If your main business is shooting people then could you justify splashing out on one of these specialist optics?
WORDS: ADAM DUCKWORTH
As a professional photographer who shoots people, chances are you already own a very good portrait lens. Typically an 85mm prime, it gives just the right amount of compression to be flattering to the sitter and enough distance between you so you’re not sat on their lap.
A prime like this is often available in a very fast maximum aperture to give a really shallow depth of field. Canon users, for example, have 85mm versions in f/1.2, f1/4 and f/1.8 maximum apertures with a corresponding hike in price. From £379 for the slowest to £1700 for the fastest. For your money you get a bigger and heftier lens with often a more pleasing bokeh.
But there are other, more exotic portrait that might be just the thing you need to give your business a unique edge. We look at four, from a Zeiss Otus to a Sigma Art, Fujinon medium format glass to a Schneider Kreuznach tilt shift lens, to see if the price can be justified by the results. We investigate how to get the best out of them, and whether they should be a must-buy for serious portrait shooters. This isn’t a scientific test where we inspect critical sharpness at all apertures; it’s a real-world test to see if they really can make a difference.
We tried them in a studio setting, using medium apertures for the ultimate in quality. Then we shot them wide open outside on a gloomy day to check for focusing and bokeh.
While the medium-format lenses only fit their specific Fujifilm and Phase One cameras, the 35mm lenses were tested on the cameras they were designed for – so a Canon for the Sigma and Nikon for the Zeiss. We used the corresponding Metabones adapter to fit them both to a Sony A7R III so performance could be evaluated on the same sensor. We used focus peaking to ensure everything was sharp.
THE 85MM FOCAL length is where the majority of manufacturers pitch their portrait lenses, but Sigma offers an even bigger range complete with the latest 105mm f/1.4 version from the top-of-the-range Art series. Sigma specifically says this lens is the master of bokeh and is perfect for portraits, as the extra focal length gives that little bit more compression to bring the background even closer.
And at f/1.4, to make it spectacularly out of focus. The lens shows Sigma’s new mantra as a maker of premium lenses that outperform manufacturer’s own glass and the new 105mm really delivers as there is no competition. The Sigma has an advanced design with 17 optical elements in 12 groups, which is a huge amount for a prime lens. There are a total of five special low-dispersion elements and one aspherical lens element, plus a rounded nine-bladed diaphragm for smooth out-of-focus areas.
And this is housed in a sturdy metal body which, at 1645g and 131.5mm long, is very big for a 105mm lens. It is heavy and takes up a lot of room in your kit bag, especially the detachable mammoth lens hood. It also comes with a tripod mount and looks like a mini version of the huge telephotos used by sports professionals.
In use the images are truly stunning. Very sharp and detailed, with highly attractive and smooth outof-focus areas, helped by the slightly longer focal length. On a Canon and a Sony (we used manual focus on the latter) the focusing was perfect every time. The lens is just incredible and easy to use.
SPENDING ALMOST THREE grand on a manual-only lens may seem like madness, especially when you consider the advanced autofocus systems on modern cameras. And especially for a lens that is for portraits and goes as wide as f/1.4, focusing is critical if you are shooting wide open. Some people say that in that case manual focus is the only way to go to get it right, as AF might focus on the end of the eyelashes rather than the eye, for example. And at such wide apertures, that would make a difference.
However, the Zeiss was very tricky to use and we rejected lots of photos that were just not in focus. This was especially obvious when shooting outdoors wide open, on both the Nikon and Sony which has the advantage of focus peaking. But it also happened in the dark studio where it was tough to see well enough to get the focus bang on. That’s because modern DSLRs aren’t geared up for optimal manual focus experience, and the Sony’s peaking was tough to see. Many shots just weren’t sharp. But when the shot was perfectly in focus, the results were breathtaking.
The Otus is Zeiss’ attempt at a no-compromise lens purley focused on image quality. It has 11 lens elements in nine groups, in the legendary Planar design. There are six special glass elements and five aspheric lenses. At 1140g with an 86mm front filter thread, it’s a big lens that oozes quality and will last for years.
