I own a couple of interesting cameras and lenses, but there is one that I use 95% of the time, the Canon 50mm f0.95 ‘dream lens’. As you might have recently read, this is a lens I had converted to M-mount and customised along with a matching Leica M3 – this is my review of it.
(the photo above is courtesy of Japan Camera Hunter)
Anyone, who’s engaged me in conversation about camera geekery will have noticed that I have a bit of a thing for Canon LTM lenses on Leica bodies and this is the ultimate representation of that.
Like most people when researching any lens purchase, I read as many online reviews as I can find. In this instance all I could find were a few over the top reviews hailing it as some sort of ‘ultimate bokeh must-have’ and then a number of forums where the comments sections rubbished it as not fit for modern photography.
With this review I’d like to add my experience to the list and if it helps anyone in their decision whether to purchase one or not, then great – job done.
There are a number of online reviews (from the Leica and Sony fraternity) that cover the majority of the basic history of the 50mm 0.95 – it’s launch with the Canon 7 rangefinder and it being the fastest lens available for the time. However, I’d strongly recommend that for anyone looking for an in-depth history of the lens should read Peter Kitchingman’s wonderful book ‘Canon M39 Rangefinder Lenses 1939 – 1971. A whole chapter is dedicated to the ‘dream lens’.
My précis version is as follows:
The lens was introduced in June 1961 and was released in a total of 5 versions (1 prototype, 1 Type 1 and 3 types specifically made as TV lenses). The lens was dubbed the ‘Dream Lens’ early on after it’s release by British photojournalists and Canon’s sales team at the time jumped on the bandwagon. My version is a Type 1 lens dated sometime between 1961 and 1970 and there were some 19,456 units made in that period.
At 600 grams in weight and 76mm in diameter it is a monster.
I purchased my version in the original flange mounting for the Canon 7 from Germany, but immediately sent it off (along with a chrome Leica M3 on which I wanted to shoot it) to Bellamy Hunt aka Japan Camera Hunter (JCH) in Tokyo to be modified.
Bellamy arranged for a full disassembly, clean, polish, reassembly and black bespoke repaint of the lens by Kanto Camera in Tokyo (so if the images below confuse you with what else is out there, I apologise now). In the original the lettering is mainly white and the body has some chrome elements. Kitchingman’s book can explain the various variations in wording on the lens face and what those mean in terms of production date, type and volume.
Subsequent to the repaint JCH arranged for it to be sent off for a conversion to M-mount by Miyazaki Sadayasu at MS Optical and then a final calibration with the M3 to make sure that the rangefinder was as accurate as possible.
You might wish to note that I think that the TV lens versions cannot be rangefinder coupled and as a result they often trade at a discount to the Type 1 variants.
When it arrived back in the UK it was like a brand new lens. With it’s new paint job, smooth focus ring, polished glass, this was like shooting with a new lens right out of the box.
When mounting on a Leica M3 (or any other Leica for that matter) the sheer size of the Canon 50mm f0.95 does cause some issues. The lens release button is obscured by the lens making it impossible for fingers to reach in and remove the lens. To get around this I carry wooden toothpicks in my camera case for the rare occasions when I want to change lens while out shooting. The wood stops me scratching the paint where a metal object might. For someone who likes to change lenses a lot while out shooting I could see this being a real pain.
Some people have commented that they think the camera looks unsuited to the M3; like it’s been tacked on as an afterthought, but I couldn’t disagree more. This is going to be personal preference whether you like it or not, though.
Mounted on a Leica M to Sony E Fotodiox adaptor there is no issue and the lens attaches and releases with (relative) ease.
However, using the Voigtlander M to E close focus adaptor is not as easy as the lens obscures the release button as with the M3. However, the benefit of the close focus option (i.e. being able to focus down to about 40mm) is worth the hassle of carrying a tool to allow the disengaging of the lens.
Once mounted this is easily one of the nicest (for want of a more descriptive word) user experiences I’ve ever had.
Both on the Leica M3 and Sony a7ii the lens feels perfectly balanced with a brick-like solidity. It really feels like it was made for each of the cameras (mounting and dismounting aside) and actually feels like the centre of gravity for each is smack bang in the middle of the set up. At no point have I thought that the lens felt overbalanced even though it looks it on both. I wouldn’t want to drop it on my toe, though.
However, one thing I would mention is that both setups are very heavy and a day out shooting can give you cause for some neck pain if you have either of these hanging from a camera strap all day. I tend to keep them in a bag most of the time and then hand hold them for the duration of shooting. My arm does get tired after a while and I’d imagine a whole day with it would be a cause for some arm ache.
Still. Smaller than a DSLR.
Much has been made of the issues with focussing the Canon 50mm f0.95 on rangefinder cameras and, although I can appreciate that this is a problem at f0.95 due to the incredibly narrow depth of field, with some care and a well-calibrated rangefinder I find the hit rate of in-focus to out-of-focus is more than acceptable. Furthermore, with practice I have found that I have come to know its limits and shoot accordingly.
