This is the text of the page that had its debut in 2001 and (for better or worse) helped trigger Hexar-mania. Last update was late February 2018.
Overview: (Scratching off where there was grime)..”H-E-X-A-R.” Captain, HXR is a Canonet that was sent out of our solar system in the late 1960s. It encountered a machine planet where the computers examined it, understood its mission, and elaborated on its mechanics. It grew, and it evolved… and gained consciousness.
Generalities: Autofocus camera with high-speed 35mm f/2 lens and leaf shutter. Form factor is similar to a Leica M.
History: the Hexar came about in 1992, reportedly a last vanity project for the Konica engineers who worked on the FT-1. Or so the story goes. Some of the key technologies on the Hexar, such as a sealed lens barrel, projected brightline finder (zoom on some models, albeit always with fixed framelines), and tri-window AF showed up first on the 1988 models MR640 (weather resistant) and shock-resistant Genba Kantoku (“Site Supervisor”), a ruggedized camera designed for construction sites. In fact, the wind motor of the Genba K. sounds like the Hexar in “loud” mode.
Do you also see a resemblance to the Fuji GA645 with the autofocusing side-pod module?
Before you confuse the Genba K. with a poor man’s Hexar, understand that the lens and operation are totally different; the Genba Kantoku has a 40/3.5 (3 elements, 3 groups) or 40/3.5-60/5.2 bifocal lens (3/3 and 6/6) of completely different construction. And on the Genba Kantoku, here are your controls. All of them: flash on. Flash off. Self-timer. Manual rewind. No nonsense here.
Later models of the Genba Kantoku (the 28mm and 35mm second-generation models in 1994) apparently acquired the Hexar’s funky electronic shutter and accordingly had maximum shutter speeds of 1/280 sec.
Construction. The construction is all metal, with the exception of the top and bottom covers, which are a period-typical black chrome (or bright chrome) plated on polycarbonate. Which is a good thing because if they were brass covers, this would be a very heavy camera. Konica made a big deal about the front barrel being a heavy alloy casting to add the retention of precision in focusing.
Lens. The lens is the Hexar’s raîson d’etre. In fact, it is legendary.
The 35mm f/2 Hexar (actually, Hexanon) lens has the imaging qualities of the 35/2 Leica Summicon-M and the general design of the Nikon 3.5cm f/1.8 W-Nikkor (the rangefinder lens from the 1950s and 60s – you know, the one whose Leica screwmount version sells for $1,800 and up today). Konica won’t go further than to call the design “Gaussian,” but Nikon has acknowledged on its 1001 Nights Site that this is a Nikkor derivative. Konica’s own technical materials reflect this design intent, although they also mention a slight recomputation aimed at allowing an electronically controlled aperture and shutter to be inserted between the lens groups. The aperture has 6 blades that form a perfect circle down to f/5.6, after which point, aperture shape is not that important.
This lens has been revised slightly and rereleased as the 35/2L Hexanon (chrome) and its optical twin, the 35/2 UC Hexanon (black paint), both in Leica mount. These are beautiful lenses run in limited numbers (1,000 and 2,000 respectively).
The lens out of the original Hexar AF has been independently converted by many into a Leica M lens (though this takes a lot of work and frankly is not as elegant as Konica’s own ported versions). But it is a lot cheaper way to do it.
This camera featured in a Konica white paper that discussed the camera’s total control of chromatic aberration. It also posts some impressive MTF compared to the lenses whose formula and optics it replicates. Wide-open, it exhibits a very smooth falloff from the center; at f/5.6 it is uniformly great.
Viewfinder: The viewfinder is a 0.7x window, with crosshair reticle for 2-channel infrared autofocusing, green light for focus confirmation, focused-distance indicator, shrinking-field, parallax-corrected projected framelines, and +/- indicators for over/underexposure. The front and back covers are glass, which is good for durability.
Rangefinder and limitations: It is probably not a stretch to say that this camera has the most sophisticated active autofocusing system ever put in a camera. The heart of the system is a unique 2-channel infrared rangefinding system that gauges distance in 290 steps out to about 10m. It uses a central emitter and two receptors to help eliminate errors caused by parallax or subject reflectivity. If the camera fails to see a return IR beam, it focuses to 20m, which is the hyperfocal distance of its 35mm f/2 lens.
That is already insanely good, but the camera then applies an aperture-specific focus correction to account for focus shift (also described in a Konica white paper). The Hexar’s lens is optimized for wide-open operation; its spherical aberration causes the focus point to shift as the apertures get smaller. The Hexar calculates this error and corrects as its goes. Too bad AF SLRs don’t have this feature.
But wait. This camera also can automatically compensate for 750nm or 850nm infrared film, too. No IR marks, no guesswork.
And for the free set of steak knives, the camera’s AF system is temperature-calibrated as well.
If you need true infinity focus, you hit the MF button once. If you hold it down, you can set your distance manually (and the camera remembers every time you come back – useful for hyperfocal technique).
Nice design features: Programming, programming, programming. This camera is built around a first-rate lens and two key concepts. One is hyperfocal focusing. The other is perfect balancing of flash using a combination of techniques, including traditional distance-aperture programming, rear-curtain synch, and stopping-down mid-exposure. It is important to note that the Hexar cannot use high-voltage flash units like the early Vivitar 283. Only modern, low-synch-voltage units should be used to avoid frying the internal circuitry.
The black model features a silent drive that slows focusing and advance to the point of being absolutely silent. Even in that mode, it still focuses and advances faster than you can. In fact, this camera can focus, compute exposure, and control flash in complete darkness. Instantly. You can add silent mode and a number of other advanced features to the Hexar Silver, etc. through a control sequence that you can find on the ‘net.
Odd design limitations: 1/250 second top speed. Not that odd, really, if you consider the clear aperture those shutter blades have to cross and the fact that electronically-controlled shutters have different design limitations. Did you really think your Canonet QL17 shoots 1/500 at a true 1/500? Didn’t think so. Some people complain that you can’t use 800 ASA film with this camera outside. That misses the point, which is that you use lower-speed film to take advantage of the lens’s resolving power. Even 400-speed film is pefectly adequate, as in the big picture below (Kodak Supra 400). There is no cable or remote release, but I am not sure if this is a problem in a camera without a mirror to cause vibration. It does have a self-timer.
- For the complainers about the top shutter speed, the workarounds should be fairly obvious: for outside shots (or inside with flash) get an ND8 filter, which takes a 3200-speed film down to 400. You will have to make sure that you change the ISO setting.
- Another way is to just change films mid-roll, which is easy on this camera. When the camera reaches the end of the roll (which takes a lot longer than you think), it rewinds the film. Or you can use a ballpoint to press the manual rewind button. When the leader is about to be sucked into the canister, the camera pauses for 3 seconds, displaying [–]. This is your cue to open the back and take the leader-out cartridge. Otherwise, it finishes rewinding and displays . The film advance is precise enough that the camera can be shot with one roll of film, rewound, loaded with another type, switched back to the first, and advanced (lens cap on) to the same spot on the first film (hence the leader-out). Go two frames past where you left off (you can actually do one).
In Operation: With a very short learning curve, this camera is a snap. Ergonomics are identical to an M6 with a grip. On P, you set it to your preferred aperture and it stays as close as it can without blowing your lowest hand-holdable shutter speed. Metering is dead-on, and the whole thing is so quiet most people think it’s digital — or ask when you are going to take the picture (although you already had). The shutter is completely vibration-free. Flash operation is perfect every time, even more accurate than TTL, because it is not thrown by subject reflectivity.
Balance/feel: This camera balances really well and feels really solid, which is all you really need. The wheel that controls the aperture is on the top, and accessible by your right forefinger. It feels… good. It could use textured grips, but it’s not a big deal.
