Vintage Lens Test - Three fast fifties (and a wee bit of radiation).

Waaaay back in 2011, we did a lens test featuring three goofy old lenses, which give you fun or "arty" effects when stuck on your otherwise perfect modern camera. Since then, I've leveled up my photography skills (I now get a special attack) and have expanded my old lens collection, by sort of dragging a fishing net through Ebay.

UPDATE: The Fotodiox adapter on the Nikor has been found to be a blurry piece of junk, and definitely let down the Nikon in this test. For a re-test of the Nikor without the horrible Fotodiox adapter, please go here and more sample images here.

The Lure of Vintage Glass.

It's hard to say "no" to really old lenses. They really don't build them like they used to, and modern lenses that DO approach the tank-like build quality of old lenses come at a premium. For example, there's a famous German company called Voigtlander that makes really good modern manual-focus lenses that go for at-or-beyond the one kilobuck price point. If you're interested in an all-manual control (no auto-anything) lens, I definitely suggest buying an adapter and investigating vintage equipment. One thing I can tell you is that, in the couple of years I've spent messing around with old lenses, the fact that you have to work the lens manually has accelerated my understanding of F-stop, depth of field, and angle of view in a way that modern automatic lenses failed to do. One man's opinion. Your mileage may vary.

Adapt Adopt, and Improve.

On the subject of adapters: The camera I shot this test on is an Olympus E-M5, which uses what they call the "micro four-thirds" lens mount. One of the cool things about the M43 standard is the fact that, with the proper adapter, you can use just about any lens ever made on your camera. Now, one of the bad things about micro four-thirds is the fact that the smaller sensor size means that any lens you put on it is more "zoomed in" than it should be. This is called the "crop factor". Without getting too far into the geekdom of it, basically a 50mm lens becomes a 100mm one when you stick it on a M43 camera.

That is, unless you use one of a new breed of lens adapters that has corrective optics in it, that basically "focuses down" the image onto the smaller sensor,  so that things look the size they were meant to. A happy side effect of funneling the light in this way is that the image is brighter, too. Less wasted light gives you a brighter image. More light means lower ISO means faster shutter speeds means less blurry pictures. Generally, these kinds of adapters give you an extra F-stop's worth of brightness. Yes, please. These new adapters are called "speed boosters" (because you can use faster shutter speeds) or "focal reducers", which sounds to my ear like a more descriptive term.

Yes, these are pricier than a regular adapter, which is about twenty dollars. Some of the Metabones adapters go for up to five hundred. Oof. However, if you're planning on buying heavily into a particular family of lenses, it can be really, really worth it to have a really good focal reducer/speed booster to make them all work better on your camera. Each of the three lenses tested here are from different "families" - Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. So, I have a speed booster of different quality for each. My Canon adapter is from Metabones, who I'm pretty sure came up with the first speed booster.  They're the best in the biz. The Nikon adapter is made by Fotodiox, and costs about 1/4 what the Metabones costs. The Pentax lens is an "M42" threaded lens mount, and the adapter I'm using for that one is also a cheapo model. Hey, I'm not made of adapters! The disparity in quality of the corrective optics in these adapters will doubtlessly have a small effect on the sharpness of the images, but I can't see any appreciable drop in image quality from the cheapo adapters. Build quality? Oh, you absolutely get what you pay for, there. The Fotodiox adapter (with the red ring around it) was not machined precisely, an I had to carefully sand it down to get it to fit on my E-M5. The Metabones has never given me trouble. Oddly, the no-name M42 speed booster fits perfectly, too.

Sheesh. Sorry about all the tech babble. On to some testing.

Prime Targets.

All three lenses in this test are 50mm primes with big, fast f/1.4 apertures. "Prime" means "no zoom". What I've found out is that, if you're going digging for some vintage lens gold, prime lenses are good candidate. There are some brilliantly made prime lenses from past decades that rival the best of the best examples from current product lines... if you don't mind manually focusing, that is. As far as the aperture goes, you have to adjust that by hand as well, but I usually shoot with the aperture wide open to grab as much light as possible, because I hate flash. Lenses like these can be found on Ebay for $30 - $120.

Zoom lenses? You can definitely find those at Chez eBay, but here's a secret: the magic mojo of making a zoom lens that looks good throughout it's full zoom range is something they figured out how to do relatively recently. Zoom lenses built before 1990 or so are not very desirable. I have several, and they're fun to tinker around with, but even a cheap modern zoom lens will be sharper, smaller, and faster than a vintage zoom.

