Landscape photographers usually want stunning detail and excellent image quality, so why would you shoot landscape photos on a cheap lens that rarely delivers sharp images?
Regular readers might recall that it wasn’t until six months into the global pandemic that I started photographing the huge forest on my doorstep (see Why Would you Become a Landscape Photographer if You Don't Like Landscape Photography?). Since November last year, my lens of choice has emerged as the 7artisans 35mm f/1.4, a very affordable manual focus lens that can feel a little crunchy when stopped down and can struggle to deliver a sharp image when shot wide open. Given my subject matter, this would strike many as an odd choice.
Describing myself as a landscape photographer made one or two readers angry, as it seems that either trees aren’t part of the landscape or there’s a rite of passage that I’ve willfully ignored before I can label myself as such. Personally, labels aren’t of great concern to me, and dubbing myself a landscape photographer was just a means of reflecting on what I’ve been photographing over the last year. I don’t feel like a landscape photographer any more than I’ve felt like an architectural photographer, portrait photographer, or extreme sports photographer in the past; finding a label for myself isn’t something I give much thought to. This was just a way to explore a personal journey that had been meaningful during the pandemic.
By contrast, for some, it seems that landscape photography is strictly about high-resolution sensors, heavy tripods, 4 am starts, classic vistas, exposure bracketing, and focus stacking. If it doesn’t tick those boxes, you are not entitled to call it landscape photography. Anyone suggesting differently must be corrected. Angrily.
Fortunately, I don’t care too much for rules established by photography’s self-appointed gatekeepers, and I hope my choice of lens will make those irate few even angrier. Occasionally, I’m a landscape photographer who regularly shoots on a Chinese faux-vintage lens that costs less than $200. I can almost feel their spit hitting their screens as they scream with rage and skip the remainder of this article to go straight to the comments section (as if they haven’t already).
I reviewed the 7artisans 35mm f/1.4 (bizarrely called “Photoelectric” on B&H Photo) a little more than a year ago and found it to be a lot of fun, though not for anything serious. 35mm f/1.4 lenses usually cost a ludicrous amount of money as they are professional tools complete with countless elements, cutting edge coatings, incredible build quality — and autofocus. In recent years, there has emerged a raft of affordable lenses containing zero electronics with very wide maximum apertures, meaning that you don’t have to sift through listings for vintage lenses and fiddle with adapters if you want to shoot on something with character. Such glass, you can safely assume, is not intended to give high-quality results. Of course, genuine vintage lenses might be even more fun, but faux-vintage is what I have, and it’s proving enjoyable. Your mileage may vary.
Going from f/2 to f/1.4 prompts a noticeable drop in contrast, and anything near the edges of the frame tends to fall apart, however good you think your focusing might be. At $200 and in such a small package, compromises are everywhere, and having to keep your subject towards the center of the frame when shooting at wider apertures is one of them. The focusing ring is smooth and nicely dampened, but the fully mechanical aperture ring (there is nothing electronic about this lens) has a little bit of play and doesn’t make the most reassuring noise as it clicks into place. Chromatic aberration can be strong, giving tree branches a markedly green fringe. Flaring is dreadful.
Given its idiosyncrasies, what makes it my favorite lens for landscape photography?
Fast and Light
Firstly, it’s small, and despite its metal build, it’s not that much heavier than my super-lightweight Samyang AF 35mm f/1.8. I enjoy photographing by meandering with as little gear as possible, so big heavy lenses (not to mention tripods) are not my thing. Light changes fast in the forest, and being bogged down with too much stuff can make you miss a shot and disrupts one of the things that I enjoy most about photographing the forest: wandering off the path and getting slightly lost. Sure, I could pack a couple of expensive zooms, but is it worth not being able to move with as much freedom? For some, yes. For me, no way.
Shooting wide open is fun. In and among the trees, there is a huge amount of mess, and creating images that are pin-sharp from front to back can mean incorporating endless distractions; by contrast, having branches disappear into a sludge of bokeh can be an advantage, helping to isolate a subject and giving a better feel for what the light is doing. In addition, I enjoy creating photographs that have an ethereal, slightly magical feel to them, and the loss of clarity in an image as it drops off into the distance is similar to our own experience of our reduced range of vision when deep in the forest. Part of the experience of being among the trees is not being able to see that far, and the shallow depth of field helps to reflect that sensation.
This doesn’t mean that I’m always shooting at f/1.4, as there are plenty of situations that don’t lend themselves well to a shallow depth of field. On the occasions that I’m not sure, I’ll grab a shot at f/1.4, another at f/2 in case the quality at f/1.4 is simply too poor even for me, and then another at f/5.6 and maybe also f/8 to give myself some choices when I choose which shots to edit.
Character (a.k.a. Flaws)
The shoddy image quality gives the photos a degree of character. I’ve shot a fair amount on the aforementioned Samyang 35mm f/1.8, but the difference with getting that slighter larger maximum aperture of f/1.4 — especially when paired with the drop in contrast — gives something a little more distinctive. The low contrast adds to the loose, soft feel of the images that I enjoy creating and again helps to create the atmosphere that I feel when I’m out with the dog catching the sunrise. I reviewed the beautifully crafted Sigma 35mm f/2 DG DN Contemporary a few months ago, and pretty much the only fault for me was that it created too much contrast — hardly something a photographer should complain about. The 7artisans sometimes feel as though it has its own ProMist or CineBloom filter that can never be removed.
I manage to avoid some of the worst aspects of the lens by cropping the edges, typically to 4x5, and sometimes square. For me, shooting portrait orientation gives a better sense of order among the trees; it avoids having to try and organize too many elements within a frame, and emphasizing the trees’ verticality helps to bring a sense of calmness and stability.
Not for Everyone
Of course, for many, deliberately shooting images with such poor quality would be unacceptable, and for some, it will border on heresy. If I were shooting professionally or seeking to make a career out of landscape photography, maybe things would be different, but for now, these images are for me, and using a rubbish lens is what I enjoy. The sunrise dog walk is one of my favorite parts of the day, so why would I deliberately choose to ruin it by hauling loads of gear — much of which I can't justify buying — and adding all of the stress of trying to produce technically perfect photos?