I’ve shot far more photographs with 50mm lenses than any other focal length. But switching 50s more often than underwear can become an exhausting and hollow experience.
Here’s why my 50s philandering days are done, and how I’ve settled on my ideal.
It took me a while to realise, but after something like seven or eight different mounts and over 50 lenses, I realised that in the final image, there’s not a huge amount of difference between one 50mm prime and another.
Some of the lenses I considered humble and expected little of, impressed me greatly.
So when so many 50mm lenses can produce very satisfying results, should we just pick the first decent one we come across and look no further?
If so, why didn’t I do this four years ago?
This wouldn’t be a bad plan at all. But the curious and lustful side of me kept want to try more, to see if they were different.
When the basic optical performance is more than good with even the most mundane sounding lenses (like my three underdogs mentioned above), I started to look further at what separates them.
What makes one lens a forgettable fling, and another destined for a lifelong romance?
Photography for me is very much about how the equipment feels, the whole sensory and tactile experience. The final image is only a fraction of the appeal, for me.
Also, this is as much a reason (probably bigger) as to why I use and love vintage film cameras over digital, in comparison with the end look film photographs have compared with those made via megapixels.
So I started looking for two things.
First the luxuriousness of the lens, for want of a better word.
And second, some indescribable aspect of the final image that made a particular lens stand out from the pack.
This led me to the two favourites I have now.
Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8, M42 mount
On the luxury front, the Pancolar is ordinary, at best. But in the final image it delivers something special.
For a long time I was sceptical about Zeiss, and thought that any decent lens would give similar results. Which is true. But, somehow, the Pancolar has something more.
Two other Zeiss I have in M42 mount – the Sonnar 135/3.5 and Flektogon 35/2.4 – bear this out too. Neither are the smoothest or best built I’ve used, but both give a secret something to an image not seen in their rivals.
Arguably these three are the only three lenses I ever need.
Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8, M42 mount
The Takumar is in a different league to the Pancolar in terms of feel. It’s just delicious to use, and oozes quality and charm. It’s quite probably the smoothest lens I’ve ever handled and used.
In the final image, it’s one of the best too.
With the Takumar, it’s not down to drop dead sharpness. The Pancolar in my experience outguns it in that area.
But, similar to the Zeiss, the Takumar images have something special that I don’t see with other lenses.
Conclusions and Recommendations
If you’re relatively new to film photography and/or vintage lenses, what would I suggest, based on my own 50s philandering experience? Would I recommend you rush out and get a Pancolar and Takumar?
Well, not necessarily. What works for me might not for you.
If you’re keen to shoot film and you’re not too fussed about the camera you use, as long as it takes decent, well exposed photographs, then any of the major brands have a body and a standard 50/1.7 or 50/1.8 lens that will give great results.
Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, Konica and Yashica all qualify.
If you’d like a camera that’s small, light, and don’t mind having a later, more plastic body, the Canon EOS are very hard to argue against.
They’re compact, light, ergonomic to handle, offer reliable metering with a very usable viewfinder, if not as big and bright as some of the 70s SLRs.
The major trump card with the EOS system is their adaptability.
With cheap adapters (around £10) you can use M42, Contax/Yashica or Pentax K lenses, to name just three.
They offer tremendous value, and combined with something like a Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 or Fujinon 55/1.8 in M42 or a Pentax-M or Yashica ML 50/1.7 or 50/2 lenses can give you stunning results.
You can read in more depth why I like them and how to get started in film photography for just £27, with a Canon EOS at the heart of the set up.
If you go with the EOS system, you can then also add a digital option at a later today (early EOS digital bodies are currently £50 upwards) and use exactly the same lens(es) and adapter(s).
I regularly contemplate selling all my SLRs (currently down to six, less than I’ve had in about three years) and keeping just my EOS 300v plus M42 and C/Y adapters and lenses. It’s all I/you really need.
After a while, the endless chase for 50s became tiresome, and the urge waned.
Now I’m down to five manual focus 50mm lenses.
Seven, if you include my 55/1.8 Super-Takumar (which I have), and my Minolta AF (AutoFocus) 50/2.8 Macro.
I don’t need any others, and each of these gives something unique in user experience, the final photographs, or both.
If I had to pick one, for the final image it would probably be the Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8.
For the joy of using, the Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is a delight, and up there with the best for the end result too.
My days as a 50s philanderer seem to be coming to an end.
