Lenses

Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 LTM Lens – A Mini-Review of 1960s Optical Excellence – by Andrew Morang

March 11, 2020

Long-term 35MMC readers recall that I have used my dad’s Leica IIIC rangefinder camera for decades. He bought it at the Post Exchange in Guam in 1949 and used it for family photos in Asia and Europe. It was equipped with a Leitz Summitar 5 cm ƒ/2.0 collapsible-barrel lens. The Summitar was a remarkable 7-element optic of pre-WWII design. My sample has noticeable field curvature and displays a lot of aberrations at ƒ/2.0 and ƒ/2.8. By ƒ/4.0 and smaller, the aberrations are barely noticeable.

But I often take pictures of architecture and wanted a lens that was more uniform over the entire field and maybe offered better resolution. But which lens to choose? Tens or hundreds of Leica thread-mount (ltm) lenses were made in the 20th century by German, Russian, and Japanese optical companies. How could I find the right one?

Alternative Lenses

If money were no object (you know that fairy tale), Leica offered a limited production of their superb  Type 5 50mm Summicron in 1999 with the 39mm ltm rather than the contemporary bayonet M mount. I checked eBay and saw copies being sold by Hong Kong companies for over $2000. The even more rare Leica 50mm ƒ/1.4 Summilux Type V in ltm is $3400. OK, above my budget.

Leica also issued their Type 2 Summicron in thread mount from 1960-1963. But this is another rare collector (= expensive) item. I have a Type 2 Summicron-DR in M mount, but there is no way that an M-mount lens can be fitted to the older thread-mount camera bodies.

I wanted a vintage lens as opposed to one of the modern Voigtlander (= Cosina) or Konica ltm lenses, which meant a 1950s or 1960s optic. It surprised me that the 1950s and 1960s ltm lenses from Minolta (Rokkor), Fujinon, Topcor, Tanar, Yashica, and Konica Hexar sell for hundreds, I suppose because of their rarity.

Soviet ltm lenses physically fit the Leica bodies but may have focussing issues because of a difference in the standard used for the focal length. Many users (including Hamish) claim to experience no focus no problems, but I decided to stick with a lens specifically made for the Leica standard. Also, Soviet lenses suffer from highly variable quality control and material selection.

The Canon Camera Company made sophisticated interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras from the mid-1940s through 1972. The 7 series was especially innovative, according to Cameraquest. By the late-1960s, the single lens reflex (SLR) camera was dominant in the marketplace and Canon ended production of their innovative Canon 7S rangefinder in 1972. Leica and some of the Eastern Block companies continued to make interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras after the late-1960s, but most used bayonet-mount lenses. I remember visiting a camera store in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1976 or 1977, and they still had some new Canon ltm lenses in stock.

Thankfully, Canon’s 50mm lenses were designed for the exact same mount and focus design as the Leica thread cameras, so they would work correctly on my IIIC. Canon offered 50mm lenses in ƒ/3.5, 2.8, 2.2, 2.0, 1.9, 1.8, 1.5, 1.4, and 1.2 maximum apertures. A remarkable ƒ/0.95 version only fit on the Canon 7 bodies. The early post-war lenses were very heavy with chrome-plated brass bodies. I wanted one of the later and lighter-weight versions, so that meant theType 2 ƒ/2.2, ƒ/1.8, or ƒ/1.4 models.

For more information about ltm lenses:

The ƒ/1.8 and ƒ/1.4 models were by far the most common, which directed my search. But I learned that many (a majority?) of the Type 2 ƒ/1.8 lenses suffer from haze on the glass element behind the aperture. I never found a solid answer why this develops, but the haze or scum etches the coating and even the glass. That left one choice: the gorgeous and well-regarded ƒ/1.4 lens, sometimes called the “Japanese Summilux.” Japanese and Hong Kong eBay vendors offer these lenses in varying conditions and prices.

Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 ltm lens Ser. 77543

Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 ltm lens Ser. 77543

Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 ltm lens Ser. 77543

After a bit of searching, I bought this beauty from a Japanese eBay seller. He claimed there were some scratches on the coating, but I cannot see them. The coating is single layer, not multi as in 1970s and newer lenses. Mine is a Type 2, but I do not know the exact date because I have been unable to find a chronology of older Canon lens serial numbers. The lens is a modified Gaussian design with six elements in four groups. The aperture has the modern progression of stops from ƒ/1.4 to ƒ/22 with nice precise clicks. The red R represents the focus adjustment for infrared film. The filter size is 48mm. I ordered a vented hood from one of the Chinese eBay vendors (about $3) as well as some used 48mm filters, and I was ready to take pictures.

