Forty(ish) Fifty(ish) mm lenses on a Fuji

Okay. I might have a problem. I’ve been adapting lenses to cameras for almost a decade, but my probem began in earnest a few years ago when, in a thrift shop, I stumbled upon a late 1960’s Minolta SRT101 35mm camera and a first generation 58mm f1.2 lens. The camera was fine, but the aperture blades of the lens were coated in oil and needed to be cleaned in order to function. A trip to the camera technician and it was good to go! That lens has been a fixture on my camera for that last two years.

Now, nobody needs forty 50mm lenses, but In my defense, they aren’t all 50mm; a chunk of them are 55mm, at least one is 57mm, while others are 58mm, and there might even be a few that are are 52. What they do share is that they are all lenses that would have been sold as the “normal” lens for 35mm film cameras and they all bunk together in my lens closet. Overwhelmingly my lenses are manual focus, two will autofocus, given the right conditions, although only one actually auto focuses on the Fuji… with the appropriate electronic adapter.

Audrey Smallman 2018 photographed using a lens introduced by Minolta in September of 1968; the 58mm f1.2 lens on a Fuji XE2s camera.

Audrey Smallman 2018 photographed using a lens introduced by Minolta in September of 1968; the 58mm f1.2 lens on a Fuji XE2s camera.

My appreciation of lenses began in1984 when my mother was managing a camera store. It was that year my parents gave me my first camera; a Praktica LTL with a Domiplan 50mm f2.8 made by Meyer Optik in what was East Germany. When I was a teenager, Germany was a country divided into East and West and both my camera and lens was made under the Pentacon umbrella in East Germany.

Maggie Onedo 2018 photographed with a first generation Minolta 58mm f1.2 lens on a Fuji XE2s

Maggie Onedo 2018 photographed with a first generation Minolta 58mm f1.2 lens on a Fuji XE2s

With the short lens mount to focal plane distance of mirrorless cameras the adaptation of all manner of vintage lenses to a camera body is possible. I’ve been adapting lenses starting in 2010, when I bought a micro 4/3’s Panasonic GF1.

My wife and I have worked together for over 20 years. We specialize in commercial portraiture. Because of that specialization, my approach was to find lenses that give a natural perspective and a comfortable working distance between the camera and the subject that will render a pleasing perspective for the subject’s facial features. A focal length that’s too short puts the camera too close to the subject. Working too close to the subject exaggerates perspective which distorts the relationship between nose, eyes, and ears. Another consideration is the personal space bubble (not a transportation device); If the camera is too close and it makes the subject feel uneasy. For my tastes, on a a camera with an APS-C sized sensor that ideal focal length falls in the 50-60mm range, which is great because those are probably the most abundant and reasonably priced lenses available as they were the normal lens; the kit lens, if you will, of 35mm photography. It’s a focal length that’s been popular on small format cameras going back to the mid 1920’s when Oskar Barnak designed the first Leica and made 35mm photography popular.

Nicky Evans 2019 using a modern Canon 50mm f1.8 STM lens adapted for a Fuji XE2s using a Viltrox EF-FX1 AF adapter.

Nicky Evans 2019 using a modern Canon 50mm f1.8 STM lens adapted for a Fuji XE2s using a Viltrox EF-FX1 AF adapter.

The lenses I’ve collected for this comparison span seven decades of manufacture with some made in the late 1950’s and others made last spring. The newest lens I use is a Canon EF 50mm f1.8 STM. It’s an inexpensive standard lens that features a built in stepper motor to focus. My oldest lens in the comparison would be a Takumar 55mm f2.2 that was made in 1957 or ‘58 for a brief time with only just over 8,000 made. I picked that up at a flea market for $15 with a Praktica IV 35mm camera attached to it.

Thailey Roberge 2019 photographed with a first generation Minolta MC 58mm f1.2 lens adapted for use on a Fuji XE2s.

Thailey Roberge 2019 photographed with a first generation Minolta MC 58mm f1.2 lens adapted for use on a Fuji XE2s.

Forty probably sounds like a ridiculous number of lenses to have in a closet. If you ask my business partner/wife/pimp she would agree. Having said that, we have an arrangement; I don’t count her shoe boxes and she doesn’t count my lens cases… and considering the length of time that lenses have been around, it’s only a small fraction of the options available. She would say the same goes for shoes!

Erin Aberle-Palm 2019 photographed with a Vintage Minolta 58mm f1.2 lens on a Fuji XE2s.

Erin Aberle-Palm 2019 photographed with a Vintage Minolta 58mm f1.2 lens on a Fuji XE2s.

When we judge at the aesthetics of an image that a lens imparts, we consider both the ability to render sharpness and how that sharpness transitions to the out of focus area; essentially the characteristics of the blur, or what is commonly called “bokeh”. It seems strange to say given how much effort is made to make lenses that produce tack sharp imagry but the blur in the background is an often overlooked but equally important counter element. It can be soft or busy, gentle or harsh and much of that is determined by the optical design, the aperture blade shapes, and placement of the aperture within the lens. I’ve been very pleased with that Minolta 58mm f1.2, and it’s lead me to look at the rendering quality of other vintage lenses.

One of the interesting findings was how differently they render color; some are more neutral than others. The lenses that have radioactive coatings, or elements, show the most warmth, with the 7 element Asahi Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 being quite a bit warmer than the 8 element version it replaced.

Most of our work is made with aperture ranges from wide open to f2.8 when using a 50-60mm lens, although, somewhat rarely, we do stop down a bit more if we move closer to the subject. I compared the lenses at two or three apertures. Lenses that had a maximum aperture of f1.2-1.4 were tested fully open, at f2.0 and 2.8. Lenses with maximum apertures greater than f1.4 were tested at their maximum aperture and 2.8. Lenses with apertures greater than f2.0 were tested at maximum aperture, f2.8 and f4.0.

I didn’t test the lenses at any smaller apertures because our work rarely calls for smaller apertures and I was more curious how the lenses would compare using our typical working apertures.

Camera Obscura

With a good deal of help, I created this series of portraits while locked in a box; a blind collaboration with the subject outside, and myself inside that box. The images were made using a 4x8x8 foot tar paper camera obscura in which I was standing. The subjects’ likenesses recorded on the silvered emulsion of sheets black and white photographic paper.

For me, it was fascinating that the secondary senses a photographer used when working with a subject provided the strongest clues in these sessions. My sense of vision was removed by using this tool, so my sense of hearing became its proxy. My voice through the wall was the cue to the subject, and my sense of hearing provided my clues to stillness. The sounds of the subject were my only indications of movements; had the sitter moved from the point of focus of the lens? In this process sound became my only indicator.