It’s not easy to use, but when you get it right, the quality is amazing with superb detail and contrast, accurate colours and no distortion.
ZEISS SAYS ITS Otus is designed specifically to give a medium format look. Instead of trying to get that look on a 35mm size sensor, Fuji does it for real with its 110mm lens that is for its own medium-format camera, the 50-megapixel GFX50S. With the camera actually featuring a cropped sensor so it’s not the full 6×4.5cm medium-format size, the lens is the equivalent of an 87mm optic on a full-frame camera, making the well-accepted norm for portraits.
Where the Fujifilm lens scores is that it features a very fast f/2 aperture. All medium format rivals Hasselblad can muster is a 100mm f/2.2 version while Phase One has an f/2.8 portrait lens and Pentax has a 90mm f/2.8. Some of these are very old designs, while the Fujifilm lens is faster, more
modern and packed with the latest technology to make it work on the mirrorless GFX.
The optic has 14 elements in nine groups with four ED extra low dispersion elements and nine aperture blades for a smooth bokeh. And best of all, the lens works amazingly well on the GFX which is often where medium format systems fall down. Rivals have single AF points, while the GFX has a typical mirrorless style of lots of focus points all over the frame and face-detection technology too. Not one shot we took was out of focus, whatever the location or aperture.
And the results were amazing. The background wasn’t quite as soft as on the 105mm f/1.4 Sigma but was smoother, and the stunning quality of the sensor showed colour gradations that no 35mm sensor could come close to.
TILT AND SHIFT lenses are designed to correct converging verticals and extend depth of field. But if you tilt the lens the ‘wrong’ way and angle around the frame, the depth of field can be manipulated to give a unique look. If you’ve ever used a Lensbaby, that’s what you are doing, but it’s not critically sharp.
The Schneider Kreuznach 120mm f/5.6 TS is a very sharp tilt-shift lens to fit on full-frame Phase One cameras, with a high price tag. It’s fully old-school manual. You focus wide open, then close the aperture down to the desired setting which means the optical viewfinder darkens. That makes it pretty hard to see what’s going on, and if there is any subject movement, it’s likely your shot will be out of focus.
With a maximum aperture of f/5.6 anyway, it’s hard to focus. And on such a large sensor, it needs to be bang on. In the studio with the lens stopped down to f/11, it was tough to focus. It was impossible to use any tilt as it was so dark. For that, you would need to be tethered to a laptop and use live view, which is hardly conducive to a great portrait.
Outdoors and shooting wide open at full tilt, the depth of field was so narrow it was difficult to get it in focus, too. This is a lens designed for a certain use, such as product shots on a tripod. Using it as a creative tool is incredibly hard to do,
but once you got a shot it is unique and impossible to create any other way.
This test started out as a comparison between the results from four different and exotic lenses but ended up more as a test of usability as each have their foibles. If you want to boost your portraits, these four options give you something new but only you can know if they are right for you.
The unique effect of the Schneider Kreuznach 120mm f/5.6 TS can’t be replicated any other way but is incredibly difficult to pull off and the lens is vastly expensive. It could be a good rental option for a one-off shoot, though.
In contrast, the Fujifilm 1100mm f/2 lens on the GFX was the most accurate and easiest to use of all the lenses, and gave a stunning result but that’s mainly thanks to the size and quality of the medium format sensor.
The Zeiss Otus is a stunning performer in terms of optical quality, but trying to shoot manual focus on DSLRs with a shallow depth-of-field is a huge challenge. Get it right and you are rewarded, though.
The Sigma 105mm has an even more advanced build, is easier to focus and gives similarly excellent results, and for about a grand less.
With lenses like those in this quartet, the law of diminishing returns means that you are paying a lot extra for quality that is definitely better and with smoother bokeh than a cheaper 85mm lens, but may be tricky to achieve. If you demand the ultimate in optical and build quality, and want to make large prints, then any could be a great buy but the Sigma is cheaper and delivers more consistently.
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