Okay, everybody is talking about how manual lenses work so well on the Sony a7 series but how does it actually work? And which results can I expect?
Read on if you want to know.
a7 II | Zeiss 2.8/28 | f/11 | price: around $250
Why should I use manual lenses?
- They can be very cheap, you can get a great 1.4/50 lens for $50. For most applications such a lens will give you 90% of the performance of a $1000 Zeiss 1.8/55 FE. For the $1000 you would have to pay for that Zeiss you can buy an excellent set of five lenses from 20 to 300mm.
- You have a huge choice between thousands of lenses ranging from exotic ones with lots of “character” to some of the very best lenses available.
- There are 30-year-old primes with better image quality than many modern lenses. Of course progress has happened in recent years but still even cheap primes are often sharper than very expensive modern zooms.
- Old lenses are usually beautifully built and more reliable than modern lenses which are full of electronics and very complex designs, both of which make them more likely to fail.
- They also hold their value much better than modern lenses. With some patience you can sell most manual lenses without a loss but with new lenses you can expect to lose 30% in the first year.
- Manual focusing can be very enjoyable. This certainly depends on application and personality but I for example enjoy working with fully manual lenses a lot more than with any AF lens. Check out our manual photographers series to read other photographers stories.
Why shouldn’t I use manual lenses?
- You have to do everything yourself. You have to think about the aperture and set it manually. You have to focus manually. The need to think about these things has improved my own technique a lot, but if you cannot or do not want to spend the time to learn these things manual lenses are probably not for you.
- Manual focus is often slower than AF. After some practice you will find that you can capture almost anything with manual lenses but it isn’t as convenient.
- Camera and lens do not communicate. Because of that your exif information will be incomplete and the camera can’t correct lens defects like distortion, vignetting or chromatic aberrations (CA). While CA can be corrected automatically by a raw-converter like Ligthroom you need to correct distortion and vignetting manually. Luckily these aberrations are seldom detrimental to an image.
- Image stabilizers are handy but manual lenses don’t have them. This makes photography with the Sony a7 and a7r a little more inconvenient, you have to carry a tripod more often and achieving focus with longer lenses is a bit harder. Newer Sony cameras like the Sony a7ii or a7rii feature an integrated image stabilizer which works with manual lenses! You need to tell the camera your focal length which costs 2 or 3 seconds each time you change your lens but it will gain you about two stops.
- Older lens coatings are less efficient this means that many lenses have lower contrast when you have a bright light source in your image. But there is a big variation between manufacturers and age.
Are those 30 year old lenses any good?
The short answer: Yes, they are.
The long answer: There are many old lenses which deliver very good image quality. Here are two examples :
Of course not every manual lens will be that good, here are some general observations I made while using manual lenses for 3 years:
- There are many very affordable lenses which give beautiful 24MP files and some of them even perform very well on the 42 MP sensor.
- Many lenses are very good in the center from f/2 or f/2.8 but sharpness decreases a lot outside of the center, more than many modern lenses do. If you stop them down to f/8 there are many lenses which are very sharp across the frame.
- In my eyes this is an unproblematic behavior because at f/2 I very rarely have important details in the corners and for landscapes when corners matter I stop down to f/8 any way.
- At f/1.4 and wider older manual lenses are definied by lower contrast, mediocre sharpness and somewhat busy bokeh. Recently released modern lenses like the GM 1.4/85 or Zeiss 1.4/50 show a much stronger performance but they also cost a lot.
- Zooms have improved a lot over the last three decades and most of the older ones aren’t very good. But there are a few notable exceptions. My Minolta 3.5/35-70 for example is sharper across the frame than the Zeiss 4/24-70. The Zeiss has higher contrast though.
To see some good full resolution sample images with manual lenses you can visit this flickr album.
Now I think that nice character in a lens is usually more important than its sharpness and here the old lenses offer even more, they often have nicer bokeh than modern lenses. And lower contrast and under corrected aberrations create a certain look at wider apertures which I like a lot, here are some examples:
[Bilder neu einbinden]
For more images visit my flickr stream. I use mostly manual lenses.
Are they as good as the native E-mount lenses by Sony?
The short answer: It depends on the lens and what you are looking for.
The Zeiss 1.8/55 is a great lens. What is most remarkable about it is, that it is sharp in the corners at f/1.8 which no older normal lens is and it has smoother bokeh than any classic normal lens.
But I use faster lenses for portraits and closeups were I care about central sharpness, not the corners. In the the center many cheap 50mm lenses are very sharp from f/2 so the real world difference between the FE55 and my cheap manual lens won’t be that noticeable. What is very noticeable is the much better flare resistance of the modern lens. Here is a comparison of the Minolta MC 1.7/55 and the FE55. At f/8 the difference between a $1000 Zeiss and a $25 Minolta 2/50 is negligible in most aspects.
