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rehabilitation of the serenar portrait lens

Brian Grossman , Aug 01, 2009; 11:22 p.m.

trying to find a reasonably priced portrait lens for an LTM system proved a challenge. the online cognoscenti tend to trumpet the late canon 85/1.8 and the nikkor 85/2, both of which are difficult to find and horribly overpriced. wary of focus compatibility problems, i avoided the soviet jupiter 9 and resigned myself to "settling" for one of the "inferior" early canons. as luck would have it i found a serenar 85/2 with a slightly dented filter ring on the 'bay for about $150. i recently shot a couple rolls with it at my most recent model shoot. i kept the aperture at about 5.6 and am quite pleased with the results. it's sharp, has soft and smooth out of focus rendition ("bokeh", to be fashionable), and no obvious softness or vignetting at the corners. so just what is it that the newer canon or nikkor are supposed to do better? also, does anyone know definitively whether these early canons had a sonnar or planar optical formula? online sources seem in conflict on this point. thanks.


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Paul A. - Los Angeles, CA. , Aug 02, 2009; 01:09 p.m.

Interesting. THKS for posting.

Alan Clayton , Aug 02, 2009; 04:16 p.m.

'A picture is worth a thousand words'. So, it's good to see a photo that shows the lens' character in a real application (more would be great) and a straightforward assessment - thanks.

I have seen many of these earlier Canons for sale at decent prices, but have been put off buying by many of the equivocal, if not disparaging, comments and comparisons to other versions and makes. As more 'traditional' alternative to my my Apo-Lanthar maybe I really should get one.

Gadge A , Aug 03, 2009; 12:54 p.m.

Lens : lovely pop and 3d effect on outline of models body. Looks like you got a bargain but remember individual lenses can deliver remarkably different results so maybe you just got a real good one.
Some perspective tilt is evident on distant offices but probably just caused by an unlevel camera position.
Image : I really like it and found it hard to stop looking at. Not often an image has that effect on me. Partly the serene expression on the model, who has great strong bone structure to her face, almost period looking hair yet huge modern tatoo. You must have a persuasive tone to have got her to pose naked in that rather unclean and possibly overlooked location.

Karim Ghantous , Aug 03, 2009; 11:46 p.m.

The image does seem a little low on contrast although I suppose that depends on film, developer and paper as well.

I like the shot overall. The model has a very nice figure and her tattoos and hair have a slightly 'wild' look to them, giving the shot an 'urban jungle' feel. You chose your model well, but the scene is just a bit too cluttered for my taste. Some of your other outdoor nudes are fantastic, though.

Peter Shawhan , Aug 07, 2009; 01:50 p.m.

The Canon 85mm f/2 Serenar is a good and eminently usable lens.

As far as comparisons are concerned, I have both a second-version Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTM and a Nikkor 85mm f/2 LTM, so I can comment based on personal experience with using them. (I also have a current-production Leica 75mm f/2 in M-mount, so I know how the older lenses compare with current Leica glass.) I once owned a newer Canon 85mm f/1.8 LTM, but it had been improperly serviced at some point and would no longer focus accurately, so I cannot offer any comments on that lens. It was a limited production lens and is relatively scarce, so prices reflect collectable value as well as useful performance.

