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.
Today’s lens –
Auto Chinon 50mm f/1.7 Pentax K mount
What I love
Compact and light. The little Chinon couldn’t be called a pancake lens, but for an f/1.7 50mm it is smaller than most. Like the Pentax-M 50/2, I’ve had versions with a plastic aperture ring and others with metal. The latter is slightly more pleasing to use, but marginally, whereas the plastic ones save a few grams, if you’re into that.
Whether on a compact Pentax body like one of the M series (if you want light, stripped down and minimal I’d recommend an all black Pentax MV), or on my Sony NEX mirrorless, the Chinon is about as small as you need, without the lens getting fiddly to use, or performance being compromised.
Lightness of touch. As well as being physically lightweight, the Chinon 50/1.7 has a lightness of touch that’s not to be underestimated. It’s one of those lenses where the weight of the focus and aperture is balanced so you know you’re using it, but it never consciously gets in the way.
After experiencing a number of far more inconsistent lenses (the major flaw of the otherwise highly recommended Pentacon 50/1.8) of the four or five Chinons I’ve had, all have been a pleasure to use and mechanically excellent.
I even had one arrive attached to the most disgustingly grubby and smoke saturated camera I’ve ever come across (seriously, it looked like both lens and camera had been used as a pub ashtray for a couple of decades), and after a quick clean up with some white vinegar, a toothbrush and some cotton buds it was beautiful again, and performed flawlessly.
Affordability. The Pentax-M 50/1.7s are not expensive compared with an equivalent Zeiss or Nikon lens. But the Auto Chinons are typically half the price or less. Great news for those on a shoestring budget, or who might like to spread their photography budget across two or three lens rather than one.
Of the four or five I’ve had, I paid between about £6 and £18, some of these including bodies (like the ex-ashtray mentioned above). Even at the top end of this range they’re fantastic value.
Camera body availability. Pentax K mount is one of the longest running and widely available mounts. Pentax launched it in 1975 and it’s still a current mount today, 42 years later. A huge number of compatible cameras have been made in those four decades!
If you’re looking for an equivalent film camera, as before I’d recommend one of the Pentax-M range – ME, ME Super, MG, MV etc. Compact, great viewfinders, excellent handling, there’s little not to love.
If you want something newer and even lighter, I’ve enjoyed the MZ-5N and MZ-6, the latter probably offering more features than any Pentax film body ever made, without going into the pro ranges. The VF isn’t a patch on the M series (it was designed for AutoFocus lenses after all) but the focus confirm is very handy, and the handling, very light weight and 1/4000s min shutter speed makes it a very appealing option.
Chinon themselves also made a wide range of cameras of this era (late 70s – early 80s). Loosely, the CM ones are mechanical and more primitive, and the CE range are electronic and have more features. Make sure the model you’re buying is Pentax K mount, as earlier C model Chinons were M42.
I had an all black CE-4s which I shot dozens of films with and got very consistent results. Plus it had depth of field preview and multiple exposures, which its Pentax ME Super rival doesn’t. Well worth considering, and you might even get one with a Chinon 50/1.7 already attached.
On the digital front you of course have a huge range of native Pentax K mount digital bodies, and the adapters widely available to use the lens on Canon EOS/EF mount, Sony NEX/E mount cameras and a host of others.
Optical performance. In a way the photographs possible with the Auto Chinon 50/1.7 perfectly mirror using the lens itself. It just makes beautiful photographs with no fanfare or fuss.
There are probably 50mm lenses I’ve used that are clinically sharper, though not by much. But overall the Chinon simple makes lovely images. See for yourself in the photographs I’ve shared in this post and make your own judgement.
What about the downsides?
The Auto Chinon has plenty to love, and virtually nothing to dislike. If you’re hung up on brands and couldn’t possibly use a Pentax K mount lens that isn’t made by Pentax themselves, then you wouldn’t even look at the the Chinon. But you’d be missing out.
The only warning I would make – and this doesn’t relate to the f/1.7 version itself – is avoid the 50/1.9. Whereas with some ranges, the lenses at slightly different speeds offer near identical performance (Asahi Takumar 55/1.8 and 55/2, and Pentax-M 50/1.7 and 502 are obvious examples in my experience), this isn’t the case with Chinon.
I’ve tried two or three 50/1.9s (to ensure the first one wasn’t just a bad or damaged example) and the performance isn’t close to the 50/1.7. I’d never bother with one again.
Maybe when they originally came out the 50/1.9 was so much cheaper it might have been worth considering to the budget conscious, but these days, with the affordability of the 50/1.7, there is absolutely no reason to buy an f/1.9.
Overall I would recommend the Auto Chinon 50/1.7 without hesitation.
Small, light, smooth and innocuous to use, with focus down to 0.45m, it delivers consistently highly pleasing results. Plus of course being Pentax K mount, the body options are arguably as vast as any mount ever made, and they’re still making them!
Go get one!
Have you used an Auto Chinon 50/1.7? What lens would you recommend in Pentax K mount?
Let us know in the comments below.
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