Friday, 11 June 2010

Mini Lens Tests MCMLXVVI: Yashica ML 50mm f/1.9

Good day, sunshine; this is the umpteenth in a series of little posts about 50mm lenses, although it is the first I have done with my 5D MkII. Old 50mm lenses are appealing because they have a fantastic ratio of cost to performance; they're cheap and generally very good. They're cheap because there are loads of them on the used market - they came as part of a kit with older cameras, but most people nowadays want something wider or longer - and they're generally good because there are only so many ways to arrange bits of glass so that they make a 50mm lens, and the basic designs were formulated in the 1800s and perfected in the decades hence. There are variations in quality and materials and coating, but in general 50mm lenses are all good, even the cheapest.

Today, the Yashica ML 50mm f/1.9, which cost me £10. ML means that the lens is multi-coated, according to the Yashica FAQ. There was also a range of cheaper DSB lenses which were single-coated. Here's what it looks like mounted on a Kodak DCS 560:

On the DCS 560, which has an APS-H-sized sensor, it is a 65mm. On an APS-C camera such as an Canon 7D it would be an 80mm. On a physical level it is metal with a rubber focus ring, built to typical 70s standards i.e. much better than anything around today for less than £300. The external design and materials look and feel like the Carl Zeiss Planar 1.7/50 I tested back in January, almost suspiciously so. In fact here's a shot of my Zeiss 50mm f/1.7 and f/1.4 for comparison:

As per the Zeiss lenses, the aperture stops are full stops. Good manly upright full stops. One click takes me from f/1.9 to f/2.8; four clicks take me to f/8. Not eight clicks or seven clicks. I can change the aperture with a wave of my hand.

Back in the early 1970s Yashica made a whole bunch of lenses for the M42 screw mount, which were designed for the company's range of Yashica TL SLRs. These lenses had Yashinon written around the barrel, and the Yashinon 50mm f/1.4 is quite sought after nowadays. I used to have one, it was okay. It never really moved me. Nonetheless I did shoot this image with it, so it wasn't a complete waste:

The Yashica ML 50mm f/1.9 is not a Yashinon lens however. It has a Contax/Yashica mount and was made for the mid-70s Yashica FR and FX SLRs. It could also be used with Yashica's Contax RTS range, although in practice nobody did this because there was a separate range of Contax lenses, designed by Carl Zeiss AG, which were highly rated in their day and are still highly rated nowadays. I have a few, the aforementioned Zeiss 50mms and a 35-70mm f/3.4 zoom that everybody likes. I like it too.

Back when the Contax/Yashica mount was still current, the shrewd photographer would have bought a Yashica FR body and some Zeiss lenses to go with it. He would not have spent a fortune on a Contax RTS in order to use Yashica lenses. The whole Yashica / Contax story is very melancholic. It's as if the men and women of Yashica really genuinely wanted to make some great cameras with the Contax name, but knew in their hearts that they were never going to make a profit from them, and yet they continued right into the autofocus era with the Contax N mount, at which point they had done all they could to show that there is only room for one Leica in this world. And that Leica is Leica.

Old Yashica lenses tend to pop up on eBay cheaply. Perhaps this is because the Yashica range was overshadowed by Contax, and also because Yashica's SLRs are nowadays mostly forgotten - I know it sounds silly, but Yashica isn't an attractive name in the Anglosphere, it sounds like a sneeze - and also perhaps people are unsure if it is possible to adapt Contax/Yashica lenses to modern lens mounts. Perhaps the lenses were optically duff, I don't know. I was curious about this final point, hence the subject of this post. Ten pounds is very little for a good 50mm lens. Even the glut of Olympus 50mm f/1.8s sell for more than that.

At this point I should put in a picture of something nice, such as a tree or something. To break up the text. I can't do that, however, because the weather has been lousy in lousy boring England and so I haven't actually used the lens constructively. The sun hasn't been out and I haven't had anything to laugh about. My feet remain unburned. What I need to get into my life is an attractive woman who I can call upon to pose as required for these blog posts, and dismiss when I tire of her, and call her back again. And she has to be very attractive, of course. If you are this woman please get in touch via the comments.

Here's a familiar church, shot at f/1.9, which has a fair amount of vignetting. The vignetting would be almost invisible with an APS-C camera:

It's easy to adapt Contax/Yashica lenses for the Canon EOS system, in theory. Adapters are readily available and the lens registration distance is conducive to adaption. Stopping down the aperture isn't a problem. However some of the mechanical bits that stick out of the back of Contax/Yashica lenses can foul the mirror of Canon's full-frame cameras. Fortunately, although the Yashica 50mm has a protruding aperture control, it works fine on my 5D MkII at all focus settings.

