Having fun comparing old 200mm lenses adapted to a modern Sony E-Mount Camera.
The Battle of The 200
Though not as old as the battle of 300 between Greeks and Persians, this one promises to be an interesting one: a battle of 200 mm lenses; most of them quite old, and one modern lens thrown in the mix. One of the joys of using a mirror-less camera like my Sony NEX-5N is that, by using adapters, one can give these old lenses a second lease in life. Let's dive in.
The 200mm Battalion
I've been buying several inexpensive manual focus lenses on Craigslist, some as cheap as $10 a piece! I also own a modern 55-250mm Canon EF-S lens that I recruited for this exercise. The more the merrier as they say. Figure 1 shows my set of 200mm capable lenses. From left to right they are:
Soligor 90-230mm f/4.5 Zoom
This is a "beast" of a lens. Owing to the all-metal construction, this lens is very heavy indeed. Fortunately, it comes with a collar and tripod mount of its own. I don't think it would balance well on the NEX-5N otherwise. It's one of those lenses where you attach a camera; not the other way around. As is typical of these older lenses, the manual focus ring is smooth and precise and the aperture control is also very nice and well located near the camera. This is a Minolta MD mount lens.
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS
This is the most modern lens in the group and is still available for purchase online. The construction quality is nowhere close to the quality of any of the older lenses in this test. The Canon is mostly plastic and glass. The advantage of course, is that this is a much lighter lens, thus easy to carry around. Notice also how it manages to be the shortest in the group despite having the longest zoom range (250mm). Twenty to thirty years of design advances show their mark. The Canon also features Image Stabilization, though you cannot use it when adapted to the Sony NEX through a "dumb" adapter as the one I used. This is the slowest lens in the group, since at the 200mm focal length I tested, the maximum aperture is only f/5.5.
Lentar 200mm f/4.5
Another $10 Craigslist find, this lens is surprisingly well built and relatively compact. It has a very smooth focusing ring. It also includes an Open-Close (O<->C) switch that at first puzzled me, but when in use, it became quite useful. It allows you to quickly switch between the aperture selected in the aperture ring and fully open. This is actually very useful for manual focus, because you want to focus at the widest aperture and then quickly switch to the aperture desired. (Incidentally, that's how modern cameras do it as well, though "behind the scenes"). The Lentar has an odd M42 screw-mount, but adapters to NEX are relatively common on eBay.
Olympus OM 200mm f/4
This is a lens that I reviewed previously in another article. Its construction quality is also excellent. Both the Olympus and the Soligor feature a built-in lens shade. This really helps avoid flaring when shooting outdoors. Since older lenses tend to have more primitive glass coatings, they tend to be more prone to flaring, so a lens shade is highly recommended. The OM lens mount is quite common and many NEX E-mount adapters are available for purchase online.
Figure 1 - The 200 Battalion
So how do these lenses perform? Let's have a look at the test results...
To make an apples-to-apples comparison (as much as possible), I set the zoom lenses to 200 mm to match the 200mm primes. I then proceeded to test their sharpness (the "Fridge test"). As usual, the "fridge test" consists of placing the lens and camera on a tripod, manual focusing on the fridge in areas of detail (papers, magnets, etc) and then shooting at various apertures to see how the lens performs. Most lenses perform better at the center of the frame than at the corners, so both cases were considered. See Figures 2 and 3 below.
Figure - Center Performance
Figure 3 - Corner Performance
NOTE: The Canon testing was particularly difficult since this lens does not feature a manual aperture ring. My 'workaround' was to connect it to a Canon body, set the aperture in Av mode, and use the (not recommended) 'hack' of removing the lens with the camera ON and the DOF preview button pressed. This worked, but the repeated insertion/removal of the lens might have affected the precise focusing and zoom settings. In one instance above, I crossed the result as it does not seem consistent. See my earlier review for more accurate results using a Canon body.
