Lensoholic – Why I Bought 100 Lenses In 50 Months (Then Sold Nearly All Of Them)

Five years into my film photography journey (and probably a decade since I first began photographing with intention, with camera phones), I have less kit than virtually any time since I began.

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I talked about the importance of narrow focus recently, and a part of this for me includes the cameras and lenses I use.

It hasn’t always been this way though.

A few months after discovering film photography via a Holga 120N my father in law gave me as a birthday present, I had started to amass a growing number of 35mm cameras.

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Once I’d sampled SLRs, the options widened vastly. So many lens mounts, so many cameras, so many lenses, so many combinations. So little time.

I pretty much dived in headlong like a kid who’d been starved of chocolate for a year then let loose in Wonka’s factory, gobbling up cameras and lenses in all directions. 

Even once I’d started to find my tastes more and gave up on the 35mm compacts after realising that the Olympus Mju pretty much does all I ever need, and even after I thought that M42 and Minolta SR were the only two mounts I would need, I was still devouring new (old) glass.

Here are some of the reasons why – 

1. Lenses are physically alluring objects. Especially vintage lenses with plenty of metal and glass and delicious smooth operation that’s testament to their fine build and quality.

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2. Each lens model potentially promises something I’ve never known before. So for example I ended up with a 58/1.4, 55/1.7, 50/1.4 and two or three 50/1.7 Minolta Rokkors from different eras that possibly performed ever so slightly differently.

3. Each lens example potentially promises something I’ve never known from other examples of that lens before. Maybe I’d only had a dud one previously, and by buying another one or two I’f eventually find a very good example and bring a whole new level of wonder to my photography.

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4. There are so many different focal lengths, and I need(ed) to find the ones best suited to me. A 45mm, 50mm and 55mm Rokkor would again give me slightly different fields of view to each other.

5. Finding a bargain lens (sometimes for only £5) then having the challenge of creating something memorable and worth sharing after such a tiny investment is a great thrill. And it encouraged me to try lenses that I might otherwise have not looked twice at. Opening another new world of possible lens options.

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6. My Sony NEX is incredibly adaptable. With that one camera I’ve used lenses in Olympus OM, M39, M42, Pentax K, Minolta SR, Konica AR, Contax/Yashica and Rollei QBM mounts. A small outlay on a £10 adapter opens a whole other world of opportunity.

7. I just really like receiving packages in the post. They’ve come from all over the country and sometimes the world – lenses from Japan, Germany and the former Soviet Union for example, each with their own curious local packaging and scent. I’m not sure why, but this is deeply satisfying, like enjoying mini Christmases throughout the year.

You can see how with all these potential reasons it’s easy to get drawn in to buying more lenses than you’ll ever need.

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But ultimately more (and more powerful) reasons to outweigh this endless chase have emerged –

1. I hate knowing I have maybe a couple of hours free time coming up then spending 30, even 15, minutes debating which lens(es) to take. I’d rather just choose and go in 30 seconds and invest the rest of my time in enjoying using the kit.

2. I hate the clutter of too many lenses and cameras, and them spilling all over my space. However beautiful individual objects may be, when there’s too many of them they just become one ugly mass.

3. I hate the cycle of buy, try, sell on eBay. Whilst it’s allow me to try some amazing stuff and ultimately build the core kit I have now, I shudder at the thought of all the time I’ve spent photographing and listing photography kit to sell only weeks after I’ve bought it, and the hours browsing online for a bargain.

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4. Too much choice makes me anxious. This is true in most parts of my life, and as a whole I try to be fairly minimalist. If you need a pair of smart shoes and only have one pair, it becomes an easy and stressless choice!

5. Constantly switching lenses means you never get to really know any one of them. It’s like some kind of speed dating experience when you might get a glint of a smile and an enticing spark, before bundling on to the next one a moment later. You’re rarely in the present moment because you’re half lost in between thinking of the moment that just passed and the potential moments that may be waiting ahead.

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6. In any one focal length – especially the most common ones like 50mm and 135mm – there is very little difference in performance. At least for my level of photography and for my needs. I could (and have) made just as pleasing photographs with a 50mm Pentax, Takumar, Yashica, Minolta, Zeiss or Konica lens. I don’t need one of each, plus all the related cameras and/or adapters.

7. I really don’t need to look much further than Takumars. I recently referred to them as the only lens you’ll ever need, and they remain the most wonderful lenses I’ve used. Why keep looking for others and wasting time I could be spending with a Takumar in my hands?

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I confess, I’m not quite over the lens buying, and there are a couple of lenses still on my wishlist.

But these days I’m down to the essentials – two film bodies, two digital, plus about a dozen lenses, mostly Takumars. The lenses fit neatly in two lens bags that in turn fit snugly and unobtrusively on two small compartments in one of my bookcases. The cameras take up another one, the entire kit all together occupying an almost invisible space in a corner, in stark contrast to spilling in every direction maybe a year ago.

I must also confess, sometimes even this relatively humble amount still at times seems far too much, and I wonder about selling all but, say, one camera and three lenses.

