Choosing a vintage lens – some FAQ

This is a follow-on to the general FAQ on vintage lenses, and answers questions related more to choosing a lens. There are often no truly definitive answers, i.e. there is no “one” perfect vintage lens.

Which focal lengths should I start with?

The most common focal length is 50mm, therefore this is the lens I would suggest starting with. On a crop-sensor such as APS-C, this will give you a 75mm moderate range telephoto, good for portraits etc. Next in line would be a 35mm, because this will give you a “normal” 52mm on an APS-C camera. At the end of the day, the focal length you choose is based on your photographic needs.

Do I need a fast vintage lens?

Sure, 50mm f/1.2 lenses are fast, and f/1.1’s are even faster, but in all likelihood you won’t need to spend the extra money for a fast lens. As digital cameras have higher native ISOs, lenses with f/1.8, f/2, f/2.8 and even f/3.5 are more than usable. Besides which, superfast lenses have a lot of limitations, and do you really want to spend that much money?

Should I choose a lens based on specifications?

Sometimes people will choose lenses based on its speed, i.e. large apertures. Don’t choose a lens based solely on its specifications. A lens has to have a real need for it to be useful, not a numeric one. If you have the wherewithal to buy a 50mm f/1.1 lens, then you have to actually be in a situation to use it, unless of course you are a collector. Besides which the character of a lens is more than just it’s technical specifications.

Should I choose a lens based on its aesthetic appeal?

Sure, why not. I know most people think about the optical appeal of a lens, or the fabulous bokeh it will produce, but the reality is that aesthetics have to play some sort of role. I prefer the look of the older aluminum/chrome lenses over their matt black successors. For example I really like the “fat” version of the CZJ Biotar 75mm f/1.5 made from 1952-1968. It is made of aluminum and has an extremely scalloped focus ring, but these days it sells for upwards fo $2000, so not exactly affordable. I am also drawn towards the Zeiss lenses with the “Star Wars” motif, e.g. Pancolar 50mm.

Aesthetically pleasing lenses anyone?

Are hyped up lenses worth it?

Maybe, or maybe not. In reality how good a lens is is very subjective. Choosing a lens based on a single persons opinion may be somewhat flaky. If a number of people share the same opinion, then it may be worth pursuing that lens. However hyped up lenses often become quite expensive, or even hard to find. For example the the Helios-40 85mm f/1.5 is quiet a hyped up lens – great if you are crazy for Bokeh, but for $500 too expensive for a 85mm lens.

Are lenses nobody talks about worth it?

This is the flip-side to hyped-lenses. The problem with lenses nobody talks about is that nobody talks about them, maybe because they are mediocre, or perhaps nobody has explored them properly. Of course once people get wind of a lens that has been ignored for decades but has some endearing characteristics, expect it to become more expensive, and harder to find. These lenses are often quite cheap, so maybe it’s worth a risk?

Are legendary lenses really that good?

Some lens reviews like to use terms like “legendary”, “mythical”, and “superior”. It is all very subjective. Some lenses do have the qualities to pull off being given one of these monikers, but many aren’t. For example the Carl Zeiss Pancolar 80mm f/1.8 is considered by most to be a really exceptional lens. It is very sharp, and has great bokeh, but the downside is that it isn’t that common, and therefore prices range from C$1200-2000.

Does the brand matter?

Most camera companies produced good lenses. Some people say Zeiss are the best (East or West Germany, that is the question?), others lover Asahi Pentax, and still others like Canon, or Nikon. It’s really all about what lens characteristics of a particular manufacturer you end up coveting. That being said, even prominent companies produced some dog lenses. There were also companies that just produced a certain genre of lenses – for example Heinz Kilfitt (München) produced macro (they produced the first macro lens), telephoto and zoom lenses, such as the famous Killfitt Fern-Kilar 40mm f/5.6 used in the movie Rear Window. (I’ll be doing a separate post on brands)

Are third-party lenses any good?

People also forget that there are 3rd-party lenses, from manufacturers like Soligor, which are usually pretty good, and often quite inexpensive. It often depends on the characteristics of individual lenses.

What things do people forget when choosing a lens?

The most common are likely size and weight. Faster lenses are generally larger, and heavier. An early lens may be made of chrome-plated steel and therefore much heavier than the aluminum lenses that followed. Also, cheaper lenses may not be built that well, i.e. using lower quality components, or heaven forbid plastic parts.

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Vintage lenses – Komura

There are some lenses that few people have ever heard about, usually because they provided third-party lenses for many differing camera mounts. One such lens brand is Komura, manufactured by Japanese optical company Sankyō Kōki K.K. (Sankyo Kohki), known in English as Sankyo Koki Co. Ltd. In 1962 the company, registered the US trademark Komura, indicating that it was firat used as a trademark in 1953. Before that it is believed the company use the brand name Chibanon or Chibanone. By the 1970s, the company had changed its name to Komura Lens Manufacturing Ltd.

The Komura literature touted their lenses as being “superbly sharp”. They seem to have produced at least 40 different lenses from 28mm to 800mm, for SLR, rangefinder, and C-mount cameras. Their 28-200mm lenses were made with individual mounts, whereas those above 200mm required a specific adapter (apparently to reduce inventory requirements). Today Komura lenses are little known, but can still be found, especially for Japan (eBay). A 105mm f/2 is usually advertised for between C$300-500, while 85mm f/1.4 lenses seem to go as high ac C$1200. Actually quite high prices for a brand that doesn’t have a lot of presence.

