Lenses

The Canon 50mm f0.95 – Guest Review by James Fox-Davies

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.

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History

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.

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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.

Mounting issues

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.

Canon095

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.

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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.

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Still. Smaller than a DSLR.

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Focussing

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

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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.

Low Light

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.

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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…

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Contrast

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…

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Colour Rendition

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…

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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.

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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’…

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Softness

Much is made of the ‘glow’ that it can produce when shot wide open.

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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).

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Flare

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-Flare-1

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”>)

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Bokeh

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.

I won’t.

The only way really to convey the ‘look’ of the Canon 50mm f0.95 is to show a few examples.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

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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.

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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,

James


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25 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Hamish Gill
    November 12, 2015 at 8:48 pm

    Thanks James, a great review!!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      jfd
      November 12, 2015 at 8:56 pm

      Thanks, Hamish. A rank amateur’s opinion, but hopefully of use to someone interested in the lens.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    marco north
    November 13, 2015 at 9:34 am

    James – a very honest, humble and forthcoming take on this lens. I thoroughly enjoyed this guest post. Do have any (moving) samples of video shot with this lens?

    best –

    Marco

    • Avatar
      Reply
      JFD
      November 13, 2015 at 11:53 am

      Hi Marco. Thanks for the feedback. I’ll try and take some footage and upload it somewhere (I doubt that 35mmc is the right forum but I’ll post a link). Thanks James

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Erman
    November 13, 2015 at 10:51 am

    wow, i don’t mean to be offensive but that must have been a really expensive conversion/rework for a shitty lens like that. the out of focus areas seem terrible, just look at the photo with the child and the ducks, the outoffocus-people in the background just look bad. depending on the aperture naturally but it does seem to be soft most of the time.. contrast is too heavy for my taste, look at the carousel photo.. i hate the glow and vignetting also is unpleasing to me.. nevertheless the colors are fine to me, giving it its characteristics. the only thing i really like is its looks, especially on the m3.. cool & hefty, definitely nice custom paint job!
    best-

    e

    • Avatar
      Reply
      jfd
      November 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Hi Erman. I’m sorry to hear you don’t like the character of the lens. The bokeh is definitely subjective – I, for example, really like the photo with the ‘child and ducks’. It’s not for everyone; but it is easily my favourite lens regardless of it’s shortcomings – given it’s from the early 1960’s it doesn’t perform too badly. Very sharp lenses leave me with images that feel cold. I’d be interested to know what lenses you like? James

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Erman
        November 14, 2015 at 2:20 am

        i really like sharp lenses like the contax g lenses for example. i agree with you about the coldness in terms of sharpness when it comes to digital.. however on film, it cannot be sharp enough.. especially when it blends together with the grain of the film. there is some kind of vintage character when it comes to the colors.. but still for me the shortcomings wouldn’t be worth the amount of money spent. but then again it’s always cool when people try out new unconventional things. like i said, i really like the looks of the lens, must be fun to shoot with.
        best-
        e

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 13, 2015 at 2:30 pm

      It’s all personal taste – you are of course entirely entitled to not like the images the, and indeed to express an opinion as such. The first comment, the bit where you say “i don’t mean to be offensive”, is slightly offensive though. If you’re going to comment here, try and keep that in check, please 🙂

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Erman
        November 14, 2015 at 2:31 am

        thanks, just couldn’t see my comment right away but others’. that’s the reason why i thought it got censored.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Erman
    November 13, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    wow, critical comments are getting censored. nice attitude.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 13, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      Nothing is censored apart from spam. I only let real people comment. As a real person, you can be as critical as you like

  • Avatar
    Reply
    jeremy north
    November 13, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    Great review James. Whatever anyone says, the best thing is that this is your own project. A very personal camera. Chapeau! I love the concept from start to finish even though it is not to my taste. To take a lens you love and marry it to a camera body you love is the dream of all of us. Unfortunately most of the time it is not possible.
    However, you achieved your goal and while there is a certain Frankenstein look to the result, you harmonised it by chucking it a load of cash but with an end product.
    I like also that you have the Sony as an alternative which will help you get your money’s worth from the conversion. To have just one lens to use and love is another big plus. Stay with it my friend, when photography gets complicated by multiple choice creativity is doomed!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Ian Timothy
    April 26, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Excellent review and proves the point that if you desire to own something special there can be little consideration to cost. I enjoyed using the 0.95 many years ago and I remember the image/effect wide open as unique. There is a special character of this lens and nothing else is or will be the same. My Noctilux f1.0 was purchased when no one wanted them. At the time (1979) this optic had been subject to poor reviews and mine cost three hundred and seventy five pounds. Ask me to compare the Leitz with the Canon. I’ll reply there is no comparison, neither one is better! One cannot compare lenses of differing manufacturers, a Leica resolves in a different way to a Voigtlander or Zeiss. You prove this here with your preference and this shows commitment to personal choice. Which is highly commendable. I am not going off the thread if I comment a fully serviced SV Pentax and the eight element 50mm 1.4 is an incredible combination and this is why I recently spent five times the value having this combination refurbished to ‘as new’! If I only had one camera lens to use it would be the SV and the eight element. No article or test of any camera or lens surpasses the true purpose of intent of this article. Which to my mind says ‘The photographer who discovers a certain lens is right for him and has the confidence to use it above any other will enter into the ‘zen’ and his images will reflect this in a certain uniqueness to him and him alone’ This my friend you have indeed achieved.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    JT
    June 26, 2016 at 2:09 am