Meet the contendersThis is an exhibition, not a competition. Don't make me choose. I love them all.

On the left is a circa 1972 Canon FD-mount 50mm f/1.4.

In the middle is a Nikkor F-mount 50mm f/1.4 from about 1966.

On the right is a 1963(?) Eight-Element Pentax Asahi Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4 with an M42 screw-type mount.

There's something about Asahi

Here's a funny thing about the Asahi lens. It's kind of radioactive. Many lenses in the 60s and 70s had lens elements made with thorium, which gave the glass desirable refractive properties. You can search for yourself on the topic of "radioactive thoriated lenses". The radiation given off by these lenses is only alpha waves. It only travels an inch or so from the glass, and is easily shielded by almost anything. Gamma rays are the ones that go through steel, make your sperm go funny, and turn you into Spider-Man. You might develop health problems if you slept with this lens under your pillow for about ten years. Apart from something like that, there's no real risk.

A side effect of thorium lenses is that, over the years, many of them have developed a yellow tint in the glass. There's some debate as to why, but it seems as though the radiation given off by the thorium in the glass stains the glass yellow. However, this is curable. Exposing the rear element of the Supertak (as the kids call it) to strong ultra-violet light for a few days will clear it right up. I used a GE CFL blacklight bulb to cure mine. I put it in a box lined with foil, with the back of the lens pointing at the bulb. Worked like a charm. It took about two days.

Incidentally, this Saturday on UHF, they'll be showing "Asahi-Super-Takumar vs. Mecha-Asahi-Super-Takumar". I love that movie.

Sample Set #1: Fiestabot

Here's Fiestabot all dressed up for Cinco de Octobero. Oh, Fiestabot. You're always getting up too late! Please disregard the framing discrepancies in these shots. I was leaning a little closer sometimes.  They're all 50mm lenses, so things should frame up identically with each. Also, all of these were shot with the aperture wide open at f/1.4, with no post processing. These are straight out of the camera.

The Super-Takumar has good contrast and nice soft bokeh in the background. Maybe there's a reason this lens has such a cult following. The depth of field is nicely shallow, but not absurdly so.
The Nikkor, with wide open aperture, is really really soft. Also, it loses contrast wide open. Believe it or not, I focused on his "face lens". Some lenses just get soft at wide apertures. In fairness to the Nikkor, there's a picture down below shot at f/2. It sharpers up and looks normal. However, I like being able to open up this lens and get the dreamy Barbara Walters effect. This would be great for portraits. The look is a bit like an old Diana lens, actually.

The Canon looks a lot like the Super-Takumar. I'm having a hard time telling the difference. Both are really good fast fifties. Nice contrast and shallow depth of field. The blurry background outside the window seems a little darker than with the Super-Takumar.
 Sample Set #2 : Done the dishes.

Really nice colors. Really sharp where you focus, and DOF is shallow, but not too. I focused on the orange glass, and the blue dish towel is still in focus an inch or two in front of it.
No surprises from the Nikkor. Soft and glowy. Next.

I think the Canon has a slightly shallower depth of field. Again, I focused on the orange glass. Notice how only a little bit of the blue towel in front of it is in focus.
Sample Set #3: Drums from Doumbekistan. These are Egyptian drums called Doumbeks. Similiarly-shaped drums are found all over the world. In Africa they're Djembes. In Turkey they're called Darbukas. They all work the same.

Sample Set #4: Xanthophyl and chromatic aberration. 

Chromatic Aberration or "CA" is that blue or purple fringe around the black tree branch in front of the white sky. It's present in most lenses to some degree, and shows up in areas of very high contrast where dark meets light in a hard edge. The Super-Takumar has some nice fuzz at the edge of the picture, where you can see the leaves going out of focus. Great saturation.

In this picture, I stopped the aperture down to f/2, or else the sunlight would have been a fuzzy mess. F/2 is still a pretty wide aperture, and the Nikkor has the "swirly bokeh" that some lenses do. Look around the edges of the picture where the blurs form concentric circles around the center of the image. Technically, it's a flaw, but lots of people love it. I do.

The Canon just looks nice and normal here. Yes, there's the CA, but most lenses would do that in this situation. Even wide open at f/1.4, it's still pretty sharp.

