11.06.2015

A Tale of Three 50's

Maybe not so much a tale, but a test, and even then not so much a test, but a comparison. There have certainly been any number of retellings of the history of lens makers such as Zeiss and Schneider, as well as decades old testing of their lenses.

But when I happened to acquire not one, but three 50mm lenses in a roundabout fashion, I couldn't resist taking a roll and shooting the same shot through all three to see which one I liked the best.  In most cases, the answers are subjective, but that is to be part of the fun.



So, included within the test are three reasonably common lenses available for the Exkata VX.  The first is my Meyer Gorlitz Primotar 50mm f/3.5 lens. Adorned in a slightly jaded coat of chrome, the lens is perhaps the gaudiest looking of the batch, and as well it is the slowest of the three.  The f/3.5 maximum aperture won't win any speed awards.  However, it does have the graces of generally good color renditions and pleasing bokeh,

The second lens was acquired almost by accident.  It is a Schneider Xenon 50mm f/1.9 lens.  It looks quite similar to the common manual focus lens designs of the 1960's onward, adorning a basic business black.  Though I managed to acquire it and a camera for a remarkably good price, it seems to be the priciest of the batch, routinely commanding more than double what I paid for it and the camera.  This is likely in part because it is the fastest of the three, edging out the Meyer lens by nearly two f stops in speed due to the wider aperture,

Another lucky pickup that I snagged with a camera win is the Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens. Of the three, it is the only one lacking the automatic diaphragm coupling to the Exakta system,  However, by foregoing this feature, it is also the most elegant looking lens of the three, with a gleaming, yet simplistic panache to its appearance.  The Tessar formula is one of the most revered in 20th century photography, and the lens has a capable reputation. Still, despite being so lauded, the lenses are remarkably common, and are not too painful on the wallet to acquire.  Also, unlike the other two lenses, it has a 14 bladed aperture iris, resulting in a nearly perfect circular opening as opposed to a hexagonal opening from the other two lenses.




For my "test," I simply set about to try to find some varying photographic situations, and take three exposures to see which one yields the nicest result, the sharpest features, the best color and bokeh rendering, etc.  The results, some of which surprised me, can be seen below.


Situation 1 - Distant Landscape in full sunlight, f/11 at 1/100.

September 11th emerged a lovely day in Charm City, when I set into town to record a match image for the Classic Kodachrome Weekly #58 feature.  Here are how the different lenses recorded the scene.


Meyer Primotar:

Schneider Xenon:

Zeiss Tessar:

In this view, there is one clear problem child, namely the Schneider.  It is apparent that the aperture does not close down accurately to the marked point, resulting in an overexposure of 1-2 stops.  The result is a test instance that does not wind up being an accurate look at the capabilities of all three lenses on an even playing field.  The remaining two shots look very much the same aside from some slight perspective shift between the two.  The rendering looks just a tad more vivid in the Meyer version, though this may be also due to slight variances in the exposure.  However, in looking at the details, the Tessar version is the sharper of the two.  One place this is most clearly illustrated are the vertical masts on the pier in the marina in foreground.  On the last shot, they are distinctly more sharp and defined.  


Situation 2 - Ranging landscape in full sun, f/11 at 1/100

A pleasant Labor Day Weekend provided this relaxing view in downtown Frederick, MD, enabling me to capture this example and a few other shots as well.  


Meyer Primotar:

Schneider Xenon:

Zeiss Tessar:

The Schneider, while still exposed more than the other two, is not nearly as bad as the first example. This view offers some interesting insights to me.  Despite all being marked as 50mm lenses, the Schneider seems a tad wider than the Zeiss, while the Meyer is a bit narrower.  Otherwise, the differences between the three portrayals of the same scene are quite similar, with the Zeiss getting a slight edge in my book for how it rendered the water with stunning clarity.


Situation 3 - Near landscape in full sun, f/11 at 1/100

Taken the same day as the set above, this batch tried to include focal elements both near and far at a nicely stopped down aperture to get an even better idea of sharpness. 


Meyer Primotar:

Schneider Xenon:

Zeiss Tessar:

Again, the Schneider has aperture issues that do not result in severe overexposure, making it tough to fairly evaluate compared to the others.  Still, it is a challenge to see much difference in the Meyer and Zeiss lenses, as both render the scene quite capably.


Situation 4 - Near item of focus at f/4, 1/1000

While all three lenses could be expected to perform similarly in the sweet spot range of f/11, the real fun is seeing how they do at wider apertures.  And for this, I tried focusing on the flower in the near foreground (without dropping the camera into Carroll Creek) and getting some of the background to see what would result.


Meyer Primotar:

Schneider Xenon:

Zeiss Tessar:

In this one, the Meyer and the Schneider give particularly similar results, but I notice quite a bit more sharpness in the objects immediately behind the flower in the Zeiss version.  The Schneider has the most playful bokeh of the three as seen in the foliage in the distance. 


Situation 5 - Near item of focus wide open aperture.

In this example, I elected to alter the playing field a bit, and see what each lens could accomplish when shot at its widest marked aperture.  The result are three shots with different exposure readings, each of which delivers a very distinct look.


Meyer Primotar: f/3.5 at 1/250

Schneider Xenon: f/1.9 at 1/1000

Zeiss Tessar: f/2.8 at 1/500

The differences here are in many ways subtle and evident all at once.  First, the color cast of all three show differences, with the Tessar providing the warmest yellow-green of all three.  The Tessar also again seems a tad sharper than the Meyer, even when shot at a wider aperture.  One thing I also notice is that the Schneider renders with less contrast, particularly in the sign in the foreground.  The bokeh on all three images renders uniquely as well, with the Schneider providing the busiest rendition of the three, evidenced by the oval bubbles and swirl in the trees in the distance, while the Meyer seems to render with a more uniform circular bokeh across the entire frame. 

Thoughts: Overall, there was no clear winner, even with the Schneider acting up in multiple instances.  I had expected the Meyer to give me the look I liked the most due to my previous preferences of Trioplan glass on folding cameras, but the Zeiss renders remarkably snappy and sharp.  It is at least good to know that I have two fully usable lenses that will give me good results, and a third that will treat me to some playful bokeh and allow me to have a fast 50 when I need it.