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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author


ďOur autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selectsĒ  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  


Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 


Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."


I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!


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A 50mm Surprise
Old 01-12-2011   #1
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A 50mm Surprise

I recently went through one of those gadget-bag packing days and realized how many ďnormalĒ lenses I have. Three for the rangefinder bodies running from big superspeed through collapsable. Four for the DSLRís from big and fast to slow and small plus a macro. (Of course, there are also the 50mm equivalents within the range of the zooms on not only the DSLRís, but a bunch of small, pocketable digitals.)

Yet I donít think of any of these 50ís as redundant. Each has its advantages and disadvantages that make it particularly useful for a certain kind of photography.

Take, for example, the 50/1.8 on my Canon DSLRís. Itís a $90 lens, and itís tiny. Itís so small that it turns my hefty DSLR into a relatively low profile camera good for street shooting.

Not suprisingly, stopped down to f/5.6 itís as good as anything Iíve got for street shooting. Nonetheless, I was still surprised when DxOMark rated it slightly higher than my far more expensive f/1.2 in their broad usage tests. Fast, it isnít. But central sharpness is good even at 2.8. So, when Iím shooting on the street, most of the time I have a $90 lens on camera that cost several thousand. Odd, two of my sharpest 50ís are the slow ones, this and the 50 position on the Leica Tri-Elmar.

I have a suspicion that many of you have more than one normal lens. Whatís your favorite and why? Any surprises?
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Old 01-12-2011   #2
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Well, almost everything built since 1970 looks good stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8.

Nikon's 50/1.8 AF-D cost me something like $95 and I bought it mostly because it seemed like a 'must' lens -- it ended up being used far more often than expected because it is so darn good at all apertures, and because improving films in the 1990s reduced the need to have an f1.4 available.

The real find was the Voigtlander 50/2.5 in L39, which the web experts panned but is first-class at all apertures. At a modest speed penalty, it was a significant improvement over a worn-out collapsible Summicron. Paired with the right film (i.e., not Velvia, or high-contrast B&W developers), it's very usable and very well-made.
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Old 01-12-2011   #3
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I got some absolutely beautiful results from my Jupiter 8 on my new-to-me Kiev. So, I'm going to go with that as my favorite for now. I bought a new Summitar that I am having CLA'ed by Sherry and I'm hoping that becomes my new favorite when I get it back. Also, I have an Takumar M42 f1.8 that delivers stunning results. Still like the Jupiter 8 the best for now...
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Old 01-12-2011   #4
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I, too, have the Canon 50 f/1.8 II (polycarbonate) - extra light, and very usable. It brings the weight of a big rig, way down.
(True, It makes me smile, expensive body, inexpensive littel 50, but I like it and use it often.)

(I'm a hobbyist, and don't care much what others think, if all my gear isnt "PRO", L lens, hours of wrestling with the big white lens, and my arms need a rest)

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Old 01-12-2011   #5
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The 50mm lens has always been my favorite lens for photography. You really don't need more than such a lens for maybe 90% of all situations encountered.

I have the Summicron 50/2 as my first classical 50mm RF lens, and I added over the years twenty or more 50mm RF lenses. They range from Canon and Leica RF lenses to FSU lenses to CZJ lenses, and more recently, I added Heliar 50mm lenses. What is there not to like about such lenses.
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Old 01-12-2011   #6
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I have several 50 mm lnses as well. Three of them really stand out: the Zeiss Makro Planar 50/2.0, Zeiss C Sonnar 50/1.5 and Leica DR Summicron 50/2. The Makro Planar is like an equalizer: good at any aperture and any distance - a lens without an optical flaw. The C Sonnar is the best lens I know, for rendering a half body portrait with great charm and great sense of space, plus with a great OOF, providing you shoot at f 4.0 or wider. The DR Summicron, is a lens that gives an incredibly balanced image with exdended grayscale in B&W, and its bokeh can be compared to impressionistic paintings.
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Old 01-12-2011   #7
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I would amend this to say that almost every lens from a top-notch manufacturer (Leitz, Zeiss, Canon, Nikon, Schneider, classic Kodak, etc.) since the late 1930s looks good stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8. I would agree w/Bill that f/1.8 or f/2 lenses seem to be the sweet spot for modern 50s as far as getting great performance @ a low price.

