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A Renaissance of Manual Focus Lenses, but Who Are They For?

The last 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 anyone buy them over a lens with autofocus?

There are a handful of advancements in photography that have been truly revolutionary. The advent of color film (however inaccurate the colors were), the digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR), and automatic focus. Curiously, and contrary to what many might believe, those 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 exhibited a camera with the new technology, though it wasn't until 1978 they were able to show an SLR camera with fully functioning autofocus. However, sandwiched between those two years, Konica mass-produced the C35 AF, a point-and-shoot with autofocus. However, the veterans and historians of photography might be better acquainted with the iconic Polaroid SX-70, which stole the title of the first commercially available SLR with autofocus. From there, autofocus became central to many new cameras released.

There was no doubt that autofocus was one of the greatest quality-of-life changes photographers had experienced, and it seemed as though every year, the technology was being improved. Even today, over 50 years after cameras with autofocus systems first hit the shelves, we are far from perfecting it. Despite innovation on top of innovation, new cameras and lenses are still criticized for hunting, inaccuracies, or sluggish performance in testing conditions. Nevertheless, autofocus has increased the number of keepers from every shoot, particularly those with a lot of sudden movement, by an incomprehensible amount.

So, with that in mind, why have we seen a resurgence of manual focus lenses hit the market in the last decade, and why does it appear that the number of new manual focus lenses is going up each year?

The Allure of Manual Focus Lenses

You might have read the title or the introduction and thought that this could end up critical of manual focus lenses, and while there will be elements of that, my general reaction to these lenses is positive. In fact, I own four manual focus lenses right now and have bought and sold many more. Some of my favorite images have been made with these lenses and in many ways, I believe they are too readily overlooked. Here are some reasons for and against manual focus lenses.

For: Low Price

There is no escaping that photography is an expensive craft, regardless of whether it's a hobby or a career. The best lenses are usually gated behind painful price tags and thus many — perhaps even most — photographers are unable to own and use the best glass with the most desirable traits.

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

This isn't to say that there aren't expensive manual focus lenses (I'm looking at you, Zeiss Milvus range, you beautiful, expensive swine!), but there is a fantastic selection of cheaper lenses available nowadays.

Test shot taken with the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 85mm f/1.2 on Fujifilm GFX 50R.

Against: Limited Use

When looking at manual focus lenses, you need to ask yourself whether you can do without autofocus for that focal length, and it needs to be an honest conversation. Without autofocus, you must work more slowly and expect more missed shots, particularly if you are utilizing the wide maximum aperture these lenses usually have. This means that these lenses are unlikely to always be on the front of your camera or be appropriate for all circumstances unless you shoot a genre like architecture.

Another limitation of these lenses is that they are almost always prime lenses. I have gravitated to prime lenses for the entirety of my time as a photographer, but there are occasions where zooms are either indispensable or highly useful.

For: Fast

I have already touched on this particular perk of manual focus lenses, but they are often the cheapest way to incredibly fast glass. There is undoubtedly too much emphasis on shooting at f/0.95 to f/1.4, but there are times where it does look fantastic. I wondered if extreme subject separation and bokeh would be a phase I grew out of, but quite frankly, I still enjoy it. The cinematic look of narrow depth of field is pleasing, and these manual focus lenses can do it as well as any autofocus lens, but without cleaning out your savings.

My first shutter press with the Mitakon Speedmaster 65mm f/1.4 on my Fujifilm GFX 50R.

Against: Heavy and/or Large

I'll admit that I haven't done the necessary leg work to determine if this is true of every manual focus lens on the market, but of the many I have used and owned, they have all been heavy. It's strange. I expected the removal of the autofocus system to result in shedding weight; nevertheless, they tend to be chunky. It isn't true across the board, but the average appears to be higher, and then, there are some examples that are almost bizarre. 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 felt as if it could withstand warfare.

For: Character

While on the topic of that Zenit 85mm, some of the newer manual focus lenses (and vintage ones too for that matter) have such character to how the images taken with them are rendered. This can be polarizing, and in the case of the Zenit, some people said it looked incredible and asked where to buy it, while others said it made them feel seasick. They are referring to the radial bokeh, which I enjoy and feel acts as a secondary vignette for guiding the eye to your subject, but I appreciate it's not for everyone.

