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Review: SLR Magic Noktor 12mm f1.6 for Micro Four Thirds

by Chris Gampat on 10/09/2011

When this lens came in, we did a quick hands on with it. Over a period of thorough use, the little big lens (yes I said that) has become a permanent fixture on my Olympus EP2; since it is too big and heavy to be on my EPM1. When it comes to America, it will retail for around $500. But will it be $500 well spent?

Editor’s Note: First off, note that this posting is a review of the lens. It isn’t a comparison review; if you want that then go to Steve Huff. We could easily do that (and we may still do it), but Steve can do a good job as it is. Our review is unbiased and focuses on using the lens in real life applications the way that most of you will whether you care to admit to it or not.

Additionally, I’m not quite sure a comparison review is warranted. These two lenses are of different designs and in my eyes, serve different purposes. The Noktor is great for videographers with the smooth focusing and T stops; plus it is a more affordable option with a superior build quality. The 12mm f2 from Olympus was designed for the street. It’s got fast focusing abilities with the newer Olympus cameras and only with those cameras. If you have an older model, you won’t benefit from this and in that case you’re perhaps better off just manually focusing depending on your shooting style.

With all this said, a photographer may benefit more in general from the Olympus 12mm f2 while videographers will be swayed more towards the Noktor. However, both lenses are capable of capturing exceptional images and video. They also render colors similarly and are both very sharp. The Noktor exhibits less distortion due to the larger front element.

Once again though, they’re designed for different purposes. If Noktor really wanted to compete with the Oly, they should have put in autofocus motors. For those of you that really need it, check out the video below by Seb Farges.


Tech Specs

1) 12mm Wide Angle
2) F1.6 Max Aperture (Best performance is at F4 but we were told to make this lens as wide aperture as possible)
3) ~2% distortion (optical distortion correction for natural perspective when taking photos of people)
4) 0.15m Minimum Focus Distance
5) 12 Stepless Aperture Blades for always round aperture opening like a cinema lens for better compatibility with GH2 and AF-100
6) Depth of field scale included
7) $499 MSRP due in October

Video Preview

Ergonomics

The Noktor 12mm f1.6 is a lens that is perhaps one of the heaviest I’ve felt for the Micro Four Thirds digital camera line. The reason why is because of its all metal construction and heavy front element to keep distortion to a minimum. The lens is characterized by two giant dials: Aperture (t stops) and focusing. These dials are a good ergonomic size to make turning either one very easy. Additionally, they are also very smooth and on more than one occasion, I’ve heard a friend say that this lens is very Zeiss like.

On the EP2, the lens feels very balanced. On the EPM1, it’s a different story. The lens actually feels very heavy instead. Obviously, this isn’t a toy lens. Below is a photo of the 11mm f1.4 toy lens from SLR Magic. The differences are vast.

Focusing in Use

Since this lens isn’t electronically coupled at all, focusing the lens won’t automatically bring up the magnification feature that all micro four thirds cameras have. Instead, you’ll need to manually activate it in order to achieve critical focusing. Focusing using the depth of field scale for the hyperfocal length style of photography actually turns out to be very easy to do. My only complaint is that the focusing ring turns one way while the aperture ring turns the other way. In practice, this can be a bit tough when trying to adjust your settings on the fly. For the best results, you’re best off shooting in Aperture priority.

The above statement applies to street photography. In my talks with the SLR Magic reps, they stated that this lens was designed for people that want:

- To take photos of their food up close and personal (hence the macro focusing distance)

- Videographers

- Landscape photographers.

Those subjects are always very stagnant, so you can take your time while focusing.

In practice, I’d also recommend getting a filter for the front element to protect it from dust, scratches and other debris. A friend of mine actually got a drop of coffee on it and I had to clean it off after it dried on.

Distortion

To quickly and unscientifically test the distortion of this lens. I shot a brick wall around a foot or so away from it.

Distortion

Distortion Corrected

There was very minimal distortion at this distance. Though I seem to have corrected it nearest to the center, the edges are a bit warped. Overall though, the distortion from this lens is overall very minimal and to be quite honest, shouldn’t be a major complaint of most people using this lens. If you were shooting for professional reasons, I’d understand why you’d complain though.

Videographers will have very little to worry about when shooting because the Micro Four Thirds sensors don’t seem to use the entire imaging circle of the lens in my tests.

