Written by John Lehet*
My picture for the current TOP sale, the morning glory bud, was made on the Sony A7rII with a Tokina AT-X 90mm ƒ/2.5 Macro wide open at ƒ/2.5.
The lens is manual focus and between 20 and 30 years old. It's nicknamed the "Bokina" (not just by me)—for its beautiful bokeh, of course. I got the Bokina (I'll forego the quote marks for the rest of this post) last summer, and fell in love with it.
The Bokina was made for about 10 years starting in 1986. While I have another contemporaneous lens that can match or beat the Bokina's bokeh (the Olympus OM Zuiko 90mm ƒ/2 Macro, at over three times the price), no modern lens I have used does so. The Bokina is sturdy, with good mechanics. At 530 grams without the adapter, it's a bit lighter than my Sony 90mm ƒ/2.8 OSS. While less flare resistant than its modern counterparts, and lacking autofocus, the only reason I see not to carry it everywhere would be its weight—which is still not too bad. To quibble just a bit, when stopped down the aperture shape may show in "bokeh balls," and especially at ƒ/4 this turns out to be not a good shape. Often the aperture shape can be pleasing and not distracting.
Now an eBay treasure, the manual-focus 1986–96 Tokina AT-X 90mm ƒ/2.5 Macro, AKA the "Bokina," was sold in many different lensmounts and now sells in the $200–400 range with or without its dedicated 1:1 extender.
The Bokina is as sharp as you would ever want a lens to be, even on the unforgiving sensor of the A7rII, and the bokeh is creamy and beautiful at any aperture up to ƒ/11. (I never stop down past that.)
It was a precipitous and slippery slope that led me into buying the Sony and using weird old lenses. Less than a year ago, I was "normal"—a modern photographer using modern autofocus lenses. Buying the Sony A7rII, and then the exploration of manual focus lenses that followed, was definitely Mike's fault, because he gave it the Camera of the Year award. At the time I posted in the comments something like, "OK, a good camera maybe, but what about lenses?!" Like many looking at the Sony E-mount lens selection at that point, I was both puzzled and sticker-shocked. Zeiss had some good lenses for the system, quite expensive of course. Sony or Sony/Zeiss had a few primes, also relatively expensive. Sony had some zooms, also expensive and heavy, and not particularly stellar in tests.
Previously I had been using two Micro 4/3 cameras (one of them infrared) and a Nikon D800E. I never really made friends with the D800E despite working with it a lot, but I enjoyed exploring the broader range of possibilities that the larger sensor made available in terms of bokeh. The lenses for both systems were pretty good: sharp and lightweight, with good if not flawless bokeh. All I could imagine was that by comparison, I would be in for a world of financial pain in the Sony system.
Before springing for the A7rII I went through all the lens options several times. I'd look at all the lens options again and again and gasp at the prices. Along with another autofocus prime, I bought both the autofocus Sony 55mm ƒ/1.8 FE and the manual-focus Zeiss Loxia 50mm ƒ/2 so I could compare them and decide which one to keep. Overall, I liked the feel of the manual-focus Loxia. I tested the two lenses against each other every possible way, and I actually found that I was hitting better focus manually than if I let the Sony lens autofocus. I found I was reaching for the Loxia if I had both in the bag. Hmm. Maybe manual focus isn't actually so bad? In the end I preferred the Loxia's sharpness stopped down, and also, in scrutinizing the pictures, I determined it had a more pleasing character. This was new for me, to pick one lens over another for something so subjective.
With magnification in the high-res EVF, the Sony made manual focus easy. I felt a little hampered and slow sometimes at first, while other times focusing manually was a clear advantage. This past Christmas I photographed with the Loxia 50mm and I found manual focus to be far more enjoyable and workable than autofocus, my most enjoyable Christmas photography ever. In the end I came to prefer manual focus.
On to eBay
The Loxia set the stage; it taught me I could live without AF, and that I liked manual aperture rings. Pretty soon I was on eBay.
It turns out that there is not a dearth of lenses for the Sony A7 system, as I had thought, but a dizzying array of amazingly excellent options. Some are quite inexpensive, and some are off the charts. Almost all of these vintage options don't have autofocus.
I've now bought a large handful of manual focus lenses for the system—mostly older, often inexpensive, sometimes really good. Certain vintages of the Olympus OM Zuiko 50mm ƒ/1.4 MC, for example, are as good as can be—really nice bokeh and super-sharp at most apertures—for under $140. I'm just as happy to have this inexpensive lens in my bag as any other 50mm I can think of.
