car, bought a fancy Leica years ago, and flashed it around at every opportunity.

Creating any photograph that makes you happy is wonderful, but when it’s with kit that is humble and affordable, for me just magnifies the pleasure. 

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Sony a100, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

As I think I’ve shown in this post, for my needs, and maybe yours too, a fast expensive lens is unnecessary to create photographs we love, and enjoy making

What are your experiences with fast lenses? What are your favourite slower lenses?

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Lens Love #2 – Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 PK

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.

Today’s lens –

Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 Pentax K mount

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Pentax MZ-6, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

What I love

Compact and light. The little Chinon couldn’t be called a pancake lens, but for an f/1.7 50mm it is smaller than most. Like the Pentax-M 50/2, I’ve had versions with a plastic aperture ring and others with metal. The latter is slightly more pleasing to use, but marginally, whereas the plastic ones save a few grams, if you’re into that.

Whether on a compact Pentax body like one of the M series (if you want light, stripped down and minimal I’d recommend an all black Pentax MV), or on my Sony NEX mirrorless, the Chinon is about as small as you need, without the lens getting fiddly to use, or performance being compromised.

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Lightness of touch. As well as being physically lightweight, the Chinon 50/1.7 has a lightness of touch that’s not to be underestimated. It’s one of those lenses where the weight of the focus and aperture is balanced so you know you’re using it, but it never consciously gets in the way.

After experiencing a number of far more inconsistent lenses (the major flaw of the otherwise highly recommended Pentacon 50/1.8) of the four or five Chinons I’ve had, all have been a pleasure to use and mechanically excellent.

I even had one arrive attached to the most disgustingly grubby and smoke saturated camera I’ve ever come across (seriously, it looked like both lens and camera had been used as a pub ashtray for a couple of decades), and after a quick clean up with some white vinegar, a toothbrush and some cotton buds it was beautiful again, and performed flawlessly.

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Pentax MX, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, Kodak ColorPlus 200 expired film

Affordability. The Pentax-M 50/1.7s are not expensive compared with an equivalent Zeiss or Nikon lens. But the Auto Chinons are typically half the price or less. Great news for those on a shoestring budget, or who might like to spread their photography budget across two or three lens rather than one.

Of the four or five I’ve had, I paid between about £6 and £18, some of these including bodies (like the ex-ashtray mentioned above). Even at the top end of this range they’re fantastic value.

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Pentax MZ-6, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film 

Camera body availability. Pentax K mount is one of the longest running and widely available mounts. Pentax launched it in 1975 and it’s still a current mount today, 42 years later. A huge number of compatible cameras have been made in those four decades!

If you’re looking for an equivalent film camera, as before I’d recommend one of the Pentax-M range – ME, ME Super, MG, MV etc. Compact, great viewfinders, excellent handling, there’s little not to love.

If you want something newer and even lighter, I’ve enjoyed the MZ-5N and MZ-6, the latter probably offering more features than any Pentax film body ever made, without going into the pro ranges. The VF isn’t a patch on the M series (it was designed for AutoFocus lenses after all) but the focus confirm is very handy, and the handling, very light weight and 1/4000s min shutter speed makes it a very appealing option.

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Chinon themselves also made a wide range of cameras of this era (late 70s – early 80s). Loosely, the CM ones are mechanical and more primitive, and the CE range are electronic and have more features. Make sure the model you’re buying is Pentax K mount, as earlier C model Chinons were M42.

I had an all black CE-4s which I shot dozens of films with and got very consistent results. Plus it had depth of field preview and multiple exposures, which its Pentax ME Super rival doesn’t. Well worth considering, and you might even get one with a Chinon 50/1.7 already attached.

On the digital front you of course have a huge range of native Pentax K mount digital bodies, and the adapters widely available to use the lens on Canon EOS/EF mount, Sony NEX/E mount cameras and a host of others.

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Pentax MZ-6, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Optical performance. In a way the photographs possible with the Auto Chinon 50/1.7 perfectly mirror using the lens itself. It just makes beautiful photographs with no fanfare or fuss.

There are probably 50mm lenses I’ve used that are clinically sharper, though not by much. But overall the Chinon simple makes lovely images. See for yourself in the photographs I’ve shared in this post and make your own judgement.