Sharpness Test

I’m going to leave the judgements up to you for the most part, but my opinions are at the end of this section.

f1.6

f2

f2.8

f4

f5.6

f8

f11

As you can see, there is slight vignetting. The lens also becomes extremely sharp at f2.8. At f4, the lens reaches its sweet spot. Beyond this, it may be too sharp for videographers.

Image Quality

Architecture

Due to the minimal distortion of this lens, it is a great focal length for capturing photos of architecture when promenading around. Using the displayed grids on a Micro Four Thirds camera can also help not only with lining the building up for better composition, but also in making sure that the lines that you are shooting are perfectly straight. And for the most part, they are.

If you want to shoot cityscapes, this is probably the lens to get. Though the Olympus 12mm f2 also displays very little distortion at the distances needed for photographing architecture.

When shooting architecture, it’ a good idea to stop the lens all the way down. When using the magnification feature to see if you’re critically in focus, you may sometimes not think that the image is totally and completely sharp depending on which camera you have and its LCD screen. Bringing the images into the computer though changes that notion completely.

Also keep in mind that any raw file that you shoot is going to need sharpening and clarity increasing no matter what. In the photo above, you can see some buldging at the corners. This is once again easily corrected in Adobe Lightroom.

Here are more architecture samples for you:

Flaring from this lens is also kept down quite a bit for the price point.

Food and Macro

People love to take photos of their food: look around Flickr, 500px, and Instagram and you’ll see that this is true. It only makes sense that a wide angle lens would serve these needs. A telephoto will require the person to back up quite a bit, but a 24mm equivalent with a fast aperture will allow users to conveniently capture their entire plate.

For what it’s worth: the lens does a very good job when you take the time to focus it correctly. In the photo above, I seem to have missed the mark, but try doing this with a telephoto and being as close as I was. It just isn’t possible.

Shooting your food, drink, etc is always fun. And this lens is going to encourage those people to just keep shooting.

But this lens has more practical applications besides food shooting, there is also macro shooting.

When it comes to photographing objects wide open that are stagnant, you’ll be fine. However, you may want to stop the lens down for extra sharpness and perhaps even to ensure that your subject is in focus. This goes double for when you’re outside photographing flowers in the wind.

Random Images and Opinions

The hyperfocal length and depth of field scale is very accurate with this lens. That’s how I got this shot.

A good idea is to pair this lens with the film renderings that I talked about in this article. The reason why is because of the super accurate F-stops; known as T stops.

Video Quality

I really need to retrain myself to shoot videos. In the meantime though, videographer Seb Farges has given me permission to embed his videos down below to show you what this lens can really do. I highly recommend that you subscribe to his channel on Vimeo too. My video quality cannot touch his and it goes to prove that it’s the photographer/videographer that counts and not the gear.

Admittedly, I’m working on my own video with this lens, but nothing as candid as Seb’s. I have formal training in videography that I had back in college, but when I graduated stills paid the bills. This is proof that I need to get back into it.

EXCLUSIVE ! MFT Wide and Fast ! Noktor / SLR Magic Hyperprime 12mm f/1.6 The Daylight tests from Seb Farges on Vimeo.

PART 2 : EXCLUSIVE ! MFT Wide and Fast ! Noktor / SLR Magic 12mm f/1.6 The NIGHT tests from Seb Farges on Vimeo.

Conclusion

Am I impressed with the SLR Magic Noktor 12mm f1.6? Hell. Yes.

Though the company’s toy lenses are quite good, many people were let down by the previous 50mm f0.95 offering that they had. This new lens is extremely good. It’s sharp wide open, exhibits minimal distortion, vignetting very slightly, and has an excellent construction. If anything, my only major complaints are that it may be a bit too heavy for some users and that the focusing and aperture rings turn in separate directions. In earlier models of the lens, the focusing dial and the mount are also a bit shaky. However, the reps told me that they’re working on that issue and are aware of it.

Is it worth $500? I think so. It is more affordable than Olympus’s 12mm f2, though I love that lens. Plus it offers faster aperture performance. The T stops are better for videographers, though photographers will also be pleasantly surprised by the performance. Something I’m not a fan of as well is the large size of the lens. However, I can get over that because the lens feels very good in my hands.

Can I recommend this lens to everyone? I was about to say no because of the lack of autofocus. However, the pros heavily outweigh the cons in this case and I’d do this lens a great injustice to not recommend it to all. It’s really that good. If you own an older Micro Four Thirds model camera and love manual focus lenses, this is the one to get. Indeed, Panasonic and Olympus both need to take cues from this little Noktor.

And in the end, it’s a lens that will perhaps forever live on my Olympus EP2.

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