Shooing Sony - episode 2 - Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8Read More
I took a bit of a gamble back when the Sony NEX7 was launched - with a hope it would be the first in a series that would eventually, not only improve, but go full frame.
At the time, the Fuji mirrorless had arrived prior, had compelling features, and even a cool retro look. This was a real nod to the purist photographers who want tradition to lead, rather than gadgetry and electronics wizardry divorced from any real essential functionality. Superfluous directions seeming to grope at what a camera would and could be in the future essentially lead majority of designs of other digital cameras prior except DSLRs. In the effort to be forward thinking with the new digital age, most cameras were these morphed objects that took us away from basic photography. There were still holes in how manufacturers approached cameras and the market despite years of significant progress. At a certain point manufacturers started to revert back to the basics, thankfully! Much of this is still playing out. Canon and Nikon, as of this writing, are about to finally launch their version of what mirrorless can do - after Olympus, Fuji and Sony commandeered that market.
Soon enough, Sony indeed provided full frame options like the Sony A7R. That was amazing. Now, it seems outdated, mainly by that thunderous shutter and other tech that almost seems decades old at this point. The product cycles now are amazingly fast. With the A7R2, many advancements came. Now the A7R3 has put many DSLRs to shame as Canon and Nikon seem to lag behind, even if only in what seem like minor advantages - like EVF, stabilization, and ability to take any lens. Some photographers do not feel these are beneficial enough or feel that tech isn't really there yet. However, for some, these are everything, and for some, so is size of the camera. And here, this is where the Sony really enters into it's own space.
What I feel is the biggest advantage using Sony is the diminutive size possible in full frame, high megapixel and ability to nearly any lens, particularly M mount lenses. The above other advantages are also huge for me, and even central. With the Sony, that is a very small and light camera body, and an M mount lens, you can keep the entire package very compact. Putting on a 24-70, a new AF 85, ZA 35 or 50, or even top level MF Zeiss ZE/ZF 25, 35, 55, 85, + will bring us into, or exceed DSLR category in size - despite the small body. Digital sensors really need the light rays projected straight onto them, leading the designs to often be sizable in glass and length to facilitate that. Granted, who cares if you have a specific task where excellence in quality trumps all else. In fact, it still may be smaller than competition that is actually relevant, including digital medium format. But, with a tiny M mount lens, it keeps the camera - lens and body together - very compact. Surprisingly compact, considering the capability.
Further, the ability to put on legacy glass opens up many possibilities, especially for the artist types. In my opinion, while the Sony zooms are likely as fantastic as reviewed and compared, they still echo a more simple solution aimed at convenience. And nothing wrong with that, especially with outstanding, or even, leading image quality. But, the ability to throw on M mount glass intended for Leicas is a real boon, an opportunity for something quite unique - even comparable to, or better than Leica - for some.
I do not own any Leica glass. I'm ok with that. I love and respect Leica. I would love a Leica and the glass. But, it's not exactly feasible for the most part. At times I have considered it heavily and came quite close, even checkbook in hand to the Leica store. I specifically wanted an M body so I could use Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8 to it's fullest on the camera it was made for.
The first lens I bought that was M mount is still a solid fave - the Voigtlander Nokton 40/1.4 MC. Nokton is their faster line of lenses, and MC is for Multi Coated. They make a Single Coating variant as well, but I can't really comment on it having no experience with it. Apparently, it is even more prone to flare and less contrasty, which I take to mean an even older school look. They also produce this lens in a 35mm/1.4 version that costs about 1/3rd more. The 40mm is not the smallest lens, nor smallest Voigtlander even. But, for a fast lens, for a 1.4 lens, it's absolutely positively tiny. After all, best 1.4 lenses are very large like the Zeiss Otus, or even less expensive rival, the Sigma Art series. Leica Noctilux also quite large, yet far faster at 0.95.
Speaking of Zeiss, Cosina manufacturers Zeiss and Voigtlander in Japan. Voigtander are metal barreled solid, mostly tank like, lenses, often priced at quite a value compared to their German counterparts. They are also often very different in associated characteristics, typically more akin to older lenses, or even early Zeiss or Leica lenses. Voigtlander are also quite capable though. After all, Cosina does have the capability and know how to produce amazing lenses for Zeiss.
The 40/1.4 is also quite inexpensive, less than $450 new, or around $225-$350 second hand. Used is not a big deal for such a solid lens, capable of taking quite a beating.
First of all, the feeling of the lens on the Sony A7 series is just wonderful. It literally is an entirely different feel because of its size. I use an L plate on the camera as well, and a Voigtlander Close Focus adapter that essentially halves the minimal focusing distance. For my shooting, this is absolutely . . . gold! Such an asset, whether for food photography, details at weddings, whatever. This means I can get so much more out of this setup than I would on a Leica, adding tremendous value for my type of shooting. With the metal barrel, glass, L plate, and adapter, while small, the camera feels extremely solid, even a bit weighty - but in a good way. It's not as pretty as a Leica, and even a bit more clumsy looking, but feels great.