Some other reviews of the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4:

It is difficult to tell what the 1.4 lens cost when it was current. A 1963 Modern Photography showed $210. But a 1968 Modern showed only $126.

Examples

When I first received the lens, I mounted it on my Fuji X-E1 digital camera and did some tests to compare with a Leica Summicron, Olympus-OM 50mm Auto-Macro, and a couple other lenses. For a moment, I thought I might show some of the examples here, but that is pixel-peeping for the brick wall and cat whisker “D” crowd. You 35MMC readers deserve real photographs.

Pickup Truck, Sontag-Nola Road, Sontag, Mississippi, USA

Gas Station, Beauregard Road, Beauregard, Mississippi

These two frames are from one of my exploration trips south of Jackson in central Mississippi. They are from Kodak BW400CN film, which is a bit grainy but suits the subject matter. I discovered a pinhole in a shutter curtain, but Don Goldberg (DAG Camera) recommended that I touch it up with cloth paint.

Old Country Store, Lorman, Mississippi (Fuji Acros 100 film)

The Old Country Store has been in business in Lorman, Mississippi, since the late-1800s. It is now a restaurant serving quite good southern cuisine. I was pleased to see that the lens did not cause any blooming around the fluorescent lights. Fuji Acros 100 film is superb. I hope the new Acros II is similar.

Old Country Store, Lorman, Mississippi

One of the odd quirks of the Old Country Store is the thousands of business cards stapled to the walls. Some have survived since the 1950s.

Susan and Martha, Old Country Store, Lorman, Mississippi

The charming lady on the right grew up in Lorman in the 1930s. She remembers when the store sold seed, farm goods, and tools, and when her uncle brought timber to the railroad siding using oxen.

Bridge over Stouts Bayou, Avenue B, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Architectural Salvage, 2512 Washington St., Vicksburg, Mississippi (note pinholes in curtain)

The IIIC is a nice walkaround camera because it is small and quiet. It is a bit smaller than my Leica M2, but I must say, the M2 is faster to operate.

Summary

As you can tell, this is a splendid lens. The focus on my IIIC is correct, the resistance from flare excellent, and the “look” is perfect for my type of photography. At a little over $100, it was an amazing bargain. Here is a summary:

The Good:

  • Superb craftsmanship, typical 1960s Japanese optical excellence
  • Excellent optical quality
  • Easy to find filters at 48mm
  • Long throw for focus (which I like)
  • Good resistance to flair (see the restaurant photograph above)
  • Correct focus for Leica ltm body (no data on Russian ltm bodies)

The Inconvenient

  • Rather large and it blocks the view of the Leica’s viewfinder; need an auxiliary 50mm finder.
  • Big piece of glass may make the optic susceptible to burning sun pinholes in the shutter curtain. I need to test further because I never experienced this with my 5cm Summitar.

All in all, this is a superb optic. I have no issues with the optical quality or rendering (and no, I wont do the bokeh nonsense). But as you can see, this 1.4 lens is a big cylinder, and when coupled with the auxiliary viewfinder, it rather undoes the elegant compactness of the little Leica body. Therefore, I am not sure how much I will use for travel. Maybe I should go the opposite direction – try a ƒ/3.5 Elmar? Hmmm…..

 

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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Steve L New
    March 11, 2020 at 10:23 am

    You should be able to find the production date of your lens here: https://web.archive.org/web/20110220193534/http://www.canonrangefinder.servehttp.com/?page=lenses

    • Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      March 11, 2020 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks! I did not know this material was in the archive. I checked the lens dates:
      “Approx date issued:
      1/61 to 12/70?
      Serial # range:
      31241 to 120705”

      Mine is 77543, so if we assume approx. even manufacture over the years, mine would be from about 1965.