Taken with the Zenit Helios 40-2 85mm f/1.5 on the Canon 6D.

Against: Focus Peaking

This isn't necessarily a criticism of manual focus lenses as much as it's a criticism of one of the key tools for using them: focus peaking. Focus peaking is when the camera illuminates whatever is in focus with a chosen color, whether on the back of the screen or in the EVF. While this could be brilliant, I find that most of my go-to systems, Sony and Fujifilm, are really poor. I've tried white, red, blue, green, dim, bright, and every other option, and it's nowhere near as helpful as I'd like. This can make shooting with manual focus something of a judgment call a lot of the time, hence the slower pace of shooting.

Conclusion

The rise of manual focus lenses over the last decade or so has been unexpected but interesting. There have been manual focus lenses since photography began, even after they were no longer the only option. However, it's the slew of affordable, fast manual focus lenses in recent years that has sparked a strong market for them. They require a slower pace of shooting, but if that fits how you work, they can be incredible 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 images) in the comment section below.

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25 Comments

Eliyahu Mayevsky's picture

The obvious advantage is they are system-change-proof. Whatever the upgrades of the system are, as long as the mount fits, you do not have to worry whether they will keep working when communication protocols change.

Marc F's picture

“What do you think of manual focus lenses? Do you use them in your photography?”

That’s what I use for already 50 years. I never had an autofocus camera or lens (except my iPhone)

Sam Sims's picture

I exclusively use manual focus lenses on my A7III and prefer them for street photography. I have a Voigtlander 40mm and would not swap it for an autofocus lens. Techniques like zone focusing and hyperfocal work really well. If you want to use shallower f-stops there’s a muscle memory technique that’s especially useful with the focusing tab on Leica M mount lenses where by knowing the distance to your subject you can nail the focus by feel when turning the focus ring. Tricky to master but it is certainly more accurate than autofocus as you aren’t relying on the autofocus to select the desired subject for you.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Back in the day, I had a Rokinon 85 f1.4. I really liked how small it was. I was amazed how relatively easy it was to get sharp focus even at f1.4 with my Sony a6000.

But, ultimately, I ain't gots no patience for lenses that ain't gots no auto-focus.

William Dyer's picture

For fast action I love my autofocus lenses. But for more contemplative shooting I love my old and new manual focus lenses: My Zeiss Biogon 58mm f2, my Meyer Optik Gorlitz 100 and 50 mm vintage lenses, and my new Zeiss Milvus 21, 85 and 100mm lenses. They have a special look that some images call for.

Lee Keene's picture

As I remember it, Bell & Howell had first AF cameras, albeit movie cameras.

Lee Keene's picture

And manual focuses lenses are sought by video camera operators for they ease of DOF changes.

Neal Smith's picture

It would be good if the manufacturers would give you a view finder screen you could use to manually focus. I would love to have a split image screen in my Nikon D750 like I had in my Nikon F2.

winzehnt gates's picture

Yes Please! I also want my diagonally split image back for manual focus peaking.
Fuji has a digital horizontal split image, but it isn't as useful as a diagonal split image.

Dave Haynie's picture

Another factor in favor of manual lenses has been the rise of mirrorless cameras. Your EVF adjusts to aperture, you have focusing aids, and all the light coming onto the lens goes to the sensor. DSLRs are already chopping off 25% of their light for AF, many already have dim viewfinders and partial condenser focusing screens not made for manual focus. You really need a non standard screen for manual focus on a DSLR.

I own a Fujifilm with one auto and four manual lenses. Poor focus peaking and too-low EFV resolution add to the challenge, but I could easily solve that upgrading from my X-Pro1.

Scott McDonald's picture

Manual lenses are easily my favorite for "slow" subjects! So much so that I have 80+ from my oldest Leitz Summar to the more modern Voigtlanders made by Cosina. They are fun, full of character and history, and are much cheaper than that Milvus! If I go autofocus, I don't quite go Milvus extreme but my Sony/Zeiss 35/55/85 suit my needs just fine!

David Anderson's picture

Having trouble with focus peaking on mirrorless? Two things might help: 1) switch to B&W picture style in camera (you can still recover the color image from the raw file), and the peaking with pop more in the EFV. 2) Assuming your manual lens also has a manual aperture, open it up wide to focus, and then stop it down for desired DoF/exposure before taking the shot—after all, that’s what your camera does when it has electronic control of aperture.

