My review of the Canon FDn 85mm f/1.8 adapted to the Sony E-mount (NEX) mirror-less camera.
The case for 85mm
A good portrait lens is a desirable addition to any photographer’s kit. With Sony APS-C cameras and a 1.5x “crop factor”, the old “normal” 50mm lens becomes a longish 75mm, which is often adequate for portraiture. See my review of the Olympus OM 50mm f1.4 for example. These fast 50mm lenses were shipped as the standard kit with many film era cameras, and are therefore relatively easy to come by at reasonable prices. In some occasions though, having an even longer lens can give you a tighter crop while standing farther away from your subject and produce better bokeh. This is where the 85mm focal length (128 mm crop equivalent) becomes interesting. Fortunately for us manual focus lens addicts, there are some excellent choices out there at this focal length. The only downside is that these are not nearly as common as the ubiquitous “fast 50s” and thus command a higher price. In recent years (I’m writing this in 2014), some of them have actually reached almost out-of-whack prices: a Minolta Rokkor 85mm f1.7 in good condition can easily fetch $350 to $400 on eBay! This in my view is not a good value when you can get a very nice, fully automatic, Canon EF 85mm f1.8 or an EF 100mm f2.0 for about the same price new. So, what other more reasonable choices are there? Enter the Canon nFD 85mm f1.8…
Canon nFD 85mm f1.8 Lens
Figure 1 shows the canon nFD 85mm f1.8 lens mounted on my Sony NEX-5N. This is a minor consideration, but I have to say that the black finish in this lens is a good match to the camera.
Figure 1 - Canon nFD 85mm f1.8 on a NEX-5N
Cosmetic considerations aside, the lens is very well built. There are many variations of the Canon FD mount, and this one is the later “nFD” (“new FD”) version. Earlier FD lenses tended to feature all-metal construction whereas these later units use some composite plastic. However, this feels like a very good quality composite material. The nFD 85mm is a solid, even slightly heavy lens on a compact NEX camera.
Focusing is smooth enough, though I’ve experienced better (say, with a Pentax Takumar or a Zuiko OM lens). This may be just my copy of the lens, but at certain positions the focus ring feels a bit too "loose" for my taste. A lens hood is available and I purchased it separately. Though the coatings in these latest nFD lenses are good and protect against flare quite effectively, a lens hood can increase contrast in your images while protecting your front element as an added “side-bonus”. You usually can get this lens in excellent condition for less than $200, which seems like a better value proposition to me than some of the alternatives (as the Rokkor mentioned earlier). For full-frame shooters using the latest Sony A7 and A7r mirror-less cameras, you should know this is a full-frame lens, so you are able to use it at its native 85mm focal length with a proper adapter.
Performance Tests - The fridge test
The "fridge test", I'll remind my readers, is the not-so-scientific name I give to a simple sharpness test I perform every time I buy a new lens. It consists of placing the lens and camera on a tripod, manual focusing on the fridge in areas of detail (papers, magnets etc) and then shooting at various apertures to see how the lens performs. See Figure 2.
Figure 2 - The "Fridge Test"
Figure 3 shows the results of another sharpness test at various apertures (this time using a magazine cover). This single photo may be easier to analyze than Figure 2 This was performed at a slightly off-center position but not quite at the edge. This test should give us a sense of the lens performance. The target (a magazine cover) was placed at about 2 meters from the camera which I reckon is a common distance when shooting portraits.
Figure 3 - Sharpness Test
Wide open (at f1.8) the lens is a bit soft and hazy. This is to be expected and most lenses (except perhaps the most expensive, “L-class” ones) behave this way. Things improve rapidly though, and even a modest increase to f2.0 produces markedly better results. I would say the lens peaks at f4.0 and is very sharp in the f4.0 to f11 range. Diffraction starts reducing sharpness beyond f11 and is very noticeable at f22 (reserve this aperture for “emergencies”).
The “quality” of the out of focus areas in an image with shallow depth of field (bokeh) is an important consideration for a portrait lens. Bokeh “quality” is a subjective matter, but my preference is for smooth and non-intrusive bokeh. I like bokeh that doesn’t call attention to itself and keeps the focus on the subject. This lens features 8 blades which is a relatively high number (many entry-level lenses have only 5 blades). The number of blades is known to influence the bokeh, with more blades usually resulting in smoother bokeh. Results so far have been very good. As shown in Figure 4, bokeh is very smooth at f1.8 and f2.8. As you close the aperture, the DOF increases but at f4.0 I still find the bokeh pleasing.
Figure 4 - Bokeh at various apertures
Figure 5 shows how the lens renders specular highlights (in this case street lights) at f1.8. The shapes aren't exactly circular but they are not distracting either. I find the rendering to be quite acceptable.
Figure 5 - Bokeh
No lens test is complete without some "real-world" results and photos. Figures 6 through 9 are some examples of what this lens can produce. It produces very nice portraits and shallow-DOF photos, but can also yield very sharp photos at the right aperture.
Figure 6 - Green Pastures. Sacramento, California
Sony NEX-5N, Canon FD n85mm f/1.8 @ f5.6
Figure 7 - Red White Blue. Sacramento, California.
Sony NEX-5N, Canon FD n85mm f/1.8 @ f4.0
Figure 8 - Tropical Flowers. Baguio, Philippines
Sony NEX-5N, Canon FD n85mm f/1.8 @ f2.0
Figure 9 - Lady Amherst Pheasant. Baguio, Philippines
Sony NEX-5N, Canon FD n85mm f/1.8 @ f2.8
For the going price of less than $200, I would say this lens is a good value. For my primary usage (portraits) it’s sharp enough and produces very good bokeh. There are other good options out there of course. For example, you can buy a used Samyang/Rokinon 85mm f1.4 lens for about the same price on eBay. The latter is slightly faster and a more modern design, but is also a heavier lens. Size and weight are key considerations for me when choosing lenses I plan to use with mirror-less cameras such as the Sony NEX, as this is my “travel system”.
The nFD 85mm f1.8 is, of course, a manual focus lens. In my experience, manual focusing becomes more and more difficult as the focal length increases, and this lens is relatively long. If I were using it for "paid" work where speed and consistency is at a premium, I would rather use something with auto-focus, like my excellent Canon EF 100mm f2.0. However, for personal work, and if you don’t mind dealing with manual-focus (it is *not* for everyone), then I would not hesitate recommending it.
UPDATE: Check my video review of this lens on the PAULORENATO.COM Photography YouTube channel:
Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com