The lens has a tab on the bottom for focusing, like some Leica glass, as well. I love this. Not for everyone, I understand. Nothing is. But, it's a wonderful feel that allows for super quick and precise movements. A real joy to use. The combination of the feel of the tiny lens, tab focusing, nice solid weight, and EVF - allowing for WYSIWYG viewing means I'm seeing what my end result will be - for the most part. In fact, because I shoot a lot of B&W, I set the EVF to B&W, then I can focus on tonal values and end result look. Crucial here also is the Exposure Compensation dial where my right thumb is allowing me to make every adjustment I need on the move w/o having to chimp or look down, or go through any menus.
It's so comfortable to use, and carry, and also less threatening to subjects than a large gun type of lens that often will make people react. Instead, people are often simply "as they are" and it doesn't seem to interrupt in the same way pulling out a larger lens does. In real world use for me, it's subtle to use yet a powerhouse with 42.2MP images well exceeding what is capable in Leica at this time, where they remain at 24MP. 24 is enough, really! But, for the crazies, 42.2MP is better if you can make good use of it. While this lens does not maximize that, it's still a beauty to have the excess for large printing, cropping, downscaling, etc.
Many things to love, but the variable nature of the lens is also a boon. Soft, dreamy, old school, smooth creamy bokeh like the best of legacy glass - some even compare to the legendary Helios 85, appropriately. Yet, in a tiny package (reminds me of Robin Williams in Aladdin). Close the lens down to 2.8, F4 or more, and you start to get another character altogether; modern, very crispy with a sharpness that's surprising given the prior stated nature. Makes me wonder if the SC version would lose that, or be fairly superfluous because the dual character of the MC is just about perfect. I can shoot dreamy sexy old world style shots in appropriate environment like weddings. Or I can close down and it's like any solid Leica or Zeiss glass - sans the super sharpness - which is not what all shooting is about. Character trumps sharpness here. If you want absolute sharpness or resolving power, not the lens. Nor the size, nor feel, nor price point. Simply, that's reserved for other choices. If you want strong character, absolute sharpness, 1.4, the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4 is amazing, but about 4 times the price and size.
I often recommend this lens to photographers looking for that purist feel and character, whether for the A7 series or cropped variants making it a 60mm/1.4. At native focal length, 40mm, I was initially surprised to find it quite perfect. I love a 50, and I love 35mm lenses. 35 gives me a look that is a bit wide so I can include the scene, the environment and more than 1-2 people at a close distance in the scene. I was afraid 40 would be a weird unusable in-between. In use, it's closer to a 35, but a tad tighter. This can be important for storytelling ensuring you can both include more than one subject along with a background scene, yet able to isolate the subjects through a thin plane of focus. There is a dramatic focus fall off that can result in creamy smooth out of focus areas, yet patterns can become a bit chaotic and busy - and I say that neutrally. Out of focus highlights can be a bit like the Helios 85 and Zeiss Biotar and tend to get enlarged and have defined edges, yet without the associated swirling effect of background patterns. Can be a fantastic look, yet easily mitigated if not desired - by closing down or slight repositioning of subjects relative to lighting. Once you get experience working with it and these available looks they can be a nice set of tools, yet the lens can also be quite neutral if desired. Love that versatility!
Great for storytelling, weddings, parties, scenes, and where there are no real concerns for imperfections associated with this character. 50mm lenses give me straight lines, often in a flat plane of focus - meaning, if I shoot wide open, that I can count on a thin flat plane across the frame, if I nail it. Some wider lenses have more of a curve or spherical aspect to their character wide open - field curvature. Perfection aside, field curvature that is dramatic can be another tool for a look, a paintbrush that dramatizes and curves elements in front and behind the focal plane. I think of this as a sphere of focus in a sense. Sometimes, they can appear to give a sense of motion, but not the kind that is too much and dizzying as in the case of the Petzval or original Biotar designs. This is really only true wide open and lessens quite a bit as it closed down.
Why This Lens:
I recommend this to other photographers, new or experienced, because of it's character that has a painterly rendering and smoothness, and, for me, ability to isolate the subject well. This is particularly true if subject is within 1-2 meters. Easy to bring drama, accentuate, and paint an emotional scene that often is more akin to a the real feeling of the experience, including emotional components, reflection of ambiance, than a straightforward factual shot - like from a mobile phone or whatever basic camera closed down.
It's relatively cheap. It's positively tiny. It has a great feel that changes the entire feel of the camera and how one shoots, advantageously (in my opinion). Tab focusing is something I really like. Some hate it, but hard for me to understand why. It's a purist's lens, the antithesis of the modern sharp perfectly corrected but often stale look lenses. It gives scenes a bit of a painterly feel and that's unique in terms of lenses you can buy new today, and nice to get "in camera". It's capable of dramatic bokeh almost on par with the greatest, and this is true in terms of creamy bokeh in the transitions and background, but also in the Out Of Focus Highlights (OOFHs) that it can make magic of. Not quite a Noctilux, Helios 85, or Zeiss Biotar, or even Voigtlander 50/1.1 - but surprisingly close and has more of a real world use that doesn't become too nauseating. Closed down it begins to turn into a lens capable of crispy sharp details somewhat resembling relatively modern lenses. And the focal length is perfectly flexible, right-in-the-middle. Great for portraits with character and painterly feel or capturing a scene in near full without wide angle distortions.
