30 October 2022

In mid October a lens arrived from 7Artisans. They had asked me to review their newest 35mm f2 lens for Leica M mount. I’m a Leica photographer, so I didn’t want to do your typical "unboxing" review. I wanted to really see how it stacks up against a Leica Summilux 35mm and Voightlander Skopar 35mm. 7Artisans simply asked for my opinion and have given me absolute freedom to say anything I want about this lens .. good or bad. My Leica M6 with the 7Artisans 35mm f2 has not left my side side for the past couple weeks. I've subjected it to both in-studio and field testing during that period. I’ve done side by side testing to evaluate sharpness and overall image quality in comparison to the other lenses. Now please understand that these are not scientific tests. If you are looking for a lot of graphs, charts and terms like “angle of incidence” and “lens conjugate ratios”, you might as well read no further because to be honest, I don't care about that stuff. I only care about how the lens renders my images. These are purely subjective comparisons to evaluate the lens from my own perspective and for my usage as a photographer. 
Build Quality
From the moment I saw the box, I realized this is not your typical 3rd party lens. The cardboard box is a work of art itself. It’s beautifully designed with a cool magnetic closure. Inside the box, the lens comes in a beautiful brown leather case. I'm not sure if it's real leather but it certainly looks classy. You rarely see this attention to detail in most other brands. The lens itself feels solid, being entirely metal and glass. The focus is super smooth and the aperture ring is something I’ve never encountered before. I have lenses that are "unclicked" .. you move smoothly from one end of the scale to the other without interruption. I also have "clicked" lenses where the aperture snaps from one f-stop to the next. This lens is somewhere in the middle. It’s smooth and silky like an unclicked lens, but there are still subtle detents you can feel at each aperture setting. If I want to go from f8 to f5.6 without taking my eye from the viewfinder, I can do that because there is a subtle click at each f-stop. However if I want my aperture to be somewhere between f5.6 and f8 I can do that too. I’ve actually sat here just playing with that aperture ring, it’s so amazing. I’ve never seen or felt anything like it, and I hope to see more lens designs do this in the future, it's a brilliant design. 
Focus Calibration
Leica M mount 7Artisans lenses come shipped with a paper focus scale and a little screw driver that can be used to “calibrate” your focus. For starters let me say … if you are mounting this lens on a digital body that offers through-the-lens focusing .. disregard. Just mount your lens and you’re good to go. This really applies to those of us mounting the lens on a rangefinder body, that does not focus through the lens. If you find there is a discrepancy between your camera rangefinder and the numbers on the lens body, you can calibrate the focus scale part of the lens to match your rangefinder. I put this new lens on my M6, walked outside and focused on a tree branch half a km away. I checked the lens body and it was showing I was at infinity. If it was showing anything else I might need to tweak the focus but mine was perfect. Purely out of curiosity I decided to also check the close focus and used the method that 7Artisans suggests on the instructions in the box. The lens was perfectly accurate here as well, so I had  no need for any adjustment. I suspect most people will not need to adjust their focus, but you can if you need to.
Sharpness Testing
I mounted my digital camera on a tripod and compared the 7Artisans 35mm against a Leica Summilux 35mm, Fuji XF35mm and Voightlander Skopar 35mm. A focus pattern was mounted on a brick wall. The brick mortar allowed me to look for curvature distortion and also enabled me to look at focus in the corners by looking at the grain of the brick. In a second round of testing I also stuck a small card of fine print on the wall in the top left corner of the frame, so I could use the fine print to help evaluate corner sharpness. Images were shot at every aperture so I could compare each lens at every aperture setting.

They ranked as follows: 

#1 Fujifilm XF35 f2
#2 Leica Summilux 35
#3 7Artisans 35 f2
#4 Voightlander 35
The results with the Fujifilm lens was not a surprise. Fuji lenses are amazing quality. Most of the worlds major motion picture’s are shot on Fuji lenses for this reason. In this case the Fuji lens was primarily used as a baseline standard to assist in evaluating the other lenses. Having finished the testing, even as I write this, I still have trouble with the ranking of the 7Artisans and Summilux because they were so incredibly close in the testing I conducted. I think the Summilux was ever so slightly sharper in the extreme corners, but it was a very small difference only noticable at significant magnification In Lightroom. The Voightlander lens was visibly less sharp over all by comparison to the others, but still a fine lens at normal magnification.
Real Use Testing
I shot 3 rolls consisting of Ilford FP4 and HP5. The rolls consisted of frames where the same scene was shot with each of the lenses and the exact same settings on each. They were then compared side by side and ranked in order of preference. The three lenses compared here were the 7Artisans 35mm, Leica Summilux 35mm and Voightlander Skopar 35mm. The Fujifilm XF35 was not included as this was a film test, not digital. The camera body used for this test was my own Leica M6, a camera I’ve shot for years and can trust the results. 

The 7Artisans and Leica Summilux were pretty much identical for sharpness in normal view. There were some very subtle differences in contrast. It's going to be difficult to truly compare the images below in the low resolution needed for online presentation, but it will give you a rough idea of what I saw in the darkroom.

Leica Summilux 35mm f2 on Ilford HP5

7Artisans 35mm f2 on Ilford HP5

Magnified, the Leica Summilux appeared ever so slightly sharper in the corners on some photos but it was very close, and again this was only visible under magnification. The 7Artisans seemed to have slightly more contrast which I quite like. 

There was an issue with the 7Artisans in that it tends to flare quite a bit when shooting into direct, or near direct sunlight. This flare actually rendered some images unusable. The Leica Summilux on the other hand had barely noticeable flare under the same conditions. My first reaction was that this is a problem. However, then I looked at the flared image of the Kayak shop below, an image I had previously dismissed as trash. Something I didn’t expect happened … I actually found I like the flare in this photo! It’s smooth, and gives a very unique etherial quality to the image. In the second shot below you can see the flare caused by reflection of the sun off the deck of the kayak. It’s actually a beautiful effect. In other words, yes the lens flares, but I tend to consider this an artistic characteristic of the lens. 
My final conclusions will be regarding the 7Artisans and Leica lenses specifically, as the Voightlander was visibly outperformed by both these lenses. In most situations I actually had difficulty determining if a shot was taken on the Leica Summilux or the 7Artisans, they are that close. Fortunately I kept detailed notes on each frame shot because in so many cases, that was the only way to identify one from the other. Let me be honest. The Leica Summilux is a gorgeous world-class-lens, but it should be, as the current price of them on the used market is roughly $5000 Cdn. The 7Artisans is only $400 Cdn new, so less than 10% of the price. I find it amazing that the performance of both lenses was so close given such a price difference. The thing that really sets them apart is the flare issue. The 7Artisans 35mm can produce a very artistic flare effect that would be extremely difficult to achieve otherwise. In fact two of my favourite images from the shoot, are the above ones with flare. I will be inclined to use this lens with a hood to minimize flare but I fully intend to throw caution to the wind on occasion and point my lens in the direction of the sun to see what results. In some cases that flare can be magic! As I've already said, it’s amazing to see how well the 7Artisans 35mm performed compared to the Summilux. In fact I simply would not have believed it if I had not done these tests for myself. The 7Artisans 35mm f2 is a wonderful lens, and one I will add to my own kit for use over the long term. You can find more information at the 7Artisans web site when the lens is released on November 7th.

The final image below is my favourite from the past two weeks of testing. It was shot with the 7Artisans 35mm F2 WEN lens on my Leica M6 with Ilford HP5 film.
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