To put this into perspective, the Komura 800mm f/8.0 sold for US$695 in 1965 (plus $8.50 for an appropriate adapter). Conversely the 500mm f/7.0 sold for US$175 (+ $4.95 adapter). The 85mm f/1.4 sold for US$162.

Choosing a vintage lens – things to consider

After looking at the basics of vintage interchangeable lenses, there is a point when you will have to make some decisions about choosing a lens. There are literally millions of vintage lenses out there in the ether. Some are exceptional, most are good, some are mediocre. But even mediocre lenses can be interesting if they are cheap enough, and you want to experiment (even if that involves taking a lens apart and putting it back together again).

Choosing a lens is often quite a daunting experience, because there are so many possibilities, and it can be hard to narrow things down. Some people only buy lenses from a single manufacturer, others only buy lenses of a single focal length, others only buy lenses from a specific time period, and still others buy lenses that have a cool bokeh effect. The type of vintage lens you buy is a very individualistic thing. You can read the reviews about particular lenses, and formulate your own opinion about buying a lens, but you never really know what you get until you use it. Lenses come in different versions, and sometimes from different factories. Choosing a lens is also more than just looking at quantitative data such as lens sharpness, it is often more about the aesthetic appeal of the image produced, than the exactness of the MFT (Modulation Transfer Function) diagrams.

The best place to start is to decide what the lens will be used for. This aids in determining the focal length and lens characteristics, helping to constrain the search. For example someone who takes architectural photographs may be interested in a shift perspective lens such as the Olympus OM 35mm f/2.8 Shift lens. For astrophotographers, a sharp lens that is well corrected for coma is important. Those who take portraits may opt for a 85mm lens. If you have no specific needs, then start with a 50mm lens – it is by far the most common vintage focal length (and every manufacturer produced various models). Don’t forget that a lens behaviour will depend on the size of the camera’s sensor it is used on. For example a 50mm lens with a standard 46° diagonal angle-of-view, will behave like a “full-frame” 75mm lens on an APS-C sensor (with a diagonal AOV of 32°), i.e. the 50mm lens will be “the equivalent of” a 75mm FF lens.

Things to consider when choosing a vintage lens: lens use, focal length, budget, features, aperture, brand
Things to consider when choosing a vintage lens

Once you have an idea of the focal length, then you need to decide what features you want: must-haves, nice-to-haves, and things-not-needed – and of course how much you want to spend. Choosing a focal length is of course the easy part. Now you have to choose a brand, and a configuration (aperture, number of aperture blades, mount). This is harder because there are a lot of choices. Sometimes the best approach is to take the lead from someone who has done some of the hard work for you. For the beginner, there is very little difference between any 50mm lenses from the core camera manufacturers: Pentax, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Zeiss, etc., they are all pretty good. Of course the “elephant in the room” is often budget. Choosing an upper limit on how much you are willing to spend on a lens will help constrain your search from the get-go, which helps avoid pursuing lenses that are nice, but just ooh too expensive. it you can’t afford it, don’t go there.

Now with a focal length, and a budget, it’s time to explore aperture, or lens speed, i.e. when the aperture of a lens is completely open, how much light comes in. In situations where you are shooting in broad daylight, then is there any need for a 50mm f/1.4 lens, or would a f/2 suffice? For example, Canon 50mm rangefinder lenses were produced in three different types: f/2.8, f/1.8, and f/1.2. The f/2.8 is 128g, the f/1.8 is 270g, and the f/1.2 is 322g. The f/1.2 lens will provide a lot of light, but at 2.5 times the weight. A lot of effort can be put into deciding the speed of the lens. However the faster the lens, i.e. the larger the aperture, the more expensive the lens will be. Don’t spend a lot of money on your first few of lenses. You can experiment with these lenses and decide whether using vintage lenses is for you.

Canon rangefinder 50mm lenses

Once you have chosen a lens, it is good to review some of the literature on the lens. How expensive is it? What about availability – is it common or rare? Is the lens generally found in good stead, or is it susceptible to abnormalities such as fogging/hazing, or has a front lens which is easily scratched? For example it is common knowledge that some of the Canon rangefinder LTM mount lenses are very susceptible to fogging. Is it easy to repair if there are issues?

Then it helps to look at some reviews, either on blogs, or videos. Just remember that reviews are a subjective viewpoint from someone with similar or differing circumstances to your own. Try and stick to reviewers that have a long history of reviewing vintage lenses. If their lens review, how did they evaluate the lens? Did they show actual photographs taken using the lens, in a good variety of situations? Did they take the shots using the same sensor size as your camera has? Was it a review performed with the lens on a film camera? It’s best to look at several different views, but always keep in mind that the lens you might buy will be different to the one they are reviewing. It could be a newer model of a lens which uses the same optical formula, but is housed differently, or uses a different aperture mechanism, e.g. number of blades; or perhaps it uses a different type of glass in some of the lens elements, e.g. thoriated versus regular glass. There is never a guarantee that the lens you buy will behave in exactly the same manner.