I don't have a favorite individual normal lens, but my favorite type would be a f/1.5 Sonnar. Perfectly usable @ f/1.5 (or f/1.4 for the Nikkor version) & optimal for my style of shooting by f/4. There are many threads extolling the signature Sonnar "look" (though some say it doesn't exist), so I won't rehash them here.

The biggest surprise for me has been the Rodenstock 5cm/2 Heligon (c. 1947) on my Kodak Retina II/011, which is quite good (to my eyes, anyway) wide-open, even in challenging stage lighting.

Originally Posted by Joe Brugger View Post
Well, almost everything built since 1970 looks good stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8.
Five a Second. Chicago's Bell & Howell Co. (cameras) announced that it would put on sale this fall the world's most expensive still camera. Its "Foton" will take five 35-mm. pictures a second, sell for $700. Bell & Howell, which has found that "families of both low and high incomes now spend over $550" for movie equipment, hopes to sell 20,000 Fotons a year.
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Old 01-12-2011   #8
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My favorite is probably my Summitar as it straddles the eras of lenses - wide open it can almost be as soft and crazy as a Summar yet stop it down and you won't know it's not a Summicron. This allows for some creative flexability when the time is right.

Gaining quickly, though, is my new to me 1975~76 50/1.4 Nikkor. It's non-ai, multi-coated & has the rubber focus grip and is an interesting lens to play with wide open. I need to do much more with it & learn it's character.

Of course if I want the glass out of the way, my Canon FD 50/1.8 is a delightful little lens that always excels.

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Old 01-12-2011   #9
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I haven't been through as many 50mm lenses as some of you, and I'm not sure I have any real "surprise" lenses, but the two RF lenses I've kept are first-class: Elmar-M 50/2.8 and Summilux Asph. 50/1.4. I recently brought the Summilux on a trip to Spain, and taking pictures inside the Sagrada Familia, I was stunned with its ability to capture detail and subtle changes in light.
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Old 01-12-2011   #10
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I seem to have ended up with three 50mm lenses, four if you count the Nikon 35mm f2 AF-D which makes a nice 50mm equivalent on my Nikon APS dslr. The first three are all for my Leica M's, and comprise the 1st version f2.8 Elmar, the Zeiss Sonnar-C, and the Nokton f1.1

At least one needs to go, but its a nightmare deciding which, as similar to many, each serves a purpose. The Elmar is perfect for a light rig when paired with my M3 for daylight shooting, with the Nokton coming out at night to serve my penchant for handheld night shooting, and the Sonnar-C falling somewhere inbetween as a general purpose, classic rendering lens that's fit for most light.

It's the same in medium format, where the two Rolleicords I shoot both have different 75mm lenses - one with a relatively modern Xenar, and the other with a more classic softer Triotar.

I don't feel so bad having so many 50mm/ 50mm-equivalent lenses, but it is irksome when there are too many relatively expensive lenses unused, as there are always bits and pieces of kit I would like to try that the funds from unused lenses could finance.
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Old 01-12-2011   #11
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A 50mm I miss sometimes: 50/1.4 Nikkor LTM, I forget which version. Such gentleness of contrast gradation, such soft out-of-focus backgrounds (though sometimes swirly). A great b&w lens, and very compact.
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Old 01-12-2011   #12
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Had the Canon 50mm 1.4 and should have never let it go. I now have but one 50mm and although the Jupiter-3 is super cool... Well, lets put it this way, I have my CV 35mm 2.5II in the "Want to Trade" section looking for a 50mm. I love 50mm...
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Old 01-12-2011   #13
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The rigid Summicron and the DR are virtually identical lenses except for the close-focus capability of the DR. The CZJ 5cm/1.5 Sonnar is an awesome lens for portraits. These two 50mm lenses have become my favorite 50mm lenses over the years. The Heliar 50mm/3.5 and 50mm/2.0 are also excellent for portraits. The Summicron-C while a 40mm lens and not a 50mm lens needs mentioning as a "normal lens". It may be one of the best deals available. It does as well as the Pentax 43mm/1.9 LE, which is a very special lens.
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Old 01-12-2011   #14
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I've never been a fan of having more than one of any particular focal length. But for some reason, I don't feel that way about 50s. It could have something to do with the fact that the five I own cost less than $1,000 total. Certainly no single lens could match the versatility my small family of 50s provides.
I've been shooting a lot with a Zeiss 50 planar, Nikkor 50/2 ltm and 50/1.5 Jupiter 3.
But I just added (courtesy of Brian) a 50 rigid summicron and collapsible Industar-50.
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Old 01-12-2011   #15
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I have some of those "50s". The Uncoated Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm F1.5 Sonnar is my favorite. Maybe because it is a 75-year old lens and performs the way it does. Just amazing. I have a 50/1.1 Nokton coming in. Will be interesting to see how it compares with the other super-speeds. "F one-point-one". Leave it to Mr. K to make a max aperture lens that has not been seen since the 1950s. Like he did with the F1.5 Nokton.

