Photography / Hands-on Review

Holiday 2012: Manual Focus SLR Lenses

With all of the technological advancements in the world of autofocus—both in relation to the lenses themselves as well as camera’s AF features—manual focus lenses have also gained popularity recently for a number of reasons. Manual focus lenses appeal to photographers who yearn for a slower-paced workflow as well as those who are working in video, who depend on manual focusing as an integral part of shooting. Manual focusing can be preferable for overall greater control of focus, giving much more leeway to selective-focus applications or times when the most obvious area of scene is not exactly what you want to be sharp. Macro and still-life shooting can also greatly benefit from the control that manual operation affords you, since changes to an exposure and focus setting can often be so minute that autofocus would have difficulty determining the difference in focus desired. On top of it all, manual focus lenses tend also to be a more budget-conscious option for photographers wishing to get the sharpest, highest image quality without spending a significant portion on the autofocusing mechanism alone.

Bower, Rokinon and Samyang

Bower, Rokinon and Samyang all offer a number of manual focus lenses that encompass a variety of focal lengths, but are mainly rooted in the wide-angle end of the spectrum. These three brands all provide affordable options for well-performing lenses that are available in Canon EF, Four Thirds, Nikon F, Pentax K and Sony Alpha mount types. The widest available lens is the 8mm f/3.5 fisheye lens, which is compatible with APS-C-sized sensors. This lens provides a 180-degree angle of view and has aspherical, multi-coated elements to help reduce flare and distortions. Additionally, Rokinon and Samyang feature an 8mm f/3.5 HD lens. This lens has the same 180-degree angle of view, but features a removable lens hood, multicoated glass to help further reduce reflections and HD aspherical lens elements to help minimize distortions and aberrations.

Next in line is the ultra-wide 14mm f/2.8 lens, which has a built-in tulip style lens hood and a very broad range of focus for extended depth of field. This lens is also multicoated and features aspherical elements to reduce flare, distortions and aberrations. It is compatible for use on full-frame or APS-C-sized sensors. For low light, wide-angle shooting, both the 24mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 are suitable options due to their wide maximum apertures. These lenses allow greater control over selective focus and help to give a more expansive look to the scenes you photograph.

The longest lens available from all of these manufacturers is a portrait-length 85mm f/1.4. This lens’s wide maximum aperture and longer-than-normal focal length make it ideal for isolating subject matter from distracting backgrounds, and for other selective-focus applications.


Nikon’s NIKKOR manual focus lens offerings are all designed to work with their proprietary Nikon F mount and all lenses cover full-frame sensors or 35mm film format. Each of these lenses features all-metal lens barrel construction and smooth focus action to give you improved tactility during use. The widest lens available is the 20mm f/2.8, which features a broad angle of view and Nikon’s Close-Range Correction (CRC) system, which enables an increased focusing range and better image quality at closer distances. This lens also features a Super Integrated Coating (SIC) that employs multilayer coatings to the lens elements in order to reduce ghosting, reflections and flare while also improving color accuracy and contrast. 

The next two lenses, the 24mm f/2.8 and the 28mm f/2.8 follow suit and provide standard wide angle focal lengths as well as CRC and SIC technologies. A bit narrower in view, but a full two stops faster is the 35mm f/1.4, which is ideal for working with selective-focus applications and low-light conditions. There is a pair of normal length, 50mm lenses, the 50mm f/1.2 and 50mm f/1.4, which both offer wide maximum apertures and the same image quality benefitting features of the other lenses. Maintaining a normal angle of view is the Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8, which adds macro capabilities and enables the lens to focus as closely as 10.8” with a 1:2 reproduction ratio. All of these Nikon NIKKOR lenses are designated as AI-S, meaning that they allow the camera to control the aperture, giving you more precise f/-values compared to placing the aperture ring manually in-between stops.


Voigtlander, typically known for producing classic rangefinders and compatible lenses, produces a series of lenses that are designed for use with the Nikon F and Canon EF mounts. These lenses feature compact, all-metal designs and an optical quality similar to that of the Zeiss lenses mentioned here. The widest available lens from Voigtlander is the 28mm f/2.8 Color Skopar SL II. This lens measures just about an inch thick and supports both auto exposure and metering functions when used with Canon or Nikon DSLR/SLRs. Moving up slightly to a just wider-than-normal lens is the 40mm f/2.0 Ultron SL II. The 40mm is similar to the 28mm in that it has a pancake-like design and measures approximately an inch thick, but it gains a stop with the fast f/2.0 maximum aperture. Additionally, this lens comes bundled with a close-up lens for increasing the macro range from 1:7 to 1:4, which pairs well with the minimum focusing distance of 15”. The last lens offered by Voigtlander is the 58mm f/1.4 Nokton SL II and is available for the Nikon F mount only. This is their fastest full-frame lens available, and also supports in-camera exposure controls and metering.


