Canon IID with Canon 50mm Serenar f1.9

Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

By Andrew Bibee

When talking about popular third party 50mm LTM lenses, the conversation occasionally leads to the Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens, oftentimes called the “Japanese Summilux.” That fast fifty was a relatively affordable high-quality lens made to compete against Leica’s and Nikon’s offering and had a long production run from 1957 (with the type 1) to 1972 (type 2). Multiple film photography youtube channels and online reviews praised the lens for being sharp and having crisp color contrast. The “Japanese Summilux” and her wide angle siblings are some of the most sought after vintage LTM lenses today and are becoming difficult to find even over here in Tokyo. Curiously, while Canon’s later LTM lenses are gaining popularity, the same cannot be said about Canon’s earliest line of lenses such as the Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9. Which is a shame because the lens (which I like to call: the “Japanese Summitar”), could be the “character lens” for you.

Leica M3 with the Canon 50mm Serenar f1.9 attached
My Leica M3 with the 50mm Serenar f/1.9
The Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 lens
The 50mm Serenar f/1.9 lens

History and Build

When WW2 came to a close, Canon polished off some older ideas and restarted camera production, and the first new camera they made (that wasn’t made of existent prewar stocks) was the Canon SII. This time around, Canon developed a new set of lenses to go on their cameras rather than relying on Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) for lenses as they did up until that time. These lenses were christened: “Serenar,” which according to Canon: “connotes the word “serene,” indicating “clear, calm and tranquil,” and originates in the Sea of Serenity on the moon.”

Tokyo photo of delivery person in Ikebukuro
A scene in Tokyo, Shot on the Nicca IIIF with the “Japanese Summitar,” and Fujifilm Neopan ACROS 100 II
New York Grand Central
New York Grand Central, shot on the Leica M3 with the 50mm Serenar f/1.9 lens, and Arista EDU Ultra 400

The Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 was released in January 1949 and came standard with the Canon IIB; it was considered a fast offering at the time when most other companies only offered 50mm f/3.5 or f/2.8 as the standard lens. Strangely, this lens is marked as only going down to f/11 instead of the usual f/16 (though the clickless aperture does go a bit beyond f/11). Besides that, the lens is externally visually similar to Leica’s 50mm Summitar f/2, even utilizing the same obscure lens filter thread. However, the similarities end there as the Serenar differ from its German counterpart internally: with 6 elements in 4 groups, the coated Gauss-type design is markedly different from Leitz’s 7 elements in 4 groups design, and the Serenar has 15 aperture blades, a staggering amount compared to the Summitar’s 10 or 6 depending on the make and model.

Taxi zooming through Shinjuku
A Taxi zooming through Shinjuku, Leica M3, 50mm Serenar f/1.9, Marix 800T
A Scene from New York
A scene from New York City, Leica M3, 50mm Serenar f/1.9, Marix 800T

Looks and usage

Much like the Summitar, the Canon 50mm Serenar is sharp in the middle (especially when stepped down), but it does have some distinct softness in the edges. At wide open, the lens is soft but not in an unbearable way, and objects/lights in the background will develop a slight swirl that help to visually isolate the subject/object in focus in the foreground. I believe some would say that the lens has a “painterly” quality – there is no way of mistaking this lens for a modern design. It works well in both color and in monochrome, but I found it best used in conjunction with black and white film stocks that either has elevated contrast or even Orthochromatic qualities. Films such as Fomapan 400, Rollei Retro 80s, Fujifilm Neopan ACROS 100 II, and Ilford XP2 Super 400 would render an evocative look, retaining contrast albeit having a softer looking image. Getting accustomed to this lens does take a bit of time due to its tendency to flare and the bokeh can get muddled if the shooting conditions aren’t ideal- but dialed in, this lens is a solid contender and extremely fun to use.

Who is this for?

This is one of those lenses that I feel will have it’s ardent supporters and detractors. If you want edge to edge sharpness and clear contrast (especially in color) at all apertures, the Canon 50mm Serenar may not be the lens for you. However, if you are like me and enjoy lenses that have a softer look to it and are willing to take a brief moment composing your shot, then the “Japanese Summitar” may be for you. It’s good for street snaps, landscapes, and it’s relative softness is perfectly suited for taking portraits as well. If you are a fan of the early pictorialism photos, this may be the perfect lens to emulate that look on 35mm. Another selling point for this lens would be its relative affordability; due to its relative lack of “hype” and quirky photo rendering, a clean copy of the lens can be bought at around 20,000-30,000 yen or just under 200 USD as of this writing and prices remained stagnant. Due to it’s price, the Serenar is seen by many Japanese Leica M neophytes as a suitable alternative to the “real deal,” and some, like myself, have became content with it.

