It’s fair to say that DJ-Optical / 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 has caused a bit of a stir in the world of rangefinder photographers. The forums are alive with speculation and commentary, both from those who do and (as is usually the case) those who don’t actually own one. I now do own one, so I thought I would write a bit of an ongoing lens review.
This is to be far from the usual post/review for me. Since there seems to be a strong hunger for information about the lens I figured sharing findings sooner rather than later might be useful. As such, I shall update this post with my findings, as I find them….
EDIT : I am now retailing these lenses, if you would like to support the upkeep of this blog, please consider buying from me here
I’m not a fast lens junky – let me just start by saying that. I like the novelty sometimes, but for the most part, I was quite happy with my f/2 Summicron until the ZM Sonnar entered my life and offered me smaller, faster and a character I liked more and sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole of Sonnar obsession. That being said, when one day whilst browsing the camera news websites I stumble across a new to the market rangefinder coupled 50mm f/1.1 lens, I found it very hard not splash my cash very quickly. As I will no doubt come to throughout this post, here’s a few very good reasons for that too!
Primarily, they had me at Sonnar… if you’re a regular here you will know I have a bit of a growing penchant for a Sonnar design lens (understatement). In the early days of the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 lens launch, there were people speculating that it was a Voigtlander 50mm 1.1 clone. It isn’t! In fact as soon as the lens diagram that was printed on the side of the box was revealed to the world, those in the know proclaimed it to be a Sonnar.
Since then I have spoke to Brian Sweeney (Sonnar expert extraordinaire) who tells me. “I believe the design is closest to the Zunow 5cm F1.1 8-element lens, without the filler glass of the front triplet. I am speculating that the Zunow was based on the prototype 5cm F1.5 Sonnar that used a field-correction element to improve field-curvature.”
More recently I’ve spoken to DJ-Optical /7Artisans themselves (via EM from EMULSIVE offering his multi-lingual skills) who confirmed in no uncertain terms that it is a Sonnar based formula.
It also behaves like a Sonnar which really quite strongly appeals to me… but I shall come back to this later. First, I need to tackle the elephant.
It’s Chinese & Inexpensive
Varying views on the origins of 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 feel almost like an elephant in the room. I’ve read comments on forums about the Chinese origin of this lens that range from broad positivity to bordering on racist. Honestly, I think people’s views of the Chinese are very distorted by prejudice.
It being Chinese has no bearing on its potential to be good or bad quality. I’m not going to get into politics here, but we in the west need to faster come to the conclusion that what the Chinese have the capability of producing is no different from that of anywhere else in the world. If not better. As an example, DJI are a Chinese company that make and sell arguably the most well respected UAVs. Not to mention the fact that if you’re reading this on an iPhone or MAC, then your experiencing high quality Chinese manufacturing right at your fingertips.
As such, it’s my opinion that this view that the Chinese are somehow incapable of manufacturing high quality products is at best myopic. What defines overall quality comes down to the desires of the manufacturer – irrespective of their ethnic origins or geographical locality – to build a quality product. These desires will be motivated and indeed defined by a lot of things, one of which is the desired retail price of the final product, but there are many other factors too.
Also, whilst I don’t want to labour this point really, just take a look back at at the Japanese in the 50s/60s and then look at them now today. The Japanese reputation was sort of akin to that of the Chinese today. It didn’t take them long to become the worlds tech leaders in most fields, not least photography. Case in point, Nikon, Canon and latterly Sony!
Of course there’s no denying that the products I’m talking about which came out of Japan were of a premium quality. Nikon aren’t exactly a low end brand, with even their lower end products being of a higher standard and price than many of their competitors. It’s also fair to say that price and quality can often go hand in hand. The higher the price the better quality – this is at least something that is culturally almost beaten into our collective psyche in the capitalist west.
The reality is though, price and quality don’t always directly correlate. As someone who works in branding, perhaps I have a more acute awareness of this, but I can tell you for free that a companies brand is definitely another strong factor in how much you pay. This reality is in abundance within industries such fashion and food production where you can often pay more for the exact same product with a different label on the front.
And then of course you have other variables such as production volume vs. R&D costs. High R&D costs and low potential sales volume adds up to much higher unit costs. Just look at brands like Leica and PhaseOne. Both have lower production volume that the giants in camera production, and in the case of most of the cameras they produce, higher R&D due to the relative unusualness of their products. They are also both high end brands. The result – because of these factors – is high value products.
How this relates to the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1
The point of all this waffle is to highlight that low cost doesn’t necessarily or entirely mean low quality in the case of 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1. The brand is new, it therefore has less right to levy a premium for its products. That’s one thing, but more than that, the low value of the product could easily point to low R&D costs combined with a high (potential) production run.
