Why Choose a Terrible Lens for Landscape Photography?

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.

A landscape photograph. If that upsets you, I am not sorry.

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).

The Lens

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.

Shallow Joy

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?

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30 Comments

Matt Edwards's picture

I really enjoy your images and love the wide open aperture look, sharpness be damned. We are at a point where we are losing artistry for the sake of technicality. There are so many boring, technically well done photos out there

Tom Kinkel's picture

I am so delighted by this article and agree with Matt Edwards comments, I would hope that the details are not the whole point of many images but unfortunately that is what is being rewarded by the Sharp lens fixation

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Matt, and thanks Tom! Really kind words. 😊🙏🏻 Glad you enjoyed the article.

Justin Sharp's picture

I appreciate this article and your willingness to strive for something different. Many of your images are very nice. Since 2014, I’ve dedicated almost all of my time and energy to landscape photography. Over that time, my gear has evolved from digital cameras and the sharpest lenses I could afford. Now I use an 8x10 view camera and lenses that are almost all over 100 years old. Several of my lenses are designed to be soft focus lenses. So many creative possibilities open when we look beyond image sharpness. Incredibly sharp photos landscape photos can be nice, but I definitely prefer a more softer look (regardless of my last name).

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Justin! I can totally see myself in the future shooting in the forest with a field camera and some super obscure glass. Sounds like a lot of fun!

John Nixon's picture

Good article. Loved the images. It’s easy to forget that there’s room for a bit of fun in photography and everything doesn’t need to be perfect.

I recently got a Sigma FP and one of the lenses I bought for it was a Funleader 18mm f/8 body cap lens. Under £90 delivered! It’s great, everyone should have one.

Snobs will be snobs, but they’re the ones that are missing out.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks John. Agreed!

Chris Jablonski's picture

A breath of fresh air! I'm really puzzled why so many Fstoppers (actually, I just realised, considering the very name of this website) are so preoccupied with technical perfection and the latest equipment. I'm a perfectionist, meticulous when taking my images, rather than shooting in the way you describe here - although I love these images! - but I cannot see any difference in quality on an A2 print between my sharpest lenses, Nikon 55 & 60mm macro lenses, and my softest, a MF Nikon 35mm f/2.8.

Justin Sharp's picture

The technical part of photography can be quantitative. There can be perceived a clear right/wrong or good/bad. A specific goal can be set and clearly reached. The artistic part of photography is more qualitative. Right/wrong and good/bad get a bit more complicated. There is no set path. This can be a very scary place for some. The certainty of the technical might be more of a “safe place.”

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Chris, glad you enjoyed the article. I think expectations in terms of quality for commercial photography — which Fstoppers discusses a fair amount — are high and this then shapes our understanding of what we demand from our personal images. I'm glad this article felt like a balance to all of that. 😊

Michael Krueger's picture

Honestly I think soft landscapes look better than overly sharp ones, my eyes don't have endless depth of field and sure don't keep everything in focus when I'm out looking at the world.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

This is great! A main reason I went Sony in 2014 was the fact that I could use my Canon FD lenses with an inexpensive adapter. At the time few Sony lenses, and while years past by so called "Fast Glass" was not available but my collection had 1.2, 1.4, a lot of 2 and 2.8 due to being able to be hand hold/not having to use a flash in the film days. One thing hard to find today, that I have had since the 70's, is prism filters for effects that today can hardly be done even digitally without a lot of work. With focus peaking and zebras the manual lenses are fun and the IBIS lets you do handheld. If you cover your screen it looks like a film camera. The other great thing today is "LensTagger" in Lr where you can add lens info to metadata instead of writing in a logbook (film day thing) and placing in a lens named folder. If you have a mod 1 or mod 2 (ibis) a little unknow is on camera apps one is lens correction that lets you put a list of lenses with their corrections to select from when changing lenses.
To get the lenses inexpensively go to estate sales where older people have passed and their children sell, not knowing how to use and even antique stores have a hard time selling, but are in pristine condition still in photo bags and cases. I was given a 14mm f/2.8 and used for my early Milky Way shots, way better that the Rokinon I was using, your in manual mode/focus and on sticks anyway!!!! Just for added info film will capture gas sky glow better than digital and a slide can be shot bracketed and be in raw in Ps/Lr to bring out detail never seen. Like Back to the Future!!

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Edwin!

Peter Mueller's picture

Ansel Adams said once "There's nothing as useless as a sharp photo of a fuzzy concept." So there you go on the sharpness thingy.

As concerns labels: I am a landscape photographer as well as a portraitist. Sometimes I shoot 6" x 4"... other times 4" x 6".

So there.

Got your back, Andy.

Andy Day's picture

Ha. Thanks Peter! 😁

Ed Knuff's picture

Refreshing article.
Maybe, you could call yourself a "tree" photographer?

Andy Day's picture

I think from here on I'll stick with "photographer"..! 😆

Brian Cook's picture

Woodland photography has been my main focus for a while now. Andy's words and photographs are an inspiration.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Brian. 😊

zeissiez lee's picture

I fully agreed. I have been to numerous photo galleries and exhibitions, there wasn’t a photo that I liked because it’s sharp.

Brian Mitchell's picture

Thanks for writing the article. It's great being able to read the experiences of others going through their journey of photography. For me, being a Canon DSLR shooter, I have really enjoyed going through many M42, Contax C/Y, and Nikon lenses adapted. It's great having the ability to learn through the manual process of shooting. One thing I'm a big fan of, though, despite enjoying manual lenses is making sure to buy (and program) the "Dandelion" focus confirmation chips on the adapters. With not having the zebras for focus peaking, then I have really benefitted from micro-adjusting the focus confirmation for each adapted lens. It's always enjoyable having the chance to talk about older, adapted lenses with other people when we happen to strike up conversation. Nikon lenses on a Canon body especially can stand out to those that are familiar with their AI-S and older lenses. Anyways, creative lens choices like the 7artisans (or adapted vintage lenses) can really add to the fun of photography, which definitely keeps me coming back for more.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Brian! Glad you enjoyed it! The focus magnifier courtesy of mirrorless is absolutely crucial for me to get stuff (vaguely) sharp. No idea how you can do it on a DSLR..!

Abhinavanand Singh's picture

This article is such a needed freshness to the current state of photography. Loved it!

Andy Day's picture

Kind words, thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. 😊🙏🏻

Tom Reichner's picture

I enjoyed this article, Andy. Thanks for it

I'm sorry that after you wrote the other article, some people responded saying that you aren't a landscape photographer. Those people need to be humbled and put down in their proper place. You photograph the landscape, therefore you are a landscape photographer. Anyone who makes it more complicated than that is just whacked.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Tom! 😊

James Cowman's picture

If you’re argument is that you must pursue certain technical characteristics of the medium itself to be called a landscape photographer, clearly, you are not an artist.

Chirag Wakaskar's picture

Fantastic article. I've made landscape photographs using a wooden box with no lens. Those who sing praises for tack sharp lens, waking up at 4am, hiking 10 miles, using a 300$ filter have their own place too.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Chirag. It's a broad church. 😁

Tom Reichner's picture

There's a lot to be said for waking up at 4am and hiking 10 miles. Those things are far more important than critically sharp optics and$300 filters. It really is, and should be, about effort and artistic vision, and not all about cutting edge gear.