11.12.2021

Kirk Just Can't Stop Writing About that Cheap-Ass 35mm Lens. What the heck?


Why? Because it's such a refreshing change from the "normal" lens offerings from the Big Boys over the last ten years. We've watched standard lenses evolve from the "nifty-fifty" lens we mostly grew up with to optical constructions that are giant paeans to ultimaticity. The pursuit of "kit lens ultimatism". Thinking here about the Zeiss Otus lens, the Sigma f1.4 50mm Art lens, the Panasonic S-Pro 50mm f1.4 and all the other oversized lenses that share one thing in common: A field of view of about 39.6° on the long end or 46.8° diagonally (35mm format for the diagonal measurement). The new group of 50mm "professional" lenses share some other characteristics as well. They are huge. They are heavy. And they range in price from around a thousand dollars up to over $6,000 for the Leica 50mm f1.4 Summilux. 

Anything else in common? Yes. Even though all will make good to great images they all have characteristics that suck the joy out of using them in any but the most controlled and highly supported endeavors. They are heavy, bulky and, for the most part, joyless to handle. Even less gratifying to pay for. 

As all these lenses wattle into the spotlight we've seen less expensive 50mm lenses with the more modest apertures of f1.8 and f2.0 emerge as "budget lenses" with prices from about $445 to well over $1,000. Or, in the stratospheric plane ---- over $5,600 for the Leica 50mm f2.0 Apo Summicron. I don't care how deep your pockets are or how indestructible your credit card may be the combination of a high selling price and a cumbersome operating manner converge to give one a bit of heartburn when considering what used to be a lens tossed in to complete an inexpensive kit. And one that could be carried around all day, every day. 

The vast interest amongst current photographers for some of the better Chinese prime lenses is a direct result of the traditional camera makers tunnel vision/myopia about what they perceive the market asking for. My first rational substitution for the big, new Japanese and German standard, 50mm lenses was the TTArtisans 50mm f1.4 lens for full frame. It's basically an adaptation of their M series 50mm which was snapped up with pleasure by many M series Leica users who needed good and sharp but also wanted...affordable. 

It turned out to be a superb lens. Better to handle in manual focusing than lenses at twenty times the price. Why? Hard stops at the minimum focusing range and at infinity. A silky smooth (not fly by wire) focusing ring with distance markings and, gasp! even a depth of field scale. An aperture ring that can bring tears to the eyes of those nostalgic for the golden days of industrial design and hand fitting. And it's sharp and contrasty at all the places you'd want it to be. Cost? A whopping $235. Delivered. (sorry, no hood). 

I love that lens. It's wonderful. And then I bought a Leica CL (HAPPY BIRTHDAY KIRK) and after using the Panasonic 20-60mm zoom on it started looking around to see what kinds of single focal length lenses I could find. Since TTartisans have not yet introduced an L mount version of their acclaimed, full frame 35mm f1.4 rangefinder lens I started looking for an APS-C version. I found the 35mm f1.4 from the same maker. It's great. But don't take my word for it, look at my samples here instead. All beautifully captioned. 

You don't need to dump the big lenses unless you  want to. At the low prices at which you can pick up the TTArtisan lenses you can keep both. Don't look for links! We aren't affiliates, partners, etc. with any seller. We make our money the old fashioned way. On the job and in the markets. 

this is my favorite swim towel. I should wash it more frequently.
But I'd hate to wash out the saturated colors. Wide open with the 35mm.

late afternoon in the guest bathroom. Why is it my job to clean this one?
I guess it's my job because my CEO says so. "Keep it nice for your clients" he says. 
Sometimes I just want to hand him the toilet scrubber... Oh...wait...

Sail Building Project. How dumb is it to be a building on the skyline but have a poster graphic that is also the skyline? At least the barriers have nice faces on them.

I had lunch once at Le Politique and found the service (pre-pandemic) to be slow and sloppy.
The manager to be far to "familiar" and chatty and the $16 hamburger (at that time) to be overpriced. 
They're gone now. The tax collector has the orange, sticky sign on the door. 
It's a great space and a great location. Can't wait for something better to come along. 

eh.

This is one of the endless stream of film crews working these days in the middle of downtown, in the middle of 2nd Street. I like to see how they rig their cameras. 

And following them is the object of their attention. 

