Everyone has their preferred focal length. Whether it’s what you started with, or the way you see the world, there’s some focal length that just feels right. For Your Humble Filmosaur, this is the long-standing champion of the normal lenses, the 50mm. In 35mm format terms, it’s actually a very short tele (true normal being ~43mm), but it’s close enough to be considered normal.
Unsurprisingly, I have a lot of 50mm lenses, the vast majority in Leica Thread Mount (LTM). More than I would like to count, as I would rather not contemplate certain aspects of my personality too deeply right now, but suffice it to say I have plenty. The question then becomes which to use and when to use it. Sometimes it’s fun to just grab a lens and go with it, but more often (at least when doing any sort of serious photography) some consideration is useful. So let’s mull over the process of selection, at least as it relates to screwmount Leicas.
Speed: One of the beauties of the 50 is that they come in everything from quite slow to absurdly fast. f/3.5 was a pretty common maximum aperture for a long time, but it’s on the slow side of the table these days. The great thing about the early slow 50s is that many of them were collapsible, making for tiny, easily portable packages. The same is true for a lot of early folding cameras, in which 50/3.5 lenses were almost ubiquitous. Almost all slow 50s use the Tessar formula of four elements in three groups – more on that later.
Mid-range speed in 50s is around f/2 or so. The range of choice here is massive. Collapsible or not? Modern or classic? Sonnar? Planar? Something else? If you want to tailor your setup to fit your personal preferences and have the flexibility of a reasonably fast lens, this is the butter zone, the meat of the bell curve. Sure, you give up a lot of the compactness of the slower lenses, but you buy almost two stops of speed in exchange, great for general use in a wide range of conditions. f/2 lenses were very common in top-of-the-range fixed lens cameras in the 1950s and 60s because of this versatility.
Fast 50s can get really fast – think Canon 50/0.95 – but most of them are closer to f/1.4 or thereabouts. It’s only a stop faster than the middle range, and the lenses get bigger and heavier quickly. When you need them they’re great, but much of the time they’re just big and heavy. Anyone lugging around an old brass-bodied fast 50 and never opening it up beyond f/8 is a showoff, a masochist, or a fool. These lenses do, of course, have other potential benefits, which brings us to our next point of discussion.
Rendering: There are two kinds of people in the world, those who spend far too much time thinking about the minutiae of the optical characteristics of certain lenses, and those who just go take photos with whatever glass is screwed to the front of their camera. The latter category stopped reading this long ago, so I’ll focus on the former (of which I am one, though not entirely by choice).
Slow 50s tend to be quite similar in the way they render images. Not identical to be sure, but pretty close. Tessar-type lenses tend to be sharp and without much distortion, making them quite good for lots of things, and thus excellent general purpose lenses. Sure, there are differences – for example the position of the aperture in the Elmar 50/3.5 (between the first and second elements) as compared to most contemporaries (between the second element and third group) – but any of them is going to be predictable and reliable, especially once you stop down a bit.
It’s in the mid-range that things get interesting. There are so many different optical formulae used in these that you can really fit your preferences very precisely. Want wild and crazy? Get an early Double Gauss lens like a Summar. Smooth and delicate? One of the Sonnar-type lenses should fit the bill. Sharp and clinical? A fairly modern Planar-type is probably the ticket. Everything is possible. It’s these lenses that have sucked more money out of my wallet than any other sort. The urge to try different looks, and the ease with which that urge can be temporarily satisfied, means that I have accumulated a fair few of these.
The fast end of the spectrum is just the mid-range on steroids. Speed comes at a price, and in the earlier days of lens design that price was often less-than-ideal optical characteristic. Well, that and money. Fast Sonnar lenses were generally the most predictable due to fewer air-glass interfaces, while other early designs produced some pretty wacky wide-open looks; later non-Sonnar lenses with more modern designs and better coatings eventually dialed out most of the weirdness. Those imperfections can be quite useful, of course, if you know what to expect. That’s much of the lure of the fast 50: the promise of very particular types of imperfections that a photographer can use to their advantage in very specific circumstances.
Cost: Compared with wide angles, 50mm lenses are cheap – being the standard focal length for so long means there are countless lenses out there to be had. While the basic equation is more speed equals more money, it’s rarely that simple. Dealing with old lenses as we are here (LTM ceased to be a primary lens mount for any manufacturer in the 1960s after all) there are the questions of rarity, condition, and market perceptions to contend with as well. This means that there are plenty of overpriced lenses out there, but it also means there are lenses that perform really well that are common and cheap. Sure, if you’re really particular about wanting something unusual, or wanting a perfect example of something 70 years old, you’ll pay, but it’s very possible to get a 50 with excellent optical performance for not much money.
Anything that was a standard issue lens on a major manufacturer’s cameras is going to be reasonably priced. Elmar 50/3.5s, Summitar 50/2s, Canon 50/1.8s, and Nikkor 50/2s are common, excellent, and comparatively cheap. Soviet lenses are even cheaper and just as common, though finding well-preserved examples can be a challenge; the Jupiter-8 50/2 and Industar-22 50/3.5 are very good lenses indeed. If all you want are a couple of 50s for your LTM camera, there’s no reason you have to break the bank or take time off work to find good ones.
The problem for those of us who are never quite satisfied that we’ve considered all the possibilities is the desire to try the unusual. This urge to sample strange 50s leads to all sorts of unnecessary expenditures of time and money. Sure, sometimes you get lucky, but more often you suck it up and spend the money because you’ve got to know. It’s bad enough doing this with more common lenses that closely resemble lenses you already have (do I really need an Elmar 50/3.5, a Canon 50/3.5, and an Industar-10?), but going after the oddballs increases the costs exponentially. Control your fetishes and you’ll be a lot better off; you’ll have a lot more time and money for therapy, at least.
So what’s the perfect 50? There isn’t one. There isn’t even a perfect lens for any given situation. In the end it all comes down to what you are trying to achieve with the lens. It’s a means, not an end. What do you want the lens to do for your photograph? How will lens selection help or hurt your vision? If, after considering these questions, you determine that it won’t make much difference, then shut up and go take pictures. If you feel like a specific lens will materially contribute to the photograph that you want to make, then get the lens and use it. There’s bound to be experimentation involved in this, but again this is a means, not an end in and of itself.
If I’m honest much of what I’ve written here is a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” My accumulation of 50s has been largely justified as experimentation, but if that were truly the case I would have sold some of them on by now. While I’ve sold off a fair few LTM wide angles, the 50s tend to linger. Sure, it’s my preferred focal length, the one I use most often, but honestly, how many lenses can a person use? As we speak I have yet another relatively uncommon 50 headed my way. Will it give me some previously inaccessible capability? No. Did I spend too much time and money acquiring it? Yes. Do I need it? No. Will it help me to further my photography in some way? Maybe. Will I enjoy it? I certainly hope so.
For me, 50s are a sort of comfortable refuge, perhaps the photographic equivalent of the therapist’s couch. I can keep going back, exploring different aspects of the same basic introspective question: how can I make myself, or more accurately my photographs, better? No particular 50 is going to magically make it happen, but I strongly suspect that they will each play a role in finding the path.