The new optical industry
Bob Newman looks at why manufacturers from China can produce such interesting and unusual lenses
The online marketplace eBay is a wonderful thing. Without leaving your house, you can find interesting products from all over the world. Occasionally, I look at the site to see if I can find any interesting and unusual glass. Recently, there has been a plethora of extremely interesting lenses emanating from China. For instance, there is a Zhongyi Speedmaster 85mm f/1.2 and a Kerlee 35mm f/1.2 wideangle. Both lenses are available in Nikon mount, refuting the old saying that f/1.2 is impossible on the F-mount (something that was obvious anyway, since Nikon still sells its 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S lens). Zhongyi also manufactures some other very fast lenses, such as a 42.5mm f/1.2, a 50mm, 35mm, 25mm f/0.95 available for mirrorless cameras in APS-C and smaller formats, plus an 85mm f/2 at a very low price.
Curious about the performance of these lenses, I found some online reviews. Some of these were from bloggers, giving their opinions, while others were based on full-fledged laboratory tests. All came to the same general conclusion, that considering their extremely wide apertures, these lenses gave a good account of themselves.
So, the question is, how is it that these manufacturers can produce such ambitious lenses? I mean ambitious in an optical sense, as mechanically these lenses are far from ambitious with manual focus and nonautomatic diaphragms. However, optically they attempt to go where the major companies fear to tread.
There are two parts to this answer. The first lies in China’s development as a powerhouse of sub- contract manufacturing. Any component for almost any product can be sourced from China, and this includes high- quality lens elements. So, the country contains not one but many optical shops capable of grinding and polishing high- quality optical surfaces.
Shenzhen Dongzheng Optical Technology, the makers of the Kerlee lens, is one such company. These companies have been making lens assemblies for closed- circuit TVs and industrial cameras for years. Now they have added another element – the design of original lenses. The fact that these companies have the capability is not surprising. One of the reasons for China’s growth is that it has a very good education system, geared to training engineers and scientists. Thus, any Chinese company will generally find no shortage of well- educated technical staff.
The other element, which was not around when companies such as Zeiss and Nippon Kogaku made their names, is the availability of software for lens design and the computers on which to run it. These days, any desktop personal computer has the computational capacity to design a complex lens in a few hours, and software packages such as Zemax and OSLO provide the required codes. Couple these with a well- educated workforce and production capability and you can produce lenses such as those mentioned.
Kerlee claimed that its 35mm f/1.2 lens (pictured below and bottom) was the ‘fastest 35mm designed for full-frame SLR cameras’ when it was launched last year