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The 50mm photographer

As you may know now I am a 50mm photographer. Most of what I have been shooting in the last 3 years has been done with a 50mm.

2 years ago I bought myself a Carl Zeiss 50mm lens, with manual focus. That would be a good opportunity for me to practice with manual focus and learn about patience and anticipation.

On my last trip to Bangladesh though, I realized how many photos I was missing due to the fact that the lens is manual focus and the fact that when I think things are sharp, they are not. I became a little bit frustrated with it and thought it would be time to change. But I think I just realized that a new lens is not what I need.

Man in a field in Vietnam

What I don’t like about my current lens is first the fact that it is absolutely not sharp below f4.0. I mean, come on, Mr. Zeiss I am sure you can do a better job than this! I do spend a lot of time shooting at f2.0 and the lens is not sharp at all. Add on top of that the manual focus thing, and as soon as a subject moves it makes things very difficult (but interesting!).

On a manual focus lens, the camera still gives me a focus confirmation. When the subject is in focus and I press the back focus button, I can hear the bip bip (when it is not noisy) or see the focusing point becoming red (when it is not too bright) or see the little dot appear in the bottom right corner of my view finder (and I discovered that 1 month ago!). Anyway, I realized that when the camera tells me it is in focus, it is not 50% of the time! And this is a big number.

Woman in a rice field in Vietnam

I was playing with the Leica Summicron 50mm yesterday while running my sunset photography tour in Hoi An. I asked my buddy Phong if I could try it and compare it to the Zeiss.

All the photos in this article were taken on one afternoon while taking a group of 5 people through the countryside of Hoi An.

Vietnamese man ploughing a peanut field

First, and that was my biggest disappointment: this Leica lens is almost as soft as the Zeiss one when open at f2.0. I got 1 sharp image I think. I also think that I have a front focus shift issue maybe due to the adaptor.


Also, and same problem as with the Zeiss, when it tells me I am in focus, I am not. I took about 30 photos of the woman below. Dressed in purple in the green rice fields, perfect colours and light right when we walked past her. Anyway, I focused on her, heard the bip bip, took 3 or 4 photos. Refocused one more time to re adjust (even if the distances didn’t change) and took 4 more shots. Refocused one more time, just to make sure, and took 3 more photos. Result: none of them are sharp! The sharp area is about 3 meters behind her….

Vietnamese farmer in a rice field


Of course this Leica is a beautiful piece of glass, and renders these amazing colors. But my problem is not my lens…


What I do believe I need is a focusing screen, to make sure my subjects are in focus. I heard it is difficult to get one for the 5DIII but my mate Paul Ratje did send me a few links of screens available in Taiwan. I will give it a go I think. Without focusing screen you rely a lot on your eyes to check the focus, and when shooting at f2.0 it does not help. Also, I won’t be young forever and if I turn out like my dad, in about 10 years I will need some glasses (Oh I am not looking forward that, right Mr. JP? ;).

Woman in Vietnam

Boy in Vietnam

portrait of an old woman in Vietnam

Vietnamese farmer

banana leaves bundle

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Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.


  1. JP on January 10, 2016 at 6:04 am

    Whilst I absolutely love the pictures you display here, I think you are Absolutely right Etienne, photographing with glasses around Hoi Ann is not an easy task. Hot, slippery etc….. I am sure you recall. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel….. Lenses. Possibly worth a try Etienne.
    I have a question though: what is a focusing screen?
    I recently tried a software on both Lightroom and Photoshop that will highlight the point that the camera/lenses actually focus on and for me this helps.

    • Etienne on January 10, 2016 at 11:01 am

      JP, a focusing screen is like what you had on the film camera, a long long time ago 😉 The image is split in half in the viewfinder, and only the things which are in focus appear not split.

  2. Karen on January 10, 2016 at 11:34 am

    I also love your photos but can understand your frustration. I use and love my manual focus lens, however, gave up with a Canon 550D due to the huge effort involved in capturing out of focus pics.
    Moved to a Sony Nex 6 and then to a Sony A7R, with no more issues.
    The Konica Hexanon, an old, very well respected Japanese brand, has a 1.7/50mm which is super sharp and not expensive at eBay, fyi.
    I brought both to Vietnam but used the Nex/kit lens, more, due to the fact it was my first trip. Hopefully, will get to your tour, perhaps this year.
    I also wear glasses.
    Thanks again for sharing your wonderful photos.

  3. Andrew S. Gibson on January 11, 2016 at 4:28 am

    Etienne, have you tried the auto focus micro-adjustment feature on your 5D Mark III? That may help.

    You may also be interested to know that you wouldn’t get these focusing problems with a mirrorless camera system. The cameras use contrast detect autofocus measured from the sensor and are accurate virtually all the time (with still subjects). Something to think about – it would take away the frustration of so many missed photos.

    • Etienne on January 11, 2016 at 10:39 am

      Yes Andrew, I have played with the micro adjustments but it doesn’t help, I believe the problem is from the lens adaptor and is bigger than a “micro” issue. Also, I am aware these issues don’t exist on mirrorless cameras, but I do need to wait a few more years for them to get better auto focus systems before I switch 🙂

  4. Patrick Jean-Philippe on January 23, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Salut Etienne,

    Nice pictures !

    A pity I am not on your tail following you through photo excursions across Hoi An or throughout Vietnam otherwise I would gladly lend you my A7r mk2 with the Zeiss 55mm F/1.8 for a day. I am so sure you’d love it… I would use either the NEX-6 & 35 1.8 or the a7r & 35 2.8. All of these cameras’ auto focus is fairly good but the A7r mk2 is the faster one and the Zeiss 55mm 1.8 is an awesome and tak sharp lens.

    Now, if you want to focus manually you can do it but best to use the focus peaking, magnification, etc… functions. Although some people love these functions I find their use like a weird hit or miss experience hence I prefer to rely on the autofocus.

    Whilst with my old Olympus OM2 accurate manual focus went like a breeze, I find manual focus on digital cameras extremely difficult simply because these lack a proper focusing screen !

  5. Patrick Jean-Philippe on January 23, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Also, could your camera suffer from an auto focus mis-calibration ? Can it be calibrated ? As you mentioned that focus was 3 meters behind the subject when focus sing manually, I assume that if it is a fixed offset that it should be correctable in the camera. Perhaps you could try and contact Canon about it.

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