The other day, I took a notion to go check out a camera dealer near Orlando, FL. Suitably titled, ‘Old Camera’, this shop carries only old cameras and lenses. The owner, Frank, is quite an enthusiast so we enjoyed a good chat about our favorite, old lenses. Frank showed me around his current selection of lenses and I finally settled on an Olympus OM F.Zuiko Auto-T 85mm f/2. When he first handed this lens to me, telling me it was an 85mm f/2, I thought he was mistaken. The size and weight of it is no more than that of a cheap and cheerful 50mm. In the past, I had read about this lens but had never seen it in person until now; it really is tiny. Aside from a few bits of dust inside the lens, it’s in great condition – almost new-looking.
Olympus made three versions of this lens over its span of existence. The one I bought is the first version from around 1981 which is a single-coated, 6/4 optical design. The two subsequent models are multi-coated and with a different, 5/4 optical design. All three versions are excellent but some measure of contrast and sharpness improvements were made with each newer model.
At only 2.36 inches (60mm) in diameter, 2.0 inches (51mm) in height, and weighing 9.17 ounces (260g), this 85mm lens truly is itsy bitsy. If you’re looking for a very compact tele-photo/portrait lens, this is definitely one to consider.
For a sense of scale, I’ve placed this 85mm between a C/Y-mount Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 and a Minolta MD 135mm f/3.5.
All of this itsy-bitsyness is wonderful and fascinating but at the end of it all, what’s the use if it can’t make a nice image? Let see how it fares in this, the purpose for which it was built. The day following the purchase of this lens, I had an opportunity to take it out in the yard for some test shots.
This Magnolia flower was shot wide-open at f/2. That is a very silky background as should be expected from this type of lens. For comparison, I set the aperture to f/2.8 where I did notice an improvement in contrast and sharpness. The minor difference in the image shot at f/2 was easily corrected in Photoshop RAW, allowing me to keep the preferred look of the background at that aperture.
Since our brain is extremely sensitive when it comes to facial perception it behooves the photographer to be consciously aware of anything that might undesirably alter the rendering of your subject’s likeness. 85mm lenses have long been a valuable tool for photo portraiture due to the flattening effect of telephoto focal lengths. Shorter focal lengths require that you stand closer to your subject to fill the frame and it is from this perspective that a distorted rendering of a person’s face becomes evident. Let me take a moment here to demonstrate what I’m on about. For the image below, I shot the same face using two different lenses. Using a 135mm lens, I stood back the appropriate distance to fit my daughter’s face in frame. I then swapped to a 24mm lens and got much closer to her in order to fill the frame the same amount as the first shot. Looking at the image below, do you see how different each rendering of the same face can be just by making a change in distance and focal length?
This difference in distance from the subject is what causes the effect of perspective distortion. Sometimes you may want to introduce perspective distortion using a shorter focal length in order to achieve a desired look but, generally speaking, a good portrait will capture the subject from a natural perspective – how our brain recognizes them. Wow, I totally got side-tracked didn’t I? Where were we? Oh yeah, the Olympus 85mm f/2. Since this is a proper portrait lens, I better show some portraits I shot with it.
Here is a natural light, off-the-cuff portrait of one of my daughters. This was shot one click down at f/2.8.
Here, under the shaded front porch, I used an aperture of f4 to ensure both of their faces were in focus. Yes, they’re twins.
For this shot, I used the lens wide-open at f/2. Depth-of-field at this aperture and distance was enough for only the leading eye to be in focus.
Back at the Magnolia tree, I was really surprised at how the lens rendered the out of focus area. Shot at f/2, this very busy background was smoothed out but in a strange sort of painterly look. I can’t decide if I like this or not. I do like the color.
The twins were so patient and helpful, putting up with the heat and humidity so I could get these photos of them.
I just had to share this picture since I’ve featured the twins so much in this post. Not even a month old they often struggled to find their own thumb which lead to just being satisfied latching onto each others’. No longer sucking each other’s thumbs, they do still share the same bond.
To summarize my day of use of this lens: I’ve found it to be exceptionally good, not making any exceptions for its minuscule size. The one complaint I have against it is how sensitive it is to stray side light. My lens did not include the hood so I’ll need to order one for it. In the interim, I’ve made a temporary hood for it out of a soda can and some gaffer tape. Don’t laugh, it works very well.
My recommendation to you, if you’re interested in getting one of these, would be to get the 2nd or 3rd generation of the lens which has the newer multi-coatings and more flare-resistant optical design. That isn’t to say I will be replacing mine with one of those but if I was starting from scratch, that’s what I’d have. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a smaller 85mm that is also capable of packing a formidable punch well out of its weight class.
After-thought: In case you’re wondering what lens I used to shoot the photos of the 85mm lens, it was an old Minolta Rokkor 40-80mm f/2.8 gearbox lens. It is one WEIRD looking lens but it sure makes a nice image.