Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: MFT Adapted Canon FL 55mm f/1.2

Canon FL 55mm f/1.2 on my E-M1

How many f/1.2 or faster portrait lenses can you get for MFT? If we're talking about lenses available with a MFT mount, then these are the ones I know about:

  • Panasonic Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 - $1,500: the best you can get, the sharpest lens of all at f/1.2, auto focus, gorgeous bokeh, and the most expensive, large and heavy.
  • Voigtlander Nokton 42.5mm f/0.95 - $1,000: an even faster aperture, manual everything, not as sharp as the Nocticron, but able to produce some spectacular results, large and heavy.
  • ZY Optics Mitakon 42.5mm f/1.2 - $400: lowest price, manual everything as well, smaller than the others, wide-open performance is not that bad according to this review.

But what if you don't want to pay that much to get f/1.2? That's what we'll talk about today.

Size looks well balanced on the E-M1, however it is actually very heavy. Did you try the "carrying a mercury bottle" trick at school?

Before we delve into the body of this review, let me tell you first what portrait lenses I own, and why I bought this lens:
  • Olympus 45mm f/1.8 - $400 (there's a $250 version on Amazon): my first portrait lens for MFT, reviewed here, tiny, beautiful bokeh, sharp enough, in short: a must have for any MFT owner.
  • Sigma 60mm f/2.8 - $209: crazy sharp wide-open, some of the best background rendering I've ever seen, glad that I have finally bought it after a full year of hesitation, comes with a lens hood and a neat protective case, I consider this as an f/2.8 version of the legendary 75 f/1.8, best value for money, will be reviewed soon.
  • Olympus 75mm f/1.8 - $900: this lens set the standard for sharp, beautiful bokeh, beautiful colors, actually; beautiful everything, reviewed here.
  • Tamron SP 90mm f/2.5 Macro (52BB): this is a semi-manual lens (full manual when adapted to MFT), got it for the long focal length, macro capabilities, and because it produces some of the best photos & creamiest backgrounds I've ever seen even on a full frame sensor, check the flickr pools here and here, will be reviewed soon.

As you can see, there is no shortage of wonderful portrait lenses, so why did I buy another one? It all started after my first encounter with eBay where I bought a mint used E-PL5 for the low price of $250 (BTW: grip upgrade here). Shortly after, I started looking for more cheap used camera gear to buy. I can't remember what happened, but I read somewhere about the Tamron 90 2.5 lens and that's what I bought next, it wasn't expensive, and I was very excited. Then, happy with myself for my second successful eBay hunting, I started looking for more cheap-but-good gear, hmm, what about a wide aperture, let's say, f/1.2?

f/1.2 - Vintage lenses deserve vintage colors. I am loving that new filter on my E-M1

And that was the start: I never had an f/1.2 lens before, and I thought it would be nice to have one that didn't cost much. I thought it would be nice to have delicious backgrounds, shallow DoF, more light gathering abilities in low light, f/1.2 for cinematic movie shooting, etc... I started looking on eBay for 50mm f/1.2 old; manual lenses. I found the Olympus Zuikos to be expensive, as well as the Nikons, however, there were affordable Canon ones, but prices varied significantly.

So, I started my research and found out that there are the Canon FD/FL mount 55 f/1.2 lenses with mainly cosmetic differences (~$200). Then there are the slightly more expensive SSC version (~$300 - $500), which had some extra coatings, but is not any better optically (actually debatable according to the forum threads I read, but seems they are identical after all). Then there is the FD 50 f/1.2 L (~$700 - $900) which is optically better, and have an aspherical element. And finally, there is the radioactive (yes, it has a radioactive element called thorium) FD 55 f/1.2 SSC Aspherical (~$1,500) which is the most sought-after one, and people who own it claim that it was designed to be very sharp wide-open, unlike the glowy/dreamy haze the older ones have wide-open.

And since I didn't want to spend much, I went for the FL 55 f/1.2 which is the oldest of them all (thus cheapest) and has the same optical performance as the newer ones costing up to $500. I bought a mint example for just $140 ($160 shipped), it had perfectly working aperture, no oil, no fungus and no scratches whatsoever. The only surprise when I received it was that it didn't ship with a rear lens cap. Imagine my surprise to open a box that traveled from Japan to USA to Egypt and through the customs check without a rear lens cap. I checked the rear element and it was pristine, luckily it is recessed a little, and the packing was very good. I went to the seller page to check if I missed a note that the rear cap was not included, but there were nothing of the sort, and there was nothing saying it was included as well, my mistake: I didn't ask, and he didn't say. Lesson learned. But all ended well, since I will be using this lens with a MFT adapter, then I only needed a MFT rear cap, which I already had.

f/1.2 - when the lens sings, check the creamy backgrounds

So, let us talk about the lens now, shall we? I had this lens for 2 months now. First impression was that the lens is extremely dense, it is too heavy for how small it is: it is no larger than my 75 f/1.8, but it weighs at least twice more. The next thing you notice is that the focus ring has a veeery long throw, which is not the best thing when the focusing ring is smooth in one direction, and a bit stiff in the other direction, so you're going back and forth trying to focus quickly with one hand, but it is not possible. Just look at distance scale at the top picture, and see how much rotation there is between 2.5ft and 3.5ft! Last impression has nothing to do with the lens, but the adapter: I am using a Fotodiox adapter which I have good experience with, but this adapter has a rotational play when mounted to the camera - there's no play from the lens side, but the adapter can be rotated very slightly after being mounted to the camera. My other Fotodiox adapter for Tamron has no such play.

