Originally written for the 35mmc website.
At some point last week, I saw Hamish’s tantalising pictures on social media of ten boxes containing the new 7Artisans, 50mm lenses that he had for sale. It’s a lens that’s been causing quite a stir since its launch, due to the winning formula of being an M-mount 50mm, superfast and a divorce cheaper than buying the Leica equivalent.
I’d bought my Leica M6 about 14 months ago and back when I still remembered how to use my Canon dSLR, a 35mm f/1.4L rarely left it. So when I bought the Leica, knowing I’d probably only afford to own one lens for it, I pushed the boat out and bought a near-mint 35mm Summicron-M ASPH, satisfied that the focal length was my favourite. I wrote at the time about my desire to simplify and to try to limit the almost random variety in my photographic output and all in all, it’s been pretty successful. This pared down kit of one camera and lens, coupled with a limited range of film stocks means that my Flickr stream looks a whole lot more coherent and consistent.
I’ve learned lot from this simplicity, but the idea of adding a 50mm that’s a couple of stops faster than the Summicron and a decimal place cheaper seemed too good to miss.
I’d exchanged a few messages with Hamish when he bought his personal copy and liked what I heard. I didn’t take the plunge immediately as stock at the Chinese eBay sellers had been up and down. It appeared that as soon as they arrived, they’d be gone like hot cakes. Also, buying direct from China meant possible import taxes and the inevitable concerns that if the lens proved to be duff, it might be difficult, not to mention expensive and time consuming, to ship back around the world. Buying one from 60 miles away felt a little more reassuring.
And so I placed an order on 35mmc and before I’d even had time for any parcel stress, I was tearing open the packaging to have a look at the lens and make up my own mind. You can see videos of people taking theirs out of the box elsewhere (I never got the ‘unboxing video’ phenomenon), but suffice to say, the quality of the finish and the glass look great. The focus is smooth and nicely damped, with a satisfying amount of resistance. There’s no backlash at either end of its travel.
I wasn’t sure about the clickless aperture ring at first, but after a day using it, decided that I actually prefer it to the Leica lens. What takes more getting used to is that the stops are not equidistant from each other. In fact, at the smaller end of the aperture scale, there’s not even room to print the f/11 mark on the lens, so close are the stops.
The day after the lens arrived, I’d planned to go to Oxford to take in the PhotoOxford shows, the Truck Store record shop and Jim Sterling’s Florey building. As I walked between the pins dropped in my GoogleMap, I was entertained by the huge number of tourists who seemed to be taking pictures of themselves rather than the historical stuff that had presumably drawn them to the city in the first place.
Some were straightforward selfies, perhaps with a dreaming spire or two in the background, while others were more advanced usies*; a selfie where one person holds the camera, but photographs themselves and their buddies arranged in echelon. Most entertaining of all are those videoing themselves while awkwardly walking through the crowded streets, with or without the aid of a cumbersome stick.
What do folks do with all of these pictures? What motivates them to spend so much time preparing for them and then to pout, pose and generally pretend for the snap? Is there a parallel version of 35mmc for the selfie? Anyone for ‘#5FramesWith… Myself’?
Anyway, I blitzed through most of a roll of FP4+ pretty quickly, enjoying how the lens felt in use. I tried to make the most of the 7 Artisans’s party trick and shoot as wide open as I could, although on a bright day and with only 1/1000s top speed, there weren’t too many opportunities to check out the bokeh!
The 35mm lens coupled with my 0.85x viewfinder means that the image fills the frame. I had to remind myself when using the 50 that the frame-lines were actually useful and set in from the edges of my field of view. It gave me the opportunity to practice the technique that I’d heard people talk about before whereby you can see people entering the frame from beyond the frame-lines. Like this:
Later in the roll I shot some rather dull tests to check out the performance and focusing accuracy at various apertures, and I’ll spare you all but this pair. As I’d read in other people’s tests, f/1.1 gives a soft, dreamy look, but by f/2 that look has gone:
Soft and dreamy is sometimes useful of course – frame 36 is junior and Mum having a lazy Sunday morning, while I headed off for the garage to process this roll.
So in summary, using the 7 Artisans lens was just as satisfying as my Summicron, and given the vagaries of my processing and scanning techniques, the results are perfectly fine. It does produce pictures with a slightly ‘old-school’ look, especially when shot wide open, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and completely expected from a lens that can trace its lineage back to an old design (Sonnar apparently). Most of us shoot film for the quirks it offers up, right?
Vignetting certainly wasn’t too intrusive in use (I ignore lens test shots of white walls) and the bokeh is pretty attractive to my eye. The only thing that I wasn’t so happy with was the barrel distortion, but again, in practical situations such as this first roll, I only really see it in one picture.
As I shoot more with it, I’ll post them up on either my blog, Twitter or Flickr