Vintage-y 50mm lenses. More personality per $$$. Now available for just about any mirrorless camera.

Author with 50mm Canon FD on a Leica SL.

I'm guessing that most photographers of a certain age; people who started actively photographing in the 1970s and 1980s get pulled in two opposite directions by lenses from across the time gap from then to now. 

On one hand they loved the all metal, built-like-tanks, hand-calibrated lenses of "the old days." A testament to the quality of lenses from this period is the fact that so many of them are still fully functional and surprisingly good. And have a dedicated following of artists. In fact, I have a few cinematographer friends who work with $30K and $40K video cameras, using Zeiss and Leica cine lenses for their client-driven work but who have sought out and assembled complete system of older, manual focus lenses to use on their own projects. Lenses with which to make art instead of commerce. 

Primarily the cine folk are drawn to two brands when shopping for vintage lenses to adapt. The popular options are the Canon FD lenses from the 1970s and 1980s. And, among the Canon stuff the most popular seems to be the Canon 50mm f1.4 FD SSC (Super Spectra Coated) lens. It's not razor sharp wide open but it's sharp enough. Especially for 4K video and probably 6K as well. According to Canon lore masters (presumptive but not credentialed) the SSC version was the first iteration of the lens made in the FD mount. Canon kept to the same optical formula for later models but made cosmetic changes and dropped the SSC designation from the front ring. For all intents and purposes the SSC and non-SSC 50mm f1.4 FD lenses are optically identical. Both versions use the same coating...

But that doesn't stop people from making emotional assumptions about the various models and their magical powers....

There are a handful of other Canon FD lenses that are also well regarded and avidly collected. The 35mm with a concave front element goes for low four figures in US dollars. Later 85mm f1.2 lenses attract lofty prices as well. Most of the f2.0 and f1.4 lenses are eagerly snatched up by people making movies as well as people who are looking for "character" in their lenses instead of antiseptic perfection

Another brand that seems perennially popular with people looking to adapt legacy lenses to their still cameras and movie-making machines is Contax Y/C mount, Zeiss branded lenses. In that family there are a whole slew of lenses that attract the cognoscenti. These include but are not limited to: The 25mm, 50mm f1.7, the 50mm f1.4 and the 85mm f1.4. There are some that were always in short supply such as the 85mm f1.2 as well. These Contax/Zeiss lenses were made in both Germany and Japan (under license with Kyocera) and because of the consumer distortion field of Germanic craft fable the German versions command top dollar --- but are identical to their Japanese siblings. 

In the early to mid-2000s Zeiss marketed a line of manual focusing lenses which had electronic connections for either Canon or Nikon DSLR cameras; in their respective lens mounts. In that line were updated versions of some of the same lens line-up Contax enjoyed. These were marketed directly by Zeiss and included nice 18mm, 21mm, 25mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm lenses. I tested almost all of these lenses on a Nikon D800e and a Nikon D810. I owned and used the 35mm f2.0 (they also had an f1.4), the 50mm f1.4 and the huge, heavy 85mm f1.4. Each of them was very good but....

They all had pretty bad focus shift as one stopped down and this was a time before live view. I could never get reliably sharp focus with the 85mm. Not at all. I got rid of it quickly. Sad because it would probably be a wonderful addition to a mirrorless outfit now. The 35 and 50mm lenses, by dint of their more generous depth of field (and the fact that I used them mostly at medium apertures) and their ability to be used with hyperfocal settings --- in a pinch, induced me to keep them around for a good while. I believe but am not sure that all of these lenses were made under license by the Japanese company, Cosina. 

Another source of almost affordable and fun 50mm lenses is the Leica R system. Again, fully manual focusing and, with adapters for various mirrorless cameras, completely blind to electronic information from an attached camera. The best of the bunch for legacy bargain hunters is the 50mm Summicron in all of its guises. The coatings on the last batch ( designated as 3 cam or "R only" ) are supposed to have the most sophisticated lens coatings. But most of these later Leica R lenses, in very good to excellent condition are quickly rising in price. A really nice one in mint condition will be in the $800-$1,000 ballpark. And it won't out perform the Zeiss or Canon 50mm lenses by much. A bit sharper wide open and maybe a bit more accurate colors. But no huge and obvious differences. 

I mentioned early on that photographers of a certain age tend to be pulled in two directions when it comes to lenses. On one hand we grew up with, and had the DNA of the earlier lenses and their "looks" fixed into our brains. What some see as character we understand to be the lens's personality. The "look" is neither good nor bad but a completely subjective attraction to a style we grew up with. On the other hand the modern lenses from Leica, Nikon, Canon and a few others are now computed to have no real faults which translates into "no real character." 

