First off, a HUGE thank you to Mike Sims for sending me this brand new optic to test out–especially for allowing me to shoot with it for so long. I can’t do much to thank him except to suggest you check out his Flickr, 500px, and Google+ accounts! Click here for my first impressions of the lens.
f/.95. Wow! It goes without saying, but that’s fast for ANY lens. Technically, this aperture delivers over four times as much light to a sensor as a standard 50mm f/2. But let me get this crucial fact out of the way, the Noktor HyperPrime 50mm f/.95 does not give a photographer ultra low-light capabilities as much as the aperture value suggests. Any additional light-gathering power stops at around f/1.2-1.3; wider than that, and an APS-C camera simply doesn’t meter any faster shutter speeds. I have read on multiple forums that this isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. Some photographers, when using a lens with an f/1.2 maximum aperture report that the camera’s metering doesn’t change even from wide-open to f/1.4. A reader has informed me this is due to a documented condition where a sensor’s microlenses cannot transmit any more light to each pixel than that microlens’ f/stop, regardless of the larger lens’ aperture. Keep in mind that in regards to depth-of-field, f/.95 is definitely true–we’ll examine that later.
The Noktor is a lens that doesn’t exactly establish itself as a normal prime: on APS-C, it gives a field of view similar to that of a 75mm f/1.4 lens on 35mm film (if such as lens has ever existed?). In other words, the Noktor is a short portrait prime capable of extremely pleasant subject separation even at a distance. In all honesty, images shot at f/.95 really have that “full-frame” look simply because of this “pop”. But does this very shallow depth-of-field advantage come at a cost? Let’s find out!
Full Name: SLR Magic Noktor HyperPrime 50mm F0.95
Dimensions: 3.5 inches/89mm long, 2.5 inches/64mm wide, with a relatively light weight of 17 ounces/480 grams. This is about the same weight as the e-mount Sony 18200LE.
Close-Focus: Market at 2 feet/.6 meters, and you can’t get any closer. This is a little further than most non-macro fast 50′s that focus as close as 1.5 feet/.45 meters.
Miscellaneous: 8-bladed aperture stopping down to f/16 with different aperture shapes depending on the one chosen (f/.95-1.3 is round, f/1.4-3.5 is star shaped, f/4-15 is octagonal, f/16 is round again), 62mm metal filter thread, geared and step-less aperture ring (great for video rigs) with a tension/locking screw, rubber-grip focus ring, metal mount.
When I first got the Noktor in to try out, I was impressed with how it feels in the hand. This made-in-Japan lens feels SOLID. Everything besides the lens elements and rubber grip on the focus ring is cold, hard metal. In fact, I could be fooled into thinking this lens was built like my Nikon AI-s lenses if I was blindfolded. However, there’s a few things to throw me off that I would figure out in use. For me, as a Nikon shooter, everything on this lens feels bass-ackwards: the aperture and focus rings are in swapped places, the aperture is step-less so I can never feel what aperture I’m at, and the focus goes the “wrong” way with infinity on the right! This made for some seriously awkward shooting scenarios in the first few days of using this lens. Old habits, in this case, can at least be temporarily forgotten though; in a solid week I eventually learned my own way of holding and shooting this lens to feel relatively comfortable. The key was to not switch back to my Nikkors!
Unfortunately, the all-metal construction (only the lens elements and focus ring grip are not) comes at a cost. As far as weight is concerned, the Noktor is a heavy lens for many E-mount users. For me, however, I’m used to shooting tanks-of-lenses such as the 180mm f/2.8 AI-s ED free-hand. The Noktor, in comparison, really feels like a normal lens even for one-handed shooting. But does this fast, short portrait optic stand up to my four pillars of shootability?
- Small size? Depends. For E-mount shooters, the Noktor will err on the side of large. For shooters coming from larger lenses/camera systems, it’s rather small and compact for an ultra-fast prime.
- Light weight? Again, it depends on what you are used to.
- Smooth operation? Yes! Though awkward (for Nikon guys and gals), the focusing is damped well and smooth, while the step-less aperture ring can quickly be adjusted and locked-in to any aperture (provided you can see the writing on the lens barrel!).
