The new NiSi 9mm f/2.8 lens for APS-C and Micro Four Thirds is perfectly imperfect
NiSi is a popular name when it comes to lens filters, but they’re still a pretty small brand when it comes to the lenses themselves. So far, they’ve only released one, a 15mm f/4 manual focus prime lens for Sony E mount cameras. Well, that’s changed today with the release of the new NiSi 9mm f/2.8 manual focus lens.
This one, though, isn’t a full-frame lens. It’s APS-C and it’s available for Fuji X, Sony E, Canon RF, Nikon Z and Micro Four Thirds mount cameras. I’ve been shooting with the Micro Four Thirds version for a few weeks now, so let’s take a look at what it can do and why I think “perfectly imperfect” is the best way to describe this lens.
Despite the short focal length, the NiSi 9mm f/2.8 is not a fisheye lens. It’s a standard rectilinear lens and offers the equivalent field of view on Micro Four Thirds to that of an 18mm lens on a full-frame system. This makes it ideal for things like travel, landscape and architectural photography but also potentially as a vlogging lens. After all, even though it’s manual focus, your arm never changes its length, so once you’ve got that focus dialled in, it never needs to change.
I’ve been using this lens with a variety of Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic including the Panasonic GH5, Panasonic G80/G85 and Panasonic GX80/85 for both stills and video and overall, it’s been a very fun lens to use. But let’s start back at the beginning.
The Specs and features
The NiSi 9mm f/2.8, as the name suggests, offers a 9mm focal length with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. In a world of f/1.2 and f/0.95 manual focus lenses for Micro Four Thirds, f/2.8 is currently about as wide as it gets for the most part. Being such a short and wide-angle lens, though, you’re only going to really get that shallow depth of field effect on very close subjects.
The minimum focus distance is a mere 20cm and the focus markings on the lens range from 0.2 metres up to 2 metres, after which we jump straight to infinity. The aperture ring goes from f/2.8 up to f/16 and it’s completely clickless, letting you get smooth transitions when using it to shoot video and switching from indoor to outdoor (or vice versa) settings.
Looking at the general specs, though, this is how they break down…
|14 elements in 12 groups
|Angle of view
|113° (100° on MFT)
|Min focus distance
|74 x 78mm
|Fuji X, Sony E, Canon RF, Nikon Z, Micro Four Thirds
Those of you who like to shoot in less than perfect weather conditions will also be pleased to know that it’s dust and weather sealed and there’s a rubber gasket around the lens mount to seal it against the camera body.
The lens is fully manual and there is no communication between camera and body. The aperture dial as mentioned is completely clickless, meaning that you can stop anywhere along the range or in between apertures for absolutely perfect exposure. For video, this is ideal but for stills, no communication means no EXIF data so you’ve really no idea what aperture you shot a given image when looking back at them a few days or weeks later unless you write everything down. This lack of communication and thus a lack of aperture info in the EVF can also make it difficult to spot when you’ve accidentally shifted the aperture while shooting, too. If you have real-time exposure preview enabled in your camera and happen to spot when things get randomly darker or lighter than expected, though, you can catch yourself.
It’s a moderately compact although not super tiny lens, measuring 74mm in diameter and 78mm in length. Despite this relatively small size, it’s pretty hefty, thanks to its all-metal construction, weighing in at 364g. I was hoping to give this lens a try on the XDynamics Evolve 2 (review here), but it’s a bit beyond their 200g maximum recommended weight limit for lenses. Here’s a size comparison against the Olympus 17mm f/1.8 – which is super tiny and weighs a mere 120g.
The lens comes with all of the usual extras. You get a front lens cap, a rear mount cap and a metal lens hood to prevent stray light from affecting your shot. But with a field of view of 113° on APS-C or 100° on Micro Four Thirds, avoiding light sources can be difficult sometimes – as you’ll see a little later, though, this lens handles flare extremely well.
Its minimum focus distance is only 20cm, allowing you to get some surreal close-ups on small subjects while still seeing a somewhat blurry background. It’s not going to turn it to mush and you can still make out shapes and objects in the background but it’s blurred enough to give some separation to highlight your main in-focus close-up subject while providing some environmental context.
Build and Handling
I’ve already touched on a couple of specific points above with regard to the build quality, but the lens features all-metal construction and you sure feel it. This thing’s solid as a rock. It balances extremely well with a slightly heavier body. I’m using the Micro Four Thirds version of the lens, and I tested it with the Panasonic GX80/85, the Panasonic G80/85 and the Panasonic GH5.
Mounted to the tiny little Panasonic GX80 (426g), it definitely feels a little front-heavy, although nowhere near as much as I was expecting. It’s not massively front-heavy. but when holding it up to take a shot, you do definitely have to support the lens rather than the camera body sometimes, but it’s certainly not uncomfortable.
The Panasonic G80 (505g) is essentially a GX80 in GH5-style body. It gives it that larger form factor with the microphone input and flippy-out LCD but doesn’t weigh quite as much as the GH5. With this camera, the centre of gravity between the lens and body just feels absolutely perfect for handheld shooting. There’s no lean towards the front or the back and it just feels great to hold.
On the Panasonic GH5 (725g), being a somewhat heavier body than the G80, you definitely feel that the body itself is the major factor in weight contribution. It’s not uncomfortable to handhold either, but I did find it that I had to pay more attention to where my fingers were relative to the focus ring to be able to adjust it quickly while shooting.
Site note: All of the photos shot using the NiSi 9mm f/2.8 in this review were shot using the Panasonic GH5.
