Sunday, May 5, 2013

Five Fifties Compared, Part 1

Brace yourselves.  This one is gonna be a long one.  I haven't written in a while.  Part of the reason is that I've been thinking about doing a post like this one, and the task seemed daunting.  I've finally gotten around to it, however.

I see people always asking the question about which fifty is best.  There's a lot of information out there about the fifties that you can currently buy new.  I wanted to know how my legacy fifties would stand up to the newer models. 

I am a Canon shooter, but I really like using the older manual focus lenses.  There's a lot of bang for your buck in them, if you don't mind manual focus.  This, and several other of my posts are meant to be a resource for people who want a lot of image quality for not a lot of price.  One should be able to get a hold of all of the lenses reviewed for less than $100.  The Canon 50mm f/1.4 is the exception, and being the most expensive lens (mine cost me $349), it will serve as the benchmark.  It's the one to beat. 

The five lenses I will be reviewing are listed below along with the approximate price spent on each.
  • Canon 50mm f/1.4 ~$350
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8 ~$100
  • Olympus 50mm f/1.4 ~$50
  • Yashica 50mm f/1.7 ~$40
  • Olympus 50mm f/3.5 macro ~$80  
Individual write-ups follow.  Scroll to the bottom if you want to get to the comparison.

Canon 50mm f/1.4

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 is a great lens.  It has fast, precise autofocus.  It is a pleasure to use.  I have no complaints about it.  It has a moving front element, and an old-school micromotor USM.  It is often rumored that this leads to autofocus breakage more often than in other lenses.  I have had no trouble. Here are the Charts I shot.  I've posted the picture full size so you can really get a look at it.  Sorry, it's really ugly from a design standpoint.

Charts are shot at ISO 200 on a Canon T2i using live view focusing.    The USAF 1951 charts were posted on the garage door and the camera was positioned so that the center chart was in the center, the edge chart was on the top edge, and the corner chart was in the top right corner.  I did my best to make sure the camera was parallel to garage door, but I was not uber scientific about it. The centers should always be accurate.  The edge and corner crops are subject to greater error because of their distance from the focus point.  At f/1.4 they will be least accurate because of the shallow depth of field.  As the lenses are stopped down this inaccuracy should diminish as a result of greater depth of field.  That's it for the how-I-did-it part.  I won't do this again for the rest of the lenses.

It behaves as expected.  It sharpens up as stopped down.  The notable thing I see is the purple fringing at the contrast edges, clearing up in the center and edge(mostly) by f/2.0 and then in the corner by f/2.8.  This is a little poopy because you buy a f/1.4 lens to take pictures at f/1.4.  F/1.4 performance is what you're paying for.  I can't say I have noticed it that much in real-world use, though.

Canon 50mm f/1.8

This lens is my wife's lens, so I don't use it a lot.  It's super-light, super-plasticy and very inexpensive.  This should be every Canon SLR user's first prime. Cheap/expendable, but with good optical performance.  At least that's what I read.  If you like to manual focus, you will hate this lens.  The focus ring is tiny and on the front of the lens, and it is really loose and really sensitive.  You bump it, and you're way out of focus.  The autofocus is good. Here are the charts:

 This one has the same purple fringing as the f/1.4 evident in the center wide-open.  It is not present in the edge and corner and is completely gone by f/2.0.  The big downer about this lens is in the paragraph above: build quality.

Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7

Note that the C/Y to EOS adapter is attached.

This one is an interesting beast.  It is a contax/yashica mount lens.  The notable(and more desirable) lenses for this mount the Carl Zeiss T* lenses.  Zeiss lenses have a very good reputation.  If you are into photography, you know that though. If not, consider yourself learned.  What's interesting about this Yashica lens is that it apparently uses the same design as the Zeiss version, and Yashica bought actual Zeiss manufactured glass to put in it. So, in theory, the only difference is the lens coatings.  I think these two have been compared before.  You can find it out there on the internets.  The Zeiss seemed to be a teeny, tiny bit better.  They render very similarly. Over on the ebays, the Contax Zeiss lens goes for anywhere from $100 to $300 depending on condition, while the Yashica lens goes for about $40.  That sounds like a pretty sweet deal for a budget shooter.

