I own a few odd-ball prime lenses that hover around the 50mm-ish lens length, and offer some unique bokeh, making them interesting choices for portrait photography. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term “bokeh”, its the out of focus area in the image, or rather the quality or look there-of. For many this is very subjective – one person’s AWESOME bokeh is another’s busy, fussy background.
The 6 lenses I wanted to compare side-by-side are:
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8D (the workhorse of 50mm primes and the only autofocus lens out of the bunch)
- Nikkor SC 50mm f/1.4
- Zenit Helios 58mm f/2.0 M44-2 (M42 screw mount with Nikon F Adapter)
- Lensbaby Twist 60mm f/2.5
- Lensbaby SOL 45mm f/3.5
- Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8 (Pentacon Six mount with Nikon F Adapter)
To be fair, the Zeiss is longer than 50mm but is considered to be @50mm on medium format and is an interesting and different prime choice if you are looking for something other than the standard 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.
Not having a model around, but yet wanting to make a direct comparison, I picked my Grumpy Cat (RIP) doll to pose for our adventures in bokeh. Grumpy Cat has been affixed to a tripod in front of my blooming Bradford Pear tree. I know, I know. Bradford Pears are bad for the environment and I feel bad for having it. But it was planted nearly 20 years ago and has grown large enough to offer a lot of shade in the front yard and driveway. Maybe someday I can bring myself to tear it out. We’ll see.
I did my best to approximate the same distance from subject unless the lens minimal focal distance prevented that, and shot all of them wide open at their largest aperture. No adjustments made during import to lightroom other than selecting “Camera Standard” color profile. Camera was on “Daylight” balance with some diffused sunlight while shooting, in A mode. All of these were shot within moments of each other so the light was fairly consistent. I used a Nikon D810 full-frame body to shoot the images.
First, here are all 6 side by side so you can flip thru to compare:
The first thing that stands out is how differently color is rendered between the 6 lenses when you view the gallery as a whole. The Nikkor SC 50mm is the warmest in tones, followed by the Lensbaby Twist 60mm for a close second. The Lensbaby SOL 45mm is the coolest, followed closely by the Zeiss lens. The tried and true Nikon 50mm f/1.8D is somewhere right in the middle, as is the Zenit Helios.
From a sharpness standpoint, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D is probably the best out of the bunch, with the Lensbaby Twist 60mm and Zeiss Jena 80mm close second and third, with the Zenit Helios 68mm and Lensbaby SOL 45mm probably being even in the worst category.
The Nikon 50mm f/1.8D is also probably the most “vanilla” in terms of background bokeh. It’s definitely out of focus and has some nice “bokeh balls” quality to it.
The craziest of the bunch is, not unexpectedly, the Lensbaby SOL 45mm with its tilt feature. I tilted it when shooting so that Grumpy Cat’s face was mostly in focus, but even parts of his paws and top of his head are soft, with the rest of the background nearly exploding into bokeh.
The Zenit Helios and the Lensbaby Twist both have that iconic football-shaped bokeh balls, and good subject to background separation. This is the look a lot of people are going for when looking at way more expensive “Bokeh Monster” lenses like the Petzval series.
To me, the most pleasing look is the Zeiss bokeh with its quick fall-off and great separation. But I know that’s not for everyone.
The least pleasing to me is the Nikkor SC 50mm f/1.4. The background bokeh almost is “nervous”, for lack of a better term. I do like how warm it is though.
Based on sharpness, bokeh, and overall performance the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D is still a fine choice that gives you autofocus to nail that shot every time. But if you are looking for some real interesting out-of-focus area, its worth taking a look at the Lensbaby Twist 60mm that offers a great look and good sharpness.
All of the above lenses can be had fairly cheaply if you shop around for a bit. The two more expensive options would be the Helios and the Zeiss since you have to get additional adapters to make them work on a Nikon F mount. Beware any Helios lenses that have been adapted by surgically removing the screw mount and installing an F mount. These can be problematic at infinity as the rear element may protrude into the path of the mirror in the camera body.
So what do you think?
Which one do you like the best and why?
Thanks for reading,
About the Author
Jeremy Mudd is an award-winning and published photographer based in Dayton, Ohio. Some of his favorite photography subjects are wildlife, landscapes, people, and events, and he especially enjoys photographing theatrical performances. For more of Jeremy’s work, make sure to visit his website and give him a follow on Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.