Ancient splendor for extremely shallow depth of field. Canon 85 1.2. by Dirk De Paepe

Ancient splendor for extremely shallow depth of field

THE CANON LENS FD 85mm 1:1.2 S.S.C. ASPHERICAL

By Dirk De Paepe

This is about my love affair with a forty year old lens.

Nowadays there are a few other players featuring an 85/1.2, but forty years ago the Canon Lens FD 85mm 1:1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical was really something special. And BTW, I believe it still is! 

Many have considered this as one of the best lenses ever made. I don’t have the authority for such a bold assertion, but I do want to state that I believe it delivers stunning performances, even to current standards. In fact, when combined with a modern high resolution sensor, like the 42MP Sony, I find it opening a whole new world of detail, sharpness and shallowness, granting me a level of satisfaction, way beyond what was possible when shooting it on an old FD film camera. However, to get access to this higher performance level, one must proceed with the greatest care. Regular, faster taken shots show this good old 85/1.2 like it’s always been known and appreciated for. But in those carefully focused shots, taken with a hi-res sensor camera, I truly believe there’s some new mojo going on.

With the images, that go with this article, I’ll try to show you both ways.

The need for an adapter makes the FD extra large on the Sony body. I combined two adapters here. When I take the FD85 with me, together with some Zeiss ZM’s (which makes for a pretty compact traveling set), I keep an FD to M adapter permanently on the lens and an M to E adapter permanently on the body. In that way, it feels as if there’s no adapter at play and the Sony has become an M-mount body. Extra advantage: I can even use a close focus adapter (like the one I have mounted here).

This article is no review. I’d rather call it a “testimony” of how I use this lens, how I got in love with it and why I wanted to share my experience with you.

MY FD EXPERIENCE

It must have been 1976 when I bought my first FD camera, the Canon AE-1. In 1978, this then pretty revolutionary body (the first with integrated micro-processor) was joined by the upgraded A-1. I would use both, mainly the A1 though, for about 20 years! In the meanwhile I got myself a collection of FD lenses. When Canon had FD succeeded by EF in 1987, introducing the EOS camera’s, I just couldn’t keep myself from buying some extra lenses on the second hand market. After all, I liked the FD more than I ever did the EOS/EF. I love my FD lenses for their all metal built and manual focus. They feel more like “real camera” to me. Auto focus just doesn’t work for me. I feel like I am more free, because more in control, when focusing manually. I know that most readers work with AF, and that I’m probably underestimating it’s potential, but it’s just how I feel.

Anyway, the FD system has claimed a large share of my photography. It acquired a place in my heart, to the extend that I have never sold any part of it. I did use the digital EOS 1D for some years, for professional reasons, but never really liked it. I found it much to big and heavy, but at that time there was not much on the market to produce digital quality images for publications. For my personal shots, I have never used it and I was glad that I finally could do without it, when Sony’s full frame E-mount camera’s appeared.

FD ON E

When Sony released the NEX-5, I immediately purchased it, because of its compact size and mirrorless concept. The Leica M9 was my dream camera in those days, but I never bought it, as a kind of protest against its crazy high price. So I definitely chose for the E-mount camera’s – at first for personal use and later, with the full frame bodies, also for professional purposes. 

Although I was immediately convinced that E-mount (and mirrorless) would have a great future, there was a big need for native lenses in the early years. But with adapters, almost anything was possible. So I started using a couple of classic Zeiss ZM lenses and granted some of my FD-lenses a second life. 

My FD’s still perform very well, even to today’s standards. One of the very best has also been one of the most popular: the FD 50mm 1:1.4 SSC. It’s pretty fast, a good performer and nowadays available very cheap on ebay. For around $100 you can buy this fine lens – IMO an excellent choice for the small budget. Another very nice one is the FD 20mm 2:2.8 S.S.C., an exquisite, yet pretty compact wide angle. I used it until pretty recently, when the Zeiss Loxia 21mm appeared.

Today, with so many native FE lenses on the market, the relevance of using old FD-lenses on E-mount bodies has diminished a lot. Yet, for starters and small budgets, they can still be attractive. Imagine buying a basic A7 or even A7ii and some FD’s on ebay. For about $1500 one can acquire a pretty versatile full frame system…

A LEGENDARY FD LENS

There is one FD lens that I still use on a regular basis. And I don’t expect me to discard it in the coming years. If ever. It’s an exception in the FD family though, because it’s a lot more expensive and has been seriously gaining in value the last couple of years. It’s my absolute favorite FD nowadays, although it’s the last one I bought – just some six/seven years ago. It became kind of a legendary lens and is indeed the subject of this article: the marvelous 85mm 1:1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical. This one is, even by today’s standards, a pretty remarkable lens. The later Canon 85/1.2, in EF mount, is based on the same optic design, with just very slight differences. But it adds autofocus (with an internal motor) and, as you can guess, I don’t like that. My FD 85 is rock solid and will last more than a lifetime, when taken care of. I wouldn’t be surprised, should today’s EF autofocus motors have become effete, while my FD still performs well… So for me it’s the FD.