75-year old lens on a 2010 camera, the EP2.

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Old 01-12-2011   #16
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MY current 'fave' is the 1.8/50 Canon.
Biggest surprises - the good kind - were the
the performances of the little
Panda 2.8/50 Canon that I got almost free,
and the FSU I-50 that actually was free!
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Old 01-12-2011   #17
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I have a Canon 50/1.8 in LTM that I like - it's right there in my avatar - and a Super Takumar 50/1.4 in M42 that I like even better. But best of all was my old Summicron 50/2.0. Unfortunately it's long gone, but it did skin tones like no other lens I've ever owned.

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Old 01-12-2011   #18
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Still don't own a 50 for my Leica, haven't found the right one yet. Tried a Canon 1.8 and didn't care for the rendering at all, one of the collapsibles (Summar I think) and didn't like the fidilyness of the collapsible and one of the super old old ones that was both soft and fiddly. Just shot with a friends Industar 61, need to finish the roll and see how it looks. Generally like Tessars.

The two 50's I've enjoyed were both in Pentax K Mount, the cheap and low rated but great performing 50mm M 2.0 which was stolen along with my K1000, and the well regarded M 1.4 that someone gave me and still lives on my MX.

I suspect an old Summilux or Cron are in my future if budget allows.
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Old 01-12-2011   #19
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Take, for example, the 50/1.8 on my Canon DSLR’s. It’s a $90 lens, and it’s tiny. It’s so small that it turns my hefty DSLR into a relatively low profile camera good for street shooting.
I had the 50/1.2, 50/1.4 and 50/1.8 all at the same time. (Don't know how that happened!) From my memory, I noticed that they all started looking the same somewhere between 2.0 and 2.8.. For my purposes, if I have to start looking REAL hard to see differences between a lens, then I don't really care about them.

I loved the 50/1.2 most of all and never minded the weight when I was working a wedding, but to carry it around for general snapping it got to be a drag.
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Old 01-12-2011   #20
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Until recently 50mm was my favourite focal length, my fav lenses in the past Pentax SMC M 50mm 1.7, Zuiko 50mm 1.4 nad for rangefinders I like the 5cm Summitar. At present however, I love my CV 25/4, I'mm shooting a lot with it
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Old 01-12-2011   #21
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My favorite normal lenses are my 50 Summicron ver.3, extremely sharp, even wide open. Small compared to SLR primes. And the 45mm Tessar on my Contaflex I, classic look and very smooth out of focus areas.
The Canon EF 50mm 1.8 II is also a nice lens. Sharp, cheap, light.
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Old 01-16-2011   #22
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I seem to have a lot of Canon 1.2 50mm lenses: two FL and one Leica screw. My favourite is the big LTM 50mm, which I call my "Thambar" when it's at its most 'impressionistic' aperture. Even the bokeh has bokeh. Oh, that coma, oh that flare, oh that lady of a certain age who looks 30 again! It cost me the equivalent of $50. If I need sharpness, I put on the Summicron (ver 3) or the FD 1.8 or 1.4.
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Old 01-16-2011   #23
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I have a couple of favorite 50's or fiftyish lenses...
My most recent love is the Takumar 50mm 1.4...Why you ask ?? I love super sharp negs and this lens will give you that all day long...so far I've only used B&W film with it and the prints are sharp and full of rich tones...it's a well made all metal buttery smooth lens that you just can't find "New" these days and it looks good mounted on my Spotmatic SP...
Next would be a Zuiko G. 4.2cm 1.8 fixed lens on an Olympus 35-S rangefinder (circa 1957)
Although not a super sharp in your face lens, it gives you plenty of detail but the tones blend together smoother, like warm butter on toast...
Another would be the 80mm 3.5 Yashinon on the YashicaMat 124...I don't think I need to explain that one...can you say Tessar design???
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Old 01-16-2011   #24
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I tend to run around with three 50's in my bag.

