Manual Focus Lenses

Cosina, Laowa & Leica

For detailed close-up work, including macro, using high-quality manual-focus (MF) lenses creates a more controlled and intimate photographic experience. MF lenses (almost without exception) offer superior build quality, greater focus throw (and therefore precision) than do any of today’s modern plasticky AF lenses.

As of this writing, Cosina-made lenses (Voigtländer / Zeiss), as well as Leica glass, are generally considered the finest MF optics available.  For nature photography, from 1:4 to 1:2, the Zeiss 135 APO Sonnar, the Leica 100 APO, the Voigtländer 65 APO-Lanthar, and the little Zeiss 25 f/2.8 Distagon, remain real treasures in the field,  respectively.

From 1:2 to 1:1, the Voigtländer 125 APO-Macro has been my “Standard macro” against which all others are measured. The Voigtländer 125 APO-Lanthar represents the perfect blend of über-sharpness, wide-open, accurate color-rendering, combined with beautiful, smooth color transitions. Few macros can compare, and only the Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit-R 100mm has been able to remain alongside it in my 1:1 kit, but I have to add the Elpro adapter to get there.

Meanwhile, the Chinese brand, Laowa, offers very capable macro options of their own, specializing in ways which make them truly unique. Their 100mm “CA-Dreamer” macro lens, for example, surpasses the typical “1:1 limit,” going up from 1:1 to 2:1 magnification, making it essentially peerless for arthropods. When its companion, the Laowa 25mm 2.5x to 5:1 “Ultra Macro,” is added, I get a stellar field combo from 1x to 5x.

Therefore, barring certain specialized applications, I now use Laowa products almost exclusively for dedicated arthropod explorations; while I use Cosina or Leica glass for fungi and flowers. Because of the quality and convenience of these Laowa lenses, I also no longer need to ‘reverse‘ my Zeiss wide-lenses anymore to achieve higher magnifications. That said, here is my MF lens lineup:

Voigtländer Macro APO-Lanthar 125mm f/2.5 SL

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

After using a multitude of macro lenses since 2007, this lens has become one of my true favorites. Few other lenses (of any make) carry with it the intimacy of experience that the Voigtländer APO-Macro brings to the table. It also has a certain perfection of delivery. By “intimacy of experience,” I mean the 630° of manual-focus throw, allows me a degree of precision rarely matched … 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 accurate color reproduction. In short, this incredible lens seems to get absolutely everything right. Because of its sharpness wide-open, the accuracy of its color detail, and the precision of its focus-throw, it is my first choice for conducting macro stacks in the field. It is a truly sublime optic, the full details of which I have described in this review.

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

Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8

Sublime Micro-Contrast & Rendering (1:2 to 2:1)

This is the only macro lens I have been able to find that equals (and, in some ways, surpasses) the Voigtländer APO-Lanthar. Just about as sharp wide-open, with just as excellent CA control & rendering, the Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit has even better sharpness across the frame, as well as superior micro-contrast and detail preservation. There is also a depth to the color, a rendering that is hard to describe. Unfortunately, the Leica needs an attachment in order to get to 1:1. You can even combine the Elpro with the APO TC and get to 2:1. Finally, with 710° of focus-throw, it is also the most precise macro lens on the planet, surpassing the precision of even the Voigtländer. Each lens produces its own “look” to the images, therefore I will prefer one over the other, depending on what my goals are.

Find on eBay: Leica APO-Macro-Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8