7.30.2016

Look Harder. Sony 55mm f1.8 versus and old, cheap lens.


No matter what system I'm shooting I'm always looking for the one 50mm lens that will work with the system and just blow me away. I want something sharp, contrasty and a little punchy. And I want something that's still decent when I use it wide open. 

A few months ago I took a small chance and bought a Contax/Zeiss 50mm f1.7 lens. It's manual focus only and, when used with an adapter on any of my Sony cameras it refuses to give me exif info or even tell me what aperture it's chosen to use. But it is crispy and bright and all those things I mentioned I like in the paragraph just above. 

But rationally we are talking about a lens that is well over 20 years old. Certainly the optical magicians that work in the biz have made incredible improvements since then. Right? Well, that's certainly what I thought. My plan was to get by with the old, used Contax lens until I sorted out the right path with a "real" modern lens. My candidates were the Sony 55mm f1.8 (which gets uniformly rave reviews) along with the Zeiss Loxia and the Rokinon 50mm f1.5 (or Cine t - 1.5). The best way to get this all figured out is to play with the options. Put them on the camera you expect to use them with and shoot some images. I immediately discounted the Rokinon because of its size. Too big and too heavy for a fun, walking around town lens. The Loxia is in short supply and while it's the right size and all Zeiss-magicky the designers seem to have taken a traditional planar design and put it in a new package for a new generation. The specs seem to indicated to me that this is pretty much the exact same formulation that was used in the Contax lens I have in house. At any rate I balked at paying $1,000 for a lens that might not be quite as sharp as the Sony 55mm and might just have exactly the same performance as the lens I'm dragging around right now. 

I narrowed my choices down and decided to try the Sony 55mm and to gauge it against the ancient, Contax 50mm f1.7. I should never have done this. The comparison burst my bubble. Here I thought all those optical engineers were making vast and exciting technical progress but all the while they are trying to design lenses that are cheaper to make and can be brought up to 1980's performance levels by adding an almost lethal dose of in-camera and in-processing digital lens corrections. Shoot raw and turn off the lens correction in Lightroom and you'll see that the Sony 55mm vignettes like a mad bastard and also has some burly distortion. All of this is corrected in post processing (either in camera or in computer) but it does take a toll on the corners. You've probably noticed nearly every lens review lately talks about the "high center sharpness and soft corners."  The current lens makers get to cut corners on the actual construction of the new lenses while leaning on their computer programmers to kinda fix the stuff that might bother you. It's a compromise between ultimate performance and dollars charged. 

When I compared raw files with the borrowed Sony and the in-house Contax 50mm f1.7 I was pretty amazed to find that the older lens is much better corrected before hitting the computer enhancement routine. Less work has to be done. The older lens is at least as sharp and has smoother tonal gradients  to boot. The corners are actually better. 

There is a lot of exhilarating lens inventory out in the wild and all you need in order to get the value from it is an inexpensive adapter for a mirrorless camera. After having made this hands on comparison I was cured of my intention to spend more money to buy the latest and greatest. Instead, I went to KEH.com and looked for more old lenses. I love the Contax 50mm lens I have right now but the focusing ring is a just a bit underdamped for me and you already know of my love for the idea of identical back-ups. I found a "like new" copy of the Contax 50mm f1.7 lens and I ordered it right away. I learned my lesson the hard way a few years ago. I wrote a column about some piece of gear I was getting ready to buy and the markets went nuts before I could get my order in. It cost me actual money. My second copy of the Contax 50mm f1.7 is already on its way here.....

I was out shooting today. I needed it after a full week of shooting for clients. Here's what I got with the $150 dollar Contax lens and a $19 adapter. All taken with my favorite camera of the moment, the Sony A7ii...

















14 comments:

Daniel Walker said...

How about for the a6300?

Willie said...

Understand fully, Kirk.
My most commonly used lens on the D700 is the Ai nikkor 28mm f3.5.
Love it.
I simply love the way it draws the image.
(also use the 105 f2.5 and the 55mm micro f2.8.

Sure I've got the modern plastic fantastic af bikkies, but there is something special about using those old ones. Even on the Lower level like the d5300. Ni metering- no problem they work beautifully.
Cheers

Ricardo Cordeiro said...

Yeah, those old Contax Zeiss lenses are as good or better than some of today lenses.
The optical correction of some of the best old glass is what made me purchase a Voiglander Ultron 28/2 instead of the Sony 28/2. Some of my wide-angle Olympus Zuikos are very well controlled too.

But here's the thing:

I had the CY 50mm f/1.4 version and that lens was trully exceptional sharpness and contrast-wise, so I'm not surprised you got excellent and even sharpness with the equally high-regarded 50/1.7. But back when I had that lens I couldn't stand the nervous bokeh wide-open or even at f/2.

I never had the Sonnar 50/1.8, but from the samples I've seen online the bokeh with that lens looks really beautiful, even when used with busy backgrounds. That way of drawing with a combination of sharpness and smooth background transitions is what attracts me the most on a fast 50mm. Did you noticed or compared the two lenses in this regard?

Kirk Tuck said...

Ricardo, I didn't find the bokeh nervous at all. Giddy? Yes. Verdant? Yes. Effusive? Yes. But never nervous...

Kirk Tuck said...

Daniel Walker, the 50mm Contax lenses will work on the a6300 with the same adapters.

Ricardo Cordeiro said...

Well ok, semantics aside, I think we agree the bokeh isn't the smoothest :)

TMJ said...

i have bought the Leica M to E and OM to E Metabones adapters and they are superb.

Anonymous said...


Lovely photos as usual, just slightly off topic I recall a swimming story where you spoke of the side effects of Statins. If you could
kindly remind me of the piece i would greatly appreciate it. As my brother takes them and at times suffers from back ache.

Thank you

Colin

Daniel Walker said...

Kirk
Maybe I misunderstood, as I understood you were looking for a great 50mm focal length for both your Sony full frame and a6300. The Contax gives you 50mm on your full frame but 75mm on your a6300. So what is your fav. 50 focal view for the a6300?

Don Karner said...

I would love to know about that $19 adapter! I can't seem to find one for that price.......Who makes it? thanks in advance.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hey Daniel, look at the lens that Samyang (Rokinon) just announced for APS-C mirrorless cameras! It's a 35mm f1.2. Seems like a good choice for a 50mm equivalent. Of course there is always the Sigma 30mm f1.4 DN.

Kirk Tuck said...

Don Karner. It's a K&F adapter. On Amazon. Here's a link: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00OONKQKS/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Don Karner said...

Thanks Kirk. I'll give it a look.

Chris Pattison said...

I use Olympus OM Zuiko's on a Sony a7r. Joyous.