Resolution Tests

The Great 50mm Shootout

Published January 2, 2012

Every so often the Universe realizes I’m getting a little cocky and sends someone to ask me a simple question I can’t answer.  It happened again the other day. Michael Plumridge and Peter Lik asked Tyler what the sharpest 50mm lens was. They were shooting on Red Epics with adapters so neither brand, mount, nor price mattered. But they needed to know right away. Tyler told them he’d ask me and give them the answer in a few minutes.

But I didn’t have a clue. I have tons of data on 50mm lenses for Nikon and Canon cameras, but all of that was shot at widest aperture, which is great for finding lenses with problems, but not great for finding which is sharpest at f/4. And we had no factual data for Leica mount lenses because Rangefinder cameras are very difficult to test using programs like Imatest. But when someone like Peter Lik wants an answer and tells you Jim Jannard is curious, too, you get them an answer. So we tested every kind of 50mm lens we had available and got a pretty clear answer by the end of the day.

As always, my first thought when presented with a bunch of work to do is “what’s in it for me”? Turns out not much. Tyler got a beautiful signed picture that hangs in his office so I can see it every time I walk by. I got a nice thank you email. But, I figured if I did all that work, I’d at least  make a blog post out of it so I didn’t have to do a bunch of research over the holiday weekend. Wait, I mean, I was certain other people would be interested in what I found, so I thought I’d share the results.

What This Is, and Is NOT

This is the MTF50, measured by Imatest, of a lot of 50mm lenses to determine their relative sharpness. (Actually we’re determining resolution and acutance, but since using that word immediately loses half of all readers, I’ll stick with sharpness.) The working distance for our 50mm Imatest setup is about 15 feet, so actually we’re only measuring sharpness at that distance. The lenses might perform somewhat differently at infinity, or very close up.

It is not an attempt to determine the best lens. No real-world photographs are taken. Bokeh is not analyzed and compared. Color rendering, autofocus accuracy, chromatic aberration, build quality, flare resistance, and a dozen other real-world considerations aren’t considered at all. I also want to emphasize this little test is of one copy of each lens. My preference would be to test a dozen or more copies of each lens and average the results. But there wasn’t time to do that kind of testing.

Still, it’s an interesting test. Some of these lenses have never (to the best of my knowledge) had MTF data released before. It also gave us a chance to compare SLR lenses mounted on Canon and Nikon cameras with M mount lenses on an M9.

The Methods

We used our standard Imatest  testing protocol for the SLR cameras: SLR cameras were manually focused using Live View and a Seimen’s star chart. Several exposures were made with each lens at each aperture and the best result at each aperture used. M9s were focused with the camera’s rangefinder and then several focus bracketed shots taken. As with the SLRs, we used the best result at each aperture.

Two measurements were recorded: the MTF 50 at the center (peak resolution) and the weighted average of center, midrange, and corner sharpness. MTF 50 results are presented as Line Pairs / Image Height from completely unsharpened RAW images. (We’re starting a pool about how many emails I get asking “what do the numbers mean” because no one ever reads this stuff. The over-under is 32 if you want in.)

We used 3 cameras for this exercise, all of them test cameras that we have used extensively at Lensrentals: a Canon 5D Mk II, a Nikon D3x, and a Leica M9. From extensive (a few thousand) previous tests, we knew that the Canon and Nikon cameras have identical resolution as far as our testing can tell. (The D3x has more pixels and in theory should resolve a bit better, but if it does we can’t detect it.) We had no idea about how the M9 would compare: it has fewer pixels but its lack of an AA filter should compensate for that to some degree.

