Zhongyi Optics, maker of the Mitakon Speedmaster 50mm f/0.95 lens for Sony E-mount, nicknamed ‘The Dark Knight’, has now entered the Micro Four Thirds world.
Zhongyi’s first two MFT lenses – the Mitakon 42.5mm f/1.2 and the Mitakon 24mm f/1.7 – are affordable, characterful and may well find a place in many cinematographers’ and photographers’ toolkits. I recently tried them both out and the images are things of beauty thanks to the lenses’ quirky charms.
Some Background – Bigger, Clearer, Faster, Sharper
Digital camera and lens makers have been engaged in an arms race for years now, at least since 2008 when digital stills and moviemaking entered a sweet spot. The most heavily touted weapon in this arms race? Megapixels.
Then the Sony A7S appeared and showed that there was another game in town – the size of your photosites – and that megapixels weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The A7S reminded us that 12 megapixels really were enough for producing great stills for most of us and that big, fat photosites could result in amazing video recording under really low light.
Another weapon in this imaging arms race? Lenses. Faster. Longer. Wider. Sharper. Zooms as well as primes. For stills just as much as moviemaking. Make no mistake, I love fast, sharp lenses. For years I stuck with German-made lenses for their excellent optical qualities and predictable color-rendering. Leica, Schneider and Zeiss were my favorites although Fujinon optics were ring-ins to that trinity when using Fuji’s excellent 120-format rangefinder cameras. Predictability is good.
But, every so often I would go a little crazy and throw all that sharpness and beautiful color rendition to the winds by shooting extreme close-up portraits. 4”x5” format. Slow Polaroid negative film, monochrome only. Virtually no depth of field with swing and tilt. Wild and crazy split-toned prints in the deepest of deep tones. Just a bright glint in one eye and a highlight smudged on the lips.
I had quite a successful sideline going as a magazine portrait photographer there for a while, after persuading magazine art directors to reproduce my emotion-laden monochrome portraits in all four colors. Unprecedented in this country up ‘til then.
Then I discovered someone else had done it all before me and so much better too. C’est la vie. Two brothers in the UK who had made their reputation in the United States photographing writers for book and magazine publishers. Their most famous portrait photograph was of an actor, eyes closed, little more than a smudge, murky, brown and intense.
We met, became friends and I found they had already made the transition from stills into moviemaking. From celebrated magazine portraitists into TV commercial directors with heart and soul, using lush coloration to create aching visions of beauty with little more than a 16mm camera built a tank. Inspirational.
I couldn't stop thinking about those two brothers and their still and moving images throughout the time I had Zhongyi Optics' lenses attached to my GH4.
Zhongyi Optics’ Two Lenses Arrive
As soon as the 24mm /1.7 and 42.5mm f/1.2 lenses arrived from Zhongyi Optics, I bayonetted the first onto my Panasonic Lumix GH4 and gazed into the electronic viewfinder. I was immediately reminded of the work of those two brothers and their singular vision. Their way of seeing had been formed under England’s pearly grey skies, mine in the searing heat and knife-edged sunlight of desert Western Australia.
Now climate change has turned so many of those razor-edged days wet, cold and grey and I must see and shoot in a whole new way. Substitute plenty of fine detail all across the frame with just a little here and there. Boost the contrast between light and shade. Get closer in by moving nearer or using longer lenses. Replace my clean, clear Early Renaissance vision with a more tempestuous, dark-toned Baroque one.
One of the first photographs I took was of some agapanthus flowers near my home. The blooms give off an almost electric glow in strong sunlight but photographs with my usual lenses fail to get that across effectively. Shot with the Zhongyi 24mm f/1.7 lens stopped down just a little, the photograph reaches beyond surface impressions into sensuousness, capturing the way light bounces off the flowers while penetrating through and beyond. Pearlescent, just as I saw them on that rare hot and humid day.
The 24mm f/1.7 lens
My next foray with the 24mm was into the city on a location survey for a series of short films. I wanted to see how the lens handles skin under available light and distant figures framed in cityscapes. A trip down into the fluorescent-green and amber semi-darkness of the city centre railway station gave me access to late morning lunchers and groups of shoppers comparing their purchases.
I was shooting a mixture of video and stills. My favourite image of the day is of a shopper catching up on her gift card writing under dim amber light with some fluorescent bleeding in from camera right. I had the lens almost completely wide open to separate her face and hands from the chaotic, ill-lit background. She was of a certain age and I did not want to overemphasize that. I wanted, instead, to concentrate on our shared humanity.
