Thursday, July 06, 2017

Comparing Nikon 50mm and Helios 44 58mm lenses

Now that time has passed and several 50mm lenses have, well, passed through my hands, I thought I'd take a look back to see if I could figure out which was the sharpest wide open.

I used comparison images of -

  • early '70's Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 pre-Ai
  • c.1970 Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/2 H pre-Ai
  • c.2000 Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S
  • mid-'80's Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E-series
  • Helios 44-M 58mm f/2
Comparison setup -
  • Some pages out of a local newspaper taped to the bedroom wall 
  • Sony A6000 set to "A", 100 ISO, 2second delay 
  • Massive Manfrotto tripod 
  • Zhongyi Lens Turbo II focal reducer
  • No sharpening applied to the RAW output 
Here are the center of the scene comparisons.  I made no attempt to look at the corners of the frame for this comparison.  Look at this image at full resolution to note differences between the various elements.

50mm Lens Comparison

I found this little exercise rather interesting.

To start, the Russian made Helios 44-M was sharp from wide open.  The lens is typically found for 20Euro or 25Euro.  I had disassembled the lens to tighten various things that had come loose over many years of use.  Once inside I found the Russians had packed the lens with an amazing amount of grease.  So I removed the excess and once reassembled, the lens felt like any well-made optic from Japan.  The lens required it's own set of adapters to work on my Sony mirrorless APS-C cameras, so I sold it.  I didn't want the hassle of carrying a duplicate set of adapters around.

I had a love/hate relationship with the 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor.  I wasn't sure it was sharp wide open.  At near infinity, spherical aberrations seriously clouded the image and there was seemingly no way to "smart sharpen" them away.  However, when used on subjects a meter or two from the lens, wide open the old Nikkor seemed to perform admirably.  Further, by f/2.8 the lens was as sharp as any Sigma Art DN I used.  But I didn't buy it to use it at f/2.8.  Somewhat frustrated and confused with it's performance, I sold it.

A few years ago at the Bievre Foto Foire I picked up a 25Euro Nikon 50mm f/1.8 E.  It was cute.  It was light.  But wide open it just didn't seem all that great.  As with the Nikkor f/1.4, I had a love/hate relationship with the little E-series lens.  I wanted to love the lens, but when shot stopped down, the out of focus rendition was jittery and unpleasant.  So, in a recent fit of housecleaning I sold it.

Which brings me to yet another Round of Insanity.  Reading somewhere on the "internets" that double Gauss design lenses "write" an image differently than other optics (see claims by Zeiss and others), I did a bit of research.  It turns out that the most "pure" renditions of a double Gauss design that I could find in a Nikon mount were the early/old Nikkor 50mm f/2 H/HC and the much more recent rendition found in the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S.  The f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses are more complex (hence not "pure" to the original flint/crown design concept) versions of the double Gauss.  With careful searching, the f/2 and f/1.8 lenses can be had for a lot less than 40Euro each.

In the center of the scene, the c.1970 f/2 H is really quite sharp.  Image quality drops off dramatically toward the far edges of the frame, but the center holds up quite nicely.  Stopping the aperture down cleans up the corners fairly well.  I was more than a little surprised.  I'm not yet sure how I'll use this lens, but outdoor/environmental portraiture comes to mind.

The f/1.8 Ai-S, on the other hand,  in terms of resolution seems just barely better than the Helios, f/1.4 Nikkor, and f/1.8 E wide open.  In addition, it seems to be very slightly better than the f/1.4 Nikkor at f/2.  What's interesting to see from an earlier comparison is just how well the Ai-S performs across the field and right out to the edges of the frame.  It's as good, if not slightly better than, my much vaunted Sigma 30mm f/2.8 EX DN E.

One last note about the Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 Ai-S.  There are at least two different barrel lengths that Nikon made.  One looks like just about any old 50mm lens and the other is a "pancake" version.  It looks nearly identical to the cheaper f/1.8 E-series lens.  In fact, many of the vendors I encountered in Bievre did not realize there was any difference.  Those who did priced their lenses accordingly.  If you look carefully for the word "Nikkor" on the front ring, you might get lucky, like I did, and you might be able to score a brilliant little Nikkor-grade optic for E-series lens kinds of prices.

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