The lenses tested were as follows:

Canon: 50mm f/1.2; 50mm f/1.4; 45mm TS-E; 50mm f1.0 (that is correct, the 50mm f1.0)

Cooke: 50mm Panchro T2.8 (Cinema lens)

Leica: 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux; 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH; 50mm f2.0 Summicron

Nikon: 50mm f1.4 G; 50mm f1.2 AIS (another classic); 45mm PC-E

Schneider: 50mm f/2.8 PCTS; 50mm Cine Xenar T2.0 (cinema lens)

Sigma: 50mm f/1.4

Voigtlander: 50mm f1.1 Nokton

Zeiss: 50mm f/1.4 (ZE/ZF); 5omm f/2.0 Makro planar (ZE/ZF); 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar (M mount); 50mm f/2.0 Planar (M mount)

Interpreting the Results

Sample variation

Whenever we look at numerical results from Imatest or similar testing there’s a tendency to get all absolute: lens A resolved 600 LP/IH and lens B resolved 570, therefore lens A is the sharper lens. In the image below I’ve graphed the average (mean) MTF 50 (the vertical axis is weighted average for the entire lens, the horizontal axis is spot MTF from the center of the lens) for a number of 50mm lenses we have tested extensively. Note these results are all at each lenses “wide open” aperture.

Looking at the graph the Zeiss f/2 Makro is obviously sharper, but it’s being shot at f/2, so that’s not a fair comparison. Just looking at these single numbers it’s tempting to draw conclusions like “the Sigma 50 has higher center resolution than the Nikon”, and “both the Sigma and Nikon at f/1.4 have higher resolution than the Canon at f/1.2”. Reality is not that simple. Below is a similar chart, but this time I’ll plot the actual data points for each copy tested. Reality is a lot messier than the single averaged number show above.

The takeaway message is when you are presented one data point, either in this article or in a lens review, it’s just that: one data point. In the top graph, the Sigma MTF50 is 620/510 for peak/average while the Nikon is 580/530 (rounded to the nearest 10 because that’s about as accurate as Imatest numbers are). But claiming the Sigma is really sharper in the center, or the Nikon has a better average sharpness is a stretch. There’s a bit of a tendency that way, but if I hand you one copy of one and one copy of the other you wouldn’t necessarily get that result. On the other hand, I’d be pretty comfortable that if I hand you either a Nikon or the Sigma to compare to the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 you would notice a difference.

We’ve found that a difference of 75 LP/IH in peak resolution generally means there’s a real difference between the lenses. A difference of 150 certainly means there is difference and it’s usually quite obvious. For average (rather than peak) MTF 50 the range is smaller and we consider differences of 50 and 100 LP/IH signifiant. But this is a generalized rule-of-thumb we use in-house. It’s not a law of physics or anything.

How I graphed the results

I tried to graph the results to reflect this. The lens with highest MTF50 at each aperture has a dark box around it’s results and is colored red. Any lens within 75 LP/IH (for center MTF) and 50 LP/IH (for weighted average) of this number is also colored red, indicating there probably is no real-world difference between them.

Lenses between 75 and 150 LP/IH lower than the best result for peak MTF50 (between 50 and 100 LP/IH for average MTF50) are colored yellow. There is probably a real difference in sharpness between those lenses and the best lens, but not a large difference. Lenses that are more than 150 LP/IH for peak and 100 LP/IH for average MTF lower than the best result are colored blue. The difference between those lenses and the best lens should be readily apparent.

I should make it very clear that the colors are only pertinent within each table. That is why, for example, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 rates a red box for weighted average at f/1.4 in Nikon mount, but an orange box in Canon mount: it’s basically as sharp as the best Nikon mount lens at those settings, but not quite as sharp as the Canon 50mm lenses.

The Results

The Canon Mount Lenses

There was not much difference in center sharpness between the two Canon lenses, the Sigma, and the Zeiss Makro Planar. As expected, the Canon 50mm f/1.0 wasn’t sharp (everyone knows it’s soft). I knew the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t very sharp wide open, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well it did by f/2.8.

I was rather surprised at the weighted average results, though. I had expected the Zeiss 50mm f/2.0 to be the best in the corners and edges. I shoot Canon with 50mm primes a lot and am always complaining about soft corners with the Canon f/1.2 and bragging on the corners of the Zeiss Makro-Planar. This test made me realize a couple of things. First, I usually shoot the Canon at f/1.2, so I’m mentally comparing f/1.2 images to f/2.0 images. Not a fair comparison. Second, when I shoot the Zeiss lens I use LiveView focusing which is a lot more accurate than autofocus. I tend to shoot the Canon on autofocus because I can. Just one more case of “what I know isn’t so”.