We love them because when we shoot test charts or stare profoundly into the corners of our frames we see far fewer technical issues which helps us to believe that we have become better photographers. We love these tools that provide an almost strict transparency because anything that affects the image robs us of making up objective measures of the quality we're getting from our ridiculously expensive cameras and lenses. We have drunk gallons of the Kool-Aid and believe that our goal should be flawless frames of visual content. Something we could argue about forever. 

Where do I come down on 50mm lenses? Well, first off I have to mention that the 50mm focal length on a Leica 24-90mm zoom lens is sharper, has better contrast and better overall technical quality in the frame center, edges and corners than any of the lenses I've mentioned above. Does that mean I haul the big zoom around all the time when what I really want is a personable 50mm lens? Absolutely not. 

When I first bought into the L mount system I bought Panasonic's 50mm f1.4 Pro-S lens. According to Leica review expert, Sean Reid, it's a lens that goes toe-to-toe with the Leica 50mm SL series f1.4 Summilux for absolute image quality. And is close...very close... to the performance of the 50mm f2.0 SL Summicron. Which itself might be the best lens designed for consumer cameras in the 21st century.

But after a few months I had reality driven into my head like a railroad spike. Perfection can be boring. Superb-ness can be wearing. The lens was so heavy and bulky it was a joke to use for my favorite photographic activity; walking around on the street taking photographs. And the kicker: at f2.8 (maybe) and f4.0 (for sure) I couldn't distinguish a quality difference between the big, fast lens and the Panasonic 50mm f1.8 lens that was delivered about a year after the original system launch. The 50mm f1.8 is solidly in the "near perfect" camp as long as you are not comparing the two 50mm lenses at their individual fastest aperture. At the most used apertures? A toss up. Perhaps limited by the operator's chops.

I bought the 50mm f1.8 and sold the bigger, faster, heavier, ponderous S-Pro lens. I haven't had even a second of doubt or remorse because it became obvious that a lens that's so big it's uncomfortable to use is never going to get used --- which obviates any claim to perfect performance it might have. Everything, EVERYTHING is a compromise and a 50mm lens almost the size of a 70-200mm fast zoom is, for me, a bad compromise. 

As of today I have one 50mm lens that's my "transparent, high delivery, near perfect" model. It's the Panasonic 50mm f1.8 I mentioned just above. It's my option for a "modern" look. And it does the job well while being light and agile, a joy to carry around on a work camera. Another option is the previously mentioned Leica zoom. Again, an ungainly compromise.

But I have a big assortment of "character-driven" 50mm lenses from the recent and not so recent past. And even with this group it's fairly hard to distill down my preferences to only one candidate. 

I have two different Canon 50mm lenses. Both are FD vintage. The 50mm f1.4 is sharper at all the wider apertures and is my preference for limited depth of field shooting in the Canon camp. The 50mm f1.8 shows its provenance as the "entry level" 50mm for the old FD system which means subjects shot with the lens wide open will show less contrast and more vignetting as well as less sharpness in the center and even less sharpness in the corners. 

I've got a couple of the Sigma 45mm f2.8 lenses (each came bundled with some camera or another) because they seem to straddle the two camps between personality and transparency. And they are small and nicely designed.... Perhaps a good compromise for some photographers.

Then there's the 40mm Voigtlander Nokton I bought to play around with in Vancouver. While it's a current product I think it falls completely in the old school/personality camp as it is both sharp and contrasty but also not without a handful of flaws (vignetting, corner sharpness, odd focus shifts, etc.). 

Somewhere in the equipment cabinet is a wonderful, old, old lens that I think is the gentleman of the ancient 50mm lenses. That would be a pre-AI, Nikon 50mm f1.4. It's a lens that does things in gradual steps. It's not plagued by huge vignetting even wide open. It's sharp across the frame; more evenly or consistently than even some of the newer "character" lenses and while it sharpens up nicely as it is stopped down it always maintains a mellowness that I am not accurately able to describe well. It's tactile and robust in a mid-1960s sort of way. Feels like it will just go on forever. Like a large block V-8. The only knock against it is that it doesn't bowl one over with an immediate impression of high sharpness. Likely computed more for resolution --- of the time.  More like watching a movie than watching football on a 4K TV. 

There are a few other 50s in the drawer but for the most part they are specialty lenses, like macros. 

