Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N Lens Review

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Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N @ f/1.9 1/160s at ISO 50 on a [Prototype] PhaseOne IQ260

The Mamiya M645 80mm f/1.9 N lens is an absolute hidden gem in the Mamiya M645 series of lenses. This is in no way a rare lens like the hallowed Mamiya M645 APO’s (Mamiya 200mm f/2.8 APO (review coming soon), Mamiya 300mm f/2.8 APO, and the Mamiya 500mm f/4.5 APO (review coming very soon)), in fact it is a very common, though often dismissed lens which offers some very unique characteristics for a medium format lens. This lens is often termed the “Noctilux” of medium format lenses, and this is an apt comparison in a number of respects. The Noctilux is lauded as the fastest lens in the Leica M series line up (as well as the world), as a new standard in image quality at wide apertures, and being a king of bokeh (amongst other things). The Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N lens can have many of these same epithets applied to it as well, it is the fastest lens in medium format (barring something I don’t know about), it is exceedingly sharp, even wide open. Interestingly on a full-frame 645 piece of film (or digital sensor) the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9N at f/1.9 has almost the same (if not identical) depth-of-field  to the Leica M Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 on a full-frame 35mm format camera. Of course there are a few ways of judging this and, when venturing into the world of digital sensors others factors are brought in when calculating the Circle-of-Confusion to determine DoF; these include the pixel pitch of the digital sensor as well as any anticipated effect of AA filters and so on. That being said there is one critical difference between these two lenses, which are leaders in their class: their price. Of course we all know the Leica Noctilux was released as a $10,000.00 USD lens and has now climbed to over $12,000.00 USD while the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N comes in at around $200 dollars. These are two vastly different numbers. Surprisingly when looking for this article, it was very difficult to find the 80mm f/1.9 N version of this lens with the few versions available being the 80mm f/1.9 C which we will also discuss later. When shooting for this article (admittedly it was about 6-8 months ago) I was lucky enough to have a willing model, and a Prototype PhaseOne IQ260 mounted on a PhaseOne / Mamiya 645DF+ and my Mamiya 645AFD to run some 120mm film through. If you read no further, walk away from this executive summary knowing these few things: this lens is optically awesome, it is comparatively and relatively inexpensive, and you should probably buy one.

Also, a special shout out goes to Digital Transitions for letting me shoot a then prototype of the PhaseOne IQ260 with this lens.

Image 1

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Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N @ f/1.9 1/160s at ISO 50 on a [Prototype] PhaseOne IQ260

When taking pictures with the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 you have to consider a number of things, and at-least to me, forced me to think differently. You have to consider the models positioning and where you want the image to be focusing, because with DoF this shallow. Especially if you are shooting fairly close, your focus point is going to be readily apparent in the final image and should be considered from a technical and artistic perspective to decide what you want to achieve. One of the more difficult things to conceptually grasp, and that a number of my images in this set fail to do, is to understand how the FoV and the focus point (plane) are linked. By this I mean, if you look at the above image, the first thing you are struck with is that you are being drawn to the models left eye, dragging you deep into the picture. This was the intention and it was achieved. However, the failure in this image is to consider the rest of the focal plane. If you think of focus as a point like we sometimes do (or at-least I generally do since thats all I need to for most of my work) then you are not concerned with the focal plane. As we know, when focusing it is not on a point but a plane and DoF address how big this plane is. With a shallow DoF (possibly especially with) and close focus this can become a greater issue especially if you are not perfectly centered with the model straight at you in one plane. As you see the failure in this image is that, Though the majority of this image is beautifully out of focus except for the point of critical focus (the eye), there are some other places where the focal plane intersects the face again, most notably in the hair and can be distracting and was very difficult to attempt to mask out in Photoshop, so I gave up on trying to do this. I like the above image, though this point can become a bigger issue in some situations (shown below). Of course you also have to ensure your focus is spot on so good camera work is required you have to judge your movements, your focus spot, your subjects movements, and your hands ability to manual focus in-sync with these other factors all at once and let these four things exist in harmony because without them being exactly timed you will not succeed in achieving critical focus.

