57

Choosing the Right Portrait Lens: Part 1 (77mm, 85mm, 90mm)

One of the best things about the Sony FE mount is that there are endless choices of lens options to choose from. Practically every lens made for the 35mm film camera from the past 70 years can be adapted onto the Sony mirrorless cameras. Screw mount lens from a 1950s Leica? There’s adapter for that. An autofocus L lens from Canon? There’s an AF adapter for that. An obscure autofocus rangefinder lens from Contax? There’s also an AF adapter for that. In this part, we are looking at the traditional 77mm , 85mm, and 90mm focal lengths. In Part 2, we focus on the 135mm.

PortraitLens

At the same time, one of the worst things about the Sony FE/NEX mount is that it is so new and there are not a lot of native AF lens options. Since I’m in the market for a portrait lens to complete my collection, I have a two issues to consider.

The Need for Autofocus (AF)

I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a manual focus (MF) lens below 50mm. Anything below 50mm really doesn’t have enough depth-of-field (DOF) to make manual focusing a hassle. Both my 35mm and my 20mm lenses are MF. No hesitations there. But when I’m considering an 85mm lens, I have to take into account the time it takes to reach critical focus. Yes, the Sony A7 is great at assisting MF, but sometime speed is a priority, especially with portraiture or fashion work. There is a certain pace and rhythm that you and the model get used to. It is underrated and not often talked about, but also very important. If the model holds her pose for too long while you are adjusting fine focus, her expression will be strained and become unnatural. In my opinion, speed is key in portrait photography.

The Cost of the Adapter

MF adapters are inexpensive. Double check Amazon for good reviews and buy the $14 stainless steel adapter. Don’t believe the hype about the $300 MF adapter that will give superior results. Yes, the tolerances may be tighter, but if there are no issue with the $14 adapter, save that $286 for a better lens (remember the $80 Monster HDMI cables? Total scam). That being said, there are inexpensive MF adapters on Amazon that simply doesn’t work properly (i.e. they don’t focus to infinity). Just check the reviews and refund it if you think there may be focusing issues.

AF adapters can cost as much as the lens. They usually hover around between $299 – $399 (See Brian Smith’s Ultimate Guide to Sony A7 Lens Adapters). You can get a great Canon lens for $300 but if the adapter costs another $400, that has to be added to the equation. I can understand if you have an arsenal of Canon EF lenses ready for your Sony A7. A $400 investment makes sense. But if you don’t, $400 for a AF adapter hardly makes sense unless you plan to get several lenses that can utilize that same expensive mount. [Edit: Just found the $95 Commlite AF EF to FE adapter. This may change the whole ball game.]

The 5 Contenders

Taken these two issues into consideration, I have narrowed the field to five options. Below are my prime candidates. Help me decide by taking the poll at the end of the post. In Part 2, we also look at the less popular but more affordable 135mm portrait lens option.

1) The Front Runner – Leica Summicron 90mm f/2

57

Pros:

Cons:

  • Manual focus (albeit Leica rangefinder lenses are easier to MF than SLR MF lenses)
  • Hard to find deals
  • More expensive from $400-700 for a C+ to B used quality.

2) The Unexpected Challenger – Zeiss Contax G Sonnar 90mm f/2.8

$_57 (1)

Pros:

Cons:

  • Optical quality is a question mark (It has the Zeiss name, but empirical lens reviews online are hard to come by)
  • AF Adapter costs $299
  • Limited resale value and market
  • Smaller aperture at f/2.8 (which explains faster AF speeds)

3) The Boring but Sensible Choice – Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

$_57 (2)

Pros:

Cons:

  • Slow autofocus with current generation AF adapter (and here), albeit it is the only ultrasonic motor lens here.
  • Bulky on the Sony A7
  • Unlikely to appreciate in value

4) The Impractical but Super Sexy – Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 L

$_57 (3)

Pros:

Cons

  • Expensive at $800-950 used
  • Optical quality is a question mark (it is a Canon L lens, but again, empirical lens reviews are hard to come by)
  • Manual focus will be nearly impossibly slow due to the shallow DOF
  • Very large and heavy
  • Limited resale market

5) The Underdog – Pentax SMC FA 77mm f/1.8 Limited

$_57 (4)

Pros:

Cons:

Honorable Mentions

Minolta MAXXUM AF 85mm f/1.4 – priced at $650-750 used, plus the Sony LAEA4 Adapter at $350 would be beyond the price range of the above cameras. Good build quality. Limited resale market. Unknown optical quality due to a lack of empirical reviews.

Rokinon/Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical IF  – priced at $289, it is very affordable and with average optical quality. It is MF only and the entry and resale values are low.

Voigtländer 75mm f/1.8 Leica M mount – priced at $700-800, it has a limited resale value due to the Leica community not embracing the 75mm focal length. Good build quality, unknown optical quality.

[polldaddy poll=8130873]