Paola in Los Angeles
Paola, shot on Leica M3, 50mm Serenar f/1.9, and Kentmere 400
Alex
Alex, shot on Leica M3, 50mm Serenar f1.9, Fomapan 400

Whether attached to my Leica M3 or one of my Barnack clones, the Canon 50mm Serenar or “Japanese Summitar” has been my mainstay 50mm LTM lens and will continue to be used in rotation despite my recent additions. It’s a lovely piece of glass and I have produced some of my favorite shots with it within the past two years of my ownership (not to mention it looks really good on a Leica or some IIIF clone). There are more versatile and higher quality lens options out there, but no other lens have made me feel as though I was Henri Cartier-Bresson, searching for my decisive moment in Tokyo. If you feel convinced by my review I hope you’ll consider finding one; it could be the art lens you were looking for.

Two ladies and a dog in New York City
Two ladies and their dog in New York City, Leica M3, 50mm Serenar f/1.9, Arista EDU Ultra 400
Two Kyoto girls in Kimono
Kyoto girls in Kimono, Leica M3, 50mm Serenar f/1.9, on Fomapan 100

Thank you for reading my second article!
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About The Author

By Andrew Bibee
Hello everyone, my name is Andrew, its a pleasure to meet you here! I am a Japanese American photographer currently based in Tokyo, Japan, and I mainly do street photography and portraits over here. I currently work freelance as a photographer/writer for a magazine publication as I await to hear results back from university to become a graduate student.
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Comments

Will on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Loved your pictures, Andrew, particularly struck with the taxi one! This lens seems to rendition beautifully and in your hands, is delightful.
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Thank you so much for your kind comment! that Taxi shot was a lucky one ahaha, I shot it wide open at around 1/125 if memory serves me correctly and I saw the older shaped taxi right around the corner and hoped for the best. Turned out better than expected haha.

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Neal Wellons on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Thanks for a great review on a lens I seldom hear about. I bought one two or three years ago and, even though I have quite a few LTM lenses, use the Serenar 1.9 quite a bit. It also inspired the purchase of a Leitz Summar f/2 which is quirky in similar ways.

Your photos are great; you have mastered this cool lens.
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Thank you for your kind words and comment :) I feel that temptation to buy the Leitz Summar f/2 because of this lens and how much fun I have had with it -- I'm curious at how similar or different the rendering would be especially in regards to the bokeh considering the difference in the aperture blades. Thank you so much again :)!

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Jonathan Leavitt on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

There is also a Canon F1.8 Serenar, which seems to be in a fixed barrel, not retractable. What is the optical difference?
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

The timing of the next comment is impeccable, Marco Andres detailed it very well and according to him it's also a double-gauss arrangement of six elements in four groups, so I feel like you should be able to expect similar results. From what I've seen online so far it looks like the rigid f1.8 lens may have more contrast and less swirl at wide open, but I'm not certain whether or not that's the specific nature of the lens or the quality of the specific copy of the lens. But it does seem to have very nice optical quality, I think it would be particularly good for clear portraits. Take all this info with a grain of salt though! I've unfortunately haven't had the pleasure to try the f1.8 lens after all.

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Marco Andrés on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Evocative images showing the lens at its best. A similar ltm Canon lens – Serenar 50/1.8 – is also double-gauss arrangement of six elements in four groups, rigid not collapsible, with aperture range f/1,8 –f/16 (not f/1.9 – f/11), a more expensive and known as the Japanese Summicron (not the Summitar). Dante Stella pronounced the results with the Serenar 50/1.8 indistinguishable from the Summicron 50/2.
The Serenar 50/1.8 a sleeper usually thrown in with a Canon body.
Have one so I am « biased ».
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

I'm jealous! I haven't had the opportunity to try the lens out, but I've heard a lot of good things about it. I wonder if there's any similarities to the later chrome barrel Canon f1.8 lens that dropped the serenar name. But my goodness, now I'm considering giving up my Summicron for that lens now haha.

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mike on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

35mmc is at it's best when good photography is combined with informative writing (like this post) Thanks!
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Thank you so kindly! It's nice to hear that :) I was a bit worried whether or not this one was a bit concise especially after my convoluted first post so haha.

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John F. on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Nice pictures, nice article. I haven't seen too much written about this lens, but it's clear you've got quite a lot of practice with it. What's the screw mount Canon you've got? IIIS, IID?
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Thank you so much! :) Frankly speaking, I felt the same way too in that I haven't found too many articles (at least in English) about this lens, and thought maybe this can be a fun start to the discussion. I bought this lens when I got my Leica M3 (and fresh out of cash for an authentic Leitz lens), thought this would be a good alternative to get that Henri Cartier-Bresson feel and it practically became glued to my M3 the 2 years. Oh! That Canon is the IID if my information is correct. Frankly all the Canon cameras look identical so I think the staff from the camera store were confused as well haha.