Durability: It’s a tank. Well, two (major) incidents. First was pulling the camera off my desk. Camera hit two drawer handles, put a nick in the floor. No damage. Christmas — got really loaded at the family party and dropped camera in the snow on the way back into the house. My sister came in the next day with the camera frozen in a sheet of ice. I chipped the ice off and very thoroughly dried it. No damage – and no fungus or haze 7 years later. It took the picture above after all of this! Because you have the luxury of a 46mm filter size with this camera, I strongly recommend screwing a B+W KR1.5 into the lens and leaving it there. When you have a filter screwed in, the lens barrel becomes almost completely air- and water-tight (all movement is within). As you can see above, it does not degrade lens performance to do so.
Long-term issues: Note that the 2-position shutter switch (focus… shoot) is rated for about 30,000 cycles – and it will eventually wear out. If you started with a new camera today, you would never physically be able to hit this limit. But since the oldest Hexars are now almost 25 years old, watch for this. The symptom is that the focus does not lock when you push the button halfway down in “loud” mode – and it becomes a problem for off-center subjects. To some extent, cleaning the switch can help, but the ultimate fix is to replace the dome switch with a similar DSLR part, which will set you back $100-150. But once you have that done, it seems unlikely that you will wear out the next switch.
Accessories: Hexars are no different to accessorize than any other compact, fixed-lens camera. But here are some suggestions:
- Flash: HX-14 flash is the default choice. Not much flexibility, insecure mounting, no thyristor. Very tightly integrated with the camera and can automatically activate flashmatic mode. A Nikon SB-20 is a more powerful, more flexible option, but you need to set the PFL mode. Recently, I have had great success with the Nikon SB-30, which is small, power-efficient, flexible,
- Filters: I would recommend a B+W MRC nano. Thin and repels everything.
- Case: avoid the soft case.
- Strap: get a wrist strap or a very thin neck strap. I would think about a Peak Designs modular strap that can exchange for a wrist strap or a neck strap.
Bottom Line: I think the ultimate test of the best all-around camera is what you would grab if told that you were leaving on an around-the-world trip and you had five minutes to pack. This would be mine.
This simple feeling… is beyond V’ger’s comprehension. No meaning… no hope… and, Jim, no answers. It’s asking questions: ‘Is my kit zoom lens good enough?’
In reality, we actually know little about zoom lenses except that the best ones (from a numerical standpoint) are very large, heavy, and expensive. Once you move into the enthusiast and kit versions, the question of whether or not they are good (or, more to the point, useful) is complex, subjective, and somehow optimistic.
The struggle of zoom lenses, since basically forever, is designing a multifocal, focus-maintaining lens that is at least as good as any lens of the focal lengths covered, without being massively heavy or unimaginably expensive. This struggle is driven by four conditions of design, manufacturing, physics, and software.
- Design. Fixed focal length lenses have an inherent advantage because they are always going deliver high performance at low prices. Such lenses require computations at one focal length, have fewer parts, need less assembly labor, and require less glass. A zoom has to be good at a theoretically unlimited number of focal lengths between two extremes and has to maintain focus as it focal length changes.
- Manufacturing. The difference between a good lens and a great lens can be 0.01mm. Zoom lenses have numerous glass and precision molded plastic elements that have to work in formation at an infinite number of focal lengths between two extremes (say 14mm and 24mm). It is more difficult to make larger-diameter glass elements with great precision, and the more mechanical linkages exist in a lens (for example, ones that maintain focus through focal length changes), the more tolerances add up. Sometimes low moving mass and “slop” is built in to make lenses focus faster.
- Physics. More glass means more flare and dispersion, and zoom lenses have tons of glass. Flare can be mostly tamed via muticoating, but even so, dispersion adds up with the element counts. A 13-element lens with modern multicoating (losing ~1% per air-glass surface) can have a total loss of 25% of all the light coming into it.
- Software. This enters the picture in two ways: focus correction and image correction. On DSLRs and some mirrorless cameras, the AF Fine Tune function helps correct focus errors that occur with particular lenses and phase-detect autofocus. The difficulty with zooms is that the nature of focusing errors can change with each focal length, and dialing in a correction for one focal length for a lens can greatly improve images there but degrade images shot at other focal lengths. The second limitation arises in software correction of lens aberrations (distortion, vignetting/falloff, and sharpness). One cheat (or innovation, depending on how you look at it) is to let the camera make corrections that the lens design itself does not permit. This provides more freedom to design smaller, lighter, and cheaper lenses. But you can’t really reconstruct data that isn’t there – or bend it infinitely.
Why many enthusiasts have been suspicious of zooms
It mainly seems to be a thing with people 40 years old and up, who remember the bad old days. As to the history, in the 1970s, optical correction was not what it is today, and zooms got a really bad rap because things like the 43–86mm Nikkor were convenient but not optical superstars. The original zooms were two-touch, which allowed the easy setting of focal length and focus with two separate rings. If a lens mostly held focus as you changed focal length, it was a true “zoom;” if not, it was a varifocal (Nikon is, and long has been, an offender in calling varifocal lenses “zooms”). Zooms of that era were difficult to design, and it was a time where lens design was transitioning to more computerized methods. They worked for a lot of purposes, but given the natural male inclination to over-spec and compete with equipment, they were not taken very seriously.
In the late 1970s, manufacturers went to one-touch, where you could adjust focus and focal length with the same grip. The temptation was to conclude that you could just re-zoom, re-compose, and fire away, but the reality was that focus drift followed focal length changes, and if you didn’t bother to refocus, you could get slightly soft pictures. One-touch zooms also suffered from zoom creep: eventually, as the lens loosened up, pointing the camera up or down would cause the zoom mechanism (governed by front-back movement of the ring) to move on its own. This too, did not help perceptions, though there are some very good zooms of the 1970s and 1980s, including some third-party offerings like the Vivitar Series 1.
SLR manufacturers rediscovered the two-touch in the 1990s, when it became an advantageous design for autofocus lenses (an AF motor could turn a focusing ring but not also a zoom ring). And that is when they all backslid into selling varifocal lenses as “zooms;” the assumption being that the camera’s AF would correct the focus anyway. Although questionable from a marketing standpoint, autofocus helped assure that the new “zooms” would be
The rise and fall of zooms (1999-2005)
If zooms had a heyday, it was from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. Several things came together to make this happen:
- Vis-a-vis prime lenses, zooms were more heavily telecentric than prime lenses. In simple terms, their design created the straight-on light rays that digital sensors like.
- Advances in lens coating took away some of the performance penalties of using a large number of lens elements for image correction.
- Prime lenses were getting little in the way of updates. This meant that the best ones were standing still, and others did not work as well as zooms with digital. Consider that it took Nikon 50 years to update the formula of its 50/1.4.
The prototypical lens of this era was the AF-s 17-35mm f/2.8 Nikkor, which was designed for the D1 cameras but was usable with contemporary film cameras too. This lens outperformed most primes within its focal length range, was solid, fast-focusing, and very popular.
But just as every pendulum swings, the 2010s to the present are where the optical (but not necessarily total) performance level of cheap zooms took a little bit of a dive.
- In a market with softening demand, maintaining competitive MSRPs for entry-level cameras and lenses required simpler and cheaper designs.
- The processing power of digital cameras increased to the point where it became possible to correct for distortion, light falloff, and sharpness in-camera.
- Increased emphasis on video, especially from mirrorless, demanded lenses that could focus quietly and continuously, driving toward lower moving mass.
- The move by the market toward camera phones meant that the “burden” associated with separate cameras had to be minimized.
In other words, the ethic was (and is) using technology to make cheaper, lighter, and easier-to-make lenses acceptable, not so much to make good lenses better.
At the high-end of the lens lines, updated primes also began to exert pressure on the more expensive zoom lenses, especially where trends push toward small and light.
What is the quick and dirty way to identify “good” zooms?
When shopping for a zoom lens with high potential, this is the general hierarchy to predict (with some but not total certainty), where a lens fits on the performance curve.
— By effective aperture
- Constant f/2.8 aperture – this generally means a pro-level lens. It also means big, heavy, and expensive.
- Constant f/4 aperture – this is the high-end amateur or lower-end pro zoom. It takes a lot of engineering to keep the aperture constant on a zoom, and this type of lens generally has the best balance of performance, weight, and cost. Canon and Nikon both make this style of lens. These are not cheap, but they are much easier to live with than monster pro zooms.
