Why do we talk such rubbish about lenses? Part One

OK, it's a provocative title and I'm as guilty as the next person of hyperventilating about lenses but it's still a question worth asking. We go on and on about sharpness, contrast, bokeh, glow, etc, as if they make a huge difference - but do they?

We all know what an unsharp photo looks like but, providing an image is "sharp", does it really matter how sharp? Has a photograph ever failed because, although sharp, it wasn't quite as ultimately sharp as it could have been given a fair head of steam and a tail wind?

Yes, the best Leica lenses are probably better than the rest but what does that mean? That you can only take a valid picture with a Leica? Hardly. In fact, if you take a look round Flickr I think you'll find that many of the really boring images were taken with a Leica. Although it has to be said that the pet cat and garden flower close-ups are usually very, very sharp.

Enough kidding about Leica. That's not what this post is about. Given that I don't have a Leica, then it could hardly be otherwise. But Zuikos? I've got a few of them right enough.

There are essentially eight Zuiko fifties, give or take. The 50mm f2 Macro, 50mm f3.5 Macro, 50mm f1.8 "Made in Japan", 50mm f1.8 "Japan", 50mm f1.8, the 50mm f1.2, 55mm f1.2 and the 50mm f1.4. There might be other variations of the f1.8 and f1.4 such as the "silver nose" (which take their name from the bright ring around the edge of the filter thread) but I can't keep track of every one.

Quite a difference in size between the f2 macro and a Made in Japan fifty

The two standard fifties used in this test.

Zuiko Hierarchy

You'll be glad to know I don't have them all. I've got the f2 Macro, the Made in Japan, the Japan and the bog standard f1.8. The Made in Japan and Japan refers to what it says around the front of the lens. Of those, conventional wisdom has it that the f2 Macro is the best followed by the MIJ, the J and the BS (bog standard). My macro is really pristine so it's optical qualities should be assured. The other Zuiko fifties are in good working order but with the usual dust specs internally.

But is there really that much difference between them? Is the reputation of the f2 Macro and, to a lesser extent, the Made in Japan, really justified or do we imagine that they have special qualities because other people say so or we read it on an internet forum? Is the BS inferior by comparison - so inferior that some will pay several times the price to get an MIJ which is essentially the same lens? It's not just Zuikoholics who behave like this: it's rife amongst fans of every marque.

Last week, I wanted to finish a film I had in a Contax SLR so swapped it into the OM2n and took some pics with the macro, MIJ and BS Zuikos just to see if there was much difference between them. Would you believe there was hardly any and that was on 3200 dpi scans that roughly equate to a print size of around 32" by 48"? In terms of sharpness, I don't think I'd notice any difference at all in standard sized prints of up to, say, 10x12. Maybe a tiny bit at the corners if I was doing a direct comparison but nothing that would spoil a photograph.

The test photo was my standard out-the-bathroom-window shot:

The film was Firstcall 400S (rebranded Rollei Retro 400S) rated at 40 ISO and developed in Spur HRX. The OM2n was on a tripod. The negs were given a levels correction in Lightroom and all were lightly sharpened by the same amount. I've posted the results below. The crops of the centre, which included the sign above the door and the clock, were more or less the same so I don't see much point in showing them.

The crops below aren't from a corner but an extreme edge - the left edge in this case. It's possible that an extreme corner crop might have revealed some subtle differences but I suspect not. The first crop for each lens was shot wide open and the other at f8. The final pic for each was simply with the lens defocused to 6 ft wide open to get an idea of the bokeh.

Now, this isn't in any way a rigorous scientific test. Just a few comparison shots that I hoped would show up some differences should any exist. Lovely old Geoffrey Crawley might well be turning in his grave. There was a good reason for the test, though. The 50mm f2 macro is a big lens for a standard and an expensive one as well being worth around £350 on Ebay. If I can get the same results using a diminutive 50mm f1.8 then there's not much point in dragging round the macro's extra bulk. I'd be better selling it and getting something more useful with the money or some paper and film.