Other than that, the lens is all normal business. It has a nice clicky aperture ring that goes full stops starting from f/1.2, however it can be left at intermediate settings if you so desire. Focus ring is reasonably smooth in one direction, and a little stiffer in the other direction. The lens protrudes by around 3 to 4mm at the closest focusing distance, which is 60cm by the way.
I bet you're expecting (judging from the pictures above) that I had a blast the first time I took the lens for a shoot. Oh no, you'd be mistaken. My first actual shoot with the lens was at an outdoors night wedding. What better lens to take than the f/1.2 beast? I was using my E-M1 with auto-ISO capped at 6400. I also had my PanaLeica 25 1.4 for wider shots and as a fail-safe. For focusing, I relied on focus-peaking and 10x magnification through the EVF, but it was incredibly hard to keep the camera still at 10x magnification while playing forwards and backwards with the long-throw-one-sided-stiff focus ring. After a few tries, I thought I got the hang of it. So how did my first f/1.2 pictures turn out? Have a look for yourself:

Hazy, way too hazy

I was dissapointed: things looked really soft and dreamy. I sort of expected that from reading reviews before buying the lens, but not to that extent. Yes, the shutter speeds were low (we're talking 1/80, f/1.2, ISO 5000 low), but the E-M1 has that excellent in-body image stabilization that I have adjusted for the 55mm focal length. Maybe I should try stopping-down and see what happens.

f/1.2 vs f/2.8

That couldn't be true. The lens couldn't be that soft wide-open. The difference between f/1.2 and f/2.8 was striking. What use do I have for a 55mm f/2.8 lens? I bought that lens "because f/1.2!" I tried a few more shots (some at smaller apertures) before I turned to my fail-safe option. I noticed a couple of interesting things: first, the OOF size of the background lights didn't appear that much different between f/1.2 and f2.8, so I took a few shots at f/2.8 that looked ok, like this one below:

f/2.8 - dress

The second thing I noticed: that the crazy lens could chop my head off @ f/1.2! Seriously! Look at that picture:

What the? How did it replace my hair with that light ball? Oh, and notice the softness.

And if I were to notice a third thing: the bokeh balls in the background didn't seem to blend and become as smooth as I was expecting, they can't be described as harsh, but they are also not creamy smooth. Anyway, that night (my first outing with lens) I put the lens up for sale, I was so dissapointed that I didn't want to have it anymore. But I am glad it didn't sell immediately. You know why? Because I decided to give it another chance in better lighting conditions, and that's when everything clicked.

f/1.2 - notice how smooth the focus falls off

100% crop

f/1.2 - concentration

100% crop

Suddenly, I can get better results, so what's changed? I am not really sure, but I was able to figure out a few characteristics of this lens:
  1. I was clearly missing focus at the wedding night due to the extremely low light levels, especially when hand holding, and both me and my subject might have moved.
  2. The lens' performance wide-open is not very good at half-length and full-length portraits, or at least the subject doesn't have apparent sharpness. It certainly has this dreamy/hazy glow wide-open, but way less that what I got at the wedding.
  3. Wide-open performance is notably good at closer focusing distances, with very smooth focus fall-off.
  4. There is a ton of chromatic aberration wide-open, can be solved in post. We are spoiled nowadays by modern coatings and stuff.
  5. Bokeh can get semi-busy when the background has lots of highlights. If you don't understand what I mean, check this link and watch for yourself how different 50mm lenses render the same background.
  6. When everything clicks, the lens has a very pleasing look, especially the colors and the contrast. I took some of my best family photos with this lens.
  7. Starting from f/1.4, things get sharpened up nicely, and by f/2 the haze is all gone, and it becomes quite sharp compared to modern lenses by f/2.8.

Robin Wong mentioned something called a "baffle" in his Olympus 55 f/1.2 article (funny we both got similar 55 f/1.2 lenses for MFT at the same time), and that led me to several -french- places which discuss that having a piece of donut-shaped black cardboard (with certain opening size) between the rear of the lens and the adapter solves the two problems of wide-open softness and busy bokeh. I've seen convincing examples, but that sounds to me like stopping the aperture down, why would I add a baffle when I can stop-down the lens? It will also reduce the light entering the lens, thus negating one of the benefits of having an f/1.2 lens.

Below are a few more examples:

f/1.2 - softbox added, manual power control from the camera using my 560TX

100% crop

f/1.2 - ambient light only

f/2.8 - softbox and VariND on the lens

Without the softbox
f/1.2 - I wanted to show you the rugby ball shaped bokeh balls, I wonder how this lens looks like on a full frame camera

Fun fact: I use my VariND filter to shoot this lens wide-open under full sunlight, imagine that, 1/8000 and 100 ISO are not enough. :-)

I cannot recommend this lens for those wanting to experience an f/1.2 lens, but for $160, it has been quite an interesting experience for me. I have yet to shoot video with it. That pretty much sums up my 2-months experience with the lens. I hope it has been an enjoyable post, and I shall be reporting here the more I use the lens.