From a pure resolution standpoint, the two Canon lenses are the best corner to corner (on a test chart at 15 feet – obviously things can be different at other distances and with real world objects). As far as center resolution the Canon and Sigma are even at wide apertures, with the Zeiss their equal at f/2.0 (for the f/2.0) and f/2.8 for the f/1.4. The Schneider and Canon tilt-shift lenses didn’t compare as well: they just start coming into their own at f/4 and if we had extended the test range up to f/5.6 or f/8 they probably would have caught the others.

The Nikon Mount Lenses

The Nikon tests turned out about as I expected. (Unfortunately we no longer had any 50mm f/1.4 D lenses, which we thought were sharper in the center than the G). The Sigma and Zeiss f/2.0 were a bit better in the center, the Nikon G a bit better in average sharpness. The G has the reputation as one of the weaker Nikon prime lenses because it’s center sharpness isn’t great, but perhaps its designers gave up a bit of center sharpness to keep the corners sharp. The Nikon 45 PC-E, just like the Canon, really comes into its own about f/5.6 and doesn’t fare well at these apertures. (BTW – we only took the apertures to f/4 because we rarely see a wide aperture prime get significantly shaper past f/4.) To be honest, I had expected more from the f/1.2 AIS and had thought it might be the best lens in this group, but for this copy, at least, it wasn’t so.


The Cine Lenses

Just because they were possible mounts to the Red Epic, and because we had no idea as to how sharp they might be, we tested a couple of $10,000 Cine lenses. (Before you ask, we didn’t test Zeiss CP.2 lenses because they are optically identical to the ones already tested above.) Since these are PL mount lenses we had to test them on a Hot Rod modified Canon 7D, the highest resolution camera we have in PL mount. Obviously that should give these lenses an advantage: they’re only covering a crop frame rather than a full frame.

Even with that advantage, they didn’t really resolve as well as the photo lenses. Cinema lenses have never been designed for absolute resolution, they have other priorities. So for all of you thinking about buying a set of Cooke Panchros for still photography, I’ve just saved you $50,000. Makes it worth reading my blog, doesn’t it?

The M-mount lenses

This was the part of the testing about which I was totally clueless., but also the part about which I was most excited. M-mount lenses are about to explode since they’re going to be shot on Sony NEX-7s and RED cameras a lot in the near future. And while we think they’re excellent lenses it’s difficult to find actual test results with them.

I will mention (for those of you thinking of doing this at home) that performing Imatest on a Rangefinder camera is, at the very least, time consuming and frustrating. Lots of patience  and focus bracketing are necessary. It took longer to do each of the M mount lenses than it took to do all of the Canon and Nikon mounts. An Eye-Fi card would have been a good idea since we had to unmount the camera from the tripod to remove the card for every image run.  Of course, we thought of that right after we finished testing.

In one way the results weren’t shocking. I expected the Leica f/1.4 ASPH would be the sharpest, but I was shocked at how amazingly good it was. I was certain the $10,000 Leica 0.95 would not be  as sharp — you can’t get that wide aperture without some other compromises — but was impressed with how much better it performs than the Canon 50mm f/1.0. The Voigtlander was a pleasant surprise (but then I had low expectations) and while the Zeiss lenses seem a bit disappointing it’s largely because of the fast company they are keeping here. Their results, at f2.8 and f/4 at least, compare well with the SLR lenses.

Overall Comparison

There are some limitations to my attempt to answer the original question of course. Until we can test on a common body, we don’t know exactly how much difference being mounted to an M9 makes compared to being mounted to a 5DII or D3x (we do know the latter two are equivalent). The results would be at least slightly different at different focusing distances than the 15 feet we used in our setup. And of course, the limitation of only testing one copy of each lens means the results for any one of the lenses might be slightly better or worse with a different copy.

But if we keep those limitations in mind the results are interesting. I’ve regrouped the best lenses from each category above and put them in one table for a simple comparison. I’ve also recolored the results of this table according to the rules set out originally: the highest resolution at each aperture being marked, etc. It’s obviously a bit of a stretch, but this was the original assignment, finding the 50mm lens with highest resolution.