There is an Italian restaurant on Congress Ave. 
Just blocks from the state Capitol. I don't know anyone who has tried it.
They opened just before the Covid shutdown. I hope they make it. 
When we get the levels down again I'll give it a try...


The menu looks good. I'm doubtful about the outdoor dining since this is a raceway for the homeless and some can be just a bit....abrasive. Maybe save it for the second or third date. 
Better still, the break-up date. 

most are.

just for grins. What if watermelons were available in blue?
you know you've hit twilight when the shadows go dense and the streets turn blue while the times of the buildings that still see the clouds turn warm yellow. 

I'm always happier when people at least make an attempt to do a good sign. 

If you are going to have a coffee shop it may be good marketing to allow prospective customers to actually see through the windows. No one wants to walk into an ambush...

the Elephant Room used to be the Austin haunt of famous director and actor, Clint Eastwood.
I haven't seen him there lately. Maybe the cult of fame cause the happiness of Jazz to be overwhelmed by the crush of movie fans. It's been there for decades...

dusk on the bridge with the 35mm f1.4.

Or you could turn 90 degrees and look at this one instead. 

Three keepers from TTArtisans so far. I'll keep buying them until I get a bad copy. 

I have one more on my radar right now. More fun shopping for lenses than actually working.
 

Haircuts. Adding and subtracting. Ebbing and flowing.

 



I actually had something to shoot for a client this week. It was an event. It was fun. 

I thought, just maybe, that I'd look more acceptable with a haircut. I think I pulled it off okay. 

But there it is. 


Seventeen Millimeter, f1.4, TTArtisan Lens Review.

 

This image leans on the lens's ability to deliver detail and contrast across the APS-C
frame and also shows very good corner sharpness. It was shot handheld and at f4.0. 
It's a convincing example of just how good a performer this lens is when stopped down a bit. 

I don't know what I was expecting when I ordered the TTArtisans 17 mm f1.4 lens for APS-C but it certainly wasn't what I ended up with. The lens I shot for most of the day yesterday is far better than I had anticipated and may, in fact, be the sharpest 24mm equivalent focal length lens I've shot with. Or maybe the Leica CL I had it mounted on is really capable of magic. I'll go with the first assumption...

The TTArtisan 17mm I bought is designed only for format of APS-C or smaller. If you use it on a full frame camera it will show a rounded circle of image inside a larger rectangle. That's not a flaw...unless you were hoping to get a very sharp wide angle lens that can cover a 35mm sensor and you thought it was within the realm of possibility to get said lens for a little over $100. If you find one, let me know. 

When I started out to evaluate this lens I took into consideration not just the ways I use the lens but also they way other people use them as well. I'm always shooting stuff in the range of six feet to infinity and many times at f5.6. I suggest that, excepting geometric distortions, just about any lens looks its very best with those parameters. Expert photographers often tell me that the secret of getting great results with wide angle lenses is to include something in the near foreground, in front of an interesting background, in order to better show off the perspective power and near-far drama of the wide angle of view. I also understood that many people would buy the lens hoping to use it wide open while even more folks would want to try using the lens at its closest focusing distance. So many parameters to shovel into such a limited bucket of my personal interests.

At the outset I should say that this is a fully manual lens. There are no communication links to the camera and, of course, no autofocus. You won't get any exif info either. What it does offer is a nice focusing ring that is well damped and a pleasure to use. It's also marked with a depth of field scale that makes using the hyperfocal range, pre-focusing technique very easy, and mostly accurate. Also, the hard stop at infinity is wonderful. A breath of fresh air after using focus-by-wire lenses that have no stops for infinity. I loved being able to set the aperture at f5.6, the focus at about 8 feet, and knowing that I'd end up with well focused subject matter --- as long as I resisted the temptation to fine tune. 

It should also be noted that I used to think of ultra-wide lenses (anything shorter than a 28mm on FF) to be the work of the devil and only useful if you just couldn't back up one more inch and had to get a wide subject completely in the frame. I've mellowed of late and blame either advancing age or a keen lack of give a shit for my partial conversion. Maybe I'm just getting too lazy to step back a few steps. 