- Variable f/2.8-4 or 3.5-4.5 (1 stop aperture shift) – this lens type of lens generally has been optimized for compactness over speed. F/2.8 is really a bragging right; it’s only half a stop faster than f/3.5.
- Variable f/3.5-5.6 (or f/6.8) (1.5+ stops) – when a manufacturer lets the maximum aperture float this much, it is generally an indicator that you should not be expecting world-beating performance. But you will get a lens that will do well in most circumstances and not break your back or budget in the process. These are actually the lenses that are fun to shoot with.
— By zoom range
This may sound deceptively simple, and maybe it oversimplifies, but it is a fairly good bet that where a modern lens has a zoom range of greater than 2.5-3x from short to long, it is is probably a “convenience” zoom rather than one oriented toward absolute performance.
Can “not-good” be good?
Yes. Despite having performance a notch or two below pro lenses, kit zooms can be quite good within some limits. First, in an era where photos are overwhelmingly likely to be shared on social media, and not printed, kit zooms are actually complete overkill. In fact, anything beyond an 8mp iPhone 6 might be complete overkill – the same way that a lot of expensive pro equipment in the 1970s was used by amateurs to generate 3.5×5 inch prints.
Second, even if you print, you only need about 6mp of real-world performance out of a lens to print a nice 8×10, which again is bigger than most prints made today. “Real world performance” means type of system resolution that DxOMark measures (lens performance plus body performance, moderated through focus accuracy). That might be a 12mp body and a midrange lens.
Third, you will still get really good results – though optimum performance may be ~3 f/stops from wide-open (f/8 vs. f/3.5 maximum) as opposed to (f/4 vs. 2.8 maximum). There is an old adage, “f/8 and be there,” but in reality, once a lens is stopped down even to f/6.3 (let alone 8), even a plastic meniscus lens will have performance approaching an expensive coated lens. Like vampire tears, the pro-lens advantage evaporates in bright sunlight.
Finally, especially for mirrorless cameras, some lenses have video performance that vastly outweighs whatever perceived deficiencies they have for other purposes. For example, you might conclude that the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 power zoom lens that comes with a Sony a6300 is terrible. It’s not terrible for still pictures (in no small part because it is one of the fastest-focusing lenses ever invented), but it really shines in video, where it can silently and reliably track moving subjects without introducing noise. And it’s also tiny.
To wrap up: the performance, utility, and fun factor of zoom lenses is actually pretty subjective. Try as many as you can. Pick the one that you like the best, so long as it does what you need it to do.
The 28mm M-Hexanon, like the its focal length, occupies a strange space that is neither here nor there. I have never had good luck with 28mm lenses, if only because the angle is a little wide to be comfortable for close shots of people and a little narrow for some of the landscapes I shoot.
Only on the verge of selling mine (for lack of use since way back when I had an M8) did I shoot a bunch of tests with an M typ 240. This particular lens had been recollimated to be at exactly Leica spec (most lenses made before the M8 were not set up to hit the center of a flat sensor).
This piece will not editorialize much but instead show it like it is. Which is quite good, far better than I had remembered.
First, the obligatory “how sharp at a meter” exercise. This is f/2.8.
Next: does it shoot good pictures of children? Yes.
E poi – how is the bokeh? Strangely, it’s actually really good, especially for a wide lens. Here is the sequence f/2.8, 4, 5.6, 8.
Sunstars? Got ’em too. Here is f/2.8-8 (clockwise):
Gross resolving power (again, f/2.8-8):
And now, we laugh at your Elmarit-M!
Flare resistance, same range:
Another test; can’t remember why. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Above: Zeiss Jena 5cm f/1.5 Sonnar (prewar; 1937 example of the 1932 design) on a Leica M typ 240 with an Amedeo dedicated 50mm adapter. This particular lens is almost 80 years old.
1. The story
The derivation of the trade name “Sonnar”(which may have less to do with Sonne than being a portmanteau of Sontheim am Neckar) reminds one of the the way that the Mr. Sparkle is a joint venture of the Matsumura Fishworks and the Tamaribuchi Heavy Manufacturing Concern. Be this as it may, the Sonnar had but one goal in life: crush Leitz’s fast lenses in an era where ISO 12 film was the norm. And that it amply did. Even today, the performance of this uncoated lens is impressive.
When the Sonnar arrived in 1931 (f/2.0) and 1932 (f/1.5), the Tessar (or Elmar) was the gold standard in normal lenses: a well-corrected triplet that, in an era lacking anti-reflective coatings, sneaked in a little more correction by cementing two pieces of glass together. When it came time to exceed f/2.8, though, the real competition began:
- In 1889, Paul Rudolph, working for Carl Zeiss, determined that the best balance of contrast, correction, and cost was a three-element lens called an anastigmat (trade name: Protar).
- In 1895, Rudolph invented the Planar, which was a highly-corrected symmetrical lens. It was shelved soon thereafter, no doubt on account of the low contrast that occurs with many air-to-glass surfaces.
- In 1902, Zeiss released the Tessar, which provided more correction than an anastigmat (by adding a fourth element glued to the the third) without increasing the number of air-glass surfaces. The Tessar was technically inferior to the Planar, but it did not have the two extra air-glass surfaces (each robbing 10% of the light, compounded).
- In 1925, Max Berek modified the Leitz Elmax, which had a 1-1-3 (cemented) arrangement into the Elmar, which bore a heavy resemblance to the Tessar, allowing for a good 35mm-format lens with fewer elements and less assembly labor.
In parallel universe (but still orbiting around Zeiss)
- In 1916, an American (Charles Minor) started adding elements to the triplet, but just in the front. The result was the Gundlach Anastigmat, which had a blazingly fast f/1.9 aperture. The contemporary ads show that this was actually a cine lens.
- In 1922, Ludwig Berthele, working for Ernemann (of Ermanox fame) continued elaborating this into the Ernostar, which became on of the first plate lenses to hit f/1.8 (in 1924).
Scan used by permission of Peter Naylor.
- In 1926, Zeiss bought Ernemann and acquired Berthele in the deal.
- In 1931, Berthele made the first f/2 Sonnar, which was a new lens with an old name. It was for 35mm format and had a 1-3-2 arrangement, with the second and third group cemented together.
- In 1932, he made the f/1.5 version, which added an extra element to the rear group.
- In 1936, caught off-balance, Leica licensed the Xenon, a symmetrical Double-Gauss design from Schneider, licensed in turn from Taylor-Hobson in England (the Series 0), in turn had been cribbed from the 1896 Planar.
- In 1944-1945, the Zeiss plants were bombed back to the stone age.
- In 1949, the Xenon was updated with coagulation-style lens coatings and became the Summarit.
- In 1950, the Zeiss-Option Sonnars came out with a new computations.
The circle was now complete: the entire high-speed lens space was dominated by Zeiss designs and would continue to be – for pretty much all time. When you stop and think about it, until the advent of things like the 50/1.4G Nikkor, the history of high-speed lenses had been nearly nine decades decades of Sonnar and Planar clones.
Why did the Sonnar do so well? It’s not so complicated. It all boiled down to the number of air-to-glass interfaces. The classic triplet (the anastigmat) represented the best balance between correction, contrast, and cost. But adding more elements (to get more correction) meant more air-glass interfaces. And that meant less contrast and more flare. Zeiss increased the correction by cementing additional elements together to make a total of three groups. Leica could not do this because it did not have the intellectual property rights to do so. During WWII, Zeiss dabbled in coating its super-speed lenses, but it was not even really necessary given the Sonnar’s high transmission.
2. Using one today
These days, the Contax rangefinder is almost dead, 35mm film photography has gone all “Tony-Bennett-in-the-late 1990s,” and so the only place you’ll likely be using one of these is on a Leica body. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to do. You just need the appropriate adapter. These are not particularly expensive for APS-C (although they do incorporate focusing helicoids); they are more expensive for Leica cameras because they need a mechanism to translate the movement of a 52.3mm lens to a camera whose rangefinder mechanism wants a 51.6mm normal lens (how two German companies known for their precision could get so sloppy about what constituted a “50mm” lens is baffling – but being a big-name German optical company means never having to say you’re sorry….).
