This is part of “My Favourite Lenses” series, which I write from time to time.
People often ask me what my favourite manual focus lens is, and I hesitate to answer, because there are so many fantastic lenses that I have used and liked. I tend to rate the lens by the kind of rendering, or characteristics that they produce, rather than sharpness, the sole criteria so many people are after. But there are some lenses that produces beautiful results, and it’s sharp with good contrast, wide open.
It’s much easier to make a lens sharp at its maximum aperture now than before, as technology has progressed in leaps and bounds. We now have computers that can simulate and ray trace lens designs almost in real time, not to mention the exotic glass types that are now available, but in the olden days, designing a lens would take years. The Sigma Art 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.4, Zeiss Octus 55mm f1.4, etc, are all exceptionally sharp lenses wide open. Even the Sony FE 55mm f1.8 is extremely sharp. But, all these lenses come at a price, literally; they are very expensive, especially the Octus, which could set you back a cool $4000 USD, and it doesn’t even autofocus.
For us mortals, who don’t have deep pockets and unlimited disposable income, we need to find alternatives that will satisfy our lust and addiction of good lenses at affordable prices. When I said affordable, it’s relative to how much the modern lenses costs compared to the old ones. Like many other lenses, people slowly discover how good some of the older lenses are, and start buying them, driving up the price. One lens that stands out in my mind, one that I really like, is the Schneider-Kreuznach Xenon 50mm f1.9, originally made for the Kodak Retina Series of cameras in Deckel DKL mount. There are non-Retina versions of this lens as well, in M42, Exakta and even Alpa mounts, and they tend to be a lot more pricey, especially the Alpa version. Equally good (and some would say even better), is the Rodenstock Heligon version of this lens, which commands a hefty price of many times that of the Schneider version, and is quite sought after, as it’s much less common. Is it optically better than the Schneider version? I really don’t know, but people are willing to pay much more for it, so there must be reasons other than uncommonality. By far the cheapest version of this lens is the DKL mount. Many people may not realize the DKL version has an advantage over the M42 or Exakta counterparts, is that the DKL version can be adapted to Nikon mount via a DKL to Nikon F-Mount adapter, whereas virtually all other lens mount (except medium/large format) lenses would not achieve infinity focus on the Nikon, except it’s own, of course.
Yes, I can say the Xenon 50mm f1.9 lens is one of my favourite lenses. The bokeh it produces is sublime, and has very good sharpness wide open across the full frame sensor. I have no less than 3 copies of this lens in DKL mount, and all are awesome. The build quality is simply superb. Almost all copies of this lens look fantastic after many decades; the hardened chrome finish resists scratches. No, it can’t be compared to the Octus optically, but often I paid less than 2% of the price of an Octus for this lens, which puts far less stress on my marriage :). Occasionally you can find these gems at camera shows, flea markets, antique and second hand shops. The DKL version is very common. They are usually cheaper when buying WITH the camera than by itself, strangely, especially if the camera does not work :). Keep in mind that the DKL mount version does not have aperture controls on the lens; that’s done on the camera, but DKL adadpters have this function built in.