So what can we conclude from the pictures above for each of these lenses:
Soligor 90-230mm f/4.5 Zoom
I was warned by reading several of the online forums focused on manual lenses that, while old primes tend to perform quite well, some of the old 'zooms' were dogs. This, my friends, is clearly the case here. The Soligor performance can only be described as 'crap' for the widest apertures, with a soft and strangely "muddy" look to the photos. Things don't get much better when you stop unfortunately. The lens seems to 'peak' at f/8, but even then, the performance is hardly satisfactory.
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS
As the most modern lens in the group (by decades) one would expect the lens to perform relatively well. In fact, the performance is quite good notwithstanding some technical testing issues as I explained above. The Canon performs very well at the center. In the corners, performance is poor wide-open, but improves significantly as you stop down. I would say that f/11 seems to be about the peak performance point. Very good performance considering this is a zoom lens (not a prime) and a budget one at that.
Lentar 200mm f/4.5
This lens had an average performance. It's clearly better than the Soligor (though that's not a high bar). It's not stellar, but respectable. Performance at the corners and in the center is very similar and seems to peak between f/8 and f/11.
Olympus OM 200mm f/4
My initial assessment of the Olympus 200mm f/4 might have been a little harsh. It helps to put things in perspective as when we compare it with other lenses. I would say this is the clear winner here. The lens has good performance both at the center and at the edges with f/5.6 already quite good. The peak performance seems to be around f/8. I think I'll start taking take this lens out more. I'm also considering matching this lens with a micro 4/3 camera body with sensor stabilization. Such a combo would result in a 400 mm equivalent with IS, which sounds like quite an attractive proposition for nature and wildlife photography...
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 very rough measurement of the minimum focusing distance for each of these lenses at 200 mmm:
Soligor 90-230mm f/4.5 Zoom -> 6 ft
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS -> 3 ft
Lentar 200mm f/4.5 -> 9 ft
Olympus OM 200mm f/4 -> 9ft
In this case, advantage goes to the Canon followed by the Soligor (it had to be good at something!). I'm actually considering turning the Soligor into a macro lens by attaching some extension rings. I can't see myself using it as a telephoto, but it may be useful as a macro.
I can say there were lessons learned through this exercise. The first lesson is to avoid purchasing old zoom lenses. If you do purchase one, make sure you don't pay too much for it and try to find reviews online first. Buyer beware. The second lesson is that the older prime lenses are still quite good performers optically. They may not be in the same league as the very best modern lenses (like the Canon L series), but then you are not paying much for them either. If you can live with the inconveniences of manual focus, they can be a very good value.
To finish this article I'll post four photos that I took using the four lenses tested in this article. Hopefully this will show that even average lenses can, with careful use, produce pleasing results. The photo in Figure 3 below was taken with the Lentar. I used an aperture of f/5.6 since I had to get a fast enough shutter speed (and low enough ISO) to hand-hold the photo. I'm quite pleased with the result. The photo did require some contrast adjustments and careful sharpening in Photoshop, but it produced a nice 12in x 18in print.
Figure 3 - Inviting Park Bench. Lentar 200mm f/4 @ f/5.6
Figure 4 is a wild turkey 'portrait'. There was extensive Photoshop processing to burn the background (this is not a studio shot) and some sharpening applied. I'm happy with the photo for posting online. Closer observation at 100% does show some of the murkiness we saw in the tests above, so I wouldn't print this very large; not larger than 8 x 10 in.
Figure 4 - Wild Turkey 'Portrait'. Soligor @ 200mm f/5.6
Figure 5 was produced by our winner, the OM 200mm f/4. The lens was able to render good contrast in this scene and hold detail at the point of focus. I'm pleased with the result and wouldn't hesitate printing it large.
Figure 5 - Abstract Reflections. Olympus OM 200mm f/4 @ f/8
And finally, the photo in Figure 6 was shot using the Canon EF 55-250mm. This was a dark scene so the image stabilization was helpful while hand-holding the lens. At f/8, it held detail and contrast quite well as was expected from the tests above.
Figure 6 - Duck and Reflections. Canon EF 55-250mm @ 200mm, f/8
Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com