White Label Chinese 50mm f1.1 v Brightin Star 50mm f0.95 v Minolta 58mm f1.2
In the beginning, fast lenses were needed to gather light to quicken exposure times, freeing photographers to shoot spontaneously – to move, and to capture motion. Faster lenses enabled them to work in darker environments and use higher quality, less sensitive film. ‘The Look’ was secondary. In fact, shooting on larger formats, fast lenses are more nuisance than a benefit: it’s difficult to get all your subject in focus, and it’s too late to regret your mistakes after the film is developed.
In the digital era, however, we have instant feedback. And we’ve been liberated by grainless high ISO performance and image stabilisation. We don’t need fast lenses any more – but we still want them. Partly because we’ve not reached the ultimate limit of being able to freeze a hummingbird’s wings in pitch darkness without a flash – the affordable, hand-holdable 20-1200mm fixed aperture f1.0 lens is yet to reach the market. But partly because of ‘The Look’.
Not long ago, the 35mm format was sneered at by many professionals: the equivalent of a cameraphone: acceptable for snaps. Now, we call it ‘full-frame’: for some, it’s the digital Gold Standard. But the smaller the imaging area the more the camera wants to render everything in focus. This is a problem for photographers, who need precise control of rendition: a sharply definable focal plane that can be wielded like a scalpel rather than a blunt instrument.
And then there is ‘The Look’. Fast lenses are now cheap and therefore drop-focus imagery is commonplace – so much so, that many taste-makers are pushing back against it. And yet, most consumers of images in the early 2020s still perceive it as ‘expensive’. Brides pay extra for it.
Whether (and when) ultra shallow depth of field is wise is a topic for another day – in fact a book – but in summary we can say that the degree to which a subject should be isolated from its background depends completely on context and intent. But to have the capability of control – to be able to choose how much of the background to include – will always be desirable. You can’t have a lens too fast.
Similarly, a larger maximum aperture improves peak performance. Lenses tend to reach their highest Zone A resolution two stops down from wide open. Getting there at f2.8 gives you a wider range of uncompromised performance before diffraction takes hold than a lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8, which may not fully come on song until f4 or f5.6. Also, lenses are rarely free of optical vignetting and uncomfortable bokeh effects at their maximum aperture. An f1.2 lens gets all that out of its system by f2, and will usually have a sweeter rendition between f2-f2.8 than a lens that maxes out at f2.8. The principle is similar to the behaviour of a supercar at 100mph versus a standard saloon: they’re both travelling at 100mph, but the performance reserve of the more capable vehicle makes it safer and more comfortable at that speed.
The desirability goes hand in hand with cost: faster lenses are bigger, harder to make, and more expensive to buy. Even if no-one wanted them, they would still be costly – more so, because of economies of scale. As it is, a manufacturer can always guarantee a market for a fast lens. Enduringly so, when we consider how well old, fast lenses retain their value.
At the pivotal 50mm focal length we have the widest choice: thousands of f1.7-f2.8 lenses and hundreds of f1.4 options, but mere dozens at f1.2 and faster. Approaching f1.0 they become shrouded in a mystique not conferred on slower lenses. They acquire monikers: Canon’s f0.95 ‘Dream Lens’ occupies the same enshrined headspace as Noctilux and Nikon’s Noct. I christened my Canon 85/1.2 L ‘The Goldfish Bowl’ – but we digress. All these lenses are relatively expensive.
Skimming eBay, we find the bottom rung of the ladder occupied by the common Nikon 50mm and 55mm f1.2 AI and AIS lenses from around £175 in useable condition – none younger than half a century old. Olympus and Pentax made something similar. There are Porst, Reveunon and Tomioka variants for M42 – all typically fetching upwards of £200. Canon’s f1.2 L, discontinued in 20XX, is still valued at £500+. Contemporary lenses built for mirrorless, with larger diameter mounts, are uniformly superior and disproportionately more expensive – often exceeding £2000. Stirred into this mix, a number of Chinese manufacturers are remaking ‘classic’ fast 50s with modern coatings and production methods. Many are excellent. Some now cost almost £1000. Others can be had for as little as £150.
