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Lens Comparison: Sony SEL 50mm f/1.8 OS vs Canon 50mm f/1.2 LTM

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Attar a rather long(ish) hiatus due to work and family situation, I am back with a new lens comparison. Today we are going to take a look at two, very different, yet pretty exciting in their own ways, 50mm lenses - the rangefinder classic (or arcaic depending on who you ask) Canon 50/1.2 LTM and Sony\'s modern 50/1.8 OS.

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Canon\'s RF lenses date back to 1950s, the golden era of rangefinders. Canon produced a total of 8 (!) different designs of the 50mm classic lens before exiting the rangefinder world in late 60s. The most notable designs include the fastest 50mm of its time 50/0.95, the pre-war Zeiss Sonnar copy 50/1.5 and the 50/1.2 - the lens people \'love to hate\'. I owned Canon LTM 50/1.2 for a brief period back in the ole film days but did not use it much and ultimately sold it along with the rest of my rangefinder gear. The popularity of this lens peaked around 70s and has been in the decline since then. These days the lens has become more of a niche play - there is a good reason for that: modern optics have far exceeded the capabilities of this glass, in pretty much every dimension. Then there\'s the obvious issue of the Internet noise - there\'s quite a large and very opinionated group of users which outright hate this lens, claiming that it is soft at wide apertures, has low contrast, produced significant glare, etc. etc. etc. All this obviously also deters the would-be users from trying out the Canon LTM - despite the niche designation (or perhaps because of it), Canon 50/1.2 has managed to retain its value over the years, with most \'decent\' quality copies selling for upwards of $600 these days. Add to that a LTM to M adapter and an M to NEX adapter (if you plan to use it on Sony NEX camera) and you\'re looking at an extra $100-$150 in expenses. Compare that to the modern Sony 50/1.8 OSS with the price of $275 - no woder that an average user would never even look twice at the Canon lens.

I picked up a copy of Canon 50/1.2 purely on a whim, not that I was thinking I\'d be using it more frequently this time around, but more because I wanted to compare it to a couple of other 50mm lenses. As I mentioned earlier, the prices for this lens are quite stable these days, so I did not expect to loose much money when I finally decided to sell it. The comparison with Sony E 50/1.8 OSS is also kind of random - I\'ve been using these two lenses side by side for a few weeks and just decided to write my observations. Ultimately though, I\'d want to compare the 50/1.2 to other rangefinder lenses, both modern and classic - if you have not done so already, take a look at the Alternative 50mm for NEX article to get an idea of what to expect down the road. 

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Sony 50/1.8 @ f/2 vs Canon 50/1.2 LTM @ f/2

OK. If we set aside the price difference, how do these two lenses stack up against each other across different dimensions? Let\'s start with resolution. Sony 50/1.8 is pretty darn sharp at all apertures. I did a quick comparison of this lens against one of my most favorite 50mm lenses, Zeiss Planar 50/2 ZM and Sony did hold up quite well in these tests. There\'s the usual softness around borders at wider apertures, but it is not particularly bad, just what I\'d call about average for this class of lenses. But what about Canon? The major surprise here is that this 30+ year old lens does not fall much behind, at least visually (no MTF chart for the moment) - starting at f/2, center image quality is as good as Sony\'s, although border continue to be softer until f/4 or so. Take a look at the center crops below, both done at f/2 and at the infinity. As we move closer to MFD, Sony\'s lens retains quality slightly better than Canon, which at MFD is noticeably softer. But what about f/1.2? Sony obviously doesn\'t go that wide, but is there anything that would prevent you from shooting Canon wide open? Well, those of you looking for absolute sharpness will be disappointed, since Canon is indeed softer still, and does not carry the same level of definition as some modern high end lenses from Zeiss and Leica do (plus the shallow DOF at f/1.2 throws us the usual curve-ball, making focusing accurately much harder). Still, at f/1.4 Canon\'s image quality is reasonably good (with the usual caveat that there is a falloff in sharpness around edges) and I\'d even claim that it\'s slightly better than what I\'ve seen from some other fast 50mm lenses of that era - certainly better sharpness than Leica\'s Summarit 50/1.5, Jupiter-3 50/1.5 (a Contax Sonnar knock-off) offer, and is about on par to Nikkor SC 50/1.4. Of course, YMMV because of the huge variance in quality/calibration of such old lenses.

