As a photographer with poor eyesight rangefinder cameras are one of the only ways I can consistently nail focus when shooting at wide apertures. Having tried SLR, all kinds of EVF and split prism options I don’t think anything comes close to the efficiency and speed of the Leica M system.
One of my first rangefinder lenses was the 50mm f0.95 Noctilux, which offers one of the most extreme light gathering apertures available to commercial photographers. I used this lens for most of my earliest work, including all of my first Fashion assignments. The fast pace of the catwalks paired with the practice through street photography meant that the Noctilux offered me almost a crash course in rangefinder focusing, with little room for error. It is a legendary lens, with a unique signature, and is as much a personal statement as it is an artistic tool.
However the major drawback to the Noctilux, the one that prevents even the wealthiest of Leica photographers from using one, is the price tag. For a system renowned for being the most precise at focusing wide open its widest lens is unreachable to most, which truly is a shame.
Recently however, there has been an interesting development in the world of rangefinder lenses, with the introduction from 7artisans, a Chinese manufacturer, of their fully rangefinder coupled series of lenses; the first of which was a 50mm f/1.1. This is close enough to the 0.95 of the Noctilux that many photographers were hoping that this could be a serious contender, perhaps even a rival, at an absurdly low price. With the Leica 50mm Noctilux coming in at around £8090 new, and the 7artisans at £275 (the price I picked mine up for + vat & import duty) the benefits of the 7artisans lens seem clear. Even if it provides only 10% of the quality, it does so at 3.3% of the cost.
The purpose of most reviews of this lens are to determine whether or not it offers that 10%, or perhaps more. My opinion is that the 7artisans is it’s own lens, with its own signature and applications/purpose, which I will discuss.
Preconceptions and Hopes
I bought my copy of the 7artisans with a few preconceptions and hopes in mind. I ordered as soon as one became available, and it arrived a week or so later. Based on what I’d initially read I was optimistic (rare, as anyone who knows me will attest). I knew it was a Sonnar lens design, which is a look I am fond of based on my time with the RX1R and more recently with the Zeiss C Sonnar. I also liked that it would offer me a more traditional close focus distance of 0.7m, rather than the 0.9m and 1m from the C Sonnar and Noctilux respectively. I knew that it would have a sturdy build structure, and would be simple to calibrate to my M10.
My major hope was an ambitious one: I wanted to use this lens as an excuse to sell my Noctilux.
I have an almost sentimental attachment to my Noctilux. It was the lens I learned rangefinder photography on, and its signature is distinct; I love the way it makes my images look, almost effortlessly special, even when the composition or subject aren’t too interesting. After using the lens for so long it would be very difficult for me to part with it, and my reasoning for wanting to sell it seems increasingly boring.
The Noctilux is heavy which causes issues when I want to use it alongside other options whilst trying to minimise weight. There’s also the fact that if I sold it the money from that sale would cover expenses for things like travel, which I’ve wanted to do more of recently. It isn’t a lens I use as excessively as I used to, so it wouldn’t be missed massively for its low light capabilities or signature. My composition has improved and I shoot less in low-light than I used to, so the Noctilux is an unnecessary luxury. Nevertheless, I feel like I would regret selling the Noctilux, and need to have something to replace it even if that replacement is a mental rather than practical one.
A comparison on assignment
The day my 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 arrived couldn’t have been better timed as when the doorbell rang I was just on my way out to photograph some portraits for a client. I quickly switched from the C Sonnar which I’d intended to use to the 7artisans, and also grabbed my Noctilux. I decided that I’d use them both to see straight up how they compared in practical use.
My client, a young playwright, was OK with this, and was patient enough during lens changes. We started the shoot with a few images in one of my favourite cafes, and then moved outdoors to an open field for harsher light.
You can really see the advantage of the extra 30cm focusing distance the 7Artisans has over the Noctilux. Easier to focus in most close quarters situations.
I changed between the Noctilux and 7artisans as often as possible in order to get consistently similar images. I didn’t have an ND filter on either lens, so a few of the images have blown out highlights – well rendered by the M10’s sensor all the same.
While walking from the cafe I found a great corner with excellent contrast – a very “me” scene, so I tried to shoot it with the 7artisans wide open at f/1.1. Great figure to ground from subjects walking past. None of the images I shot were any good, and I’ll definitely return to that space with my 90 APO, but based on this I doubt I’ll be spending much time with the 7artisans as a street composition lens. The entire frame is soft, with pretty bad chromatic aberration around my subject. Of course I’ll experiment with it a bit more, but the quality simply isn’t what I would prefer for a print, or large display.
The Noctilux is clearly the sharper lens at all apertures, but wide open it is especially apparent that the 7artsans is soft – not necessarily a bad thing, but important for my purposes. It has “character” which is clear from the dreamy atmosphere present both in the focus area and in the bokeh. I think the rendering of this lens is close to my experience from early L39 Jupiter lenses, but with superior light gathering capabilities and more reliable build quality. As Sonnar lenses go this one is certainly reliable, and delivers consistent results which I really respect, especially considering the difficult lighting conditions.
As such I think it may be an ideal lens for use on a film camera. I did take a few frames on my Leica CL, and I’ll report back if there is anything to talk about from those.
For the price I think it is an outstanding option, and delivers more than the 10% of the quality of the Noctilux as I mentioned earlier. I will not be selling my Noctilux after all, and will continue using it for client portraits, as well as for fashion work. The role of the 7Artisans 50 is as a slightly more casual lens, which means I’ll end up using it more frequently than the Noctilux. I will take it to festivals and protests; anywhere I would be reluctant using the Noctilux due to its value.
A few more images
Edit: after a little more everyday use I have some more images taken with the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1. From these general purpose images it is very evident that even in areas of clear focus everything is surrounded by an etherial glow. This makes for a very dreamy atmospheric lens, definitely flattering for faces, but difficult to use when dealing with high contrast geometry.
Hopefully these images can give you a clearer idea of the lens signature when used in everyday scenarios.
The quality from the 7Artisans is useable to a photojournalistic standard, it doesn’t imprint on the image in the same way a special effect lens (like a fisheye, or lensbaby) but even so the results I’ve produced with it are unlikely to be ones I am comfortable printing, especially to paying customers. I would prefer it as a specifically classic portrature lens, never to be pixel peeped or look at as anything other than the “whole image.”
Thanks for taking the time to look through my images and thoughts on comparing the 7Artisans lens to the Leica Noctilux. Thanks as well to Toni for being patient while I made these images. If you enjoyed my photographs you can follow me on Instagram, where I also have links to my personal blog where I often write about my day-to-day photography.
You can buy the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 from the 35mmc shop – here