A Quick Review of the Olympus 50MM F1.8

Kate in the Kitchen, OM-1, 50mm F1.8, Delta 400 @ 800, Xtol
Kate in the Kitchen, OM-1, 50mm F1.8, Delta 400 @ 800, Xtol

I’m thoroughly impressed by this cheapie little lens. You can often pick up bargrain grade copies of the Olympus 50MM F1.8 for $15-30; I got mine with an OM-1 for something like $60. Here’s what you get for the cost of a couple of pints of Dragon’s Milk at the Blind Pig.

  • Build Quality: Typical pre-af major manufacturer build quality. In other words, this thing is rock solid.
  • Size: Like many OM lenses, the 50 f1.8 is pretty tiny, although in this case it’s only a touch smaller than a comparable normal lens from the competition. I already manage to get my finger in front of the element fairly often, so I wouldn’t want anything smaller.
  • Ergonomics: Despite being 30 years old at this point, my copy has smoothly damped focus and positive detents for the aperture.
  • Distortion: There’s a tiny bit of barrel distortion, but nothing else is too glaring.
  • Sharpness: Even up close (under 3 feet is close for an RF user) and wide open, there’s more resolution than you need for hand-held shooting. When I first got this lens I took a few frames of a book page while playing around with that whole “you can focus closer than arm’s reach with an SLR” thing. The 10 point type was clear, so I figure it must be pretty sharp.
  • Flare: Flare really doesn’t seem to be a problem for this lens. Mine is about as full of dust and crud as you would expect from an abused thirty year old, but it can still shoot into the light with little problem. See here for some examples.
  • Bokeh: Bokeh from this lens is smooth and pleasant. Point light sources come out fairly lopsided, so there’s definitely some under-corrected spherical aberrations.
  • Tonality: Shadows are bit dark with this lens particularly in OOF regions. Other than that, the tonality is smoooooooooth.
  • Subjective Image Quality: Apart from the slightly crunched up shadows, this lens has got a great look. It’s a fairly literal lens, but unlike a lot of its contemporaries it doesn’t seem to have been designed for absolutely maximum sharpness and contrast. It’s far more imaginative than something like the Nikon 50 F1.4 AIS, which is a nasty little lens despite its technical abilities.

To see some samples, type OM-1 into the search box or click here.

40 MM

After reading my recently re-published review of the Hexar AF, a correspondent susggested that perhaps a 40mm lens would solve my ’35 is too short, but 50 is too long’ dilemna. It’s sound advice, but not as simple in practice as one would hope, nor perhaps as useful a compromise as math would seem to indicate. Despite it’s mathematical suitability for the 35mm frame, the 40mm lens is not an easy focal length to come by. Excluding some truly rare lenses, like Colin’s screw mount 40MM Olympus, I can come up with only three 40mm lens solutions for interchangeable lens 35mm cameras (there are however, nearly as many fixed lens options which I won’t cover here for reasons that will become clear):

  • The Leica 40 F2 SUMMICRON-C and it’s somewhat controversial Minolta variant, the 40 F2 M-ROKKOR.
  • Voigtlander’s Nokton 40mm F1.4, the fastest 40 in the East or West.
  • The Olympus 40mm F2 for the OM cameras.

Here are what I see as the salient points of each in turn.

Leica 40 F2 SUMMICRON-C

The Summicron-C enjoys enjoys exactly the kind of reputation that you would expect of a good, bargain priced performer in an otherwise agonizingly expensive line of excellent lenses. Its virtues (or its price) are such that people are willing to file down a part of the lens mount so that it will bring up the slightly less less-than-ideal 35mm frame lines on standard M mount bodies. I’m not afraid of the file, but this seems an incredibly cumbersome solution, since in the end you have a mangled lens that still doesn’t bring up framelines that match it’s perspective with even the woeful accuracy we’ve come to expect from rangefinders. Sorry, but I think RF composition is sufficiently fraught with uncertainty already.

I could buy a CL or CLE to mount the thing on, thereby avoiding the mangling and the uncertainty. Economy is not entirely in favor of this option, and although the CL is an interesting camera, I need another 35mm RF like I need another $700 credit card charge for, well, another 35mm RF.

Voigtlander’s Nokton 40mm F1.4

The CV offering, like nearly all CV lenses, has a spotty reputation, which probably means that it wipes the floor with the Summicron-C, but you can never tell with these religious things. Like the Summicron C, the 40mm focal length requires either some file work or a special camera body, Voigtlander’s own R3 in this case. I once played with an R3/40 combo in a Tokyo camera shop, and despite the grumblings in certain forums (and the inevitable counter grumblings), I didn’t find it to be a particularly crappy camera. It actually seemed pretty nice in the way that an FM2 seems pretty nice; solid enough and straightforward in way that would never hamper shooting. But that life size VF is a problem for the diminishing population of glasses wears, of which I’m an obstinate part. And, as with the Summicron-C/CL combo, I don’t really need another $700 35mm RF. My Hexar’s fill that roll quite nicely with money left over, although that whole f1.4 thing would be nice for the author of a certain oddly name site.

Olympus Zuiko 40mm F2

This leaves the Olympus 40mm F2. You can tell this is the best choice for me because it gets the nearly last word. Olympus users have a kind of quiet fanaticism that comes from knowing that there gear is just as good as that German stuff, but not nearly so expensive. When it comes to the Zuiko 40, they give up the whole quiet thing and go for the straight fanaticism. Must be quite a lens. For my uses, it would seem to have three distinct advantages:

  • I already have a body – a beat up, but much appreciate OM-1MD, on which to mount it.
  • There are no framelines to get wrong.
  • Since I would only need the lens, it would be a more economic solution, slightly. The 40mm is one of the most expensive lenses in what is now an incredibly cheap line, but it would still be cheaper than the Leica or CV offerings.

This is certainly the most attractive option. I’m rather fond of my OM-1 despite its obvious age an quirky ergonomics. Another lens for it, would give me another option when I want the direct view of an SLR, although truth be told, I should probably buy a T/S lens for it instead. I’m not quite sure that I’m old enough to start futzing with T/S lenses though, which seem decidedly retiring in some way.

Complications

All of this assumes that I actually want another lens. Despite my frustration with the either-or-ness of the 35/50 dichotomy, I’m just enough of a hairshirt calvinist to appreciate the creative potential of that tension. Recently I’m beginning to appreciate the role limitations play in my photography. I’ve come to suspect that having too many choices aborts the whole process just at that point where choices come into play. It’s at least part of the reason I remain uncomfortable with digital; that maleability which so many photographers have found so liberating seems an entanglement to me. Would the betweenness of the 40 present me with a similar problem?

I do have some evidence that it would. Due to the paucity of 50mm equivalent lenses for cropped from digitals, over the last couple of years I’ve used three lens/camera combinations that ranged from 42 to 46. Particularly with the 42, the perspective seemed schizophrenically tweenish, and not in the chameleon way often ascribed to the 50 by the zoom-with-your-feet folks. Perhaps these experiences were not a fair trial given my discomfort with digital in general. Perhaps the perspective is worth another try. Perhaps I should just save my money for a Mamiya 6 with it’s 75. Doesn’t 75mm on a 6×6 frame work out to something like a 40mm?