(c) Frank Mechelhoff
Last update 2. Jan. 2007

(German Language Version)
The Race for the fastest 35mm lens
Four lenses designed of a Mr. Hiroshi Ito
Sonnar vs. Planar design competition
Canon "Sonnar" RF 1.5/50mm
Update: NEW (2006) Zeiss Sonnar 1.5/50mm
Nikkor P.C 2/8.5cm
Nikkor P.C. 2.5/10.5cm

I'm not a collector - just obsessive for quality. I buy cameras for using. What not works or doesn't make pictures sharp enough, will come away.. Cameras and lenses are for catching moments in my life. If they do well, often this is combinded with attributes like elegant functional technique, excellent durable crafting and well-made design. The results are fine tools which works for decades due to their specs without asking questions for their pleased owners. More often than not better and more durable than cheap and disposable plastic articles of the present. So the question occurs, why any use this modern stuff, if the old gear still lasts for more than 50 years, and if you maintain it properly, will last the next 50 years as well (as long as film will exist) whereas you can junk the new stuff 10 years later...

This spirit - without the snobistic undertone of "cult object" - embody (at least to me) the Japanese cameras of the late 50's und 60's: CANON, NIKON and (later on) PENTAX represent right from the beginning an attitude and spirit of entrepreneurship and ingenious competition. They continued this attitude to the present, whereas German companies died or shrinked down to niche provider without sufficient R&D budget like Leitz and Zeiss.

COPYRIGHT (ALL PICTURES AND TEXTS by FRANK MECHELHOFF 2004 (you may use single copies for private use only)
Questions and contact: fmechelh "at" web.de

Canon 7 (1961)


It is quite unknown in Europe that CANON started its business with Rangefinder cameras with interchangeable lenses and accessories - which were invented by the famous German LEITZ in the Hessian small town Solms/Wetzlar - and growths from a small firm to the No.1 camera maker in the world. Admittedly,  in 1968 the Rangefinder (RF) product line was replaced by rising demands for Single Reflex Cameras (SLR's) which allows higher speed, longer focus and close-distace-lenses for ambitious amateurs and professionals. At first Canon's success in this new prodcut line was quite limited (compared to NIKON und PENTAX ) untill the high-level consumer and professional F-1 and AE1 were launched in the late 70's, early 80's.
Today we experience a Renaissance of Rangefinder-cameras amidst the digicam era - whereas the Film-SLR market starts to die..This makes us look back to the early history of Japanese Rangefinder industry.


Canon started its career in the 30's with copies of the Leica-III with kind of a Contax bayonet mount. Both Leica and Contax were not protected by Japanese patent law then. Its name was KWANON, a goddess of charity - and probably there was a need to look mercifull at the making of these first Japanese cameras, of which less than a handfull is preserved... But that was to change soon! After 1945 all German abroad patents were canceled effected by the lost war and law of nations. A punch in the gud for the German industry. It was allowed to copy German pre-war-products in any matter and companies in the whole world did that without bad conscience.  NIKON who made optical products for Japanese military during the war now launched excellent copies of the pre-war Contax (with very similar, but not complete compatible bayonet), which were enhanced in quick cycles and shortly becoming better than the original -- the more so as ZEISS had problems to relaunch production in the post-war era with Carl Zeiss Jena and IKON in the East part of Germany occupied and exploited by the Russian for war reparation. CANON adhered to the West-German archetype LEICA with lenses in the same screw mount (M39 aka Leica Thread Mount or LTM). In the beginning CANON only manufactured cameras while Nikon made the lenses. Since 1947 Canon made the lenses for their own cameras - at the beginning copies of the German (Zeiss) Tessars, Sonnars and Triotars for simple use, and X-Ray cameras.