If you are shooting at f/1.4, as most people usually are with a 50mm lens, there are a lot of good choices. The two Canons, Leica Summilux and the Sigma are about the same in the center. The Sigma may be a bit softer in the corners, but if you’re worried about corner sharpness why are you shooting a 50mm at f/1.4? At smaller apertures the Leica lenses get better than the rest, but for practical purposes, even the blue lenses in the table above are very sharp. There’s not a bad lens in the bunch.

In Conclusion

I will note again that this is strictly a resolution test, not a best overall lens test. Every test like this will ignite the fanboys who feel their favorite lens was slighted. Before all the accusations begin let me note that my favorite 50mm lens (and this test certainly won’t change my mind) is the Zeiss 50mm f/2.0 Makro, which didn’t fare nearly as well as I expected.

I was very curious about how well the M9 would resolve. I would not have been shocked if it couldn’t resolve quite as well as the Canon and Nikon since it has fewer pixels. In that case we might have seen all of the lenses reach a similar peak MTF after which the M9 wasn’t capable of further resolution. That’s obviously not the case and I’m left assuming the lack of AA filter more than makes up for the fewer pixels. But that’s just an assumption. It may be that the M mount lenses are just that much better than the SLR lenses.

I should mention that both the Canon and Nikon cameras are able to resolve MTF50 numbers in the 1100 – 1200 range (we’ve gotten those numbers with several lenses, but obviously not wide aperture 50mm lenses) so this test is not limited by sensor resolution.

It will be interesting to see how all of these lenses compare when we get Sony NEX-7s in stock. Then we’ll be able to shoot EOS, Nikon, and M mount lenses on the same camera. That should let us make a better comparison, at least in the center, but we won’t be able to compare extreme corners since it is a crop sensor.

Or at least it will make an interesting comparison if I ever get time to do something like this again.


Roger Cicala

January, 2012


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Resolution Tests
  • Carl

    Um, no it wasn’t, it won’t be announced officially until January 10 or so, likely at CES. An announcement in China doesn’t count because I don’t read Chinese.

    If you’re too lazy to read what I write, nobody is forcing you to reply to something you are ignorant about.

    I am free to give my opinion about what lens should have been included in this blog…again I don’t live in China…so I have a lot of freedom. I could even father as many daughters here as I want, without them being exterminated by the government!

  • JoJu

    Without reading the epics in full length:
    If you don’t want to go into debate: nobody forces you 😉
    If you don’t want to be told what to do: why do you tell other people what they should have tested? 🙂
    Last thing: the D4 was announced officially just the day before you wrote your post 🙂

    Enjoy your photography!

  • Carl

    Anyone notice the rumors that the Nikon D4 may come to market BEFORE the Canon 1Dx? And yet the D4 hasn’t been officially announced yet…

    Joju, don’t tell me what to do, haha…my info wasn’t really inaccurate.

    The above test is a “shootout”, and I still stand by my assertion that the 58mm should have been included.

    I had already read the wiki link. I’ll not get into a debate about what was made where and when, I only know what I stated already is TRUE, that the Voigtlander name originated as an Austrian company in the 1700’s, BEFORE the camera era, and you are offering confirmation of this, rather needlessly. So I’m not sure what I said that was wrong? If you want to think of Voigtlander as a German company in the 1800’s, that’s fine. It’s part of a Japanese company now in the 20 hundreds, and has been for a while…I really don’t care what was made in the 1800’s.

    The founder of Porsche is thought by some to be some sort of nazi or stooge of the third reich, but he was really neither. He was just trying to build the best car he could under difficult circumstances, and he left quite a legacy. Much later on, Porsche tried to buy VW in 2008, but instead VW took control of them…and now a bunch of German investors are mad because they had shorted VW’s stock and got “squeezed”. Today, the VW Passat is made right here in my town, in good old Tennessee, America. Does that mean Jed Clampett’s spawn is now building currently the highest rated (by many) German sedan in the world? Yes. The profits still go to Germany, but a lot of workers here who run the robots sure are happy for their paycheck. By contrast, it’s a shame Boeing couldn’t quite make the rest of the world build its 787 parts in the manner and time it wanted…but I digress.

    Obviously several people and groups, designed and built lenses under the Voigtlander name, and I’ve yet to even research who designed the particular Nokton lens in question. All I know is, it’s quite a good design, and is made very well by Cosina in Japan, and sells for a very fair price. The build quality, and feel, is right up there with Zeiss. And Zeiss aren’t weak.

