Eight elements. Eight. The original Zeiss Planars got by with just six, the Planar T* of the 1970s used seven. Minolta, Canon and Nikon all used seven elements in their fifties. Pentax themselves reverted to seven after just two years of producing an eight-element 50mm lens. Seven seems to work. Why then, did Pentax ever bother to produce a more complex fifty?
The simple answer is short; Pentax wanted to one-up Zeiss, who in the early days of SLRs were essentially the best lens makers in the world. As if the dominance of their optical designs weren’t enough, in the mid-1950s the company began coating the elements of their six-element Planars, which solved a long-standing glare issue which had plagued the optically sophisticated Planars since the 1890s and has been used on virtually all lenses made since then. Zeiss seemed to be king of the hill, and toppling them would take a truly masterful lens attached to a powerful camera.
Pentax’s answer to the question of Zeiss, the prototype Spotmatic, debuted at Photokina in 1960 with the production camera finally hitting the market in 1964. The standard lens fitted to most Spotmatics was Pentax’s new, Zeiss-killing eight-element 50mm F/1.4. This was the bleeding edge of photographic engineering, and the photographic press was unanimous in declaring a new king fifty had arrived.
Advanced though it was, the lens seems quite humble by today’s standards. Though its construction is complex it has shortcomings – on its original contemporary machines, it can only be used in conjunction with an in-body light meter when stopped-down. Under bright conditions the lens sometimes suffers from flare issues and odd color fringing. It’s heavy, especially when we fit it to a mirrorless camera via the usual metal adapters.
Despite all this, it’s also wonderful. I own quite a few fifties from its era, and some more modern ones, yet the original Takumar is the one I reach for most often.
It’s worth noting that there are no fewer than four different M42 Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4s, and they’re all a little different, and they’re not all equal. The review copy is the earliest version, produced from 1964-1966. Thanks to its eight-element contruction this is optically the most complex variant, the tradeoff being that it uses less advanced coatings than its successors.
This eight-element variant is visually identifiable by having the IR focus mark to the right of numeral 4 on the DoF scale, as well as having the deepest rear element of the four lenses. The lens build incorporates eight elements in six groups, including a cemented triplet with curved surfaces. The Pentax rumor mill believes that Pentax lost money on every one sold. While we cannot verify that, it does align with the fact that this variant survived just two years before being replaced with a more conventional seven-element lens, though the fact that Pentax would soon be using Thorium-coated glass may have contributed to the redesign.
In 1966, Pentax switched to a 7-element construction, which they would continue to use even after the M42 mount was replaced by the K-Mount. The first seven-element fifty looks very similar to its predecessor, and features similar coatings. The rear element is slightly shallower than the earlier lenses.
The two final M42 fifties were branded as “Super-Multi-Coated Takumar” or simply as “SMC Takumar.” These lenses featured much-improved coatings and the use of Thorium in some of the lens elements. These advances cut the lenses tendency to flare just about in half, but time has shown that the Thorium can cause yellowing in the cement used to secure the lens elements. This problem can be corrected with UV exposure, and even prolonged exposure to sunlight will mitigate this issue. The level of radiation is very, very low and should not discourage using the lens.
All four variants share the common M42 mount. Only the final version allows for open aperture metering, and only on certain, compatible M42 bodies. These were functionally very basic lenses, a fact which was very apparent by the end of M42 50mm production in 1975.
For those who are unfamiliar with M42 film bodies, particularly those with meters, the Super Takumar has some workflow quirks. Since only one variant allows for open-aperture metering, three of the lens variants are best used in a certain order. On my Spotmatic, and most other M42 bodies, this effectively means you must focus, trip the meter, set your exposure, and then shoot. This is not a big deal when photographing stationary subjects, but can be frustrating when shooting pets, kids, or other fast paced action. When adapted to a mirrorless camera, it’s a non-issue. Like most legacy lenses you are always working stopped-down.
All four variants of the Super-Takumar 50mm have full-metal construction, though some variants have rubberized grips on the lens barrel. My eight-element lens weighs 245g, the first seven element variant weighs 230g, and the remaining two variants are both about 250g. They’re all quite heavy, heavier than the Minolta MD 50mm F/1.4 in fact, despite being substantially smaller.
But with this weight comes great density and a feeling of quality. The aperture ring has a positive mechanical action. The grips on the focus and aperture rings are all machined aluminum. In a quiet room you can hear the air escaping the metal lens cap as you draw it away from the lens. As a mechanical object, the lens is pretty stellar.
That said, the eight element lens is not perfect. Images can be very soft at short and medium ranges when the lens is shot wide open. The issue lessens the closer we get to infinity focus, though I don’t find myself shooting distant subjects wide open that frequently. I’ve noticed that this tendency is substantially worse on digital cameras than it is on film, which may be down to the primitive coatings and the relative “thickness” of a digital sensor’s capture area relative to a 35mm film frame.
Bokeh is very smooth, though because of how soft the lens is wide-open in certain applications, it can be a challenge to photograph subjects at close range.
Pretty simply, the early M42 Super-Takumar does not outperform all other legacy 50mm lenses in a lot of situations. Particularly when adapted to digital. It’s a little soft. It’s also a little heavy, and the threaded mount takes a little more care to use than more modern bayonet or breech-style mounts. On a purely technical level either variant of Canon FD-mount f/1.4 will outperform the eight-element Pentax, and I suspect the later 7-element Super Takumars will do the same.
That said, the eight-element lens keeps working its way into my bag. As I write this, I am puzzling over why that it is. I have at least three generations of its counterparts from Canon, as well as Olympus and a number of third party fifties on my shelf, yet I continually reach for the Pentax, despite its flaws.
Let’s talk about why that is.
The Pentax does a better job with color than its counterparts, particularly when photographing people. I have a wonderful array of photos of my girlfriend looking displeased with me for taking her photo where her skin looks terrific. Whether on my Fuji or on a film body, the Super-Takumar has a very warm character. Images also stay bright corner to corner, with no tendency to vignette. Even under artificial light, the Pentax really works wonders not just compared to its contemporaries, but compared to even my venerable Fuji XF glass.
Because of the small 42mm throat of the lens, the Pentax fits neatly to APS-C digital cameras, and these small lenses adapt much better to my X-series Fuji than most of the other legacy lenses. The tight construction and perfect ergonomics feel more natural than the chunkier Canon and somewhat flimsy Olympus offerings. And interestingly enough, unlike Canon FD lenses the M42 mount Super Takumars are also EOS-friendly.
And et’s not forget the value proposition. These 50mm Super-Takumars are cheap. It’s not hard to find some variant of this lovely Pentax glass for less than the cost of an even more common FD-mount 50mm f/1.8. My eight element lens was free. At press time, a quick eBay search shows that the cheapest 50mm f/1.4 currently up for auction is an early 7-element Super-Takumar- $0.99 starting bid, and no reserve.
At those prices, can you afford not to have one?