    Great review James. I have this lens which I inherited from my father who got it in Japan in the 1960s. I never appreciated it until decades later when I was looking at old slides and could not figure out what was going on with the images. By that I mean, I could not put my finger on the essence of the images, but they definitely had a sense about them. I thought it was the film. Then I got the lens and put it on a Sony A7 and realized it was the lens. Amazing qualities and for me a strong connection to my personal past – dreamlike.

    Oh and… Erman is a troll.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Swanny
    May 16, 2017 at 9:32 pm

    Great review many thanks for sharing, I have the same type of lens a considerable investment for me in the original mount it came with a canon 7 which I shoot it on and indeed this articale along with others was key in my going ahead with the purchase. I’d be interested to know what film you use as I do like the colours and your pictures, I’m thinking I do need to save up for a conversion to M mount I have a user M3 and M9 and that would give me the option of digital whilst keeping film accessible and if any readers know of who I could trust to do it in the uk that would be great as I’m pretty certain Japan would be outside my budget .. my own observations are that it’s definitely a marmite lens but to me oh so special it’s truly as you say a take anywhere take shots anytime lens a real gem to me.

    Beauty and artistic value are in the eye of the beholder and that’s no more true than with the “Dream lens”

    So thanks Hamish and all those who write and those who like me simply read much of the time

    • Avatar
      Reply
      jfd
      May 16, 2017 at 10:59 pm

      Hi. Thanks for the positive feedback. I’m really glad you like the article and the lens. I understand that Aperture UK do the conversion to M-Mount out of their Rathbone Place operation. As for the film, I shoot mainly Cinestill; both 50D and 800T. I love both of them although now I shoot mainly 800T and use an 85B filter it shooting in daylight. If you have any other queries please let me know. Thanks. James

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Kevin
    August 13, 2017 at 7:21 am

    Hi James,
    I really like this post! Amazing pictures! Very sharp when stop down. I am looking for this lens for a while but didn’t find a good one at reasonable price. Please do let me know if you plan to let it go some point in the future.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Volker
    March 19, 2018 at 11:36 am

    Interesting review on a rare lens. Many thanks for that James! Just saw the rare lens hood for this lens being offered: https://www.schouten-select.eu/index.php/products/canon/canon-50mm-f0-95-lens-hood.html

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Reima Eskolin
    March 24, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    It sure is amusing that one must always pay a compliment to Leica users when reviewing other lenses in their sacred camera..sure the Noctilux is VERY sharp etc. In fact Noctilux is nothing special at full aperture, and loses out to Leica’s own cheaper lenses with smaller apertures. Otherwise a good review.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Colin B
    April 13, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    “If you love it, you love it. If you hate it, you hate it…”

    Excellent – that line should be compulsory in every review from now on! Very much enjoyed the write-up. It would be a very boring world if we all agreed with each other..

  • Avatar
    Reply
    S
    November 8, 2018 at 3:11 pm

    Quick question: is the TV coated lens the one to get ? Is the base model, non-TV lens “worse” ?

    • Avatar
      Reply
      jfd
      November 9, 2018 at 12:51 pm

      Hi Steve. I’ve taken a look at Peter Kitchingman’s excellent Canon M39 Rangefinder Lenses 1939-1971 and can see no mention of lens coating variations. In fact, it seems that in each batch of lens production it was pretty arbitrary as to which were for TV designation and which were for still photography. Sorry not to be more help. James

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    Reply
    Tony Oresteen
    November 29, 2018 at 2:23 am

    I love it! Well done on the black paint job!

    I’ve used a Canon 50 f/1.2 lens on a Leica M3 since around 1980. My latest copy I had Don Goldberg match it to my Leica M3-MOT.

    Some day I’ll get a Dream lens as well. These high speed Canon LTM lenses are better than most say that they are.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Chris
    December 23, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    Hi James,

    I read that you had it polish at Kanto Cameras, did you get the front element polished and re-coated? Did your lens initially have scratches on the front element? My copy of the lens has lots of light scratches on the front element from the previous owner. I was thinking whether to send it off to Kanto Cameras to get them to polish it.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      jfd
      December 23, 2018 at 1:49 pm

      Hi Chris. From memory they just polished it, I don’t remember it being re-coated. It did have some light scratches which you could still see if you looked closely enough. It was much better post-Kanto, though. It was also a way smoother mechanism after the service.

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