I had no idea what to expect from the lens. There's almost nothing about it on the internet. Yashica also made f/2, f/1.7, f/1.4 and f/1.2 ML 50mm lenses, and they hog the search results. I surmise the f/1.9 was a kit lens sold cheaply with some bodies, a kind of analogue to the Pentax Takumar 55mm f/2. Literally the only article I could find is this one at Prime35. Good but not great resolution, no CA, says them. Are they right? Let's find out.

Here's what the vignetting is like at f/1.9 and then f/8, using an old album I had lying around as a test target, and then followed by an example from the real world of reality rather than the fantasy world of the Beatles:

I like the colours. Perhaps I was in a good mood, or perhaps the light was nice, but I have no objection to the colour balance. The defunct Salisbury Steam Laundry - which must have been a big place - is just down the road from an independent shop called Abbey Stores, that stocks a tonne of booze. I can't think of it without thinking of Abby Winters, the righteous Australian amateur porn website. It's one of those independent shops that makes me feel sad, because although it is still in business it will eventually go bust - they always do - and then one more dream will be crushed. EDIT: And on 31 March 2011 it did indeed close down.

Lay down all thoughts and surrender to the bokeh, wide open, and also the mild barrel distortion:

The bokeh is neither here nor there nor anywhere, really, but the image is thankfully free of optical aberrations. It's a clean machine. I want to show you the star in the middle, which looks like this at f/1.9 for me, f/1.9 for you:

That's not bad. No CA, and although it looks a bit soft bear in mind that this is a 100% crop from a 5D MkII - which naturally produces soft images - with no sharpening at any stage in the development process. And the star is soft in real life. Stars are soft. They don't have defined edges, see, they're balls of plasma. Also, Big Star were a bit like the Beatles! That's it! My subconscious mind is a genius. Still, I have no problem with the central resolution at f/1.9. I was going to put references to Revolver all the way through this blog post but my heart's not in it. There's no need.

Here's George Harrison's ugly, ugly nose at f/1.9 and then f/8, followed by another real-world example:

It's odd how the Beatles actually became more handsome - "became handsome", really - as they grew older. As young men they were deeply ugly, and yet young girls become incontinent at the thought of them. Eventually the Beatles grew beards and became even uglier; and then they shaved off their beards, and they were handsome men.

But, anyway, it's not sharp in the middle at f/1.9 but then again few lenses are. It is generally free of optical aberrations. At f/8 it is sharp as can be.

Let's traipse over to the top-right corner of the cover, and John Lennon's right eye, at f/1.9 and f/8, and also let's have a look at the mid-left portion of our real-world example:

There is just a tiny, tiny bit of CA, which is invisible in day-to-day shooting. After having a look at the Canon 70-210mm f/4 for a forthcoming post I can't tell you how much I love not having to look at CA. The resolution is inoffensive at f/1.9 and although it's not bitingly sharp at f/8 it's not bad. It's not as good as my Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.7 but then again it cost one-sixth the price. This is important, because a lot of these old 50mm lenses make me wonder, "who is it for?" The Canon 50mm f/1.8 is pretty good and costs about £70 brand new, it makes no sense to pay £70 for a manual focus, manual stop down lens that is just fractionally better, especially not if you already have the Canon 50mm f/1.8 which you probably do. On the other hand, the Yashica ML 50mm f/1.9 costs nothing and is handy if you don't have a fast-ish prime.

It is also tiny, just over an inch long when focused to infinity. It takes 52mm filters, a common size. There were so many Revolver references that I couldn't work into the text. Something about something appearing too small (close focus distance?); "I want to tell you" didn't work because I am telling you. Beside which, it's rude to tell. Military dictators tell, I show.

Enfleurage, now there's a word. The thing that worries me is that I'll have to redo this post at some point, and stick in a more thorough set of test images, of a brick wall or a car park. And I'll have to chuck out all the Beatles references because they won't make sense any more. I had fun thinking them up. A year or so from now no-one will ever know they were there at all. That's blogging for you. Castles made of sand.

EDIT: Much later I had a look at the Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 mentioned near the top of the post, and I shot this little comparison for the article:

All taken with a 5D MkII from a distance of about four feet; they're 100% crops, without unshark mask, and they were all shot wide open. The Yashica comes across really well, but then again it's only f/1.9; I surmise that the other lenses would be just as good (if not better) when stopped down to f/2.0. Did I just write unshark mask? I'll have to change that at some point.