Saturday, 24 February 2018

Samyang 35mm T1.5 / f/1.4

Let's have a look at the Samyang 35mm T1.5. It's a fast wideangle full-frame lens from Samyang of Korea, available in a wide variety of lens mounts, although for this article I stuck it onto a Canon 5D MkII. The T1.5 is the cine version of the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 but with a slightly different body. Optically it's the same, so all the information in this review applies to both versions of the lens. I wrote this review while listening to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's Ears on repeat. If you want to see more examples my review of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains was brought to you by this lens.

You and I know T-stops, but for the benefit of casual readers an f-stop is the ratio between the diameter of the maximum aperture of the lens and its focal length such that an f/1.4 lens has an aperture that's twice the diameter of an f/2.8 lens and bear in mind that the diameter expands in two dimensions so f/2.8 is actually two stops slower than f/1.4 whereas a T-stop is (looks it up) a T-stop is a measurement of the Transmittance of the lens expressed as the f-stop minus the percentage of light lost during transmission through the lens breathe in. Got that? It's an f-stop with a tiny bit shaved off to account for the light loss of all the glass and glass-air interfaces inside the lens.

At f/1.4.

The T-stop is always slightly slower than the f-stop because we live in an imperfect world where everything is broken and wrong. For coated prime lenses the difference is usually tiny. It starts to mount up with complex zoom lenses that have several elements and becomes a major problem with lenses that have non-standard optical paths, such as soft-focus lenses and mirror lenses. The famous Minolta/Sony 135mm f/2.8 STF for example has a T-value of T4.5 because the built-in neutral density filter saps a lot of light; macro lenses lose light because the image circle is spread-out at macro ranges, and mirror lenses lose light because it reflects off the mirror surfaces.

The lens is massive, roughly the same size as a 16-35mm f/2.8 full-frame zoom lens. Think of the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux and then imagine the opposite of that.
It's plastic, lighter than it looks; it doesn't rattle. The T1.5 cine version has a smooth, geared focus ring, which is fine handheld, and a declicked aperture.
In this image the lens is at the infinity hard stop, which isn't quite at the infinity mark. Mine is a native EOS mount lens.
There are no electronic connections. The Nikon stills version of the lens has auto-aperture, but otherwise you have to stop the lens down manually. It's a bit like using those old preset aperture lenses from the 1960s - you have to focus and then twist down the aperture until the shutter speed is at a value that pleases you.

The filter thread is plastic. The front element moves back and forth inside the barrel; the manufacturer makes no claims of weather or dust sealing. I imagine that leaving a UV or polarising filter on the lens all the time might cut down on dust in the long-term. For most of the shots in this post I used a polarising filter.
The box comes with a hood, which I have never used and didn't miss, and a felt bag.

e.g. the bag is made of felt. Obviously I felt the bag - I had to feel it in order to remove it from the box - although I like to think that there's a difference between touching something and feeling it. Feeling implies that you slide your fingers over a surface whereas touching is a bit like prodding but less aggressive. Isn't the English language great? Touch, feel, prod, press, caress, stroke all mean slightly different things and can be used sincerely or ironically. Prodding is basically like touching, but whereas you might touch or caress an attractive woman you would never prod her, unless she was unresponsive and you wanted to see if she was alive or not, but even then the police report wouldn't use the word "prod" because it's slightly comical. You'd prod her with a stick so that you don't leave fingerprints.

T-stops are a motion picture thing. Cinematographers like to get it right in camera because they're hardcore. If you get the exposure of a stills photograph wrong you can salvage it in the darkroom. Ditto for motion picture film, but imagine that you've shot an action sequence with fifty-six individual shots taken with several different lenses of Liam Nesson jumping over a fence, and you have to splice them together. If the exposure is the same all the way through you just have to worry about the natural rhythm of the cuts, which is difficult enough. If the exposure is wrong you have to adjust the lighting and perhaps colour balance of each shot, which wastes time. Imagine having to do that in the days of film, when there was no Adobe Premiere. Imagine Ridley Scott shouting at you for getting it wrong.