BREECH LOCK AND “NEW” FD

In fact, there were two FD generations. First there is the one I prefer, with the rotatable silver connection ring, listening to the name “Breech Lock”. The BL connection was developed to avoid wear on the connecting parts. (I’ve always been a fan of this pretty quirky system.) Later came the so called “New FD”, which is built lighter and features a pseudo-bayonet connection. The “New” 85/1.2 lacks the addendum “Aspherical” to its name.

Breech Lock and “New” pseudo-bayonet connection compared. (Not my own lenses, not my pictures.)

Anyway, the first generation 85 in “Aspherical” version is the more expensive one nowadays and apparently it is still rising in value. When I recently checked, I could see it being offered on ebay for between $1500 and $2500, which is a good 50% more than a few years ago. The “New FD” version was listed at around half this price. I can’t compare both, but to me, the breech lock adds his own flavor and attraction. I do own a few “New FD’s” though, in other focal lengths. I bought them just a few years ago, when I was using the Sony NEX-7, because they are more compact and light, but I have the firm impression that the first generation was indeed superior, in terms of build as well as optics (in those few cases that I could compare – the 24mm 1:2.8 for instance). But no ”scientific proof” here! Just a personal impression. Testimonies on the internet confirm though that, in case of the 85/1.2, the Aspherical is indeed superior to the “New” in regard to contrast and detail. The “Breech Lock” versions also feel firmer and work swifter, IMO, although, with old lenses, different copies can vary quite a bit. The more compact “New” is a bit more in balance on a mirrorless body though. “Compact” is a relative concept however, as the picture hereunder illustrates.

It’s interesting to compare past and present. The Canon FD 85/1.2 Aspherical on its native body, the Canon A1, next to the Zeiss Loxia 85/2.4 on the Sony body. What we consider a pretty compact mirrorless body nowadays, doesn’t differ that much from an SLR from 40 years ago. 

On the Sony A7 series, Canon 85/1.2 lenses can be used in both FD and EF versions. So it could be interesting to compare them, which I personally can’t. The only comparison that I know of is published on dpreview: www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/4188959. This is kind of a summary article, which at the end links to the full size article in Polish. It is an interesting read.

However, this article compares the New FD with the EF, instead of the one I present here, the higher rated Aspherical Breech Lock, which is rated at a considerably higher price than the nFD. Probably because it’s indeed superior? Anyway, I would never ever trade my 85/1.2 BL for a nFD version. 

The Breech Lock ring provided a connection without friction. On the heavier 85/1.2 Aspherical, this ring is wider than on most FD lenses.

I certainly would never consider buying an EF lens for the A7. The focusing (in both auto and manual mode) is done by wire and will probably become defect sooner or later, which means that even manual focusing will become impossible. The EF lenses that I owned (as said, I once used an EOS 1D) indeed became defect in that department and have been outlived by all my FD lenses! Further, the EF is a lot bigger and heavier and requires a much more expensive adapter. The focusing is not precise to the level that can be obtained with the manual FD versions, even not in manual mode, since it’s done by wire. (This is not my personal experience but was as such witnessed by reviewers.) And at f/1.2 this less precise focusing will immediately be punished by less detail. None of the demo pictures, that I have ever seen from the EF, have shown the detail that I achieved with my Aspherical version (ref. pictures 30 and 31). Of course there’s tons of picture that I haven’t seen. But when published in product reviews, I assume one did his best to get it right. I find it strange that I obtain quite more detail at f/1.2 than what I usually can observe in FD85 reviews. Is it because of my specific copy of this lens? I must underline though that, in order to obtain stunning detail, the focusing must be done with the greatest care, which takes some time. When shooting fast (street photo’s for instance), wide open shots will generally render a somewhat softer image. But I will come back to that later.

Oh yes, the mentioned comparison review further stipulates that the performance of the nFD is quite at par with the EF in all regards, with no or very little difference. For instance (and this was the clearest difference to me) there’s indeed a bit of barrel distortion with the FD (ref. Picture 17), which has been completely corrected with the EF. But IMO this amount is irrelevant for this kind of fast 85. And it’s easily correctable.