By far, the best adapters for Leicas are made by Amedeo Muscelli, and of those, the best is that dedicated adapter for Contax 50mm rangefinder to Leica M. This is not the usual lens with the reproduction of a Contax helicoid and focusing scale; rather, combines with the lens to make a unit that looks a bit like an old Elmar (allowing, of course, for the streamlined – dare we say phallic) shape of a Sonnar. The dedicated adapter focuses in the same direction as a Leica, at almost the same rate of distance change per unit of turn, and it has a lever, which can be critical if you are using a collapsible Zeiss lens (since with a traditional adapter, you are grasping the lens barrel to focus – something you can’t do with a collapsible lens). When your lens is dialed in, this adapter focuses amazingly accurately right down to 0.6m – a lot closer than any Contax did.
And how do you dial one in? If your lens is front-focusing, the simple answer is to remove the lens cell from the Contax barrel and unscrew the rear group slightly. It is never more than 1/4 turn, and you can maintain the setting by wrapping the threads of the rear group in Teflon tape and screwing it back in. Back it out about a 1mm (circumferentially) at a time, and check the focus on near and far objects. Do note that where a Sonnar has a lot of focus shift, you’re going to have to choose whether to
- Have the lens front focus at f/1.5, reach focus at f/2.8-4 ,and hit focus at f/5.6 and smaller
- Have the lens focus dead-on at f/1.5, miss at f/2-4, and become usable again at f/5.6 and on.
The first observation is that finding a prewar f/1.5 Sonnar that is not totally trashed is not particularly easy. Fortunately, at least cleaning marks are not an issue on uncoated lenses unless someone used Soft Scrub as an optical cleaner. Which does happen from time to time.
The second is that in the central part of the frame, this lens is very, very sharp. It has decent performance at f/1.5 if you optimize for that aperture, loses precise focus from f/2.8-f/4, and comes roaring back at f/6.3. If you keep with the original collimation (or an approximation of it, you get really sharp pictures around f/2.4, getting better through f/8.
The third is that the coatings on postwar Sonnars are not moving the ball much in terms of performance. Because this was the last fast Sonnar I obtained, it’s easier to compare this to the 1961 Carl Zeiss version. The 1937 model performs similarly in most ways. It is very slightly softer, with contrast that is almost at the level of a 1977 Jupiter-3.
Flare is only slightly improved by coatings, and they do not resolve the “rainbow circle” flare that afflicts every Sonnars (even multicoated Sonnetars) when a point light source is just out-of-frame. The one unique failure mode is strong side lighting (from the looks of it between 75 and 90 degrees to the lens axis), which can cause a veil across the entire surface. This also happens to a lesser degree with postwar Sonnars and copies, just not quite to the same degree.
Overall performance is strikingly close to the postwar, if you allow for slightly improved spherical aberration on the older lens. The postwar version is a tiny bit sharper, but seems clear that this comes at the expense of bokeh, which goes from smooth disks to ringed disks. If you care about that stuff.
4. Roy Batty
The f/1.5 Sonnar was the proverbial candle that burned twice as bright, and by 1962 it was essentially extinct. The “twice as bright” part is doubly applicable to the 1960-1962 Car That it was so widely copied in the postwar era is puzzling. Granted, German patents were handed over to the Japanese, but in terms of sheer performance with coatings, there were already better lenses to copy (like the Xenon). Canon, Nikon, and Zunow all made their own versions. The Soviets made one too. Perhaps there was a “prestige” element to the Contax that was desirable to copy (though you would not have the all-important brand name). Or perhaps there was something about the mechanical design of a 3-group lens such that the cost of machining extra parts for 6 groups cost more than triple-cementing rwo groups. The world may never know. The fetishization of the Sonnar did not really get started until the mid-2000s and by then, it was based more on imperfection and “look” than a perception that it was actually better.
The prewar f/1.5 Sonnar is a worthy lens, though its relative scarcity does not exactly make it a value leader compared to postwar variants. As with any 50mm Sonnar, as long as you take care to control the placement of light sources, it can be another creative tool, if not a broader-use lens.
As you contemplate modern lenses, It is difficult to associate these optics with the proud civilizations that created them: Tokyo, Rochester, Sendai, Jena. They worshipped image quality, because it is strength that makes all other values possible. No picture survives without it. Who knows what delicate objective lenses have died out of the world, for want of the strength to continue.
It’s a long way from the Canon 7sz to Andre Agassi, from the Serenar to the EOS Kiss Merkur XR4ti (…or whatever the amateur model of the week is). Canon used to be a hard-core producer of Leica knockoffs, many of which were more functional, convenient, and reliable than the rickety prewar designs that Leica kept elaborating. The Canon P was a standout, as were the VI-L and the 7 series.
The Canon 50mm f/1.2 (September 1956… can you believe that it is now almost 60 years old?) was the company’s penultimate halo lens. It came out with the VT (not Deluxe), and it would not be surpassed until 1961 with the Canon 7 and its 50/0.95 Dream Lens (from a size, weight, and cost standpoint, dream is clearly defined broadly to include nightmare). Ironically, the 50/1.2 cost more than the 50/0.95. Modern Canon lenses are quite good, but they don’t have that certain fun factor to them.
Synergies. This is a new thesis on my part, but I am starting to suspect that the M typ 240 and 246 tend to interact with lenses in ways that might not be immediately intuitive. Some lenses seem to work unexpectedly well with the color sensor (possibly the demosaic-ing algorithm accidentally boosting sharpness). Many lenses work better than expected with the Monochrom camera — likely because the color-bind sensor is not bothered as much by chromatic aberration. The “why” these things happen is probably insoluble; it is merely interesting that they do. And yes, some dog lenses do stay dogs, and some lenses have bad corners to f/8. Nulla regula sine exceptione.
Look and feel. Perhaps “Carré Otis” is the best way to express the relationship between the size of this lens and Canon’s more common 50mm lenses (2.8, 2.2, 1.9, 1.8, 1.5): generously proportioned, slightly flaky, and exhibiting certain, ahem, virtues.
The finish of the 50/1.2 is typical mid-to-late Canon that came into vogue in February 1956 with the 50mm f/1.8 mark II: a black enamel focusing ring and sandblasted chrome aperture ring and distance/DOF scale. This is much more pleasing than Canon’s contemporaneous all-black lenses (like the 35/1.5, 35/2, 100/3.5, 100/2, and 135/3.5), whose finish looks good in smaller lenses and feels chintzy in larger ones. But the affect with the 50/1.2 is solid. It will keep your M typ 240 on balance.
The focusing effort is heavy, and even the aperture turning is heavy. Unless, of course, lubricant has leaked out onto the aperture blades. The focusing pitch is very slow. Even the interesting push-button infinity lever takes a deliberate effort to dislodge. Is there a problem with any of this? No. Will you have issues tracking fast motion or switching from near-to-far subjects (or vice-versa) as if you were a D700? Yes.
Flare and use with filters. The first thing you have to remember with this lens is that you are dealing with an SLR-sized front element that sits very close to the front of the filter ring, seven elements, and single lens coatings from the mid-1950s. This isn’t going to flare, right?! Really, cleaning marks are the least of your problems here.
The big (physical) hazard with this lens is filters – as in don’t tighten down a filter without checking the clearance between the filter and the front lens element. If you want use conventional filters, you will likely need to use an empty ring as a spacer or fit a rubber o-ring around the threads on the filter. The only alternative is to use Canon RF filters, which are expensive and present a flush glass surface on the front of the lens. Not only does cabin your choices for lens hoods, it also presents ample opportunity for sidelight flare. Like the picture below (and let’s be fair – this is shot outdoors with floodlights everywhere). But be sure to use some kind of hood if you can.
