In a previous life, I sold small motorbikes and scooters to the public. Not the beastly 4-cylinder behemoths you associate with Hell’s Angels, or the POwer Ranger-coloured sportsbikes so beloved on the track, but the kind used every day. Small 125cc engined scooters were the most popular, and we mostly sold the big names – Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda etc. The mantra told to customers (rather self-servingly) was to “stay away from the Chinese crap” – namely, the Lexmoto, Sinnis and Kymco brands that were starting to filter over to the UK.
At the time, these manufacturers were generally regarded as cheap and cheerful, but not something that would last you years and years of rough use. This was based on a mix of experience, brand loyalty and a touch of racism, in that the majority of the Chinese bikes we got in through part exchange were usually falling to bits by the time we saw them. However these recommendations turned a blind eye to the fact that unit-wise, the lesser-known (to us) manufacturers far outsold our familiar brands in the Asian markets, where bikes and scooter owners outnumber cars in major cities.
However, in past years all motorcycle and scooter manufacturers that sell in the UK and Europe have had to bring their bikes in line with Euro emissions standards, and include ABS brakes, so the gap between the well-known and newer brands is closing. There’s also an increase in UK-based companies buying the bare bones of bikes from Chinese factories and outfitting them in high-end accessories and aftermarket parts, to make them look a little less plasticky.
Before you tell me to shut up and stop talking about bikes, this is a photography blog, for god’s sake – I’m getting to the point, which is that in my search for new lenses for my Fujifil X-T20, I’d automatically discouted the newer unknown-to-me lens manufacturers. I’d heard of 7artisans, but past that, not many others.
A casual evening’s trawl through eBay brought a 50mm lens by Kamlan to my attention, though. With a maximum aperture of f1.1, it was faster than any other lens in my possession. Even taking the cropped sensor into consideration (which means a 50mm lens is effectively a 75mm lens), I thought it might be a fun experiment to try – and cheaper on digital than wasting rolls of film on an experiment that might not be very fruitful. I’d never heard of Kamlan, but after some searching online, found this example to be a Mark I version of a well-regarded manual lens.
For the grand sum of £55, I soon found myself holding a new lens. My first impressions were how well-made it felt, especially compared to the plastic bodies of the Fujifilm XC lenses I’d picked up. It’s all-metal, and heavy – not enough to feel unbalanced, but enough to remind you that there’s a decent lump of glass in your hand. The manual focus is smooth (and let me say it again, hooray for focus peaking) and accurate. The apreture ring is clickless (apparently this is a boon for videographers), which was new to me, but I quickly learned to love it.
I’ve previously written about an event held every couple of months by Wander Gather – they had a solstice meetup coming up, and what better way to test a new lens than celebrating the longest day, in the balmy June sunshine?
Held in a hidden-away allotment in Knowle, we saw familiar faces when wandering through the gate to find a place to sit on the grass, facing Bristol’s rolling hills (and far off in the distance, Brunel’s suspension bridge) and the setting sun. I baked a banana and walnut cake and brought it along with some homemade rhubarb and ginger jam, and we chatted as more people drifted in. Our host gave a short reading about solstice myths and legends, and then we listened to Bea Piper sing and play us some fantastic folky tunes (one about breakfast, which I loved). A few more stories followed that, and someone who’s name I didn’t catch played us another song, accompanied by a guitar, as the sun finally set.
After that, we chatted amongst ourselves, had some more tea (or something stronger) and enjoyed being outside, somewhere so peaceful and green. I decided to go for a wander around the hut, following a poetry trail that had been set up on a winding path through the trees. I stopped to test out the low-light performance of both the lens and the X-T20 (note: great, love being able to switch to high ISO and not fear too much noise).
As it got darker we headed for home, and I was eager both for bed and to see the outcome of my shooting the next day. I’ve written previously about trying to find a simpler workflow for categorising and editing photos (that doesn’t involve paying Adobe lots of money). I downloaded RAW Power for my iPad, and although it doesn’t really cover the categorising side of things (other than letting you create folders to put your images into, in the Photos app), the editing side is quite intuitive and easy to do while sitting on the sofa. It imports RAW images from the SD card and lets you tweak them to your heart’s content, then export as JPG for social media etc. The only issue I came up against were a couple of processed RAW files showing thin vertical lines on them, almost like a glitch, but a bit of toggling between editing menues seemed to fix the issue. Something to be aware of for future, and maybe I’ll do some deeper digging to see if tagging is an option for organisation too.
Overall, I’m very pleased with the Kamlan lens – it feels sturdy, and I love the dreamy bokeh the 12 aperture blades create. Its simplicity is part of its charm – for something like this, I don’t need weather-sealing or in-lens stability motors, but I can see how it would be utterly useless for someone shooting fast-moving action. It will definitely be a permanent feature in my camera bag, and may even end up replacing the Fujifilm XC 15-45mm lens entirely, if I can get my hands on an even wider option.
I’d happily recommend it to anyone who is less concerned with perfect image clarity, and more concerned with the atmosphere and feelings their images can evoke. I’ll also be keeping my eye out for other manual third-party lenses, as if they’re as good as Kamlan, they represent great value for money. If you have any tips on this front, please share!