With extremely expensive Sony-fit 85mm lenses in abundance and beyond my (economically sensible) reach, I’ve done good commercial work last year on the Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM and later the Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM on A7RII. Some of my work relies on showing close-up details with strong differential focus, and hardly any lenses are free from ‘colour bokeh’ issues, so it’s needed some care to process the files and avoid that typical magenta tinge to the background and greenish hue to foreground blur.
This is a typical example. It’s on the Canon 85mm f/1.8, and although this is a fairly clean lens, the background at f/4 needed some post-process work to avoid a magenta colour shift.
In contrast, absolutely no work is ever needed on my Sigma 70mm f/2.8 macro. It shows no chromatic effects in defocused areas. But this is a studio shot at f/10 – and, like many commercial shots, the extreme f/1.4 or f/2 apertures which are so highly valued by the bloggerati simply don’t enter the equation. Differential focus here is precisely balanced against the legibility of the bottle wording at web size (these shots are for a 1440 pixel wide template).
I like to have a choice of wider aperture and macro lenses for this kind of work as they all produce different effects. My 70-210mm f/4 Minolta AF classic, for example, has about the cleanest foreground blur wide open on 0.25X scale 210mm close ups. My 85mm SAM is ‘dirty’ by comparison (but its 60cm 0.20X minimum focus distance still makes it the best 85mm for close work unless you use a macro or a zoom with good close range). Then, we get the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 popping up followed now by the costly Sony G-Master 85mm f/1.4 FE. In both cases you get 80cm minimum focus and around 0.12X image scale (rather like the 70-200mm f/4 Sony G FE lens used at 190mm and 1m focus).
I really like, on a full-frame camera, to reach one quarter life size on the sensor. One-eighth, the 0.12-0.125X type of scale, means a full A4 magazine page fills the frame. One-quarter, 0.25X, means a quarter of that page or a postcard size fills the frame. There are so many things in the world, from a kitten’s face to a lily in bloom or a perfect cup cake, which are about this size. When I photograph food I often want to avoid including the edges of the plate completely. Those lenses which push me back too far prevent that. I know many users will be puzzled by my preference and see no reason to want to get any closer. Well, that’s just me. I have always done well creatively and commercially from surprisingly tightly cropped, close-up work.
And, being more critical of these new hyper-expensive lenses, we’ve had 80cm focus 85mm lenses for SLR focusing for 70 years now. Really, any new lens in this focal length should focus to 60cm or ideally 50cm without calling itself a macro. That suits the way we live, in our cars, at desks, at home, at tables, in small spaces, giving other people space. I really like to be able to place an item in front of me, or even hold it in my hand, and focus on it. I can’t do that at all with 1m minimum focus (the old rangefinder Leica standard!) and only just with 60cm.
Then I started seeing some work taken on an interesting old lens. It’s small, taking 49mm filters. It is fast, at f/2. It was originally designed by Carl Zeiss and if you were really lucky you might find an 85mm f/2 Sonnar. But for around £100/$150 or a little more for guaranteed condition you can buy the Russian Jupiter 9 85mm f/2 manual preset lens in M42 screw (Pentax/Praktica). And since it’s a screw mount SLR lens, you can add an extra layer of focus extension for very low cost between the E-mount body and the lens.
So last week I assembled a relatively low-cost eBay rig to enable even closer focus than the 60cm of the SAM . This is partly just experimental, our of curiosity to see how well a 1930s Sonnar type design made in 1980s Russia with 1950s technology and coatings can peform. The 85mm f/2 Jupiter-9 is often used to get an attractive f/2 soft-focus with core sharpness, gradually cleaning up until around f/3.5 the softness is gone. It is also used to get neat circular bubbles from strongly out of focus light sources beyond the subject, or a generally very attractive focus transition at any aperture since the 19-blade mechanical iris forms an almost perfect circle at all settings. It focuses slightly closer than 80cm.
With the well-made Camdiox helical adaptor costing under £28 delivered, this is extended in a continuous range to 35cm from the film plane and 0.51X. Obvously, it takes up no more space than my plain M42 adaptor as it is exactly the same thickness at infinity setting – and it does allow true infinity focus. Being solid metal, the combination is not all that light, a dense 490g in its 88mm long by 63mm maximum diameter, 20g more than the Batis. But it feels good. The aperture mechanism is crude and difficult to see and use, but would normally be set first to a chosen aperture such as f/2.8 for the best sharpness with a shallow depth of field, or f/8 for landscapes. It would not be much fun for anyone who likes taking a range of shots from f/2 to f/16, or for anyone wanting accurate half or third stops.
First of all, is this lens even remotely sharp, and can the Sony A7? bodies use it well? Both answers must be yes. Just set the focal length for normal distances to 85mm and the in-body SSS of the A7SII, A7II and A7RII will give amazingly effective stabilisation. Work between f/4 and f/11 and this simple old lens design outresolves the A7R. I was just checking the focus on some calendar text in very dim room light, using ISO 1600 on my A7RII, when I pressed the shutter with 1/40th hand-held –
This was never intended to be seen, just a casual target. These pictures open out to Facebook size, by the way, when clicked – 2048 pixels. Here’s a 100% pixel friendly section from this. I was surprised. The lens was at f/4 and focus was done at max magnification, at the taking aperture.
You need to check this JPEG out by clicking to open/view at 100%. It’s like this right across the frame, corner to corner. There’s a pleasant dimensional quality to the rendering this old lens gives, but it has one massive failing – it flares up dramatically if any light at all reaches the front glass. The only solution is a very deep lens hood indeed.
Making more considered tests, I headed for a target I had set up to explore colour bokeh, that unpleasant magenta to green shift in defocused areas. With this set-up, my 85mm SAM is not bad at all and does benefit from a proper lens profile. As you can see, the music doesn’t seem to change much in colour from front to back though in the full size 42 megapixel file, especially without lens CA corrections, some funky colours do appear.
Here’s how the Jupiter-9 worked out – first of all, it’s one of a number of shots at different distances and angles, not identical to the SAM shots, and this one takes advantage of the closer focus combination of adaptor and lens:
The colour shifts are different, with a bit of a rainbow including red and cyan fringes as well as magenta and green, and the contrast is lower. However, the detail in the very limited f/2.8 focus zone is very fine and over a range of tests the blurring (from the circular aperture) just looks better. No doubt I need to take many more shots with this lens (once the deep 200mm lens hood I’ve found arrives…) but it seems like a worthwhile creative option alongside a number of older manual lenses.
What really interests me is that this same design, with a few refinements of modern manufacture, would surely be worth having. Tamron’s forthcoming 85mm f/1.8 will focus close – it is the special feature of this new lens series – and maybe along with the 35mm and 45mm f/1.8 designs will one day appear in native E-mount. I’d love to see a half-price Batis, a Sonnar f/2 variant instead of f/1.8, with a decent close focus limit around 50cm. Until then I’ll use the SAM on LA-EA3 or LA-EA4 (works well with either) and my assortment of manual set-ups including this Jupiter-9.
Here’s a revision to the post, got some sunshine this morning (day after writing the original post) and with focus peaking and f/5.6 even a little moving target comes out whisker-sharp!
– David Kilpatrick