After the war 1945 Japanese industry was completely destroyed and no consumer market was conseivable except the occupying force: US soldiers, who had destroyed the country with bombing before. These were the first customers for Japanese optical products. This marketing was supported by military leaders who favorized US boys buying Japanese products rather than taking their pay into pubs, or brothels. Not only US soldiers but also newsmen bought these products and spread them quickly to the USA and all over the world. There is famous tale of an American war correspondent in the Korea war 1951 who brought a couple of rolls to a New York photo lab. They turned out as the sharpest 35mm negs ever processed, and they wanted to know which camera and lenses the photograph had used? Well, what was it..? Not a big name like ZEISS, LEICA, VOIGTLAENDER or KODAK.. Some kind of unknown Japanese Zeiss-copy lens, although nicely finished, brillant blue coating glass with a name like a mixture of ZEISS-IKON and the Japanese appelation of their country in their own language, NIPPON... A star was born.

NIKKOR P.C. f/2 8.5cm

Nikkor-PC f/2 8.5cm (1948 Version)

The lens was a NIKKOR-P 2/8.5cm, with 5 elements, precursor of the famous Nikkor-P 2.5/105mm, build until present. Here on my Canon P in Leica Screw Mount. It was derived, but not optically indentical, to the pre-war Zeiss Sonnar f/2 8.5cm, which last group consists of 3 elements like most of the early Sonnars, whereas the Nikkor has one single element rear, but a thicker convex lens as third element, making the whole lens more front-heavy than the Zeiss.

Nikkor P.C. f/2 8.5cm (1948)
ZEISS Sonnar 1:2.0 8.5cm
Nikkor P.C. f/2 8.5cm (1948 - 5 elements/ 3 groups)
Zeiss Sonnar f/2 8.5cm (7 elements/ 3 groups)

Nikkor stands for the old name of Nikon-lenses engraved on them until the 80's. "P" (penta) means a 5-element-lens. "H" (hex) would be 6, "S" (septem) for 7 - the system went from 3 to 11. "C" means "coated" glass. Since coating soon gets self-evident after the war - especially at Japanese producers - the C later was left out. All pre-war Nikkors are coated and moreover, have a reputation to obtain the hardest and most durable coating in the world. Anyway, perhaps the old Nikkors are so rarely scratched because they were owned mostly by professional photographs who never polish their lenses as well... but they are also least suspectible to fungus or hazing, which is a horror to all collectors of the world.

The focus length in Centimeters - a tradition that Nikon retained to the early 70's , 30 years after the conservative Germans switched to Millimeters...

Next oddity: a Nikon lens that could be used with Leica-, Canon- and Voigtlander-cameras..? Strange nowadays, but common then. Nikon did the facturing of lenses before making cameras themself. They delivered Canon as well as other Japanese companies, and the aftermarket with attention to Contax and Leica users. A niche but profitying market. When Canon started producing lenses for their own, the buyer still had free choice. On the other hand, Canon produced (some) lenses with alien adapters too.. very few for Nikon. The tale goes that Nikon hereupon in the end of the 1950's shut-down the production of LTM-lenses, which biggest producer now was Canon. Because LEICA has produced most of their lenses since 1953 in the new, patent-protected M-bayonet... which protection recently dropped. Among each other the Japanese behaved like Gentlemen:: No poaching in neighbor's hunting ground...

This was defining the new Japanese way: Not only copying the German paragons, but modifying and enhancing them consistently, combine a way of venturing new ideas and designs and simplifying for cost and procuction reasons. This challange wasn't discerned by the German competitors, or even arrogantly denied as a "cheap copy" which by definition couldn't be better than the origin. Ten years later the bill was presented.

NIKKOR-P.C. 2.5/10,5cm (LTM)

Nikkor-PC 2.5/10,5cm - a mastership of manufacturing

This (my) lens is from about 1958, the fastest lens in the 100mm area then. Not a lightweight due to the thick middle-lenses but well-balanced at a solid camera like the Canon P The mounting with alloy and nice and durable black enamel. In due time no manufacturer in the world beats Nikon's manufacturing quality of glasses and corpus. You will not see it again either with older or newer lenses. It's an unsurpassed peak level.. The NIKKOR rangefinder lenses are getting more and more expensive, searched by all collectors in the world. Fanciers now look for Nikon-F lenses, also well finished. Prices will not come back to that low level again..!