Partly because I’ve realised that virtually every 50mm lens I’ve ever used was capable of more than decent pictures, and partly because those that remain are so enjoyable to use and to make photographs with.
Where are you on your adventures with 50mm? Have you tried one, two, or 2002?
Let us know in the comments below, and feel free to make your own 50mm recommendations.
Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.
27 thoughts on “The Fall Of The 50s Philanderer (Or How I Found The Perfect 50mm Lens)”
Great post Dan. Your recent writings about the Canon EOS (mine is a Rebel 2000) being a great platform caused me to take another look at mine. Currently it’s loaded with a fresh roll of Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 400 and fitted with my Canon EF 28-80mm f3.5 zoom lens. I’m about halfway through the roll and I’m waiting to finish it out with my new EOS to M42 adapter that should arrive any day now. What I wanted to say (based on your question), is that I seldom use a 50mm lens when I shoot – I’m a wide angle guy as I normally shoot at close range the many historic buildings in my vintage town. Whenever I zoomed with the Canon, I would find the best composition, frame it and shoot. I would then take a look at where I was on the zoom. Surprisingly I had stopped (or chosen) around 50mm more times than not. I was surprised as I hadn’t thought about my not using 50mm before. When my new adapter arrives, I believe I’ll be using some of my long lost friends in the M42 family – Tominon 50mm macro, Canon FD 50mm macro and the Fujinon 55mm. Thanks for the “push” back into vintage glass mated with my Canon!
Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. Glad to hear I’ve nudged you back to the glorious world of M42! They remain my favourite lenses of the probably hundreds I’ve now tried.
Interesting what you say about zooms. The way I use zooms is probably quite unusual. I don’t aim at the subject then zoom the lens until the composition I want fits the frame, then shoot. Instead, ahead of setting out on a photowalk, I decide what focal length to use, set it, then look for compositions, and move myself physically into position to shoot.
So with a 35-70mm lens for example, I’ll usually zoom it to 70mm then treat it as a prime 70mm lens. Having the range of a zoom just adds to much choice for me, and even with a modest zoom like 35-70mm, the angle of view and the look of the images at the two extremes are quite different.
I know this method kind of defeats the point and convenience of a zoom, but I just like to keep it simple and direct and stick to one focal length at a time!
Interesting way to do it. I’ve never thought of it that way.
I think because I’d shot loads with primes before I ever touched a zoom, when I first picked up a zoom it was the only way I knew how to use it. I see it as a set of prime lenses in one lens, rather than a zoom lens that lets you shoot anything from 0.5m to half a mile away without moving your feet an inch.
Also because I’ve been keen to get to know how photographs made with different focal lengths look, how the distortion is different etc. You can’t get a feel for this if you zoom to a different focal length for every shot.
Experiments like this I find interesting, to see how radically the same subject can look depending on your choice of focal length.
I also like to see how lenses of the same focal length compare. For example there might be a 35-70mm lens that I prefer using at 50mm as a prime, than an actual prime 50mm lens, because of factors and characteristics of the lens. In terms of framing, distortion etc, the results will be identical with both, but other elements (sharpness, contrast, bokeh, colours etc) might be preferable in one (and it might be the zoom) than the other.
You could argue I analyse too much, ha ha!
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I have an SMC Tak 55/1.8 and it’s great. I also have the SMC Pentax 55/1.8, which I hear is the same lens just with a K mount. It does knock-your-socks-off work.
The two 50s I’ve shot most are the 50/2 AI Nikkor and the 50/1.4 SMC Pentax. But it’s not because they’re necessarily my favorite lenses, but because they were the lenses I needed for certain applications.
I think I need to think about this harder. Because for example every time I shoot that 50/1.8 SMC Pentax I am blown away by the results. Why don’t I use it much, much more often?
Jim, I ask myself this often, in fact earlier today I was speaking to a fellow photographer about it. Why don’t I just focus on building a small collection of Takumars (I have the 55/1.8 and 105/2.8, both fantastic) and ditch everything else!
The Taks are pretty much unbeatable for smoothness and classy feel, and optically superb too. Why go anywhere else? Add an 85mm and 135mm and I’m set for all occasions.
