Manual Focus Lenses

Cosina-Zeiss Optics + Laowa

For precise landscape work, as well as the most detailed macro work possible, using elite-quality manual-focus (MF) lenses creates a more controlled and intimate photographic experience. MF lenses (almost without exception) offer superior build quality, focus throw, as well as results, than do most of today’s plasticky AF lenses.

As of this writing, Cosina-made lenses (Voigtländer / Zeiss) are generally the finest MF optics available. While the newer Otus optics from Zeiss represent the epitome of this, they’re a bit too heavy and fragile for long nature hikes in rough terrain. They also have poor reproduction ratios, making them unsuitable for most nature photography.

For nature photography, from 1:4 to 1:2, the Zeiss 135 APO Sonnar, and the little Zeiss 25 f/2.8 Distagon, are real treasures in the field still unequaled to this day. For 1:2 to 1:1, the Voigtländer 125 APO-Macro is “The Standard” against which all others are measured. The Voigtländer APO-Macro represents the perfect combination of über-sharpness, wide-open, absolutely perfect color-rendering, combined with the creamiest bokeh possible. Nothing else compares from 1:2 to 1:1.

That said, the Chinese brand, Laowa, now offers some serious field options of their own. Their 100mm “CA-Dreamer” macro lens (which offers 1:1 – 2:1), along with its companion, the 25mm “Ultra Macro” (which offers 2.5x to 5:1), combine give unparalleled macro performance in the field from 1x to 5x magnification. The new 100 actually rivals the Voigtländer APO in image quality and yet goes all the way up to 2:1!!

Therefore, barring certain, specialized applications I now use Laowa products almost exclusively for most field macro explorations. Because of their quality, and convenience, I also no longer need to ‘reverse’ my Zeiss wide-lenses to achieve higher magnification. That said, here is my MF lens lineup:

Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar T* ZF.2

Superb Optical Quality Wide-Open (up to 1:4)

This lens has been the reference lens for short telephoto image quality since the day it came out. From Ephotozine, to LensTip, to OpticalLimits, the Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar has been (and remains) the benchmark lens for optical quality wide-open. Although the recent Sigma 135 f/1.8 is a great lens also, the Sigma really only excels as a human portrait lens, at mid- to long-ranges. For the nature photographer, it is important to realize that, at closer focusing distances, the Zeiss APO handily trounces the performance of the Sigma—sharpness-wise as well as in resolution, color, and contrast. (Check out Dustin Abbott’s video review for illustration.) For the close-up photographer (up to 1:4 magnification), there is no finer optical solution available.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar T* ZF.2

Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar

The Legend of Legendary Macros (up to 1:1)

After using a multitude of macro lenses over the last 15 years, this lens has become, by far, my favorite lens of any focal length to deploy in the field … and that includes my $16,000 Nikkor 800mm! No other lens (of any make) carries with it the intimacy of experience of the Voigtländer APO-Macro, combined with its perfection of delivery. By “intimacy of experience,” I mean the 630° of manual-focus throw allows me a degree of precision like no other … and by “perfection of delivery” I mean that (optically) the Voigtländer APO-Macro provides the perfect union of über-sharpness, pleasing bokeh, while also delivering perfect color reproduction (graduation and rendering). In short, this incredible lens gets absolutely everything right. It is a truly sublime optic, the full details of which I have described in this review.

Find on eBay: Voigtländer SL 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar

Laowa 100mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro 2x APO

The "Game-Changing" CA-Dreamer (from ∞ to 2:1)

After testing this lens out, I consider it to be the most useful field macro lens I have ever owned. That is saying something, as I have owned many, many macro lenses during my 15+ years shooting primarily macro—where money is no object. My standards as to what I find “acceptable” are pretty high.

The Voigtländer 125mm APO Macro has always been the reference macro lens for image quality. It is still my favorite up to 1:1. However, the truth is, many, if not most, arthropods require greater than 1:1 magnification, yet almost no so-called “macro” lens will go beyond this point. [Those lenses that do go beyond 1:1 are invariably so specialized you can’t shoot anything else (i.e., no infinity ∞ focus).]

Laowa changed all this, first by introducing their 60mm 2x, which was a sharp, but crude offering, that could not compete with Zeiss or Voigtländer’s best. Then Laowa introduced this 100mm “CA-Dreamer,” which is both incredibly-sharp as well as nicely-refined. This elegant optic has already received rave reviews from both LensTip and Optical Limits. It produces stunning sharpness, with almost zero CA, great bokeh … creating images reminiscent of the Voigtländer 125mm APO … and yet doing so at 1-2x magnification.

