I recently replaced my Fuji X100v with a Sony A7iii that was retired from work. Not long later the manufacturers of the Funleader 18mm f/8 pancake lens got in touch asking if I might like to review it. I didn’t really have any intention of reviewing Sony mount lenses – there’s plenty of people out there doing it already – but I couldn’t help being intrigued to try this lens.
I was intrigued by it when they launched it on Kickstarter too, but mostly for the fact that I didn’t use the works Sonys for pleasure, I didn’t bite the bullet. We have an 18mm Zeiss Batis lens at work too so we didn’t need a lens of this field of view. And that’s not to mention the fact that something being advertised as “not a lens for high-quality optical performance” and “like using a Lomo camera which puts more emphasis on creation rather than optical effect” doesn’t really fit a very large percentage of my work photography.
But, those who know me well will know that those sorts of words used in marketing guff are just the sort that pique my interest for my hobby. I’m not necessarily driven to create images that are whacky for the sake of whacky for myself, but I do like kit that doesn’t fit the convention of just trying to follow the path of bigger, better, sharper, faster, etc.
More specifically, even with lenses that I’m not sure fit my creative goals, I like digging into them to see what others might be able to achieve. Case in point, the Meyer 100mm and 30mm I’ve recently reviewed. Both lenses gave me a lot of enjoyment through the process of discovering their optical traits for the sake of a review.
The Funleader 18mm f/8 is a little different to those lenses though. For a start, unlike the Meyers which approach a £1000 each, the Funleader is only around £100. This changes the playing field slightly. A lens this cheap doesn’t need to sell itself so much on enticing optical traits. For the money, it could just be picked up with little more mental commitment to it than as a fancy body cap that offers a bit of fun photography once in a while. In fact, I suspect that’s pretty much the target audience… but I still wanted to see what I could get out of it creatively.
The Funleader 18mm f/8
The Funleader 18mm f/8 is about as simple as lenses come. It doesn’t focus, it’s just fixed at its hyperfocal distance of what looks to be about 2m to obtain a claimed 0.8m to infinity depth of field.
It also doesn’t allow the user to change the aperture. It’s just fixed at f/8. In fact, it is basically a body cap with an optic stuck in the middle.
To be fair to it, whilst it doesn’t have anything in the way of mechanics to judge the build quality on, the Funleader 18mm f/8 does feel pretty solid. It’s made out of aluminium and feels well machined. My only criticism of it I suppose is the lightly garish branding on the front. Though it should be said it’s not nearly as garish as the recent Pergear 10mm apsc lens (actually, that link takes you too a review of the prototype which has nothing on the front – but look it up on google and you’ll see how to really make a lens ugly).
Funleader 18mm f/8 Optics
Whilst it does have an apparently multi-coated optic made of 6 elements in 5 groups, which on paper could make it sound quite fancy for what it is, it really isn’t. As they say themselves, the Funleader 18mm f/8 is “not a lens for high-quality optical performance”.
So what does this mean in practice. Well, to begin with – the first thing I noticed – it vignette excessively. It is also massively lacking in contrast. The result of this is that images straight out of camera look soft, undefined, washed out and very much darker into the corners.
It also suffers veiling flare too which results in images looking even more washed out. And then there’s the distortion, and ghosting, and the fact that it gets a lot softer into the corners too – not that you can often really see the corners…
And this is where I think it really departs from the Meyer lenses I’ve tried recently. When using those lenses, I could see straight away their optical appeal. Both have stand out optical traits that I was able to see might inspire someone to use them for the way they render images.
The Funleader 18mm f/8 doesn’t do it for me in the same way – the images straight out of camera feel the opposite. They’re flat, mushy, and a little dull. In short, in their own right, I found them a little uninspiring. Of course, this isn’t to say that the SOOC look the lens produces might not appeal to some people, it just didn’t to me. Not on digital at least – this sort of optical rendering is much more suited to film photography… unfortunately, Sony don’t make an E-Mount film camera…
But, that’s not to entirely throw the baby out with the bathwater. Whilst I’m not keen on what this lens does straight out of camera, the comment in the original marketing guff about it being like a Lomo lens did inspire some specific thinking.
Pretty much as soon as Funleader offered me a lens to review I had an idea how I wanted to do with it. I have in the past had a couple of great snapshots out of lenses with this sort of focal length. One of those lenses was attached to a Lomography LC-Wide with its 17mm lens. If this Funleader 18mm f/8 is being touted as “like using a Lomo camera which puts more emphasis on creation rather than optical effect”, could it provide me with something of the fun I had with that camera but on a digital body…?
The Fuleader 18mm f/8 sealed the deal within a few shots of my experiments with it – even the little previews on the back of the camera looked a little flat and uninspiring. To solve this issue – with some of my favourite Lomo LC-Wide images in my head – I switched the camera into black & white and banged the contrast to full.