The Zeiss 2.8/35 faces even stiffer competition. First it is remarkably small but not that great optically and secondly there are manual 35mm lenses for less than $50 which are of similar optical quality. These manual lenses are sharp from corner to corner at f/2.8 and sharper than the $800 Zeiss in the corners at f/8 like the Canon nFD 2.8/35. They are a bit bigger but for some applications image quality can be better than that of the Sony.
The Zeiss 4/16-35 is a remarkable lens which performs as well as the better classic primes over it’s entire zoom range.
The Zeiss 4/24-70 is very sharp in the center (at least in the 24-60mm range) but the corners at the ends are quite soft and even cheap manual primes will offer better image quality. The Zeiss is still a viable option if you look for a very flexible solution but the less flexible manual lenses will be cheaper, smaller and sharper. The GM 2.8/24-70 plays two leagues above but it is an expensive beast of a lens.
The Sony G 4/70-200 (affiliate link) is quite sharp, focuses fast and is very versatile but also large, expensive and it’s bokeh isn’t very smooth. Personally I prefer to carry a smaller and 2.8/100 in my bag which is much more affordable and as sharp with more pleasant bokeh.
The 3.5-5.6/28-70 is okay for a kit lens but many manual lenses will perform better, especially at the short end.
How does manual focusing work and is it hard to learn?
There are several methods for focusing and each could be the best, depending on what you are shooting.
For landscapes and other non-moving motifs I usually use the Focus Magnifier function . It is absolutely reliable, but it is also a bit slower that other techniques.
It works like this: You press a button and a small orange rectangle appears. You can move this rectangle around wherever you want to focus.
At a second press of the button the selected area is magnified and you turn the focusing ring until the image is sharp:
I can only recommend to assign the focus magnifier function to an easily accessible button. The default position is c1 but I find that button hard to reach. My choice is the AF/MF button.
Go to menu / gear wheel /6 or 7 /Custom Key Settings /AF/MF Button and select Focus Magnifier.
Focus peaking is another focusing aid of the a7. It will highlight areas of the image which have a high microcontrast with a color like red, white or yellow.
There is an issue though: Even in it’s least sensitive setting it highlights too much. If you magnify a highlighted area you will often find that it is semi-sharp but it would have been sharper if you had used focus magnification.
I use focus peaking if I shoot quickly moving subjects were the image won’t be super sharp anyway but in general I think focus peaking is quite over hyped. It can be useful but most often it is not. Tip: If you shoot raw you can set your image profile to black and white which makes the peaking more visible.
A third method
If you want to focus fast and precise you can take advantage of a technical shortcoming of the electronic viewfinder (EVF).
When there are very fine structures in the image you see shimmering pixels in the EVF. Just focus your camera on some structured fabric and you will see it.
This method is more sensitive than the focus peaking and much less distracting.With this technique I usually get critically sharp images without using the focus magnifier button.
You can increase the effect by increasing the sharpening to +3 (Creative Style/ your picture mode/ Sharpness). This will result in overshapened jpgs but if you are shooting raw this won’t bother you.
Manual Focus – Conclusion
It is in fact very easy to learn to focus amanually. Over time your focusing skill will improve so that you can react faster and focus on people and other objects which are moving slowly. But it won’t take you more than 5 minutes to learn the basics needed to focus on a static object.
I also find that my results are more reliable than when I use AF and I enjoy the feeling more because it is me who is focusing, not the camera guessing were I want to focus.
Of course there are situations were AF is superior, I sometimes have to borrow a friends 5dII with 2.8/24-70 to cover an event and I wouldn’t want to shoot sport with manual lenses. But wherever I can get by with manual lenses I use them because it is more enjoyable for me.
Do I need an adapter?
For most lenses you do. There are some third party manufacturers which offer their lenses with E-mount but they will advertise it. Every lens older than 3 or 4 years needs an adapter.
Which adapter you need depends on the lenses you want to use, every major manufacturer in the 70’s and 80’s had it’s own bayonet and you need one adapter for each bayonet you want to use.
Lets say you want to use a Minolta MC 1.2/58 and a Canon FD 4/300 L, then you need one Canon FD to E-mount adapter (affiliate link) and one Minolta SR to E-mount adapter (affiliate Link).
Now if you clicked on the link above you will see that the is a vast supply of adapters in a very wide price range. To get started the cheaper K&F adapters (affiliate link) for $20 are perfectly fine.
If you plan to use more expensive lenses I would recommend a more expensive adapter like the one from Novoflex (affiliate Link). The Novoflex Adapter (which I have reviewed here) has lower tolerances and is more durable than the cheaper Chinese adapters. The difference isn’t huge but if you use your lenses a lot (like I do) you will appreciate the difference.
For in-depth information on adapters check out this article: Adapters for Manual Lenses on the Sony a7 series: The Guide
Which are some good lenses to get started?
I usually recommend Minolta MD/MC or Canon FD lenses to people who want to try a manual lens. Not because these lenses are better than those of other manufacturers, but because they are a bit cheaper.