- Generally favorable optical performance? That’s a tough one. Technically speaking, the Noktor does not perform like a $1100 optic. But the “character” it provides from the wide aperture and unique bokeh can sometimes speak for itself.
The Noktor is a lens that is better off not closely examined. Technical issues such as inconsistent sharpness (or lack thereof), chromatic aberrations of many kinds, and flare control make the Noktor seem like an overpriced hunk of metal. But the uniqueness in the way it renders images shot wide-open and at f/1.4 cannot be replicated by any lens that you can buy native for the Sony NEX’s E-mount. The Noktor, when used correctly, really gives files shot on APS-C cameras a “full-frame” look.
Starting off with central sharpness, the following are 100% crops arranged by aperture from top to bottom:
Wide-open through f/2, detail is hidden and contrast is low by varying degrees from heavy spherical aberration. Detail and contrast keep steadily improving from f/2.8, with detail and contrast peaking at f/4. Detail- and contrast-robbing diffraction doesn’t noticeably set in at the pixel level until f/11. Images can still be saved even at f/.95 with some generous contrast curve adjustments; the softness can actually help to hide skin blemishes in portrait photography.
Moving on to corner 100% crops:
The corners tell a pretty sad story, I’m afraid. Ignoring the perceived difference in exposure due to vignetting at the wider apertures, there is no detail at ALL unless the Noktor is stopped down extremely hard. The corner smearing that affects detail all the way up to f/4 is very complex–depending on exactly where one focuses, the aberrations can create a total mess (f/.95) or a heavy haze with detail still visible (f/1.4). Keep in mind, using the magnification feature in the NEX-7, I always refocus to confirm critical focus at every aperture I test. These corners are as “good” as they can ever look. Forget critical work, getting sharp images across the frame with the Noktor will not ever happen.
As far as other focus-related sharpness issues go, the Noktor has VERY pronounced field curvature as well as noticeable focus shift between almost every aperture. This means that if you want to try to get critical focus at least in the center, be sure to focus at the aperture you are wanting to photograph at rather than wide-open.
There is a silver lining to the total lack of corner sharpness and field curvature: they don’t matter to portrait photography. Corners are never in focus and in fact, field curvature can actually enhance subject separation depending on where they are in the frame.
Sharpness at Infinity
To asses sharpness at infinity (where there is a hard focus stop), I shot this boring scene of some street signs:
Center detail, just as in test charts, turns out to be pretty good at optimum aperture. Unfortunately, the field curvature (present at every aperture) actually prevents proper focusing at infinity! The sharpest it gets is at f/16, and even then, diffraction keeps any detail from showing.
Sharpness at Macro
As mentioned in the specifications, the 2 feet/.6 meter close-focus distance of the Noktor is a little longer than most modern fast 50′s.
Center detail even at f/2.8 is still great though:
However, avoid shooting at f/.95 up-close. The field curvature and other aberrations are even more pronounced:
As an ultra-fast lens, I wasn’t expecting much from the Noktor’s corners at the wide apertures. The total lack of detail at the edges of the frame is understandable from f/.95-1.4. However, for the corners to practically never sharpen up, I’m pretty disappointed. But I reiterate, this doesn’t matter for portrait photography. Though it would indeed be nice to be able to get tack-sharp results upon stopping down, so the Noktor could work for other critical set-ups such as landscapes, this sharpness characteristic just further relegates the lens to fewer oportunities–it’s a specialty optic.
One performance aspect I was worried about when first shooting with the Noktor was its bokeh smoothness. After all, what good is it to throw everything out of focus if the background becomes distracting? What makes the Noktor so special is just how unique the bokeh can be depending on the situation. Let’s take a look:
In my standard bokeh smoothness test, results are quite promising! Background bokeh (far left) is completely smooth until near-background bokeh (left) becomes slightly busy from f/2.8 on. Unfortunately, near-foreground bokeh (right) is almost always busy—detail is clearly visible but surrounded by a haze—but close-foreground bokeh (far right) remains smooth until f/5.6.
So how do highlights look?