Canon filter ghosting (at f/1.2). All hell is breaking loose here (not surprising with Christmas lights a scant two feet from the lens), but it’s not all bad, given the motif:
On balance, it is better to use a filter if you don’t want to deal with the rickety Canon metal lens caps, which never want to stay on. Just watch how you use it, and if you can space it correctly, consider an MRC.
General optical performance. On an M, at 24mp, the 50/1.2 really acts like Beauty and the Beast. At its largest aperture, it has microscopic depth of field, though with practice, you can tell where it is going to land. It does what most other super-fast spherical lenses do: it front focuses at wider apertures and settles down at middle ones. Every one of the three copies I have owned seems to have had slight differences in the midpoint of depth of field at close ranges and large apertures, which is not surprising. But this is par for the course; all fast 50mm lenses are testy on Leica rangefinders. As you start stopping down, the 50/1.2 becomes exponentially sharper. F/1.4 is light years better than 1.2; f/2.8 is orders of magnitude better yet.
Rather than dragging through every optical trait one at a time, let’s take it at f/1.2. Soft contrast, heavy vignetting, reasonable resolution of details, with a field that seems to curve at the edges toward the camera. This vignetting persists, even when the lens is coded as a Leica Noctilux. To be fair, this was more than enough for most 35mm film use. A lens like the Canon 50/1.2 would be used at night, where contrast would be high. It was not designed for thin depth-of-field fetishism. You can click on the picture below for a full-sized image.
The picture at the top of this article is also shot at f/1.2. In terms of controlling bokeh, if you are into that thing, this is yet another lens where your best bokeh is achieved by (a) getting the subject as close as possible and (b) getting the background as far away as possible. Not to belabor a point from the previous article (on the MS-Sonnetar), but an easy and almost unavoidable rule of thumb is that the better a lens performs wide-open, the worse the bokeh. The list of these suppressed lenses is long and distinguished: this Canon, almost every Noctilux, the Hexanon Limited, the Nokton 1.1, the Nikkor 1.1, and basically any lens faster than f/1.4.
The next click, f/1.4, is a touch more contrasty, and is still a good setting to use in harsh nighttime conditions. Take a look at the field curvature here – there is no way the Gummi Bear wrapper should be so close to being in focus like the boys. Actually, it seems unlikely that both boys should be in focus, but there you have it. And here you also have the bokeh vibe. As in vibration.
Just for fun, below is one shot wide-open with an M8 (you can click on it to see it at full size):
Stopping down to f/2 gives better results yet – and the focusing point is now exactly where you would expect it to be. And here is your bokeh test outdoors. This is essentially minimum focusing distance with a background that is 50m away.
At f/2.8, the lens is starting to hit its stride. Especially with the M set for emulation of the Leica 50/1.2, the lighting evens up, the sharpness goes up significantly, and the field flattens a bit. Although this begs the question of getting a slower lens and shooting more wide-open, with these old lenses, you are often better off with a fast lens stopped down than a slow lens wide-open. Also, the big old glass looks cooler and makes child ward nurses less likely to think you are using some kind of super-high-tech digital camera to document medical procedures (when you’re actually just bored).
At f/4, performance starts to max out (like the 1.2 shot, you can click on the one below to get a full-sized image). You almost go into double-take mode because a good example of the lens looks sharper than lot of modern glass. I’m thinking particularly of the 50/1.4 AF Nikkor, which the Canon crushes – and likely because the Nikon is usually tied to a somewhat limited AF system (phase detect systems seem pretty much incapable of compensating for the focus shift that occurs when a lens stops down).
F/8 is where performance starts to degrade a little bit (see the full-sized image). Sharpness starts to decline. People take on cartoonish, ascetic, or vampiric features. Bring your gloves, lightsabers, and garlic.
Conclusion? This lens was sold as the premium lens on a lot of Canon cameras – and in some ways a “bragging rights” lens vis-à-vis Leica and Nikon. The performance at f/1.2 is reasonable but not world-beating; but given limits seen even in digital M shutters (1/4000 sec), you would rarely be trying to shoot this lens wide-open in daylight. At least absent a neutral-density filter.
The pricing of this lens is all over the place; super-clean examples (from a cosmetic standpoint) seem to command a hefty premium, but almost all will exhibit microscopic scratches (cleaning marks), and oil haze is a recurring theme (and it is fairly destructive to these lenses’ coatings). But as with a lot of things, cosmetics are not indicative of performance; you never know whether a lens has been abused over the years until you actually try it.
Be ready to poke around through multiple examples to get one that works really well; keep an open mind about the condition of the coatings; what makes these lenses flare badly has little to do with the coatings but rather with the hazards of having that really big front element.
The MS Optical Research Sonnetar is like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. You either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t understand Jacques Cousteau, Willem Dafoe playing a subservient gay German, or Wes Anderson in general, there is no one who can make you like it. By the same token, if you drive Jaguars, no one with a 276hp front-drive Camry is ever going to win you over by telling you it has a higher thrust-to-weight ratio than an XJS V12 with the flying buttress hard top.
You don’t buy a Sonnetar as your only 50mm lens; in fact, you don’t even buy it as your only fast 50mm lens (and by the way, 50s should either be fast or fun – there is nothing more bland than a 50mm Summicron). The Sonnetar has strange controls for most (the rotating front barrel is exactly like using a Contax or Nikon rangefinder). It vignettes like crazy. At any distance, you can have your choice between correct focus and optical correction.
Why would anyone like it? It’s actually a big question whose only easy answer might be that when you have to shoot an f/1.1 lens in ultra-low light conditions, you pick your poison. You’re playing the limits.
N.B. All pictures shot in b/w are shot with a new Leica Monochrom (typ 246). All shots in color are with an M (typ 240). It’s absurd to change color pictures to monochrome to try to judge sharpness.
What is it? The MS-Sonnetar is the second modern revival of the 50mm f/1.5 Carl Zeiss Sonnar (West Germany, 1950s-1960s), the first one being the Zeiss ZM C-Sonnar 1.5/50mm. Why this type of lens is popular today is puzzling; when lens coatings enabled highly corrected 50mm lenses like the Planar, all of the expensive cemented groups of the f/1.5 Sonnar became obsolete. Today, the popularity of the Sonnar pattern might be in its imperfection: focus falloff in the form of field curvature and vignetting. The Sonnar yields marginally smaller and lighter overall packaging than a Planar or Double Guass, and it has slightly higher resistance to flare.
Every Sonnar revival/clone/ripoff over the past 50+ years has had its own set of strengths and weaknesses; it seems that almost none of them shows the balanced performance of the original Zeiss design. They either sacrifice sharpness for bokeh or go gaga for bokeh and live with a lot of focus shift.
The Sonnetar goes for the gusto with fewer elements and only one cemented group; a lighter, more compact barrel; and almost an entire stop of extra speed. It is the fastest Sonnar-style production lens in terms of T-stops, edging out the 50/1.1 Zunow by virtue of having fewer elements and more effective coatings.
Getting a handle on it. The Sonnetar is a very compact lens; the barrel is smaller than a 50mm Summicron, flaring out to a wider front section that takes 52mm filters (and no, full-sized B+Ws do not vignette). It’s hard to say whether it is modeled after a Zunow, a 50/1.1 Nikkor, or an Opton Sonnar. But all of them have a particular shape to them. The Sonnetar looks most like the Zunow, with the focusing and aperture rings reversed.
The frontmost ring is focus (supplemented with a small lever in the back if that’s what you want); the rearward ring is the aperture control, which smoothly adjusts from f/1.1 to f/16. Like a lot of older lenses, as the aperture numbers get higher, they get closer together (it is probably also a side effect of the Sonnetar’s super-nifty, perfectly circular German iris. But no matter in splitting hairs between f/11 and 16; you won’t be shooting there anyway.
The tough part of the ergonomics is something you’d never expect: the rear lens cap. It screws into the rear lens group, which unfortunately is also the thing that is the coma control. As for the front cap (which also screws in), you’ll probably leave that in the box with the hand-drawn spherical aberration measurements and the pretty hood. You’ll either use an MRC filter or a pinch cap to keep your fingers off the front glass.