Sam Sims's picture

Focusing wide open and stopping down only works if your lens doesn't suffer from focus shift. I'm lucky that my Voigtlander 40mm doesn't have focus shift and is tack sharp when stopped down but others have reported their 40mm copy does focus shift.

Doug Blake's picture

When I was learning, my lenses were manual focus and I still often shoot that way. Just because a lens can be auto focused doesn’t mean you have to auto focus. I often will take a shot twice, once on auto focus and once on manual. Many times I will manual focus on multiple spots to find what I like best and it is easier than with autofocus.
Try it a bit if you are not sure before buying manual focus only lenses. It might be a revelation for you as it opens up your aesthetic thinking.

Charles Mercier's picture

For decades, I used a completely manual Nikon FM with manual focus lens. Now I have the Sony A7RII with autofocus lenses. There's no going back for me.

Jan Holler's picture

AF is preferable at all times. Even more so in low light, as I'm sure you know. And with these great sensors with their high ISO sensitivity, you can now shoot in much less light than before. That's why I sometimes take the AF-D 50mm f/1.4 instead of the manual copy. I like manual lenses, but I prefer to have my shots in focus.
(All those aides: focus peeking, enlarging are bust against a proper focusing screen).

Jan Holler's picture

Over the last decades I have collected a number of manual Nikkor lenses. For productive work I only use AF lenses. But when I travel privately, I always have my manual Nikkor AI 20mm f/3.5 with me, along with a 35mm either AF or manual (I like the rendering of the manual lens better) or the AI-S 50mm f/1.4 for low light situations and sometimes the Nikkor AIS 105mm f/2.8 (the famous Nikon lens). Recently I rediscovered the (really!) tiny Nikon AF 28-200mm G. So this and the 20mm cover an extremely wide range in a very small package. The image quality is great.
The 20mm is very easy to focus (ultra wide angle). The main reason I like these three manual lenses: they are small and fit perfectly in a smaller bag to carry around. - I miss the great focus screens of my Nikon FA. The green dot of the pro Nikon bodies is of no real use (to me).

Oliver Lison's picture

I have been using Zeiss lenses fot the last decade. The range of lenses are 2/25, 2/35, 2/50 and 1.4/85.
They lenses work beautifully. Next to Zeiss I would consider Voigtlander.

S. H.'s picture

Tilt-Shift has always been manual, and with today's focus-peaking capabilities in mirrorless cameras, it's so much fun! AND, non-tilted/shifted, usually with a marvelous image quality in the sweet spot of the lens.

Mark Smith's picture

Why use focus peaking when you could use focus magnification instead? Not a disadvantage at all. In fact it works well.

john smith's picture

I find that focus peaking is much more accurate but for the kids it's nearly impossible to use. I only use focus peaking combined with stopping down a bit when I'm taking family pictures. It's a bit of practice and depending on the scene it can work very well, eg. grass is very handy to judge where focus is. But I'm not going to pretend I get similar keeper ratio as with a good AF system.

William Rhamey's picture

I recently went back to vintage manual lenses, and it has rekindled my love of photography. There's something about slowing down and manually thinking through what you are doing that, despite a lower hit rate, has made my photography feel more present and real.

I would say that my work has been technically less precise lately, but visually more impactful. Especially with the rendering of vintage lenses.

Plus, it's more fun.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

One area where manual focus is often preferred is macro photography. It gives you control over your plane of focus and at such small distances, photographing such small objects, that is often crucial -- nothing more annoying than when the AF system decides to go on a hunt, or focuses on just the part of the subject you didn't want to be in focus.

David Pavlich's picture

Contrarian here. I don't own any manual lenses. I like autofocus, especially since I shoot a lot of wildlife. The hit rate is a bit better than the old days that I did use manual focus lenses back in the film days.

john smith's picture

I'm just an amateur and I mainly take family pictures. When I was learning back in the days, I had a second hand Olympus OM4-ti which was an all MF system. Now fast forward 20 years, I'm back to MF because I want quality glass but without the premium price, so I went for second hand Samyang XP lenses. You do get used to it after some time. When money permits I'd like to add at least one descent AF lens for "action" shots.