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Russ on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Great to see these early Canon lenses getting some deserved attention. I have been working with a Canon IVS lately and enjoying some of the early chrome serenars. That's wonderful info about the origin of the name. In particular that it's named for one of the Moon's "seas". I'm lucky enough to own a 1948 Leitz Summitar. I'd say this serenar is probably closer to the older Summar design in terms of image rendering. Definitely unique! It's great to see street photography but I think your best shots here are the portraits. The young women in Kimonos and the low light shot of the woman with a wine glass in particular. The figure study is fantastic as well.

Thanks for the review and good luck with Grad School!
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Glad to hear you liked the article! I've recently got ahold of an older Canon body as well and I've been having so much fun with it, I was surprised at the quality of the build and the snappy shutter and the Serenar looks perfectly at home on it haha. I was actually thinking the same thing about the name and the image rendering -- I've never had the chance to use an older Leitz Summar but it would make a whole lot more sense that the workers at Canon immediately postwar would take inspiration from designs that came over prewar, and hence have their lens more optically inspired by the older Summar. Thank you so much in regards to the portraits! I've been enjoying using this lens and the M3 for portraits and it's unique rendering helped me get the kind of images I've wanted. Funny story for the two shots: The kimono girls were laughing and having fun as other photographers gathered around them and the two gawked at the old Kyoto aqueduct, they may have felt like they were supermodels in the moment and they frankly were. The shoot with the girl in pearls and wine was actually taken in the subways of Los Angeles and lets just say, me and the group received a lot of interesting comments haha.

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Gary Smith on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Very informative article and great photos! I just looked at my local "candy store" and while they had a LOT of Canon lenses, they only had 3 or 4 LTM Canon lenses and none in this particular flavor. I'm awash in fifties and won't be on a "Holy Grail" search for one of these.
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

I'm jealous that you're awash in the fifties haha, I'm slowly building up a collection of nifty fifties and attempting to adapt some other lenses to the M mount to get fun optical effects. Thank you so much for your kind words :D

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Marcus Gunaratnam on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

I am plagued by memories of old rangefinder Canon cameras with interchangeble lenses. One of the challenges was to take a different topic based photo on a 36 exposure roll. A test of memory indeed especially when one used half frame camera. This article is full of evocative topics and shots, I thank Andrew for it.The images prove what is now common knowledge, that is wide open lenses subtend a softer image and you need to stop down a few 'clicks' down and slow the shutter speed accordingly to get a nice shot,unless you are using electronic flash
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 08/07/2024

Thank you so much :)!

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Alexander Seidler on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 09/07/2024

Great shots Andrew !
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 09/07/2024

Thank you Alexander :)! Glad you like them

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Tony Warren on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 09/07/2024

Excellent article Andrew. Your writing and photography bodes well in your career. I hope your post-grad application is successful.
I have always balked at the price of Leica gear, my Yorkshire up-bringing, and this has revived my interest in the Canon LTM range, particularly the lenses. In the hands of an acclomplished photographer like yourself it is very convincing. All the best. Tony.
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 09/07/2024

Thank you so kindly, it means a lot to hear that :) and I hope so too, I'm aiming for the next autumn semester and It has been a bit nerve wracking. The price of Leica gear over here in Tokyo darn near gave me an aneurism and I'm so glad that I got my M3 when I did as the price (without any exaggeration) doubled 6 months later. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Canon line of LTM lenses, they're quite lovely and have a wide range of optical quality :)! I hope I will be able to live up to your standards in time to come, and thank you so much for your compliment. All the best to you as well, Andrew. Side note: I'm very jealous, I've always wanted to visit Yorkshire and Northern England as a whole.

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Jerome on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

Thanks for this article! It is quite timely because I just received this lens and couldn't find any good info on it. The seller said it had haze, so I was reluctant to try it. I shot a few frames comparing it to two other LTM lenses, and I was surprised by the quality of the images. I like it even more because it was free!
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Andrew Bibee replied:

Comment posted: 10/07/2024

I'm glad my article came out at the perfect timing then! You got it at an even more reasonable rate than me haha. The quality of the lens is quite surprising isn't it? For a lens considered to be a cheap knockoff of Leica's and or come attached with some older Canon barnack clones, it's a surprising workhorse and I hope to photograph more parts of the world with it. Hope your lens bring you as much joy as it did to me :)!

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Paul Quellin on Canon 50mm Serenar f/1.9 – The Serene Beauty of the Japanese Summitar

Comment posted: 11/07/2024

Very pleasant read Andrew and I enjoyed the images. I especially like the 'Kyoto girls in Kimono' image. Its truly lovely picture that shows that edge softness you refer to, especially around the girls feet, but that just helps this image anyway. Interesting read, thank you.
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