    “It makes not much sense” and “Zeiss has weak glass”? I disagree, so do Roger and thousands of other photogs! Roger gushes over Zeiss! Again they’re not “weak” glass at all. And it does make sense to me to compare various focal lengths and designs from the same brand, because Zeiss lenses yield a certain look, and a high degree of contrast. Sigma lenses also have a certain look, especially color, to them as well…as do other brands. The Sigma color might not be totally neutral, but it certainly is a valid aesthetic, despite what the snobs say.

    I never said the Nokton 58mm was sharper or better than a Zeiss macro lens; Let me clarify. I believe I was trying to say the Nokton is SHARPER and better, than the Tamron 60mm macro lens. And I DO stand by my assertion that the Nokton IS sharper than both the Sigma and Canon 50mm f/1.4 lenses, and overall I’ll even say it might even be “better” than the Canon f/1.2L lens (from my perspective). The 1.2 would obviously have the advantage in bokeh smoothness, and the ability to autofocus (for what that’s worth)…besides slightly more light-gathering. But clearly it is not a sharp lens. Nobody really uses it for its sharpness alone, but rather its color and bokeh. They come at a much higher price with it, but if that is what the market demands, that’s fine with me, the market should get it. I’m all for Canon making more money. When a new version of the 50mm f/1.2 comes out, I’ll bet most who own it will rush to buy the new one and slam the previous version they used to own…probably even that famous Victoria’s Secret photographer I’ve seen profiled on tv. He certainly uses the 50mm f/1.2, and also the 24-70 f/2.8. It’s about to be replaced very soon…

    But as far as f/1.4 50mm “ish” lenses go, I really don’t see anything beating the sharpness of the Nokton 58mm, especially not at f/1.4 TO THE CORNERS on a crop camera. Since I don’t own a full frame (yet), for all I know, the photozone test could even be atypical and the sharpness could severely fall off in the full-frame corners for the vast majority of copies…but I do doubt it. Mine is sharp to the crop corners, wide open. I’ve never seen that before on anything faster than f/2. And the vignetting at f/1.4 is difficult to notice, again unusual…but is probably related to why it’s also sharp in such a wide area.

    Prices should be compared here, why should they not? $445 is what I paid, and like I said, it’s sharper even than the “magic” 85mm f/1.2L was at f/1.4. And the 85 got quite soft towards the crop corners, with noticeable vignetting. At f/5.6 this “magic” copy I had the privilege of renting, was spectacularly sharp. It certainly also had some extreme color going on at the wider apertures. It’ll be fun to see what the next version of it is like!

    As far as any macro lens goes, I’m not sure it’s a completely fair comparison, because most macro lenses are inherently sharp. F/2 is a lot slower than f/1.4, though. And usually macro lenses take a lot longer to focus…both manually or auto…because they move more as they focus.

    I’m certainly not saying it would be better to buy a non-macro lens for doing macro work! But for doing portraiture, that’s a different story.

    I guess we all try to own what we like and will tend to knock the rest; it’s called being a fanboi on the net. I just try to back up my own opinion with more than just opinion. True that Photozone didn’t rate the Nokton lens the highest it has ever rated a lens, but I looked at their test results more than their overall rating. Their overall rating is pretty high though.

    This is all really kind of irrelevant, when it comes to taking great pictures. It’s easy to forget that. You and me, and 6 billion other people are doing photography now. Does that make you feel special? It makes me think I’ll probably move on to another creative outlet in years to come, but not until I feel a lack of inspiration that takes hold. Maybe I’ll never feel it, in which case the unending growth of competition could get frustrating. In the meantime I hope to increase my success, as does most everyone I’m sure.

  • You guys must get tired of always having to hold up the banner for true customer service… but all the same, don’t stop. 🙂 Thanks for the valuable info, plus the time and patience it took to do this.

  • JoJu

    Carl, I didn’t want to put you straight. Don’t spoil the impression you know a lot by giving inaccurate information. The Austrian period went from 1756 – 1849, 1840 they made the first camera and before optical instruments. In 1849 they moved to Germany, so most cameras and lenses were Made in Germany. Source of that so far unknown facts (to me) is wiki:

    Please don’t compare one lens to “some Zeiss’ in other focal lengths”, that makes not much sense. Even Zeiss has weak glass.

