Are vintage lenses even sharp? Hearing the words sharp and vintage lens together in the same sentence would make you think that you’ve heard wrong. Vintage lenses are known for their soft and dreamlike features, the exact opposite of sharpness; and the reason why photographers and videographers gravitate to these lenses. Vintage lenses are used so they artists can escape the clinical sharpness found in the majority of today’s modern lenses.
With that in mind, it does not mean there are no sharp vintage lenses. If fact there are plenty of great examples of sharp vintage lenses. But sharp is relative. Sharpness in comparison to other vintage lenses might not be the same sharpness you’ve come to expect from modern lenses with more advanced and precision optical formulas that have been continuously developed and refined over the decades.
A lens doesn’t have to be super sharp, it just has to be sharp enough. Too much emphasis, today, especially on forums, is placed on how sharp a lens is. So much of what makes a good photograph cannot be quantified. You can easily start to pick apart how sharp one lens is against another, which is why the unskilled like to prattle on and debate about it. Of course, sharpness has absolutely nothing to do with what makes a compelling image, as long as the lens used is ‘sharp enough’, which only means is it not so obviously unsharp as to not make somebody say ‘wow, that looks blurry’.
While many vintage lenses can be sharp when stopped down to apertures of f/4 and beyond, there are fewer examples of lenses that are very sharp when wide open at their maximum aperture. For this list, we’ll be covering the sharpest vintage lenses when open wide.
Sharpest Vintage Wide Lens
First, on the list, we’ll be covering some of the sharpest vintage wide-angle lenses.
1. Pentax K 28mm f/3.5 Lens
The Pentax K 28mm f/3.5 is a fantastic lens and one of the sharpest 28mm vintage lenses. Its reputation of being sharp even at wide open is nothing short of legendary. Not only does the lens perform well from edge to edge in sharpness, but it also has great color rendering and contrast. Its only weak point is that the lens is not terribly fast and the maxim aperture of f/3.5 makes it a little more difficult to capture impressive out-of-focus areas as its depth of field is narrower.
2. Canon FDn 35mm f/2.8 Lens
The Canon FDn 35mm f/2.8 is the newer and updated version of the original Canon FD 35mm f/3.5. Its update over its predecessor included upgraded coating from S.C. (spectra coating) to S.S.C (super spectra coating), cemented convex and concave elements positioned in the second group, and glass with a higher index of refraction was employed in the rear group to control spherical aberrations.
These updates made the FDn 35mm f2.8 one of the sharpest vintage 35mm wide lenses in Canon’s lineup. It is stellar at a wide-open aperture and only gets better as you stop down. The FDn 35mm f/2.8 is an all-around performing lens that will give you edge-to-edge sharpness and contrast. It makes for a great landscape lens to have in your arsenal.
With modest prices ranging between $100 to $200, this makes it also one of the cheapest and most affordable Canon FD vintage lenses.
Sharpest Vintage Standard Prime Lens
If you’re looking for a cheap, fast and sharp vintage prime lens, look no further than any old 50mm manual lens from any of the major manufacturers. The science of making exemplary “nifty fifties” was solved ages ago. Since 50mm lenses came standard with old film cameras, they were mass producted, it has helped keep the prices of these lenses down.
There are plenty of 50mm lenses that are sharp wide open and affordable. Look for Canon FD 50mm f/1.4, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7, Minolta MC Rokkor PF 55mm f/1.7…the list goes on. While those are great options, let’s look at some other sharp vintage standard prime lenses you might want to consider.
3. Topcor RE 58mm f/1.8 Lens
A little lesser-known brand by modern standards, Topcor produced a total of 10 SLR cameras with the Topcon mount and 35 lenses between the years 1957 to 1978. Despite their short run, the Topcon series cameras were some of the most advanced and versatile SLRs designed for professional use. They were the first manufacturer to introduce features such as through-the-lens (TTL) meter systems.
The brand has become synonymous with some of the finest optical quality, hence the addition of the Topcor RE 58mm f/1.8 to our list. The lens is razor sharp wide open with very pleasing color reproduction and very minimal chromatic aberration.
4. Canon FD 135mm f2.8 Lens
An undoubtedly important addition to any photographer’s kit is a 135mm prime lens. While 135mm is a little less common than prime lenses in the holy trinity (35mm, 50mm & 85mm), it’s one of my all-time favourite focal lengths. It lends itself perfectly to all different types of photography from portraiture, car, product, and landscape photography.
The Canon FD 135mm f/2.8 is very sharp in the center when wide open at f/2.8, stopping down to f/4 makes the center excellent. The sharpness continues into the midframe and well into the corners. Stopping down to f/5.6-8 leaves very little to be unsatisfied with which helps this lens excel in all areas of photography as previously mentioned.
Sharpest Vintage Telephoto Zoom Lens
5. Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 ED AI-s Lens
As someone who’s not used many Nikon cameras and lenses, it’s rarer for me to include them in this type of list, but the Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 could not be ignored. This superb lens is often touted among Nikon’s sharpest lenses of all time. Its super-sharp brilliance is even evident in modern-day cameras that boast over 50 megapixels where sharpness can be judged to the extreme. As a bonus, this lens is ultrasharp from corner to corner even wide-open at f/2.8
Sharpest Vintage Macro Lens
An often question that comes up is what is the sharpest vintage macro lens? Macro lenses are likely one of the most important types of lenses to have tack sharp to capture as much detail as possible.
6. Leica 100mm APO-Macro-Elmarit-R f/2.8
You’re probably familiar with the Leica brand for being a legendary and expensive camera brand, but that’s not without its merit. They produced some of the best camera gear in history, and that includes some remarkable sharp lenses. The Leica R 100mm APO Macro is one of the sharpest vintage macro lenses.
While this is not an inexpensive lens, with prices ranging from $2,000 – $4,000 for a good copy of the lens, it’s possibly worth every penny to the right buyer.
Color rendition is very natural and accurate and as expected on par with any Leica R lens with the APO designation. Its usage is great in all sorts of applications from macro, product photography and portrait photography. The minimum focusing distance is 45 cm which produces 1:2 magnification. With the ELPRO adapter, you can go down to 30 cm and have a 1:1 reproduction of the object.
Let me know what your favourite sharp vintage lens is!