Can You Tell the Difference Between a $1,000 Modern Lens and a $50 Vintage Lens? I Bet Not!

Can You Tell the Difference Between a $1,000 Modern Lens and a $50 Vintage Lens? I Bet Not!

For most modern photographers, the thought of shooting a vintage prime instead of a new autofocus lens is a non-starter. If this applies to you, do you think you could tell the difference in a blind comparison? I would be willing to bet not.

In this article, I am going to present a series of side-by-side comparisons of photographs taken on one of two lenses: the $1,000 Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 and a $50 Nikon 50mm f/2 Ai. Given that the two lenses have different focal lengths, simply changing out the lens while the camera was mounted on a tripod wouldn’t work. As such, all of the comparisons were made of the same vantages but taking steps forward or backward and left or right. The result is that the Sony 55mm lens isn’t simply the same image with a smaller viewing angle; instead, the images will be similar but differ just enough to not have the viewing angle give them away. Further, for each comparison, there will be a slider comparison of the whole image and then a second slider comparison of the exact same cropped section of the frame. Given that each of the comparisons will differ slightly in the framing, the cropped section will come from the exact same part of the frame but will have different content inside the crop. In addition, the edits were the same between the two lenses. For further consistency, the ISO for each comparison was the same, as was the aperture. I manually focused the Sony Zeiss lens in order to ensure focus for both lenses was made on the same subject. All landscape photos were taken on the same day in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. All images for this article were taken with a Sony a7R II. 

Lastly, all images from the new Sony Zeiss lens are one side of all the slider comparisons and the vintage Nikon lens are on the other. In order to keep it blind, I’ll refrain from sharing which is which until the end of the article. 


For the first comparison, we have a view down the middle of the gorge between Cedar Falls and Lower Falls. As you can see from this initial comparison, both lenses handle the situation well and resolve a lot of detail. Looking at the crops, the level of detail from both lenses is fantastic, as can be seen from the smaller branches. That is, the finest details that can be seen from even the smallest branches visible in the frame show very nice and crisp details. 

For the second comparison, we have one of my favorite scenes in the whole park. The enormity of the rock on the left of the frame cannot be expressed in one singular photograph. It’s a gorgeous scene wherever you stand, and the more you walk around it, the more beautiful it is. Anyhow, much like what we saw in the first comparison, the level of detail is very similar between the two lenses. The crop is from the upper left of the frame, and though it really starts to get close enough to the corner, both lenses demonstrate a high level of sharpness.  

For the third comparison, the comparisons should start to seem to have some consistent results. You’ll see in this comparison, much like the ones above it, that the level of detail is similarly high from both lenses. Even on the cropped comparisons, the level of detail is impressive from both lenses. 

Much like the second comparison, this is one of my favorite scenes of the park. Without a relatively wide lens, the enormity of the rocks and trees cannot be conveyed. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this fourth comparison demonstrates much of the same results as the first three.  

The fifth comparison unfortunately seems to have done a better job testing the dynamic range of my camera more than it did the sharpness of the lenses. As you can see, the brightest part of the snow on the waterfall was a bit blown out, and that’s okay. There is still a lot of detail that can be observed in the trees, and both lenses performed similarly well. 

The sixth and final landscape comparison is again one of my favorites that just does not do justice to the size of the scene. And once again, you’ll see that the level of detail is impressive on both lenses. The crops illustrate this point very well. 

In order to provide at least one portrait, the seventh and final comparison is a photograph of my partner. Both lenses were shot wide open to illustrate the depth of field of both lenses. Personally, I think that both lenses perform admirably well. The level of detail is good for both lenses. Similarly, both lenses did a pleasant job at blurring out the background. In order to not upset my partner by showing very close-up crops of her face, I’ll refrain from the close-up comparisons.

Final Result

This series of comparisons illustrates the strengths of both lenses for landscape photography. As you may recall from a previous article I wrote, I am a firm believer that vintage primes are underrated lenses, which generally pack a lot of value into a relatively small and inexpensive package. As such, particularly when it comes down to landscape photography, vintage primes deserve some love too. 

So, for the big reveal, if you haven’t guessed it: the new Sony 55mm is on the left side of all comparisons and the vintage Nikon 50mm is on the right side. 


If you’re a landscape photographer and want to get a selection of prime lenses, I hope that this comparison illustrates that vintage primes are a great place to start. Sure, the best coatings are generally going to come from the newest lenses, but don’t discount the vintage stuff. If you’re doing a decent amount of portrait work, the autofocus abilities of new lenses could really be helpful. 

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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First image-- Left sony right nikon?

A seasoned photographer and post-processor might be able to get by in making a result that is nearly indistinguishable - almost certainly *using* the lens in real world scenarios is where some of the most important differences are.