If you want to buy a singe lens I would recommend a 1.4/50. These lenses are very affordable (you should pay less than $75 for one in good condition) and stopped down they can show you the full potential of your sensor. They are also very versatile lenses, if I could keep only one lens it would be a 50mm lens.
Minolta made three optically different 1.4/50 lenses and Canon two but all are very good so I won’t bore you with the details. The Canon lenses are a bit sharper at f/1.4, but I like the character of the Minolta 1.4/50 lenses a bit better.
If you look for a set of lenses I would recommend these:
- Minolta MD 2.8/35: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- Minolta MC or MD 1.4/50: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- Minolta MC or MD 2.5/100: ebay.de | ebay.com (affiliate links)
- A cheap adapter: Amazon.de | Amazon.com (affiliate links)
Minolta MD 2.8/35, MD 1.4/50, MC 2.5/100
You could replace the 2.5/100 with a MD 2.8/135 which is more common and cheaper but the 2.5/100 is a better lens if you ask me. For more information about Minolta lenses check out my Minolta lens ratings list.
All those lenses are very good and you could get each set for around $200 / 200€ if you are not in a hurry.
I get most of my lenses at ebay, camera forums are often a very good source for used lenses as well.
My advice would be to stick to just a few lenses in the beginning but if you need some inspiration for other lenses check out our guides:
- User guide to Ultra Wideangle lenses for the Sony Alpha 7 series
- User-Guide to wide-angle lenses for Sony a7 series
- Affordable < $99 manual lenses for the Sony a7 series
- The best lenses below $499 for the Sony a7 series
- The Guide to Canon FD lenses in the digital age
- The rated List of Minolta MD/MC Lenses on the Sony a7
Which Sony camera is the best?
For manual lenses I prefer full frame cameras like the Sony Alpha 7 a lot over APS-C cameras like the Sony a6000. The larger sensor is less demanding on the lenses, you can get decent wide angle lenses, more DOF control and the sensor offers better image quality.
There are currently 6 fullframe E-mount cameras. Which is the best? As always it depends. Here is my very brief take on the topic:
My Alpha 7 with a Minolta MC 2.5/100 attachedThe Sony Alpha 7r has the highest resolution (36MP), but it lacks an electronic first shutter curtain which can, under very specific circumstances, cause vibrations which degrade image quality and it is also louder and a bit slower.
I think the a7r is best for photographers who often print really big. For smaller print sizes and web images you won’t see a difference but you have a more expensive and slower camera.
About $1400 used at ebay.com or $2100 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
Sony Alpha 7
It is priced very attractive today and a good option if you want to give manual lenses a chance without breaking the bank.
I have used mine for more than two years, found it a great tool and got many good images out of it. It has two design issues: The sensor is unusually reflective which can be a nightmare for architecture photography at night and the mount can become loose which can be fixed by a $80 replacement. For a more detailed discussion check out my Sony a7 vs a7ii article.
About $750 used at ebay.com or $998 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
Sony Alpha 7 Mark II
The Sony a7II is my current camera. It is a bit thicker and heavier than the a7 and at least in my opinion it is easier to grip. It’s most important upgrade over the a7 is the integrated image stabilizer which works with manual lenses as well as with native lenses and compensates about two stops and the less reflective sensor. Image quality is exactly the same.
The a7ii is without a doubt a better camera than the a7 but it isn’t that much better and the importance of the image stabilizer is overestimated by most. So you must see for yourself, how much it’s benefits are worth to you.
About $1100 used at ebay.com or $1698 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
The Sony Alpha a7rII is currently the “top of the line” model and unfortunately priced accordingly. As of today it uses the most advanced BSI (backside illuminated) 42mp fullframe sensor which allowed to increase the resolution and high ISO performance at the same time (compared to the A7r). It has pretty much the same body as the A7II including the image stabilizer, but the silent shutter from the A7s – as well as some other small improvements, like better Auto-ISO – were also included. If you intend to adapt rangefinder lenses (like Leica-M or Contax-G) this camera alongside the A7s(II) is your best bet, take a look at this article for further information.
About $2600 used at ebay.com or $2898 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
The Sony Alpha 7s is a great camera if you are interested in video but it’s better noise performance is only noticeable at very high ISO values and it actually has a worse dynamic range at ISO 100 than the a7/a7r. Another nice feature is the fully electronic shutter which is super quiet. I think it can be an exceptional tool if you are into video or do lots of high ISO work but for most users it will bring more disadvantages than advantages. It’s successor the a7sII adds an image stabilizer and some video features, I wouldn’t recommend it for photography purposes.
About $1450 used at ebay.com or $2200 new at Amazon.com (affiliate links)
Just give it a try.
You could find that you prefer AF lenses. Then you would have lost about two hours and $15 after selling the lens and adapter you bought for less than $100. So you would have lost very little.
Or you might find that you enjoy working with manual lenses a lot. When I got my first Nex and discovered manual lenses, I found more joy in the process it improved my photography noticeably. So you could find more enjoyment in the process, your photography could improve and you could save a lot of money.
If you have any questions or suggestions just leave a comment!
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