    And as for Photozone, check the rating of your Voigtländer and the Zeisss Macro 50/2. The question Roger tried to sort out was again only “the sharpest 50mm” not the one with the best price/resolution relation. It’s great you’re happy with your choice, I’m also grateful you brought Voigtländer to my attention (even when I’ll stick with my prejudice and feel confirmed, at least it got one full star less), but this test is not about “justice” or “the best 50mm” (because then I’d feel it necessary to compare prices again) 😉

  • Carl

    Michael, I’ve owned the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II, and I liked it a lot for the price (as do probably millions of other people). I was happy to sell it to a guy just before Christmas, and got nearly what I paid for it. Wide open it is definitely a bit soft but certainly usable. I mainly noticed severe vignetting with my copy, even on my crop camera. If a full-frame lens has very noticeable vignetting even on a crop camera, I reckon it must look like tunnel vision on a full frame!

    Closed down the f/1.8 is extremely sharp, even by f/3.5, at least on the crop camera. I found the bokeh fringing to be a bit pronounced and purple. Certainly the bokeh itself was quite fussy and not very smooth. But if you get the background soft-focused enough, you probably would never notice it. CA seemed very low.

    Also, manually focusing was tough with such a small ring. Everything I have said about the f/1.8 is basically also what all the pro reviews have observed.

    For the price the f/1.8 is a great lens, with colors neutral to maybe slightly warm in my opinion, which isn’t a bad thing.

    I just like my Voigtlander a whole lot more…the sharpness, the bokeh, the color, even the contrast and “dynamic range”, which is similar to the Zeiss lenses I have tried (albeit they were other focal lengths). And again, I am not someone who hasn’t tried/owned quite a few lenses already. The main drawback is the adapter ring (it’s a Nikon mount lens)…I am trying to make do with the cheaper one that still allows focus confirmation…the “pro” one costs 5x more. The focus confirmation works extremely well.

    I guess the ultimate camera to use the Nokton on would be the forthcoming Nikon D800, if it really does get the high MP sensor. Its pixels would be about the same size as the ones on my crop camera. But I’d rather have a Canon…

  • Carl

    Joachim…thanks for trying to set me straight…however….I try to only speak about what I know about (you admitted you know nothing about Cosina). After reading the test which was linked from this site…Lensrentals DOES indeed have this 58mm lens for rent…I bought one (even without renting it first!).

    The photozone test clearly shows its superiority in most respects, especially the resolution, distortion, CA, and vignetting tests…in other words, ALL of them…to most of the other lenses around 50mm. And it certainly blows everything else out of the water that is priced near it (or even nearly DOUBLE it)…including Canon’s 50mm f/1.4, and Sigma’s.

    And as far as sharpness goes, photozone’s test of Canon’s 50mm f/1.2 looked very, very soft to me. By comparison, it looked like you would only use the f/1.2 as an “art” lens, similar to Canon’s fabled 50mm f/1.0.

    I mean, as far as sharpness alone goes, the Nokton is basically as sharp as Canon’s 85mm f/1.2 “magic canonball”, which I have also rented…for about 1/4 the price. Just keep this between us, but my copy of the Nokton is actually sharper wide open than the copy of the 85mm I rented…it’s just above around f/4 that the resolution “magic” comes into the “canonball”.

    And I was fully aware that Cosina in Japan makes the lens; I assumed that was common knowledge (I even stated that in other threads). Also, a little perusal of the web will inform you that Voigtlander was actually Austrian, not German, and predated “cameras” by decades, in any case…I think even into the 1700’s. But that’s just the Voigtlander name, I realize of course…

    And again, the 58mm Nokton is actually closer to 54mm, so it’s NOT a 16% difference at all, but more like 8%. To my eyes, looking through the finder, it’s almost impossible to tell that objects apear slightly larger, than to the naked eye. Focusing close is different, but then it was on any 50mm I tried as well.

