Today I am starting a new project on this blog called Vintage Lens Jeopardy with a fun cheap lens the Porst Color Reflex 55mm F2.8. Last year when I bought my Fujifilm X-T3 I got a couple of cheap vintage lenses. I quickly got hooked on buying more and more lenses just to try them out.
For certain brands prices on Ebay are going through the roof. You can pay more than for a modern lens sometimes. So I decided to only bid on lenses less than 20€. And I learned that buying cheap vintage lenses on Ebay is like playing jeopardy. I got some beautiful pieces, some who had a rough life, others that needed repair and some that were simply cheap crap even new. These are my adventures.
Who was Porst? A short history
The Porst company was once Germany’s biggest photo retailer. They started out as a mail order company offering low prices and installment plans with no credit check. This made them hugely popular with post war consumers wanting to own a camera but not really having any savings to buy one outright. Later on they changed from being mail order to being a brick and mortar store in prime retail areas of many German cities.
Porst mostly sold rebadged cameras and lenses that they sourced from different manufacturers. Early on they bought products from the GDR. East Germany had inherited a respectable camera industry from before World War II and Porst bought these products and sold them under their own in-store brand. Later the East Germans would even develop and produce products specifically for export as the GDR was chronically short of hard currency.
But Porst had even deeper connections to the East. The founder’s son Hannsheinz Porst was in fact a spy for the East German intelligence service and eventually sentenced to prison in 1969. Both Porst senior and junior had a huge social commitment to their employees. They offered apartments, generous vacation days, company sponsored travels and education programs.
Being convinced socialists Porst junior tried to implement his political ideas within his own company. In 1972 he essentially gave the company to his employees who would then vote on the management. In 1978 he removed himself from management. In 1982 the experiment failed and Porst junior stepped in to rescue the company.
The Swiss Interdiscount took a majority stake and the company kept on going but could never really grow like before. In 2002 Porst went into bankruptcy. This though had less to do with it’s founders socialist ideas but rather the emergence of big box electronics stores who would also sell camera gear. Porst could no longer source from the GDR and had very little expertise and connections in selling brand name gear from Japan which most consumers now preferred. In the end most photo stores went under in the 2000s with the advent of digital cameras and smartphones.
The Porst Color Reflex 55mm F2.8
This lens is what we today call a kit lens. It was rarely sold alone but together with an SLR camera. You won’t really find much about these lenses online as they are not very popular or known outside Germany. For my lens there is nothing on Allphotolenses. From the serial number it seems to have been made in 1984. I also found some catalogue pages from 1980 where it was sold with an entry level camera.
Back then a 50mm lens was considered a standard lens. Versatile for most kinds of photography. Zooms were rather expensive and suffered from distortions. But an aperture of F2.8 for a 55mm lens was pretty bad for 1980. The standard was F1.8 which would allow for pictures being taken under less than ideal light or offer more creative options with a smaller depth of field. Porst actually sold F1.8 and even an F1.2 lens in the same catalogue.
My copy is in pretty good condition with one noticeable defect. The aperture works flawlessly, the markings are still good, there is only little wear and tear and the glass is clean. The focus is slightly stiff (probably hardened lubricant). But the focus ring rubber is peeling off. Something I can easily fix with glue or or a new rubber or maybe even leather strip. I paid €7.50 plus shipping which I consider a low price considering the good condition. Some might say even a cent would be too much for an unremarkable lens like this but we will see.
This lens was really the cheapest of the cheap options. It was barely usable in low light except for static subjects and on a tripod. It did not offer great bokeh with it’s slow aperture and meager five aperture blades. Even shooting fast moving subjects would be a challenge with an F2.8 lens under anything than bright light or with a flash. A minimum focusing distance of 0.9m was not great either.
The construction is surprisingly good with a metal lens barrel and mount. There was some plastic used for the control rings and the aperture control only offers full stops which does not allow for much precision about depth of field or exposure. But it does feel weighty and solid for such a small and compact lens. Here is one advantage, the lens would only protrude 45mm and weighed in at a reasonable 150g. My adapter weights more. A small lightweight option for daylight photography.