Zeiss lenses are renowned for their quality, sharpness and clarity and feature rugged all-metal barrel and filter-ring construction for additional durability. All focal lengths feature the Carl Zeiss T* anti-reflective coating, which helps to significantly reduce the appearance of stray light, flare and other light reflections that affect image quality. There is also consistency between different focal lengths in regard to color and contrast characteristics, and each lens has a nearly circular diaphragm opening due to a nine-blade design, for aesthetic out-of-focus quality.

The Zeiss SLR lenses are primarily available for both the Canon EF and Nikon F lens mounts, although select lengths are also available with the Pentax K mount and universal M42 screw mount. Nikon F-mount lenses (called the ZF.2 series) feature manual aperture rings with 1/2-stop intervals while the Canon EF mount lenses (called the ZE series) do not have a manual aperture ring since the aperture values are controlled in-camera.

The widest lens available from Zeiss is the Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8. This lens features an ultra-wide angle of view of 110°, making it ideal for architectural applications. Its construction enables virtually distortion-free imagery and chromatic aberration correction, as well as two aspheric elements and a floating element design for high image quality throughout the focus range. Also lending itself particularly well to architectural and landscape imagery are the Distagon T* 18mm f/3.5 and Distagon T* 21mm f/2.8 lenses. These lenses enable a very wide range of focus, helping to give greater visual depth and expansive backgrounds to your imagery. 

A bit faster and narrower in angle are the Distagon T* 25mm f/2.0 and Distagon T* 28mm f/2.0, which approach standard wide-angle lengths and give a fast, wide maximum aperture for low-light performance and selective focus applications. For the medium wide-angle length, Zeiss offers two 35mm options: either the Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 or the Distagon T* 35mm f/2.0. Both of these lenses exhibit a slightly wider-than-normal angle of view and low-light capabilities, with the f/1.4 affording you a bit more control over focus. 

There are also two options available for the standard normal 50mm lens size: either the Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 or the Makro-Planar T* 50mm f/2.0. The 50mm f/1.4 lens is a general-use lens with a fast, bright maximum aperture for extended low-light shooting and shallow depth of field. The 50mm f/2.0 is a macro lens and offers a maximum magnification ratio of 1:2 and a minimum focus distance of only 9.45”. The Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 lens is an ideal portrait-length lens and with the large maximum aperture, affords you tremendous control over the focus point for blurring backgrounds behind your subjects. The longest manual focus lens offered by Zeiss is the Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2.0. This lens is ideal for close-up shooting and provides a reproduction ratio of 1:2 and minimum focus distance of only 1.4’.

In addition to buying the lenses individually, Zeiss also offers a five-lens kit that bundles the 21mm f/2.8, 28mm f/2.0, 35mm f/2.0, 50mm f/1.4, and 85mm f/1.4 lenses together in a rugged, waterproof hard case with custom foam inlays for each lens.

Discussion 24

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This "roundup" could've been shortened considerably by mentioning that all the Vivitars, Rokinons and Bowers are literally identical lenses and made by Samyang. :)

One more good source for manual focus lenses is Pentax screw-mount. Add an inexpensive, metal M42 adaptor to the lens and it will mount right to your Canon, Nikon, Sony dSLR body. I have a nice Pentax made (off brand name) 50mm f/1.4 lens from the 1970s -- purchased pre-owned for $60.00. It's small, fast and well-made. Fits perfectly on my Canon 350D and 60D. One caveat, you will be forced to shoot manual (not a problem if you're used to doing so already). Aperture doesn't register with these lenses (at least not on any of the cameras I am aware of). You truly get through the lens aperture captures. :-)

There is a large variety of lenses available on the used market. And, well-made M42 adaptors are cheap. Buy a few or share one adaptor between a couple of these "vintage" lenses. Best wishes and Merry Christmas!

Help me find the micro 4/3 version of this lens - I get four lenses at B&H when I click the link and none of them are micro 4/3 mount.....


Hello Brian,

What particular lens/focal length were you looking to find for the Micro 4/3rds system?  It wasn't quite clear.  If you let us know we can search for any options to recommend to you.

What, no love for the Voigtlanders?

Dear Dan,

Fear not! We do love and respect Voigtlander optics. In fact, we love them so much we decided to devote an entire holiday guide to optics from Voigtlander, Leica M, and other manufacturers of non-(D)SLR optics.The list of optics was simply too long for a single article.

Stay tuned for the upcoming article.

Glad to hear it. I really like my 40mm f/2 for Canon.

Interested in how the 85mm f1.4's compare.

I've read a magazine review of the Rokinon.  How do the Vivitar and Bowens stack up with the Rokinon?

