Some may value sharpness above all things, others will search for the best possible bokeh. But there are lenses that are just plain special.
Digital has changed things a fair bit, in the sense that the performance of a particular lens depends now not only by how good it is in itself, but also by how nicely it plays with the sensor of your particular camera.
That said, some lenses have always been great, regardless of the kind of camera, the megapixel count of the sensor, or the sensor size, and these are the ones I ended up keeping in the end and that I doubt I’ll ever sell.
In order of focal length (each picture shot with the lens mentioned just below it):
28-85/3.5-4 Contax Vario-Sonnar MM
This lens is phenomenal, sharper than the corresponding Contax fixed focal lenses at common apertures and, while a tad big, still lighter and smaller than having to carry two or more fixed lenses. The colors are to die for. And at 85mm is pure magic.
28/2.8 Minolta M-Rokkor (for Leica M)
I bought this when I still had an Hasselblad setup. The very first time hiking with it I brought along this on a Nex 7 and the Hasselblad with a 50/4 Distagon (one of my favorite lenses of all time). Back home, checking the files I just shot for sharpness (to rut out blurry ones, given it was a windy day) I several times mistakenly thought that files shot with it where files shot with the Hasselblad 50mm, because it renders in the same, beautiful, way. It has a way to render the out of focus areas – no, not “bokeh”, just the gradations between perfectly sharp areas and areas gradually less sharp, if that makes sense – that is superb. And it is still the sharpest 28mm I ever tried (especially if you focus it at the working aperture, given it suffers from focus shift when stopping down). I had two samples, the first one suffered badly from the dreaded “Schnideritis” (the bubbles), but it was still super sharp.
40/1.8 Konica Hexagon AR
This has to be the bargain of the millennium. You can buy this one for less than 50€, but it has a gorgeous rendering and especially from one stop down is super sharp (in fact, a lot sharper than the already sharp 40/2 M-Rokkor listed below). The coating, though, is not exactly great and it cannot hold a candle to the Contax T*, so a hood is mandatory and I’d avoid shooting straight into the sun.
40/2 Minolta M-Rokkor (for Leica M)
What can I say? Minolta / Leica created truly a classic. This is the same lens as the 40/2 Leica Summicron-C, just in a slightly different barrel with a 40.5mm filter ring, instead of a non-standard pitch 39mm one; according to some the Minolta should be multi-coated, while the Leica it is single coated. Especially good for reportage / street / documentary photography. The only downside is the bokeh, that with very messy backgrounds (branches and such) sometimes can get really busy. Even this one, for the best results, needs to be focused at the working aperture, like its 28mm sibling.
50/1.7 Contax Planar
This one has a spark of magic, another proof that you don’t always get what you paid for, sometimes you get much more, given how cheap it is nowadays. Beside, of all the 50mm I ever tried this is the sharpest.
This is strictly a “special effects” only lens. At full aperture, and even better at f/2, the center is sharp but everything else in the frame melts away. It’s not just a matter of the open aperture, it has to do with the optical scheme itself so you can’t easily replicate the effect with another fast lens. If used with the appropriate subject – basically “portraits”, being that of a person or of a flower, reportage, street etc. – it is fantastic. Stopped down to f/11 the rendering evens out in the rest of the frame, but while sharp enough I wouldn’t use it as a general purpose lens, at least not for landscapes.
55/1.7 Minolta Rokkor-PF MC
This was the first lens I ever used, it being “glued” to my father’s camera, a gorgeous Minolta SRT-101. Every now and then there is a resurgence of the “1 camera 1 lens” exercise (with many cheating using a 28-300mm as the “1” lens…). Well, I forcefully did this “exercise” for several years, given the 55/1.7 was indeed the only lens I owned at the time, all my spare money being spent then on professional slide film at 15 bucks a roll! It is still one of my favorite lenses, and it set the bar fairly high. You will have to stop it down to f/4 for seriously sharp results, but at the wide apertures it gives the same kind of look you get from shooting with an 80mm on medium format film, in terms of isolation of your subject. Again, it is not just a matter of the fast aperture, but of the optical scheme that renders the out of focus areas smooth like melted butter, while keeping the in focus ones sharp. Hint: the in focus areas benefit a lot from adding a 15/20 points of “Clarity” to compensate for the not state of the art coating (not state of the art for 2016, that is).
60/2.8 Contax Makro-Planar
Alongside the 100-300 Vario-Sonnar the sharpest lens I own, period. This thing makes the files from the A7r look oversharpened even with the standard, minimum amount of sharpening applied by Lightroom during import.
90/4 Minolta M-Rokkor (for Leica M)
Do you see a pattern here? The entire series of M-Rokkor lenses was phenomenal, and this is no exception (and again, this one as well has a twin in the Leica Elmar-C). While just an f/4 lens, it does still have a fairly limited depth of field fully open (depth of field depends on the aperture, sure, but as well on the particular optical scheme employed, so different lenses may exhibit different depth of field at the same aperture) and it is super sharp with amazing colors straight from wide open.
135/2 Canon EF L Usm
The only lens I regret selling. But using it on a Sony would have meant having to buy a Metabones adapter (at the time the only alternative), and I simply couldn’t justify such an expensive purchase for just one lens. Wonderfully sharp straight from f/2, with a really nice rendering. Like many Canon lenses (compared to Zeiss glass) a bit lacking in terms of micro-contrast, but capable of terrific results with the proper post processing.
100-300/4.5-5.6 Contax Vario-Sonnar MM
You probably already know about this one. It is one of the sharpest lenses I own. It is of limited use on the A7r thanks to the horrid shutter shock of the Sony, but used on cameras with a front curtain shutter or a fully electronic shutter delivers its full potential, that’s huge. Its only defect is a tad of eccessive vignetting at full aperture at 300mm, but it is something noticeable mostly if you have to use “Dehaze” on a picture with lots of sky, otherwise not something you’ll need to worry about too much.
Finally, a special mention should go to two Zeiss lenses for the classic V series Hasselblad medium format cameras:
50/4 Zeiss Distagon
My copy looked like crap, with the front ring with two screws drilled in to patch it up and to keep it from falling off. But it was still one of my favorite lenses of all time. Super sharp, wonderful colors and contrast, terrific rendering. Should digital medium format become economically feasible at some point, this lens alone is already enough of a reason for me to buy a back for an Hasselblad V series camera.
80/2.8 Zeiss Planar
There is a reason this is a classic. While not as sharp as the 100/3.5, it is still the kind of lens on which you can build an entire career. Again: sharp, nice rendering, nice colors, a bargain in terms of price.
The funny thing is, most of the lenses listed above can be had for 1/10th or 1/20th the price of the latest digital-era marvel, and lack of AF aside (and even that might change with the new Techart AF adapter for Sony!) they will have a better performance most of the times, and will fall just slightly short of the very best new lenses but, again, for only a small fraction of the price.