The Nikkor 2.5/105 has the reputation of being one of the best portrait-lenses ever. multiple altered mounting for SLR product line, the optical design stays unchallenged except one minor change 1971 to the present. I beg even in today's econmy class with plastic mounting it will dispose more pleasure and nice pictures to their users than a pervasive standard 28-80mm zoom.

1951 - Four lenses designed of a Mr. HIROSHI ITO

In June 1951 four lens patents are registered by CANON - in Japan, USA and Germany as well- as invented by Mr. HIROSHI ITO...
Of this last lens Canon build more than 100.000; it will found Canon's name as a maker of first class photograpical optics in the same league with Leica und Zeiss, with still continues today.

SONNAR vs. PLANAR - design competition

Before WWII "standard lenses" for 35mm cameras had supposed to be compact...fast lenses were accounted distrustful for this reason, and because of the focussing precision which was not present at most cameras of that time.

Compactness in standard lenses today and 1955: Canon FD/ SLR 1.4/50 of 1979 on the left, Canon RF 1.5/50 of 1955 on the right. Nxt surprise if taken lenses in hand: The chrome RF lens weoghts 270g, 30g more than the black FD-lens 
zwei Normalobjektive f/1.5 bzw f/1.4

Dr. Helmut Naumann
(after 1950 head of reserach and development at Rodenstock) wrote about high-speed lenses in 1947 "for 35mm film they are usable for image photographing, but because of the high price and small area-of-focus their circle-of-friends will be small". A bad prognosis about the future market!

In 1934 ZEISS had developed the SONNAR - with f/2 (6 elements) and f/1.5 (7 elements) by far the most complex, fastest and best standard lens for at least the next 15 years....Thus laped the "standard" f/3.5 Leitz  Elmar - a 4-element Tessar-type. The advantage of the Sonnars were compactness in comparison to the Planar (Double-Gauss) designs and less number of optical groups (two cemented triples of elements) resulting in enhanced contrast and sharpness. In the past coating technique (invented also bey Zeiss in 1936) these lenses performed well enough for critical appliances at f/4 or f/5.6 whereas others need to be closed to f/11 or more.

Zeiss Sonnar f/1.5 (1936)
Leica Summicron f/2.0 (1950)
Sonnar f/1.5 (7 elements/ 3 groups)
Planar f/2 (6 elements/ 4 groups)

The first developed Planars for 35mm were only strong if not faster than f/2. Examples were the Leica Summicron f/2.0 or Canon f/1.8. Contrarivise the Sonnar allowed a more compact (shorter) build, but was more expensive in production and not usable for SLR cameras because the rear groups didn't allow enough clearance for the swinging mirror. It takes to 1958 to design f/1.4-speed-Planars with convincing quality. Then the Sonnar died off as a highspeed 35mm standard lens.

kompakterer Bau des Sonnars
Two Canon-lenses from about 1955, very similar from outside view, but representing two different design approaches. On the left a Sonnar (f/1.5),on the right a Planar (f/1.8). Designs like the above diagrams. Weight of both is equally (270g). The Sonnar is thicker due to higher speed but 5mm shorte. Both makes great pictures or slides, but the characteristic of the Sonnar-results are unique and away of the "cold perfection" of typical modern Planar lenses.

Info: how to avoid Zeiss Sonnar fakes at ebay or elsewhere

CANON RF 1.5/50mm

Canons first "fast speed lens" (since ca. 1947; my version is about 1955) High speed, though very compact lens, solid made with brass, quite heavy for the small volume. Derived from the pre-war Zeiss Sonnar (7 elements/ 3 groups). Best correction for medium distance and apertures. Very fine for portrait and night-shots. Until 1952 this was marketed as "Serenar", than "Canon Lens". Very good performer wide open (as most early Sonnars). Excellent contrast thanks to the low number of optical groups, typically for a Sonnar construction. Suspectible for flare due to the compact mount and single-coating; but the shade helps a lot. There is no need to close aperture farther than f/5.6 with a Sonnar for performance reasons. Some have f/11 as smallest, this on has f/16. In 1959 replaced by the (also excellent; easier to craft) 6-elements Planar 1.4/50 RF.

