I have a little lens which has worked its way into a lot of people’s hearts. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 Leica Thread Mount (LTM), Type 1, is a small rangefinder lens produced in the era of Barnack Leica cameras. It has gained quite a reputation amongst Leica shooters, LTM thread camera shooters and others adapting to mirrorless digital cameras.
I have always been intrigued by the world of more open lens mounts in the first half of the 20th century. Manufacturers back then did not think anything of making cameras and accessories without trying to lock the customer base into a system. That is apart from Kodak that was constantly changing film formats.
The Canon 50mm came to me when I was looking for a lens to match up to a recently purchased Leica IIIf. I wanted something of a higher quality, but not necessarily paying for another Leica lens as I am mainly an M-mount shooter and have a compliment of lenses already.
This lens fits nicely between the spectacular artistic results of the Jupiter 8 (reviewed previously here) and the top end Leica and Carl Zeiss lenses.
What I did not expect is that this lens would become a lens I really enjoyed using. It is small, and on a digital camera it also very clear through the viewfinder.
But why am I calling this review “mainly at night”? It is because I have been traveling for work a lot lately and my time to shoot has been a bit limited, so I decided to use the Canon 50mm in the evenings. This is after the first time I used it in the Leica IIIf and I found out the camera had pinholes in the shutter curtain!
For this review, the lens has been mounted on a Leica M2, a Panasonic GX7 Micro 4/3 camera and the said Leica IIIf with the pinhole light leaks.
Canon, originally called Seiki-Kōgaku Kenkyusho (精機光学研究所), was formed in 1933 in Roppongi, Tokyo. The name meant “Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory”. Initially Canon had a very close relationship with Nippon Kōgaku (Nikon), who supplied lenses for the cameras which Canon manufactured. The Nikkor 5cm f/3.5 lens was commonly seen on the Hansa Kwanon (Canon), which also had its rangefinder manufactured by Nikon.
The Hansa Canon was launched in 1936. It was not until the late 1940s that Canon started to manufacture their own lenses, after World War 2. Initially the lenses were labeled Serenar. This caused some confusion to customers as they were looking for a Precision Optical camera and a Serenar lens. So in the early 1950s the company and branding was changed to Canon.
During the transition it was not uncommon to find lenses with both branding on them, so that the company did not waste expensive material. The first 50mm f/1.8 LTM appeared in 1951, which was still branded Serenar. Progressively new models of this rigid configuration normal lens were produced until 1958. There are further models, but specifically this review relates to the f/1.8 aperture version.
The copy in this article is referred to as a Type 1, as they initially came in an all chrome configuration. This was evolved over time to where the black and chrome versions were also released.
The Canon 50mm f/1.8 LTM referred to as Type 1 is an all chrome rangefinder lens, produced by Canon to fit Leica Thread Mount, 39mm, lens mount cameras. This lens was designed by one of Canon’s legendary designers, Hiroshi Ito. Manufacturing of this lens was during the 1950s.
It is a double-gaussian design, which just for interest, is also the basis for the famous Zeiss Biotar which then led to the Planar. It is constructed with six elements in four groups.
The aperture range is from f/1.8 through to f/16. Aperture is controlled by a ring towards the front of the lens, which clicks into stops. Ten aperture blades are used on this lens.
Closest focusing distance is one metre, with a three quarter throw to infinity. Focus is adjusted by the ring closest to the camera. An infinity lock is located on the right side of the lens, which automatically locks in when you focus to infinity.
The Canon 50mm f/1.8 was usually provided with the Canon rangefinder and usually had a really nice sets of chrome lens caps, which I am happy to say I have got.
For interest of classic lens users, the photos of the lens in this review were taken with a Minolta MD mount Sigma 28mm f/2.8 Mini Wide II mounted with an adapter on a Panasonic GX7 Micro 4/3 camera.