Oh and yes you’re dead right about the SMC Pentax 55/1.8, it’s the same as the Takumar 55/1.8 but in K mount. Also the 55/2 Takumar (and SMC Pentax 55/2) is the same as the 55/1.8 but with a limited max aperture. Pentax apparently, rather than create a whole new “budget” f/2 lens, simply decided to modify their already tried and tested and widely respected 55/1.8. I’ve had the 55/2 and 55/1.8 in M42 and K and cannot tell the difference between the four. You could say they did it to save money, or you could say they did it to give all of their customers the same high quality product. : )
OK, so you’ve inspired me: coming soon to my blog, the post titled Great 50mm Lenses I Have Known!
Jim, I have a bunch of posts in draft on my blog, and one series I have is called “Lens Love” which focuses on one specific lens per post that I have loved and would recommend. Great minds eh? : )
Looking forward to seeing which favourite 50s will feature in your post.
I must admit, that even though I have never thought much of any 50mm lens I really enjoyed this thoughtful discussion.
Hi John, thanks for stopping by. What are your favourite lenses?
I think my first couple of SLRs had 50/1.8 lenses and I got used to that focal length, so I’ve always had an interest and leaning towards the 50s.
Thanks for this. It made me go to the garage and rummage through that shoe box full of old lenses to find the Super-Takumar. It turns out that it was a 55mm f/2 version and riddled with fungus. Fast forward the next hour and it’s back together, clear as a bell and attached to the front of my Canon EOS5, ready for a walk tomorrow afternoon…
Barnaby, let us know how that lens works out! I love the Takumars, and as I mentioned in another comment, the 55/2 is near identical to the 55/1.8, just with the max aperture slightly limited. You should get some great shots with it!
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I suppose if you’re a 50mm philanderer, I’m a Takumar polygamist: 1.8/55 SMC Takumar, 1.4/50 Super-Takumar, 4/50 S-M-C Macro-Takumar…and I keep a 1.5/50 Leitz Summarit on the side as a mistress (for rangefinder work). I’ve never got my hands on any Zeiss Jena lenses and unless I get lucky at a thrift store some day I never will. The Takumars give me everything I need.
Joe, thanks for your input. Are you as loyal to Asahi in other focal lengths?
I’ve thought many times that I could shoot exclusively with Takumars. Aside from my Super-Takumar 55/1.8 and Takumar 105/2.8, I could add a 135/3.5 and 85/1.8 and it’d be all I needed.
But the Zeiss trio (Flektogon 35/2.4, Pancolar 50/1.8, Sonnar 135/3.5) each offer something unique and special, and indeed I could just as easily have only those three as my entire lens arsenal…
It all depends on what works for you! Personally I’ve always sought out the best bargain and Pentax gives you that (my main camera, the SPII with 1.8/55 was bought at a garage sale for $5), so I have a hard time dropping $80-100 for anything just for a Zeiss name. Not that I’m unimpressed with the pictures I’ve seen, but it isn’t worth the extra cash I’d pay on ebay and I’ve never seen one in person. I think the classic Pentax/Takumar character is present across all the focal lengths I have, and phenomenally sharp. Apart from the normals, I have a 2.5/135 Super-Takumar and a 3.5/28 S-M-C Takumar and they’re both great. I have a few other M42 lenses from Chinon and Mamiya which are great as well but don’t get much use; I like sticking with the later S-M-C/SMC lenses so I can get full aperture priority with the Pentax ES/ESII.
I completely agree that Asahi Pentax are excellent value, in M42 and K mount. I’ve had more cameras in these mounts than any other, and on this basis Pentax must go down as my favourite brand.
But a few times I’ve just tried something different and it’s opened a new (better) world for me, like the Contax 139 Quartz which for me is superior to use than any Pentax I’ve had (and I’ve nearly all of the manual bodies they made from the S1a onwards).
But I’m all for a bargain and love the kit I’ve picked up for only a few pounds and performs brilliantly!
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Hello Dan. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and outlook. I have recently embarked upon shooting film after 2 years of digital work. Street photography and architectural images consisted much of what I did before. Recently I’ve developed a keen fascination for spontaneous portraits using film and it is indeed remarkable how much the process of manual focus using film cameras adds to the satisfaction and process of obtaining a good portrait. Bought 3 film cameras (Olympus OM-1, Olympus Pen FT and a Minolta X11) and have obtained promising and encouraging results after running through many rolls of film. Your article on metering with ambient light has definitely added to the pleasure and joy of using film cameras for someone new like me. I hope you and your family are well.
Thanks for your comments, and I’m delighted to hear my light metering post was helpful. Haven’t done that myself in a few years now, I might have to refer back to my own notes if I shoot film again!