I had a birthday a few weeks ago. I also had an Amazon gift card. So I browsed Amazon for something to buy myself in celebration of becoming older. I was looking through Fujifilm accessories when I stumbled across a cheap $90 prime lens, the Meike 35mm f/1.7. A prime lens for less than $100? I added it to the cart, proceeded to the checkout and submitted the order.
And I immediately regretted it.
I mean, I’m older and supposedly wiser. What kind of piece-of-junk lens am I going to get for so little money? It will, most assuredly, be poorly made with subpar optics and I’ll never use it. I had wasted my money, no doubt about it, I thought. I should have purchased something else. Oh, well. The order had already been placed.
A couple of days later a package arrived at my door. Inside was a box that contained the Meike 35mm f/1.7 lens that I had ordered. I opened it up with low expectations. It felt plenty hefty, though, and not lightweight like something made from cheap plastic. I removed the lens from the box and it looked and felt solidly built, mostly made of metal. My senses were telling me that I had ordered a vintage lens from the film era, perhaps the 1960’s, and not a brand-new lens made for digital cameras.
The Meike 35mm f/1.7 lens looked good and seemed like a quality item, but what about the optics? Was it going to perform well? Why was it so darn cheap?
I attached it to my Fujifilm X-Pro2 and immediately noticed a quirk. The aperture ring is smooth and doesn’t click at the different f-stops. That’s a little odd. I have a Helios 44-2 lens that has two aperture rings, one that clicks and one that’s smooth, and so it’s not a new concept, but it is an unusual choice.
Another quirk is that the spaces in-between the f-stops, marked by numbers on the lens, are far apart when the aperture is large and close together when the aperture is small. For example, it takes quite a turn to get from f/1.7 to f/2 but going from f/8 all the way to f/22 is a tiny turn, and trying to stop on f/11 or f/16 is a tough task.
This is a manual focus lens and the focus ring is smooth. It seems to have the right amount of give, not too firm and not too loose. There is a focus distance scale on the lens, something that is too often missing today. The front element doesn’t rotate and it has 49mm threads.
I was shocked when I reviewed some frames that I had captured with the Meike 35mm lens on my X-Pro2 and saw how crisp they were. It’s sharp. Very sharp, in fact! I would expect this sharpness out of a lens that costs much more, but not out of budget glass. From the perspective of creating crisp images, this lens is right up there with the best. And it looks good attached to the X-Pro2.
I was then shocked by the amount of vignetting and the soft corners when using a large aperture. This is why the lens is so cheap. When wide open the Meike 35mm is almost unusable. I say almost because you could use the flaws as an artistic tool to give your images character. Things noticeably improve at f/2, but it’s still pronounced. By f/2.8 I would say that the vignetting and soft corners are minimal enough that you could live with them, but they don’t fully go away until f/8. Apertures smaller than f/8 suffer from diffraction. There is a small amount of chromatic aberrations that can be found when the aperture is f/4 and larger, but overall it’s well controlled. There’s a fairly pronounced pincushion distortion, which you’ll notice if you photograph a brick wall.
Bokeh, which is the quality of the out-of-focus area of an image, looks very good with this lens. When wide open there is a slight swirly effect, similar to the Helios 44-2 but less pronounced. When the aperture is large the subject separates nicely from the background.
The Meike 35mm f/1.7 is an excellent budget standard prime lens option for your Fujifilm camera. It’s all manual, which I like but some people might not. It has lots of character, something that’s often missing from modern lenses. It certainly has plenty of flaws and there is a reason why it’s cheap, but overall it performs much better than the price point would indicate. Even if the MSRP was $150 (instead of $90) it would still be an intriguing option. If you don’t already own a standard prime lens for your Fujifilm camera, this is one that you should consider, and, because it’s very inexpensive, it should fit into everyone’s budget.