But remember this was an entry level lens. It was for people who would buy consumer grade film and print postcard sized photos. In 1980 even more than today good lenses were actually more expensive than cameras. So this lens was considered and entry point for someone wanting to step up from a cheap compact camera to an SLR. And this set with camera and the Porst Color Reflex 55mm F2.8 came in at DM 349 (Deutsche Mark), about €380 in today’s money. The cheapest digital SLR from Canon the EOS 2000 with an 18-55mm lens is about €420 on Amazon at the time of this writing.
Image Quality and Samples
A short disclaimer before we look at the samples. I am using this lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor which is 1/3 smaller than the 35mm film that this lens was designed for. The sensor would only record the center portion of the lens. Therefore I am using a focal length reducer which collects the light from the full width of the lens and focuses it onto the smaller sensor. It is not perfect.
The Lens Turbo II I am using reduces the focal length by a factor of 0.73 which is less than the 0.67 needed to replicate the 35mm film size. This does reduce corner softness and vignetting (if present in a lens) though. Due to the additional optical elements the image quality is slightly degraded (especially field curvature) compared to using it on a full frame sensor. So the actual field of view approximates a 60mm equivalent lens and the aperture is technically about 9% smaller. Details that are interesting but for my practical purposes not much relevant.
I took all images on a sunny winter day while waiting for a friend who was doing her shopping at a local organic supermarket. I always try to use waiting times like these to consciously perceive my surroundings and look for photo opportunities. They were all shot with the Kodak Portra 160 film recipe from Fuji-X Weekly albeit without film grain.
Someone got herself a couple of fresh flowers. How beautiful after a long and gray winter. This was shot wide open at F2.8. The center sharpness is alright while the corners are pretty soft. For an isolated subject like this it does work.
A display for plants in front of the supermarket. I wonder if those dead plants were leftovers from last year? The out of focus areas are a bit “busy” looking.
I call this modern art unconsciously made by modern man. I think there are only a few things more disgusting than these dead and sterile stone beds around buildings. They are ugly and collect dirt and trash. But of course planting some greens costs money and the building in question was a parking garage. Stopped down at F8 the lens has decent sharpness. The right end was slightly out of focus.
This images shows why the lens is so cheap. Usually 50mm lenses are very easy to manufacture because the focal length produces little distortion like a wide angle or telephoto lens would. But the Porst Color 55mm Reflex F2.8 has noticeable distortion. Just look at the window. *Note: This might be caused by the focal length reducer too
Again for this price in 1980 they would not sell you a coated lens. The bright sky overwhelmed the lens and sapped all contrast. A hood might have helped but I did not carry one with me. Still I included this photo to show the effect and the precariously balanced books behind the right window.
The Porst Color Reflex 55mm F2.8 is without a doubt a cheap lens. It is well constructed but optically pretty mediocre. Especially the distortion and corner softness make this lens vastly inferior to almost any nifty fifty lens of the era. In fact Porst sold the same camera with a 50mm F1.8 for just 50DM (about €60 today) more. An absolute no brainer except for the absolute budget conscious. But as I said before. Most people would buy regular film stock and print postcard sized pictures. The small size images here also tend to hide some of the flaws.
Will I keep this lens? Before writing this article I wanted to sell it off because I have better lenses in this focal range. But the flaws could be used artistically for certain shots where I want to focus on a particular subject in the center. So I will keep it. It is a weird little lens that I would not use for anything critical except for funny and experimental shots. And I paid only €7.50 which makes it an affordable piece of fun.
One response to “Vintage Lens Jeopardy #1: Porst Color Reflex 55mm F2.8”
I never knew the story behind Porst! The short time I lived in Germany in the 1980s, Porst was still a going concern. The local Porst outlet developed a lot of my film and I bought a fair amount of Porst-branded film because it was inexpensive compared to Kodak and Fuji. It’s kind of sad that they’re gone, but even if they had not had their challenges, the changing photography market might have killed them anyway.