Don’t choose a lens solely on its specifications. Just because a 50mm f/1.2 lens seems like a good idea because it is rare, and some people proclaim it as the “best” lens, does not mean it will work properly for what you want it to do. Don’t be swayed by the large collections of some photographers. Some people take photographs for a living, and so may have more requirements, and also more ability to sustain large collections. Having dozens of 50mm lenses is fine, if you can afford them, and if you are actually going to use them (and it’s easy to fall down this rabbit hole). You may decide after some investigation that the lens you had coveted it really not something you need – for various reasons. Maybe it’s too expensive? Maybe it’s too hard to find? Maybe it is notorious for needing repairs?

Vintage lenses – some general FAQ

Here are some questions relating to vintage lenses, things that people might like to know before they dive into the world of vintage lenses (and how to choose them).

Can any vintage lens be used on a digital camera?

Just about. Most mirrorless full-frame and crop-sensor cameras can be used with vintage lenses, but there are some lenses which don’t work, either because they have a strange lens-mount, or the lens itself projects too far beyond the mount into the camera.

Are vintage lenses affordable?

Vintage lenses were once quite inexpensive, but as more people discover them, some are increasing in price – well the popular ones are. That being said, they are still often cheaper than modern glass, especially the faster lenses. For example, the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 sells for around C$100-150. The 8-element version of the lens, the Super-Takumar, in good condition usually sells for C$300-500 (which is still pretty affordable). The most affordable vintage lenses, are often those mass-produced kit-lenses that don’t get a second look at. Leica lenses are nearly always expensive.

What is the best vintage lens?

There is really no such thing, because the inherent character of a lens is very subjective. Many people swear by the Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, others prefer the Asahi Pentax Takumar series, and yet others gravitate towards Nikon. There are a lot of “best vintage lenses” lists out there, but it is best to look at reviews of people who use a lot of vintage lenses. For example Zenography, Simon’s utak, or Mark Holtze all have great vintage lens reviews on their respective YouTube channels.

Is there such a thing as a perfect vintage lens?

No, even the most sought-after lenses can have limitations. For example the 8-element Takumar 50mm f/1.4 does not outperform other legacy lenses in certain situations. It can be quite soft when the lens is shot wide open in some circumstances, and is a heavy lens. Yet people are still charmed by the lens because it does a really good job with colour rendering. It produces warm colours with very little vignetting. The Takumar lenses also have good ergonomics.

What about vintage zooms?

Some people like them, others don’t. The reality is that there are many really good, well-built early zoom lenses out there, and because they are often so underrated, they are really quite inexpensive.

Aren’t newer lenses better?

Newer lenses are more technologically savvy, and the glass is likely to be near perfect (although truthfully there is no such thing as a perfect lens). Modern lenses built for digital cameras try very hard to remove abnormalities, which is the very reason most people gravitate towards vintage lenses. Modern lenses are also inherently more complex. For example the Olympus Zuiko 25mm f1.2 Pro (MFT 50mm FF equivalent) has 19 lens elements in 14 groups, including low dispersion, high-refractive, and aspherical elements. The vintage equivalent, the Olympus OM Zuiko AUTO-S 50mm f1.2 has 7 elements in 6 groups. Vintage lenses often use a very simple optical designs that have been around for a hundred years. Do you really need a lens with 15 lens elements, or will 6 do?

Are all vintage lenses manual?

Practically all vintage lenses require manual focus, and manually setting the aperture. Manual focusing is slower than autofocus, but most mirrorless cameras provide tools, e.g. focus peaking, to help with the process of manual focusing. Manual focus lenses might not be an optimal choice for activities such as travel involving fast-paced tourism, but it brings you closer to understanding the subtleties how a camera-lens combination works.

Is there a good range of focal lengths?

Brands aside, there is usually a good selection of focal lengths available. The most common focal length is 50mm, because of it’s “normal” status, and the fact that it came as the standard “kit” lens on most cameras. After that there is a good range of wide-angles (28mm, 35mm), and short telephotos (85-135mm). Ultra-wide angle lenses are rarer, yet there seems to be a wide range of telephotos (possibly because they aren’t as popular).

What about the build quality of lenses?

Many of these lenses were built tough. They featured solidly build body’s with aluminum lens barrels and stainless steel mounts. Without a bunch of electronic and motors inside to facilitate things like auto-focus, vintage lenses can often be quite compact, and light. They are robust, easy to fix, and lack the complex electronics of modern lenses (meaning they will last for decades).

How does adapting a vintage lens to a crop-sensor affect it?

Most vintage lenses were designed for 35mm film cameras, and their equivalent is full-frame digital cameras. So a vintage lens put on a crop-sensor camera will behave the same way as any other lens on a crop sensor, i.e. its angle-of-view will be modified. For example you could choose any vintage 50mm lens, and when added to an APS-C camera it would behave like a 75mm lens in “full-frame equivalency”. Used on a camera with a MFT sensor, it would behave like a 100mm FF equivalent.

Can vintage lenses be used to create retro-looking images?

Possibly, it really all depends on the type of lens, and the type of digital camera it is used upon. There are many more variables involved with using digital cameras, as opposed to film cameras. It is possible to try and replicate the “look” of old photos, but digital cameras will not replicate film 100%.