The 17mm TTArtisan lens is a breath of fresh and well filtered air in an era when every big lens maker seems to be in a rush to video-fy every prime lens by using the largest filter size possible and making lens barrels as big as an American waistline. By contrast this lens is small, svelte and even tapered toward the front, ending up with a 40.5mm front filter size. Perhaps a step or two of design overcorrection, at least when it comes to easy filter choices. But what it really means is that this lens, when used on a small and discreet Leica CL, or a Sony A6600, or Fuji XE-4, fits with the overall package and maintains the visual stealthiness of the system. In fact, it's so comfortable on the Leica CL that I'm loathe to take this lens off and replace it with anything bigger. It just meshes so well. 

There is conjecture that this is a lens with a simple design and, as a consequence, capable of limited performance. And I'll admit that having such a fast maximum aperture made me very leery of its "on paper" performance. But in reality it's 9 element lens with one aspherical element and is said to be based on a very well regarded Minolta 24mm lens design, just shrunken down from full frame to APS-C format. And without the design compromises dictated by the SLR mirror box.

Included to show the barrel distortion of the lens. You can see it but unlike lenses designed 
to clear a swinging mirror the distortion is a simple variety, mostly fixed by dialing in a +6 in Adobe Lightroom's lens distortion menu. I'm not seeing the "harder to correct" "mustache distortion" that 
plagued most wide DSLR lenses. 

Here's the same frame in its original color.

I ordered this lens because I didn't have any really wide prime lenses for any of my cameras. I have plenty of zooms that go wide enough but even the smaller, Panasonic 20-60mm zoom looks bigger on the front of the cropped frame cameras than I would like. The 17mm or 35mm TTArtisan lenses are actually small enough to fit easily into a jacket pocket. Or, if you don't mind looking a bit jangly, you could shove them into the cargo pocket of a pair of cargo shorts. Even the ones with elastic waist bands... "Is that a lens in your pocket or....just a mobile, cancerous lump on your mid-thigh?"

Yesterday got off to a good start. I swam well in the morning, ate a good breakfast and then checked my phone for incoming texts. I'd photographed an event the evening before and, well, you know how clients can be. Yep! There was a text from 7:15 a.m. wanting to know when they could get a few shots of the CEO (honoree of the event) getting his award on stage. Apparently his company has a large team of social media experts and they were just chomping at the bit to get fresh content. Especially content that portrays their leader as an authentic philanthropist (which is actually true!!!). 

I eased into my desk chair, popped the correct memory card into the card reader and quickly found eight frames that were all perfect for their request. It was short work getting the files post processed perfectly and sent over to the requestor. Happiness ensued. And I was still able to make it to coffee with my dear friend, Frank, by 10 a.m. So happy to sit outside, sipping really good coffee and having a wonderful conversation about movies, travel and general happiness. It was while still savoring the good feelings of friendship that I put together my camera system and headed off to review the lens. 

Since my entire focus was on the new 17mm lens I took nothing but some cash for the older homeless people, my Leica CL, and an extra battery. No phone. No wallet. No stuffed to the gills camera bag. No cargo shorts. Only the barest essentials. 

My first stop was at the West Chelsea Contemporary Gallery which is across the street from my favorite parking place. I was at an opening there on Friday but it was crowded and hard to see the work. Yesterday afternoon I was the only person in the gallery and it was fun to see stuff by Banksy and Kenny Scharf up close and without interruption. There was lots of nice work on display and it was almost like an eye rinse after spending time looking at a monitor. My next stop was in the heart of downtown and that's where I started looking for targets of opportunity to show off the attributes and faults of the lens. 
After a few successful tests I became very comfortable using the zone focusing 
techniques from the ancient days, double-checked by the very good focus peaking
in the Leica CL. It was mostly f5.6 and be there. 

this is my first attempt at getting really close with the 17mm. 
The parking ticket was flapping in the wind but I like the image just the same. 

Below: In color.

"But is it sharp enough?" Hmmm. Yes. 

When I hit the middle of the walk I started wondering about how well the lens 
might work in low light; at full aperture. So I ducked into the welcoming but dimly lit
W Hotel and found a handy mirror to shoot into. 
This shot is focused on my face. See the squinchy eye.
ISO 6400. Obviously handheld. Beautiful model !!!
Great haircut.  Big hands.

Two steps back from the mirror....
I like the monochrome rendering of this lens.

From a foot or two away. 
This was my first attempt at doing a closeup in order to show what the sharpness would look like but also what the background would look like. Nice color on the handbill. 