Canon "Sonnar" 1.5/50 (1947-1958)
Canon "Planar" 1.4/50 (1959-1968)
Voigtländer Nokton 1.5/50mm (2000)
Sonnar Type
Planar Type

I very much like the "Canon-Sonnar" for their nice pictures. Very sharp 10x enlargements are possible. It is well balanced with the 50 years newer Bessa-R, compact and lightweight. A true universal lens. Maybe the newer Planar-Type Voigtlaender Nokton 1.5/50 is slightly better, but according to Erwin Puts is back light sensible as well... Nevertheless I wanted a "Sonnar" type which nowadays is too big an effort to produce it in series, and the pictures have some special charme and atmosphere newer lenses miss.

Canon RF 1.5/50 von 1956 - at a new Bessa-R

Canon RF 1.5/50 - very sharp with 50 years age

sample pictures (klick for larger resultion):
Britain Triton 1.5/50mm @f/4

Alte Oper Frankfurt 1.5/50mm wide open

oops, what's this here? 1.5/50mm @f/5.6

UPDATE:  June 2006 --  Zeiss announced Sonnar 1.5/50 for Zeiss-Ikon Rangefinder Camera

C-Sonnar June 2006 ZEISS announced for the first time since CONTAX IIa/ IIIa was ceased more than 40 years ago, a Sonnar 35mm film lens with the classical data f/1.5 50mm - fitting the Rangefinder camera Zeiss-Ikon (Leica M mount) available since 3/4 year on the market..

It is more like the initial Sonnar-type invented by Ludwig Bertele than any other lens Zeiss had launched within the last 40 years under the "Sonnar" name. The third element of the Bertele design with lower optical power was replaced by (what old lens designers call) "air-lens". Different to those Ernostar-types mostly containing 4-5 elements, this one has one cemented triple in thge rear. In the 1950's companies like Canon and Asahi Optical experimenting with the Sonnar type, dissolving the last groups creating a 6 elements- 4 groups design, still keeping a Sonnar type.

So in 2006 Zeiss did the same stuff with the front triple group and shows to the market that the initial design still has reserves (assumed by traditionalists all the time). Maybe it will not show clinical sharpness like the hyper-modern designed Leica Apo-Summicron ASPH. 1.4/50mm -- but probably will cost only 1/3 of it. Anyway direct comparison picture-by-picture to the ZM-Planar 2.0/50mm will be interesting.

For these guys using Rangefinder the traditional way, as a journey or reportage camera, it may be worth a thought that the Sonnar is 6mm shorter than the ZM-Planar and uses 46mm filter (which is a quite common size)

Test pictures of this lens here - available soon..!
performance Sonnar
Performance Planar
Comparison of measured MTF-Data published by Zeiss of ZM-lenses 2.0/50 Planar (downside) and 1.5/50 C-Sonnar (above): At a level of high resolution  fine structures were shown with lower contrast at f/1.5 than with the Planar at f/2, what can be detected by the 40lp/mm line. At f/4 contrast of both lenses is very high with both lenses, but at very fine structures the Sonnar is weaker by a breeze. Both showing visible falloff of performance to the outmost edges of the pictures - stronger for the Sonnar.  No surprise, the f/1.5 Sonnar shows a bit more light-falloff to the edges wide open. Anyway both lenses looking quite resembling form paper values - pictures will tell..!

next part (II) of this page

Voigtlander Bessa Rangefinder Cameras 1930's, 1950's and present (German Language, NEW)

your comments to this page?

read all comments