I really enjoyed shooting with this lens on my Canon 5D.  It's solid and it focuses very smoothly.  The charts, if you will:

This lens has purple fringing that doesn't go away until f/2.8.  It also doesn't seem sharp until f/2.8.  The corners don't sharpen up until beyond that.  From my experience it does have the Zeiss rendering, and I really liked the pictures I was getting from it, but that could all be in my head.

Olympus 50mm f/1.4

I got a super crusty copy of this lens.  The optics are fine though.  If you've read my any of my other posts, you know I love Olympus lenses.  I think they are a huge value.  This one included.  It's tiny for an f/1.4 lens, and I think it holds up pretty well.  The one thing I noticed about this lens compared to the Canon was that in real-world conditions, the Canon has better contrast.  This is easily fixed in post processing though.  Here's the chart:

I think the thing that is worth noting here is that there is no purple fringing in this lens. 

Olympus 50mm f/3.5 macro


I included this one more for fun than anything else.  It's a nice little macro lens.  I highly recommend it, especially if you want to give macro a try and see if you like it. It has a maximum aperture of 3.5, so you won't be shooting with this one at night.  For macro though, the more depth of field the better, so you don't need(or want) a wide aperture to use this one as it was intended. The charts:

note: This lens has no click stop for f/4.0(goes from 3.5 to 5.6), so I had to guestimate it.  The difference between 3.5 and 4.0 is about 1/3 of a stop, so there really isn't much difference.  If I was more committed, I would have looked at these lenses at f/5.6.  I was more concerned about how they performed at wider apertures, because that's where I tend to use them.  Stopped down, the differences between them become very small.  All of these lenses should be excellent by f/5.6.  All of these lenses are very close by f/4.0, as you will see shortly.

It's a macro lens.  It's pretty sharp and it focuses close.  What more could you want?

Now it's time for the fun.

50mm Lens Comparison Charts

The following charts show the lenses center, edge, and corner crops.  The charts were shot wide open, at f/2.0, f/2.8, and f/4.0, from top to bottom.    

  First off, I'm not going to talk about the macro much.  It's as sharp in the center(if not a teeny bit sharper) than the other lenses. Having an f/3.5 aperture gives it a huge/unfair advantage over the other lenses wide-open. It's sharp from f/3.5.  That's all you need to know about that one. 

Now to the others. At wide-open, both Canon lenses have the worst purple fringing of the bunch.  The Yashica is a little better, and the Olympus has no purple fringing at all.  I think the Canon 1.8 is the sharpest with the Yashica following, and then the Canon and Olympus f/1.4s trailing in last place.  To be fair.  They both have wider apertures, so this is to be expected.

At f/2, all the lenses have similar sharpness. It's pretty hard to pick a winner.  I feel like it might be the Olympus 50mm f/1.4 by a hair. The two Canons have higher contrast though.  The Yashica is still showing signs of purple fringing.

At f/2.8 I feel like the Yashica and Canon 1.4 are the sharpest.  I feel like the Canon 1.8 is the worst, but this may be due to the difficulty in focusing this lens.  I Olympus might be as sharp as the first two, but it definitely has lower contrast.

By f/4.0 you'd be hard pressed to pick a winner.

Overall, I think it's safe to say that all of these lenses are good performers.  I think the purple fringing is the worst image quality artifact.  I like that the Olympus doesn't have it, but I dislike the fact that it has lower contrast.  I don't think any lens really pulls off a victory here.

This is where we start to separate the men from the boys.  Here's the order I see, from sharpest to least sharp wide-open.

  1. Olympus 3.5
  2. Canon 1.8
  3. Canon 1.4
  4. Yashica 1.7
  5. Olympus 1.4
The Olympus 3.5 should win with the slowest maximum aperture. In fact, the rest go in aperture order(slowest to fastest), except for the Canon 1.4 and the Yashica, which are flipped.  I thought they were pretty close as far as sharpness was concerned. 

