A renaissance of manual focus lenses, but who are they for?

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The past decade has seen a gradual increase in the number of new manual focus lenses manufactured and sold. Who are these lenses for and why would one buy them over an autofocus lens?

There are a handful of advancements in photography that have been truly groundbreaking. The advent of color film (as inaccurate as colors are), the single-lens reflex digital camera (DSLR), and autofocus. Curiously, and contrary to what many might believe, these three are not listed in chronological order; the first autofocus camera predates the first DSLR by 11 years.

Leica spent much of the 1960s and early 1970s patenting autofocus systems, and it is reported that at Photokina in 1976 they demonstrated a camera with the new technology, although this It wasn’t until 1978 that they were able to show off a fully functional SLR camera. auto focus. However, sandwiched between those two years, Konica mass-produced the C35 AF, a point-and-shoot with autofocus. However, photography veterans and historians may be most familiar with the iconic Polaroid SX-70, which stole the title of the first commercially available DSLR with autofocus. From there, autofocus became central to many new cameras.

There was no doubt that autofocus was one of the biggest quality-of-life changes photographers had experienced, and it seemed like every year the technology got better. Even today, more than 50 years after cameras with autofocus systems hit the shelves, we are far from perfecting it. Despite innovation on top of innovation, new cameras and lenses are still criticized for their hunting, inaccuracies, or poor performance under test conditions. Nevertheless, the autofocus increased the number of keepers of each shot, especially those with a lot of sudden movements, by an incomprehensible amount.

So, with that in mind, why have we seen a resurgence of manual focus lenses on the market over the past decade, and why does it seem like the number of new manual focus lenses is increasing every year? year ?

The appeal of manual focus lenses

You may have read the title or intro and thought this might end up criticizing manual focus lenses, and while there are elements of that, my overall reaction to these lenses is positive. In fact, I currently own four manual focus lenses and have bought and sold many more. Some of my favorite images were shot with these lenses and in many ways I think they are too easily overlooked. Here are some reasons for and against manual focus lenses.

Pros: Low price

There’s no denying that photography is an expensive profession, whether it’s a hobby or a career. The best lenses are usually locked behind painful price tags and so many – maybe even most – photographers are unable to own and use the best glass with the most desirable features.

Manual focus lenses seem to have been born out of the realization that manufacturers can significantly reduce prices if they remove autofocus. For example, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L is $1,999, while the Rokinon SP 85mm f/1.2 is $744.95. The Rokinon is 37% off the price of the Canon, and believe me, it’s not the most extreme example. Fast prime lenses with autofocus have traditionally been a real luxury, which is a shame, as shallow depth of field lenses are fun to use and can create beautiful results.

That’s not to say there aren’t expensive manual focus lenses (I’m looking at you, the Zeiss Milvus range, you beautiful, expensive pig!), but there is a fantastic selection of lenses out there. cheaper available these days.

Cons: Limited use

When looking at manual focus lenses, you have to ask yourself if you can do without autofocus for that focal length, and that has to be an honest conversation. Without autofocus, you should work slower and expect more missed shots, especially if you use the large maximum aperture of these lenses. This means these lenses are unlikely to always be on the front of your camera or suitable for all circumstances unless you are shooting a genre like architecture.

Another limitation of these lenses is that they are almost always prime lenses. I’ve relied on prime lenses throughout my photography career, but there are times when zoom lenses are either a must or very useful.

Pros: Fast

I’ve touched on this particular advantage of manual focus lenses before, but they’re often the cheapest way to get incredibly fast glass. There’s definitely too much emphasis on shooting at f/0.95 at f/1.4, but there are times when it looks fantastic. I wondered if extreme subject separation and bokeh would be a phase I came out of, but frankly, I still enjoy it. The cinematic aspect of narrow depth of field is nice, and these manual focus lenses can do it just as well as any autofocus lens, but without cleaning up your savings.

Cons: Heavy and/or Large

I’ll admit I haven’t done the necessary work to determine if this is true for all manual focus lenses on the market, but of the many I’ve used and owned, they’ve all been heavy. It’s strange. I expected removing the autofocus system would result in some weight loss; nevertheless, they tend to be large. It’s not true everywhere, but the average seems to be higher, and then there are almost bizarre examples. The Zenit MC Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 lens, one of my all-time favorite manual focus lenses, was small but constructed mostly of metal and looked like it could resist the war.

For: Character

While on the subject of that 85mm Zenit, some of the newer manual focus lenses (and old ones too for that matter) have such character for the way images shot with them are rendered. It can be polarizing, and in the case of the Zenit, some people said it looked amazing and asked where to buy it, while others said it made them seasick. They do reference to radial bokeh, which I enjoy and which acts as a secondary vignette to guide the eye to your subject, but understand that it’s not for everyone.

Cons: Focus Peaking

This isn’t necessarily a review of manual focus lenses, but rather a review of one of the key tools for using them: focus peaking. Focus peaking occurs when the camera illuminates whatever is in focus with a chosen color, whether behind the screen or in the EVF. While that might be great, I find most of my go-to systems, Sony and Fujifilm, to be really mediocre. I’ve tried white, red, blue, green, dark, bright, and every other option, and it’s nowhere near as useful as I’d like. This can make shooting with manual focus something of a time-consuming judgment call, hence the slower pace of shooting.

Conclusion

The rise of manual focus lenses over the past decade has been unexpected but interesting. There have been manual focus lenses since the dawn of photography, even after they were no longer the only option. However, it’s the slew of fast and affordable manual focus lenses of recent years that has created a strong market for them. They require a slower shooting pace, but if that’s the way you work, they can be amazing tools, full of character.

What do you think of manual focus lenses? Do you use them in your photography? Why or why not? Share your thoughts (and pictures) in the comments section below.

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