I've always wanted a fast wide prime. There are several choices but I plumped for a 35mm f/1.4. Why 35mm? 35mm is a vintage focal length from the days of the Leica/Contax rangefinder wars; it's a gentlemanly focal length, a bit staid, but it won't let you down. A couple of years ago I took a holiday with just a 35mm f/2.8 Olympus Stylus Epic, which I then ended up taking to Berlin as well, and I didn't feel underdressed.

Why f/1.4 and not f/2 or f/2.8? Fast prime lenses have a split personality. Wide open they can see in the dark and the wide aperture gives the photographer more control over depth of field; stopped down they're very sharp. I've shot a lot of medium format film over the last few years, and medium and larger formats have a particular look. The narrow depth of field combined with good central sharpness equals a kind of 3D pop-out effect that's hard to replicate with smaller formats.

A little bit of the medium format look, shot with a YashicaMat (top) and a Mamiya RB67 (bottom, cropped from 6x7).

At f/1.4 with a 35mm-format camera you still have to get very close to things in order to achieve the pop-out effect. At middle distances the depth separation is subtle, but it's there:

Never let it be said that I don't have any photographic ideas. I do have photographic ideas. Three or four of them at least that I reuse a lot. But the first step to dealing with your addictions is recognising that you have them. As you can see the bokeh is decent but nothing special. This seems to be typical of fast wideangle lenses.

Optically the lens is perfectly usable for reportage wide open, with a bit of glow around highlight edges; sharp in most of the frame at f/2.8, all of the frame at f/8 except the last few hundred pixels in the corner. It also seems to be better at close-up and medium distances than infinity, or alternatively it could be that I'm rubbish at focusing a wide angle lens manually at long distances. Here's a 100% crop of the seagull at the top of the post, taken at something like 1/8000th at f/1.4:

That's pretty good for f/1.4. Seagulls have teeth. Isn't it amazing what the natural world can produce all by itself? The hair, the beak, its eyes; honed over millions of years by natural selection. Our own creations are crude in comparison. Until we can build machines that create themselves we will remain in the shadow of the natural world. Why shoot at f/1.4 in bright sunshine? Over the last two decades it seems to have become standard in press photography to use fast wide angle lenses wide open in bright sunshine, I assume because photojournalists aren't allowed to retouch their images, and a combination of the narrow depth of field and vignetting of wide apertures draws attention to the subject in-camera. Consider this image of the Badwater Ultramarathon from July 2013, shot in the bright sunshine and searing heat of Death Valley:

This is my mental image of modern press photography. The EXIF data is gone but my hunch is that it was shot with a 35mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.2 or f/1.4 wide open, which in theory is insane - it's Death Valley in late morning or early afternoon - but that's how press photography is nowadays.

Earlier generations associated grainy black and white film with veracity, because that's what photojournalism looked like in the 1960s. For my generation black and white is an affectation, and the look of "reality" is 24mm f/1.4 at f/1.4 in bright sunshine with harsh shadows and washed-out colours, and everything is sand or dirt. The look has permeated computer games to an extent that muted brown is now a cliche of Modern Warfare and Call of Duty. It's another example of how the medium shapes our view of the world and becomes a message in itself, next paragraph.

This is by coincidence one of my greatest sexual fetishes.

I wonder if people in the Victorian era associated hard-hitting news with the look of woodblock engravings. Who knows. The following four images were shot at f/8 and f/1.4 respectively, followed by 100% crops from the centre and corner, with no sharpening or correction of any kind:

There's a teeny-tiny bit of CA on the artist's jacket and the post, but it's minuscule. The corner isn't as bitingly sharp as my Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 but then again my Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 can't do f/1.4.

You'll have to trust that I focused correctly - Samyang lenses are notorious for misaligned focus scales, and for focusing past infinity. My impression is that the lens isn't great at infinity focus.

This is the same image, but with sharpening and some CA correction, which suggests that the perceived lack of sharpness is more a function of glowy edges than poor resolution. Serves you right for photographing a landscape at f/1.4. On a more serious level the lens might not be great for astrophotography unless you stop down to f/2 or so.