For the professional photographer it offers a fascinating position of a companion lens. Companion to me, so to say, as in - always on me, or to another lens and body that you're using for specialty reasons. For example I may have the Zeiss Otus or Milvus 100/2 Makro for specific captures and types of shots, and then a second body with the 40 as my basic lens for anything else, including the potential for specific looks. With that in mind, many professionals have other cameras that are smaller as secondary, mainly for size reasons. With this combination, it's a tad bigger than a Sony A6500, and not pocketable like a Ricoh GR or Sony RX100, but not much larger than a Fuji X100, and ultimately still very very small - and yet, a real powerhouse and workhorse capability far exceeding the aforementioned options. No compromises that I'd have to make taking a pocket camera or cropped sensor camera. Instead, full capability, and full backup mirroring my other system at absolute full potential. Ultimately, I could even use this setup for studio portraits as the combination of strobes and higher aperture would create a look essentially on par with most solid new lenses.
Similarly, it's excellent as a versatile walk around lens. I find it ideal. As a lens to keep on - just in case, when otherwise camera is put in bag or aside but available at arms length. Very easy to grab and use as fast as the camera comes on. For weddings, really ideal because of the painterly look, not overly harsh, and a bit dreamy. Excellent in low light of weddings and making the most of out of focus highlights of candles, soft lighting, etc. for that fantasy look really associated with the loving emotions of the day. These are all greatly appreciated by bridal customers and at intimate events. Super quick to focus and use. Extremely versatile. I even use it for food photography, usually because it's around and because of the super close focusing. It's about as unintimidating as you can get for a lens for this system in terms of how people react when shooting. I can actually shoot relatively discretely. And as a second camera on you in weddings, all the more ideal due to small footprint. Often, portrait sessions, in studios or on location, it's great to have on me to capture the environment and soft ambient lit images and portraits. Sometimes, those images get used as much as the ones shot with every bit of supposed best equipment. Humbling. Truly ideal for so much.
Should also note that when combined with the Tech Art autofocus adapter it works great. That wide aperture helps it find focus easier and with more light. Together, they are solid in feel, yet quick and light to use. I've never been 100% with the AF adapter as I'm really more of an MF guy. But, if one lens is most ideal in combination with the AF adapter, for me, it's this one. Mainly for size and subsequent feel in hand and while shooting, the shooting experience is simply very nice. The adapter, like the Voigtlander Close Focus adapter, also offers a far shorter minimal focusing distance - a huge plus.
It's not a lens to brag about being The Best, The Sharpest, The Most Corrected, or The Most Expensive. It's none of those. If you need a red dot, or blue square, or gear only associated with the best of the best, it's not that. No one will care. They will barely notice you actually and probably think you have some other camera entirely. But, for purists, it's about as good as it gets in a tiny package that is user friendly, artistic, and quite unique. (Truth is many think the Sony with it is a Leica, but still . . . If you want to look like you have a Leica, buy a Leica. For what it's worth, this is for a Leica. Meaning it meets that quality standard, is used by many Leica owners for decades - for reasons, and it's simply also great for all the same reasons on a Leica.)
Lastly, shooting Sony; this get's the owner more into the Leica territory of feel with a camera far less expensive, far more real world gadgetry in the Sony that is usable, far more resolution, that is easer to use. Doesn't beat a Leica. Please don't misunderstand. Different beasts altogether. But this is nice. Very nice. Even with a Leica rangefinder on hand, I found this combination easier and more of a natural grab to simply go shoot with.
I understand a new version should be coming out very with an E mount. Sounds great! It will likely be a better performer on the Sony. But, I'm happy with it as it is, including smaller barrel size, shorter, and close focus capability with right adapter. And I can use it in AF with an AF M to E adapter.
Additional considerations by others.
At least one professional reviewer cited this lens as "foolish", yet silky smooth, as good as the Leica 40/2 in sharpness, and other qualities. Love that! But, that assessment included the fact that on a Leica M frame lines don't match up making it challenging to understand your composition with any accuracy. Ironically, this was my issue with the purchasing a Leica M mainly for my Zeiss ZM 25/2.8 Biogon. The lens was designed for Leica M yet most bodies don't have frame lines to support it. And I'd have to shave off 1/2 the resolution of the Sony, no EVF, and at a greater expense. I couldn't stomach it. But again, I love Leica, love the qualities of their sensors, but don't like making compromises at a greater expense. Which reminds me to say again, the Voigtlander Nokton 40 is not an outstanding lens, except in it's overall simplicity and how wonderful it is to use and use a paintbrush imagery that is unique. The Zeiss Biogon in contrast is a bit more boring, but one of the sharpest lenses ever. Each in their right environment have tremendous attributes that are real benefits to users seeking such qualities.
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