Insider interview: Andrew Chan of SLR Magic
while I was in Hong Kong I got the chance to talk to a guy I have wanted to meet for a while. Andrew Chan really is passionate about what he does and I got the chance to learn a little bit about that. I hope you enjoy this interview.
During my recent trip to Hong Kong I was very fortunate to get to sit down with Andrew Chan, the driving force behind SLR Magic. Over a coffee we got to talking about lenses, passion and what makes for a great lens. Andrew didn’t have a great deal of time as he is extremely busy, but he was kind enough to make some time for me.
This interview was face to face for a change, so this is transcribed from the recording I made of our time chatting. It is a little bit more informal that the usual format.
So, Andrew, could you tell me and the readers of JCH a little bit about SLR Magic?
“We were making adapters for cameras with really accurate flange distances so that if we say, adapt a Contax lens to a Canon camera or a Leica on to a Nikon, it would be like how it is on the original camera. It would be absolutely accurate.”
“But then because of that we found that by making them so accurate the costs involved were really high. Which didn’t work as we are based in Hong Kong and we have to make things that are priced for the Chinese market too. It got really difficult to do this, so we ended up just making the lenses instead, and trying to make them have the most accurate distances.”
For yourself, is this something that you have always wanted to do? Make lenses?
“Well, it is a hobby, which became more.”
Would you call yourself a bit of a lens geek?
So how did you end up doing this?
“Well, I modified many Leica and Contax lenses for myself, so I was kind of a hobbyist/enthusiast. Then later on it was getting harder to get lenses that I liked so I started working on lenses that don’t exist.”
Wow, that is pretty hardcore.
“When we started getting APS-C cameras I liked the size of the APS-C sensor, it is gives you a good professional quality whilst keeping a smaller size. But then the idea of a 50mm 0.95 on a full frame, but there was no 35mm 0.95, so I thought ‘let’s make it!’ We wanted to make lenses that were not on the market yet.”
What has been the biggest challenge so far for you?
“The biggest challenge is being accepted, because we are new. Many of the brands people use have been around for 100+ years. So we are new and that can be hard to gain acceptance.”
How have you found that people have taken to your ideas and products?
“It is slowly starting to change. Whenever we enter a new market we are going to have a hard time. When we entered M4/3 we pretty much got shouted out of the market, but now we are no longer the new ones, so people are saying better things. It takes time. The hardest part is not making the lenses but actually being accepted by the photo community.”
“We are trying to make special an unique lenses that are actually affordable, and that is a challenge. We listen to what people want. With the m4/3 we asked on forums what people want and they told us they want a wide angle which was fast, which doesn’t exist. So we made a 12mm 1.6, and made it macro. So it is a macro wide fast lens, not the easiest thing to fit together but we did it.”
If there was any one lens that you really want to make what would it be? One that you have not already made?
“That we haven’t made? Tough. We have just made the one that we really wanted to make, the full frame 50 0.95.”
Some people have said that it is a copy of a Leica Noctilux though. To what extent is the lens the same?
“It isn’t the same, none of it is. The 0.95 Nocti was a 8 element design. And this is a 12 element design. In a way this is the most complex 50mm regardless of the aperture. It cannot really be be a comparison. The more elements you have the more difficulty you are going to have with glare and reflections etc. But with more elements you can gain a sharper image. When we first started making prototypes we had a shorter design, much shorter, I forget how many elements. The image quality just wasn’t there. We showed to to a few people and they told us to up our game. It is a tough compromise to get the best image quality and still keep the price affordable. So we went back to the drawing board and got the design down. Once you have the performing lens, then you can find the market.”
What would you say is in store for the future of SLR magic?
“We wanted to make lenses for cameras and then I think about 3 years ago we made the 26 1.4 Toy lens for the M4/3 and Philip Bloom used it for a Turin Brakes video. And he praised the stepless aperture as being great for video, so we thought we might start looking into this market. Now we are making more cine lenses and a lot of the movie makers really accept our brand. They care for the image quality and the usability of the lenses. They don’t care if you are new or not, as long as you have something that performs.
So we are slowing moving into this market. We are putting gearing on some of our lenses now, so that they are more compatible, and adding really round apertures as this is what they want.”
What about the quality control and management for these lenses? I know it must be very hard.
“We try every single lens before we ship out, every single one. We know how the lens performs and we take great care to make sure that is is perfectly calibrated. This is not factory quality control, this is our own quality control. We have QC in the factory and QC in Hong Kong as well to make doubly sure that everything is fine. We check infinity, sharpness, centering, build and more to make sure that lenses are up to the standard that we want.
There were a lot of people attacking us for the M lenses which is what we started making. So we are scaling back on that now and concentrating more on the mirrorless lenses.”
“Early on a lot of people (in regards to the Leica lenses) said “oh those lenses are glued together” and so on. People should understand that it is not exactly glue that is used, it is more of a compound that is commonly used for making lenses, you will find it in almost all lenses that manufactured today (apart from Miyazaki lenses, curiously). So I didn’t really understand why people where saying these things, as you are supposed to use the compound in lens manufacture.”
“Now we have found with the mirroless users they are really happy with their lenses. They take pictures and send them to us to share what they have been doing with their lenses.We are happy that people are using our lenses.”
Thanks Andrew for chatting with me, I know you have a tight schedule, it was good of you to make time. It is really great to meet someone who is so passionate about what they do. I look forward to seeing what comes from SLR Magic in the future.
It was a real pleasure to meet Andrew. He is very very passionate about what he does and he has a wealth of knowledge about lenses and cameras. It was great to be able to chat with someone who really love making lenses just for the sake of making the best. Something you don’t see so much of nowadays. Lets hope that we will see some more interesting things from them in the future.