Hands-On Review: Neewer 35mm f/1.7 Lens

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Type the tagline “Pro Quality Amateur Prices” into Google and watch links to the company Neewer float to the top of your feed. Founded in 2010 with an initial set-top flash, Neewer has grown to incorporate inexpensive LED on-camera lighting and ring lights popular with the beauty blogger set, while also expanding into microphones and audio accessories, tripods and stabilization gear, as well as lenses, filters, bags, and various other accessories for photo, video, and audio markets.

Location photographs © Jill Waterman

According to its website, Neewer is a multinational company with “a passionate team dedicated to bringing you new and cool photographic equipment.” B&H carries a small selection of Neewer products, including a manual focus 35mm f/1.7 lens for APS-C-format Sony e-mount mirrorless cameras. I decided to add this lens to my bag while also testing a trio of wide-angle and fisheye lenses from MeiKe, a company that makes a version of the 35mm f/1.7 lens (which I didn’t test) that seems virtually indistinguishable, except for the branding on the lens barrel and lip.

The Neewer 35mm f/1.7 comes packed in a sturdy cardboard box, complete with a soft drawstring pouch for storage and a microfiber cleaning cloth. Also enclosed is a personalized note and an email address inviting you to become part of Neewer’s VIP program. I sent an email requesting further background about the Neewer brand for this review, and received a rather uninformed response, which didn’t make me feel so special.

Weighing a mere 6.2 oz (176 g) and 2.38 x 1.61" (60.5 x 41mm), the all-metal barrel and mount has a compact appearance and a fast 1.7 aperture, making it ideal for working in low light and with shallow depth of field. As an APS-C lens, it has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 52.5mm, and a 36° 30' horizontal angle of view. The optical design features six elements in five groups, with multi-coated glass to suppress flare and improve color and contrast, while circular aperture blades deliver appealing bokeh when shooting wide open, as seen in the image at right below.

Camera settings, from left to right: 1/40 second, mid-range aperture, ISO 3200; 1/50 second, f/1.7, ISO 200

A metal lens cap pops snugly over the front of the lens, while a heavy plastic back cap twists onto the back end. The top of the lens barrel is threaded to accept a 49mm screw-on filter, and the focusing ring is decked out with a scalloped-ridge design for ease of handling, harking back to classic manual focus lenses of yesteryear.

Since this is a fully manual lens with no image stabilization or built in autofocus features, it was not recognized by my Sony a6500 mirrorless camera when first attached. This was easily fixed by adjusting my camera settings to release the shutter without recognizing the lens. I also turned on focus peaking as an aid to determining sharpness.

Camera settings, from left to right: 1/160 second, f/1.7, ISO 100; 1/13 second, mid-range aperture, ISO 800

As another focusing option, depth-of-field and distance scales are engraved on the lens barrel, and the aperture ring is de-clicked for ease in adjusting to changing light conditions when shooting motion footage. I didn’t have the opportunity to shoot video when testing this lens, but I have no doubt it is very handy as a filmmaker’s tool, given its light weight, and smooth focus and aperture adjustments.

F-stops are etched onto the aperture ring, and widely spaced between f/1.7 and f/8, when there is a sudden jump to f/22 with just millimeters of separation. This made me pine for my missing friends f/11 and f/16, as well as the cherished f/5.6. Since one cannot feel any aperture clicks, and data from the lens is not saved in the image file, I found keeping abreast of the f-stop I was shooting at somewhat of a challenge in mid-to-high-range settings. Yet, when racked all the way to f/1.7, the lens achieves a crisp point of focus with a creamy soft-focus background, as shown in the examples above left and below.

Camera settings and data, from left to right: 1/3200 second, f/1.7, ISO 200; image detail: 100% crop; image detail: 400 % crop

At wide apertures, I found some slight vignetting in certain situations, but it certainly wasn’t a major flaw. Colors held up well across a wide range of aperture and ISO settings, with minimal chromatic aberration.

Camera settings, from left to right: 1/6 second, wide aperture, ISO 400; 1/8 second, mid aperture, ISO 1600; 1/30 second, aperture stopped down, ISO 2500

While I used my camera’s focus peaking in many situations, I was curious about how this lens performed when using the distance scale to zone focus. Although it seemed to work well at close distances, discrepancies between the distance scale and focus peaking in more distant landscapes made me a bit hesitant about achieving accurate focus. Given the low cost of this lens, optimal sharpness in all conditions is a bit of a reach, although frankly, after examining the image files, it seems to have performed better than I had expected when shooting situations like the cityscapes above and below.

Finally, since the Neewer 35 is touted for its low-light capabilities, I was anxious to test it in a range of nighttime and subdued lighting situations. Except for the image at left below, all my images were shot handheld.

It was long after sunset in my first example, so I boosted the ISO to 3200 for a 10-second exposure that froze the stars in their tracks above a suburban home. Although there is slight vignetting to the corners and at the bottom of the frame, I find this does not detract from the image, and the color fidelity and image detail remain good despite the high ISO. Since I was using a tripod, I was able to stop down to a mid-range aperture to maximize sharpness.

Camera settings, from left to right: 10 seconds, mid-range aperture, ISO 3200; 1/320 second, ~f/4, ISO 1600; 1/250 second, f/1.7, ISO 100

In the center photo of traffic heading up New York’s 10th Avenue, I was hand-holding the lens against a glass window, which no doubt contributed to some flare and the appearance of color fringing in the direct light sources. With the aperture set to around f/4, I boosted my shutter speed to freeze the moving traffic and set the ISO to 1600 to compensate for the quickly fading daylight. Green is the most difficult color to retain in this type of fading-light situation, which is evident in the detail and contrast of the deep green trees at right. Otherwise, the image quality, color and sharpness seem to hold up quite well.

The close-up view of tall grasses was shot at dusk and backlit by decorative lighting along New York’s High Line. Shooting at a low ISO for optimal image quality, I racked the aperture to its widest setting to show off the bokeh. A fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second allowed me to freeze a stalk of grass in a slight breeze, capturing impressive detail of the variegated colors of the grass, with soft focus elements in front and behind merging into rich black and blue colors of twilight.

My final thoughts? While the extra effort required to shoot with a manual lens makes it somewhat of an acquired taste, the fast f/1.7 aperture on the Neewer 35 makes it ideal for working in low light, when manual operation often yields best results. That rationale, combined with its compact size and extremely affordable price, makes it a worthy choice to add to your gear kit.

Have you picked up this Neewer lens? What do you think of it? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

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