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Canon 50mm f/1.2 LTM @ f/1.2

Fortunately, if you are reading this review, sharpness, most likely, is not the main consideration for you (and if I\'m wrong, stop reading this post, and just buy Sony\'s lens). I suspect that most readers would be evaluating Canon 50/1.2 LTM for the same reasons I did - the character wide open. And when I say character, I mean the rendering style. Canon 50/1.2 LTM certainly does not lack in this department. This is not a super contrasty lens, particularly wide open, but it is not a low contrast lens either -.certainly not as low contrast as Leica\'s old Summar 50/2, Summitar 50/2 or Summarit 50/1.5. Micro-contrast is also moderate, which is what you\'d ultimately want in a portrait type lens. Also, considering that one of the main use cases for this lens is low light photography, contrast levels should not really be the primary concern to many users. Stopping down the lens boosts up contrast and somewhere around f/2.8-f/4 Canon 50/1.2 becomes your average 50mm prime. Sony\'s lens does not seem to be much different in this department - moderate micro-contrast and moderate (at wider apertures) to high (at lower apertures) global contrast. 

The two lenses are, however, quite different in color rendering styles, with Canon being a much warmer lens than Sony. It seems that Canon shifts color balace a bit more towards reds, while Sony has a tendency of emphasizing greens a bit more. The outcome is that Sony\'s images are looking a bit more natural straight out of camera. Users in online forums speculate that Canon used rare earth elements in coating the lens, which can explain the warmness of the color - other \'rare earth\' lenses like Russian Industar 61Л/Д 50/2.8 and early versions of collapsible Summicron 50/2 do shift color gamut towards warmer wavelengths (yellow and red) so I would not completely rule out the claims about the Canon glass. Both lenses do show some lateral CA at wider apertures - you can easily notice it in the 100% crops above. You\'d need to stop the lenses down to about f/4 to reduce CA levels to levels that are less noticeable.

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Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS @ f/1.8

Another area where these lenses differ is the OOF rendering, or bokeh. Unfortunately, Canon\'s MFD of 3.5ft (1m) plays against the lens to some extent. Granted, you would not be shooting portraits at ~15\" (39cm), which is how close Sony\'s 50mm lens can get you to, but 3.5ft is still a hindrance in my books, particularly on an APS-C sensor - I routinely find myself stepping away from my subject in order to be able to focus Canon, which is kind of annoying. But where was I? Oh yes, the bokeh - Canon\'s bokeh can feel somewhat harsh sometimes, for the most part due to double-lining in the OOF areas, which indicate that the designers probably over-corrected for spherical aberration. Sony\'s bokeh rendering is much more neutral in this regard and would probably feel a bit more pleasant to most users. Plus since Sony allows you to get much closer to the subject, your OOF areas would feel more blended in than Canon\'s.

Ultimately though, I can\'t fault Canon\'s lens too much here - for a 50 something year old lens, it performs remarkably well. Lately, I have even found myself using it more frequently than the Sony 50/1.8. Perhaps this is just a thing of novelty, but I do enjoy overall feel of Canon\'s lens. One major issue that would be users of Canon 50/1.2 LTM lens have to keep in mind is that this lens has a protruding front element and so most regular filters would end up touching/scratching it. Canon made a special set of filters for this lens but these have become quite rare these days. For most users though, I would continue to recommend getting a Sony lens - it\'s much more suitable for day to day use and is no slouch itself.

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