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.

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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.

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.

Lens Love #1 – Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 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.

First up –

Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 M42 mount

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

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.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

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.

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Pentaflex Auto Color 50/1.8 M42 lens

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.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

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.

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Pentax MG, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

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.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

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 –

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

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.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8 M42 lens

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 –

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentaflex Auto Color 50/1.8 M42 lens

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.