Over the past few years Chinese manufacturers such as Mitakon and Laowa have been quietly exploring the fringes of photography geekdom with fast, niche primes.
Laowa gained wide recognition with their unique 15mm f/4 wide-angle macro, while Mitakon have appealed to mirrorless shooters with lenses such as the Speedmaster 35mm f/0.95 and 50mm f/0.95. However both of these companies don’t exactly make budget lenses, meaning most people who buy Mitakon or Laowa lenses have spare cash to experiment with these specialised, but imperfect lenses. Nobody will pretend that Chinese lenses provide the best value, but they do make lenses that other manufacturers simply don’t bother with.
On the other hand, Samyang has been gunning for the mainstream audience, first with their affordable wide-angle primes, and now with their autofocus lenses that combine the best of both worlds.
Taking the lead from Samyang, Kerlee is now stepping into this brave new third-party world. An entirely new brand, Kerlee lenses are designed and manufactured by the Shenzhen Dongzheng Optical Technology Co. Ltd, a Chinese company that specialises in commercial optical lenses for medical, science, and the military, and hence has a bit of spare cash to develop consumer products.
The result is the DZOptics Kerlee 35mm f/1.2, which was announced a few months ago to a small amount of fanfare within the photography community. It was marketed as the world’s first full-frame 35mm f/1.2 lens for SLRs, which is sort of true – there is a Voigtländer Nokton 35mm f/1.2, but that was for Leica M. It can be adapted, but the Kerlee is designed to be used with larger DSLRs or mirrorless cameras such as Sony E, Nikon F, Canon EF, and Pentax K.
The Kerlee 35mm f/1.2 arrived in a surprisingly sleek and modern black box, and the material for both the exterior cardboard and the paper manuals give the product a premium feel. Each lens comes with a certificate of approval, and a lens cloth, but the ‘made in China’ tag will mean most consumers will be immediately skeptical of the quality. The fact that the company is also entirely new to consumer lenses renders this certificate of approval somewhat redundant, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.
The build quality of the Kerlee is actually reassuringly sturdy and sleek. Its all-metal construction elevates it above Samyang’s primes, reminiscent of the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 lenses of yesteryear. It sits handsomely on the Canon 5d Mark III, and would be well balanced on the Nikon D810, and Pentax K1, although it might sit a little heavily on the Sony a7R II.
The depth of field scale is a beautiful touch. It feels a little narrow on the body of the lens, but is painted on cleanly and brightly, enhancing the look and feel of the overall package, and looks far more professional than Mitakon’s 35mm f/0.95 Speedmaster II for example.
The focus ring is precise, well weighted, and feels like satin. Everything is well damped, and provides just enough resistance to improve accuracy. The aperture ring doesn’t slip, and also feels quite secure. Best of all, users can de-click the aperture ring for video recording. If we go back to the Mitakon once again, which was entirely de-clicked, the Kerlee seems to make much more sense for still photography shooters, and is a joy to use as a result.
The filter thread and lens hood ring are made of metal, and while the lens cap is quite springy and tight, the lens hood fits the aesthetic and feel of the body, although it feels a little stiff and ungainly. The interior of the hood however is well flocked, in an attempt to prevent lens flare.
Regarding the lens connection, the mount is totally manual so there are no electronics. Nothing gets communicated to the camera body, and the Canon 5D Mark III had no focus confirmation with the Kerlee.
Arguably what matters the most for a lens like this is how it performs wide open. Carl Zeiss lenses aren’t all f/1.2, but most of them are extremely sharp wide open. Kerlee and other more budget third-party manufacturers often make fast glass, with the caveat that they only get sharp when stopped down a little.
In the corners, the Kerlee 35mm is extremely soft from f/1.2 to f/4, although it shows some improvement at f/2.8. At f/16 and f/22 we get diffraction and it becomes soft again. If you want to shoot landscapes with this lens, we’d recommend staying between f/5.6 to f/11.
For portraits, having sharp corners isn’t vital, but here at f/1.2 the lack of sharpness in the centre is quite noticeable. The Kerlee improves a little at f/1.4, but only really picks up at f/2.0. From f/2.8 to f/16 the centre are excellent, as one would hope.
This isn’t as big a deal breaker as it sounds, however. Many super fast primes are very soft in the centre, and the Kerlee is far from the worst that we’ve seen. In actual use shooting at f/1.2 was definitely acceptable, even though pixel peepers might have some small complaints.
However, the flare, coma, and fringing is where this lens predictably breaks down. It suffers horribly in contrast when flare is present, and images can quickly go downhill, even with the lens hood on. Chromatic aberrations are also extremely prevalent wide open, although many super fast primes also have this issue.
The Kerlee 35mm features 14 aperture blades with 11 elements in 10 groups, and the aperture is almost perfectly round. So indeed the bokeh balls are duly spherical, and the background pattern is generally smooth and unobstructive.
We were actually incredibly impressed with the Kerlee at f/1.2, and love how the final images look. Even when stopped down at f/4 the bokeh balls are quite round due to the 14 aperture blade design.
It must be said that while the actual design of the lens helps photographers with focusing, achieving maximum sharpness with f/1.2 is extremely difficult. Sony and Pentax shooters will have the advantage of using focus peaking for their lenses, while both Nikon and Canon users are going to have a much harder time. I had to use Live View to zoom in while using the 5D Mark III, which was hardly optimal.
The Kerlee 35mm f/1.2 is officially available at launch for US$629, although you can expect it to be available for less after some initial discounts and as time passes by. There isn’t much resale value, and by the time Kerlee issues an update, this first generation should be available for far less.
For the money however, Kerlee isn’t passing off a plasticky prime with loose fittings and subpar parts. We get the impression they really thought about making this as premium a product as possible, and nothing in the materials suggests that they cut many corners in the build.
While it’s fair to say that there are much better 35mm f/1.4 lenses available in the market – Nikon has their 35mm f/1.4 G, Canon has 35mm f/1.4 L II USM, and Pentax has the SMC Pentax-FA 31mm F1.8 AL – this is the only f/1.2 lens at this focal length. And as mentioned above, we were quite impressed with the bokeh character, and since many considering this lens will be buying it for the bokeh, it’s certainly worth looking at.
Having fast glass isn’t really important anymore in terms of shooting in low light, since max ISO ranges on DSLRs nowadays are so high, and realistically there isn’t much difference between f/1.4 and f/1.2 in terms of extra capability. Therefore don’t be under any illusions about the use of this – it’s a special, niche lens for photographers who already own a few staple classics.
This isn’t a lens for the landscape photographer, especially due to lens curvature, but it will be great for both environmental and close-up portraits. There are signs of ghosting, flaring, and chromatic aberration when shooting wide open, but all fast lenses suffer from this, and Kerlee’s debut is no different.
The Kerlee 35mm f/1.2 is an exciting mark of intent from a hitherto unknown name, and hopefully a sign that Chinese manufacturers are taking not only the technical aspects of their lenses seriously, but also the build and exterior. It’s definitely the most handsomely constructed Chinese lens we’ve seen yet, and also the most consistent.