The review also states that the nFD is slightly sharper in the center and less sharp at the edges than the EF. This, I find absolutely in favor of the nFD. I believe that this, together with the preciser focusing ability, makes for remarkably more detail with the nFD, in the area’s where it matters, in “real life” shooting. BTW, in my experience with the Aspherical (with my copy?), it’s only at the far edges that some detail is lost – again irrelevant for this kind of lens, IMO. Taking into account that the BL Aspherical is considered to score even better than the nFD in this area, I assume that this makes the difference with the EF even bigger.

So to me there’s no doubt: the FD wins for use with modern hi-res sensors. The only remaining question is: BL version or New version. Most obvious difference: BL has 9 blades, versus 8 for the New (and the EF). That and a double price tag for the BL. I also suspect the BL Aspherical to win over the “new” regarding IQ, rendering more detail and contrast (confirmed by people who have both).

Some reviewers mention yet another minus of this lens: the chromatic aberration. Well, yes, sometimes it can be noticed. But it is a lot less than the CA that other famous fast lenses produce, like the Leica 50mm Noctilux for instance. At the moment that I write these words, and having selected a good 30 real world images to go with this article, I plan to check them, to show the CA that occurred. But I even don’t know if I will find any. Bottom line, the CA has never bothered me. And if it’s there, I never took the effort to remove it in pp, although this would be very easy to do considering it’s such a small amount. To me, the CA is a no-issue.

OK, after checking, pictures 16 and 17 show some CA.

SPECIFICATIONS

The 85/1.2 Aspherical is of exceptional quality indeed. I’ll mainly use it for wide open shooting, because that’s when it shows its special forte. But this speed comes with a price in size and weight, when being familiar with the use of M-mount and Loxia MF glass on the A7 bodies. 

OK, a few specs now. Aperture with 9 rounded blades, in half steps from 1:1.2 to 1:16. The ring operates very articulated. No chance to move it accidentally. Yet it’s not too stiff, IMO. 

The Aspherical features 9 slightly rounded blades. This is one more than the “new” FD, as well as the present EF, BTW. This lens is often part of my traveling kit, like here in the south of France. This picture was shot with the Zeiss ZM 50 Planar – outside under trees, as you can tell from the reflections. I used a simple flashlight as an additional light source, to lighten the blades.

Focus reaches from just under 1m to infinite in an almost 180° turn with a large, smoothly operating ring. The small “pyramids” on its surface provide a firm grip. Typically vintage 70’s-80’s style. When using a close focus adapter, the minimal focus distance shrinks to around 63cm, which leaves absolutely nothing to be desired in this department.

I give you size and weight including E-mount adapter (which is relevant IMO, using it on a mirrorless body): 101mm length (sticking out of the body with focus at infinite) x 81mm diameter and 842gr (1,856lbs), 734gr (1,638lbs) without adapter and caps. Because of this weight and the adapter, the combination gets slightly front heavy on my 640gr (1,411lbs) weighing body. It doesn’t really bother me though. 

Some more features you maybe like to know: floating lens system (the first 85 on the market to feature this), super spectra multi-coating, 8 Elements in 6 groups, 72mm filter thread.

WIDE OPEN

With such a fast lens, bokeh is an important factor, although this remains largely a matter of taste. So I leave you to judge it. I’ll just try to provide enough different kinds of shots to demonstrate the bokeh in different circumstances. 

Personally I’m very pleased with the bokeh. Often it shows very smooth and beautiful transitions of colors and grey shades. Other times it can indeed get a bit nervous, when the background gets more complicated, but then I still like its character. The bokeh has never bothered me. On the contrary, it often really enthuses me. But I know that some real bokeh devotees criticize it more than I do.

The first batch of images, mostly street portraits, show different kinds of bokeh, to illustrate. Street portraits must often be taken fast. This has two consequences. 

First, since there’s no time for precise focusing (at point level), often the image will be a bit soft. This a bit soft rendering is how I remember the performance of this lens from the past. 

You will probably think that an AF f/1.2 would perform better for this matter, but I doubt it. This may seem strange, but when reading further (certainly with pictures 30 and 31) you’ll see what I mean. 

Second, since the “action” will determine the moment of the shot, there’s very few time for changing viewpoints. Composing is often done, while imagining a smaller frame within the viewfinder – a bit similar to shooting with a range finder. The difference is that there are no frame indications in the VF. Instead I will have to imagine my picture frame, which can take on any size. 

Cropping will often be necessary. Therefore I add the crop factor to each picture in this article. (The given percentage will always refer to the picture height, since I use different aspect ratio’s.) You’ll probably notice that a different degree of cropping can change the bokeh character. And of course, by looking at a higher resolution, the dof shrinks further. 