Overall build quality. Done out in matte black chrome, the finish of the Sonnetar is a good match for a black Leica M-P or Monochrom typ 246. The black anodized finish is very tough, and the mounting ridges that you grasp to mount the lens will take bits of skin along with them. Numbers are clearly engraved and filled in white. They are legible and inoffensive. There is no way to 6-bit code this lens, since the rear flange is integral with the lens barrel (it is very much built like an old rangefinder lens with a rotating optical unit).
The glass (modified Sonnar design, more air-spaced) is perfectly clean and perfectly coated (from what I understand, MS Optical’s multicoating is a simple 2-layer). The reality is that the efficiency of modern coatings and the low element count makes internal flare a non-issue. Interior blacking is actually dark grey, which may seem puzzling, but if it’s good enough for telescopes, it’s probably good enough for camera lenses.
There are some build quality nits. One is that the lens (both on the sensor and in the rangefinder) hits infinity with about a mm of travel left in the focusing ring. This is probably an artifact of having that ring be the same part that provides the rangefinder cam. This might be of concern if you are trying to focus at infinity by feeling for a stop – and it is no different a problem than using an Asian LTM adapter that is a fraction of a millimeter too thin. It almost seems like you could just loosen the focusing ring screws and shift it so that infinity was on the stop
The other is that MS-Optical only uses a couple of actual lens mounts. The 51.6mm lens mount provides cam action that approximates a 51.6mm (Leica-spec) lens. Its frameline selection is determined by whether the mount is compressed around a notch in one of the bayonets or not. This lens uses about 90 degrees to go from 1m to ∞, which is quite short. This gives you a much faster acquisition time for focus but degrades the focus accuracy. Contrast this to 1950s and 1960s LTM lenses (and indeed the 75 Summilux), whose ponderously slow focusing rate can cause you to miss the moment completely. In any case, you are much better off using the ring than the lever because the larger diameter of the barrel provides better precision (because it takes more movement of the control surface per unit of focus change).
The $&@(!#% “coma adjuster.” The most famous feature of this lens is a “coma adjuster,” a ring around the rear element that has a white indicator dot and four distance dots (1m – white; 2m – white, 4m – red, and infinity-white). The lens is sold with an instruction sheet that tells you this is for adjusting “coma,” which would be the shape of point light sources (round or not). Why does anyone care about coma? It’s a big deal for telescopes, and that’s what Miyazaki designed for most of his life. What you get in terms of optical performance in the near range is a set of very subtle changes. Perhaps this operates better at a distance, but for its stated purpose, the adjuster seems a little bit gimmicky.
What is not so subtle is that the same control – determining the position of the rear lens group – has a tremendous effect on focus (because it changes the focal length of the lens) and on field curvature (whether the plane of focus is flat across the field or curved inward at the edges). This almost off-label use is actually very easy to exploit (see the discussion of what the directions actually say below).
Focal length control is very important on a super-speed lens. A Leica rangefinder assumes the same movement as a 51.6mm lens. Nominal “50mm” lenses that have a 51.6mm focal length can rely on simple movement of the lens cell when focusing to track from near to far at the correct rate. Shorter lenses (like 35mm lenses) have to translate a smaller amount of lens cell movement (front to back) to a relatively larger amount of rangefinder cam movement. Likewise, a 90mm lens needs the cell to move more than the cam moves. With most 50mm f/2 lenses, variances of a couple of 1/10s of a millimeter in actual focal length are not of great consequence because the lens has a little depth of field (or “fudge factor”). Lenses that have super-thin depth of field, such as an f/1.1 lens, require far more precision in their focal length to work well with a rangefinder. One can also surmise that the coma adjuster ring also serves as a calibration method for the lens that does not require reassembly.
According to the directions, this is how to use the coma adjuster ring:
Adjacent to the coma adjustment ring, you will find a white reference point (see the above illustration) to which an appropriate ring position has to be matched by rotating the ring. Using the coma adjustment system, a very high level tuning/focusing optimisation is made possible.
For Leica M Type Rangefinder Camera Users Initially, bring the red dot of the ring to the white reference point by rotating the coma adjustment ring. As you familiarise yourself to this lens, you may wish to change the ring position either to the left or right. For example, at the infinity best point, the actual focus point will be slightly brought forward (therefore, take a photo with focus point slightly backward). At the white dot that is best for 2m distance, a focus point will be slightly brought backward (therefore, take a photo with focus point slightly forward). This might take some practice and experience to achieve best results.
In real life, the tips for using this are:
- Turning the adjuster toward longer distances will make the lens focus closer to the camera.
- Turning the adjuster toward shorter distances will make the lens focus farther from the camera.
- Putting the coma adjuster on 1m will cause a back focus of 15-20cm at 1m, which is not insignificant.
- Putting the coma adjuster on ∞ will cause the lens not to focus (optically) to infinity.
- Putting the adjuster about 2mm short of the 4m mark will produce best focus at f/1.1-1.6 from just under 1m to infinity. This is not surprising, since it is a distance of about 50 focal lengths (2.5m), which is a conventional distance at which lenses are tested. It is also apparently the setting used to measure MTF (as shown on the instruction sheet).
- The lens will decouple from an M rangefinder at the minimum distance stop, so don’t do any testing below about 0.8m.
IN MOST CASES, YOU WILL ONLY BE MOVING THIS ADJUSTER 1 or 2MM FROM THE RED MARK. UNLESS YOU WANT TO GO CRAZY.
It really, really, really helps to have a LensAlign to calibrate the lens because you can see the zone of focus very correctly. Although you can trial-and-err it without this $80 plastic device, the problem is ascertaining the effect of focus shift. You want to hit a calibration where the zone of focus includes the intended point through as many apertures as you can – because like a lot of lenses in this speed class, the Sonnetar has under corrected spherical aberration that causes focus shift with aperture changes. The LensAlign lets you observe a band of high contrast as it moves (and expands) as you stop down. You don’t even need to shoot it head-on as you would with a DSLR; you need to check this from oblique angles too – because that is how you will focus your Leica in real life. Needless to say, if you are going to use this lens with a film camera, it helps to have a digital to get it dialed in.
Even within any calibration, the M viewfinder system (including the improved rangefinders for the M typ 240 and 246) has enough lash in it that the direction from which you focus – as well as small movements that don’t even produce a visible change in the RF alignment – can affect the focus point. So the word is “practice.” Wide-open, you will nudge to a slightly farther focused distance (without making the RF spot move).
Performance. All high-speed 50mm lenses (f>1.4) involve tradeoffs. The simple answer is that the Sonnetar has characteristics that vary depending on the coma adjuster setting, and these correspond pretty closely to the optimization differences in an Opton Sonnar, a 50/1.4 Nikkor LTM lens, and a 50/1.5 Canon LTM lens.
For most testing, I have kept the lens optimized at f/1.1 to 1/6 at distances up to 3m. It performs very well from 0.8 to 10m at f/1.1-1.6. If you get the calibration just right, you can keep it sharp through f/5.6, and it’s sharp across the field. At long distances, however, you get progressive blur toward the frame edges. This is gone at f/8. I suspect that the coma adjuster could overcome things, but distance shots are a little outside the use case for this lens (for distance, you are always better off with a slightly smaller aperture lens).
Sharpness seems to max out at f/1.6 (the dot between f/1.4 and f/2 on the focusing scale). Contrast is about double that at f/1.1. If something like the Canon 50mm f/1.2 LTM lens is your frame of reference, at wide-open settings, the Sonnetar is visibly better (and focuses far more accurately). If you are shooting at f/4 or smaller, something like the Canon provides much more balanced performance.
Here is a sequence that should show the differences at the wide apertures. If you click on the picture, you should be able to see it full-size. First, 0.8m, whole scene. Yes, the 44-year-old unopened bottle of Beam is real, as is the gaffe of keeping champagne at other than depressed temperatures. And no, I can’t explain the presence of the CFL bulb on the bar, since I own no fixture that takes them.
