Manual Focus Lenses on A DSLR – The Search for that ‘Magic’ MF Lens

When this series started I was really excited about doing some proper tests on lenses which I’d used on an Olympus 620 and a Canon 60D for several years. Always in search of that ‘magic’ lens which would give images a special touch, this post is a summary of my experience working with these lenses.

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This is a shot from the Vivitar Series One 70-210 – quite close to that ‘magic’ lens

There are a few complete duffers which I didn’t bother to test – but they didn’t cost much so it didn’t matter – and here’s one.

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The unbelievably small Industar 50mm f3.5. It’s so small it’s unusable really, and the results – from this copy – are not that good, so the planned test was cancelled.

To make their use worthwhile, MF lenses must offer either a significant aperture speed advantage over a kit lens, or show some special optical quality which modern AF zooms can’t create at a bargain price which makes them attractive.

Of the lenses tested, running from 17mm through to 300mm, it’s the ones in the 24mm-85mm range which stand out.

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Is that a lenscap? Oh no, it’s an Olympus EPL3! Another one where the test was abandoned – a ‘loaner’ from Pete and Jayne, a 400mm Tokina f5.6. Is MF with an 800mm equivalent possible? Maybe, but it’s just not worth the trouble. Testing the 300mm was bad enough – I’m not doing extreme telephotos again!

Less than 24mm and the max apertures are about the same as a kit zoom, and the performance more or less the same.

At 24mm to 85mm the aperture advantages are significant, as are the corresponding improvements in bokeh.

After 85mm, things start to even out again, the difficulties in focussing MF lenses at smaller telephoto apertures – just when you need critical focussing – start a downward turn which at some point becomes a breaking point. For me it is 135mm at f2.8. After that telephoto lenses become progressively more difficult to use as the max apertures get smaller – autofocus and image stabilisation start to become indispensable.

The ‘stars’ from the tests then –

The Zuiko 24mm f2.8 is a brilliant 35mm equivalent on a 60D. Sharp, contrasty and light.

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Unreservedly recommended – the Zuiko 24mm f2.8. I must get one!

The Zuiko 50mm f1.4 is very good even wide open and a good portrait lens.

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The Zuiko 50mm f1.4 – lovely colours, shallow depth of field and a perfect portrait lens.

For sheer eccentricity the Jupiter/Helios 85mm f2 is the best of them all, producing some unique results – the closest I’ve come to that ‘magic’ lens.

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The Helios 85mm f2 – the soft bokeh and image softness are a unique combination. The closest to my mythical ‘magic’ lens so far.

The Zuiko 85mm f2 is the ‘sensible’ alternative to the Helios. Both produce results at f2 which are very different to a kit lens at 85mm at f5.6.

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The Zuiko 85mm f2 – not as crazy as the Helios but more predictable. Some might prefer it’s cooler more restrained images.

For macro, the Zuiko 50mm f3.5 is also a good general purpose lens, but I’d rather have the zoom range and macro capability of the Vivitar 70-210 f3.5 Macro. However, I’d need to know it was needed before all that weight went into the camera bag.

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The Vivitar 70-210 f3.5 Macro – a legend of a lens and excellent on digital. The macro mode is superb. I just wish it weighed a bit less!

If I’m being brutally honest, the list stops there. When you come to pack the camera bag for a shoot, the Canon EF 70-300 is always going to be preferred to any of the MF lenses past 135mm, and probably 85mm. There just isn’t the compelling case to regularly use these lenses at their max aperture/weight/size/performance – it’s as simple as that.

Any of the four lenses above are a very good complement to a wide/standard and a telephoto AF zoom. With the exception of the Vivitar they could routinely be carried in the camera bag without weighing you down too much. None of them should cost more than around £140.

So – this test series finally finished ! It’s been good fun and worth the effort – even if it’s only to pare down my collection of old lenses to the best ones. The only downside is that now I’m on the hunt for a Zuiko 24mm f2.8….

Links to all the MF lens tests on a DSLR can be found here on the film, camera and lens review index tab.

Hope you find this useful, and it saves you some time and money…

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