It is my understanding that the same Korean company makes Samyang, Rokinon, and Bower optics, and that the lenses under the various names are identical.

All of the above lenses are identical except for the badging. They are all manufactured by Samyang. If you want to purchase any of them just go for the cheapest one and call it whatever you want.

I mean the Rokinon, Vivitar and the Bower.

The 85 2.0 Nikon is a better portrait lens than the 105 2.5. It always has been. In the early 80s I heard the hype, tried both, and bought the 85 2.0, and a 105 micro 2.8. I never looked back, and I still use both.


We too have reason to suspect these lens are all made in the same factory with different cosmetic's and branding. The spec's would seem to confirm this. If sharpness is a concern, staying in the price point both Canon and Nikon make 85 f1.8's that are extremely sharp and maintain full automation including auto focusing.

Vivitar Series 1 lenses are very good lenses. The fisheye Bowens and the Rokinon are one in the same. Just one costs more than the other(I don't know why that is).

Great, great article. Should do that more often. Try Camcorders.


Canon owners with manual focus lenses, please clarify and/or correct:

1. Do these manual focus lenses still allow focus confirmation under manual focus? The Canon AF IS lenses set to manual focus still have focus confirmation.

2. I assume that manual aperture setting is done on the manual lens aperture ring. To focus, one would have to open up wide, focus, then stop down to shoot. [In old film cameras, the wide-open to stopped down maneuver could be mechanized (default position wide open, set aperture on lens ring, pin and lever mechanism would stop down the aperture as the mechanical shutter button was pressed).]

3. I assume that only the manual (M) and the aperture-dominant (Av) modes work.

4. Is there any EXIF data with manual lenses? Or is there EXIF data that the camera body generates (shutter speed, ISO) but no lens-generated EXIF data (focal length, aperture)?

 Thanks for your information

1. No, unfortunately Samyang doesn't do the same thing with EOS mount lenses as they do with the Nikon and Pentax ones (and maybe some others, not sure). Nikon and Pentax versions have some electronics installed (not all of them, some do and some don't, read the descriptions) so the aperture can be controlled from the camera and the focus confirmation works—basically they behave just like OEM lenses switched to MF. I don't know why Samyang doesn't do the same for Canon mount, got a 35mm f/1.4 on my EOS body and it's kinda annoying to do everything manually. There's a way to get focus confirmation work—by gluing a confirm chip to the lens mount, I've bought myself one some time ago but didn't have the time to stick it yet, gonna do this in a few days. There are a few types of those, I bought Dandelion (~ $23 from ebay).

2. You don't really have to open up the aperture wide-open, focus and then close it before taking the shot every time... at least I don't do it this way. Just select the aperture you want to shoot at (the same way you'd select it from the camera in AV mode), focus and shoot. In low light the viewfinder may get quite dark so sometimes you may want to open up wide first to focus, but I rarely do that. There's also a "focus shift" issue, so focusing at wide open and then closing down may not work very well (especially for 85mm) but I'm not gonna get into this here, just google it.

3. Yep, only M works for me. But some people do use AV, not sure whether it depends on the camera you use or maybe AV works only if you have AF confirm chip installed..

4. The second one.

1:  It will depend on the camera brand, type, and lens as to if you will have focus confirmation.  On Nikon cameras, as they use a rangefinder for focus confirmation, if the lens is f/5.6 and brighter and not a tilt/shift lens, you can still get focus confirmation, regardless if the lens has CPU contacts.  Under "Compatible Lenses" under "Technical Notes" in Nikon camera manuals, there is usually a chart that states if a non-CPU lens will still illuminate the focus confirmation lamp and any stipulations, if any.  With Canon cameras, if the manual lens has CPU contacts, the focus confirmation lamp will still light.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to confirm if this is also the case with non-CPU lenses.  All AF lenses will display light the focus confirmation lamp in manual focus (I will, however, caution that some Canon Custom Function settings may cause the focus confirmation lamp not to light when enabled.  Read your camera's instruction manual when setting Custom Functions to see the effect they have).

2:  While number 2 is not technically a question, yes, on lenses with manual aperture rings, the aperture setting would be set physically on the lens itself.  Once again, how it works would differ, depending on the camera used.  Nikon and Pentax cameras are still mechanical by design, therefore, even when the aperture is stopped down on the camera for exposure, the aperture would remain wide-open for focusing and metering, as the aperture lever inside the camera is given the aperture reading.  On Nikon cameras from the D7000 and above, there is a setting in the camera's Shooting Menu named "Non-CPU Lens Data," wherein you tell the camera the lens' focal length and maximum aperture, and the camera can then adjust the meter to that lens and display EXIF data when using that lens on the camera.  You can have settings for multiple lenses, but you must tell the camera which lens is on the camera so it can properly set the meter.  On cameras below the D7000, while the lenses can be used in Manual mode, there would not be metering available.  I would recommend taking a test picture, then looking at the image review on the LCD screen and adjusting your exposure to compensate.  If available, you may also want to use your camera's histogram to aid in exposure decisions and settings.  In Pentax cameras, you would have to go to the Set-Up menu in the camera and change the "Using Aperture Ring" setting to "2: Permitted" to take images; however, it will depend on the type of lens used as to the information recorded. How the camera will respond depends on the lens; you would have to refer to the instruction manual of your camera to see the type of lens you are using and what restrictions you may have.