One lens that I sold back when working with DSLR cameras, and pulling my hair out over focus shifts and back focusing with MF lenses, was the Zeiss branded 50mm f1.4 Planar. It was a really sweet lens and a bit of a chameleon. Wide open the center was sharp while the sides and corners of the frame were (to copy many other reviewers) "dreamy." By f2.0 it was starting to behave and by f4.0 it was sharp and snappy. At f5.6 and f8.0 it became more like one of the perfect and transparent modern 50s. I liked its Jekyll and Hyde personality. I also liked that it was 20 to 30 years more modern that my earlier lenses and had fewer operational foibles. 

I recently saw one at a camera retailer website that was in near perfect condition and included the original caps and the metal lens hood. The price was low so I bought it with the intention of putting it into rotation with the menagerie of existing legacy and modern 50s. No other focal length seems to affect my acquisition gland quite as strongly. Don't know why other than habit and habituation early on. I'm so wedded to the angle of view and love to look at black and white images done well with that focal length. 

Any of the lenses I've mentioned are satisfying but I seem to be constantly curious as to what a specific lens will do for my photography. And it's the cheaper part of the hobby side. Lenses we strongly desired when we were poor and working hard have now become, for us, an affordable luxury. Not a drag on our lifestyles. 

Paying a couple hundred bucks for a pristine, Zeiss, fast prime sure beats the hell out of scrimping and saving for a $5500 Leica SL 50. Especially so when you take size, weight and handling into consideration--- along with impoverishing one's self....

The new to me Zeiss (in a Nikon or ZF mount) 50mm will arrive in the next week or so. I can hardly wait. 

And this is what I usually end up doing in the first few months of the year. Playing with lenses while the clients begin to rouse themselves from their dormancy. 

So. Just about any old 50mm lens from Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax or Olympus can be easily attached to any Sony mirrorless, L mount or Nikon Z mount camera with cheap and widely available adapters. Later lenses with AF can be adapted with "smart adapters" which allow some AF functionality but it seems weird to go down that road. One either wants the look and feel of the ancient glass or one wants/needs full AF and AE integration best provided by current lenses in each system. 

Since most mirrorless cameras meter attached lenses at their taking aperture you don't have to worry much about focus shift unless you make the mistake of opening up the lens to its widest aperture, focusing there and then stopping down to shoot. You may be saved by the increased depth of field but maybe not. 

If you are used to edge to edge, wide open sharpness with Otus lenses, or other highly corrected lenses like the Sigma 40mm f1.4 you'll need to recalibrate your expectations and figure out how to best leverage the look of lenses that aren't so well endowed. At least where wide open sharpness and contrast are concerned. Maybe my approach of integrating these older lenses into my process speaks more to my interest in portraits, people and street scenes that don't depend on rigorous sharpness above all else for effect. Your mileage will no doubt vary.

Another thing to keep in mind is that lens coatings have improved, and improved some more over time. Light sources just outside the frame that wouldn't affect a modern prime even for a second might give the older lenses more issues/options/artistic opportunities. Where possible I always try to use a lens hood when working old school. Any glancing light you can keep off the surface of the lens buys you increased contrast and color saturation. On the flip side you can use flare as a visual resource, a la J.J. Abrams, director of the recent Star Trek movie in which nearly every scene showcased creative flaring --- on purpose. For effect. 

when buying older lenses make sure you have a generous return agreement. The usual culprit with older lenses that have not be well stored is fogging of the elements inside the lens caused by fungus. This is especially true with lenses that lived in very humid climates. Once hit by fungus the only way to really make a lens usable again is to have it repaired by a technician who can disassemble the lens and clean each element. 

I tried once to DIY a lens with a fungus problem and ended up taking the resulting parts to a repair person, in a plastic bag. It was not an economical solution for lens acquisition. 

Today's dream? That the 50mm Zeiss ZF lens will be "the one." I'll put it on the front of a Leica SL and then travel the world making sharp, insightful black and white photographs that will emulate the look of my favorite Life Magazine photographers from the 1950s but with much more detail and resolution. I'll print up a couple hundred of the images as really big (40 x 60 inch ) prints and have a massive gallery show that will eventually be so consequential to the fine art community that the curator of the MOMA will fly to Austin to cajole me into sending the show along to his museum. 

Leica will have crews of film makers follow me around as I pretend to shoot the same way I did when making the images and YouTube will be plastered with short videos of me making prophetic statements about photography. (I'll put tape over the Zeiss logo on the lens.....just in case.....because, you know...branding). 

Eventually we'll be asked by Taschen to do a huge book that costs thousands of dollars per copy and I'll die rich and thoroughly satisfied. 

Or maybe the lens will come and I'll just have some garden variety fun shooting it around town and on scattered vacations to normal places.  That could be fun too. 

A lot riding on that used lens.... (not).