I expect that for APS-C photographers, you should find it balances pretty well on most of the mirrorless options out there, except perhaps for the very lightest bodies where it might feel a little front-heavy.
For video, though, that handheld balance is largely irrelevant and this lens works rather well for video. Both the aperture and focus rings rotate extremely smoothly but hold very firm when just left alone. Gravity is not going to cause anything to shift here.
Whether perched on top of a tripod, slider or gimbal, it was very easy to balance. One potential issue you may have for video, though, is that if you’re planning to use a follow focus unit (or the follow focus motor on a gimbal), you might have a hard time attaching a 0.8 Mod focus ring to the lens. The grooves on the focus ring are very fine pitch, which is fine for your fingertips, but not so much for hard rubber rings like those typically included with gimbals that have focus motors.
If you’re more of a “set it and forget it” type of filmmaker – and let’s face it, with a lens this wide, once you’ve focused beyond two metres, the entire world is in focus, so you can be – then it’s ideal. It’s only really if you’re filming very close-up subjects that you might want that follow focus control.
There’s not really much to say about the performance. After all, it’s not an autofocus lens, and even as a manual focus lens, it has a very short focus distance range from its minimum focus distance of 20cm to 2 metres where it hits infinity. For anything more than 2 metres away, as I said above, set it and forget it. The only thing you need to adjust is your aperture or shutter speed as you need to change your exposure.
But there are a few things we can talk about, so while we’re on the subject of aperture, let’s talk about sharpness. The sharpness on this lens is… acceptable, at least on the GH5. It’s not got high-end levels of sharpness but it’s certainly not terrible, either.
Wide open, at f/2.8, it’s about as sharp as we’d expect from a lens at this level and once stopped down to around f/4 to f/5.6 it sharpens up throughout the frame quite nicely. Here’s an example of a shot wide open at f/2.8, 1/1000th of a second at ISO200 with no sharpening, clarity or any adjustments at all other than white balance and a slight contrast tweak applied in post.
If you click the image to zoom in, you can see that it’s sharp where it counts in the centre of the frame but it does start to drift a little towards the edges and corners. Now, your own needs might vary but for mine, this is plenty sharp enough. And, as mentioned you can always stop it down a little to improve sharpness if you’re not shooting subjects up close, too.
I don’t need that cold and clinical clarity that many lenses seem to aspire to these days. Sure, there are times when it’s needed but on a lens this wide that I plan to primarily use for video, not so much. To me, it’s a lens that gives the image a little character. Perfectly imperfect, if you like. This is, of course, a subjective thing, so only you can look at the results and decide if it’s worth it for you.
For an example with a bit more noise and detail, here’s a shot at 1/40th of a second, ISO200, wide open at f/2.8. You can see from the sharp parts of the image that the GH5’s IBIS was doing its job well and keeping everything steady, but the image also shows the near focus transition and how it affects the edges and corners.
One area where it did particularly impress me was in regard to flare control. I’m not saying it’s impossible to get lens flare with this lens, but even with the sun directly in the shot itself, the lens flare was extremely minimal, as you can see in this shot.
If you look really closely, there’s a teeny tiny rainbow of a flare just above and right of centre at the top of the trees but that’s basically it. On an extremely clear day with the sun high in the sky during summer – or if you shine a focused beam of light from a flashlight straight into the lens – then the flare can potentially make itself quite obvious but in general use I never found it to be a problem.
I haven’t done any nighttime astrophotography shots with this lens, as much as I would have loved to, as I live in Scotland, and I don’t remember the last time we had a night here without almost total cloud cover. And now that it’s starting to get cold and wet and windy here again, that test might have to wait until spring starts making a comeback.
When it comes to spherical distortions, pincushion distortion, etc. the lens keeps straight lines straight very well. No correction has been applied to these images and while we see the obvious tilt of perspective, everything that’s supposed to be a straight line is still mostly straight. Photographing a perfect grid, you’d be able to notice some very slight curvature. Photographing the real world, especially once you add perspective into the mix, there’s so little that it’s barely even noticeable.
The last couple of points when it comes to performance are chromatic aberration and vignetting. I’ve not applied any chromatic aberration or vignette correction to any of the photos in this review so that you can see how it performs for yourself. both of these aspects were quite minimal.
Of course, I’m using the Micro Four Thirds version of this lens, which doesn’t use the entire image circle of the lens. On the larger sensor of an APS-C camera, your experiences may differ slightly.
Overall, I found that shooting stills with this lens is a pleasant experience. Being such a wide lens, it works well as a walkabout lens both in woodland and wilderness environments of Scotland as well as capturing life in the city streets of Amsterdam.
While it’s not the clinically perfect lens that many companies seem to aim for these days, it targets the major pain points I’ve found in many of the wide manual focus lenses on the market these days. Straight lines are straight, flaring is minimal to non-existent, as are vignetting (at least on MFT) and chromatic aberration.
It’s not pin-sharp from corner to corner and edge to edge at all apertures and focus distances, but for a lens at this price point, you can’t really expect it to be. It is, however, sharp where it counts at the apertures and focus distances many of us will find ourselves shooting in. And where it does drift off slightly, it offers a pleasing appearance.
As I said above, it’s perfectly imperfect. For me, on Micro Four Thirds, at least. It hits all my needs while possessing a character of its own that I’ve missed with a lot of modern glass. I really hope that NiSi considers making a lighter-weight version of this lens with plastic housing, though. I’d love to be able to get this up in the air on a drone! I also hope they can figure out a way to add EXIF communications with the camera in a future iteration – at least for non-Canon RF mount versions.
The NiSi 9mm f/2.8 lens is available to buy now for $459 from the NiSi website.
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.