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.
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.
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.
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.
One stop down, the Takumar extended its lead if anything, giving very respectable results.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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