SLR Magic 35mm f/1.4: Is it Magical?
a mixed bag of tricks, with an outstanding prestige…
by Amy Medina
Since I’ve been considering buying the new SLR Magic 23mm f/1.7 for my Fuji XE1, Steve was kind enough to lend me his 35mm f/1.4 to try out for a week or so to see how I got along with it. I was excited when it arrived, and quickly got it out of the packaging and onto my camera, where it would live permanently for over a week.
The lens itself feels like it’s made well. It has a bit of heft to it, and I liked the size on the Fuji XE1; Not too fat, and a bit longer than the Fuji 35mm lens. It’s made of metal, and balances well on the camera, with a little bit of weight behind it, to give it a sturdy feel, not like a lens that will fall apart or easily break.
I’m not a fan of the screw-on lens cap. Not even a little bit. It’s annoying and impractical. Of course, because this wasn’t my own lens, I kept the lens cap on when not in use, but I can tell you, if I were to purchase one, that would not be the case. The lens cap would likely come off in the morning and not return to its home until the end of the day, when all photography is complete. Screwing the darn thing on and off is just a pain in the neck, so I’d likely end up spending a few dollars to find a cheap snap-on one that fits properly.
Other than the cheaper CCTV lenses I’ve used on my Olympus camera, this was my first time using a lens that had a smooth rotating aperture dial, without click-stops. This was another aspect of the SLR Magic I didn’t like much, because setting the f-stop blind is nearly impossible to do. I also found it was too easy to knock it or accidentally rotate it off the setting you want, because it doesn’t stay put with the help of a click-stop. It theory, I would have considered this a minor annoyance, and one that wouldn’t prevent me from buying the lens — but in real-world practice, I found I accidentally moved it more than I would have liked.
The focusing of the SLR Magic 35mm is something that made me wonder if I was going crazy. I realize, focusing at f/1.4 is not always easy, and the slightest self-movement can cause you to find your subject with less than ideal focus. However, there were times with this lens that I was convinced I had not moved, but the focus still “fell out” of its position. It is not sharp edge-to-edge, and where in the finder you have your focus point seems to be more important with this lens that with other f/1.4s. I’m a focus-recompose shooter, but I got along better with the SLR Magic when I composed first, and then moved the Fuji XE1’s focus point to my subject prior to attempting to focus, rather than leaving it in the center and then recomposing the shot after focusing.
The focus pull itself was a little wishy-washy for my taste… I like a stiffer focusing ring than the SLR Magic 35mm provides. It’s really just a bit loose feeling, especially when critical focus wide-open seems to “float out” too easily (or is that just me going crazy again?)… I do shoot with quite a few lenses that are anywhere from f/1.4 to f/2 wide open, and I’ve never had this problem with any of them, but maybe I’m a bit spoiled shooting with a lot of M-Glass.
All that said, it sounds like overall I wasn’t happy with this lens… but that surprisingly isn’t the case. While its form was good, and it’s function sometimes argued with me, the fact-of-the-matter is that I really enjoyed the character of the files this lens was capable of producing. Focus fall-off was often dramatic, and the bokeh was smooth and pleasing. I was rarely disappointed with the photos I took using this lens, even if I sometimes felt it took a little extra shooting time to get the end result. The looks of the photos produced using the SLR Magic 35mm seemed unique and full of character… qualities I absolutely adore in a lens, because ultimately it’s really all about the photos themselves, right?
An interesting aspect of this lens, unlike a lot of M-Glass, is that the closest focusing distance is less than a foot, which allows for a little more creative freedom doing close-up shots of subjects. Funny, because I’m so used to shoot with M-Glass, that I often don’t think to even try to focus closer than 2-3 feet, and ended up discovering it purely by accident one afternoon at the beach (see the bamboo shot below). LOL!
Other than the crazy “drifting” I mentioned above, I really didn’t find it difficult to manually focus this lens on the Fuji body… but I will add a disclaimer to that by saying that I’ve been using manual glass so much on my Fuji, that I’ve gotten quite good at manual focusing overall. I’d still welcome focus peaking on the body, but the “jaggies” are often good enough (and those of you familiar with the X-Series body and manual focusing probably already know what I’m talking about).
And, at the end of my time with this little magical 35, the thought of having to ship the lens back to Steve was downright depressing. It arrived to me in the midst of some dental issues, and my time with it was bounced between dental appointments and some down-time after having a tooth pulled. However, it’s arrival timing was good because it provided me with a point of pleasure in the middle of it all. When it was time to send it back, I felt like it had become my friend, so I had to pack her up quickly, as if pulling off a bandaid.
So even with all my complaints, I still feel in love… or at least strong like, with the SLR Magic 35mm f/1.4. When work is more steady and I’m not scraping together pennies to buy gear more suited to freelance work, I’ll be putting some aside for its 23mm cousin, because I think in the end, we’ll get along just fine. If I wasn’t currently and unfortunately unemployed, I’d likely buy both the 23mm and 35mm!
Hello, I follow this site since a long time and I really love it, And this review is really nice ! great job.
