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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.