Where is the best place to buy vintage lenses?

I have covered this in a separate post. I also maintain a list of “Where to buy what”.

Why choose a vintage lens?

There are many reasons why people choose to use vintage lenses. Many just opt for the chance of experimenting with their photography. Some people buy a particular lens for the Bokeh it produces, or its level of sharpness, or just perhaps for its unique character. Some use vintage lenses as an alternative to expensive digital lenses.

They have character

From a technical viewpoint vintage lenses are not better than modern lenses – in fact from an optical viewpoint they are likely quite inferior – in theory anyways. What they are however, is much simpler in design. There is no auto-anything – manual focus is top dog, as is aperture adjustment. They also have qualities that modern lenses often try to avoid in their design, e.g. optical aberrations. Yet it is these imperfections that provide vintage lenses with one thing new lenses often lack – a sense of character. We’re talking contrast, distortion, chromatic aberrations, illumination (flaring), and vignetting. This gives the images created a very distinctive look (although likely not as distinctive as it would coupled with various types of film). Sometimes this is in the way they render out-of-focus regions in a image or perhaps the sharpness of the image, or colour-rendition. Some people like to use vintage lenses because they produce nice contrast, or have nice bokeh, but it is all highly subjective. One person’s “bokeh-monster” will be another nightmare.

Some people may choose to use only vintage 50mm lenses. You may question why someone needs half a dozen different 50mm lenses, but the reality is that they may all have unique, noteworthy attributes. Many manufacturers produced a number of 50mm lenses at any given time, all with differing characteristics. For example, they may have used different (i) lens formulae, (ii) optical glass, (iii) aperture system (e.g number of blades), or (iv) lens speed. A lens is the sum of all its characteristics, not just the focal length.

They are (mostly) available at a good price

One of the main reasons people like to choose vintage lenses is affordability. Most vintage lenses fall into the “reasonably priced” category, usually somewhere in the range of US$80-250. It’s hard to talk too specifically about lens prices because of the broad range of lenses. However within the scope of a particular lens it is also possible to have a wide gamut of prices usually largely dependent on the condition of the lens. There are a lot of good vintage lenses that don’t get a lot of coverage that are extremely well positioned from a price point.

There are of course some vintage lenses that are expensive, but that is usually because they are (i) rare, or (ii) too popular. For example superfast 50mm f/1.2 lenses are not cheap, but you probably don’t need a superfast lens. Others, like say the Zeiss 50mm Pancolar, is expensive because it is well known to be a good lenses. Sometimes a good lens will be talked up by someone in a video – this causes a run on them, and hence pushes up the cost. Some lenses like the Pancolar 55mm f/1.4 are so rare they are often advertised in the C$3-5K range. Vintage lenses are often chosen as an alternative to modern lenses, or perhaps to try out a lens of a certain focal length before buying a modern version. For example, an 85mm equivalent for the Fuji-X system would be the Fujifilm XF 56mm f/1.2 R WR, which retails for about C$1300. It is possible to get an Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 55mm f/1.8 for about C$100 – slightly slower, but less than 10% of the cost.

They are well built (but can have some flaws)

Lenses of a certain vintage are built like proverbial tanks. Many of those built prior to 1970 are predominantly made of metal and glass. It was in the 1970s that plastics started to creep into the manufacturing process. There are pros and cons to each. More recent vintage lenses likely have lens coatings and optics that are much better than older lenses whereas earlier 35mm lenses featured solidly build body’s with aluminum lens barrels and stainless steel mounts. Of course not all vintage lenses are worthy. The downside is that vintage lenses can suffer from any number of maladies, some superficial like cosmetic scratches on the barrel, some affecting the functionality such as stiff focusing ring, and others more serious affecting the optical surfaces of the lens, e.g haze, scratches, and fungus. The other thing to think about is weight. Modern lenses typically have a lot more optical elements, and hence are larger and heavier than most equivalent vintage lenses.

They provide an education

One of the issues with digital cameras is that so much is automated. That’s not a bad thing in a lot of situations because it allows you to concentrate on framing the shot. However because of this, the inner workings of the camera are sometimes lost to the photographer. Using vintage lenses means you have to gain a more intimate understanding of how apertures work, and master the art of focusing. However on the flip-side you do gain better control of the photographic process.

They are eco-friendly

Lastly, using vintage lenses is very eco-friendly. The lenses already exist, and apart from buying an adapter, which can be used for any vintage lens with the same mount, there is very little in the way of a carbon footprint (save postage if bought online). Well-built products, have a longevity that keeps them out of landfills. Vintage lenses are inherently sustainable for a number of reasons: (i) No requirement for more materials to build the lenses (plastics, electronics, glass); (ii) Little to no pollution; and (iii) Interchangeability, i.e. the same lens can be used on different cameras, and so changing systems only means acquiring a new adapter.

Glass from the past, aka vintage lenses

When digital cameras started to supplant analog ones, everyone likely thought that the manual focus interchangeable lenses of yore would be relegated to dark closets, attics, and the few who still used film. It became rare to find these lenses, except perhaps languishing in the “used” section of a camera store, often gathering dust. Digital cameras used digital lenses, and as such there was very little need for analog lenses. There were also few means of adapting these lenses for use on DSLR’s, largely because of the lack of mount adapters, but also because of compatibility issues with mirror-based cameras, both full frame and crop-sensor. This changed with the advent of the mirrorless camera which having a shorter distance to the sensor allowed the adoption of lens adapters.