In terms of sharpness and contrast, there's very little to choose between any of the lenses wide open. I reckon the f2 has a slight advantage but switching back and forth between the crops it doesn't stand out by a mile or anything close to it. There's nothing to choose between the supposedly better MIJ and the BS.

At f8, the f2 perhaps just shades it again with the BS next and the MIJ a close third. All three, as expected, really sharpen up at f8 with the differences between f-stops much bigger than the difference between lenses.

Creamy mush

Next, bokeh. Zuiko fifties have a fairly good reputation for smooth bokeh and I think that shows here. You'll note I didn't set up a string of fairy lights with trailing wires to see if there are any double-edged lines or unholy halos. Do you know anyone who takes pics like that? Much more common is this sort of thing I've done here where you've focused on something at around 6 feet in a landscape and recorded the background of trees and buildings out of focus.

Can I just state here that I don't believe, as I always read on the web, that bokeh is "subjective". It's possible some people like double edged lines, bright halos and fractured, messy bokeh but that doesn't make it good or right. There are small numbers of people who like all manner of weird things in photography including lowish resolution and flare but that doesn't stop a sharp, contrasty lens being better than an amorphous wreck. So, at least where I'm concerned, good bokeh is that which dissolves background (and foregrounds) in a way that there is nothing in them to distract from the sharp part of the picture.

With that in mind, there's again little to choose between the MIJ and BS when it comes to the character of out-of-focus backgrounds. Both do a good job. However, the f2 is significantly better. It transforms the background into a creamy mush with virtually no detail left.

Take a look at the slated roof on the lower building. With the MIJ and BS you can clearly see the lines of slates. With the f2 they are virtually invisible. It's the same for the window beneath the pitched roof. The MIJ and BS are good but the f2 is pretty spectacular.

Is the macro a keeper?

This doesn't do me a lot of favours when it comes to making up my mind what to do with the macro. In terms of sharpness, I'd be happy with either the MIJ or BS. But I like shooting at wide apertures in landscape work and the f2 is clearly particularly good for that kind of thing. Is it good enough for me to keep it? A £10 50mm f1.8 or a £350 50mm f2? On the face of it, an easy question - even more so since I don't do macro - but I do like my bokeh...

Now here's something that also threw me. Before you take a look at the Zuiko crops further down the page, cast an eye over the results immediately below from a late 1950s 55mm f2.2 Pentax Takumar lens.

I had a few frames left over after I'd completed the Zuiko test shots so switched the film again to an ancient Pentax SV. To all intents and purposes, it's just as sharp as the macro or the other Zuiko fifties. The bokeh isn't too shabby either being roughly on a par with the macro although with the lines of slates still just visible. Food for thought from a £25 lens with a lightly-scratched front element.

55mm f2.2 Takumar wide open.

The Takumar at f8.

Takumar bokeh at f2.2.

And onto the Zuikos. The best way to view them would be to open comparable jpegs for each in separate tabs or windows and click back and forth between them.

ZUIKO f2 Macro



f2 Bokeh

ZUIKO 50mm f1.8 MIJ



f1.8 Bokeh

ZUIKO 50mm f1.8



f1.8 Bokeh


There are a few conclusions I can draw from this test. One is that you can take perfectly good, sharp photos using a lens that costs £10 or £350 - the choice is yours and depends on how deep your pockets are and whether you feel you deserve the best.

Secondly, a late 1950s Takumar is no slouch! It's a beautiful lens, wonderfully-well made and capable of results that are just as good as what you'd get from a top notch lens from the 1980s.

Thirdly, as others have said before, there's hardly anything to choose between different lenses even in 3200 dpi scans, never mind 10x12 inch prints. Just use whatever you've got.

Lastly, we do talk a lot of rubbish about lenses, don't we!

In Part Two next week I'll look at one of my favourite lenses, the 50mm f1.4 Zeiss Planar, to see how it fares under the same test conditions against the Zuikos and Takumar.


Having said I wouldn't be showing crops from the centre of the negs, I changed my mind. If nothing else, it further reinforces the little difference there is between these lenses even wide open as they all are here. Does the bog standard (BS) Zuiko have the slight edge here as far as sharpness is concerned? It's perhaps too close to call.