Think about it this way, if someone said to you “what design of m-mount rangefinder coupled lens would sell most if it was an attractive price?” Whether you are a fan of fast lenses or not, “an ultra-fast 50mm” would be a sensible answer to that question. Bearing that likely-common answer in mind, it would be reasonably safe to assume high volume sales if you can keep the price down. If you already have the facility and technical ability to make a lens like this – and it’s safe to assume DJ-Optical / 7Artisans do – then you can also keep the R&D costs down.
All this waffle really amounts to little more than me trying to point out that making judgments about this lens without trying one isn’t sensible. It is inexpensive, and as I will come to there are areas in which this is evident, but to write it off altogether because of its price or origin is just – at least in my opinion – a little daft.
This brings me onto the flaws that have been discovered by those who – like me – were willing to take that early punt on one of these lenses. Despite everything I’ve just said about giving it at least a modicum of benefit of the doubt for its origin and price, there are a couple of hiccups worth reporting.
The M3DS / M4 fit issue
One to look out for if you have an early Leica M3 DS or M4 – there are reports of the lens release button surround fouling the lens body. As it currently stands if you have either of these cameras, there is a strong chance the lens won’t fit. There isn’t a specific fix for this that I know about at the moment. DJ-Optical are due to bring out a new version of the lens that corrects this September time.
Edit: They did bring out a new version – it now fits the M4/M3DS, but doesn’t lock into place – they tell me they are still working on the problems
Loose focusing control
This has been reported a couple of times apparently, not least by a chap who made a video of his lens with a loose focusing ring. The particular chap in question chose to return his lens on this basis, claiming that he would no longer consider purchasing lenses from China. Each to their own of course, but once again – to me at least – this is the baby out with the bath water approach to dealing with the problem.
Fixing/preventing the lose focus ring issue
Looking at the lens it is easy to see that the focus ring is held in place by three grub screws. You can see the holes that they sit in. If you are concerned that this might happen to you buy yourself a set of small Allen keys or a mini screwdriver set with Allen key tips (like mine above) and tighten the screws. If you are still concerned, a tiny drip of nail polish will seal it them in place without going to the extremes of superglue or the like. (Thanks to Brian Sweeney for this tip). Of course it is fair to say that this is far from ideal when assessing a new product, but at least it is a relatively easy fix/problem to prevent… As is goes, I checked the grub screws in mine and they were tight.
I’ll add further thoughts and issues/fixes if and when I hear about them or discover them for myself
The lens in use
There is no getting away from the fact that the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 is a fairly heavy bit of kit – for its size it feels really heavy. Though it’s also fair to say that this weight does give it a sense of quality. It’s also possibly just bit bigger than I prefer – and though, it’s worth remembering this is a website that’s largely dedicated to smaller gear – this size does mean it’s quite visible inside the frame lines with the camera to your eye.
That being said, it’s smaller than the Leica Noctilux lenses, and the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1. Oddly, whilst heavy and quite chunky, I also find it to be particularly well balanced feeling on camera too – both with the camera to the eye, and when it’s hanging off a strap.
The focusing ring on my lens is very smooth. The short focus throw that does add a little to the difficulty focusing it, but I feel I am getting used to it already. It also focuses down to 0.7m which makes it the closest focusing Sonnar I own (though of course the Nikon LTM lenses focus closer still)
The aperture ring on the other hand has the slightest grit to it that just takes a smidge away from the feeling of quality the focus ring has. It’s also un-clicked which is possibly to help it appeal to the video crowd, but doesn’t really appeal to me as much. I find un-clicked aperture have a habit of changing themselves, and with the lens being the size it is, this seems to happen more. The spacing of the aperture stops is also uneven which whilst isn’t really an issue that I can think of, but does separate it in terms of familiarity from my other modern lenses.
I shall get on to the subject of Bokeh later, but whilst on the aperture it seems worth pointing out that the aperture blades don’t stop down to an even circular shape, despite there being so many of them. They also remain broadly circular rather than transitioning through a star-like shape which some Sonnar design lenses do to help reduce issues with focus shift.
I have asked the the manufacturer about the aperture, they told me that they chose a circular rather than star shaped aperture as they were looking for more circular spectral highlights in stopped down Bokeh. They also found that the impact of a star shaped aperture gave limited advantage.
Focus calibration and shift
My 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 lens is bang on at f/1.1 at the close focus distance. I will come back and add further thoughts about shift when I have done some testing of my own. For now you can find some interesting testing in this thread on RFF.
This is no doubt what most people are looking to read about. As such, I will be adding to this in much greater detail in the fullness of time. For now I will just share some early thoughts and a bunch of photos.