Yes. This is art. It took this photo to jar my memory about one really cool feature of very wide lenses;
they require less (or no) image stabilization when being hand held at lower shutter speeds. 
Handholding with a non-stabilized camera and a wide lens is pretty easy at 1/15th of a second.
Nice couch. Not sure how long I'd really like to look at it. 

Some cities have rat infestations but we also have scooter infestations.
They seem just as hard to eradicate. My compromise?
We need scooter lanes. We have bike lanes, what's wrong with giving up a few more feet of
 car road way so we can take care of our lazier citizens?

I was going to make up some techno-nonsense about the amazing color discrimination of 
this $120 optic, as exemplified by the bright yellow poles, but then I got it into my head that the signs were really about not leaning on Polish people. Then I digressed into wondering why we decided to
circle back, as a culture, and lean on Polish people. I couldn't take color discrimination of the lens seriously after than...

This is a perennial test shot. The Littlefield building (foreground) is a fun piece of last century 
architecture and has lots of bricks to keep pixel peeper happy. And they there's the reflections off
the Aloft tower next to it and buildings with detail in the distance. The un-processed sky is pretty cool.

At a certain point in my walk I found I'd subconsciously taken the camera off my shoulder and had the slender strap wrapped around my right wrist. I'd been pre-focusing the lens and touching the shutter button in order to wake up the camera when I saw a shot off in the distance (and getting closer) that I wanted to take. I'd bring the camera up to my eye, just to compose, shoot the frame and then drop the camera back down. By the end of the day I started to feel like HCB. It's a fast and clean way of working. The only thing I need to improve is exposure. The camera is pretty darn good at figuring it out on its own but for consistency I could have been setting the exposure manually. One setting for full sun and a second setting for open shade. On a sunny day that's pretty much all you might need. 

The building actually does bend backwards. It's designed like a big sail. 
I like the two opposing curves in the frame. Roland Barthes would explain:
"blah, blah, blah, ipso facto, blah." 

I would say, "Cool. Intersecting curves." 

As Claude Levi-Strauss was fond of exclaiming: "Look! A tall building. Look! Straight lines!"

Wider background reflections. 

A lens like the 17mm is perfect for walking around, making photojournalism and generally documenting all kinds of stuff with the camera handheld. There might (MIGHT) be other 24mm equivalent lenses that are better for architectural photos. But only for people who are professionally very picky. 


This is the very first shot I did with the new lens. I'm aiming at the sky over the roof of my house.
The details looked good enough for me not to throw it back in the box and return it.

Nearly always the last photo or the first photo of each downtown walk. I'm waiting patiently for a new mural to be painted. Change should be inexhaustible. 

So...what are the pros and cons of this one? What's the prognosis for the TTArtisans 17mm f1.4?

Pros: 
Small, light, cheap, sharp enough, wide enough, easily replaceable if lost, stolen or dropped. All metal construction. Nice industrial design. Fun to put on a $6,000 Leica in order to tease Leica Fanboys. Just say the magic words: "And it's actually much sharper than my 24mm M lens..."

Cons: showing it off to other Leica owners might get you discharged from the Leica Historical Society of America (yeah...it's a thing...). It may (MAY) not be as well corrected for distortion as much more expensive options. The corners are not that sharp at the wide open apertures. Who needs f1.4 on an APS-C wide angle lens? So cheap you might not take its performance seriously enough possibly leading you to purchase a used Leica 24mm f1.4 M series lens. The  price for a used one with moderate wear is only $5800 and change....

Another con, it's so small and light you might misplace it in your coat pocket and not realize it's there. 

If the price for one of these 17mm lenses is too dear you might have adopted the wrong hobby. It's almost a give-away. 

Will I keep it or disregard it in my never ending quest for lens perfection? Oh, be serious. It's a great little lens offered at a great price. It's worth keeping around just as an interesting piece of miniature sculpture. And the bokeh is nothing to sneeze at! But I don't shoot for bokeh analysis so don't look here for intentional samples. Surely there is a site dedicated to analyzing all brands for bokeh approval. 

I'd put a link in here for the product but....we don't do ads, affiliate advertising, or begging for money. I just write this stuff for fun. I hope you read it for the same reason. 

Next up: how did the first event job of the pandemic era go on Wednesday?

current writing project. My next great novel: "The Non-Lethal Assassin." 
not ready for pre-orders.