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Pentax MZ-5N, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

What about the downsides?

The Auto Chinon has plenty to love, and virtually nothing to dislike. If you’re hung up on brands and couldn’t possibly use a Pentax K mount lens that isn’t made by Pentax themselves, then you wouldn’t even look at the the Chinon. But you’d be missing out.

The only warning I would make – and this doesn’t relate to the f/1.7 version itself – is avoid the 50/1.9. Whereas with some ranges, the lenses at slightly different speeds offer near identical performance (Asahi Takumar 55/1.8 and 55/2, and Pentax-M 50/1.7 and 502 are obvious examples in my experience), this isn’t the case with Chinon.

I’ve tried two or three 50/1.9s (to ensure the first one wasn’t just a bad or damaged example) and the performance isn’t close to the 50/1.7. I’d never bother with one again.

Maybe when they originally came out the 50/1.9 was so much cheaper it might have been worth considering to the budget conscious, but these days, with the affordability of the 50/1.7, there is absolutely no reason to buy an f/1.9.

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Pentax MZ-5N, Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

Overall I would recommend the Auto Chinon 50/1.7 without hesitation. 

Small, light, smooth and innocuous to use, with focus down to 0.45m, it delivers consistently highly pleasing results. Plus of course being Pentax K mount, the body options are arguably as vast as any mount ever made, and they’re still making them!

Go get one!

Have you used an Auto Chinon 50/1.7? What lens would you recommend in Pentax K mount?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

50mm Four Way Fisticuffs

My recent confessions as a 50s philanderer – using well over 50 (maybe over 100) 50mm prime lenses in the last four years or so – led me to conclude that they are all much the same.

Even underdogs that I expect very little from, impressed me greatly.

However, my curiosity at how my remaining 50s would fare against each other got the better of me.

So I set about a simple test of the same shot at four apertures for my four M42 50mm primes.

The Lenses

_Pancolar Pentacon Takumar Tessar

1. Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8. Six blades. Minimum focus 0.35m. Cost me around £50, plus a recent CLA of £49. The most spent on any lens.

2. Pentacon Auto 50mm Multi Coating f/1.8. Six blades. Minimum focus 0.33m. Cost me about £16 along with another lens and a broken Praktica camera, so call it £8.

3. Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8. Six blades. Minimum focus 0.45m. Cost me around £45 with a Spotmatic SP which I later sold for about £25, so say £20 for the lens alone.

4. Jena T (Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar) 50mm f/2.8. Eight blades. Minimum focus 0.5m. Cost around £22 with a Praktica IV camera that I’ve given away.

The Experiment

I kept it simple – taking the same shot of a blossoming branch of our cherry tree in decent light at four consecutive apertures, starting from the lens wide open. This was f/1.8 in the case of the first three, f/2.8 for the Tessar.

The three f/1.8 lenses are in excellent condition optically. The poor Tessar has seen far better days and has considerable haze and fungus.

I used my trusty Sony NEX 3N for the shots, shooting RAW at ISO400, my usual set up, then converting to JPEG in LightRoom, with no other processing.

The Results

All analysis that follows is simply based on what looks good to my eye. There is no scientific testing or measuring, 100% crops or edge interrogation. It’s completely subjective, though I will include samples so you can make your own opinions.

Wide open, the best in this test was easily the Takumar. The worst was the Pancolar.

The Pentacon was in between, and the Tessar in fact for me made the most interesting photograph, its “defects” giving a muted, vintage charm to the blossom.

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Sony NEX 3N, Jena T 50mm f/2.8 lens @ f/2.8

One stop down, the Takumar extended its lead if anything, giving very respectable results.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens @ f/2.8

The Pancolar still struggled. The Pentacon still beat it.

The Tessar continued its muted charm and despite the smaller aperture actually gave the most appealing bokeh. I think the eight blades (versus six in all other lenses here) start to show the difference. I’ve noticed a similar preference between the Helios 44-2 (eight blades) and the later 44M versions with six blades.

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Sony NEX 3N, Jena T 50mm f/2.8 lens @ f/4

At f/4 the Pancolar decided to show up.