Maybe this would focus me further (or more narrowly) and allow me to reach a new level of satisfaction – both in using the small range of kit I had, and in the results gained from knowing that smaller range even better than I do now.

Or maybe I’ll sell everything and just use my iPhone.

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But for now I’ll rest.

Moving too vehemently in the opposite direction, and shedding possessions with abandon can lead to just as compulsive and obsessive behaviour as the hoarding.

I know some reading this might feel it’s all over analytical and there’s nothing wrong with buying and trying a range of cameras, if it doesn’t cause harm or financial destitution.

And to an extent I completely agree.

It’s just not the path I want to take anymore.

Give me my Pentax K10D and a Takumar or two and I’ll happily go out hunting for beauty for the weeks and months to come…

I’m really positive and excited about this new era in my photographic adventure.

What are your thoughts on lens buying?

Let us know in the comments below.

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

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.

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.

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.

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How Shooting Film Positively Transformed My Digital Photography

Before I discovered film, my main photography experience was with camera phones, then a Nikon Coolpix, which I shot 1000 photographs a month with for seven months.

Shooting film over the next five years – aside from its own unique pleasures – has gradually, yet radically, transformed how I approached and enjoyed digital photography too.

Here are the major reasons why –

1. Thoughtful composition and frugal shooting.

Using the Coolpix helped hugely to hone my composition. But I would still go out for a 30 minute photowalk, blast off 200 images, then spend four times longer editing through the photographs.

Something didn’t seem right about having 17 almost identical shots of the same dew dropped cobweb then agonising over which to keep and share.

The pleasure of being out taking photographs was starting to be tainted by the thought of all the time I’d be spending afterwards poring through them.

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Nikon Coolpix P300

Shooting with film, where capturing the same 200 images would be prohibitively expensive, taught me to be far more particular and careful about what I saw through the viewfinder before I released the shutter.

(A very simple trick I still use with film and digital is to ask before I shoot “Is this really a worthwhile photograph?” Often I decide it isn’t, and move on.)

This in turn translated to how I now use my Sony NEX mirrorless and a100 DSLR cameras.

A 90 minute photowalk these days might yield 50-70 shots, around the same as a couple of rolls of film.

Which means way less time hunched over a computer sifted through images back home.

More time out in the field (often quite literally out in a field) and less time editing and post processing is a hugely positive outcome for me. 

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

2. Choosing aperture and depth of field.

Using film SLRs taught me plenty about the effect of aperture and distance on the depth of field.

Being able to see what the camera saw through the viewfinder was key to this – even without any study or research, you can experiment with changing aperture and focus and seeing with your own eyes how it changes what you see in the VF.

Prior to this film experience, I was just on auto or program with a digital camera, letting the camera decide everything but the composition and focus. Sometimes I lucked out, like the cobweb shot above. But I didn’t know why, or how to intentionally create the look.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 lens

Being aware of depth of field helped me discover some of the unique delights of many lenses like the Helios 44 series for example. 

Now, in terms of depth of field, my digital shots feel far more controlled and taken with intention, not just at whatever aperture the camera decided was best.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44M 58m f/2 M42 lens

3. The delights of vintage lenses.

As I wrote recently, using vintage lenses is one of the top three reasons I love film photography.

These days, with all kinds of adapters available, you can mix and match vintage lenses with modern digital cameras and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The quality, feel and distinctive look of vintage glass, combined with the convenience and low cost of digital is a delicious combination.

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Sony NES 3N, Yashica ML 135mm f/2.8 C C/Y lens

Cameras like the Sony NEX (E mount) and Canon EOS (EF mount) are very easily adaptable to a dozen or more lens mounts at very little expense. Most adapters I’ve invested in have cost between £6-12.

So the lenses I fell in love with using film cameras I can continue to use and explore further with digital.

Which, with the almost instant feedback of digital, has allowed me to get to know each of their unique characteristics in more depth and more quickly.

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

Summary

The facts are simple. If I’d never got into film photography, and using classic SLRs and lenses, I’d probably just be using some standard bland DLSR 18-55mm digital zoom on auto or program mode the whole time.

Yes, with this set up I might well still have chanced upon a photograph I liked now again.

But having the knowledge and intention behind the photographs I now make with digital cameras, is vastly more rewarding, and that only happened because of the laste few years of film photography grounding. 

How has shooting film influenced your approach to digital?

Please let us know in the comments below.

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How I Shoot Manual Vintage Lenses With A DSLR

My experience with film and digital cameras over the last five years or so culminated recently in the revelation that it doesn’t matter so much whether I’m hunting for beauty with film or pixels.

What’s far more valuable to me is the hunting itself, plus the vintage lenses I love to use.

This post is the extension of that – How I use manual vintage lenses with a DSLR. 

For the purpose of the following explanations, let’s go with my Sony a100 DLSR, plus a Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Flektogon Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens.

2017_03_12 Sony a100 ZeissFlektogon

Other lenses – especially other M42 mount lenses – follow a very similar process in use.

Initial set up

First, I ensure the M42 > Sony adapter is on the camera, then screw in the lens. I set it to minimum focus, as most of my photography tends to be up close.