Since cropping benefits from a hi-res sensor, I prefer the “R” version within the A7 series.

Let’s show some images now. Don’t forget to click them, to get good IQ. 

You can also see them (and more) in full size on my flickr account (https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood), in a dedicated album that I prepared, called “Canon Lens FD 85mm 1:1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical”. Click here to get right to it. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/albums/72157693389334071).

“He’s such a great guy!” 

For street portraits, I’ll often use focus peaking. I like how it allows me to focus instantly on any point in the viewfinder, without any previous action nor reframing after focusing being necessary. In this portrait, I could accurately focus on the “B&G” insignia of the lady’s sunglasses. The picture is cropped to 65%, so the distance was somewhat bigger than what it appears to be. This rendered a somewhat larger dof in cm, than when I would have further approached her to get about the same framing. Because of the greater focusing distance, the dof was large enough to cover her whole face. The separation is very clear. I like the soft bokeh.

“Just for children”

Shot indoors with artificial light. I love the smooth transitions of the bokeh in the background. There was no cropping here.

 “Pure delight”

A 50% crop. While focusing on the lady, the girl is already clearly out of focus.

“A thirsty day”

About the same crop as in last, but now with 3/2 aspect ratio. The bokeh is slightly busier.

“Why didn’t she?”

This one was cropped to 30%. A crop that heavy is indeed possible nowadays, with hi-res sensors. The lens holds its ground firmly.

 “Strange bloke”

Again a heavy crop to 30%. The bokeh gets more nervous here. The cropping gives it yet a new character. With this kind of bokeh, personal tast matters. I like the rendering.

“Boredom”

Quite a different kind of bokeh here, because quite a different kind of background. Cropped to 50%.

 “Intermission”

Cropped to 60%. A very fast taken shot, with a “not-quite-precise” focus. 😊 In this case AF would have been an advantage, I guess.

“Really?”

More a street shot than a portret. I focused on the bikes, because I couldn’t foresee that the guy was going to turn his head. Typical separation of a very fast lens, typical bokeh of this 85 FD. No cropping. (No full size image available on flickr. The original file is lost.)

“Rally DS”

Can we speak of a car portrait? 😊 A typical wide open aperture picture, showing yet another aspect of the bokeh character. A still object, so no crop.

LARGER DEPTH OF FIELD

For most of my pictures, shot with lenses up to 50mm, I prefer a larger depth of field, with little or no out of focus areas. Although I consider larger depth of field not the primary purpose of this lens, from time to time I will apply it anyway. Here are some examples with stopped down apertures.

“A quick smoke between rides”

Taken at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem. Cropped to 70%.

“Hand baggage only”

Same place as former image, 5 minutes earlier. Notice the very limited amount of barrel distortion. I could have corrected this easily. But I didn’t because I think there’s no relevance for it here. 

This picture (as well as the former) also shows some CA, which is only visible when enlarging. If you click here (https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/25315321765/sizes/l), you can see it on my flickr page, where you can choose sizes. You can notice some green fringing around the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. But you will have to choose the “Original” size (8000×5352) to clearly notice it. This is the full, un-cropped size. There is also some purple fringing at some of the contrast lines of the first taxi. But even at full size you will have to look carefully to notice it. That’s the chromatic aberration I get from this lens. Again easily correctible, but I preferred to keep it as it is.

“Trapeze + Piano”

Shot in a pretty dark environment. I like how lens and sensor still render delicate nuances in the very dark areas, like in the black curtains in the right part of the picture. The stage director clearly wanted to create a black background. I tried to dose these very dark tints, so that they would come very close to black, but still show the slightest nuances. Un-cropped 4/3 aspect ratio.

“Rebirth”

This picture was taken at the “Frozen” show, that we attended with our grandchildren. It shows the key moment of the spectacle, when the transformation of Elsa into “Ice Queen” takes place. A great visual treat, of which the lens renders all the delicate nuances. Cropped to 66%. (Like some other pictures, for this article, this picture could not be saved at the highest quality level, since this would result in a much too high resolution. Check my flickr pages for the highest quality, please.)

EXPERIMENTING WITH SHALLOWNESS

It goes without saying that one thinks about some experimenting, with a lens that provides this kind of shallow dof. Here are a few of my attempts.

 “Two brothers – double portrait”

This is a compositorial experiment, leaving the vast center of the frame for the blur. Cropped to 85%.

“Abstract 1”

This and the following picture are two different compositions of the same object. These are no images, created in Photoshop – they show a real life object with reflections of the available light. I think it’s the most interesting, if I just do not tell you what the object is, because that would kill the “abstract idea” a bit. (The title on flickr gives it away, though.)

