Pardon my stealing my title from a very funny movie from way back in 1966, but hey, I felt it was fitting.
If you Google my name, you’ll find I’m probably known more for photographing women’s bodies. Which would be true, yet it would also be somewhat lacking accuracy.
Attached to those gorgeous bodies were also extremely attractive faces; faces I also photographed with as much attention to detail as everything else in those photographs.
In fact, since my very beginning in photography, I’ve always been fascinated with photographing beauty, that being beautiful faces. So for me, I spent as much time and effort in developing my beauty work, maybe even more, than for those bodies.
Beginning from a film background, it was always a challenge to get the right light and angle on a face in order to capture it nicely. Add to that, the equipment you used was then the next most important element. Today, with almost everything we see being photographed digitally, we must take into account the fact the chip that records all that information being transmitted by a lens to it is so good at recording that info, every portion of a face is recorded in minute detail. Down to the tiny hairs or pores in the skin.
So for me, finding a lens that delivers, yes, a sharp image but still leaves something less in the way of some of that detail, would be to me, a wonderful portrait lens.
Samy asked me to take just a few photographs using a lens he has imported from Russia (thus the title for this piece). The lens is called the Zenitar 85mm f/1.4. Yeah, that’s right f/1.4, very fast for an 85mm.
Now before you pre-judge this piece of glass as something being of less quality due to its home country, let me just say this. When you first open the box, it has a magnetic seal, which is just super cool and is a nice touch. As you reach in to pick it up, the weight of the lens immediately causes you to take pause. This thing has some major glass inside with an all-metal case that’s just that, all-metal. No plastic used here bub.
When I see similar speed lenses being produced by pretty much all the manufacturers today in the 1.4 or 1.8 area of speed, to me, that small number just begs for those lenses to be used at that widest aperture wouldn’t you think? I do.
I mean, they’re obviously designed to be used in very low light conditions, which I feel is where they would become your lens of choice, not only for the speed but also the look they give you in a final image due to that big, wide lens opening.
It’s the lens that gets the call when your f/4 lens would fail you. The added fact it creates a very out of focus background not only is a perk but just what the doctor ordered (well, the portrait shooter). Especially when wishing to really separate your subject from the background. It creates what I believe they now call ‘a very nice bokeh’.
Samy told me this company actually makes two lenses in this fast style, which I assume are both 85mm. The one I tested, then there is a second one he says has a ‘better bokeh’. Hmmm, okay, I guess I’ll need to wait and test that one another time. For now, though, this one does a nice job of really giving you something soft and pretty as a portrait lens.
I just completed one of my photo workshops here in Las Vegas (I’m doing another the 1st weekend of this coming December in case anyone is interested) and while there, I took one of my models aside, Christine Nguyen, and asked if she would allow me to do a few photographs of her using the Zenitar lens on my 5D Mk IV camera body. She graciously agreed.
We only did a few images, all done natural light (since that’s also the rage) so that I might test out this lens as to what it might offer a person in a portrait setting. The first item on the list that makes this lens attractive is its price, it’s nearly half that of most name brand, even third-party lenses. But that’s also probably due in no small part, it only comes in manual focus. Oh yeah, I had to actually focus the lens, no auto-focus here folks. Old school all the way, which for me was kinda fun for a change.
I cannot tell you how long it’s been since I manually focused a lens on my camera. I caught myself several times pushing the shutter button and thinking, why is this thing not focusing? Quickly remembering, hey David, the lens is a manual focus buddy, be a photographer, turn the focus ring, now take the picture!
Thankfully, after only a few of those miscues, I began to ‘feel the force’, then quickly focus the lens while directing Christine to look this way or that. It all began flooding back, how it was when film was ‘the way’ and we had to focus our lenses as well as use a light meter to determine the best exposure for your subject (which I still do btw).
I began at the f/1.4 opening for the first few photographs, then one click down to f/2.0 for a few more. I did not shoot at any higher f/stops such as f/4 or 5.6. Yes, I know that’s where the lens would be considered sharpest, as with most all glass out there today, those numbers are probably the sweet spot for sharpness and resolution. I wanted to test it at its zenith, or widest opening. What I wanted was to see how well the lens performed at that wide-open aperture. If it’s a 1.4, show me what you can do at 1.4, that’s right, show me what you got my friend, bring it on.
I was impressed. Though as I felt might be the case, at f/1.4 the edge sharpness was not as much as what I saw at f/2. Yet for me, that’s not a cause for alarm as it gives you something to work with when doing portraits, a slightly softer edge which for a face is a good thing.
I also purposely did not use any sharpening tools when I made these images to size in Photoshop. No Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen. What I got in-camera for sharpness is what you’re seeing. I’ll enlarge one of the f/1.4 images as well as one at f/2. To me, either works and if you’re going to be stopping the lens down to f/4 or even 5.6 I know you’ll be very happy with the resulting images you achieve. Just don’t forget to turn that focus ring though! It’s not gonna auto-focus for you!
The color was also nice, mostly due to how the Canon chip is slightly toward the warm side, at least in my Mk IV and pleasingly so. Not too red which means again, something softer in the final photograph, no harshness.
If you note in her hair, it’s nicely delineated, meaning good resolving power, even at its widest aperture, another positive. Now about that bokeh.
For me, anything soft and out of focus behind your subject is a good thing as long as you’re thinking about how that out of focus is going to look when ‘it is’ out of focus. By that, noting and keeping away any deep black blobs, or blown out white blobs that might distract from your subject’s face.
So note to self. Even when you’re looking through your lens at your beautiful subject, don’t let yourself get so caught up in that pretty face to the point you’re not checking out what’s behind it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with portraits that will require a lot more post work in Photoshop. Something I’m just not a big fan. I’d much rather be photographing someone than retouching them on a computer all afternoon.
My final assessment of this glass? I like it. The fact it’s a manual focus, well, that was my entire career for many, many years, so for me, no biggy. Heck, I still drive a car with a manual transmission, so for me, it’s just another way to hang on to something I feel is special and gets you back to doing it the way it was done before. Which would be on you, the photographer.
Now I’m just gonna wait to see if Samy will allow me the opportunity to try out that other lens by this same Russian company with its ‘special’ bokeh.
Yep, the Russians are coming, but this time not in a funny ‘60s era movie.