I have a question : I use almost use all my lenses in manual focus with the help of focussing peak, but as English is not my mother tongue I don’t understand the point with the focus. Is the focus ring not smooth or too smooth ? Is it moving by itself? I really love the look of the photo all across the web.
Funny enough, I just saw this review. I had one of the first SLR Magic 35mm shipped by Adorama, and I absolutely hated the “focus drift”. I Also contacted Steve Huff on FB at the time and asked him to check the sample lens that he had for similar problems, and this appears to be the lens you used. Well, it looks like all of them were built with the same sloppy focus helicoid tolerances. There is nearly 0.6mm slop front to back in the helicoid that is then over-greased to help damp out the slop, but it still drifts badly.
Beautiful optics, abysmally low production standards.
I had the 35 SLR Magic and sold it to buy the Fuji one. Now, I have the 23/1.7 and I can assure you it has the sane character. I like the rendering, sharpness and bokeh. The colors are a little … Let’s say not contrasty and vivid, but with PP you can push them back. It is a nice lens. Even Better for BW.
Quite apart from Amy’s delicious post, this lens delivers a bokeh that I somehow associate with old photojournalism.
Too bad m4/3 won’t extract as much bokeh from it. :^(
Great shots and review. I got this lens a wee while ago and stopped using it because it didn’t really seem to deliver, was difficult to focus and 35 mm is not 1st choice, having a Voightlander 25mm and Olympus 45mm. Reading this review ticked a lot of boxes so I’m going to give it another go and and explore its character some more. Something to look forward to. Thank you.
I don’t think this review shows what the lens is like at all, because Amy’s wonderful PP covers up any signature from the lens itself.
To be honest, we need to see some boring, straight from the camera shots, to see how the lens actually performs.
Great great photos.
No idea what the raw output of the lens really looks like. Is this a big deal? It is if you care to produce photos which are sharp across the frame, and have balanced illumination. Sometimes that is what is desired.
Put another way, you can make a sharp lens look unsharp and vignetted, but you can not do it the other way round. Guess which lens is more useful?
I actually don’t disagree with you Huss… however, there are qualities to any given lens that are not easily reproduced at all in post-processing, like the way a lens focus falls off, or it’s bokeh. I like to shoot with lenses that have character, sometimes even oldies that would fail against others on the MTF charts… lenses that do vignette and aren’t sharp across the field.
I’m not sure any SLR Magic lens would be a first choice for someone wanting to shoot sharp files edge to edge… but maybe I just assume that is common knowledge and obvious to everyone (which would be my mistake)!
These images are simply WONDERFUL!!!!! Shows how much a lens can turn mundane subject matter into something so evocative (no disrespect to the photographer). If these same shots were taken with a “normal” regular lens they wouldnt have the same surreal quality.
My mirrorless camera of choice is a Nikon V1. Will have to get a NEX or Fuji ………………..
Well do not expect these results with just this lens and camera 🙂 Amy does her own style of PP with all of her images, which give them her signature look. The lens is the brush, her eye is the what took the photo and her skill with PS is what gives them this look. I’ve always been a fan of her work, and no matter what she uses they all have that thing to when I see one of her images I know who shot it!
Looks great! Would love to have one.
Nice photographs but terrible review.. This lens is de-clicked for videography. The niggling complaints in this article is so annoying for the known fact tat SLR lens are preferred for videographers…
…except it doesn’t change the fact that some will indeed buy these lenses to use for photography, and not for video. My review comes from that perspective. And not all my “niggling” complaints had to do with the anti click-stop aperture dial, but things that have nothing to do at all with photos vs. video.
Not to mention, in the end, I loved the lens! LOL
Nice stuff. The edges look a little soft on some of the shot. Screw-on lens cap. If may say, note mm thread size and buy an other brands stap-on.
Wonderful pictures Amy, well done. You have a great eye and I love the dreamy feel of your images – the bird in flight and harbor shots are phenomenal!
Amy, I can only second your feelings about this lens. Since I’ve used it on a loaned NEX (mine is in MFT mount), I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it. The 23/1.7 is no slouch either, btw. There’s a review of it on the website I’m writing for, check it out if you didn’t yet 🙂
HI Amy I have a question:
With the recent Fuji sales, I’m considering picking up an X-E1 with 35mm f/1.4. How is the manual focus on this combo as I know auto focus isn’t that good. Would you say I’ts as responsive as the X100s minus focus peaking? I’ve has the original x100 before and found the manual focus really frustrating. Can I expect the same from the X-E1.
P.S. Your photography is beautiful.
Manual focus with any of the Fuji lenses is dreadful at best.
Using a M adapter and Leica glass is a different matter altogether 🙂
Agree with Ted here… I wouldn’t want to manually focus any of the Fuji lenses — it’s a painful task. However, if you’re using M-Glass, or manual-focus-only lenses, it’s a much much easier one 🙂
Nice colour work.
Those shots do have a wonderful character!
It’s more about Amy’s style than the lens itself I think.
I hope and pray that SLR Magic steps up their game and learns to iron out the quirks; because I ADORE the look that this lens gives! Awesome shots — composition, colour, exposure, contrast — everything.
Amy your colour photo PP signature look is for me the most easily recognsiable of all the photographers ive been looking online.