Next, check out the difference between f/1.1 (left) and f/1.6 (right) at 100%. The apertures shown in the metadata are computed by the M typ 246, so they are not entirely accurate. There is quite a bit of contrast jump in one stop.
Next, here is the same comparison at 200%. The focus point here is the stamp “Spring 1963.”
Next, here is the mid-right side at 100%. Still holding together.
Extreme left, 100%. Same story.
Real-world, stressed out, trying to get enough distance to focus in almost complete darkness, you still get good results. This is f/1.6 at ISO 2500 and 1/12 of a second:
And a bit better at 1/45 sec (by the way, the Last Word is something you ought to try sometime):
And this is the obligatory f/8 shot outdoors with a G filter.
Flare is very well controlled except in extreme side-lighting, where you can get some bizarre effects. This is a characteristic of Sonnar-type lenses. There is some “glow,” which is the normal Sonnar flare on hard dark/light interfaces that occurs when the focus point is ahead of the object. It is more visible in the preview mode of an M camera than it is in the final files. Resistance to extreme backlighting is pretty good, a lot better than with the old Canon 50/1.2:
Here is the difficult-to-replicate total flare failure mode. You might want to use a lens hood when the sun is in the corner. Or maybe not.
Vignetting is not going to be a huge issue at close distances, since the barrel is extended. At f/2 and down, it is not obnoxious, especially when combined with the automatic corner correction on the M8/9/240/246. If you want to go very heavy duty on perfect corrections, use the Adobe Flat Field plugin for Lightroom. You will need to shoot baseline calibrations at the distances and apertures you normally shoot. You can do that after the fact.
Color rendition can be a little weird. The “tantalum” glass in this lens (probably standing in for less-exciting sounding “rare earth”) shows mild versions of the color enhancing effects of a didymium enhancing filter (like a B+W 491, Tiffen Enhancing Filter, or Hoya Redhancer). Magenta and yellow seem to be favored here. Here are some pictures that should illustrate this. For your evaluation of secondary characteristics, this is at f/2:
Chromatic aberration is a factor here but not in the traditional way. Wide-open, this lens tends to have the blur from adjoining colors bleed together. On an M typ 240, this looks a little bit like soft focus. On the M typ 246, this disappears completely, and the lens develops some killer contrast. This is characteristic of sticking a lot of old-school lenses on the new Monochrom body; a lot of older optical designs suddenly start looking awesome.
Bokeh is such a bourgeois concept. With spherical lenses, you either get universally good bokeh but bad focus shift (ZM C-Sonnar) or poor bokeh and reduced focus shift (50/1.4 Nikkor, 50/1.5 Canon). Unfortunately, with high-speed lenses, the latter combination (or in this case calibration) is much easier to live with. With the Sonnetar, you want to get as close to your subject as possible with as great a distance from it to the background as possible. Otherwise, you can enjoy what generation of Canon and Nikon Sonnar clones have experienced. By the way, here is a direct comparison between the bokeh of the 50/1.2 Canon and the Sonnetar. Maybe you can tell which is which?
Conclusion. If I did not currently own eleven 50mm lenses (just temporarily), I don’t know how I would feel about this one. That said, the Sonnetar is the one that seems to be welded onto my Monochrom. It’s quirky, it takes a lot of practice to use, and even after a couple of months of practice, there is still a lot to master. That said, it’s an elegant alternative to the Coke cans and second mortgages that tend to dominate the super-speed 50mm space.
The advent of digital photography has made a couple of things clear: (1) many pros did not have so much talent as ability to overcome barriers to entry and (2) much of what you were told about lens quality – in terms of SLR versus rangefinder – was (or is now) untrue. This second point bears some examination.
What is the state of play on SLR vs rangefinder lens quality? The perception of SLR versus rangefinder lenses was developed when both shot on film, and there has been a major reversal of fortunes. Film was not sensitive to the angle of incidence of light coming from the back of the lens, and because rangefinders did not have mirrors, lens designers could make symmetrical lenses whose rear elements might sit just a few millimeters from the film surface. This knocked out distortion, incurred a little bit of vignetting (which was largely absorbed by the latitude of negative film, and resulted in a compact package.
SLR lenses, on the other hand, had to design around mirrors. So lenses under 50mm generally had to start with a longer focal length and then compensate it down by introducing a negative element in the front. This retrofocus arrangement generally compromised distortion and sharpness slightly, but it produced a good enough result that SLRs were able to exterminate rangefinders as mainstream cameras. But today, when the imaging surface is a flat sensor with a Bayer pattern, chromatic aberration, angle of incidence, color shift, and vignetting became big issues for traditional rangefinder lens designs. Even Leica’s very expensive wide-angle rangefinder lenses, on Leica’s very expensive bodies, were now capable of returning disappointing results in terms of color shifts and vignetting.
The goal today is sometimes called telecentricity, which is commonly understood to be the situation where light rays hit the sensor parallel to the lens axis. It is still achieved by retrofocus designs. It is telling that many Leica and mirrorless wide angles that avoid color shift and vignetting are creeping up in size to SLR lenses. Witness Leica’s fast wide-angle lenses, which are quite large – especially when you compare aperture to aperture. A 21/3.4 Super Elmar has a 46mm front thread; the 21/2.8 Elmarit-M has 60mm, which is only a hair smaller than a 20mm f/2.8D Nikkor (at 62mm). But nowhere is this phenomenon more stark than in Fuji XF lenses, where the register is shorter, lenses cover an APS-C image circle (much smaller than a 35mm camera’s) nor have to clear a mirror, and the lenses yet are 80-90% as large as SLR versions of the same.
Why do SLR lenses meet our expectation bias? In one sense, it is fair to complain about the quality of SLR lenses because the end result is not what we want – and measured as a system, they indeed underperform. But in an era where SLR lenses are being adapted for use in other things, it is fair to deconstruct what part of this is fairly attributed to parts of the system we are no longer using, such as the traditional SLR itself. And let’s be clear about this: until the advent of mirrorless cameras, the SLR (or DSLR) was the only way to achieve perfect, parallax-free framing and to reliably focus long telephotos and macro lenses.
— Focusing wide-open, shooting stopped-down. All SLR lenses are focused wide-open, which makes focusing accuracy vulnerable to focus shift. This phenomenon, which comes with spherical aberration and “good bokeh,” means that a lens might be perfectly focused at a wide aperture but back-focused when the aperture stops down for shooting. This same thing afflicts both rangefinders and SLRs, only in rangefinders, it is written off as “focus shift” and in SLRs, it is called “being a poor performer.” Aspherics and floating elements help mitigate this – and both are in play on modern lenses of all types.
— Suboptimal focusing screens. You can’t win with a single screen on an SLR. The original SLR focusing screen, a plain ground glass, excelled at focusing telephoto lenses because as the focal length increased, so did the magnification of the subject that the photographer sought to focus. But this screen was dim in the corners and sometimes dim, period. It also failed with wide-angle lenses, where the details critical to focus were actually reduced. Over time, SLRs developed focusing aids like split-image center reticles (actually tiny rangefinders). They also introduced fresnel surfaces to brighten the corners. These made it simpler to focus lenses 50mm and down, but they degraded the ability to accurately focuses lenses 85mm and longer.
— Small viewfinder magnification. A key constraint of camera viewfinder systems is that eye point and magnification are in direct opposition. In practical terms, this means that to be able to see the whole picture through a reasonably-sized viewfinder, especially while wearing eyeglasses, the picture must be reduced. This degrades the focusing abilities of every SLR focusing screen.
— Taste-making. The problem with publications like Popular Photography (and now sites like DxOMark) is that they focus the user’s attention on tests that bear little or no necessary connection to real life.The old-school photo magazines paid little attention to rangefinder lenses, so the tests of SLR lenses were generally focused on the relative merits at huge enlargement factors, and not surprisingly, among SLR lenses, the results favored more expensive glass (the larger advertising budgets of the major companies is always suspicious as well). This did not affect the sales of SLR lenses in general (because at the time no one really liked rangefinders), but it did lead to a perception that anything other than a name-brand Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, or Konica was garbage. This was an inaccurate and unfortunate perception for three reasons: (1) Cosina, Tokina, and Sigma were making some of the major brands’ lenses under contract; (2) some of the aftermarket lenses performed adequately for the purpose; and (3) the blanket perceptions about these products, particularly third-party lenses, has landed literally millions of completely usable (if not in some cases very good) lenses in landfills.