“Abstract 2”

“Cheer”

I wanted to have blur all over here. But there are two kinds of blur at play: out of focus and motion blur. Only the hands are in focus. But with the shutter speed at 1/30s, I got the right kind of motion blur on the applauding hands. The ISO in Auto mode allowed for multiple shots before the applause was over – each with different shutter speed, to get one with the right amount of motion blur. I thought this was the way to go, since there was no time for experimenting. No cropping here.

INTIMACY PORTRAITS

Intimacy portraits, with strong close-up can be achieved thanks to the great cropping power of this lens-sensor combination, because, even with a 42MP sensor, detail is preserved up to 100% view.

Yet there’s a second manner. Since we need an adapter to mount the lens on a mirrorless body, we can as well use a close focus one and actually come even closer than what is possible in “standard configuration. Then, the result can be remarkable in regard to shallowness, especially when we’re cropping.

“Profile 1”

A heavy crop to 38%. Although this lady was at a distance of about 6m, the shallowness in the dof remains remarkable. A friend wondered if an autofocus lens should be able to focus this with eye recognition. I couldn’t tell – maybe you can. Anyway, with this MF lens and focus peaking it’s pretty easily done.

“Profile 2”

Another close-up, comparable to the one in the former picture, but with a different execution. In this case, there was no cropping done, besides in length, to get the 4/3 aspect ratio. I attained the intimacy by coming very close and using the close focus adapter. It enabled me to further shorten the focus distance to something around 80cm. I used the fold-out display instead of the EVF for composing, not to disturb the boy’s facial expression, while he was watching the show. BTW, it’s my believe that facial expression is often more situated around the mouth, than in the eye. That’s why I focused on the lips. The dof is really extremely shallow here and I think it works very well. I also like the smoothness of the transitions a lot. When you go to this picture on my flickr account, you can look in full size and notice that it is a bit soft, due to the ISO 4000 setting. Click here (https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/40502226561/sizes/l) to go to the page where you can choose sizes and go to “Original” for full size or click any other size that you want. Of course there’s lots of grain, which is also interesting to watch. I like a lot what’s going on in this picture, the grain as well as the bokeh. To my taste the transitions in grey shades are gorgeous.

“Connecting faces”

A completely different style here. I processed this one to obtain kind of a vintage look, as I remember color pictures from sixties-seventies press publications, with harsher transitions and less micro contrast. It also clearly shows the front bokeh, which I happen to like a lot from this lens.

“Mother and child”

Again quite the opposite in this picture. But talking about intimacy! 

Our daughter and grandson in a beautiful yet spontaneous stance. This and the next picture is 100% real life shooting. When our daughter had her young born son on her arm in that particular spot of her appartement, with pretty decent available light coming from the side, I wanted to freeze some beautiful moments. So there is no posing, no studio light. It’s just two fast taken family shots. Focus peaking proved very helpful to the purpose of fast focusing, in this case on the baby. 

I prefer not to ask to pose, to assure natural stances and facial expressions. 

Cropped to 65%.

“Sleeping baby”

From the same session. In this picture, the close focus adapter allowed to come a lot closer than the standard 1m minimal focus distance of the lens. 

Because the baby was sleeping, I had a bit more time for focusing. I wanted the lips, the nose and the eye to be in focus simultaneously. MF and focus peaking was the only way to go IMO, because it indicates at the same time everything that is in focus throughout the whole frame – in a way, useful to focus pretty accurately. Cropped to 70%.

“Sleeping baby – crop 100%” 

I hope Steve can place this picture in full size. It’s a bit a larger file. But when you click to enlarge, it shows the image at 100% resolution in a crop to 25% and is for sure worthwhile looking at. In this scene, it was the precious tenderness and the fragility of the baby’s soft skin that struck me, together with the irresistible beauty of his face. I needed soft gentle tones and transitions to show the almost transparent skin. I needed extra shallow dof, for which I used the close focus adapter and full aperture, to yet emphasize the fragility. But at the same time, I needed the utmost detail, in the most expressive places (lips, nose, eye), to enhance the intimacy. Therefore the focusing was critical, as well as the lens’s ability to perform at the highest level. Pease pay special attention to the hairs around the nose. I pursued detail without harshness.

IMO, the lens delivered exceptionally well on all aspects. Pictures like this make me go wild about this 40 years old splendor – how it allows me to fully realize what I have in mind, before taking the shot: the delicacy, the transparency, the detail, the fragility, they are all there.