Photographers and videographers who stop and think about it for long enough always end up owning several 50mm lenses. You need at least three: a modern native one for speedy autofocus (the faster the better); an adapted one for a vintage look (the faster the better); and a macro (ideally with movements). Personally, I’m content to have a sharp, well corrected native AF lens with a moderately large aperture (f1.8 is fine) as long as I can pair it with an f1.0 lens when I really need to isolate the subject or work in the dark. In these situations, I rarely use (or need) AF. In the future, when the technology is 100% reliable, maybe.
Two years ago I bought a Brightin Star 50mm f0.95, which I’ve found acceptable. It’s not a particularly sharp lens at any aperture, but sharpness is increasingly unimportant as you climb the ISO ladder. It doesn’t compare by any metric to the Sigma 35/1.2, for instance. But it’s hugely cheaper, it gathers more light, and it has ‘The Look’ – adequate contrast, pretty sunstars and heavily blitzed bokeh. It’s soft but it doesn’t glow, which makes it flattering, though not highly resolving. Given the luxury of choice which isn’t always permitted in the fast-moving environment of a documentary or event cameraman, I would always use a native (or Sigma Art / Tamron SP) lens to shoot at f2.8 (even f2), so all I ask of this lens is to render well at f1.0-f1.4.
Many years ago I had a Minolta 58mm f1.2 – a lens whose distinctive and appealing style is not easily forgotten: wide open, all subtle glow, bubbles and cream; smooth as silk at f2 and sharp as steel at f4. Now shooting cross-platform with GFX, 35mm and M43, the better vintage Rokkor lenses are triply useful – with large enough image circles to cover 45×33, and Speed-Boostable or directly adaptable for M43.
Comparably cross-platform compatible, a Chinese-made 50mm f1.1 available in Leica M-mount demonstrably has the spec and ‘The Look’: minimal glow and very smooth bokeh. The same lens is known as Mr Ding v1.0 (somewhat evolved into later versions, but not fundamentally altered), Artalabs, Syoptic, Vlogmagic, DI Optical or even unlabeled.
This trio is distinguished by being a cheap way to get an expensive look: the 50/1.1 is £160 new; the Minolta 58/1.2 is around £250 used, and the Brightin Star 50/0.95 is £395. Why these three of all available options? The 50/1.1 makes its case by simply being cheaper than the alternatives: it has a 50% head start for value. Of all the vintage options (many of which I’ve tried or owned), the Konica Hexanon 57/1.2 and Minolta 58/1.2 stand tallest: the Konica has nicer bokeh, but not such rich colours or pretty sunstars – and it doesn’t cover GFX. Of the better Chinese options, the Brightin Star is the most complex design at this price point and has proven to be useful. Going upmarket, I would be looking at the Voigtlanders, Laowa Argus 45, TT Artisan f0.95 and a used Canon L – but that’s a test for another day. Separated by as wide a gulf again would be a test of current mirrorless 50/1.2 lenses – much better optically; much more expensive.
White Label 50mm f1.1
Construction: 6 Groups / sometimes given as 7 or 8 elements
Diaphragm: Sometimes given as 10, 11 or 12 blades. This sample X
Mount: Leica M (adapted to GFX and Nikon Z)
Minolta 58mm f1.2
Construction: 7-Element / 5-Group
Diaphragm: 8-Blade (Curved)
Manufacture: MC Rokkor PG (Knurled metal ring, Thoriated: 1996-1972 [#2004860-2576349) / MC Rokkor PG (Rubber ring [#2587080-2600885 ] / MC Rokkor (not marked PG): [#2747410-2770060]
Brightin Star 50mm f0.95
Construction: 10-Element / 9-Group
Diaphragm: 10-Blade (Straight, with subtle convex curve)
Mount: Panasonic L, Nikkor Z