— Leica people. Yes, we said it. For all of the doctors, economists, attorneys, CPAs, and engineers who own these and similar rangefinder cameras, there is a widespread misperception that MTF figures for SLR lenses – like home run statistics for Japanese baseball – need some kind of implicit adjustment downward to be comparable to MTF for rangefinder lenses. Not so. MTF is MTF, and it is measured in standardized procedures that do neither the camera body nor care about the lens design itself. It is of some note, conversely, that Leica’s presentation of 5lp/mm (a largely obsolete measure relevant primarily to optical prints) leads to an impression that Leica’s MTF numbers are “higher and flatter” than comparable brands.
Turning the world on its head. Two things changed the picture (so to speak), and quite radically.
— First becoming last. As noted above, he advent of 24x36mm (“full-frame”) digital cameras has exposed just how poorly some traditional rangefinder lenses perform when they project images onto flat sensors. That negative effects are minimized on smaller digital RF and mirrorless platforms (because those corners are effectively cut out of the picture) is immaterial; the only compelling thing about using rangefinder lenses on another camera is killer wides. And frankly, native APS-C lenses – because they are designed correctly for digital sensors – crush adapted rangefinder wides.
— The closed circuit. One of the things that makes mirrorless cameras really, really good is that their autofocus systems can gauge focus from the sensor itself. But this benefit – which bypasses all of the focusing infirmities of SLRs. But the same advantages obtain when attaching manual focus lenses. Not only can the user see the image exactly as resolved by the sensor; he or she can see it at greater magnification or with focus peaking. Getting virtually any lens on to any body never seems to cost more than $30, and there is now plenty of opportunity for exploration on an epic scale.
How do SLR lenses do on digital bodies? The answer is, “it depends on the lens.” The first place to start is the adapter. It needs to be plane-parallel and to have the correct register. Many adapters are off-kilter and are cut short to “assure” infinity focus. They will need to be shimmed sometimes to achieve correct infinity focus (if you want to scale-focus wide-angle lenses). Once you get past that, this is what you can expect. Over the next few posts, we will explore some favorites, but we will spill the beans on a few “sleeper” lenses here. Caution: be careful with M42 (Pentax Screw Mount) lenses with automatic apertures – you may need to disconnect the stop-down pin to get to shooting aperture.
— Wide angles (<35mm). Because these lenses have a palpable focus point wide-open, an EVF, either at magnification or with focus peaking, is the best way to focus these. Consider also that if you are shooting traditional rangefinder wides and actually focusing them, you have to look first in the camera’s viewfinder/rangefinder window, then switch to an external finder. An EVF kills both birds with one stone (or look). Wide-angle lenses will generally perform best close-up, where errors in infinity register will have the least effect (and you should never be aiming for infinity with shorter than a 35mm lens anyway – since subject details are getting too small to give any impression of sharpness). If your thing is close-up, wide-open shots, the Vivitar 20mm f/3.8 Auto is one of the best and cheapest things going. The header picture for this article is shot with it, wide-open on an M typ 240 (which is way more resolution than any historic 35mm-format lens was ever made to handle). Reasonably low distortion (-5 on Lightroom, if you have any straight lines in the shot), high sharpness (click to get it full-size, then blow it up to check out the eyes, which are the focus point), nice bokeh, and reasonable vignetting. Vivitar lenses should not be ignored; this was a company that often employed its own lens designers in the U.S. and produced many manual focus lenses that were quite good (disregard the autofocus products and recent-vintage manual focus lenses, which can be pretty bad). Did we mention that it often costs less than $60? The Tokina RMS 17mm f/3.5 manual focus lens is also pretty good, though it often shows up a bit overpriced. Adapted wide-angles are not as compelling on APS-C cameras – because they become slowish, semi-wide lenses with huge form factors.
— Normal lenses (50mm-60mm). This is the place where there is not much point to adapting lenses – except on APS-C cameras, where these behave like fast-ish short telephotos. The lens that came with your camera is going to outperform an adapted lens – and focus both faster and more accurately. Plus you already own it. One exception is in super-speed (f≥1.2) normal lenses, which become the equivalent of a 75/1.2 on an APS-C camera or remain an awesome 50/1.2 on your Leica M or Sony A7. If Leica users need EVF to accurately focus the $10K 50/1 Noctilux, you shouldn’t feel bad about using one to focus your 1970s Nikkor. The nice thing about 50/1.2 lenses and 57/1.2 lenses is that they were every SLR manufacturer’s showpiece lens; the optics are almost always great. The other use case for adapted normals is for lenses with “character,” such as Tessars and Sonnars. The Soviet Industar 50-2 (50mm f/3.5) and -61 (f/2.0) (both 50mm Tessar, M42 SLR mount) fit this bill.
— Telephoto lenses (≥75mm). Assuming that you can get a high enough shutter speed to use these (you generally want the reciprocal of 2x the focal length or faster), this is where things get fun. SLR telephotos are often a stop or two faster than rangefinder telephotos, and they often have slightly lower contrast wide-open (which was never historically a problem, since for most of history people used these lenses to shoot high-contrast, low-light pictures). Focusing is less challenging due to the higher magnification, and with many of these, focus peaking suffices (magnification would be absurd). From a quality perspective, even cheap telephotos work really well. Here, we would jokingly tell you to “go big or go home.” A worthwhile lens to try is the Konica Hexanon AR 135mm f/3.2. This is the best of Konica’s SLR 135s, it is the cheapest ($50 on Ebay), and it focuses down to a meter. Make sure it’s the 3.2 and not the 3.5 or 2.5. The Soviet Helios-40-2 (85/1.5) is a cult favorite, but there is no argument that it is cheap at $300-400 these days. It was fun for a C-note, but those days are over. The Soviet Jupiter-9 (85/2) (Sonnar, M42 SLR mount) is also a solid portrait choice.
— Zoom lenses. There are only three true “zoom” lenses for digital rangefinders: the 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar, the 21-35mm M-Hexanon Dual, and the 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar. The first two are expensive ($>2000), and the third is kind of ho-hum. And none of them is a true zoom; they are all lenses that have two or three discrete focal lengths. This is an area where the things that are most fun are not intuitive. Wide-angle zooms can be unwieldy when adapted to digital cameras; telephoto zooms can be somewhat challenging to control (but have some merits). The midrange zoom is where your sleepers lie, and if you are a heavy EVF user, a good, compact 35-105mm is not a bad thing to have around. One to check out is the AF 35-105 f/3.5-4.5D Nikkor ($100-150 used). This is a tiny, aspherical, internal-focusing push-pull zoom. It is quite sharp and contrasty, and if you ever get back to your Nikon DSLRs, it is quite a nice lens. It was not a cheap lens when it came out, but selling at around $100 today, it’s one to consider.
— Novelties. Many fun (and very occasional functional) accessories were made for SLRs – cheap fisheye lenses, 90 degree attachments, telescope adapters, and the like. For occasional use, these can be economical and entertaining. Fisheyes in particular are something that are, for most people, not worth investing in. Many of these lenses want 24×36 sensors to reach their full, ahem, potential.
Conclusion. It’s probably not good to counter one generalization (that old SLR lenses are no good) with another (that they are all good). For people who occasionally need a focal length, frequently use EVFs to focus heavy fast lens or telephoto users, or are already zone-focusing wide lenses, older SLR lenses are an avenue that might be helpful. Not every SLR lens is a great performer at a small pixel pitch, but there is value in seeing what can be done more simply and cheaply than forking over another several hundred (or several thousand) to buy a native RF or mirrorless lens that comes out of the bag once or twice a year.