Sample Set #5: Atomic Clock.

This image shows the lenses' vignetting (darkened corners). Again, all lenses do this to some degree. Purists dream of a lens that is infinitely sharp and has no dark corners - and, if you ask me, no personality. The Super-Takumar shows us its good contrast and slightly warm color. Very nice.

The warm color of the Nikkor wasn't apparent in the other samples, but here, it's obvious. The green wall has lots of yellow in it. I'll have to remember that one. If you were to narrow the aperture to sharpen it up a little, you'd still have nice warm color, since adjusting aperture shouldn't effect the saturation.

The Canon has slightly cooler colors than the other two. It still has some vignetting that I like very much, and is still super sharp.


Asahi Super-Takumar 1963 - Sharp and with warm color and smooth bokeh. Depth of field is nice and thin, but not crazy-thin. The radiation won't hurt you. A physically small lens, if that's important to you. Mine is a slightly rarer eight-element model produced some time before 1966. The seven-element version appeared in 1966, and should be a bit cheaper, and most people say they can't tell the difference in the images they produce.

Nikkor F 1966 - Way soft and dreamy wide open, but sharpens up if you close it up a little. If you use it in low light, you'll miss being able to open it up all the way without the glow. A great special effect portrait lens that acts normal if you stop it down to f/2 or f/2.8, which makes it an exciting rare find. Build quality is beautiful. It's a heavy lens with a retro design clearly of The Sixties.
Canon FD 1972 - Similar to the Super-Takumar, but with cooler colors. It acts like you want a fast fifty to be. Sharp and accurate with super-thin depth of field if you want it. Also has beautiful build quality and heft.

This is not a competition, so I'm not going to choose a winner. The winner is (gasp!) you!... if you know what to look for on eBay or in resale shops. The seller should mention three things.

-Scratches. Some? None? At the center or near the edge? Edge scratches aren't the end of the world. Near the center, and it's gut-check time. Can you find another copy of the lens without scratches?

-Fungus. Yep. Lenses grow fungus in them, over the years. Little black dots, usually on the inner elements where you can't reach it, where moisture get trapped if the lens was stored improperly. Fungus is a deal-killer. Cleaning a lens costs more than you're likely to pay for the lens.

-Aperture blades action. The words you're looking for are "snappy" or "quick" and "dry". A sluggish aperture may get stuck open or closed. Also, visible oil on the aperture blades tells you that someone had the lens open, trying to remedy sticky blades at some point in history. Oil on the blades doesn't scare me too much, personally, so long as the blades are snappy and quick.

Thanks for reading. Maybe we need to do a test on vintage zooms? That should be an adventure.


Mat Black said...

That was interesting. I used to be into photography and still have my Canon AE-1 but I haven't used it in years.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

I'm glad you liked it, Mat. You have an AE-1? Nice! You could get a digital camera and still use all your old lenses. I have a bunch of Canon FDs that are from the AE-1's era. Thanks for reading, Mat!


Telecinese said...

Vintage lenses are cheap and fun to play with creatively, for both photography and video. That's a nice start. Next I'd suggest something Soviet like the Helios-44 for maximum character-per-dollar enjoyment.

The Fotodiox focal reducer is notoriously smeary at wide lens apertures, to the point of massive pre-buyer outrage, many refunds and the hasty rebadging of the first version as a "soft focus special effect" adapter. It's very possible your Nikon is better wide open than you think.

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Actually, Telecinese, there are a bunch of Russky lenses that were caught up in my eBay trawling net. I actually have a Helios 44M 4, as well as a Jupiter 9, and a few others. A russian lens comparo is a good idea.

Also, when I bought the Fotodiox "apology" adapter, they threw in a copy of the first version adapter (with the blue ring) at no extra charge. I guess they CAN give them away. A quick test revealed it to be completely useless, so I threw it in the closet at no extra charge. I am suspisiouc of the red Fotodiox, though. Mounting the Nikon on a non-refocusing adapter does reveal soft results, though not as soft as with the Fotodiox behind it. Also, other Nikon lenses don't get as soft when using the Fotodiox adapter. My next experiment will be to mount the Nikon onto the far superior Metabones adapter via a Nikon F to Canon FD adapter and see what that reveals to me.

Thanks for reading, Telecinese!


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