The Nikkor and Canon lenses have the same focal length and similar maximum apertures. In general, the similarities outweigh the differences, and both can be used effectively for portraiture and available-light shooting. There are some differences, though, including the following:
• When shooting at maximum aperture, the Nikkor 85mm f/2 LTM yields higher sharpness and contrast than than the Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTM, although it is a matter of degree and the Canon is reasonably good. The second-series Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTM, which came out in 1958, may also be a bit better than the slightly older Canon 85mm f/2 Serenar LTM, which originally came out in 1948, as the lens was redesigned slightly and there were advances in lens coatings during the decade between the two versions. For what it's worth, the Canon 85mm f/1.8 LTM, which came out in 1961, had a reputation for having optical quality at full aperture superior to that of either the Nikkor or the older Canon.
• At medium apertures such as f/5.6 or f/8, the optical performance of the Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTM improves considerably, and is noticeably better than its optical performance at maximum aperture. It offers very good optical performance for daytime photography at medium apertures.
• When shooting against intense light sources within the image area, the Nikkor is less susceptible to flare and ghosting than the Canon. In my experience, the Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTM flares quite a bit and produces noticeable ghost images when shooting under these circumstances. Basically, there have been a number of advances in the field of optical engineering in the half-century since the Canon was designed and built, and this is one of the areas in which progress has been noticeable. There are occasions, though, when the flare and ghosting can be used intentionally for visual effect in an image, so the technical deficiency of the old lens can sometimes be an artistic advantage.
• There are also handling differences between the lenses. The Nikkor is shorter in physical length, and balances noticeably better on a Leica body, than the Canon, which is relatively long and front-heavy. When shooting with the Canon, one supports the equipment at a balance point under the lens rather than under the camera body, as would typically be the case when shooting with a telephoto lens on an SLR. Again, the differences are a matter of degree, and the Canon is not bad in this regard; the Nikkor is just somewhat better.
• As between the old Nikkor 85mm f/2 LTM and the Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTM, I would choose the Nikkor over the Canon as offering somewhat better optical quality at maximum aperture, especially with any light sources in the image area, and somewhat better handling characteristics. The differences are not all that great, though, and the two lenses are in the same general ballpark.

In summary, the Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTMis a good and eminently usable lens for portraiture, available-light photography and daytime shooting, as long as one keeps its performance characteristics in mind and avoids shooting into direct light sources when possible. It may not be quite as good as the Nikkor, and is definitely not as good as current-production Leica lenses, but it is surprisingly good for a relatively affordable piece of used equipment.

Brian Grossman , Aug 07, 2009; 08:40 p.m.

Peter, thank you for your thoughtful reply. Now here's a related question i've often wondered about: does the FL 85/1.8 share the same optical formula as the LTM 85/1.8? they both have 5 elements in 4 groups but does that necessarily imply an identical optical formula?

Dave S , Aug 07, 2009; 09:01 p.m.

They are optically the same lens.

john van , Aug 08, 2009; 12:25 a.m.

I also picked up a Serenar 85mm f2 recently at my local shop for $25. Optically and cosmetically it was in excellent shape, and came with an external finder. There was a little bit of decoating on the front element but i haven't anything in the images.
A few minor quibbles would be its uncommon 48mm thread and its heavy weight. Also the front element rotates when focusing so finding the aperture mark is not ideal.
I've read that the design of the 85mm f2 (and the 85mm 1.9) is gaussian/Planar. The Nikkor 85mm LTM and the Canon 85mm 1.8 were Sonnar designs which made for better contrast and less flare, hence their higher price tag.

Peter Shawhan , Aug 09, 2009; 02:47 p.m.

I suspect, but don't know for sure, that the Canon 85mm f/1.8 FL SLR lens has the same optical design as the Canon 85mm f/1.8 LTM RF lens, since the FL lens came out just a few years after the LTM lens. I'm not disputing anyone else's statement that it does; I just don't know for sure myself.

I own a Canon 85mm f/1.8 FL lens, which I used for many years on an old Canon TLb SLR as my main portrait lens. Aside from being a stop-down metering lens rather than a full-aperture metering lens, and being just a bit heavy compared with shorter focal length lenses, it is an excellent lens in all other respects -- very good sharpness and contrast even at maximum aperture, nice rendition of subjects, a real pleasure to use once one becomes accustomed to stop-down metering. From what I can tell, the three main differences between that lens and the later Canon 85mm f/1.8 FD lens were that the latter had full-aperture metering, improved multi-coating and a texturized rubber grip rather than a grooved metal grip on the focusing ring.

My positive experiences with that FL lens were one of the reasons that I ended up getting a Canon 85mm f/1.9 LTM when I started doing more with RF cameras. In use, the main differences between the two are that the FL lens has better coating, flare suppression and all-around performance at maximum aperture than the older LTM lens; and that when one uses the FL lens on an SLR, one need not be concerned with parallax error in framing close-up portraits, as one must be when using the any of the 85mm LTM lenses on a RF camera with an auxiliary viewfinder.

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