At f/2 the order is:

  1. Canon 1.4
  2. Canon 1.8
  3. Olympus 1.4
  4. Yashica 1.7 
I think it's pretty clear at this point.

At f/2.8 I think it is:

  1. Yashica 1.7
  2. Olympus 1.4
  3. Canon 1.4
  4. Canon 1.8
Again, I think the Canon 1.8 might be due to human focusing error.  I think the Yashica has the best contrast at this point.  The Canon 1.4 seems to have a little more contrast than the Olympus, even though it seems less sharp.

At F/4.0 I am not willing to rank them anymore.  They are all pretty close at this point.  I'll say that the olympus 1.4 has the worst contrast.

The olympus seems to be the worst of the bunch(only by a little bit) at this point.  It is important to remember that by f/4 the little macro lens is stopped down 1/3 of a stop while the other lens are stopped down between two and three stops.  Two to Three stops tends to be where lenses start reaching maximum performance.  This puts the macro at a big disadvantage.

 Here's where the truth gets told.  Obviously the Olympus Macro wins here.

For the wide aperture lenses, wide-open, the order goes like this:
  1. Canon 1.8
  2. Canon 1.4
  3. Yashica 1.7
  4. Olympus 1.4  
The Yashica and Olympus were pretty close.  The Olympus is the only one without purple fringing at this point.

At f/2.0:
  1. Canon 1.4
  2. Olympus 1.4
  3. Canon 1.8
  4. Yashica 1.7
The Canon 1.4 and Yashica both show purple fringing here. The Canon 1.8 has better contrast than the Olympus here, even though it is a little less sharp.  

At f/2.8:
  1. Canon 1.4
  2. Olympus 1.4
  3. Yashica 1.7
  4. Canon 1.8
I'm really starting to think the Canon 1.8 performance at f/2.8 is due to misfocus.  I'll have to look around and see if anyone else noticed a phenomenon like this.   

The Canon 1.8 is really starting to show some nasty chromatic abberation here.

The Canon 1.4 is clearly sharper than the others.  

At f/4.0:
  1. Canon 1.4
  2. Olympus 1.4
  3. Yashica 1.7
  4. Canon 1.8
The order holds.  I think the Yashica clearly has more contrast than the Olympus though.  The Yashica Clearly beats the Canon 1.8 here as well.

The Olympus 3.5 macro looks to be about as sharp as the Canon 1.4, but with a little bit lower contrast.

The Verdict

This is the hard part.  The bottom line is that they all have pretty good center performance.  The Olympus 1.4 doesn't seem to have any purple fringing, which sets it apart.  It's low contrast does the same I think the low contrast with the Olympus 1.4 is a real killer.

I think the Canon center contrast really stands out for both lenses. 

In the edges, the Canons both shine wide open and at f/2.  The Yashica and Olympus catch up and maybe exceed their performance at 2.8.

At the corners, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 really outclasses the others.  The Canon 1.8 really shows it's weakness here.  It starts out at the top of the class, but improves less than all the other lenses upon stopping down.  By f/4 it is surpassed by all the other lenses.

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 clearly wins overall.

I think the other lenses all represent a good value.  The Canon 1.8 isn't as good as I had hoped, and as it's reputation(I think), but for a modern autofocus lens, it is certainly worth its $100 price.  It really only lets you down in the corners.  But it really lets you down there.

The Olympus 1.4 is a super cheap 1.4 lens.  It's plenty sharp, but you will probably find yourself doing some extra post-processing work.  The rumor on the internets is that Olympus 50mm 1.4s with a serial number over 1,100,000 have better performance than the once with lower serial numbers. I would expect this to be contrast performance.  It just so happens that I have one in the mail to me right now. There will be an investigative comparison coming soon.  This may change my opinion of the Olympus 1.4.  You should know that a copy with a high serial number costs about twice as much, though.

The Yashica has its Zeiss character for a paltry sum.  The real question is, does it have the Zeiss character? That's the real value in this lens.  Otherwise, you are getting what you pay for. I am going to try and address this question in part two.

The Olympus macro behaves as a macro should.  It is sharp across the frame all the way from wide open.  If you don't need a wide aperture lens.  This would be a great little fifty to carry around.

Everyone knows that sharpness isn't the only thing that matters with a lens. Bokeh, contrast(which I've spoken to a bit) and color reproduction are important as well -- probably more important.  I'll try and take a look at these things in the next part.