AT THE LIMIT AND BEYOND

It was the session of the last pictures (mother and child) that made me want to shoot some portraits with this lens, specifically to explore the limit of its depth of field. Therefore they were taken wide open and at minimal focus distance. I wanted to make two portraits, one at just under 1m (minimal possible distance in standard configuration) and another at just over 60cm (minimal possible distance with close focus adapter). I wanted to realize a perfect focusing, just to see how much detail the lens could render at most shallow dof. Of course, detail is not the only parameter that matters, but with these shots it was my goal.

These are no “laboratory test pictures”. Instead I tried to stay as close as possible to real world photography – as is the tradition on this site. (Thanks again, Steve, for maintaining this one of a kind medium!)

To obtain optimal detail with this lens, the focusing is absolutely crucial. This must be performed with the utmost precision and therefore it must be carried out with the greatest care, especially when picturing a living subject. Therefore I engaged the most patient model that I know: myself. 😊

“Self-portrait”

With ultra shallow dof, the picture can only be sharp in a very restricted zone. So let’s concentrate on precisely that area.

Although the focusing at f/1.2 requires the greatest care, when done right, it is very rewarding. With a 42MP sensor, you get images with this FD85/1.2 , that were absolutely unthinkable in the era that it appeared. The rendered detail has become phenomenal with a modern hi-res sensor. But we need to remember that the focus must attain the “acceptable” level (where no out-of-focus can be observed), which is related to the pixel size. This means that the in-focus zone becomes the more shallow, as the resolution of the sensor increases. That’s why the focusing becomes all the more critical.

As said, the hi-res digital sensor grants this lens a second life, and puts it IMO at par with the very best of what today is produced. The detail is stunning. The colors are wonderful. The transitions are gorgeous. The micro-contrast is great. The dynamic range is excellent. Of course the exquisite Sony sensor plays its role as well, but it can only register what it has been fed by the optics.

In this portrait I treated the local contrast pretty modestly in pp. After all, it’s still a portrait. And it’s my skin, that you’re looking at… 😊 

I really love the tones, which IMO are very close to reality. I hope you like them as well. 

Of course there was no cropping done here, since this shot was carefully prepared, but I guess you noticed that I “de-mirrored” the picture in pp. 

This picture demonstrates how shallow the dof really gets at full aperture and minimal focus distance, and thus how critical the focusing becomes. The crop picture hereafter illustrates this very clearly at 100% resolution. I wonder and doubt if this level of focusing precision is even possible with an AF-lens. This is amongst other reasons, why I love manual focusing. You can precisely focus on the exact point or zone of your preference (in fact it’s always a zone, no matter how shallow the dof gets).

This shot took careful execution. I explained the procedure that I followed in 9 steps on my flickr account, in a respons to a comment/question by Roy Prasat. If you’re interested, you can find the procedure here. https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/41701137972/in/album-72157693389334071/

I also wanted to show you a crop in 100% view, to tell you a bit more about the focusing and the detail. But before going to this next picture, I’d like to ask you to notice the catchlight, the little white spot, just left from my eye pupil. This is the reflection of the window that provided the natural light for this picture. I’ll tell you some more about this in regard to detail with next picture.

“Self-portrait – crop 100%”

A crop of the former image. Make sure you click to enlarge for view in 100% resolution, because it’s all about the detail here. It really is a very heavy file, but it’s that one picture that shows the most about this exceptional lens, IMO. I hope Steve is willing to place it fully. (Thanks, Steve!!)

No matter how shallow the depth of field may well be, it’s still a field. I focused on my eye (by moving my own position – not by rotating the focus ring, since it had to stay at minimal distance), but I didn’t concentrate on just one point. I wanted to have the lines of the iris in focus (“acceptable” focus for the purists), as well as the fine veins in the white eyeball. Giving the fact that it’s a self-portrait, I needed to change my eye position between focusing (looking with my right eye in the EVF at my open left eye) and shooting (looking with my left eye towards the lens). Because the slightest change of position ruined the focus, there was some luck involved, to keep perfectly still, during that moment without visual control. You can guess, I needed multiple shots to get the desired result. 

If this was a portrait with a model, or a stil object, it would be easier. The EVF makes it possible to determine the exact location of the in-focus zone. When the zone is this shallow, you can fully oversee it even with your EVF in the largest magnification mode. Focusing on just one point doesn’t guarantee that the iris as well as the veins would be in focus simultaneously.

The light for this picture came from a window, about 1 meter to my right. This window reflects in my eye, producing a catchlight – the light dapple, just left from the eye pupil. Looking at 100% or 200% (with Retina display – after downloading the picture from my flickr account  https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/26874478967/sizes/o/) you can see the green bushes through this reflected window, as well as the clouds in the sky. I was really flabbergasted, when I noticed these. Talking about detail! And when you judge, take into account that there were two (more ordinary) extra glass layers in play: my spectacles and the mirror. 

