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.

16 thoughts on “Lens Love #1 – Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 M42”

  1. Have used both the Pentacon 50mm 1.8 and Minolta MD 50mm 1.7 recently and saw no differences in the results. 200ASA Fujicolor used. Maybe with 25ASA Ektar, differences will be more clear. In general, the Praktica/Prakticar/Pentacon products that are with us today are the better ones, as there was hardly any check done after the product was made in communist Germany. I’ve had faulty GDR equipment in the late-1980’s, but I guess the crap has gone and the best stuff is with us today.

    1. Roel, thanks for your thoughts. I’m not sure what you mean by “the Praktica/Prakticar/Pentacon products that are with us today are the better ones” – I’ve had probably a dozen of the Pentacon/Meyer/Pentaflex M42 50/1.8s and I would say probably only two were fully functional and smooth. The rest had either stiff focus and/or very slow or stuck wide open aperture blades. The quality control is really poor compared with something like Pentax or Minolta, in my experience. If these are the best ones, I shudder to think what the others were like back in the 70s!

      You’ve reminded me I also have a Carl Zeiss Jena DDR P 50/1.8 in Praktica PB mount that I picked up very cheaply. I believe it’s a Pancolar but at they time they weren’t allowed to brand it as a Pancolar so it’s just a “P”. I’ve had “S” and “T” Zeiss lenses in the past that were Sonnars and Tessars respectively, and renamed for similar reasons.

      It has some very minor coating loss in places and a few fungus threads right at these edges, but these are unlikely to affect image quality.

      Trouble is I don’t have a camera to test it with. The cheapest option is probably getting an adapter for my Sony NEX and testing it that way, then selling on the lens and adapter together…

  2. What I admire in these Pentacon lenses is build simplicity. They often have dirty or oiled aperture, but there’s no problem in disassembly and cleaning them, which often ends wrong with more complicated japanese constructions. It is important factor in using old vintage gear, how easy it can be repaired, when there’s no spare parts, no service, And I love all the old ladies – from Domiplan to Pancolar 🙂 Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks for reading, and your comments Ricco.

      I went through a phase where I’d picked up a number of these lenses cheap, and they all had one issue or other, so I decided to try dismantling one to take a look at the issue(s).

      I then quickly remembered I don’t have the tools, patience or eyesight and gave up!

      But yes I have heard that these and the Helios 44 lenses are good lenses to start with for anyone keen to service/fix their own lenses.

    2. There is not a single VEB Pentacon product that is flawless, but yet it al seems to work fine. Rough, solid camera’s and lenses. Built from scratch, everything was made in Dresden (if we forget the Japanese (NEC) input in the Praktica B200..) and I guess all that was produced made it to the foreign markets, without thorough checks. I have 6-7 Praktica’s and they all are operational. Some leatherettes are loose, viewfinders dirty, parts assembled differently on same kind of bodies. But pics are good. Like a Lada or MiG, it is meant to work, not to look sharp…

      1. Yeh, true, but these days we’re spoilt for choice. I wouldn’t pick a Pentacon lens over a Takumar if it was the last lens I was to ever use – the quality and feel of the Takumar accounts for a lot for me. But yes in terms of function and purpose the Pentacon stuff is very efficient!

  3. Gutted… I bought a Zenit-E as my first film camera a few weeks back for £20, it came with this lens on it rather than the ones it came with back in the day (Helios 44-2), and once I realised I began to do some research. From the looks of it, my aperture blades don’t work on this lens (Pentacon 1.8/50 Multi-coated) and the Selenium Cell light meter on the Zenit also doesn’t work. I had 12 rolls of film arrive today and I was looking forward to shooting the snow tomorrow, but I’ve come across a nightmare situation. Don’t know what to do really, I’m a bit stuck! 😦

    1. Louis, make sure the lens is not just switched to auto mode, where the aperture blades will stay open. There should be a switch that goes between A and M. Switch it to M and go down the aperture range, to see if the aperture blades close down. If they don’t, it might be stuck open. If there’s no A/M switch, it might be an older version with a button on the side you have to push in to stop down the aperture blades each time. Also if there’s a pin on the back, push it in and out a few times on Auto mode to see if the blades stop down. Sometimes they just need loosening up again. Let me know if you get anywhere.

      I love the performance and close focus of these lenses, but the reliability is their Achilles heel. I’ve probaby had a dozen and maybe three worked perfectly. Something like a Takumar 55/1.8 or 55/2 is likely to be far more reliable.

      Re the Zenit, if the shutter fires and at different speeds, it’s still very usable. I would try using a light meter app on your phone – I’ve done this with great success on old cameras that either didn’t have a light meter or where I had no battery or the light meter was broken. As long as the mechanics work, it’s as easy (and quite probably more accurate) using a smart phone light meter app. I used one for my iPhone called Pocket Light Meter which worked well and is easy to use.

      Let me know if I can help with anything.

  4. The Zenit works perfectly well other than the light meter, so I will try and figure out how to incorporate a phone app in to it. The lens, however, is kaputt. I’ve tried the pin pressing on A mode and turning the Aperture ring on M mode, still no result from it.

    Seeing as I only bought the camera for £20 it doesn’t seem worth buying a Helios 44-2 for double that to get it working. It might be – you know best?

    As a beginner to film, what would you recommend my next step be? (In terms of buying/repairing stuff, so that I can actually get out there and start shooting)

    Thanks for your help 🙂

    1. Hi Louis, well the Helios 44-2 is a very interesting lens, and one of few I have left. I can’t see me ever getting rid of it, which speaks volumes coming from someone who has probably 100+ 50mm lenses pass through his hands!

      The Zenit bodies really are ten a penny, they’re next to worthless. In the past I’ve bought a dozen or so just for the lens they’ve come with. Sometimes I’ve sold the body on (you’ll struggle to get £10 inc postage) but more recently I just gave them away.

      If you’re committed to the Zenit, then a Helios 44-2 (or another 44, they’re all great, I just prefer the preset aperture of the 44-2, read more on why here – https://35hunter.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/preset-aperture-lenses-how-they-work-and-why-you-need-at-least-one/) is the obvious choice. You’ll probably find it cheaper buying another Zenit with a Helios attached. Then keep the best Zenit and give away the other.

      If I was recommending any M42 set up now, I wouldn’t look past a Spotmatic and a Takumar 55/1.8 or 55/2.

      I have the Spotmatic F, which has a meter. Older versions were pretty similar, but some didn’t have meters I think. You can’t go far wrong with any Spotmatic SP, 500, 1000 or F, especially if you’re using a phone as a meter. They’re all mechanical, so only need batteries for the meter. You might get one cheaper that all works mechanically, but not the meter.

      The Takumar 55/1.8 or 55/2 was the standard lens most were sold with. The f/2 version is identical except for the max aperture being very slightly limited. Rather than design a whole new “budget” lens, Asahi simply took their already fantastic and well respected 55/1.8 and limited the max aperture (but only very slightly) and sold it as the 55/2. I’ve had a number of examples of both the 55/1.8 and 55/2 and performance is identical, especially once you’re at f/2.8 and beyond.

      I prefer the Super or Super-Multi-Coated versions with the metal ribbed focus ring. Later models were called SMC and had a rubber waffled focus ring. Still wonderful, I just don’t like the look or feel as much as the metal ring.

      So I would look for a Spotmatic with a Super or Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 55/1.8 or 55/2, which I would expect you can get for around £50 over here, maybe less.

      Good luck!

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