  • Reply
    David Hill
    March 11, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    The Canon 1.4 LTM is a really fine lens, and if you paid “a little more than $100” you got a remarkable bargain. They’re typically twice that and more. The Canon 50/1.4 and it’s counterpart from Nikon are very highly regarded — my notes say “the best of the classic 50’s”. No slouch, that. I wish I had one 🙂
    Yes it’s a bit large on the iiic body — the 50/1.8 would probably suit better, and the 50/2.2 even more so (both are fine lenses and you can find Hamish’s discussions of both on 35mmc).
    From my experience the 1.8’s which have not already succumbed to the haze issue appear to remain in good form. It’s a similar design as the 1.4 (both are 6/4 double gauss) and is also very very fine — referring to my notes again, I find the remark from some reviewer: “Indistinguishable from 50/2 Summicron”. I’m not capable of making that comparison but my personal experience has been very satisfying. It’s typically a bit less expensive than the 1.4 (but the price you quoted for your 1.4 blows that equation out of the water).
    The Canon 50/2.2 is quite small and would match well to a iiic body. It’s a bit of a surprise—designed and marketed as an economy lens for the P or 7 in the home market, it’s astonishingly good. Its relatively rare and seems to be popular lately so today’s prices exceed the 1.8.
    For the other Canon 50’s —I have no personal experience and refer to my notes again — the 2.8 is an economy design and apparently performs like one; the 1.9 (Serenar) is an older design, a precursor to the 1.8 and is soundly exceeded by that; the 1.2 is big and fast and has some fine qualities but loses the technical excellence of the 1.4/1.8 in its quest for speed. The 0.95 is rare and expensive and in a class apart: like the 1.2 but more so: it’s huge and fast and dreamy, but it’s not LTM — it only mounts to the external bayonet mount added to the Canon 7. I’ve seen a few M-mount conversions, but beware—some of those are TV camera versions and lack rangefinder coupling.

  • Reply
    bwf
    March 11, 2020 at 4:02 pm

    Nice article about a fantastic lens! Definitely one of my favorite 50mm lenses.

  • Reply
    Roger B.
    March 11, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    The source book on Canon LTM optics is “Canon M39 Rangefinder Lenses 1939-1971” by Peter Kitchingman. This book is hard to find, but I secured a new copy just a couple years ago via eBay, direct from the author. This book picks up where Peter Dechert’s slim tome on Canon rangefinder bodies leaves off. According to Kitchingman, your s/n 77543 f1.4 is a “type 2” (Kitchingman’s classification system), made between Jan 1961 and Dec 1970. The s/n range is 30241 thru 120705. This info agrees with the data provided by commentor Steve L New. The 50/1.4 is indeed superb, considered by we Canon RF fans as the best 50 Canon made (and the same claim can be made for the 50/1.4 in FL and FD mounts for Canon SLRs.

  • Reply
    Graham Orbell
    March 11, 2020 at 7:11 pm

    A nice lens. Pinholes in Leica and other shutters are usually caused by someone sometime carrying around the camera without using a lens cap. Just a moment pointing at the sun is enough to burn a hole. With any camera, shutter or viewfinder damage could result. I’m not sure about the latest mirrorless cameras?

    • Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      March 11, 2020 at 8:06 pm

      Graham, you are right about the vulnerability with rangefinder bodies. But single lens reflex cameras were more immune because with the mirror down, light was deflected up through the prism and then out the eyepiece. Thanks for writing.

  • Reply
    Graham Orbell
    March 11, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    Regarding my comment regarding sun damage. This of course applies mainly to cameras with focal plane shutters.

    • Reply
      Graham Orbell
      March 12, 2020 at 7:28 pm

      KODACHROMEGUY. Yes reflex cameras are less vulnerable to sun strike but the sun’s rays still focus on the plastic or glass screen inside the viewfinder. That can be in either direction, from the eyepiece or the camera lens. Video cameras as well as still cameras used for video are also potentially vulnerable to sun strike as the sensor is exposed for a longer time during use. I personally had a Canon video camera viewfinder damaged by sun strike while I was filming in Australia. In that case it was the eyepiece lens that focused the sun on the viewfinder screen during a pause in filming. The danger is greater in the part of the world where I live; in NZ and Australia than some other countries. I’m simply suggesting the use of lens caps and caution at other times. I recall seeing a Leica ( M3 I think ) where the owner complained of multiple light streaks on his photos. We discovered that he had been carrying the camera around without using a lens cap.

