Playing with "old" 50mm f/1.4 prime lenses adapted to a Sony E-Mount camera.
The Good Old 50s
Fifty mm lenses were the "normal" lenses of the 35mm film-camera era. In fact, they used to ship as a "kit" with many of the camera bodies of those days. As a result, fast manual-focus 50mm f/1.4 lenses are still very easy to find in the used market today, and at very reasonable prices. Having amassed a modest collection of 50 mm lenses, mostly bought on Craigslist, I decided to compare them when adapted to my Sony NEX body. How do these 20 to 30 year old lenses perform when coupled with a modern camera? Let's find-out.
The 50s collection
Nothing in my collection is very exotic or expensive. Typically, I've spent less that $100 on each lens; some more, but most of them much less than that. I currently own the following fast 50mm primes (see also Figure 1):
Canon FD 50mm f/1.4
This is the largest and heaviest of the bunch as can be seen in Figure 1. Note that this is the earliest, all-metal FD variant. There are later versions (nFD for "new" FD) that are reportedly smaller and lighter. The construction is all metal and the sample I bought also included a nice lens hood.
Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4
Takumar lenses are known for their excellent build quality and smooth focusing. The 50mm f/1.4 is no exception and feels just right in the hand. Add to this the fact that it is the most compact lens of the ones I tested and you have a very compelling product. I prefer using small lenses with the mirror-less cameras as that is the whole point of the mirrorless systems.
Olympus OM 50 mm f/1.4
I've tested this lens previously in this older article. It's a very nice, compact lens as is typical of the Olympus 'OM' series. Not as compat as the Takumar but quite close. It was the most expensive of the bunch but that's probably because I bought it online and not from a local seller.
Mamiya Sekor 50mm f/1.4
The Mamiya Sekor is not as common as the other lenses in this group but is a very nice looking lens with a quality feel. It's the second largest (and heaviest) of the lenses, only surpassed by the Canon FD. It comes in a M42 screw-mount (same as the Takumar).
Figure 1 - The Good Old 50 f/1.4
Figure 2 - The Good 50 f/1.4
I primarily use these lenses for portraiture. Owing to their wide aperture and 'longish' focal length (75 mm equivalent on a Sony APS-C sensor), these make excellent portrait tools, with nice blurred background (bokeh). Figures 3 through 6 show the bokeh obtained with these four lenses at various apertures. I found the bokeh to be good for all of them with a slight edge to the Olympus and the Canon lenses. Notice how the shape of the bokeh for these two lenses is more circular at f/4 . This is because both the Canon and the Olympus feature a design with six blades.
Figure 3 - Bokeh Comparison at f/1.4
Figure 4 - Bokeh Comparison at f/2.0
Figure 5 - Bokeh Comparison at f/2.8
Figure 6 - Bokeh Comparison at f/4
I primarily use these lenses for portraiture and therefore only tested the center of the frame. See Figures 7 through 10 below. I would have to say that the Canon is the clear winner here at f/1.4 with significatly better sharpness and contrast. This advantage is still quite visible at f/2.0 and only by f/2.8 do things start to even-out. The Olympus is also a pretty good performer at f/2.8. If were to rank the lenses when it comes to sharpness, I would order them as follows: 1. Canon, 2. Olympus, 3.Takumar, 4: Mamiya.
Figure 7 - Sharpness @ f/1.4
Figure 8 - Sharpness @ f/2.0
Figure 9 - Sharpness @ f/2.8
Figure 10 - Sharpness @ f/4
Minimum Focusing Distance
Minimum focusing distance is an important, though often overlooked, characteristic of a lens. The shorter the minimum focusing distance, the higher magnification you can get. Shorter distances also mean shallower depth of field (all other things being equal) which may be important for portraits or to isolate your subject in a nature shot. I did a rough measurement of the minimum focusing distance for each of these lenses:
Canon -> 33 cm
Takumar -> 37 cm
Olympus -> 36 cm
Mamiya -> 38 cm
There is not a whole lot of difference between them, but again the Canon wins with a small margin followed by the Olympus.
Each one of these 50 mm lenses has it's own "character"; some have better bokeh than others, some have better contrast wide-open, some are smaller and lighter than others. It's fair to say though that, at least optically, the Canon FD is the clear winner here followed by the Olympus OM. If size and weigth is very important to you, then you may prefer the Olympus or even the Super Takumar. All these lenses can yield very good results when stopped down a little.
Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com