Fight of the Fifties… – By Bent_Brent

…or: Why you should stop agonising over gear, grab your nearest camera and just shoot shoot shoot.

This was meant to be a very different article. You see, stuck as I was with my family in lockdown, I thought it would be the perfect time to compare a bunch of 50mm lenses in everyday use, from a lowly 50mm 1.7 Minolta to a monstrous 55mm 1.4 Zeiss Otus. I was going to post the results blind, and let you all guess which lens was responsible for which shot – but when I got my scans back from the lab I realised that it was a pointless exercise. Let me explain.

Like most people who’ve spent any length of time half-obsessed with photography gear, I’ve collected an awful lot of 50mm lenses. Some were virtually free, attached to camera bodies I was after. Some were super-cheap to replace kit zooms on camera bodies I was after, and some were more carefully considered.

The idea was to shoot all the lenses on the same emulsion at a lowest-common-denominator aperture of f/2.0, and post them randomly ordered without hints or clues.

The contenders were:

Minolta’s MD 50mm f/1.7 (AU$10) on an XD7.

Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 (AU$100) on an EOS 300X.

Zeiss’ Planar 50mm f/1.4 (AU$1000) on a Nikon F6.

Zeiss’ Otus 55mm f/1.4 (AU$5000) on a Canon EOS 1V.

The emulsion used was Kodak Ultramax 400, because I want to support Kodak wherever I can, and because I’m too skint to burn through pro film at the moment due to Coronavirus-inspired salary cuts.

But here’s the thing; the photos were all lovely. Despite the drug-store film and bargain-bin price, despite the penalty of being almost wide open, despite being attached to an almost 50 year old camera, the little Minolta didn’t put a foot wrong. The little Canon, that’s so cheap-feeling it should come from a Christmas cracker, produced glorious, sharp, saturated shots, shot after shot. The Zeiss Planar, which has an internet-chatroom reputation for being marshmallow soft and unpredictable, was a joy to use and equally, the images were a joy to behold. And the Otus, which is just so heavy that I hardly ever wanted to pick that camera up, produced predictably beautiful shots – just as good as the Minolta, in fact.

The conclusion, which I must admit even surprise me and I regularly use all of these lenses, is that it really, truly, cross my heart, honest to goodness, pinky swear, doesn’t matter one jot which camera you grab when you walk out the door. Just make sure you grab a camera.

It’s probably worth noting that I’m not saying there’s no difference at all between lenses, or that a tiny Minolta fifty is every bit as good as a big fat Zeiss Otus. On modern sensors, wide open, in portrait use or food photography or a great many professional situations, lenses matter. It’s just that, for the vast majority of what I do as a hobbyist, they don’t.


I’m not going to mention what was shot with what, but please feel free to ask or guess in the comments if you’re interested.

And to all of you whose lives have been turned upside down by this stupid virus, all the best for the future. It will pass. Remember, if you’re going through hell, keep going.

All film purchased from Melbourne’s brilliant Walkens House of Film, and processed and scanned by Melbourne’s brilliant Halide Supply lab.

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About The Author

21 thoughts on “Fight of the Fifties… – By Bent_Brent”

  1. Charles Detheridge

    Delighted to read this account of “basic” lenses. When I first started with a “decent” camera, as a teenager, I got the advice of my cousin, who was a semi-professional technical photographer. His advice then was the Zenith E and the Zenith Helios 55mm F2 lens. Since then I have happily used the basic lenses of Practika, Olympus, Canon, and Nikon, I.e. the lenses that came up with the cameras. One or two of them had mild quirks but all produced pictures that I was completely satisfied with .
    Now, after a brief (brief?) dalliance with digital, in the form of a perfectly satisfactory Kodak bridge camera with a remarkably good zoom lens built-in; I have returned to 35mm film cameras and to my delight I have found some old favourite cameras, lenses and accessories, together with some oddities (Olympus101 Power focus – and with its zoom lens an inbuilt weightlifting course!), Friends (Olympus OM 10) and the resurrection of my Practika PLC2, with its electronic lens transmission… And even with an adapter for the PLC2’s Long deleted battery type. Have had to explain to my neighbours young son why he cannot see the pictures immediately like his dads camera … But I am satisfied and hope to get good retirement use of them in the future. The only irritation (As befits a trainee grumpy old man) is this modern word “LUMOGR a PHY“. To me this is photography just as much as my first camera , A brownie 127, was. Just a pity that my favourite slide films no longer exist – Agfa and PERUTZ and Kodachrome 25 and Ektachrome 400. I will just have to learn the name of the new old films.

    1. Excellent collection of cameras there Charles. I was also a bit confused by the films available when I returned to film so after a bit of experimenting I decided for convenience-sake to stick with Kodak for colour, Ilford for B&W. My go-to films are Portra 400 for people, Ektar 100 for things (which is quite slide-filmy in nature, except with miles more latitude), FP4+ for fine grain b&w and HP5+ for its incredible versatility. Having said that, cheap n cheerful GC Ultramax 400 is a great all rounder.