    The Nokton also blows away the Tamron 60mm macro in every way other than as a macro, and is a much faster aperture than the Canon f/2.8 60mm macro. So mentioning them is really not necessary here, is it?

  • I’d be very curious to see how the Canon 50 1.8 compares! I’m it’s a cheap lens, but aside from slow AF it give very nice results, especially when stopped down a tiny bit. And it’s definitely worth it from the price.

  • Branden

    Very interesting test, thanks.

    However, I think there is either a coloring or data error on the Zeiss 50 f/2 lens on the Nikon data table. The result number is equal to the best performer, but the box is colored yellow.

  • Joachim

    Carl, the Question was simply “what the sharpest 50mm was” 😉
    If focus length would not matter for about 16% more, then there would be not much reason to exclude several 40-60mm macros.
    Somewhere has to be a limit.
    Also, Voigtländer as manufacturer of lenses and cameras was finished in 1971. What one gets these days is a lens made by Cosina under a very old, in ancient times well reputated brand name. I think it has it’s reasons that some German manufacturers compete until today and have their niches in this market, others were less lucky. My opinion about bought brand names is not very high, to me it’s like sailing under false flag. Though, I don’t know the cosina products today and am not judging them.

  • Very interesting analysis. Well done! Thank you!

  • Carl

    You left out the 58mm Voigtlander f/1.4 Nokton. There is no justice in this world! I guess you didn’t want to embarrass most of the rest of them. I don’t care if it’s not exactly “50mm”…to my eyes it’s about the field of view of 54mm at infinity, and about 70mm at its closest focusing distance.

    The field of view of most of the lenses in this comparison also varies with focusing distance, by at least as much, so I really feel the 58mm Nokton should have been included!

    The bokeh probably isn’t what the f/1.2 is, but so what? It’s at least as good if not better than most…and they all exhibit “bokeh fringing” to a degree, which I find to be as big a factor as the overall bokeh “fussiness” anyway.

  • Ian

    Roger, thank you for acknowledging that you were only testing for one specific purpose and that there are qualities other than resolution that matter. If not, we’d all be shooting the 50 f/1.8 on our Canon’s and swearing that we had the best lens ever because DxOMark says it’s the sharpest! Interesting results, by the way and thank you for the test. Just one suggestion — one day you’ll have to find THE sharpest lens regardless of FL or brand/mount…

    Rohan, yes, the 50 f/1.2 is worth it if you love to shoot between 1.2 & 2.0 and are looking for better color, contrast, flare resistance, build quality and smoother bokeh than the 50 f/1.4. I finally made the expen$$$ive upgrade myself and love the lens.

  • Roger Cicala


    There’s no difference in the glass (or test results) at all: the numbers are the same, the variation only occurs because the Sigma is being compared to different lenses in the different tables.


  • Phil

    I’m curious about the differences between the Canon and Nikon versions of the Sigma 50.

    I had always assumed that they would have the same elements, and that the differences would be in the electronics and motors to focus them. Is this correct, or are there differences in the glass as well?

  • Joachim

    Sorry, was too lazy to check before: meant the D800, not the D4

  • Joachim

    This AA filter thing makes me a bit curious: in case Nikon releases really, as rumoured, two versions of a D4 with and without this filter element, that (the filterless verison) would change the results a bit, I think? Okay, in real life there’s this advantage of the filterless M9 and DSLR users have to ask experts for modification, because they want to shoot infrared as well.
    But would it be worth to give up the sensor’s protection layer for gaining maybe 10% more resolution?

  • Roger Cicala

    We only have one HotRod 7D, but it got too banged up for us to rent it so it’a just an in-house test camera now.

  • Christoph Breitkopf

    Interesting task, getting these results in such limited time. And those people sure do have special needs.

    Apart from what you already stated several times (only sharpness tested), I think that for most photographers, any 50mm prime will likely be good enough and you’ll be hard pressed to find differences in real images when stopped down a bit. Wide open, you’ll see differences, of course, but even then – how many of your photos shot wide open really do need sharp corners?

    As a Nikon guy, I’m astonished that you were expecting good results from the 1.2/50 – I never found that spectacular, and have not heard any such reports either. Not that it’s much worse than the 1.4 – just not better either. I don’t own a Noct, but I don’t expect this to be better in pure sharpness. My personal Nikon tips would be 2.0/50 for best center sharpness (but bad corners and lots of distortion for a 50), and 1.8/50 for overall sharpness.