I went searching for a LTM lens when I ordered a Leica IIIf by accident. It was not really by accident, but it was an impulse buy due a fairly good price. Little did I know there was a reason it was a good price, and I broke one of my pretty consistent rules due to the excitement and did not try it out right away with a roll of film.
I soon found myself searching for a Canon 50mm f/1.8 due to the great reviews, size, great looks and the results being posted online. This was harder than I thought as pretty much all the ones I found for sale had either haze, fungus, or something else wrong. Sometimes all of the faults.
I eventually came across a described clean copy from a Japanese seller. I have had very good luck with sellers from Japan, so I ordered it knowing it is a safe bet with the eBay coverage. When it arrived I was over the moon, this was in exceptional condition. Very clear and not a trace of any defects on the glass.
When I got a chance I mounted the lens on the Leica IIIf, loaded some Fujifilm Industrial 400 and headed out. The film was shot and sent to the lab, and to say I was surprised when I picked it up is an understatement. I saw the markings on the film and thought something had gone wrong in processing.
The lab technician happened to be serving me and I asked him what he thought it was. He said it looked like light leaks and he had thought it was something I had done on purpose creatively. It took me a while to work out what had happened, but then it dawned on me. The Leica, I had never tested it out.
Sure enough, pinhole leaks in the shutter curtain, and in fact it looked like it had been “repaired” with some paint. How did I not look at this, considering the high standard I try keep my purchases? Nevertheless, I will need to send it for repairs.
What I did see though, is that this lens is sharp. It has a really great and distinctive look to it. Even through the light leaks (which on a few I actually like, lomography on a Leica!). So I put on my L39 to Leica M adapter and mounted the lens onto the M2.
I have recently had a heavy travel schedule between Sydney and Auckland, which has not given me much time to shoot. I also noticed all the reviews of this lens were always in light and with bokeh. With that in mind, I thought I would try and use the lens during my spare evenings in Auckland. This way I may produce something different.
The Canon lens won me over with its usability with all aspects of it. Easy focus throw, aperture selection and diminutive size. What did not gel with me though, is the infinity focus lock. I am not sure why it is there and only annoying when trying to quickly focus.
Shooting Kodak T-Max P3200, I knew it would be grainy but also how well this film works, especially how well it responds to overexposure (which technically its native speed is really about ISO 1000). The results confirmed what I had felt about this lens. It renders very distinctly, but is very sharp.
The corners lose a bit of sharpness, especially at the wider apertures, but the fall off is not huge. As per most lenses, it corrects beyond f/4 and is sharp across the whole frame.
Contrast is a little on the low side, but exactly what I would expect of a lens of this vintage. It has nice separation between the focused subject and the background. Vignetting is not very apparent, but having used it on light leaked film and black and white, I was not expecting to see much.
My next trip I mounted the lens onto my Micro 4/3 camera the Panasonic GX7. With the adapter, it does make it a bit bigger, but not overly so. By using it on Micro 4/3 it does mean that the photos are all shot through the centre, and thus, the sharpest and corrected part of the lens.
I found it hard, as it effectively became a 100mm lens, making it a challenge on the street. What I did like though, is the results were very pleasing, as even on this format it shines though. Even chromatic aberrations are kept under a good control and that is on a lens without coating.
The one thing I did not do too much of is bokeh, as this is not my thing, but where it was captured, I find it has a pleasing bokeh. No strange balls or shapes, but more of a nice graduation.
The tiny Canon 50mm f/1.8 LTM lens has won me over. I find that I enjoy it as much as a Summicron. It is small, light, attractive, great to use (infinity lock aside) and produces results way above its pay grade. They are not overly expensive, but it does take some efforts to find one without haze. If you do find one like that, buy it. That is my final recommendation, you really would enjoy it.
Bill Smith, of Classic Camera Revival fame alerted me to a time he used a Canon 50mm f/1.8 LTM lens, it is quite a nice read on a user rather than a technical reviewer.
Steve Huff has a good overview of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 LTM lens here, but you need to scroll down quite a bit to get to it.