It now matched the Pentacon and Takumar for sharpness, and colours are as good, if not a fraction richer with the Pancolar in this round.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens @ f/4

The Takumar still impressed, and really there’s very little between the Pancolar, Pentacon and Takumar at f/4. The Tessar (now at f/5.6) maintained its woozy charm and those rounder bokeh highlights I like too.

In the image below the pretty round highlights seem much more visually appealing to me than the amorphous blobs in the Pancolar image above.

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Sony NEX 3N, Jena T 50mm f/2.8 lens @ f/5.6

At f/5.6 you’d expect the first three to be approaching or at their optimum performance.

The Pancolar now is starting to bring a smile to my face and the colours are best of all. This is probably the “best” photograph of the whole set taken across all lenses.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 @ f/5.6

The Pentacon now is noticeably cooler and more muted. The Tak remains consistent, and ever reliable, though now the Pancolar’s colours still have a minor edge. I just think the green and yellow is more pleasing.

The Tak’s bokeh highlights seem more balanced and subtle, the Pancolar’s still a bit “blobby” and all merging together.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens @ f/5.6

The old Tessar, now at f/8, is now much closer looking to the others, but retains that vintage, softened looked, and those pretty rounded highlights.

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Conclusions

This has been a fun and eye opening experiment!

Before I began I expected the Pancolar to be best, at its optimum, and that did, just about, prove to be the case.

But, as I’ve known for years, the 55mm Takumars are fantastic.

The Takumar showed here it’s more than respectable even wide open, when frankly the Pentacon and especially the Pancolar are a bit of a mess.

In a way the most pleasing outcome of all was the performance of the Tessar.

I had one previously, a later all black version, that impressed me with its sharpness and colours, but I sold it as I had a Pancolar and Pentacon which both seemed to offer more – better images at larger apertures, plus closer focus.

But in using this “optically challenged” aluminium “Jena T” I can see it can offer something distinctly different to the others here.

And those eight blades – especially at smaller apertures – created bokeh highlights more pleasing to the eye than the sharper hexagons of the others.

All four lenses have their charms.

For outright performance (colours, sharpness, contrast) in my eyes at f/5.6 (the aperture I start at as my default anyway) the Pancolar just about has the edge. I’m not still not totally at ease with the bokeh though, and it was by far the most expensive.

But if I shot more in low light, the Takumar would be the clear winner. And the bokeh highlights seem more subdued and softened than with the Pancolar and Pentacon.

Plus the Takumar feels a different class to the others in build and handling, and is also the most compact.

Oh and I still slightly prefer how a 55mm gives you a fractionally tighter view than a 50mm.

Futhermore, the 55/1.8 and near identical 55/2 (Asahi Pentax simply limited the max aperture of the f/1.8 lens to f/2 and marketed it as a “budget” lens, though ironically its feel and class make it feel anything but) can still be had all day long for under £30. Incredibly value.

What’s not to love?

If anything this test has tempted me to explore more Takumars as my only other one – the 105/2.8 – is equally fantastic to use.

The Pancolar and Pentacon do focus considerably closer than the 0.45m of the Takumar, a significant real world difference for my kind of shooting. 

The Pentacon remains what I viewed it as before (and recently recommended) – a Pancolar with 95% of the performance for about 10% of the price. And as such it’s stunning value and an essential lens to any M42 kit.

The Tessar I’m looking forward to using more when I want a different look to the sharp, strong contrast and colour of the others.

After a little post processing with one of my favoured presets, this vintage look was enhanced further, and its quite probably this is my favourite of all those (many!) images shared here.

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For now I am more than happy to keep all four lenses, and in their own ways they proved their worth in this little experiment. 

If I had to recommend one lens to someone, it really would depend what they were looking for, and their budget.

Best outright optimum performance and versatility? Pancolar. Just. I think.

Excellent performance and close focus at a budget price? Pentacon.

Fabulous performance at virtually all apertures, an unsurpassed luxury feel, subtle bokeh, and still incredible value? Super-Takumar.

A distinctive, more vintage look – both the lens itself and the images it makes? The hazy alu Jena T.

Pay your money and take your choice…

To be brutally honest, if I the near £100 I spent on the Pancolar to spend on lenses after doing this test, I’d probably buy one two Takumars, a Pentacon and a Tessar for the same cost instead!

Which is your favourite image of those above? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.