The current rogue's gallery of non-EXIF non-native lenses
With the vintage lenses I have no idea of modern test results. The Sony sensor is unforgiving, and I started testing hard myself. I had already started this with the Loxia 50mm vs. Sony 55mm comparisons. I wasn't just looking at the sharpness; I started looking at all these lenses in terms I had not particularly appreciated in my modern lens purchases: character. And indeed, many of my modern lenses didn't show much character except in their flaws. I was finding a different kind of character—the style of rendering—crafted into these optics by masters of old.
Really looking at the effects of aperture
With the old lenses I didn't have EXIF, so to capture the aperture info I started indexing: going through all reasonable stops starting wide open. I record those f-stops as keywords in Lightroom, which means a greater degree of scrutiny and awareness of aperture as I review each image on screen. For each composition in the field I would start with ƒ/1.4 on a fast lens even if I knew ƒ/1.4 wasn't particularly good on that lens and that I might throw that exposure away: ƒ/1.4, ƒ/2, ƒ/2.8, and on down.
In doing this, I became much more in tune with lenses/focal lengths/apertures, and just generally how optics behave. Thirty years as a serious photographer, and it took this to get me here: the combination of digital capture ease with old lenses and manual apertures. (I could never afford the time and film to do this kind of thing in my old view camera days!). But now I have a lot of image data, and it has taken a lot of time to evaluate. I have to sift through my vintage lens collection, but I will probably end up with more as I sell some.
The only thing I can remember that has improved my photography as much as exploring all these old lenses aperture by aperture was when I got my Pentax Spot V light meter way back in 1980.
All in all, buying, testing, and trying old lenses on the Sony A7rII has been a very fun, eye-opening adventure.
And the Bokina is definitely a keeper.
*John says various members of his family pronounce their last name in different ways. He, like his father, prefers "LEE-ut"; his children are more apt to say "luh-HET." He's given up on trying to correct strangers and just accepts whatever they say—although I doubt he'd be okay with what Siri says when I ask my iPhone to call him—"Calling John Lennet!" —MJ
©2016 by John Lehet, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Rob de Loe: "I went down the legacy lens rabbit hole in 2015. There's lots of wonderful old glass out there. Many Canon FD lenses are excellent; I'm not using that line anymore because I needed to adapt them to a Canon EF mount, and the one person who had a good system for changing over the mounts got sick. I'm now using SMC Pentax-A 645 lenses with a pair of Mirex tilt-shift adapters on a Sony A7r. It works a treat.
"One tip for anyone using adapted lenses and Lightroom: Dirk Essl's fantastic little plugin "Lens Tagger" is an excellent way to add the missing EXIF information (model, aperture, focal length, etc.) You have to keep notes, which won't work for everyone, but if you do it's a small extra step in your workflow. I like to know at least what lens it was, and most lenses on my A7r are primes so it's not difficult.
"I put my phone to work to help out. Google's 'Keep' app lets you take a picture of what you're shooting, and then record some text notes. It also picks up the GPS coordinates (something else I like to track).
"In part because of Mike's enthusiasm, I've now introduced a Fuji X-T1 into my bag. It scratches a different photographic itch. I actually like to carry both cameras with me to cover all the bases.
"One last tip: as of January 5th 2017 Iridient X Developer is now available and it does a brilliant job of developing Fuji X-Trans files. It turns them into DNGs which you can then bring into Lightroom. The difference has to be seen to be believed (lots of examples are popping up in a thread on Fredmiranda.com)."
Barry Reid: "I don't really test lenses but I can very much relate to John's comments on the Sony/Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.8. Arguably this lens typifies all that is bad in modern lens design—it is just too perfect with knockout sharpness, bags of contrast and minimal CA, it has no obvious flaws and immediately impresses when first used. Yet like a sugar hit it faded over time and I gradually started leaving it at home in favour of its 35mm ƒ/2.8 sibling or some of my old Contax/Yashica glass because, while it may get great DxO scores, it lacks an intangible character which some of my other lenses deliver."
Paul Racicot: "I have been using the 'Bokina' lens since the early '90s. Still in my camera bag along with the 1:1 extension. Never entered my mind to ever let it go even after buying several Nikon AF infinity to 1:1 lenses. I think I'll keep it a while longer."
Arend Vermazaren: "Reference should be made to Philip Reeve and his website on using manual focus lenses on the Sony A7. He also tested the Bokina back in 2014."
Mike adds: People can find a lot on the Internet about this lens, by Googling either "bokina" or "Tokina 90mm ƒ/2.5" or both. Philip Reeve's article might be the best single thing.