Manual Lenses on Mirrorless Cameras: Is it worth the hassle?
Andrew Tobin in his TL versus M lens comparisons (here and here) has struck a chord with me. Modern high-performance autofocus lenses, not just from Leica but from Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic and others, are now so good that I see little point in fiddling around on with manual-focus lenses on mirrorless cameras — unless it is something you're particularly addicted to. For me, the manual focusing experience of the Leica M is unrivalled. Attempting to reproduce that experience through anelectronic viewfinder is ultimately less rewarding, especially so when there are so many excellent native lenses out there for all cameras.
Below: The "standard" 18-56mm Vario-Elmar-TL is no mean lens. There is often little point in resorting to manual M lenses for general use
Manually focusing drive-by-wire autofocus lenses was never very inspiring and, I think, this led directly to the desire to use manual lenses, with their short-throw focus rings, on mirrorless cameras. It was just more fun. But things are changing. I have been impressed with the manual focus on some newer lenses, in particular the f/2.8 Leica Elmarit-TL. This lens is a little gem, creating a perfect street-photography outfit when twinned with the Leica CL. Manual focus on this lens feels faster and more direct, almost mechanical, in comparison with older lenses.
And the new 75mm and 90mm Leica Summicrons for the SL feature DSD ('dual synchro drive") which attempts to recreate the manual-lens focus experience, reducing time for the entire focus throw to only 250 milliseconds. I hope to be able to try this out, but if it is as good as it is billed, it will render the use of M Summicrons in these focal lengths on the SL rather redundant. You can have a much improved manual focus indulgence when you wish; and at all other times you have superb autofocus to tempt you.
There are still some cogent reasons to mount manual lenses on mirrorless cameras. Very fast lenses, for instance, are hobbled on the M10 and other M cameras because of the 1/4000s fastest shutter speed. In bright conditions, even in a London winter, an f/1.4 Summilux or an f/0.95 Noctilux, cannot be used wide open unless you fit an ND filter.
Mirrorless cameras such as the SL and CL remove this restriction because of their often faster shutter speeds. On the SL, for instance, you can shoot the Noctilux wide open in most circumstances, taking advantage of that Rizla-paper depth of field and wonderful bokeh. As I have written before, the SL is just made for the Noctilux — it really comes into its own on this full-frame bruiser. This is not just because of the fast shutter, it is because the SL is more of physical match for the portly Noctilux than smaller footprint cameras such as the M or, certainly, the CL. The SL/Noctilux combination plays well and the substantial grip on the SL is a bonus with such a heavy lens.
Another good reason to use manual full-frame lenses on crop-frame sensors is to take advantage of the different focal lengths when the lenses are mounted on APS-C or micro four-thirds cameras. If you are new to the subject, APS-C has a “crop factor” of 1.5 while the smaller micro four-thirds sensor crops by a factor of 2. Hence, the 50mm Noctilux becomes a 75mm on APS-C cameras such as the CL and 100mm on m4/3 bodies such as the new Panasonic G9.
You can play musical chairs and enjoy three different lenses in one provided you have the right combination of bodies. Of course, the crop can be seen as a disadvantage. For one thing, you are using only the central part of the lens (which, serendipity says is often the sharpest bit) and increasing the focal length is not always an advantage because it leaves you short of usable wide-angle lenses. To get 35mm on a Panasonic GX8 or G9 you need an 18mm M lens — too big and too expensive. Perhaps.
Finally, and perhaps most compelling, is the convenience of using specialist manual glass on smaller sensors in order to avoid shelling out for an equivalently fast lenses. If most of your photography is taken at medium apertures however, native lenses, including the better zooms, are perfect. But if you want the widest possible aperture and have the M lenses on your shelf, then they are an economical way of achieving a narrower depth of field. It’s important, though, to bear in mind that depth of field is wider at a given aperture on crop sensors — again by a factor of 1.5 on APS-C and 2 on micro four-thirds bodies. So on a crop-sensor camera you are not going to get the razor sharp effect you’ve enjoyed on a full-frame M or SL, even with the identical lens. And if you want to go one better, there’s always medium format.
All these factors are part of the necessary decision process if you already own manual lenses. Increasingly, though, I see little advantage in acquiring manual-focus lenses simply to use on mirrorless cameras. They are a necessary part of the Leica M world (and we all love them), but the newer native autofocus lenses will perform just as well, if not better. As Andrew Tobin set out to prove — and, in my opinion, succeeded — the Leica TL zooms can perform as well on the CL as M primes costing three, four or five times as much.
I have enjoyed using M lenses on mirrorless cameras and I’d recommend the experience to anyone. But in practical terms, I am now much happier to stick with the native lenses — especially the superb TL primes and even the zooms — without feeling in any way shortchanged. And I have the advantage of choice between autofocus and manual.
I've written this rather tongue in cheek. I am sure others will argue that using manual lenses on mirrorless cameras is an absolute delight and something to be indulged in at every opportunity. What do you think? Is there still a genuine place for manual lenses on mirrorless bodies?
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