Image 2

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Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N @ f/1.9 1/160s at ISO 50 on a [Prototype] PhaseOne IQ260

In Image 1 above, there were enough redeeming characteristics to make its failures not the focus of the image, and consequently not totally ruining any potential for the image. However in this image, there are again, some of the same failures present and a few others. To knock the obvious ones out of the way immediately, critical focus on the face was missed, its somewhere around the bridge of the nose and the eyes where intended but it was not a direct hit. Either Me and the camera or the model moved slightly which is all thats needed to throw you off with this lens. However, if we pretend that the image was focused correctly, which again it kind of is but also kind of isn’t. We see a few other things distracting in the composition. Because of the angle of the camera to the model and the angle of the model’s face it is distorting her face and consequently not a good image. Further and most salient to our discussion is again, the focal plane. Since we know where the intended we can again see the issue in the hair. There is a plane through which focus passes where the hair is in focus with out of focus hair all around it. This creates a very confusing image to look at which confuses the eye as it tries to get a grasp of the image. This was one of the key challenges that I faced when using this lens and it is something unique to shallow depth of field work. Using a wide-aperture lens on medium format is something wholly different then using a 50mm f/1.4 or an 85mm f/1.4 on a DSLR since the mode of thinking when using a MFDB vs. DSLR is something which is wholly disparate in many respects.

Image 3

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Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N @ f/1.9 1/200s at ISO 50 on a [Prototype] PhaseOne IQ260

When all of the stars aline this is an absolutely killer lens. With a close focus distance of .7m (27.56″) this lens lens you get decently close to your subject and allows for a very intimate feel to the images when the lenses shallow depth of field capabilities are used to their fullest ability. In the image above all of these things come together. Critical focus was achieved (near cheek / eye) and the focal plane was placed correctly so that you cannot see where the plane intersects the models hair, though if you look closely you will spot it….it is well hidden. We have noted in some of the above images the superb optics of this lens which render and incredibly sharp image and can further see this here. We see excellent sharpness and detail, pleasing bokeh an no chromatic-abberations like we might expect to see in a lens such as this. Of course, if you use any lens improperly it will have things like CA appear, though when used correctly it’s non-existant in this lens. This multi-coated N-version lens (there were two versions C and N, which we will discuss in our conclusion) provides shockingly good performance.

Image 4

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Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N @ f/1.9 1/200s at ISO 50 on a [Prototype] PhaseOne IQ260

Now we will engage in a brief (and incomplete) history of Mamiya M645 lenses compiled from varying sources to understand the difference between C, S, N, and A (?) lenses from Mamiya’s legacy lenses. As far as we are concerned in this discussion Mamiya medium format lenses began with the “C” series (there were earlier cameras but those don’t matter here). These are the first lenses released and they were and are very capable lenses. They feature all-metal construction and are as sturdy as anything out there. However, like any lens line-up they had some weak spots; one notable example was the 35mm f/3.5 C which possibly either did not have the best quality control, manufacturing, or optical design. It should be noted that even today,the 35mm f/3.5 D lens is apparently hit or miss between a quality copy and a dud. The M645 mount lenses were introduced in 1975 when the M645 camera was released. Sometime after their release, re-formulated “S” series lenses were released (possibly in 1985 with the release of the Mamiya 645 Super?) which updated the weaker lenses in the line, though “S” versions do not exist for all of the lenses (such as the 35mm f/3.5). After the “C” lenses, come the “N” series lenses. I believe that the “N” series lenses were launched with the release of the Mamiya 645 Pro in 1993 (Hooray I was born). The “N” lenses seem to have proffered the biggest changes in the M645 mount lens line up. They were modern, their coatings shown the improvements of 20 years, their optics were improved, though many of the optical formulas stayed the same it is understood that the specific optical elements changed between the lenses. For example, the 300mm f/5.6 C lens became the 300mm f/5.6 N ULD introducing a ultra-low dispersion lens element though the optical formula remained unchanged (correct me if I am wrong, this is what I gathered from research). By all accounts, it seems that the N seem to be the most ideal for use with digital sensors since they offer the most “modern” coatings available in a M645 mount lens. The “N” series lenses also changed the aesthetics of the lens slightly, they become sleeker (and frankly better looking) and remain mostly metal though their aperture rings become plastic. Though in real life this is not something you would notice since they still click firmly and confidently. I own the 55mm f/2.8 N, 80mm f/1.9 N, 150mm f/3.5 N and the 150mm f/2.8 N (reviews coming soon) and they are all shockingly superb.

