Photographic greatness: Olympus OM Zuiko 50mm f/1.4

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It is difficult to explain in words what makes a great lens, and impossible to define it with numbers and charts. Quantitative measurements are the essence of science. The purpose of a photographic lens is to generate a beautiful image, and beauty is not a scientific concept. So how are we to judge the greatness of a lens? And what does greatness mean, anyway? I don’t know that these questions have answers, but I will attempt to explain why I feel this way about the Zuiko 50mm f/1.4. The “scientific” qualities of this lens are well known and well documented. It is almost universally respected as one of the top fast primes of the last golden days of 35mm film photography. I will not review any of this information here – what would be the purpose of simply transcribing what others have documented so thoroughly? I will simply try to explain why I feel so strongly about this lens – why this is a lens that I will never, ever, part with.

My particular copy is one of the very last multicoated examples, with serial number in the 1100000’s. It is in pristine optical and mechanical condition. Reading about the history of this lens one comes across some different opinions. Everybody seems to agree that it is an excellent lens, but there appear to be differences of opinion about the relative merits of the various versions of it. There are those who suggest that my particular version is the summit, but there are also those who believe that the differences among the various multicoated versions, and even relative to the earlier “G.Zuiko” lenses, are not all that important. I honestly don’t know. This is the only one I have ever had. And numbers on charts don’t tell the story I wish to tell. There are also opinions to the effect that the humble f/1.8 50mm Zuiko is sharper. I had one for a while, and to me they looked comparably sharp, which says a lot about the slower and cheaper Zuiko kit lens. But sharpness is not all, and when it comes to lens greatness, the 1.4 is in a league of its own. I sold the 1.8 not because it is not an excellent lens – it is – but because I knew that having the 1.4 I would never use the 1.8

Words are inadequate to distill the essence of a lens, to describe what makes it (or not) great. Some words are necessary, however, to at least try to explain what I see and why what I see touches me in a certain way. But words best come after images, so here are a few, all of them taken with my 50mm f/1.4 Zuiko.

What is the first word that comes to mind after seeing these images? If you thought “versatility” then you are seeing what I am seeing. The images that I chose as examples include close ups, intimate landscapes and wide grand landscapes. They were shot with Micro Four Thirds, APS-C and full frame cameras. And what they show is the characteristically “sweet” rendition of this lens. It is sharp, very sharp, but it is not surgical. Hexanons tend to be surgical lenses. I like them very much too, and I will be writing about them in the near future. Zeiss Contax and Zeiss Jena lenses are also in my favorite list. They are spectacularly sharp, more so than Hexanons, and somewhat less surgical, less harsh. The 50mm 1.4 Zuiko is balanced. It manages to be sharp and at the same time very gentle. Was this unique combination of characteristics a conscious design decision, or a lucky outcome? Who knows. Does it matter? The 24mm f/2.8 Zuiko shares some of these traits, and it is another of my favorite lenses. Other Zuikos are remarkably sharp but less distinctive (e.g. the 18mm f3.5, 21 mm f/35, and 100mm f/2.8). Perhaps the faster f/2 siblings of some of these Zuikos have the unique rendition of the 50mm f/1.4. I don’t know as I have not used them, and I am not likely to be able to afford them.

Here is what I think. Rather than try to use words to define what a great lens is, I will use the OM Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 as the definition, or at least as part of the definition. If a lens can match it in its balance of “gentle” sharpness, consistence, versatility and color rendition, then in my book it will also be a great lens. There are many excellent, superb, magnificent manual focus lenses out there. How many of them are truly great? I have been lucky to amass a growing collections of Zuikos, Zeisses, Hexanons, Pentacons and Fujis. I will be back with more.

 

5 comments on “Photographic greatness: Olympus OM Zuiko 50mm f/1.4
  1. Fabrizio says:

    I appreciated your articles on your site.
    I’m an A7 owner (and a Zuiko lover!) and I’m agree with your words.
    All the best,
    Fabrizio

  2. Matt says:

    Hi Alberto,

    Enjoying your lens reviews of these Zuiko classics – I too have a late serial # 50/1.4 and it really is a gem of a lens, the best fast fifty I’ve used for certain. It is currently glued to my OM-1, but I also use it as the middle lens in a trio comprised also of the 24/2.8 and 85/2. A perfect set to travel with!

    Just bought the 18/3.5 which I am looking forward to trying out too!

    • Thanks for your visit & comment, Matt. I love all Zuikos, and the 50/1.4 is an impressive lens. Funny how 50mm fast lenses can have such dramatically different characters. I go back and forth among the Zuiko, the Hexanon and the Fujinon, love all three, but I always come back to the Zuiko as the one that does everything right. I have a 24/2.8 MC and it may be one of the sharpest lenses that I have ever used – Zeiss/Leica territory. I’m working up a little piece on it for the near future. I’ve never used the 85/2 but have heard great things about it – do you have some images online? The 18/3.5 is exceptional, albeit not an easy lens. At least mine has some greenish tinting towards the edges, depends on lighting and it usually can be corrected in post, but it is there. Neither the 21 nor the 24 do it. But I have read that it is sharper than the 18mm Contax – I have no personal experience with the latter but the Zuiko is one sharp lens.
      Take care!!

      Alberto

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