A little over a year ago I got interested in M42-mount lenses. The original reason, which was being able to use manual focus lenses on a Sigma camera, is now largely moot. The images produced by Foveon sensors are simply phenomenal but, in my experience, using manual focus lenses with them can be frustrating, chiefly because it is often difficult to get the exposure right. This is a story for another day, however. Once I started learning about M42 lenses I became aware of two facts. First is a purely practical one: you can use many different lenses, of different brands, vintages and national origins, without having to switch adapters. It is also possible to use M42 lenses (with an adapter) on some bayonet mounts, notably Konica AR and Contax/Yashica, which I was already using. This may seem like a minor point, until you start keeping track of the cost of good adapters, of the time and aggravation involved in switching adapters (I am of the impatient denomination), and of the increased likelihood of realizing that you forgot yet one more essential piece of equipment at home. The second fact is that there are some truly outstanding M42 lenses. I know that this is not news to many manual focus aficionados, and I am ashamed to say that I did not entirely believe it – screw mount lenses must be old clunkers. Just like Giuliettas or 2002’s, right?. Well, thanks in no small part to the “universal” nature of the M42 mount, I tried them myself (the lenses, still working on the old Alfas and BMWs). I am now hooked.
Among the first M42 lenses that I got my hands on was a Fujinon EBC 50mm f/1.4. I did not pay much for it because it is cosmetically quite worn out, although the glass is perfect and the mechanical operation is silky smooth. I carefully machined away with a Dremel tool the small tab on the mount, so that the lens screws fully into the adapter and can focus to infinity. Because I got a “stepped” adapter it was not necessary to glue the aperture pin, so I was ready to go. Here I need to digress a bit. For professional reasons, I live in a part of the world (the Southeastern US) which is not dear to my heart. I therefore try to travel as much as I am able to, and much of my photography tends to focus on places far away from my home. But I can only take a small number of lenses with me on any given trip, and as a result some of my lenses have never been to my favorite photographic destinations. The 50mm Fujinon is one of them, so all of the images that accompany this post are from a single location a few minutes from my house, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia (albeit from a few different times of the year). There is not much diversity in the subject matter, but enough, I hope, to show the personality of this lens. Here are some examples, followed by my impressions.
My first impression is that the colors are remarkably accurate. Although it is impossible to be absolutely certain of this, these are the colors that I remember seeing in the real world. There is essentially no color manipulation in post processing, beyond some minor adjustment of white balance. There is one additional variable in this respect, though, which is that I recently switched from Lightroom to Capture One as my raw developer, and this is my first published work fully processed with Capture One. I had several reasons to switch, which I will elaborate on in a future post, but perhaps the most important one is that it quickly became clear to me that Capture One is a far superior raw developer than the Adobe product in terms of the amount of detail and dynamic range that it retrieves from RAW files, at least for Sony cameras. Whether or not this is also true of color accuracy I do not know, and answering this question will require that I reprocess some of the images published here or in my portfolio – and this will not happen soon. There is also the fact that this image collection is heavily weighted towards the greens, given the location and the predominance of spring and summer images – blues and warm earth colors are notably absent. With these caveats, I will nevertheless say that the 50mm Fujinon EBC may be among the most color-accurate lenses that I have ever used.
Another thing that strikes me is that this lens has a split personality. Pictures shot at f/11 or f/16 are surgical, whether they are of distant subjects or close-up details. Close to the maximum aperture, and even at f/1.4, areas in focus are almost as sharp as those shot at small apertures, but the out of focus areas are delicate, or perhaps I should say luxurious. There are few if any “bubbles” and no busy background, just a very soft and soothing backdrop.The transition between in-focus and out-of-focus areas is almost imperceptible. This is quite different from the 50mm f/1.4 Hexanon, that I wrote about in the past . The Konica lens, which I absolutely love, is all fireworks, in terms of both color and bokeh. The Fuji is, by comparison, more of a quiet country walk. It is also different from the Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 which I still think of as the most perfectly balanced 50mm lens that I have tried, in terms of sharpness, contrast, color rendition and bokeh. In true Zuiko tradition, it is an elegant-looking lens that generates elegant-looking images.
All of these impressions are of course subjective. You may compare pictures taken with the three fast 50mm lenses that I have discussed and reach completely different conclusions, or even decide that there really are no meaningful differences among them. One of my goals is to provide sample images taken with different lenses and processed using the same general aesthetic bias, that you may of course not find to your liking. But at least the philosophy with which the RAW files are processed is as constant as I can keep them from one lens to another (except for the recent switch in processing software). If you are considering getting one or more of these classic jewels this comparison may be of some help. Regardless, there is one point about which I think we can agree, and that is that these three lenses are indeed three engineering and artistic masterpieces, different from one another perhaps, but none of them a lesser lens than any of the others.