I’ve decided to attempt to find my perfect classic 50mm lens to mount on my Leica rangefinders. I have my ideal modern lens in the form of the Zeiss ZM Sonnar, but sometimes, just once in a while, I fancy something that renders in a slightly less modern way. This post marks the first documented step in the process of finding this lens.
I say documented as of course I’ve tried lots of 50mm lenses over the years, some, such as the Summar dating back as far as the 1930’s. Some I’ve loved, some not so much. Some of them I’ve really liked but decided they aren’t for me (the 50mm Leica Summarit 1.5 being a good example) As such, I suppose I’ve already taken quite a few of the steps toward finding that perfect classic lens. Perhaps the most significant step is that I’ve decided it’s to be a Sonnar lens. As you might guess, this is broadly connected to the fact my favourite modern lens is a Sonnar. But, there’s a little bit more to it than that.
As time goes on, I’ve noticed two trends in lenses that I find myself drawn to. First, I find myself more often liking lenses made by Zeiss, second is that quite often the lenses I like either have Sonnar written on the front, or at very least are known to be of a similar formula. With this applying to everything from the lenses in my (now sold) Contax t2/t3, my Rollei 35SE, my adapted Nikon lens, and even all the Sonnar-named modern Sony FE mount Zeiss/Zeiss branded lenses, I’m aware that there might be just a little bit of confirmation bias at play, but regardless I’ve found it hard to escape these trends.
It’s also hard to escape the fact that I find my aforementioned modern ZM lens to be in a completely different league to anything else I’ve tried. It just ticks all the right boxes for my tastes. If you’ve not read my review of that lens, you can find it here. Just bear in mind, you’ll want to find yourself a comfortable chair and a cup of coffee to keep you going. I waffle on about it for something in the region of 8000 words, which is a lot of waffle, even by my waffly standards. The fact is, I really bloody love that lens, and liking it so much makes it feel somewhat like a logical place to work back from.
So this just leaves the question of what lenses are out there to find and try? Google is usually my friend when walking a path of research like this, but on this occasion, I actually have social media to thank for the first big step in this process. A week or so ago I mentioned on Instagram that I was going to be walking this path. By means of reply, I was told of a thread on Rangefinder forum that compared some of the classics. In the end, I couldn’t find it on google, and nearly forgot about it when the same chap contacted me privately with a link. Here’s the thread he linked me too. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who guessed the lenses right, I didn’t, and in fact was quite smug in my guess work until I read I’d got it wrong. I have more to learn than I thought!
I digress, as interesting as that might be, it wasn’t as interesting as a link I found further down the page to a list of, you’ve guessed it, Sonnar lenses – specifically Leica thread mount Sonnar lenses. You can find the thread here, but for reference, here are the 50mm lenses taken out of that list:
Canon 50mm f/1.5
Jupiter 3 50mm f/1.5
Jupiter 8 50mm f/2
Jupiter 17 50mm /f2
Nikkor 5cm f/1.4
Nikkor 5cm f/1.5
Nikkor 5cm f/2
Misuzu Kogaku Altair/Altanon 5cm f/2
Steinheil Quinon 50/2
Tanaka Kogaku Tanar 5cm f/1.5
Tanaka Kogaku Tanar 5cm f/1.8
Tanaka Kogaku Tanar 5cm f/2
Zeiss 5cm f/1.5
Zunow 5cm f/1.1
Zunow 5cm f/1.3
Lomography’s new Jupiter 3+ 50mm f/1.5
MS Optical Sonnetar 50mm f/1.1 MC
MS Optical 50mm f/1.3
I have no idea if this list is exhaustive (I added Lomography’s new Jupiter 3+ 50mm f/1.5 to the bottom myself (and a couple mentioned in the comments)) and reading a bit deeper it does seem to also feature a few lenses based on Ludwig Bertelle’s ‘Ernostar’ lens formula, which as far as I can gather was the precursor to the Sonnar, but that’s fine by me. In fact, as I understand, the modern ZM with its 6 element design is actually closer to the Ernostar design too, so it would be daft to rule anything for that reason…
So where to start? Well, first off I should say I am not going to try all of those lenses. Some of them are extremely expensive, and way outside of this being a bit of fun I intend it on being. Second, technically not all of the lenses above are that old. I have separated the three lenses that jump out at me as being built recently at the bottom – this doesn’t rule them out, just deprioritises them a little. Third, I already have started down this path. I have reviewed Lomography’s new Jupiter 3+ 50mm f/1.5, so that’s it ticked off. Lastly, I also have already I currently have four Sonnar lenses to play with:
Left to right(ish) – My new 50mm 1.5 Zeiss-Opton, my old (and very delaminated) Carl Zeiss Sonnar, a Jupiter-8 and my mate Jeremy’s very clean 50mm 1.5 Carl Zeiss Sonnar.
Those of you with your eyes open will no doubt be quick to realise that none of these lenses are native Leica mount. This is true, but I do have an adapter slowly making its way from the States that will allow them to be mounted on my Leica, so no issue there.
You might also notice that 3 of them are post war, coated Zeiss 50mm 1.5 Sonnar lenses. Considering my preference for the ZM, starting with one of these lenses struck me as a good benchmark. I bought my Opton to give me that benchmark, but since it has a little bit of dust in it, and knew Jeremy had a near mint one, it seemed only sensible to try his too! My old delaminated one is a bit of a wild card I suppose – as buggered as it is, I’ve actually taken some nice photos with it in the past so it seemed daft not to included it in the process. And the jupiter-8, well that’s the cheapest Sonnar copy going, so it had to feature in this process!
As soon as I get the adapter, I will start slowly trying them out properly! If you have any recommendations as to where to go after these lenses, I am all ears!