For most modern photographers, the thought of shooting a vintage prime instead of a new autofocus lens is a non-starter. If this applies to you, do you think you could tell the difference in a blind comparison? I would be willing to bet not.
In this article, I am going to present a series of side-by-side comparisons of photographs taken on one of two lenses: the $1,000 Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 and a $50 Nikon 50mm f/2 Ai. Given that the two lenses have different focal lengths, simply changing out the lens while the camera was mounted on a tripod wouldn’t work. As such, all of the comparisons were made of the same vantages but taking steps forward or backward and left or right. The result is that the Sony 55mm lens isn’t simply the same image with a smaller viewing angle; instead, the images will be similar but differ just enough to not have the viewing angle give them away. Further, for each comparison, there will be a slider comparison of the whole image and then a second slider comparison of the exact same cropped section of the frame. Given that each of the comparisons will differ slightly in the framing, the cropped section will come from the exact same part of the frame but will have different content inside the crop. In addition, the edits were the same between the two lenses. For further consistency, the ISO for each comparison was the same, as was the aperture. I manually focused the Sony Zeiss lens in order to ensure focus for both lenses was made on the same subject. All landscape photos were taken on the same day in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. All images for this article were taken with a Sony a7R II.
Lastly, all images from the new Sony Zeiss lens are one side of all the slider comparisons and the vintage Nikon lens are on the other. In order to keep it blind, I’ll refrain from sharing which is which until the end of the article.
For the first comparison, we have a view down the middle of the gorge between Cedar Falls and Lower Falls. As you can see from this initial comparison, both lenses handle the situation well and resolve a lot of detail. Looking at the crops, the level of detail from both lenses is fantastic, as can be seen from the smaller branches. That is, the finest details that can be seen from even the smallest branches visible in the frame show very nice and crisp details.
For the second comparison, we have one of my favorite scenes in the whole park. The enormity of the rock on the left of the frame cannot be expressed in one singular photograph. It’s a gorgeous scene wherever you stand, and the more you walk around it, the more beautiful it is. Anyhow, much like what we saw in the first comparison, the level of detail is very similar between the two lenses. The crop is from the upper left of the frame, and though it really starts to get close enough to the corner, both lenses demonstrate a high level of sharpness.
For the third comparison, the comparisons should start to seem to have some consistent results. You’ll see in this comparison, much like the ones above it, that the level of detail is similarly high from both lenses. Even on the cropped comparisons, the level of detail is impressive from both lenses.
Much like the second comparison, this is one of my favorite scenes of the park. Without a relatively wide lens, the enormity of the rocks and trees cannot be conveyed. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this fourth comparison demonstrates much of the same results as the first three.
The fifth comparison unfortunately seems to have done a better job testing the dynamic range of my camera more than it did the sharpness of the lenses. As you can see, the brightest part of the snow on the waterfall was a bit blown out, and that’s okay. There is still a lot of detail that can be observed in the trees, and both lenses performed similarly well.
The sixth and final landscape comparison is again one of my favorites that just does not do justice to the size of the scene. And once again, you’ll see that the level of detail is impressive on both lenses. The crops illustrate this point very well.
In order to provide at least one portrait, the seventh and final comparison is a photograph of my partner. Both lenses were shot wide open to illustrate the depth of field of both lenses. Personally, I think that both lenses perform admirably well. The level of detail is good for both lenses. Similarly, both lenses did a pleasant job at blurring out the background. In order to not upset my partner by showing very close-up crops of her face, I’ll refrain from the close-up comparisons.
This series of comparisons illustrates the strengths of both lenses for landscape photography. As you may recall from a previous article I wrote, I am a firm believer that vintage primes are underrated lenses, which generally pack a lot of value into a relatively small and inexpensive package. As such, particularly when it comes down to landscape photography, vintage primes deserve some love too.
So, for the big reveal, if you haven’t guessed it: the new Sony 55mm is on the left side of all comparisons and the vintage Nikon 50mm is on the right side.
If you’re a landscape photographer and want to get a selection of prime lenses, I hope that this comparison illustrates that vintage primes are a great place to start. Sure, the best coatings are generally going to come from the newest lenses, but don’t discount the vintage stuff. If you’re doing a decent amount of portrait work, the autofocus abilities of new lenses could really be helpful.