The Zhongyi Mitakon Speedmaster Mark II f/0.95 is a newer lens that’s been more and more in demand lately. Despite having the twin “disadvantages” of being a prime and manual focusing lens the MSRP is a respectable $599.99. Not expensive but just enough to make one consider carefully whether this is the kind of lens they wish to add to their collection. I’m going to take a look at the Mitakon as well as why it’s worth adding manual focusing prime lenses to your collection!
The Mitakon Mark II is very well made. The design hearkens back to old-school lenses from decades ago and the retro look is especially appealing when paired with stylish mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III or Fujifilm X-T2. The lens is heavier than expected thanks to the all glass and metal construction. Little plastic goes through this lens and I certainly feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth every time I take it out of its box. Even the carrying case is fancy. Brown and black leather with a foam interior make for a gift box I hesitate to throw away.
Why use manual focusing lenses?
For those of us who use mostly autofocusing lenses making the switch to manual focus sounds downright scary. The speed of your workflow undoubtedly decreases and the being able to simply crank out shots en masse to choose the best one becomes much harder.
But is that really such a bad thing? I say no, not at all. Manual focusing lenses force you to slow down and consider your shot. It’s a process that’s perhaps just as relevant as to why people continue to use physical film even though digital has advantages in speed and instant viewing.
This makes the Zhongyi MItakon f/0.95 just plain fun to use. It’s a lens that forces you to slow down and consider your shot. You have to learn how to operate manually and quickly. It may even make you a better photographer.
Vignetting is another quality of this lens. Some may call it a drawback but personally I’d say it’s a feature. Vignetting is a darkening of the borders and it remains until the aperture is significantly narrowed. At around f/11 or so it disappears. In my opinion, it adds an undeniable appeal to my street photography as well as portraits, depending on the look I’m going for.
Depth of field and its uses
Depth of field is a simple concept to understand. Essentially, it’s the amount of a scene that is in sharp focus versus out of focus. Depth of field is controlled via the aperture setting of the camera and lens, which is expressed in terms of f-number or f/number.
An aperture is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a hole in an object that lets light in. The aperture setting of the lens is a standard measurement of the size of that hole relative to the amount of light being allowed to hit the sensor.
Aperture is a fundamental principle of the exposure triangle, along with shutter speed and ISO. The smaller the hole, the less light that enters the camera, and vice versa. But the expression of aperture is a bit counterintuitive. The smaller the aperture number the larger the hole. And the smaller the aperture the shallower the depth of field of the image becomes.
Photographers who like landscape and street photography will often use larger f/numbers because they want most or all of the scene to be in sharp focus. But where do I want a shallow depth of field?
Portrait photography is one place where shallow depths of field shine. With lenses in the f/2.8 and below range, I can isolate my subject nicely while allowing the background to become a blurred mess. It’s attractive because it mimics how we naturally perceive the target of our attention. The background becomes blurred in our field of view while the main subject leaps out at us.
When using lenses with a super-shallow depths of field, not only is the face of my subject sharp but even parts of their body will tend to blur. This is perfect for when I want to really accentuate the eyes or another single feature of my subject over everything else.
Nature photography works extremely well here as well. Isolating a single flower or insect is challenging when things are constantly moving in the outdoors yet will give incredible results.
Precisely hitting manual focus
One of the hardest things about manual focus is…Getting things in focus. Naturally. But those problems are compounded using an extremely shallow depth of field. While f/2 isn’t so hard f/0.95 is extremely easy to miss, even when things look fine on the relatively small viewfinder. Often when I return home I’ll find that I actually missed focus on the target, which is very disappointing.
Fortunately, shooting manually many cameras have tools to assist ensuring your subjects are in focus. Focus peaking may be one of the most common tools and well worth exploring your camera’s menu or user manual to find. Essentially, the camera highlights the plane of focus using an electronic viewfinder or LCD screen. It will color in a section of the view and as I adjust my focusing I can see the band shift from the camera’s minimum focusing distance to far into the distance.
And if I adjust the aperture all the way to f/0.95 I’ll see that the colored in-focus peaking shrinks accordingly. While it’s not exact focus peaking really helps to lock in the plane of focus, especially when shooting far off subjects using a shallow depth of field.
With the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster focus peaking doesn’t always seem to be perfectly accurate once the aperture is set wide open. But using f/2 or more peaking seems to catch my subjects perfectly. My tests involved using the Fujifilm X-T2 and other cameras may have more accurate captures. But I found focus peaking occasionally missed.
Some cameras also offer Focus Previewing when I switch to manual focus. The preview window will come up when using the focus ring and gives me a closer view of my subject. It’s often adjustable as well. I can move the preview window across my LCD screen to show a close-up of the eyes of my target. And then adjust focus accordingly to ensure they’re in sharp focus before shooting.
But it’s also a prime lens!
Correct. And this means that the focal length is fixed. In the case of the Mitakon Mark II, it has a 50mm equivalent field of view no matter which body its paired with. With full frame cameras, it’s 50mm. With APS-C sensors such as the Fuji X-mount version its 35m. And for the Micro 4/3rds cameras it’s 25mm. But because the sensors get smaller as we move away from full frame crop factor creates a field of view that keeps the image constant despite the differing sensors.
So I’m stuck with a 50mm focal length because prime lenses are fixed and don’t change focal length (zoom). Is that so bad? Well, 50mm is the field of view considered closest to the human eye’s perspective of subjects and the world. Some people say 35mm is closest but there’s little disagreement that it’s one of these two.
This gives you a very flexible field of view that’s well suited to any sort of photography. 50mm lenses work fine for landscapes (though more wide angle is better), nature, portraits, street images, and much more.
The key advantage to the Mitakon being a prime lens is that costs are kept down and image quality is improved. Lenses with wide zoom ranges and wide open apertures usually require a lot of optical compromises in order to create images despite all of those moving parts. Prime lenses can specialize their optics to that exact focal length and aperture range. They’re usually significantly sharper than zoom lenses that cover the same range. And often they’re cheaper because of the simpler design, though not always.
The Mitakon Speedmaster Mark II is a fun lens that has a place in any lens collection. This shallow a depth of field is rare to find for only $600. And the sharpness is acceptable in the center of the frame. Vignetting is something to think about as is the softening the further you get from the center. But then I didn’t but a f/0.95 lens for a corner to corner sharpness. I’d use a landscape lens for that. This is an art lens and it’s meant to challenge me as a photographer. It won’t sit on the front of my camera as often as a 24-70mm f/2.8 but it will see the light of day every time I decide to have a casual shooting day.