You maybe find it a bit exorbitant to care about this “view through the window”, given it concerns a portrait, but this was merely a matter of personal satisfaction. I just care about these kind of things. Noticing that it was indeed possible, I could not have tolerated it, not to realize it. Making a picture about detail, I felt I had to go all the way. In character street shots, I don’t mind at all a softer picture – I often even like it, but here it was another matter. This pictures shows an other side of this fantastic lens.

When going back to the full picture, and noticing the catchlight, it seams unreal that this is a window, with bushes and clouds in it. This is how much detail this lens renders – right up to the limits of the sensor’s resolution. It also indicates how it still performs according to today’s high standards. BTW, even with a 24MP APS-C sensor, that corresponds with a 54MP FF sensor in pixel size, the lens renders all detail perfectly.

So the in-focus zone was placed on the iris and the veins and it also includes the reflected window. Everything outside this field is unclear, when looking at full size. Fast focusing on just a point, or auto focusing, would possibly have started the blur already in one of those items, that I wanted to show in focus. This shows how careful one must focus to realize the utmost sharpness at full aperture. And it also explains why, when shooting fast wide open, this lens easily renders a softer image. While it’s correct that (as I hear from people I trust) AF systems cannot focus to that precision, this means that this level can only be achieved with a MF lens, and I guess not even with manual focusing by wire. Yet another reason why I prefer the FD over EF.

Looking at this picture, I again realized that this Canon Lens FD 85mm 1:1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical has not become a legendary lens by accident. I think I’ll never sell this lens. I think I’ll never (have to) buy another fast 85mm again.

“Bad selfie, beyond the limits”

OK, so this one was shot at the absolute minimal focus distance of 63cm, with the use of a close focus adapter. I had already focused closer than the standard 1m, for a few pictures shown in this article, thanks to this adapter. But those were at around 80cm and still useful. Here, at minimal distance, I simply don’t like the result, as far as portraiture is concerned. I even doubted for a long time, wether or not to show this one, but I swallowed my pride, since it’s still interesting. At this distance the face gets deformed, giving it a bit an egg-like shape, which we know from wide angles. But this is a tele! No, this is over the top IMO. Also, the focusing becomes that crazy difficult, that it was impossible to even turn my eye to the lens for the shot. Well, it’s just a bad picture. I don’t like it. I find 63cm focus distance beyond the limit of usability. Maybe for a different subject, or a special effect. But right now, I don’t see it.

“Bad selfie, beyond the limits – crop 100%”

Again, when detail is intended, the focus needs to be absolutely correct. For this shot, since I kept my eye on the subject during the moment of the shot, I had greater control than with the former. Still, the focusing was almost impossible, since the two melting views made for a lot of distortion and confusion: my right eye saw my left eye, through the EVF at maximal enlargement, and my left eye saw the environment. It took a lot of effort to concentrate on the extremely small in-focus area in the EVF and disregard what I saw with my left eye. I found out that the only reliable spot to focus on was the branches in the reflected window: clear lines with enough contrast. But the in-focus zone is ridiculously shallow. It’s simply beyond any usability at this resolution. So it is senseless to go for detail at this focus distance, shooting wide open. 

I don’t say that the close focus feature is worthless, I’m saying it’s worthless to me for portraiture at minimal focus distance and shot at maximal aperture.

Let’s just forget about this “bad selfie” all together. 

Because I don’t like to end with a lesser picture, I add a few extra’s at the very end of this article.

MY CONCLUSION: FD FOR EVER!

Using the Canon FD85/1.2 Aspherical on a hi-res Sony sensor has been no less than a true revelation, whereby it has become very dear to me. It’s a 40 years old lens and it has proved to step its game up to modern hi-res level, enabling it to still compete with everything that came on the market since the digital camera really took the lead and resolution went sky-high. It’s manual focus allright and that’s good. Zeiss, to name just one, still produces MF lenses, because there is definitely still a use and thus a market for it. I love the the precision and the freedom that I get from MF. And given the old fashioned production quality of this FD, when whoever inherits this lens from me takes good care of it, I guess she (or he) will be able to use it for yet another 40 years. 😊

The FD85/1.2 Aspherical is a true classic from the seventies – in its looks, its feel, its build, its performance. And I like it everything about it. Regarding IQ, it gives me all the details, the colors, the microcontrast, the DR and the bokeh that I want, even to today’s standards. This is one of the very few classics that was able to enhance its performance to digital hi-res level. It’s a generous lens. And I truly love it for that. For the rest of my life. Whenever I have an image for an 85 in my head, I can realize it with this marvel, without ever having to solve any problems in pp. Still, the files that I get remain highly processable in Photoshop. It puts no limits at all on my creativity. How would I ever need another fast 85?

