I’ve spent about three months with the SLR Magic 23 1.7, and in that time I’ve developed a healthy working relationship with it. I’m primarily a street photographer, but I do some portrait and commercial work as well, so this review will be mainly from the perspective of a street photographer.
Let’s get the big caveats out of the way first and foremost: yes, this lens is manual focus. Actually, it’s manual everything. There’s a healthy contingent of people out there (like myself!) who enjoy manual focusing and metering. With the focus peaking on my Fuji XE-1, I hardly miss the autofocus, particularly since it’s possible to zone focus with the SLR Magic 23 1.7.
The other caveat, at least on my Fuji XE-1, is that no, this lens isn’t as brutally, clinically sharp as Fuji’s 23 1.4. It can’t resolve detail at great distances the same way, which is probably this lens’ weakest point.
But before you stop reading, we have to remember that the SLR Magic costs about half of what the Fuji does, is nearly as fast, and is beautifully constructed. Part of the joy of operating in full manual is having a lens that has value beyond just being a lens. The SLR Magic 23 1.7 is seriously a joy just to hold. The all-metal construction is gleefully apparent, and the tolerances are all spot on. There’s zero play when focusing or changing apertures, but there’s enough resistance to confirm that you’re indeed changing settings. One of my biggest gripes with Fuji’s lenses is that changing apertures was tricky because the mechanics were a little too sloppy – not so with the SLR Magic. Also, you can pretty much forget using manual focus with Fuji lenses, since the focus by wire lag makes it a chore even to zone focus, unless all your shooting is potted plants. There’s no comparison between focusing with mechanical vs. electrical components.
Much has been made about the excellent bokeh of SLR Magic’s lenses (and their 12 bladed diaphragms), and though that isn’t of much concern to me, I can attest that the bokeh is always soft and undistracting. If bokeh’s your thing, the SLR Magic 23 1.7 can focus stupidly close. It may not be true 1:1 macro, but it’s more than I’ll ever need, and it’s great to have the option if the mood strikes you.
Aside from not resolving details in the distance as well as I’d like, my other complaint with the SLR Magic 23 1.7 is the flare isn’t especially well controlled. Be prepared to fight through some ghosting if you’re shooting in high noon sun. I always thought complaints of flare were kind of frivolous and nit-picky, but when you find yourself confronted with it on multiple occasions, it really can be frustrating.
I bought this because I was craving a more slender, utilitarian alternative to Fuji’s 23 1.4 lens. I knew it would be a gamble, but I’ve always enjoyed using manual lenses in the past, and I’m a firm believer that a great picture will be great regardless of something like micro contrast. There’s a certain feeling of preparedness when you use the SLR Magic 23 1.7, a sensation that you’re absolutely ready for anything the street can throw at you. Warts and all, this is really an excellent lens for the price.