The camera I try to set as neutral as possible.

I use ISO400, which gives a little more noise/grain in the final image than ISO200 or ISO100, a personal preference, and a leaning towards the grain I love with shooting film. I don’t like digital to look too clean and clinical.

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Sony a100, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens

Also, a higher ISO means in lower light I can shoot at smaller apertures without resorting to too slow a shutter speed and the increased potential of blurred shots.

I shoot RAW files at the maximum size (10MP with the a100), set the colour to “standard” and all the other colour, contrast, saturation and sharpness settings to neutral/zero.

For metering I go with centre weighted, which I’m most used to from shooting film cameras.

White balance is usually daylight as I only really shoot in daylight and this seems to give most consistently realistic colours, to my eye. I’ve found auto white balance can be a bit erratic with the a100. I turn off any other “enhancements” like noise reduction.

These settings I adjusted when I first got the camera, and now don’t need to touch them.

It’s not something I have to (or feel the need to) fiddle with every time I pick it up.

I want the camera to be as simple to use as possible.

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Sony a100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens

So after this initial set up, the only adjustments I make shot to shot predominantly involve just two settings – the aperture and the focus.

Talking of focus, it’s worth mentioning here to check your diopter adjustment. It can make a huge difference to how easy (or not!) it is to focus with a manual focus lens on a DSLR.

Look through the camera towards a bright light source with the lens set to infinity (or even better, no lens). Note how sharp and clear the central AF rectangle in the VF is.

Adjust the diopter up and down until you get the clearest picture. It should be quite obvious when you have the right setting, as moving a couple of notches either side will make the image significantly more fuzzy.

If this is a few notches out it will be very difficult to focus accurately.

Initial set up covered, let’s move on to using the camera shot by shot.

With film cameras, whilst sometimes I like to go meterless and Sunny 11, 95% of the time I use Aperture Priority mode (Av) mode. It’s the same with the a100, though it’s marked A on the mode dial, rather than Av.

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Sony a100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens

My default aperture is f/5.6 with a lens like the Flektogon, and indeed any reasonably fast lens.

This gives me, most of the time, the kind of depth of field I like, plus as a rule the lens is likely to be performing better (sharpness, colour, contrast) two or three stops down than at its maximum aperture.

The viewfinder (VF) on the a100 is bright enough in good lighting to be able to focus at f/5.6. If I need to be more precise with focusing I will open the aperture to the maximum of f/2.4, focus, then stop down to the required aperture.

To make stopping down easier, use the Auto/Manual (A/M) switch found on most M42 lenses.

If the aperture you want makes the VF too dark to focus, and/or you don’t want to be stopping up and down a lot, make use of the little switch like this –

Set your chosen aperture, ensure the switch is on A. Look into the lens and you’ll see the aperture wide open, ie you can’t see the blades.

Compose, focus, then when you’re ready, flick the switch to M, so the blades close, the camera can automatically set its shutter speed, then shoot.

Switch back to A, ready for the next shot.

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Sony a100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens

Shot to shot, step by step, this is my process – 

  1. Find something interesting to capture.
  2. Compose and focus.
  3. Adjust aperture, if needed, to adjust depth of field, either manually stopping down or using the A/M switch.
  4. Half press the shutter button so the camera’s meter activates and shows the shutter speed.
  5. If shutter speed is ok (not maxing out, or not too slow a for hand held shot), press the shutter button all the way to take the photograph.

I do tend to check the screen most shots afterwards, for one main reason.

Whilst with fully auto lenses like the excellent Minolta AF series, the a100 seems to meter very accurately, with manual vintage lenses it tends to slightly underexpose.

I have found by setting the exposure compensation (the button is marked AV +/-) to +0.3 as a base setting, most shots come out well.

As with any photography, when the light is tricky, you may have to compensate.

With digital we have the blessing of the screen to check, then adjust the exposure compensation a little if needed, and retake the shot.

If you’re really concerned about precise exposure (I’m generally not!) then use the Exposure Bracketing mode most DLSRs have to take three shots then pick the best exposed afterwards. The a100 cleverly shows the three exposures it will take on the sliding scale in the VF and you can still use this in conjunction with exposure compensation too if you wish.

Personally, I’d rather get it right with trail and error using the Exposure Comp feature than have three of every photograph to look through at home.

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Sony a100, Industar-61L/Z 50mm f/2.8 M42 lens

And that about it.

Hopefully, as you can see, after my modest initial set up, using the a100 with M42 lenses is very similar to using my Contax or Canon EOS film cameras with the very same lenses.

Set to Aperture Priority mode, compose, focus, adjust aperture, half press to check shutter speed, shoot. Repeat as required.

For me this provides the ideal balance between the pleasure of handling and using vintage lenses, yet the camera being invisible enough and the process simple enough, to not get in the way of me enjoying the exploring and the picture taking.

Hopefully this has encouraged you to try a DSLR with manual vintage lenses, or if you have already, how it can be reduced to a refreshing simple process, despite the many buttons, modes and switches at our disposal with these devices.

Do you shoot vintage lenses on a DSLR?

Let us know your experiences in the comments below.

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