Need for Speed: Fstoppers Reviews the Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95 Lens for Sony FE

Need for Speed: Fstoppers Reviews the Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95 Lens for Sony FE

There aren't too many people in the f/0.95 club. Until fairly recently, it was a ludicrously expensive badge of honor, typically worn by Leica-toting physicians and hedge fund managers. After all, the legendary Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 costs just shy of $10,000. Of course, there are some micro four thirds options. But those don't really count, do they? All that changed in April of 2014, when Mitakon announced their "SpeedMaster" 50mm f/0.95. After spending the better part of a month shooting it, I'm almost a believer... almost. 

If you buy into the Sony α7 ecosystem, there are currently three native-mount 50mm (or 50-ish) options: the Zeiss/Sony 55mm f/1.8 T* Sonnar, the Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2.0 T* Planar, and the dark horse, the Mitakon Zhongyi 50mm f/0.95 "Speedmaster." Over the last couple of weeks, I've had a chance to play with all three of the native 50mm options. For about $1,000 a piece, these aren't your father's "thrifty fifties." Each of the three lenses boasts some pretty stellar performance with truly unique characteristics that will draw some people to one model, some to another. As you'll see, while the Mitakon 50mm is a pretty unique beast that has a distinct look to its images that will draw some photographers, it also has its share of quirks and eccentricities.

Packaging

I've never mentioned packaging in a review before; however, in this case, it was worth mentioning. As seen below, the lens comes in a posh faux-leather case with an exact-fit foam insert. This was a pleasant surprise and was, at first, a positive indicator of the quality of the lens.

Don't look too closely; my case came cracked along both sides.

As seen above, though, mine came with cracks in the leather on both sides. This isn't exactly heirloom quality. However, the foam on the inside was a welcome addition. I'm sure it was helpful in transporting the lens safely. 

Build

Contrary to my experience with the lackluster quality of the case, the lens itself is built like a tank. It features a solid metal lens barrel and mount. The focus ring is damped, smooth, and precise. At 720 grams, it weighs over 150 grams more than the camera you'll be mounting it to. Everything feels solid; I have nearly no complaints. The hood provided with the lens (in a separate, nondescript cardboard box) is about as cheap as I've ever seen. It will certainly get the job done, but completely fails to live up to the quality of the lens itself; the only reason I used it was to protect the lens before I gave it back to B&H.

In terms of size, the Mitakon is significantly larger and heavier than the Zeiss 55mm. While you can comfortably carry around the Mitakon 50mm and your α7 all day, it's certainly going to be a little more effort than the Zeiss. This may or may not be a deterrent.

Optics

Optically, this lens seems surprisingly sophisticated. It's constructed of ten elements in seven groups (a slightly more complex design than the Noctilux, which uses eight elements in five groups). 

The rounded nine-blade aperture is lovely and feels precise. The lens also features a click-less aperture ring, which will likely be a positive to filmmakers (yes, you can use this on your FS7), but may be slightly irritating to photographers used to choosing a specific aperture value. I found myself frequently knocking the aperture ring when it was not set to f/0.95. 

It is worth noting that while the f/0.95 aperture means lovely out-of-focus areas and hardcore subject isolation, that doesn't mean you're getting the equivalent of T/0.95 in terms of light transmission. In reality, you're getting closer to T/1.4. 

For those who may be unaware, an f-stop is a function of lens geometry; it's the ratio between iris diameter and focal length, while a T-stop is an adjusted ratio that corrects for light transmission inefficiency. It's not uncommon for lenses to have a narrower maximum T-stop value than their maximum f-stop. For more information, check out this article from No Film School.

OOF, Bokeh, Blur

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge bokeh person. Typically, the widest I'll shoot is f/2.5, with the majority of my work being done between f/3.5 and f/5.6. At this point, I'm pretty sure you know why I ended up going for the Zeiss 55mm over the Mitakon. If, however, you're a narrow depth of field buff, this lens delivers. 

Examining the quality of out-of-focus areas rendered by the lens.

If this lens was my goto 50mm, I don't think I'd ever shoot it at anything except f/0.95. Shooting this lens at f/4.0 feels slightly like buying a Porsche and just driving it to drop your kids off at school. If this lens is for you, you'll know it. You have the need for speed.

Sharpness

This lens is sharp enough. I'm not going to surprise anyone when I say both Zeiss options beat the Mitakon in terms of sharpness by quite a bit. Sharpness simply isn't what this lens is about.

For my purposes (and on the 24 MP α7 II), the Mitakon gets the job done. It's sharp enough when stopped down (performing roughly equally to a mid-range Nikon or Canon 50mm) and when you're shooting wide open at f/0.95, some softness is expected.

If you haven't read it yet, Dani Diamond has a fantastic article on shooting wide open, then sharpening.  

Of course, videographers will likely love this lens, even for HD and 4K work. As discussed below, there's a quality to the images, a character that is raw and lovely.

Character 

One of the reviews of the Sigma 50mm Art (the second best 50mm I've ever shot) from our friends at SLR Lounge (read it here) described the lens in this way:

This lens does everything perfectly, and that’s what a lot of photographers need, but that’s what makes it a little boring. It’s solid, well designed, and performs like a champ, but where’s the fun in that? I like struggling with my lenses, learning the quirks and characteristics, and finding the best qualities about the lens.

While I personally didn't really feel that way about the Sigma 50mm Art, I understand the sentiment. There's a reason a lot of videographers turn to old Canon FD and Nikon AIS glass: it has a texture, a character, a quality that can sometimes feel as if it's missing in modern optics. In the same way, the character of the Mitakon makes it interesting to me and maybe appealing to you.