If you look at the "Carnoustie" sign you'll see some flare beneath it from all but the macro. Is that a fault in the other three? Depends on what marque you use. Leica aficionados repackage this as "glow" and charge a premium. :)






  1. Only difference I've noticed between zuiko 50s I have is the 1 million serial 1.4 is a bit pink using colour film.

  2. That'll save you using a skylight filter then. :)

  3. How about a comparison with colour film. As much as I like B&W, my OM lenses often showed their differences in colour which at the time determined my preference.

  4. Nice post Bruce - I used to really like the 1.8 when I used Olympii - it was an incredibly versatile lens.
    As for 'lens testing' on the web - you've managed to say just what I was thinking this morning - there's too much testing and not enough images! It's become a sort of strange hobby whereby the image is a far second from what the qualities of the lens are . .
    F'rinstance put in any lens you like on Google images, and alongside the pictures of the lens themeslves, the 'samples' will almost invariably be shot wide open as if that makes the images acceptable. It doesn't.
    . . . it's a weird old hobby.

  5. Hi Bruce.

    Good topic, enjoyed it.

    These lenses all look pretty similar to me. Sure there are a few differences, but on the whole they are much the same.

    I'm a firm believer in reducing the equipment, like Don McCullin. All you need is a camera and one lens. Great images are made by good photographers, not lenses.

    Too much equipment is confusing, leads to too many questions and unnecessary decision making. I want to be able to go out and have one question, 'Will this make a good image ?'

    If the answer is yes, then I take the picture.

    I don't want to end up spending 10 minutes having an argument with myself about:

    'Oh, if I put on the 35mm it might make the scene a little more dramatic'

    'In that case, why don't I stick on the 24mm ?'

    'No, the 24mm might bring in too much sky or foreground which is dull'

    'Ok, back to the 50mm'

    I'm of the school of thought that says if the picture doesn't look good with a standard lens then will using a 35mm or so make it a good picture ?

    If i need more distance, i just move back, if I need to get closer, i walk forward. After a while, you learn the distance, you begin to see as that lens sees and that becomes the visual framework for how I photograph. I like that simplicity.

    On your predicament, I would dump all the 50mm except for the macro and one of the f1.2 lenses because they are good features to have, fast and close up (if you ever use the macro facility that is).

    However, and I say this in a good way, you seem to have become the photo equivalent of the 'Battersea Dogs Home' - all camera equipment will be given a good home and looked after, and for that I tip my hat to you Bruce.

    Lenses are beautifully engineered products and it's great to see someone like yourself not just collecting them but actually using them, even though it may drive you to suffer 'equipment overload syndrome'.

  6. Well said, Nick, with regard to equipment overload. I have to confess that I went a bit mad gear-wise about five years ago when film stuff was dirt cheap. A Contax 137MA for £18? The OM2, just serviced, with a 35mm Zuiko for £35? Hard to resist those deals...

  7. Absolutely agree. Not that it matters but I have OM bodies and Zuiko primes also and my lens selections are all the slower and cheaper in those focal lengths. My main complaint about Zuikos is that the 24 f2.8 and 35 f2.8 both have their front elements right up close to the front of the lens. So I bought a couple of used 49mm filters, taken the glass out and that extended the filter ring by about 4mm to give me a little more peace of mind.

    Other than that all my fuzzy pictures are camera shake (the best lens is a tripod) or missed focus.

  8. When I got my Leica M3 I spent several days doing head-to-head tests between my Elmar 50mm f2.8 and my Nikon s2's 50mm f1.4 Nikkor. After hours of setting up test locations developing film making prints scanning and building side by side crop sets my only real conclusion was that I detested doing lens comparison tests.

    It cured me of this particular urgency.

  9. I suppose like most photographers I went through a spell of looking for the perfect lens. After trying a lot of them I found very few that would keep me from making a good image. So I agree that we do talk a lot of rubbish about lenses.

  10. Thanks for putting all that time and effort in for us Bruce, it means we don't have to. looking at the results, I would say my favourite was the old Pentax 55mm, but I'm a little biased, as I relied on one for many many years and loved the results.
    Regards, Andrew sanderson.