An old silver and metal scalloped Nikkor-H.C 2/50 and the Zeiss ZF Planar 1.4/50 for my Nikon F bodies. I mostly shoot with the old Nikkor and the Zeiss comes out at night. I prefer the low con and flare of the Nikkor-H.C during the day hours.

I also carry a pre-ASPH Summilux-M 1.4/50 for the M-bodies.

My bag usually holds a Nikon F-series body with those two 50's and one or two M-bodies with the 35 Lux Asph and pre-asph 50 Lux. Sometimes I'll sneak in the VC Ultron 2/28...

Before I got the Nikons (when I was all Leica M) I used to shoot with a Summicron-DR and the Summilux-M 1.4/50 (pre-asph).

But I have a shelf full of 50's. Among them are the Elmar 3.5/50, Summar, Summitar, Summicron Collapsible, Summicron-DR, current Summicron-M, Jupiter-3, Summicron-R type 1 and 2, Summilux-R 1.4/50, Nikkor-S.C 1.4/50, Nikkor 1.4/50 AIS, Micro Nikkor Nikkor 3.5/50 etc.

I love the 50.

It's mostly about looks. I choose which one to use based on the subject matter. Some are clinically sharp, while others glow and have a more romantic signature.

I don't have a single 50 that is my absolute favorite, but I would put the Summicron-DR 2/50, Nikkor-H.C 2/50 and Summilux-M 1.4/50 (pre-asph) in the top 3 with the Summilux-R and Zeiss ZF Planar 1.4/50 in the top 5. I recently started to play around again with the Elmar 3.5/50 and remembered just how much I liked it. The fingerprint is quite unique and draws a little like a graphite pencil in b/w.

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Old 03-20-2011   #25
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My early Summilux, which I've had since the early '70s and truthfully haven't used all that much, has given me a higher percentage of amazing images than any other lens I've used. Most of those have been shot wide open, in available darkness. I think that handheld camera steadiness is enhanced below about 1/30 sec, when the image remains visible instead of blacking out as with an SLR; most of the Summilux's best shots have been wide open, all handheld, at 1/15 or below.

I used a Canon f/0.95 for several years in SE Asian photojournalism. There were times when a flash could NOT be used---I always hated to use one anyhow---such a photographing Western pedophiles with children in Manila's red light district, when the Canon's low light (low life) ability might have been a literal life saver, as they apparently did not believe I could get pictures of them in the dark. I did (thank you, Diafine!).

The little plastic Nikon 50D f/1.8 currently gets consistent use as a fast, cheap, light, and high-performing short telephoto on my DSLRs. For some reason, it seems to focus better automatically than I can do with the old, beautiful manual focus 50mm f/1.4s. I need to figure out why manual focus lenses back focus on my D300, because they certainly do.
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Old 03-20-2011   #26
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My 1974 Jupiter-8 50/2 is more or less welded to my M4-P and goes from 1935 to 2011 as you stop it down. It's a great lens and it cost me all of $30.00.

My 1959 Summilux hops back and forth between my M2 and my M8 and I've yet to see a lens that renders as nicely as this one. It's got just the right amount of sharpness and character- not too much of either; it's a real Goldilocks lens for me.
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Old 03-20-2011   #27
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nikkor 50/1.8 AiS for my FE2.
50/2.5 color skopar for my R2m.
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Old 03-20-2011   #28
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Leicaesuqe 50's: I've owned three total. Started with a Canon 50mm f1.8, which I wasn't that fond of so I moved onto a Canon 50 f1.4 ltm. I liked this lens quite a bit, but found the lack close focus (IE- 1m minimum) to be a hindrance. Moved onto a Nikkor-SC 50mm f1.4 ltm. This fits the bill for me.

Canon EOS: I started off with the 50mm f1.8 Mk I, great lens till I dropped it and canon wouldn't fix it. Moved onto to the 50mm f1.8 Mk II, found it to complete POS (cheap). Finally moved onto a 50mm f1.4 which I've loved. I added the 58mm Rokkor f1.2 about 3 years ago in EOS mount. great Bokkah making machine.

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Old 03-20-2011   #29
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After 15 years or so I have reactivate my old Praktica BC1 and was pleasantly surprised by the drawing of the Prakticar 50/1.8.
I think the lens is a successor of the famous CZJ Pancolar.