Annoying wind

DS in controlled blur

Star Wars?

Land of Dreams

Mother and child 2

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10 Comments

  1. Hi!

    I bought the FD 85mm NEW some 15 years ago for $450. I use it on 35mm camera’s, not digital. Did use it for awhile on an Olympus digital PEN.

    I suggest you try it with FD extension tubes (12mm, 25mm, 50mm) which cost like $5 to shoot flowers. I do this on 800 ASA film and the result is stunning.

    Other FD lenses which are real good are the 135 f/2, which gets close to the 85mm experience, the 24mm f/1.4 and the unbelievably sharp, tiny 100mm f/2. The FD 200mm macro is also extremely good.

    To shoot high ISO wide open, I use ND filters up to four stops.

    I have articles here on Steve Huff using the FD 85 on flowers.

    Bye,

    Dirk.

  2. @jared, @Steve, @jason gold, @Harry,@Tony, @Karim Ghantous:
    I’m still not at home and having internet very scarcely. I couldn’t respond any earlier. But..
    Thank you so much, guys, for your appreciation! It really feels good. Really.

    • @Alain: (in French hereafter)
      Hello Alain, you asked for the adapter that I used.
      I combined two adapters here. When I take the FD85 with me, together with some Zeiss ZM’s (which makes for a pretty compact traveling set), I keep an FD to M adapter permanently on the lens and an M to E adapter permanently on the body. In that way, it feels as if there’s no adapter at play and the Sony has become an M-mount body. Extra advantage: I can even use a close focus adapter (like the one I have mounted here).
      Normally, I use Novoflex adapters. The M-mount to Canon FD adapter, that you see in the picture is indeed a Novoflex. But they don’t make a close focus adapter (as far as I know). Voigtländer does, but this one is very expensive. I didn’t want to pay that much money, when I didn’t know yet if was going to use this close focus function frequently. So I bought (probably) a Chineese one, Jintu is the brand. Not the cheapest one, but a lot less expensive than Voigtländer. It’s the one in the picture and it works fine for now. So as long as it does, I won’t buy another one. Thanks for your response, Alain!

      (in French now)
      Bonjour Alain. J’ai combiné deux adaptateurs ici. Lorsque je prends le FD85 avec moi, avec quelques Zeiss ZM (ce qui en fait un ensemble de voyage assez compact), je garde un adaptateur FD-M en permanence sur l’objectif et un adaptateur M-E en permanence sur le camera. De cette manière, on a l’impression qu’il n’ya pas d’adaptateur en jeu et que le Sony est devenu un camera à monture M. Avantage supplémentaire: je peux même utiliser un adaptateur “close focus” (“de mise au point rapprochée” en français?), comme celui que j’ai monté ici.
      Normalement, j’utilise des adaptateurs Novoflex. L’adaptateur M-mount pour Canon FD, que vous voyez sur la photo, est bien un Novoflex. Mais Novoflex ne faites pas un adaptateur “close focus” (pour autant que je sache). Voigtländer le fait, mais celui-ci coûte très cher. Je ne voulais pas payer autant d’argent quand je ne savais pas encore si j’allais utiliser cette fonction “close focus” fréquemment. J’ai donc acheté (probablement) un produit chinois, Jintu est la marque. Pas le moins cher, mais beaucoup moins cher que le Voigtländer. C’est donc celui sur la photo et ça marche bien pour le moment. Donc tant que ça dure, je n’en achèterai pas un autre. Merci pour votre réponse, Alain!

      Geen dank!

  3. This lens can really glow – the shot of the baby sleeping shows that very well. In fact, that shot is a work of art. It should be printed several feet wide!

    You have a good point about manual focus, which I use all the time. It seems that AF did not replace manual, it just gave us another option for when we really need it (e.g. Sony A9 + 400/2.8 GM). Many people overestimate the accuracy of PDAF (I was guilty of that). Thankfully, mirrorless bodies can not only let us use all these great lenses, but it can give us PDAF and CDAF working together to make AF truly shine.

  4. Wonderful explanation and really nice photos.
    Canon FD and FL lenses are second to none.
    I have a few lenses and bodies, TY kind donors..
    Note the Canon lenses are lower contrast as seen in my pix and yours..
    The 85mm ASPH a star lens, never challenged, one I could never afford.
    I agree about manual focus as better for me, rather than autofocus.

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