We are currently living a very exciting period of time. The lens market has been rencently opened with third party producers that are becoming better and better, often at a very challenging price point. TTArtisan is one of these brands from China. It is aiming at creating high quality lenses for Leica rangefinders cameras. Their first mass produced lens was the TTArtisan 35mm f/1.4 (that I previously reviewed here). They made some very fine glass with this first attempt providing both a modern high contrast optics with somewhat classical gentleness in its rendering. I have been using this lens for a while now and really can find no complaint about this piece of kit. TTArtisan even oftered me a free exchange of the first pre-release version I had for a new final mass production version with the removable hood, which I find to be more reassuring in case the hood would get bent.
Recently, we had a couple of crazy announcements like 12mm fisheye lens (reviewed by Hamish here) and the 21mm f/1.5 ASPH that is just being distributed to the first buyers and a 50mm f0.95 double asph, 50mm f/1.4 APO and 17mm f/1.4 all planned for 2020. Being a fan of the 21mm focal lenght, I decided to buy a sample of their f/1.5 lens as soon as it was available. As such, ere is my sort term but honnest review of the TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5 aspherical lens for Leica M mount cameras.
Unlike the previous article, I had the opportunity to put my hand on a nice Leica M type 240. I have to admit it is quite nice to try a lens for the first time on a digital body. It doesn’t cost anything and you can make sure it is well calibrated with your rangefinder before putting any money in your developments. So, I decided to begin this review with some “technical” aspects in digital.
First things first, please give a warm welcome to the TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5 (aspherical).
The TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5 lens is and feels very solid and built to good standards. Its finish is very similar to the already existing 35mm 1.4 asph version. Good news, this time the hood is removable from the beginning of the production and is perfectly aligned. The focusing ring is a bit stiff in the beginning but smoothen nicely after some use. The apperture ring feels just like on the 35mm 1.4 too, a bit damped, but nice.
The optical front element is impressive and if you remove the hood, it sticks out of the front barrel – so watch out of scratches if you use it without the hood. You also have the choice to wear the squareish hood or the filter ring adapter which looks a little bit less refined (but may be more efficient at cutting flare). I prefer the simple hood, more compact and protudes less in the viewfinder.
The rangefinder is calibrated just like my 35mm f/1.4 lens. Infinity is reached just before the mechanical hard stop (I don’t know why they do that…). It comes with a screwdriver, but as my sample seems to be well coupled, no need to mess with it on my side. The optical formula is quite advanced: 13 elements in 11 groups with aspherical element high refractive index glass.
Size wise, it is surprisingly “small” for a 21mm f/1.5 lens. I have seen comparison where it is a tiny bit smaller than the Leica equivalent. For comparison, it is only a few milimeters longer than the TTA 35mm f1.4 lens.
As I wrote before, 21mm is one of my favourite focal lengths. Even though it wouldn’t be my go to lens for a 3 months trip with a single lens (hello 35mm), this is usually what I have with me in the streets. I like how dynamic it is and how close you can get to your subject. But one thing has been impossible for me, was shooting like this at night as my one and only 21mm was the gorgeous 21mm f/4 Voigtlander color Skopar.
With the new TTArtisan 21mm this is now something that would be possible for me. So I began my testing with some night shots. Just like my previous test with the TTArtisan 35mm f/1.4 lens, don’t expect this to be a technical review in any way. It is just honnest feelings based upon “real world” pictures.
Just like I expected, the TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5 allows to shoot without any tripod in almost any lighting. These pictures above were barely lit with dim road lamps. Shot wide open. As you can see, it is already very contrasty and sharp in the focused area. One can also see that borders may suffer from coma, but hey, this is a 400ish USD lens.
One thing I noticed noticed right away was the field curvature with the M240 is quite pronounced and may result in some sharpness “inconsistencies” across the frame. I don’t know yet how it would behave on film, but I imagine it can only be a little bit better. Used in daylight, the TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5 shows some interesting properties. Its signature is similar to the 35mm f/1.4 of the same brand.
Wide open, it is not perfect and has some vintage characteristics while remaining sharp in the center. From f2 on, the look suddently gets very modern, with high contrast and from f/4 – 5.6, the lens draws the finest details corner to corner. But again, field curvature can cause some strange effects, especially between f/2 and f/4.
From the above shots, it is interesting and welcome to see that distortion is very well controlled and doesn’t seem to appear.
Some people will ask about the bokeh from the TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5. For a f.1.5 lens, I assume it is normal to expect some. But actually, even wide open, you will have to get very close from your subject if you want to see some. There is some busyness, but I would say the overall rendering is quite pleasing to my eyes. Both of the above shot are at f/2.
Flaring can definitely be an issue with this lens as on the above picture. It happened for me when strong light source was out of the frame. I suspect the hood to be too small for the size of the front element. Moreover, TTArtisan still use glossy paint for the inside of their hoods instead of a matte paint that would do a better job at absorbing reflections. Such a mistake could easily be corrected while keeping prices low.
Summarised Pros and Cons of the TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5
- Well built
- Wide angle, wide apperture, reasonable size
- Nice, sharp rendering (if used correctly)
- Size (again, I like small lenses. I wouldn’t bring that one in my backpack for a weekend hike…)
- Infinity hard stop not being the infinity of rangefinder patch
- Heavy field curvature (on M240)
- Still that big white TTA logo on the cap that could be more refined
Alternatives and final words
It is quite hard for me to speak of viable alternatives without looking at heavy priced lenses. I think the best alternative one can get in M mount would be the Voigtlander Ultron Aspherical 21mm f/1.8 which I think is a better performer wide open but a tad heavier and pricier (even second hand) than the TTArtisan if my memory is correct. Otherwise you will have to look at smaller apperture lenses like f/2.8 and f/4 to find sharp and cheaper lenses from Voigtlander and Zeiss. Leica of course produces the 21mm summilux… But this lens is in a whole other cathegory and just can’t be fairly compared.
Finally, what I think TTArtisan is currently doing is bringing the possibility for people that cannot invest in very pricey gear to get great performers that gives something of that “look” that can be achieved with the more expensive gear. These lenses may be criticised by some, but I find them to be interesting and fun to shoot and so far, I have to admit I haven’t be disappointed much.
The little issues I encounter with these lenses can in my opinion be softened by the relatively low pricepoint of these lenses, and by the fact that they never prevented me from taking good pictures. Someone looking for a 100% perfect rendering lens should just not bother these Chinese brands and concentrate on German ones. People that are open to the trade off 80% performances for 20% of the price should definitly be interested in these. I personally can’t wait to get my hands on their upcoming nifty fifties… For now though, I will continue to enjoy my TTArtisan 21mm f/1.5
You can find more of my photography there on my instagram.
Bien à vous!