Pleasant OOF rendering:


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Old 03-20-2011   #30
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50mm(ish) is my most used lens and I have had a few but right now I am really liking the rigid Industar-50. It is slow with its f3.5 max aperture and filters for it are a pain--I use the SOOGZ adapter on it--but I like the photos I get from it, it is small and light. And mine came with a dedicated hood and I think it looks pretty cool on my R2A.


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Old 03-20-2011   #31
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Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Nonetheless, I was still surprised when DxOMark rated it slightly higher than my far more expensive f/1.2 in their broad usage tests.
Good value the canon 50mm f1.8 sure is - considering they're about $100 brand new, but I can assure you (despite what dxo say) that the f1.2L is on a different planet to the f1.8 in IQ.

So my favorite 50mm's... The 50mm f1.2L is the best 50 I've ever used bar none. It's ultra dependable, has really special characteristics and a very particular 'look'.
As a value for money 50 the Sigma 50mm f1.4 is 98% the lens that the canon 1.2L is, but with a more neutral characteristic that almost reminds me of the look of a fast 85mm. The best thing about the sigma is that, whilst labeled as a 50mm, the true focal length is closer to around 43mm - which happens to be around my favorite focal length. It does this whilst having maintaining super low distortion.

If I was shooting M mount I'd be all over the Zeiss sonnar 50mm - that looks like a serious little gem.

Last edited by gavinlg : 03-20-2011 at 17:24.
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Old 03-25-2011   #32
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I keep a 1960 Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super around for one reason: the 50mm f/2.8 Tessar lens. It my favorite 50mm lens. I have hundreds of Kodachromes my Dad took with it and a lot of B&W negatives that I took with it. I just love the look I get with it.
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Old 04-01-2011   #33
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currently, nikkor 50mm f/2 for rangefinder
micro-nikkor 55mm. f/2.8; nikkor 50mm. f/1.2, for slr's
ancient nikkor 50mm f/2, non-ais--very good, but expendible

the 55mm micro is as expected; the surprise was the f/1.2, as a general, if heavy lens
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Old 06-10-2011   #34
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I was just telling my friend how easy it was for me to appear to collect 50mm lenses when I stumbled upon this thread. I currently have a Zeiss 50/1.4 Planar, SMC Takumar 50/1.4 and a Helios 58/2 for my SLRs, and a collapsible Summicron 50, Nokton 50/1.1 and a Jupiter 50/2 for my rangefinder.

None of them are ridiculously expensive, and I could not part with any of them.
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Old 06-11-2011   #35
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The 50mm has been and always be the most prominent lens for me..

As for Leicas I have both versions of the DR, also v.3 and v.4 Summicrons.. The DRs have a little less contrast but longer gradation with B&W film, whereas v.3 and v.4 have better sharpness toward corners and a tad more contrast. The latter ones are excellent for color and digital. On screw mounts I have six-blade and 10-blade Summitars, remarkable lenses for their age, the six-blade one appears to be less soft than the other at full aperture, perhaps for being of later production (coating maybe). If you can not afford a collapsible Summicron then this lens is a less expensive alternative if you can do with its weird bokeh.

Nokton 50/1.5 Asp. is great only for f1.5 to 2.0 IMO, in this range sharper than any Summilux (pre) I have used so far; however only this much as it is difficult to think about its signature; not a distinct one. The C-Sonnar is my favorite, if I would be using one lens only then it is this one. The Elmar 2.8 (older M-mount) is the most compact, simply collapse it down and put the camera in your coat pocket.

For the SLRs: Nikon 50/2 (first Nikkor) with rendition is the closest one to the Summicrons, 55/3.5 Auto in the mid-range too is sharpest of all standard Nikkors if you keep aperture below f5.6. FD SSC Canon 50/1.4 is a fine & cheap SLR 50, better than the Nikkor 50/1.4.. FDn 50/1.4 Canon is better than even the 50/1.4 Summilux-R, my favorite short tele on the Nex5, use it f1.4, the bokeh is the best I have seen from a 50mm lens. As for the f1.2 lenses the Fujinon 50/1.2 is as sharp as the FDn at 1.4 however not a smooth bokeh.


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Old 06-11-2011   #36
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I'm a Summar fan. Nothing else looks like it (and I have a Summicron DR and Elmar red scale too, so it's not a question of cost).
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