My Experience Using a Manual Lens

About 3 weeks ago I purchased my first manual lens. It was a Rokinon 85mm 1.4. I bought it because it was a less expensive alternative to the 85mm Zeiss I having be pining over. Coming in at a price tag around 1/5 of the Zeiss, I figured why not give it a shot? Before getting this lens, my experience using manual focus was minimal. Of course I’ve had manual focused lenses before but (without getting too technical), those lenses were never designed to be used that way. This was going to be somewhat of a new adventure for me.

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First, let me start by saying this isn’t a technical review of the lens. I didn’t set up scientific lab experiments to test this lens. I simply took it out of the box and began shooting. This is just about my experience using a manual lens.

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So, what was the first thing I noticed about using a manual lens? It doesn't auto focus (which is obvious), but it took me some time to get my head wrapped around that. For the first few minutes, I continually found myself trying to auto focus the lens out of habit. Though I often shoot in manual mode, I still forgot how much I’m reliant on technology. Manual lenses renders much of that technology useless. While I’m not completely on my own (my mirrorless camera has some nice tricks to help), I was fully responsible for the resulting images.

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Once I got over old habits, the second thing I realized was how much slower I was working. This may sound like a bad thing, but for me, slowing down helps with the creative process. One of the reasons I enjoy using prime lenses (lenses that don’t zoom) is that they make me think. Having a prime manual focus lens only compounds my need to think. A lens that prevents snapping off photos at machine gun rate helps me to really “focus” in on what story I’m trying to tell. Additionally, I found myself very connected to the moment. Instead of thinking about the camera and where my settings needed to be, I just shot. Capabilities are obviously limited with this lens (but I already knew that). So, I worked within those limits quite easily and got the shots I know I could. When I shoot portraits, I give a lot of direction. While shooting manually, I found myself giving even more direction. It’s much less likely you’d fall into a happy accident without auto focus, so I took even more time to position the subject (my wife) to get the shot where I wanted it to be.

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Overall, the experience was good and I plan on keeping the lens, incorporating it into my workflow. Does it satisfy all of my needs? No. Will it work in every situation? No. Will I get the more expensive auto focusing Zeiss lens? Yes. But, that doesn’t mean this lens looses its value. Whenever I want to explore my photographic “eye”, I’ll probably reach for the manual lens. When I want to be more in tune with myself and my creativity, I’ll probably reach for the manual lens. In fact, I plan on getting more manual lenses for when “work” is more about fun and exploration.

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