Now, some of the most impressive and unique lenses in the Mamiya line up are their APO or apochromatic lenses. These are premium telephoto lenses which offer relatively fast apertures and superior optics. The lenses (as mentioned above) are the 200mm f/2.8 APO, 300mm f/2.8 APO, and the 500mm f/4.5 APO. Some say these are the lenses with the designation “A”. However, I have read of instances where the 150mm f/2.8 lenses will say “A” on them. I have one theory about this, tho it is by no way a confirmed answer. In discussions with various people both online and in real life (I do do that occasionally) it seems that the 150mm f/2.8 lens was designed at the same time and by the same people as the 200mm, 300mm, and 500mm APO lenses. The 150mm f/2.8 N as well as the newer autofocus 150mm f/2.8 D lenses are possibly two of the sharpest lenses in the Mamiya system and this rumor would not be surprising to me. Its possible that the 150mm f/2.8 may harness an apochromatic element or simply have been considered by Mamiya as in the same lens line as the APO’s which gave it its designation even though it is not a white barreled lens.

Image 5

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Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 on Mamiya 645AFD with Ilford Pan F Plus ISO 50 film

This lens is also a very strong performer on film. Considering how well it holds up to a 60mp sensor (as well as 80mp though not shown here) we can assume its also an excellent lens on film. This assumption is correct, though frankly my use of this lens with film has been far more conservative in terms of composition considering how I know that there are a litany of things which could go wrong (discussed above) to cause the image to be less then successful and frankly its much more comforting shooting digital where I can immediately check focus (especially with PhaseOne IQ series backs like my IQ180 or the IQ260 used here).

One thing which should be noted is that this lens generally is not sold with a lens hood. When it is it is a Mamiya rubber lens hood which doesn’t seem satisfactory to me at all. There are a few solutions available for this problem. There are a number of companies that make screw in lens hoods for varying filter sizes. Schneider-Kreuznach’s B+W makes one that matches the anodizing of the metal of the Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N almost perfectly though their “standard” length lens hood is slightly too long and creates a small vignette in the corners of the image since of course, it is blocking them. This can be rectified by filing it down a bit and then it would be perfect. However, there are also a number of companies, which you can find through Amazon which sell screw-in lens hoods and their “standard length” metal lens hood does the job and is the proper length.

In conclusion this is a very wonderful special purpose / portraiture lens which should not be dismissed when looking to create your line-up of lenses even when shooting a MFDB since as we have seen this humble lens, which costs under $500.00 USD and is from the 20th century can perform exceptionally well on the most demanding modern $40,000.00 USD+ medium format digital backs. When you consider the difficulties I experienced when shooting this lens, there are a number of things which might make you shy away from it; simply put it is difficult to use. However if you use it properly and develop good technique it can deliver some absolutely stunning images.

5 Responses to Mamiya 80mm f/1.9 N Lens Review

  • Stefan Steib says:

    I have one and I love it. one of my best lenses. Indeed a hidden gem. BTW we recently did a comparison with an Aptus 8 – first using the new 2,8/80mmLS and then the “old” 1,9/80mm. After shooting we switched back and forth in Capture One in 100% view and there was only a tiny difference in the outer borders with a split of maybe a hair advantage for the New 80mmLS. THAT was impressive.
    I have to admit I probably have a very good copy, but I bought mine for around 150€ on Ebay…… :-)
    There will be a Comparison in german DIGIT! Magazine issue 5 (will come out Sept.27th) comparing the 1,9/80mm with several other Portraitlenses used on a Canon 5D MK3 by a Mirex and a prototype RB/RZ Hartblei adapter.
    Other contendants will be Canon 1,2/85mm, Canon TSE 2,8/90mm, Zeiss 2.0/135mm apo, Zeiss Superspeed CP2 1,5/85mm, Canon 2,0/135mm, 645 Mamiya 4,0/145 Soft, RB Mamiya 3,5/150mm Soft and RZ Mamiya 4,0/140mm Macro.

    Greetings from Germany
    Stefan

  • Peter Robinson says:

    A wider range of subjects might have better represented the lens.

    Personally, I hated it and sold it again pretty quickly. The bokeh wide open is awful.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ridgeway-photographer/7519458354

  • Pingback: Field Report: Mamiya 300mm f/2.8 APO and Mamiya 500mm f/4.5 APO Lenses in Costa Rica | Brian Hirschfeld Photography

  • Tom Findahl says:

    The Ilford pan F plus is massive overdeveloped by several minutes. No shadow details and no details in the highlights.

    • @Tom you are completely correct, where would you recommend sending it? I haven’t found someplace that can competently develop low ISO films, which I am currently getting into more and more.

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