  • Reply
    Jonathan Leavitt
    March 11, 2020 at 11:17 pm

    For comparison, I’ve got nearly twenty 50mm RF lenses for the Leica M cameras, including two Summicrons, and a whole suite of the Nikkors from that time. No question this Canon F1.4 is a great value for the money. They don’t cost a lot ($300 in good condition) and their quality is very good. The Nikkor F2 in a Leica thread mount is also an excellent lens for not very much money, but it’s only an F2. The “dream” effect you get wide open adds great atmosphere to shots in dim nightclubs and streets at night.

  • Reply
    Brian
    March 11, 2020 at 11:50 pm

    I suspect that Canon used a lubricant for a part of the production period of their lenses that reacted badly with the new high index of refraction/ low dispersion glass that many of newer lenses used. The older all chrome lenses that I’ve seen do not get the same damage. I’ve seen damaged 50/1.8’s, 50/1.4’s, 50/2.8’s, 50/1.2’s, and 100/3.5’s- about 50% or more. At some point- Canon must have quit using it. I have an early 50/1.2 with perfect glass, same with a 50/1.8 and 50/1.4. Either Canon changed the lubricant, or the lenses were CLA’d early in life.

    When getting any of the Canon Black lenses- best to have a return privilege.

    Took me 3 tries for an F1.2:
    https://cameraderie.org/threads/canon-50-1-2-in-leica-thread-mount.37767/

    Even more tries for the 50/1.8,

    https://cameraderie.org/threads/canon-50mm-f1-8-later-black-version.49830/

    Took the F1.4 and F1.2 to a Museum for some comparisons.
    https://cameraderie.org/threads/canon-50mm-f-1-4-ltm.37719/#post-369266

    Prices on the Canon 50/1.4 are way down- half of what they were 15 years ago. They are a bargain.

    • Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      March 12, 2020 at 1:07 am

      Outgassing from some lubricant is the most common hypothesis that I have seen regarding to the etching of the inner elements. But among the recent sales from Japan, the 50 ƒ/1.4 lenses are usually all right, while the 50 ƒ/1.8 versions are almost 100% affected by haze. Were they made on a different production line? Did they use a different lubricant? Was the 1.4 sealed differently so that gas could escape? It is a mystery. Thanks for writing.

  • Reply
    Pham Anh
    March 12, 2020 at 2:39 am

    The vapor from oil which comes from the separation of old grease is the reason for haze on Canon 50mm. I have a 50mm 1.4 ltm which is also suffer from this issue, and I’m not the only one. A simple disassembly to clean the element will fix this, and to prevent it to return on future, cleaning old grease and relube on helicoid (more complicated job) is needed.

    • Reply
      Brian
      March 12, 2020 at 1:53 pm

      Disassembling the lens and cleaning the haze does not always work- it depends on how heavy the haze, and how long it has been in place. The lubricant used is caustic to the type of glass that Canon used. Think of it as a early version of the corrosion on Leica sensors using the S8612 glass. I’m on my 4th Canon 50/1.4, two clean glass, one minimal damage, and one unusable.

      The clean 50/1.8 that I have is a relatively early one with 11 aperture blades. The chrome versions usually clean up nicely, I got lucky on the latest 50/1.8. As MO in Wall-E says, “all-Clean, All-Clean”. On the Canon 100/3.5: I bought later FL an an R Series lens to replace the bad elements in 3 Leica mount lenses.

  • Reply
    Alvaro
    March 14, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    Nice contrast on that car shots. I like to shoot the chromogeic B&W films at an additional stop (200) or two in harsh sunlight, that way they come out very very clean, almost no grain.

    • Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      March 15, 2020 at 5:12 am

      Thank you for the hint. I have not tried the C-41 B&W films at 200. I think I have only 2 rolls of BW400CN left, so there little chance to do much experimenting. I like this film because the infrared function in my Plustek scanner cleans up most of the scratches or blobs. Fuji Acros looks great with this Canon 1.4 lens.

  • Reply
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    April 18, 2020 at 10:11 am

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  • Reply
    Seppo H
    August 8, 2020 at 10:52 am

    About Peter Kitchingman’s book “Canon M39 Rangefinder Lenses 1939-1971”: it is really the ultimate source about all these Canon rangefinder lenses. Kitchingman is an active member in the Canon Historical Society group in Facebook, and I believe he may still have these books available.
    I have a nice copy of the 50/1.4, and like it a lot.

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