I have long felt that perhaps too many photographers prioritize bokeh and blur more than they should, but now I am a hypocrite, because I fell in love with an f/0.95 lens.
On a crazy whim last year, I ordered myself the 7Artisans 35mm f/0.95 APS-C manual focus lens for my Fujifilm mirrorless cameras. It was a total gamble that ended up a creative jackpot, because the characteristics of the lens properly ignited a new creative fire in me and led to some of my favorite new work.
A 35mm lens is one of my favorite general focal lengths on the APS-C system, and I have been using the brilliant Fujifilm XF 35mm f/1.4 for years now. The lure of f/0.95 and the accompanying low-light performance, subject separation, and lovely bokeh were simply too strong for me, and I forced myself to forget about its lack of autofocus. I have plenty of autofocus lenses if I need them, and something in my gut told me this lens would be a riot. I could not have been more right.
Upon arrival, I was impressed with its all-metal construction and hefty weight. The focus ring felt smooth, and the aperture ring was not overly loose, though it was de-clicked.
As soon as I received the lens and did some initial testing with it, I realized I wanted my first real world testing to be street photography. I especially love shooting at night, and by combining this lens with my IBIS-equipped compact powerhouse, the Fujifilm X-S10, I could easily shoot at any hour I wanted, even long after the sun had set. Moonlight and lamplight become viable light sources for handheld street photography with a setup like this, owed in part to Fuji’s excellent high-ISO noise handling.
I remember back when I was an autofocus-only kind of guy, and I couldn’t be bothered with manual focus, but I gradually eased into the market segment, with vintage lenses and the Rokinon 12mm f/2, which was top of its class for a value ultrawide when it was released. By the time I got my grubby little hands on this 7Artians lens, I was comfortable using the built-in focusing aid features like focus peaking and zoom magnification, and my ability to focus even at the paper-thin depth-of-field setting that comes with f/0.95 was fairly good.
The experience of shooting with the lens became a joy to me. Manual focus does what it always does: it slows you down. Some will stress that precious seconds will lose them that once-in-a-lifetime shot they could have gotten with autofocus, but I argue that the slow and careful workflow required to obtain sharp focus has more potential benefits to a shooter than drawbacks. Slowing down has always allowed me to hone my composition in an image and makes me think more about what I am trying to accomplish. The added flexibility of shooting handheld in low light and forgoing a tripod helps make up for lack of autofocus to me as well, as that flexibility and the compact nature of a kit of one body and one lens is very freeing. It is especially nice since I like to use my e-bike to get around during my street photography sessions, and the less gear I have to haul, the more I can truly take advantage of that extreme mobility.
The lens is not without its issues. Far from a perfect optical formula, pixel-peepers and technical obsessives may not be pleased, but I bought this lens for one reason, shooting f/0.95, and I knew I would deal with flaws and limits to its optical formula, but I was very pleased to find out those were outweighed by its wonderful character and incredible low light performance.
Street portraits taken with a careful emphasis on perfect focus pop out at you with awesome separation and bokeh, without looking fake or strange. Falloff is pleasant and not distracting. In fact, I found that with good technique and subject material, this lens makes it hard to deliver a bad photo, as long as you took your time to nail focus and compose well.
These days, I really appreciate lenses with flaws. I call them flaws, although I could easily call them “character,” but I choose not to delude myself. I could easily reach for my Fuji XF 35mm f/1.4, which I adore. I could also maybe pick the even more clinically flawless Fuji XF 35mm f/2 or the awesome new 33mm f/1.4, and so many other lenses that are truly awesome, but when I am shooting work that is not meant for my commercial photography studio, I just enjoy a low-tech yet artistic option like the 7Artisans lens. Sometimes, I like to toss it on my faithful Fuji X-T1 and really get that full manual experience.
To top it all off, the results have simply spoken for themselves for me. If I mind my focusing technique and use the lens for an application it is well suited for, I certainly could use this lens for my professional work. At times, I do, but only when I am certain it’s the right tool for the job. For my personal work, however, I reach for it often, especially when the light is low, because I will never not love wandering a city at night, and this lens is a performer for that purpose.
I am very grateful for discovering this lens, and the wonderful doors it has opened for me. I realize it is not the kind of optic you reach for when you need pixel-peeping perfection, but I don’t really think that flawless optical quality is as important as some people seem to think. If nothing else, it is enough that I simply truly enjoy using it.
I am already looking forward to when I can head out to the city for another ride on my e-bike, while my tripod and other gear stays in the vehicle, I cruise the city with total freedom and mobility, letting my little Fuji and this ultra-fast manual focus lens do what they do best, and that is put a smile on my face.