So what is a vintage lens? This is somewhat of a loaded question because there is no definitive answer. One of the defining characteristics of a vintage lens is that it is manual, i.e. it relies on both manual focus, and aperture setting. But there are a lot of manual lenses available. There are lenses available from the 1930’s, 40’s and even the 19th century. But many of these suffer from not being easy to adapt to digital cameras. In all likelihood, anything pre-digital could be construed as vintage, however I hesitate to include the pre-digital lenses with electronic components in them, e.g. auto-focus, because most cannot be easily converted for use on a digital camera. But in the end, vintage really means interchangeable lenses made for cameras that used film, and specifically 35mm film cameras, either SLR or rangefinders.

There are millions of vintage lenses in the world today, the majority of these interchangeable lenses hail from the period 1950-1985, predominantly made in Japan and Europe. Some brands have a large ubiquity in the world of vintage lenses, such as Asahi Takumar, while others such as Minolta’s Rokkor have a more subdued presence, e.g. the Rokkor 58mm f/1.4 lens an example of a star performer. Vintage lenses come in various focal lengths, but many are in the “normal” range 45-58mm. They can be fast, i.e. have a large aperture, aesthetically pleasing, e.g. made of chrome, or just come from a company with an exceptional optical reputation. All vintage lenses have their own character, from optical anomalies and aberrations, to colour rendering, and boken, and the out-of-focus qualities. Many of the Carl Zeiss Jena lenses such as the Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 is renowned for how it renders out-of-focus regions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, is the Jupiter 9, an 85mm f/2 lens made in the USSR – it has a wonderful 15 blade aperture, and what some people call “dreamy bokeh”.

In some cases a particular lens may have been made for only a couple of years, in limited quantities, and in other cases a lens may have evolved over a dozen or more years, with slight changes in lens formulae, glass composition, and mounts. For example Asahi Pentax produced a huge number of Takumar branded lenses in the 1960s. Some like the 8-bladed Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4, a Planar-type lens, almost have legendary status, the optics are that good. The lens evolved over the years from the legendary 8-element Super-Takumar (1964-65) to the thoriated 7-element Super-Takumar (1965-71), Super-Multi-Coated Takumar (1971-72) and SMC Takumar (1972-75). At more than 50 years old, many of these lenses still pass muster. So why choose a vintage lens?

This series will focus on vintage lenses. Over the course of the next few months we will explore various aspects of vintage lenses, from questioning why they are of interest to digging down into the intricacies of choosing a lens, adapters, and how to examine a lens prior to purchase. This won’t be a review of specific lenses (that may come later), but more of a broad overview, providing links to extra information that might be of interest.

The fastest vintage 50mm lenses ever made – light gathering behemoths

Some of the most interesting vintage lenses are the sub-f/1.2 lenses, of which there are very few. In the 1950s Japanese lens makers wanted to push the envelope, racing to construct the fastest lenses possible. There were four contenders: the Zunow 50mm f/1.1, the Nippon Kogaku’s Nikkor-N.C 50mm f/1.1, Konishiroku (Konica’s predecessor) Hexanon 60mm f/1.2 and the Fujinon 50mm f1.2 LTM. This spurned research which led to the development of the Canon 50mm f/0.95 (1961), which at the time was the largest aperture of any cameras lens in the world. The other, which did not appear until 1976 was the Leitz (Canada) Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.0.

(Note that these lenses were made for 35mm rangefinder cameras.)

Why were these lenses developed?

The most obvious reason was the race to produce fast lenses. An article in the February 1956 issue of Popular Photography sheds more light on the issue. The article, titled “Meet the Zunow f/1.1” [1], by Norman Rothschild, described the virtues of the Zunow lens (more on that below), and concluded with one of the reasons these lenses were of interest, namely that it opened up new areas for the “available-light man”, i.e. the person who wanted to use only natural light, especially with slow colour films. This makes sense, as Kodachrome had an ASA speed of 10, and Type A’s speed was ASA 16. Even Kodachrome II released in 1961 only had a speed of 25 ISO. Conversely, black and white film of the period was much faster: Kodak Super-XX was 200 ISO, and Ilford FP3 was 125 ISO. Ilford HPS, introduced in 1954 pushed the ISO to 800. The newer Ektachrome and Anscochrome colour films were rated at ASA 32. In the patent for the Zunow f/1.1 lens [3], the authors claimed that objectives with apertures wider than f/1.4 were in more demand. In reality, the race to make even faster lenses was little different to the race to get to the moon.

Zunow 50mm f/1.1

The first of the sub-5/1.2 lenses was the Zunow 50mm f/1.1. Teikoku Kōgaku Kenkyūjo was founded by Suzuki Sakuta circa 1930 and worked for other companies grinding lenses. The company started working on fast lens around 1948, with the first prototypes completed in 1950, and the 50mm f/1.1 Zunow released in 1953. It made a number of lenses for rangefinder cameras, including slower 50mm lenses in f/1.3, and f/1.9, a f/1.7 35mm, and a 100mm f/2 lenses. In 1956 it became the Zunow Kōgaku Kōgyō K.K., or Zunow Optical Industry Co., Ltd., but closed its doors in early 1961. During the last years the company designed a couple of camera’s including a prototype of a Leica copy, the Teica, and the Zunow SLR, the first 35mm SLR camera with auto diaphragm, instant-return mirror, and bayonet mount interchangeable lenses (only about 500 were ever produced).