3:  For most cameras, that is correct.  For some cameras, only Manual mode will allow images to be taken.  This is camera-specific, and would require you to read your instruction manual for more information (usually located in the Technical Information or Settings information section).

4:  Once again, it depends on the camera and lens.  On Canon or Sony cameras, which are electronic-based, the lens may require CPU contacts to transfer lens setting information to your camera.  If the camera cannot electronically read the information, no data will be listed for the lens' settings; only the camera settings, like ISO, white balance, drive mode, flash, etc., as you indicated.  Nikon and Pentax cameras are mechanical-based.  On Nikon cameras, if the lens information has been entered in the "Non-CPU Lens Data" section (as mentioned in #2 above), then EXIF information from the lens would be documented.  In Pentax cameras, you would have to go to the Set-Up menu in the camera and change the "Using Aperture Ring" setting to "2: Permitted" to take images; however, it will depend on the type of lens used as to the information recorded.  Not being robotic, but as it bears repeating, you will have to refer to the instruction manual in your camera as to what restrictions may occur, depending on the lens.

In all cases, besides reading the instruction manual for your camera/lens, simply testing the lens on your specific camera and seeing how it works, or contacting the manufacturer directly, would be the best in learning how your particular lens setup works on your lens.

I would like very much to try my five Zeiss lenses of a Contax G2, on a Canon 5D MkII body.

Is there any third-party mount adapters, that will do the job ?

I realy don't need all that digital info, just want those wonderful images by Zeiss glass !


I am sorry we can't help you. I've seen them available on the web but we do not carry this type of an adapter.

Yes, you can get cheap contax adapters from a popular market/auction site. Not all are created equal though, the contax lenses require something like 1.8mm tolerance (did a lot of reading on this, digital calipar helps) some sellers sell more accurate ones than others. If you want focus confirm, you can easily add a chip (I recommend Optix V4/5) that gives basic data and focus confirm/trap focusing etc., allows you to use the camera in other modes beyond M or Av, and allows lens focus adjustment if the adapter is a bit off to account for back/front focusing issues. I have a contax 50mm f1.7 that it is one of my favorite lenses, used with this kind of setup on my Canon body.

For those of us who still shoot film and love rangefinders, what are the choices - Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander?  Are there others?  How about a quick roundup of these?

In the present day market there are a good handful of 35mm film Rangefinder options to choose from depending on your budget and needs. One specification that is important is the viewfinder magnification and frame lines or its ability to cover the lens or your choice.  For example, a viewfinder with 0.72x magnification (meaning that what you see in the viewfinder appears to be 72% of life-size) will cover a 28mm lens. Should you choose to use a 90mm, the view through the VF will still be the wider 0.72x magnification and you will see the coverage of the 90 via the frame lines. If you tend to shoot longer focal lengths you may want to choose a VF with a 1:1 magnification. Likewise a wide VF will allow the use of 21 or 24mm lens with the use of a separate Brightline Finder.

 The first that always comes to mind are the Leica M’s.  Presently they offer the M7 with an electronic shutter, or the MP with a mechanical shutter. Voigtlander has several models to choose from with a variety of options for different fields of view in the viewfinder and either electronic shutter (“A” models) or mechanical shutter models (“M” models).  Zeiss also offers their Ikon rangefinder.  The great thing about all of these models is that they all use the Leica M mount as a standard, and each offers lenses with the mount – so there are endless combinations one could choose from depending on their need and budget.  See the two links below, the first is for all of the present Rangfinder Camera options, the second is for all of the lenses from each manufacturer for them:

For the Rangefinder Cameras:

 For the lenses:

The body of text says "All of these Nikon NIKKOR lenses are designated as AI-S, meaning that they will carry on the lens’s exposure information to your camera to be recorded in the image’s metadata and allow the camera to control the aperture, giving you more precise f/-values compared to manually placing the aperture ring in between stops."

The last part is incorrect. Only those lenses with electronic interface like Nikkor P type, Zeiss ZF.2, and some Voigtlander lenses allow control of aperture through camera.

With Nikkor AIS lenses (these don't have electronic interface) you will get the EXIF data correctly if you enter the lens details and select that option while you shoot.