The lens is available for all of the popular full-frame lens mounts and the likes of Micro Four Thirds as well, and to confuse matters Samyang also sells a completely different, autofocus 35mm f/1.4 for mirrorless cameras. Furthermore the lens is available under a variety of brand names, of which Rokinon seems to have captured the public's imagination the most, perhaps because it sounds very aggressive.

Samyang also sells a 35mm T1.5 as part of their professional XEEN range of cine lenses. I assume the optics are the same, but the XEEN lenses are made of metal and have a common physical design. They're a lot more expensive.

It's an advert for a film in which Mussolini comes back from the dead. It's fascinating to imagine how politicians from the past might fit in with the present; my hunch is that Mussolini, Stalin, Ramsay MacDonald and the like would adapt much more readily than Hitler, because they were essentially opportunists whereas Hitler had a very narrow focus on a limited range of political ideas, wedded to a certain time and place that has long passed.

This was taken with my mobile phone. Sylvio Berlusconi must really like being Prime Minister of Italy. I imagine he can use the role to pass laws that benefit his business interests, but otherwise being Prime Minister of Italy seems like more trouble than it's worth.

There's a tiny bit of mostly-barrel-with-a-bit-of-moustache-style distortion. PTLens has a profile for it.

In fact every image in this post illustrates one of my sexual fetishes, including the seagulls.

There are lots of alternative lenses in the 35mm range. At the top of the financial tree Nikon and Canon make weather-sealed autofocus 35mm f/1.4s; Sigma makes an apparently terrific 35mm f/1.4; Zeiss sells a manual focus 35mm f/1.4 for several lens mounts, plus an autofocus 35mm f/1.4 especially for the Minolta/Sony system. I haven't used any of them. Are they any good? Probably!

As mentioned in the text I didn't bother with a hood. Flare resistance was however infinitely superior to Samyang's 14mm f/2.8. Note in this photo the distinctive colour shift from "bokeh fringing" - branches away from the focal plane are green, closer purple.

The people of Rome are like honey badgers. They park wherever they want. Here's some more purple fringing on highlight edges, which as before goes away when you stop down and can generally be Photoshopped into oblivion.

35mm is however a venerable focal length that, as with 50mm, crosses financial boundaries and appears to be difficult to do badly; until recently Canon and Nikon made 35mm f/2 lenses that were amongst the cheapest in their prime lens range. The two lenses were replaced with a more expensive f/2 with image stabilisation and an f/1.8 respectively. In the mid-range Tamron also sells a 35mm f/1.8. Judging by the reviews they all have unimpressive bokeh, are usable wide open, nice at f/8. At this point in the post the anger and aggression that drove the preceding paragraphs has subsided to be replaced by a kind of gnawing fear, a gnawing dread, gnawing.

At the bottom of the pile is Yongnuo, a kind of mini-Samyang famous for its flash units. Yongnuo makes a 35mm f/2 that looks like a clone of the old Canon 35mm f/2. It sells for less than a hundred English pounds and apparently isn't very good. I know very little about vintage 35mm lenses, although from what I have read the otherwise-reliable Olympus OM range of compact primes apparently wasn't all that hot at 35mm. In the early 1970s Nikon launched a 35mm f/1.4 which was subsequently modified for AI and then AI-S. It's much smaller than the Samyang 35mm and is apparently still on sale new, although you have to ask and it's very expensive. It has a certain amount of investment value, but on an optical level it's apparently not as good. As far as I know Canon didn't sell a 35mm f/1.4 during the FD years, instead opting to one-up Nikon by selling a 24mm f/1.4 instead, but that's a whole 'nother focal length.

The best 35mm lens I own is my aforementioned Contax 35-70mm f/3.4, which I never use because it's slow and awkward.

That's it. Can't think of any more to say. Might as well stop before the bad words come. While in Rome I only saw an image of Cara Delevingne once. A few years back it seemed as if London was plastered with a mixture of adverts featuring Cara Delevingne and posters for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, to an extent that I now associate 2014 and 2015 with images of Jennifer Lawrence surrounded by flames. Then the posters were gone and now London seems like an alien place; the new posters are strange and unfamiliar, the iconography means nothing to me. I miss those posters. I associate them with a certain time in my life, and now they're gone forever.