Here you can see the effect the variable aperture has on bokeh. The fully circular highlights wide-open have slightly defined rings, but since everything is so out focus, the highlights blend together! The same can be said of f/1.4, but here, there are no hard edges at all. By f/2, the star-shaped aperture is clearly visible, but highlights are solid in color with no artifacts. At f/2.8, the star highlights begin to show distracting artifacts; these continue to become more noticeable at f/4-5.6, where the highlights (and aperture) are now octagonal-shaped. For best highlight smoothness, stick to f/1.4. For “effect” give f/2-2.8 a try!
To test for chromatic aberrations, I shot this worst-case scenario of dead branches against an overexposed (by at least two stops) sky:
Starting wide-open, the Noktor is full of purple fringing. Combined with the low detail, this is pretty difficult to edit out. F/1.4 shows a minor improvement, but it isn’t until f/2 where the fringing can be regarded as low and easy to edit out. At each stop down the fringing slowly disappears, but the changes are only visible when zoomed in to 400%. By all means, any form of noticeable purple fringing is gone by f/2.8.
Unfortunately, the Noktor suffers from a healthy amount of lateral chromatic aberrations (possibly due to the massive field curvature) that don’t go away when stopped down. They are more visible wide-open, however. If you look closely at the “Quincy” portrait above in the sharpness section, you may be able to see some haziness and discoloration on the lower button of the polo. Here’s another more obvious example:
Keep in mind the above situations are worst-case scenarios. In most shots—even wide-open—fringing isn’t noticeable except for high-contrast areas. Even then, you have to zoom in to really see it.
For a prime, I’m not impressed with the flare performance of the Noktor. Even if I had a hood to test with this lens to reduce the veiling flare, the multiple reflections between the elements would still be visible. All reflections are purple in cast, so the following was shot in black-and-white to emphasize what each flare artifact looks like.
If you can keep from it, avoid any strong light source in the frame when using the Noktor, it doesn’t play nice with flare.
As far as I know, the Noktor is designed to only cover an APS-C size sensor. I cannot test to see how it covers a “full-frame” 35mm sensor, as I don’t have access to a Sony VG-900. Regardless, vignetting at the larger apertures on the Noktor is VERY pronounced on the NEX-7:
Most 50mm’s are of simple enough optical construction to have little to no distortion. Then again, ultra-fast lenses tend to act the exact opposite. The Noktor fits somewhere in the middle with some barely noticeable barrel distortion.
Let’s hit the old recap. :)
Pros and Cons
- Great build quality, almost as good as the mechanically-perfect Nikon AI-s’
- Extremely smooth operation, including the option of setting “drag” on the aperture ring
- Highly shootable for photographers coming from larger gear
- Center detail is usable even wide-open—centers are consistently sharp stopped down at all focus distances
- Extremely smooth bokeh with a unique “character” even stopped down
- Bokeh highlights are generally smooth and non-distracting
- Purple fringing only an issue with high-contrast scenarios
- Low distortion for an ultra-fast prime
- AMAZING control of depeth-of-field at f/.95 gives images a “full-frame pop”
- Works well as a unique portrait lens
- Large and heavy for E-mount shooters
- Operation feels awkward for Nikon shooters
- Heavy haze at f/.95-1.4 requires some post-processing work
- Corners are “okay” at best, awful at worst
- Pronounced field curvature can make focusing difficult (tip: frame, THEN focus!)
- Close-focus distance should be shorter
- Chromatic aberrations abound: be prepared to edit some of them out
- Awful flare control
- Strong, but correctable, vignetting
- EXPENSIVE! Especially for a manual-focus lens
The Bottom Line
If you are looking for a versatile, ultra-fast 50mm with technical optical performance to match any shooting situation, look elsewhere than the Noktor HyperPrime. However, if you are a NEX shooter looking for a short portrait lens that renders images shot at the larger apertures in a beautiful and unique way, this lens is worth a look at (for shallow depth-of-field video work, too!). I would rent it first to see if this artist’s lens is right for your photography.
That’s all for this post guys and gals, thanks for dropping by! I hope to work on getting some first impressions of the new Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS up soon!