The Zunow 50mm f/1.1 was derived from the Sonnar-type f/1.5 lens. The patent for the Zunow f/1.1 lens [3] describes the lens as “an improved photographic objective suited for use with a camera that takes 36×24mm pictures”. Many of these fast lenses were actually manufactured for the cine industry. For example the company produced Zunow-Elmo Cine f/1.1 lenses for D-mount in 38mm and 6.5mm (and these lenses are reasonably priced, circa US$500, however not very useful for 35mm). The Zunow 50mm f/1.1 is today a vary rare lens. Sales are are US$5-10K depending on condition. The price for this lens in 1956 was US$450.

  • 1953 – Zunow f/1.1 5cm, Leica M39 mount/Nikon S, 9 elements in 5 groups.
  • 1955 – Zunow f/1.1 50mm, Leica M39 mount/Nikon S, 8 elements in 5 groups.

Nikkor-N 50mm f/1.1

Hot on the heals of Zunow was the Nikkor-N 5cm f/1.1 developed by Nippon Kogaku. Introduced in 1956, it was the second sub-f/1.2 lens produced. The lens was designed by Saburo Murakami, who received a patent for it in 1958 [5]. While the Zunow was an extension of the Sonnar-type lens, the Nikkor lens was of a gaussian type. It was also made using an optical glass made using the rare earth element Lanthanum in three of its optical elements. The lens was made in three differing mounts: the original internal Nikon mount (for use on Nikon S2, SP/S3 cameras), the external Nikon mount, and the Leica M39 mount. The original lens mount was an internal mount, and the heavy weight of the lens (425g) could damage the focusing mount, so it was redesigned in 1959 with an external mount. The lens had a gigantic lens hood with cut-outs for setting the focus with the rangefinder through the viewfinder.

  • 1956 – Nikon Nikkor-N[.C] 50mm f/1.1, Leica screw mount/Nikon S, 9 elements in 6 groups (Nikon, 1200 units; M39, 300 units)
  • 1959 – Nikon Nikkor-N 50mm f/1.1, Leica screw mount/Nikon S, 9 elements in 6 groups (1800 units)

A 1959 price list shows that this lens sold for US$299.50. Today the price of this lens is anywhere in the range $5-10K. Too few were manufactured to make this lens the least bit affordable. Nippon Kogaku also supposedly developed an experimental f/1.0 lens for the Nikon S, but it never went into production.

Canon 50mm f/0.95

In August 1961, Canon released the 50mm f/0.95, designed as a standard lens for the Canon 7 rangefinder camera. It was the world’s fastest lens. The Canon f/0.95 was often advertised attached to the Model 7 camera – the Canon “dream” lens. The advertising generally touted the fact that it was “the world’s fastest lens, four times brighter than the human eye” (how this could be measured is questionable). It is Gauss type lens with 7 elements in 5 groups. The lens was so large on the Canon 7 that it obscured a good part of the view in the bottom right-hand corner of the viewfinder, and partially obscured the field-of-view.

In a 1970 Canon price list, the 50mm f/0.95 rangefinder lens sold for $320, with the f/1.2 at $220. To put this into context, $320 in 1970 is worth about $2320 today, and a Canon 7 with a f/0.95 lens in average condition sells for around this value. Lenses in mint condition are valued at around $5K.

The verdict?

So why did these lenses not catch on? Cost for one. While f/1.2 lenses were expensive, faster lenses were even more expensive. For specialist applications, the development of these lenses likely made sense, but for the average photographer likely not. There were a number of articles circa 1950 in magazines like Poplular Photography which seemed to downplay their value, which likely contributed to their decline. It is notable that by the the early 1960s, Nikon stopped advertising its 50mm f/1.1 lens, and never produced another sub-f/1.2 lens. By the late 1960s even Canon had ceased production of the f/0.95.

There were probably more sub f/1.2 lenses created for non-photographic applications, in many different focal lengths. For example x-ray machines (Leitz 50mm f/0.75), D-mount film cameras (e.g. Kern Switar 13mm f/0.9), C-mount for film, medical and scientific imaging (e.g. Angenieux 35mm f/0.95), and aerial photography lenses (e.g. Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7). Not until recently have super-fast lenses once again appeared, likely because they are technologically better lenses, made much cheaper than they ever could have been in the 1950s and 60s.

References:

  1. Norman Rothschild, “Meet the Zunow f/1.1”, Popular Photography, pp.126/128, February (1956)
  2. Kogoro Yamada, “Japanese photographic objectives for use with 35mm cameras”, Photographic Science and Engineering 2(1), p.6-13 (1958)
  3. U.S. Patent 2,715,354, Sakuta Suzuki et al., “Photographic Objective with Wide Relative Aperture”, August 16, (1955)
  4. Hagiya Takeshi, Zunō kamera tanjō: Sengo kokusan kamera jū monogatari (The birth of the Zunow camera: Ten stories of postwar Japanese camera makers) Japanese only (1999)
  5. U.S. Patent 2,828,671, “Wide Aperture Photographic Objectives”, April 1, 1958.