I then went out shooting… and you know what, I did find myself inspired! Looking at the high contrast black & white images on the screen of the camera, I could now more easily see the lens’s potential. In fact, it looked as though with a bit of post process to hide its optical shortcomings, I could get something quite interesting out of this lens!
And that was just the images. The user experience very quickly became very appealing to me. Being able to just point and shoot without thinking about focusing or depth of field or what aperture I’m shooting is loads of fun. What’s in focus? Basically everything – I could shoot just thinking about composition, which is something I find very freeing and enjoyable!
I must admit, I probably would have appreciated a close-focus option to go with the hyperfocal option, but even that I just worked around. I’m used to shooting rangefinders, so committing to the idea that I couldn’t focus on anything much less than a meter away wasn’t a big leap.
The Funleader 18mm f/8 is also tiny on the Sony, making it feel more like carrying the smaller cameras I prefer. These Sonys only ever otherwise feel like this to me with the little 35mm f/2.8 lens attached.
Add to that the flappy screen, and I was able to remove the need to guess framing or get myself into weird positions to look through the viewfinder. I enjoyed that process when I was shooting the LC-Wide, but not having to rely on serendipity was more enjoyable still.
With ultra-wide lenses, framing is a lot about depth and leading lines. It’s easy to get wrong, but much easier to get right when you can see the final image on a flappy screen rather than trying to get your eye to a viewfinder. Because of this, and how quick the Sony is, I was able to make snap judgements about images I wanted to get, and just get them with zero faff.
During one short covid-lockdown walk to the pharmacy, to the office to check the post, and a different way home and I got myself 12 keepers. I also had that photography buzz that I so desperately crave but rarely get at the moment. Very satisfying – especially during lockdown.
Of course, me being me, I still shot the images in RAW, and then had to deal with them appearing in Lightroom in their dull, flat, lifeless colour, SOOC form. A quick select all -> auto-sync on -> black & white -> loads of contrast -> bump to the clarity and sharpness, and even (unusually for me) some artificial grain to hide the remaining slightly unattractive digital softness, and there I was with some images I really liked again.
Straight out of camera vs. high contrast black & white conversion
I didn’t even find myself limited by the f/8 aperture. I have the Sony top out at 12,800 ISO in auto mode, I came up against that limitation once, and still took the photo. I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out, but with a boost to the exposure in lightroom, I got this:
12,800ISO HA! If I’m going for a gritty look, it’s not like that extra noise makes much odds – especially with this lens which is already soft anyway!
Something I think is worth noting in terms of how the character of the Funleader 18mm f/8 impacts on the end result is the heavy vignette. It’s not as noticable before processing the images, but if you boost the contrast to the point that the flat, washed-out look goes away, you end up very much enhancing the vignette.
When shooting subject matter that is naturally nicely framed by a vignette, this doesn’t matter so much…
…but if you include the sky in the frame, it can look quite heavy. Of course, more post processing could be applied to solve this issue.
And sometimes, just sometimes that lower contrast look inherent to to glass can have a positive impact. In this next image the lower contrast has given the light around the building a bit of glow which has taken some harshness out of the highlights a bit I think.
Here in this next image again, I think the lower contrast lens has paid dividends in the black and white conversion too – I guess this is why some people like low contrast glass for black and white digital photography – the tonality here just felt right with very little postprocess effort.
Looking at the I created with the Funleader 18mm f/8 (and a dash of Lightroom) made me think about the times I used to struggle with post process – I mentioned this in the article I published the other week. I used to process the crap out of images to the point that it didn’t matter what lens I’d shot the photos with – when working like that with esoteric glass that had been purchased for its unique character traits, it just felt like a bit of a travesty to over-process.
With the Funleader 18mm f/8, I found the reverse to be true – it’s cheap and not really designed or likely bought with optical qualities in mind, so what does it matter if I heavily post process the images…?
Thinking this made me wonder how many people have produced images that look like this that have been shot with much more expensive and more objectively perfect glass? Of course, it’s useful to have the much more perfect glass if your intention is to use it for a wider range of subject matter. There is no way I could get away with using the Funleader 18mm f/8 in place of my Batis lens for interior work for eg. But equally, the Batis would be total overkill for producing images like I have here. It’s much bigger (albeit still quite small for what it is), and its optical qualities would bring little advantage if I were to post process images to this degree.
In short, it’s the size and carefree approach to shooting that the Funleader 18mm f/8 brings to the table. Yes you have to post process your images for them not to look a bit soft and washed out, but that’s the compromise here. It’s ~£100, you’re not buying optical quality, Funleader are quite open about that. What you’re buying is a very small, cheap optic in a cheap (albeit solid feeling) housing that – given a bit of creativity – can create interesting photos. And in that sense, what is there to argue with…? I’m keeping mine!