My favorite lens is an Asahi Pentax m-100mm macro 1:4. Sharp as a tack and cost about $150

I could see some difference in most, not a lot, but enough. I think that if you compared old Zeiss to new Zeiss and old Nikkor to old Nikkor the difference would be even less evident. While both are sharp, for many years Zeiss lenses have had the reputation of a "look" or "micro contrast" some sort of extra secret sauce that other lenses did not have. Zeiss and Nikon have different design philosophies. I think a 40-50 year old Zeiss would look a lot like a modern Zeiss , same with old and current Nikkor.

Excellent article demonstrating the foolishness of many addicted to the latest gear & gadget fix, often promoted on these sites...A bit refreshing to see a counter perspective!

Wide open is always the giveaway. All modern lenses, even inexpensive ones, have better wide open performance by virtue of modern coatings, glass formulations, and optical formulas. Stopped down however the older lenses tighten up and have excellent performance. I should know, as I have a few. :-)

No. Not today at least.

Let me suggest another more dubious benefit if the vintage lens. They force use to develop and use the lost art of focusing our photos. Kind of like using a manual transmission. Not for every circumstance however.

I love vintage glass and it's crazy how cheap it is on eBay. I have a 55 1.2 ,24 2.8 ,100 mm 2.8. that's got to be one of my favorite things about mirrorless is how easy it is to try out lenses from every generation

not on a phone

I could, on an iPhone 12 Pro.

While I respect your point that it's easy to get carried away with gear, and a $1000 lens doesn't necessarily justify its price tag when a lens that does much of the same thing for $100 is available... side by side comparisons of images that are 600 pixels wide aren't going to tell you anything about the differences between the lenses.

If you like to print big and get lost in the fine details of the print, the differences between a razor sharp lens and a "pretty sharp" one become apparent pretty quickly.

I was able to tell the difference even from the first photo, and I liked the Sony's rendition best in all photos. What do I win? :)

You won the internet!

For some it is a guilty pleasure to desire the most perfect and expensive glass just for the prestige of it.
Reality might not be as straightforward as our forbidden inclinations.
Good old inexpensive imperfect glass in right hands serves its purpose rather well.
Lapis lazuli used to be extremely valuable... So with new generation of mirrorless offerings distinction between top of the shelf and mid priced offerings becomes ever so small.
So prestige of owning something should be separated from strive to create something extraordinary.
What do you think?

The Sony 55mm f/1.8 is my favorite lens, and I've been using it regularly for 6 years. I can't tell the difference in these examples.

Many things factor in seeing the resolving resolution on the internet. I could tell which was the Sony. I'm also using a 4k screen. What I'm seeing is about 1350px wide. Plenty of resolution to tell the difference. The second thing, I have 20/20 vision. I think people forget about the quality of their sometimes. Reminds me when my dad was complaining he couldn't tell the difference between 1080p and 720p on 40" screen sitting 8ft away with less than stellar vision.

Sharpness is sought after because camera resolution keeps getting higher. If you're on a system for sometime your going to keep the same glass. No so much the body. Yes it's true we may only export 1/5 of that resolution for the web. It's still nice to be able to go back to something and share or print a higher resolution version.

As older lenses/system get replaced with newer ones we won't be comparing this as much. In the end, if a photo isn't appealing, sharpness isn't going to make a difference anyways. If it is, we look past its flaws like any other art form. Sometimes the imperfections becomes part of the art.

And if you're not shooting wide open you could even compare the Nikon 18-140mm zoom at f8 with a prime at the same focal length at f8 and for 99% of the population there will be no difference.

Pretty pointless article I fear. The differences will be in contrast and colour rendition due to the different lens coatings...or lack of them.

So it also becomes a lighting issue..backlit the older lenses will be more prone to flare.

But you have to go back a long way before you are likely to see major non correctable problems in PS.

I use a Mamiya C220 with all the lenses and Mamiya Press with all the lenses alongside my Nikons...the Mamiya lenses were all made around the 60/70's and are coated...but not with the multicoatings you get today, but you really have to go back over 60 years before you get uncoated optics?

But every lens has it's "signature" and those made from metal and glass, and primes, have a good chance of keeping element alignment longer than a shoddy plastic offering?

The only way to test is like with like, an uncoated or single coated with a multicoated equivalent? And in testing lighting that will reveal CA's, flare, etc.

Manufacturers have had to redesign for digital because the problems are different, but are we talking about testing on film or digital, old lenses only had to perform well on film and differences in subject handling will become more obvious using film lenses on digital sensors?

As for resolution, that is a like for like issue too? Leica, Zeiss, Nikon, Canon, etc.. knew how to make beautiful lenses decades ago. Cheap lenses, mostly plastic are relatively poor performers and always have been.

Still, horses for courses, high contrast tack sharp or a touch of warmth and romance. The choice is yours!