As with all manual focus lenses, the struggle of getting tack-sharp images wide open is tough to overcome. This challenge is compounded by the super fast aperture on the Mitakon. While the focus peaking on the α7 II is a valuable asset and certainly helps in achieving critical focus, it still takes some patience, persistence, and practice to accurately focus the Mitakon.

Technical Perspective

From a pure numbers perspective, this lens doesn't hold a candle to either the Zeiss 55 f/1.8 Sonnar or 50 f/2.0 Loxia Planar. Both lenses are sharper, both are smaller, and both are lighter. Both are Zeiss. The 55mm is T/1.8 (only 2/3 stop slower in terms of transmission than the Mitakon), has excellent autofocus, and has the best 50mm autofocus score on DxO, performing just below the Otus. The 50mm Loxia is a precision instrument that is a logical choice for videographers and photographers alike. Its size and weight make it a good choice for people who want to take advantage of the reduced size of their Sony rig. 

Of course, there's more to a purchase decision than just the numbers, something every Apple computer owner has to admit (myself among them). On paper, this lens, like the 35mm f/2.8 I reviewed last week, doesn't make sense compared to the competition. It does, however, give a look that isn't easily replicated in the more technically precise Zeiss options. If this lens is for you, you'll know. 

What I Liked

  • Build: this lens is an absolute tank. Its full-metal construction, smoothly damped focusing, click-less aperture, and solid mount make it feel like a lens twice its price.
  • f/0.95: who doesn't love shooting wide open? At f/0.95, you'll be able to blur and isolate your subject like nobody's business. This will be awesome for wedding photographers looking for that Contax 645 look.
  • Character: this lens makes files that feel like they're from a film camera (think Contax Zeiss 45mm f/2.0). To me, that's nothing but a good thing. I love distortion. I love (natural) vignetting. I love the texture you get from this lens. 
  • Manual: if you like manual focusing and manual aperture rings, then this lens is probably something you'll enjoy shooting with. It's a natural choice for videographers using an E or FE mount rig, as well as photographers who want something different, something slower than the Zeiss 55mm. Sony's focus peaking makes it much easier to manually focus than on a normal rangefinder or SLR. 

What I Didn't Like

  • Speed: if you want speed, this lens probably isn't for you. Its long focus ring throw is awesome for video work, but can slow you down when shooting subjects with any movement at all. For someone like myself, who's addicted to autofoucs, you may want to look at the Zeiss 55mm.
  • Technical qualities: if you're out to get the sharpest glass for your α7R II, this may not be for you. It's not sharp edge-to-edge; hell, it may not be sharp at all if you're shooting wide open. 
  • Size and weight: I bought my α7 II to be light and portable. This lens weighs over 150 grams more than the camera body and makes carrying it around all day significantly more straining than the Zeiss 50mm options.
  • Reliability: while I didn't run into any issues with the lens itself, I'm slightly concerned about the reliability and longevity of the lens. When talking with a friend who used an earlier copy (serial number in the low hundreds) of the Mitakon, he reported screws loosening and focus sticking as a result. If your Zeiss lens breaks, they're easy to contact and arrange repair; I'd be more concerned about service availability with the Mitakon. 

​Who Should Buy What

 

Mitakon 50mm f/0.95

Zeiss 55mm f/1.8

Ziess 50mm f/2.0

Videographer

YES

Don't Buy

YES

Photographer

YES

YES

YES

Hate Manual Focus?

Don't Buy

YES

Don't Buy

Sharpness Junkie?

Don't Buy

YES

YES

Love Crazy f/0.95 Bokeh?

YES

Don't Buy

Don't Buy

Love Normal Bokeh?

YES

YES

YES

Hate Heavy Rigs?

Don't Buy

YES

YES

Have an FE or E Mount Camera?

YES

YES

YES

Love Lenses With Character?

YES

YES

YES

 

Have you used any of these lenses on your Sony rig? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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7 Comments

Brandon Chau's picture

I wish you had included more sample photos shot at f/0.95

Austin Rogers's picture

Hey Brandon! I'm sure I have more, I'll throw 'em on here. These three were at .95 while at my buddy's shop this afternoon.

Brandon Chau's picture

Thank you sir!

Austin Rogers's picture

My pleasure, Brandon! :)

Spy Black's picture

I suppose if you don't mind spending the money on a lens like this, it can be a fun item. You have to be sold on "the look", I guess.

I'm not sure how you've deducted the T-stop, but that's way off from the listed F. Most lenses are a few fractions off between F and T. Certainly a letdown if you're interested in actually using it for low-light situations.

Again, if the rendition is pleasing to you, and you don't mind the cost, go for it. Honestly it doesn't seem worth it, but to each their own. I recently purchased a mint condition 1974 50mm f/1.4 S-C Nikkor (the only year it was made) for it's particular rendition. It's a look I know well, as I purchased my first Nikon FTN in that same year (although that body came with the previous S model, but other than multicoating in the S-C model, the optical formula is identical), so for me that particular rendition is attractive. The S-C only cost me $120 however. ;-)

BTW, that focus animation you posted is a 256-color banded mess. :-)

Austin Rogers's picture

Oh god that sounds absolutely lovely. Do you have any work with the 1.4 yet, Spy? Are you shooting it on digital or a Nikon 35mm body? TELL ME ABOUT IT haha. I foolishly tried to upload it as a gif rather than putting the video on YouTube unlisted and embedding it. I'll get that fixed tomorrow.

Spy Black's picture

Although I still work occasionally with my FTN & F2SB bodies, I primarily bought it for my D600. Below is a shot wide open at closest focusing with the D600 at ISO 800.

As for the GIF, if you did it in Photoshop, there are a few dithering options that will make it look much better. Try the setting below, that should improve it. You may see some dancing noise, but the point you were trying to make should be clearer. :-)