  • Nils Schmidt

    Hi Roger,
    thank you very much for your efforts! I really like reading your blog!

    I’m more interested in stills but for cine-type use the NEX 7 should be the ideal testbed, because of sensor size and sensor resolution. Even better you could test sooo much more lenses on this camera! 😉 You should really consider the Leica R lenses (especially late Summilux), the aforementioned Summarit 50, the Zeiss Planar 50 F1.7, Zeiss Planar 45 F2 (Contax G), the Voigtländer Nokton 58 F1.4, the Sony 50 F1.4 for Sony shooters like me, all those 50mm macro lenses (Sony, Sigma, Canon, maybe Leica Elmarit R 60) and perhaps the Voigtländer Color Skopar 50 F2.5 because slow lenses can be really sharp.

    Furthermore it would be interesting to compare MTF50 values to something like MTF75 or even MTF80 values. One reason is that 1080p and maybe even 4k is totally outresolved by all 50mm lenses at probably F2 except for the corners, and pure resolution is more or less uninteresting for stills photography as well. The most interesting part of this comparison would be to check if the “myth” of Zeiss lenses being more contrasty but less high resolving than most other lenses is true. If it is, they should fare much better compared to the other lenses at MTF80. Getting these numbers should be easy because you don’t need different test shots.

    Personally I would also be interested in results at F5.6 because I am searching for a 50mm that is perfect border to border between F4 and F5.6 with good corners and low distortion at infinity. I found that corner and even border performance of many 50s improves up to F8 but that is to slow for me because I need shutter speeds of 1/1000 or faster. That is hard to achieve with ISO 100 slide film even on sunny winter days or ISO 400 with my Sony a900 in bad daylight.

    My last concern is about the M9 results. Especially the Summilux should outresolve the sensor. Your numbers COULD be wrong due to aliasing. The NEX 7 should solve that problem.
    I think you really have to do this all again! 😉 I’m curious!


  • Jason

    What!?!? You left out the 50mm 1.8. At least give the little guy a shot! It would be interesting to see where it comes in.

  • J

    You have Hot Rod 7Ds? I thought I saw these available for rent a while back but recently called to see if they were available and got a “No.” Hmm… details? Would love to rent.

  • Great stuff Roger. This article cannot be any more timely for me.

    From a Canon guy standpoint, I have a 50 mm f/1.4 that I been using. It’s right now listed on Amazon and Craigslist since I am contemplating upgrading to the 50 mm f/1.2. I shoot on a 5D. Someone just tell me that I’ll love the 1.2 version. I love shooting at 50mm focal length 🙂

    Happy new year everyone! Happy shooting!

  • Roger Cicala

    I would have except we were limiting to full frame coverage (well except the cine) and I don’t have an OM version of the Oly macro, or a Leica 50 f2.5. Would have been fun, though. I did just totally forget two lenses that would have qualified, though: the Leica 50 f/2.5 summarit and the Nikon 50 f/1.8. Just plain forgot them.


  • Roger Cicala

    Thank you, and my pleasure. BTW#1 – Tyler has permanently mounted it to his wall and I think has it alarmed. I’ll never get it. BTW#2 = best comment of the year! 🙂

  • Scott M.

    You love your job and it shows. Thank you so much for doing what you do! This sounds like an event I would have loved to have been a part of. Any time you get the opportunity to throw something out of the blue against the wall and see if your right is a good stuff. I have already shared this with several other fellow photographers.

  • intrnst

    Good test, interesting results, nice reading.

    Thanks again

    BTW1: With this article did you managed to get that beautiful signed picture, as yours, already?

    BTW2: What do the numbers mean anyway?

  • I’d put a 4 day rental bet, that the leica 50mm f2.5 at that aperture kicks most of the competition out of the water.

  • Mark Olwick

    Great test, Roger. I’m surprised you didn’t test the Olympus 50/2 macro, one of the sharpest lenses made. Would be interesting to see how it compares.


  • A

    Thankyou for another interesting article Roger; a great start to 2012!

    Happy New Year!

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