Manual Focus Lenses

Cosine-Zeiss Optics + Laowa

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

As of this writing, Cosina-made lenses (Voigtländer / Zeiss) are generally the finest MF optics available. While the newer Otus optics 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, the 135 APO Sonnar and, especially, the little 25 f/2.8, are real treasures for my work, from 1:4 to 1:2. For 1:1 and beyond, I used to rely on the Voigtländer 125 APO, as well as the fact the wider Zeiss lenses I own reverse to become ‘super-macro lenses’ in the field.

That said, in my opinion, the Chinese brand, Laowa, now offers the finest macro options of anyone. 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. Barring certain, specialized applications I now use Laowa products exclusively for my field macro explorations. I also no longer need to ‘reverse’ Zeiss lenses for higher magnification. That said, here is my MF lens lineup today:

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

Superb Optical Quality Wide-Open (1:4)

This lens has been the reference lens for short telephoto 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 new 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. At closer focusing distances, the Zeiss APO handily trounces the performance of the Sigma, both sharpness-wise as well as in resolution, color, and contrast. Check out Dustin Abbott’s 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

Laowa 100mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro 2x APO

The CA-Dreamer (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. Reason being, 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 has changed all this, first by introducing the 60mm 2x … a sharp, but crude offering … then by upgrading to the 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 Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO … and yet doing so at 1-2x magnification. For the true macro enthusiast, I cannot recommend this lens highly enough. No other 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 (2.5:1 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. I now mostly use the Laowa 100mm “CA-Dreamer” 2x UltraMacro for field work; however, sometimes I need to go beyond 2x. The compact size + razor-sharp images 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 field, except in high-contrast situations. The lens is simply a “must have” for anyone seriously into macro.

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

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

The Most Useful Wide 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 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-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 will be the clear choice for you … as it was for me … where the field curvature + corner softness actually enhance the overall 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 the process. I do miss the lighter-weight of the Nikkor AI-S lenses while hiking; however, the superior image quality + added versatility I get back from these Zeiss MF upgrades is more than worth the trade-off.

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 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