As with many Canon rangefinder lenses, and indeed many vintage lenses in general, the focus throw is a very long 180 degrees. On such a large lens this feels quite cumbersome when focussing from one extreme to the other, however, again I have learned to always set my lens to infinity and make most of the distance adjustments before bringing the camera to my eye for the shot.
I have added a Taab lens tab which allows easier focussing. With a bit of practice it aids quicker focussing and doesn’t take long at all to help you fix focus for certain distances just by learning where the tab should sit for each distance. It (at a stretch) just fits over the huge lens if you choose the ‘hefty’ size. But it’s a well made product and I find it also helps protect the lens by angling the tab down when resting the camera and lens on flat surfaces. TAAB
On the Sony a7ii the focussing (even at f0.95) is simplified. The customisable buttons on the Sony have meant that with ‘focus peaking’ and ‘focus enlarging’ focussing is quick and easy .
At smaller apertures, even from f2 onwards the lens is pretty sharp and I see no real difference between this and a lot of modern lenses. Even blown up, I find no real reason to complain. I imagine there are people out there who want seriously sharp images in which case a Leica Noctilux will probably be a better bet. I’ve never tried one; I’m sure it’s very sharp.
One of the main reasons for me purchasing this particular lens was that I could take it anywhere due to its size (in comparison to some DSLR 50mms and the Noctilux it’s ‘relatively’ discreet. Ok, maybe that’s pushing it but it certainly isn’t some in your face zoom.) Also, I can take it out day or night due to its speed. Coupled with a high-speed film, this really is a good film set up for low light photography.
The Sony a7ii (with its high ISO settings and low noise) takes this a step further and I have found myself using this setup when I might well have given up shooting with anything else. I’d love to know what it’s like with the Sony a7s…
I find the contrast on the Canon 50mm f0.95 to be excellent. I have seen one review, however, where the lens was accused of being low contrast but this is not something I’ve experienced with my copy. And if there is, then there’s always the Lightroom contrast slider…
I’ve been talking to someone who really knows his lenses, and even he has said that colour rendition is a difficult subject which I should probably avoid. However, in the interest of making a fool of myself and in order to give me an opportunity to post some colourful images, here goes…
I’m never really sure if it’s the lens or the film, but I have always liked the colours out of the Canon 50mm f0.95.
Feel free to correct me if it has nothing to do with the lens.It’s probably not. In fact, ignore this section. Let’s move on to ‘softness’…
Much is made of the ‘glow’ that it can produce when shot wide open.
This is definitely an effect that you will either love or hate but is only really noticeable at f0.95 and even then, only on some images.
For those who like to shoot wide open, who love your shallow depth of field, and are happy with it’s soft rendering and bokeh (more of that later) then this is definitely an attractive lens (for me at least).
I have not been able to find a lens hood yet and am not sure I really want one. The lens is large enough as it is.
I have experienced flaring with the Canon 50mm f0.95 when shot into the sun only once or twice. In fact, I have had to trawl through a few hundred photos to find the example below, so it doesn’t seem to be any more common than with any other lens.
Lens fall off in the corners
Quite often I have experienced fall off in the corners of pictures. I must confess that I really like this effect and often seek out vignette-producing lenses. If you don’t like the effect then maybe this is not the lens for you (<pats pocket, reaches for wallet, googles “Noctilux”>)
the Canon 50mm f0.95 is well known for it’s rendering of the out of focus areas when shot wide open. In fact, every review I have found on the internet goes into huge descriptions of the bokeh produced by this lens.
The only way really to convey the ‘look’ of the Canon 50mm f0.95 is to show a few examples.
If you love it, you love it. If you hate it, you hate it…
Shallow Depth of Field
As mentioned in the the Canon 50mm f0.95 has an incredibly shallow depth of field. It’s one of the reasons I bought it.
Using the lens for video
The Canon 50mm f0.95 was used extensively for a number of years as a TV lens and still offers a great look when used with the video function of the a7ii. It even stands up to 4k scrutiny.
The long focus throw is a big help when trying to follow focus (I find modern lenses with their short throws incredibly difficult to use). At some point I’ll set this up on a rig with a follow focus and I’ll post an update and maybe a video.
I have quite a few rangefinder lenses and this is by far and away my favourite. Scrap that. This is my favourite lens of any system that I’ve tried.
The solid feel of its construction, the weight and balance that it adds to the Leica M3 and the smooth focus make it a joy to use. And if ever I get into an altercation in a street photography situation I can always drop it on a protagonist’s toes.
The images that I get from it are sharp stopped down and have incredible bokeh when shot wide open. The 50mm focal length suits the way I shoot and the low light capability means I can take it pretty much anywhere with me.
All in all, if I could only have one lens and one camera it would be the Canon 50mm f0.95 on the Leica M3.
Over the past few years these lenses have increased in price exponentially and with the advent of mirrorless full frame systems I can only really think that this rise will continue. If you really like the look you get with the Canon 50mm f0.95 and you want a fast fifty then this is a great option.
Thanks for reading,