  2. Great article. 50mm is my favourite lens. Not interested in which took what because your image quality and composition speaks volumes. That’s all that matters.

  3. Something I have suspected for a long time. Know the limitations of your equipment and work within those limits. I just ordered an Agfa Clack from a seller in Europe and I can hardly wait to play with it.

  4. Well done!
    Won’t phase those who want to ‘compare’ 50’s with a laughable lack of rigor.
    The vast majority of them are great!

  5. Lilianna Diane Elrod

    Lovely images!!! I agree, unless one blew them up to billboards, there is little to choose between them.
    Fabulous Fifties indeed!!!

  6. Nice photos! Just curious what digital post processing you have applied..your photos seem to be quite saturated and contrasty…

    1. Thanks Dan – mild s-curve on the levels and half a stop of exposure on import. They’re quite saturated straight from the lab, so I sometimes desaturate a bit, but I wanted all of these to be processed identically so I kept it to my regular import settings and no more fiddling.

  7. Nice comparison – it’s very hard to tell the difference. As Minolta and Zeiss are my favorite brands with very different colors, I thought it was easy, but with this Ultramax 400 film I can’t.
    And lenses do matter, but even the Minolta 1.7/50mm (I’m using it since 1983) is good enough for almost everything. I’m taking it out tomorrow on digital and it will deliver as it does on film.

    All the best wishes

  8. Great post Brent. And lovely images.

    With yet another 50 on its way to me thanks to an impulse purchase on eBay (that thanks to covid has taken nearly 5 months to get from somewhere in Russia to Melbourne) I was thinking of doing a similar shootout, but with the lenses in my Sony A7.

    Might just keep on taking a camera with me when I go out instead.

  9. I’m so happy you posted this. What delightful pictures and lovely children!
    I’ve had a not dissimilar experience. I had a blazingly sharp Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens and used it so little that I sold it. Later a friend persuaded me that I really needed a 50mm so I bought a used 50mm f1.8 Nikkor D for $80 USD at The Camera Store in Calgary. On my d810 it proved to be a compact lens that was pleasure to use. I love that the front element is set into the lens body so I don’t need a lens shade. Sharp as the Sigma? Probably not but sharp enough.
    Then, on short notice, I needed to shoot a project that required 30×40 inch prints and a 50mm lens. I obsessed at bit about not having the Sigma, but I’d already set the micro-focus on the Nikkor and tested for the sharpest f-stop, which was in the f 5 to 5.6 range. The 50mm Nikkor did the job. The the prints look just stunning – sharp when you walk right up to them.
    Couldn’t agree more with your advice to just grab your 50 – the one you’ve got – and go shoot.

  10. This is all really good. Your photos, especially- with the realisation that if they are taken from a point triangulated between eye, brain and heart and the kit’s in reasonable working order, then the lens doesn’t matter that much. These are simply beautiful pictures, and thanks for sharing them with us, with your commentary.
    It’s why this blog is good, and thanks to Hamish, that reviews of things are a bit like pieces in the London Review Of Books, sometimes they are technically reviews and sometimes the item reviewed is merely a springboard for some beautiful writing about how photography makes us feel. There’s some good kvetching in the comments sometimes, too!
    One of my favourite moments is when I show off a photo (I have some reasonable glass at my disposal) and friends say, oh, that was the Rolleiflex or the Pentax, right? A lot of the time the shot was taken with a favourite 1950s 50mm f3. 5 Color Skopar on a Voigtlander Vito B that can be had for £10, and that feels pretty good, too.

  11. Nice photographs. As they are not numbered the only way to identify them is to make a description of their visual content when trying to guess which is made by which lens. I find two pictures made with the Zeiss Otus (1. the boy looking down to the water with his left hand out of focus at the background; 2. the same boy with an umbrella and blue crocodile shoes). I attribute three pictures to the Zeiss Planar (1. children at the seashore on the thick bricks barrier; 2. the boy playing with a scoop – green grass and green bucket nearby; 3. the formula car on the wall). Two landscape pictures (one with cows and another one with trees at the fence on the right side of the frame) must be made with the Minolta’s MD, while the remaining ones – with the Canon’s EF. Of course, this is only my guess based on some photographic experience.

  12. Lovely Photographs. I did a big round of similar testing a year ago, and the sharpest lens in my testing was a Minolta 50/1.7 MD.
    Same with 35mm. Sharpest and best was Minolta 35/2.8 MD. I was surprised, to say the least.

  13. I have three 50mm lenses: a 50/2.8 Elmar, a 50/2 Summicron (collapsible) and a 50/1.4 LTM Canon. The choice of which to take on a particular outing is a tradeoff between size/weight and maximum aperture. The resulting negatives are indistinguishable.

  14. Excellent article and thoughts! Lovely images… and I’m glad you didn’t do the guessing game because in the end, the feelings evoked from all the beautiful shots is what matters. Thank you for sharing!

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