I have really enjoyed using my Sony NEX-5 camera, but one disappointment is the dearth of lenses available for Sony’s new “E-Mount” system. Although many have been promised, I know of just five native lenses for my camera. I recently purchased the first third-party E-Mount lens, a trick manual prime from SLR Magic in Hong Kong. It produces gorgeous portraits but is tricky to use and unsatisfying in construction, even at a low as-tested price of $150.
SLR Magic: A Portrait Prime
You might also want to read my Sony NEX-5 Camera Review
SLR Magic has gained a reputation among camera enthusiasts for their inexpensive lenses, most of which are amusing oddballs like their line of “toy” lenses. The company sells through eBay and ships directly from Hong Kong. Pricing is highly variable, so I paid 50% more than early adopters, but delivery was quick and the transaction was painless.
The first Sony E-Mount product from SLR Magic is this 35 mm (50 mm equivalent) prime lens. It is said to be a re-mount of a commercial closed-circuit TV system lens from some other Chinese producer, but the end result is much nicer than that would sound.
The SLR Magic 35mm is entirely manual but mounts directly to the NEX camera with no adapters. It is ultra fast, a claimed Æ’/1.7 with the aperture wide open, and focuses to just about 12 inches. The lens is really tiny, short and narrow, making the “mini SLR” NEX-5 look far less wide-eyed than with Sony’s lenses.
A fast, manual 50 mm-equivalent prime sounds like a portrait lens, and the soft optics really deliver the goods. Wide open, it vignettes like a toy camera and the corners are never in focus. But the effect is striking, lending itself to flattering portraits, macro images, and other specialty uses.
SLR Magic 35mm In the Flesh
I ordered my SLR Magic 35mm using eBay, and my offer of $10 below the then-current $139 asking price was accepted. It arrived quickly as a tiny parcel and came in a nice printed cardboard box.
The SLR Magic kit includes the lens itself along with a plastic body-side cap, screw-on metal lens cap, screw-on metal shade ring, and a bonus NEX camera body cap. My package also included a hard plastic NEX screen shield and lens cloth.
The lens feels solid in hand, with good weight, rubber grips, and vibrant black and white paint. There are no markings to exactly position the focus and aperture rings. But this is just as well, since the focus ring is somewhat sloppy, never returning exactly to the original position. The aperture ring is overly firm, and the blades look a bit rusty inside.
The lens attaches to the camera perfectly but lacks any spot to grip it thanks to a very narrow flange. I frequently have difficulty detaching the lens-body cap as well. The overall impression is one of promising yet compromised build quality.
Shooting With the SLR Magic
All these quibbles disappear when the lens is in use, however. It produces gorgeous results, and manual lens operation is a joy compared to the maze of menus required by Sony’s NEX firmware. With this lens attached, I spend more time experimenting with angle, aperture, and focus and much less tapping the buttons on the camera.
The SLR Magic lens is all about aperture. Wide open, focus can be tricky with about a centimeter difference between “too close” and “too far” in close shots. Choke it down a bit and depth of field becomes manageable, though much time is spent in Sony’s “MF Assist” screen zoom mode.
The latest NEX firmware includes “focus peaking” which appears to detect and highlight sharp contrast lines. I thought this would be a big help with the SLR Magic, but it hasn’t proven to be much use in practice. The NEX peaking is imprecise, still requiring MF Assist zooming, and is often incorrect as well. Plus, peaking is both useless and distracting when an auto-focus lens is attached.
The six-segment aperture produces delicious bokeh wide open and comes to an odd yet pleasing bow tie shape as it is closed. At Æ’/4 to 5.6, the lens gives an easy field of focus with just a hint of vignetting and blur in the corners. These mid-range shots are pleasingly retro and analog for a modern digital camera.
Forget about eliminating these artefacts entirely, though. The SLR Magic will never replace a full-range lens like Sony’s solid 18-55 mm kit tele-zoom. I find myself frequently swapping between these two lenses, leaving the Sony 16 mm pancake prime in the bag except for panoramas.
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You might also want to read my review of the Eye-Fi X2 Card
The SLR Magic 35mm E-Mount prime is an enjoyable yet imperfect lens. It often produces “magically delicious” images but can be frustrating to focus and swap. Although optically very fast, it’s not a quick lens to use, requiring a few seconds to focus and experiment for every shot.
The Sony 18-55 mm tele-zoom remains my favorite NEX lens for its flexibility. Given this, I would definitely buy the SLR Magic 35mm lens before Sony’s overly wide 16mm pancake prime. But the SLR Magic would not be a good choice as the only lens on a trip. It’s a fun and fairly cheap toy, not a real photographic tool.