This is a “character lens”
I know people hate that phrase, but for me it has a very good function, especially when talking about lenses like the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1. It’s a very useful differential to be able to make here, especially when you consider this lens against the Voigtlander 50mm f1.1.
The Voigtlander – as I write in my review – is to me a low light lens. Firstly, it suffers from whacky quite unattractive Bokeh if you try to shoot it with foliage or whatever complex else complex backdrop to your subject. Additionally to this, it doesn’t do ultra-thin depth of field to the degree you might expect such a fast lens to do. To this end, I felt the Voigtlander to be much more of a functional lens. Of course, none of this is to say it doesn’t have character traits that some might like, just to me, for my tastes it is better suited to the functional purpose of low light shooting rather than the artistic one of shallow depth of field photography.
The 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 lens is pretty much the opposite to this. Yes it functions in low light – it appears in my so far haphazard tests to let an extra stop of light through than my Zeiss 50mm ZM – but above and beyond that it has a character that feels like it lends itself to more specifically to types of photography that benefit from shallow depth of field.
Depth of field / shooting wide (/near wide) open
As a lens, the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 is packed with character traits that make the wide open images feels like almost dream like. This sort of ultra-shallow depth of field has as many detractors as it does advocates, I’m sure, but shooting a lens like this I must admit I find it hard not to be suckered in by the look. Those with a fascination with Bokeh, and therefore the out-of-focus, will likely hone in on the various traits associated with it. For me though, it’s all about the in-focus.
At f/1.1 I would call this lens “sharp enough”. As I say, mine does focus accurately, but what’s in focus at 0.7m and f/1.1 is within such a narrow band of depth of field nothing really feels that sharp. This is compounded by the fact that what’s in focus has a bit of a glow that’s possibly the result of spherical aberrations.
Fall off to out of focus also happens very quickly indeed meaning its really quite difficult to get focus bang on when shooting wide at the nearest focusing distance…
Stopped down photography
Stopped down it’s not without flaw, but actually better than I expected. It’s quite contrasty resulting in images that appear sharp at least centre frame. Toward the edges there is a little smearing, but it’s better than I expected.
The smearing is a little worse on the Sony A7rii
It also suffers from fairly obvious barrel distortion that’s quite evident in this particular image.
Of course, both of these traits are only really subject dependent issues.
These two profoundly dull images of some out of focus foliage show my first attempt to demonstrate the bokeh.
What you can see here is close to the same image taken firstly at f/1.1 then at f/2. I wanted to test the lens this way to see if it behaved like a lot of the other fast Sonnars I have shot. It does. Again, in these shots of Connie you can see the same effect:
Shot wide, just like the ZM Sonnar, the Bokeh can become a little distracting, but stop down to f/2 and it gets significantly more smooth and “creamy”. I go in to loads of depth about this in my ZM review, and would come to the same conclusions here. When you need the stop of extra light gathering guts, it’s there on hand. When you want very shallow depth of field and you don’t have a foliage background, you can still get a very smooth out of focus. Just be careful and stop down to f/2 if you have a foliage background and don’t like that distracting look.
Low light photography
First, an obligatory cat picture for you to look at.
And some shots from a Beers & Cameras evening out
Quashing the 50mm f/1.0 rumour
Seeing as I was asked about it in the comments, I asked the manufacturer if they were intending on releasing a 50mm f/1.0 lens. They responded by saying that the theoretical value was f/1.05 so they determined that the lens should be designated an f1.1. The photos of the 50mm f/1.0 lens were of an earlier prototype lens.
Some colour film photos
Corner smearing is much less than with digital…
Thoughts to date
Rather than offer up a final conclusion to this, I shall just provide some thoughts that relate to the extent of my experiences so far.
It’s currently my feeling that the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 is going to be perceived one of two ways. The first is that it’s cheap and Chinese, and I’m under no illusions that my attempts to change people’s minds earlier on in this post will make much difference that. The couple of flaws in the design, and character traits it possess will for many add to this view that this isn’t a lens to be taken seriously.
I think this is a shame as this couldn’t be further from how I feel! Personally, I already love the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1. It feels like a special purpose lens that has been designed to be one by people who themselves like this sort of character or “taste” as I have recently learned the Chinese would say.
If this was a vintage design and was as rare as the likes of the Zunow 50mm f/1.1 it would be worth a fortune. It would also be praised as a rarity with a wonderful character! This is how I chose to view this lens – it’s a modern built reimagining of an old Sonnar design that just so happens to also be one of the least expensive m-mount lenses on the market. To me, this makes the 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 and absolute no-brainer that I am so happy to have ordered before the supply seemed to – hopefully temporarily – dry up.
I shall report back and update this with more thoughts soon. I have also asked DJ-Optical / 7Artisans a bunch of questions and am hoping to get answers soon. Please let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to point this lens at and I will try!
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