Further reading:

A list of vintage super-fast 50-60mm f/1.2 lenses

So who made f/1.2 lenses? The answer is that most manufacturers had some lenses with this large aperture, usually in the 50-60mm range. Most of these lenses came from Japanese manufacturers, who led the way in fast lenses. The only real exception is the Leitz Wetzlar Noctilux 50mm, and they are expensive, to the point where it is cheaper to buy a new Noctilux-M 50mm f/1.2 ASPH (for US$8k).

These lenses are sorted by focal length and years up to 1985. Up until 1975, there were few if any 50mm f/1.2 lenses for SLR cameras, but there were a range of 55/58mm f/1.2 lenses. Note R indicates a lens for a rangefinder camera.

50mm

  • 1954 – Fuji Fujinon 5cm f/1.2 R
  • 1956 – Canon 50mm f/1.2 R
  • 1966 – Leitz Wetzlar Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 R
  • 1975 – Pentax SMC 50mm f/1.2
  • 1978 – Minolta MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1978 – Nikon AI Nikkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1980 – Canon FDn 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Minolta MD 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Nikon AI-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Fuji Photofilm EBC X-Fujinon 50mm f/1.2 DM (+Porst UMC)
  • 1982 – Olympus OM Zuiko Auto-S 50mm f/1.2
  • 1984 – SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.2

55mm

  • 1962 – Canon R Super-Canomatic 58mm f/1.2
  • 1965 – Nikkor-S Auto f/1.2 55mm
  • 1968 – Canon FL 55mm f/1.2
  • 1970 – Tomioka Auto (Chinon/Cosinon/Revuenon/Yashinon/Cosina) 55mm f/1.2
  • 1970 – Tomioka Kogaku Auto Tominon 55mm f/1.2
  • 1971 – Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 (+AL)
  • 1972 – Olympus OM G.Zuiko Auto-S 55mm f/1.2
  • 1973 – Tomioka Auto Yashinon DS-M 55mm f/1.2
  • 1974 – Nikon Nikkor 55mm f/1.2
  • 1975 – Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 Aspherical
  • 1976 – Yashica ML 55mm f/1.2
  • 1977 – Nikon AI Nikkor 55mm f/1.2

57-60mm

  • 1956 – Konishiroku Hexanon 60mm f/1.2 R
  • 1960 – Tamron 58mm f/1.2
  • 1962 – Canon Super-Canomatic R 58mm f/1.2
  • 1964 – Canon FL 58mm f/1.2
  • 1967 – Konica Hexanon/Hexar 57mm f/1.2
  • 1968 – Minolta MC Rokkor-PG 58mm f/1.2
  • 1973 – Minolta MC Rokkor(-X) PG 58mm f/1.2
  • 1977 – Nicon Noct-Nikkor 58mm f/1.2
  • 1981 – Nikon AI-S Noct_Nikkor 58mm f/1.2

The Pentax (Asahi) 17mm fish-eye lens – 160 or 180°?

The closest Pentax came to a fisheye prior to the 17mm was the Takumar 18mm, which had an angle of view of 148°. In 1967, Pentax introduced the 17mm fish-eye. There are some discrepancies with whether the Asahi fish-eye lenses had an angle-of-view of 160° or 180°. During the period when Asahi Pentax produced the 17mm lens, it seems there were three versions.

  • Fish-eye-Takumar 17mm f/4 (1967-1971)
    • This seems to be referred to in the literature as a Super-Takumar.
  • Super-Multi-Coated FISH-EYE-TAKUMAR 17mm f/4 (1971-1975)
  • SMC PENTAX FISH-EYE 17mm f/4 (1975-1985)
All three variants of the 17mm lens

Many people assume every variant is 180°, but the literature such as brochures seems to tell another story. As you can see from the snippets of various catalog’s shown below, the earliest version seems to be 160°, with some transition between the Super-Takumar and Super-Multicoated being either 160° or 180°, with the later SMC versions being all 180°. What’s the real story? I haven’t been able to find out. Short of physically measuring the earlier two versions it’s hard to tell whether the early versions were indeed 160°, or was it a typo?

Specs from various pieces of literature

Vintage cameras and lenses – where to buy?

I have been buying vintage analog cameras and lenses for a few years now, and so this article offers a few tips, on where to buy them based on my experiences. Now when you’re dealing with vintage camera equipment, you will quickly realize that there is a lot of inventory around the world. This isn’t so surprising considering how the photographic industry blossomed with the expanding consumer market from 1950 onward. Analog equipment can be old, mostly dating pre-1980s, some quite common, others quite rare. I say pre-1980s because that decade heralded cameras and lenses that were bulky, ugly, made of plastic, and had clumsy auto-focus mechanisms. I will cover what to look for in vintage lenses, and cameras at a later date.