The Zhongyi Optics 24mm did a beautiful job of it, smoothing her skin out while rendering the crucial details – her face and especially her writing hand and the ink below — just sharp enough to know what she is doing. The rest falls into a painterly smoothness of color and tone.
During my pursuit of the ultimate in zoom lens sharpness late last year, I often reminded myself that there are other ways of seeing. One of my favourite portrait lenses during art school teaching days had been the Nikon 105mm f/2 DC. As Ken Rockwell says in his review, it is “amongst the sharpest lenses ever made’”. But it is also unique in having a defocus control allowing you to radically increase the lenses’ bokeh behind your main subject.
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Zhongyi’s 24mm f/1.7 is not as sharp as Nikon’s unique, longer lens – few lenses approach that lens in its razor-sharpness – but there is beauty and charm to the 24mm lens nonetheless. Nor do Zhongyi's lenses have a defocus function. It is a question of using the lens you have enough in a wide enough variety of subjects, situations and lighting conditions to understand it and get the very best out of it.
The 42.5mm f/1.2 lens
Zhongyi’s 42.5mm f/1.2 lens has similar traits and is similarly packed full of character and charm, especially when trained upon human subjects, preferably female ones. The key, again, is to use the lens wide or stopped down only a little, picking out your prime subject with a narrow plane of focus so that the background falls into bokeh. Again, a far more painterly way of seeing than I have become used to in recent years.
I shot most of my footage during these tests in the Panasonic GH4’s 4K Photo mode with looping turned off for good quality stills and video.
This project is a long series of vignettes snatched from the chaos of inner city life on rainy grey days where the very light itself appears laden with moisture. As with my use of the 24mm f/1.7, the best approach was to keep the main subject sharp and allow all the rest to fall into bokeh. I concentrated on lone figures observing others or lost in their own private activities, indoors and outside in the streets, searching for a more baroque play of light and shade where I could.
The 42.5mm f/1.2 served me well for this sort of imagery and again I used it stopped down only a little, seeking extreme contrast between sharpness and background blur. Again, the Zhongyi lens demonstrated a charm and character I have not seen in other fast long lenses.
I had borrowed Panasonic’s Leica Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 lens and Fujifilm’s Fujinon 56mm f/1.2 lens with their respective cameras last year but both lenses possess a crystalline sharpness and clean color rendering that makes them appear slightly clinical rather than emotional. My two favorite images then, that I used in Terrigal and closer to home, were made when I was feeling more early Renaissance and much less Baroque.
The lenses’ uses and qualities
As may be clear by now, I am not a laboratory-style or cinematic tester of hardware or software. I admire those who are and sometimes wish I could be more like them. I rely on how the gear I am using helps capture what I see in my mind’s eye and that sometimes involves transforming reality in some way.
Zhongyi Optics’ two fast lenses helped me do that in a way my other lenses do not. The 24mm f/1.7 and the 42.5mm f/1.2 seem designed to transform rather than simply record.
I am not sure if they can be considered classically cinematic in the way cinematographer Shane Hurlburt is testing for in his current series of Micro Four Thirds lens tests at B&H Review: Micro Four Thirds Lenses that add Cinematic Imagery to your GH4. But I can see both lenses being the right glass to tell certain types of stories.
It was rewarding handling lenses that are purely mechanical, with no electronics whatsoever, and I enjoyed the old, familiar feel of heavy, compact lens barrels with clickless apertures. I stopped by a camera store to show them to a friend and he compared them to the vintage Eastern European stills and cinema lenses many local moviemakers and photographers are paying through the nose for now.
I have never seen nor used those lenses so I cannot comment. What I like about both Zhongyi lenses is their solid construction compared to most contemporary lenses and the very real charm of the images that can be made with them.
They have opened me up to a new way of seeing and making still and moving images. They remind me that edge-to-edge clarity is just one of many options available to us now. They showed me there is a place for accident and unpredictability too. That first photograph of the agapanthus flowers came as quite a surprise, demonstrating qualities that would work beautifully for some subjects and fall apart when shooting others.
I am not so sure that either lens could become my daily go-to optic for every circumstance I encounter. But they would most definitely have a place in my kit, one labelled with the words ‘character’ and ‘charm’.
(cover photo credit: snap from Karin Gottschalk)