For the true macro field enthusiast, who shoots with natural light, but wants greater magnification I cannot recommend this lens highly enough. No other ultra-macro lens compares.

See @ Venus Optics: Laowa 100mm f/2.8 UltraMacro 2x APO

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro

The Best Über Field Macro (2.5x to 5:1)

This lens is what I use for high-mag studio macro imagery. It is yet another unique and special lens introduced by Venus Optics right about when I finished my blog post on “Reverse-Lens Macro Photography.” While this specialty lens isn’t an all-around macro, it is simply the best most versatile high-mag macro option I’ve tried. In the field, I now mostly use the Laowa 100mm “CA-Dreamer” 2x UltraMacro; however, sometimes I need to go beyond 2x. The compact size + razor-sharp images that this little lens delivers make it an invaluable field tool and an easy add to the camera bag (or even my pocket!). At a cost of only $399, this is the least expensive lens I own, of any kind, and yet it is sharper than all my Zeiss lenses (when reversed), and it also easily out-performs Canon’s legendary $1000 MPE-65mm lens, at a fraction of both the size and the cost. While the little Laowa 25mm is not as well-corrected for CA as its big brother, the Laowa 100mm APO, this has little relevance in the studio, except in high-contrast situations. The lens is simply a “must have” for anyone seriously into high-mag macro.

See @ Venus Optics: Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro

Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

One of the Most Useful Wides on Earth (~1:2)

There are two “Classic Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm lenses”: the f/2.8 and the f/2.0. Almost every “lens rating site” will discredit the f/2.8 version (above) and laud the f/2.0 … for the simple reason the f/2 has better “corner sharpness.” What the review sites don’t tell you is, while the f/2.8 version may be weaker in the corners, it is just as good in the center.

More importantly, the 2.8 version has a 1:2 reproduction ratio (compared to a 1:6 reproduction ratio in the f/2), as well as a 6.69″ minimum focusing distance (compared to a 9.84″ MFD in the f/2). Finally, the 2.8 version has 330° of focus throw, for precision-manual focus, compared to 120° of focus throw in the f/2.

The takeaway is this: if you’re a pure landscape shooter, then yes, the f/2 version is the superior choice. However, if you’re a multi-dimensional wildlife shooter, particularly if you’re into macro (close-but-wide perspectives of flowers/insects), then you don’t care about ‘corner sharpness,’ as much as intimate proximity. In this respect, the f/2.8 version (above) will be the clear choice for you … as it was for me … where the field curvature + corner softness actually enhance the overall ‘artistic image’ presentation.

This lens can also be reversed to achieve 2.7x magnification as a super-macro lens.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 25mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

The Defining Lens for Wide-Angle Quality

With this lens, I have replaced the last of my old Nikkor AI-S manual-focus lenses with Zeiss ‘Classic’ MF equivalents. The reason I have dropped the older Nikkor MF AI-S glass for equivalent Zeiss MF glass is both due to superior image quality as well as more flexibility that I get with the Zeiss. For example, the old 20mm Nikkor AI-S allowed me to come up to 9.84″ (for only .12x magnification), while this 21mm Zeiss Classic allows me to come up to 8.66″ (for .2x magnification)—producing superior resolution, color, and contrast in the process. I do miss the lighter-weight of the Nikkor AI-S lenses while hiking; however, the superior image quality + the added versatility I get back from these Zeiss MF upgrades is more than worth the trade-off. They also produce a “3-D pop” that the Nikkors never did.

This lens can also be reversed to achieve 3.9x magnification as a super-macro lens.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2

The Reference Lens for Premium Ultra-Wides

The Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 offers the kind of color & contrast most ultra-wides will never achieve. This was my first venture into ‘Zeiss Quality,’ which ultimately made me part with all my Nikkor AI-S MF lenses in favor of the Zeiss classic equivalents. While bulky and heavy, this behemoth always proves to be worth its weight by producing sharpness + color & contrast results no other option currently offers. With a 9.84″ (25 cm) MFD, optimized for close focus, this legendary optic offers unique perspectives, qualities, and sublime rendering characteristics as well, offering micro-detail that no other equivalent lens can touch. A true collector’s item, for sure.

Find on eBay: Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZF.2