Bricks-and-mortar stores

If you are new to the buying vintage photographic equipment, then the obvious place to start is a store that focuses on vintage gear, but honestly they are few and far in between, which may be the nature of dealing with analog. Sometimes photographic retailers who sell modern camera equipment may deal with some “used” gear, but you often won’t find a really good range of gear, as they tend to deal more with used digital gear. Some people of course will comment that specialized stores tend to have higher prices, but we are talking about vintage equipment here, which may be anywhere from 40-70 years old, so if you are serious about lenses it is worth paying for the expertise to properly assess them.

In Toronto a good place to start is F-Stop Photo Accessories, which has a good amount of online information on their inventory (but does not ship). You will find a good assortment of Japanese gear, with some German and Soviet-era gear as well. The store is tiny, so best to check out the website and email to make sure the items you’re interested in are in stock, then drop by to examine them. In places like the UK, Europe and even Japan there are likely more bricks-and-mortar stores that deal predominantly with vintage. For example Tokyo abounds with used camera stores, some of which have huge inventories.

Fairs / Camera shows

If you are fortunate to live somewhere that has a photographic club, they may also have swap-meets, or auctions. In Toronto there is the Photographic Historical Society of Canada, which typically has two fairs a year, which are a good place to pick up vintage gear. The first time I went in 2019 I managed to find an 8-element Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (C$250), a Helios 58mm Version 4 ($20), a Takumar 35mm f/3.5 ($60), and a Carl Zeiss Tessar and Biotar 58mm f/2 for $140. The benefit is always that you get to examine the lens/camera, and check the functionality. There is generally a huge amount of lenses and cameras, some quite inexpensive for the person wanting to get started in analog photography.

Online stores

What about purchasing from an online reseller? This is somewhat tricky, because you are buying a physical device. I typically don’t buy any vintage electronic things off the internet because you can never be 100% certain. Thankfully the type of vintage we are looking at here, especially as it pertains to lenses, rarely involves any electronics. However it still involve moving parts, i.e. the focusing ring, and the aperture, both of which have to move freely, and are obviously hard to test online. There are a number of differing options for buying online. There are (i) physical stores which have an online presence, (ii) online retailers with a dedicated website, and (iii) online retailers on platforms such as Etsy and eBay.

I have had a number of good experiences when shopping at online stores. The first one was with the Vintage & Classic Camera Co., on Hayling Island near Portsmouth (UK). I bought an Exakta Varex 11a, and the experience was extremely good. Listings are well described, with ample photographs and a condition reported (as a percentage). The second was a recent experience with West Yorkshire Cameras, arguably one of the premium retailers for vintage camera gear. I have also bought lenses from a number of resellers on Etsy and eBay. Etsy provides access to resellers from all over the globe, and vintage products have to be a minimum of 20 years. I have bought some Russian lenses from Aerarium (Ukraine), cameras from Coach Haus Vintage (Toronto, Canada) and Film Culture (Hamilton, Canada). If you are looking for Japanese vintage cameras, I can also recommend Japan Vintage Camera based in Tokyo, who have an Etsy store as well.

What makes a good store?

A good vintage camera reseller will be one who lives and breathes vintage cameras. Typically they might have an Instagram account, offer weekly updates of new inventory, and service/inspect the equipment before even advertising it. If there should be something wrong with an item when you receive it, the reseller should make it good (I mean things do get missed). A good online store will have listings which describe the lens/camera in detail while listing any defects, provide a good series of photographs showing the camera from different angles, and some sort of grading criteria. Ideally the store should also provide some basic information on shipping costs.

Regardless of the store, always be sure to Google them and check online reviews. Don’t be swayed by a cool website, if there is a lack of customer service you won’t want to shop there. Sometimes the company has a Google review, or perhaps a review on Trustpilot. If there are enough negative reviews, then it is safe to say there is likely some truth to them. For example a company that posts 70% bad reviews is one to avoid, regardless of the amount of inventory on their site, how quickly it is updated, or how aesthetically pleasing the website looks. I had an extremely poor experience with a British online reseller that has an extremely good website with weekly updates of inventory. I had purchased a series of vintage lenses in Nov.2020. After one month they had not shipped, after two also nothing. I conversed with the owner twice during the period and each time the items were going to be “shipped tomorrow”. To no avail, after 5 months, I finally submitted a refund request with Paypal, which was duly processed. I have since written a review, which wasn’t favourable, but then neither were 90% of the reviews for that particular reseller.

The website Light Box has a whole list of places to buy film cameras and lenses in the UK, including a section named “Caution advised”, outlining those to avoid. I have created a listing of various stores in the Vintage Lenses etc. page.

Stores by region

Geographical locations do play a role in where to purchase vintage camera equipment. For example during the early decades of the post-war camera boom, there were two core epicentres of camera design and manufacture: Europe (more specifically both East and West), and Japan. So if you are interested in cameras/lenses from these regions, then stores within those geographical locales might offer a better selection. For example there are quite a few vintage camera resellers on Etsy from Ukraine and Russia. This makes sense considering cameras like FED were made in factories in Kharkov, Ukraine. Interested in Pentax or any number of Japanese vintage lenses, then resellers from Japan make sense. There are a lot of good camera stores in places that have few links to manufacturing, but may have had a good consumer base, e.g. UK and the Netherlands. The trick of course is being able to navigate the sites. Many Japanese stores have online presence, but very few provide an English-language portal.