Two weeks ago, New York-based Lomography launched a Kickstarter to raise money to manufacture modern versions of the 19th century Petzval portrait lens for use with DSLRs. The Lomography Petzval lens takes its design and engineering inspiration from a 1840s lens that revolutionized portrait photography with a then-unheard of aperture of f/3.7. To achieve that speed, the hefty brass lens was designed to have a fairly narrow field of view due to a high field curvature, meaning that only a small portion of the entire frame could be in focus. That look--a very sharp center focus surrounded by visually distinct vignetting and bokeh--is something that Lomography is touting as a prized feature of its new Petzval lenses, and there's no doubt that the portraits taken by these lenses stand out.
But the new Petzval lens also costs $400. While that isn't on the high-end of specialty lens prices, it is a hefty investment considering plenty of other standard lenses you can buy with that budget. After sitting on the Kickstarter pledge for a few days, I decided to back out. That decision was also prompted by a reader who pointed me in the direction of a cheap lens for NEX cameras that he claimed could produce a similar effect. And by cheap we're talking about $25, shipped. That sounded unbelievable. Given that my Sony NEX camera has taken a back seat to my full-frame 6D, it was about time to have fun with it again.
This is the Fujian 35mm f/1.7 C-mount lens. It's a cheap lens made in China for use in, of all things, CCTV security cameras. The C-mount is just a male screw thread about 1-inch in diameter, used in old 16mm cameras, CCTV cameras, and even laboratory equipment. The small size of the mount makes it suitable for adapting to micro four-thirds and NEX cameras without much vignetting (more on NEX than m4/3), and these lenses sold on eBay regularly come with mFT or E-mount adapters. I bought mine on eBay for $25 with an E-mount adapter and two small 5mm macro extenders. As it turns out, a similar lens is also sold by a company called SLR Magic, but costing $150. Fujian 35mm advocates have called these out as being basically the same lens, so opt for the $25 import instead of the rebranded/modified one. What you're paying for with SLR Magic's lens is quality control and a native mount.
Mounting the lens is a cinch--there's not much hardware here. You simply screw the lens onto either the adapter plate or the macro extenders, and then click that plate into the NEX camera body like any other E-mount lens. There are no electronics built-in, but you do get two grippy plastic rings for focus and aperture. The rings are labelled with focal distance and aperture number, but they're not aligned and there are no markings on the lens to show you what setting you're actually at. It's basically all trial and error with this lens when stopping up from f/1.7 all the way to f/16. Still, the metal lens is solidly-enough built and easy to remove from the camera.
But how about the photos?