Monday, 19 October 2009

Samyang 85mm f/1.4: 25,000 words a second

The make-up-tastic Leanne, shot with a full-frame 5D

"We bring you safety", that's their slogan. Samyang is a small Korean company that has been around in one form or another since 1972. They appear to have specialised in CCTV lenses throughout the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, but obviously someone in the company has a dream, and over the last year and a bit they have made some noise with an 85mm portrait lens which is the subject of this article, which you are reading right now yes.

A fruit, shot with an APS-C Nikon D1

The company also sells a range of T-mount telephoto and mirror lenses of no great distinction, although they're cheap, plus a fascinating 8mm fisheye lens which gives full-frame coverage on APS-C digital SLRs. They have recently announced a 14mm full-frame manual focus wide angle lens, which is also an interesting prospect, and so kudos to Samyang for being odd (long after writing this post the company launched a full-frame 35mm f/1.4, a classic combination if ever there was one). Most anonymous Far Eastern lens manufacturers that dabble in budget-priced lenses aim at the low-end consumer market, and sell cheap autofocus zooms. An 85mm f/1.4 is therefore an odd, daring choice, aimed at tasteful, intelligent people such as you and I. Here's what it looks like:

It's large and heavy, and it comes with a flimsy plastic lens hood although there's nothing flimsy about the lens itself, which is like a giant glass eye. It has a rubber grip around the stiff, precise manual focus ring, but apart from that the lens is metal and glass. It feels cold. Nothing rattles. It costs roughly £200, far less than any competing 85mm f/1.2 or f/1.4, and still less than any of the various 85mm f/1.8 models. The reason for this is that it's manual everything. You have to focus manually, operate the aperture manually, and if you use the Nikon version on anything but the toppermost Nikon cameras you have to meter manually as well. Although I'm a Canon person I bought the Nikon version, and for most of the shots on this page I mounted it on a Canon 5D with an adapter. This way I can use it on a variety of cameras, and I don't really lose any functionality on a Canon body.

NB I do not own shares in Samyang, and I bought the lens with my own money. If the company wants to send me a Samyang-branded towel I do not mind. I could do with a new towel.

PROTIP: If you buy the Nikon version and mount it on a Canon camera using a Nikon-Canon adapter that has a focus confirmation chip, you get in-viewfinder focus confirmation, whereas if you use the Canon-mount version of the lens on a Canon body you don't. Also, set the focus to the minimum setting and just move your upper body backwards and forwards slightly in order to focus; this is faster and more immediate than using the focus ring (and a good tip in general, not just for this particular lens).

It's a full-frame lens, for full-frame cameras, available in Canon, Sony/Minolta, Nikon, and Pentax mounts. The latter option is odd given that Pentax doesn't sell a full-frame digital camera, but then again perhaps it's aimed at all those people who still shoot their Pentax Spotmatics and K1000s. I can't see into the mind of Samyang. I like to think that there is one enthusiastic man at the company who is a fan of the cult of old manual focus lenses, and he wants to be The Hero of the Antique Manual Focus Lens Men, and this is his chance. I bet he tried to have the lens released in the old M42 screw mount as well, but was overruled.

The lens will work fine on APS-C SLRs, where it becomes roughly a 135mm, which is a classic portrait focal length although I'm not fond of it; too long for general use, not really long enough for spying on people or wildlife etc. I ponder the oddness of a company releasing a budget-priced lens that comes into its own on full-frame cameras, given that full-frame cameras tend to be expensive and sell only to people who do not buy budget-priced lenses. Either Samyang are being very clever (full-frame cameras are more commonplace than they used to be, and they are also more commonplace on the used market), or they're being very silly (in the sense that the big recent news in digital camera land has been the Micro Four-Thirds format, on which a manual focus 85mm would be torture to actually use). Time will tell. Or it may not.

Here's an example of how the lens copes with a full-frame sensor, in terms of vignetting:

The lens has stops for f/1.4, f/2, plus a mysterious unmarked stop, and then f/2.8. At f/1.4 it has mild vignetting as above. At f/2 the vignetting is not noticeable unless you photograph a white wall, and at f/2.8 it has all gone.

There are stops beyond f/2.8 but I have not used them. I didn't buy an f/1.4 portrait lens so that I could shoot it at f/8. Lots of lenses will give you a nice sharp f/8 at 85mm. Almost all mid-range zooms will do that, even the kit zoom you got with your camera. In fact a zoom lens would probably be a better choice if you were shooting at f/8 - especially if you were using studio flash in a dim studio - because the Samyang lens does not automatically stop the aperture down if you have a Canon SLR. The problem is that Canon's lens control is all electronic, and the Samyang lens does not have any electronics or motors in it. The Nikon version will mechanically stop the aperture down when you take a shot, but with Canon you are limited to fully-manual stop-down metering. If you shoot at f/8 you have to either focus at f/1.4 and then quickly stop down to f/8 before you meter and take the shot; or you have to leave it at f/8 and focus through a dim viewfinder, which is just about possible in daylight but not so if you're indoors. In practice I set the lens at f/1.4 and sometimes f/2 and just leave it like that.

The minimum focus distance is a metric metre, which looks like this:

At that distance the depth of field at f/1.4 looks like this:

That is a 100% crop without sharpening. The eye is in focus but the eyebrow is not. The minimum focus distance is on a par with other fast portrait lenses, although it's a shame it wasn't closer; it's no macro lens. Wide open or at f/2.0 it's not razor-sharp in the middle, but otherwise there are no optical problems; no distortion, no CA. The bokeh is very nice. Here's a lot of it, shot at f/1.4 with a Fuji S3 Pro (an APS-C camera - the cropping factor actually makes the lens more useful for small subjects like this):

For portraits, slight softness is fine, I have no problem with it. The combination of narrow depth of field and pleasing background blur is one of the few things that can't easily be mocked up in Photoshop, unless you mess around with masks and layers, and it's strikingly attractive, and for that reason people are prepared to pay lots of money for fast portrait lenses.

Canon's apparently excellent 85mm f/1.2L is the most expensive prime lens they sell that does not have a white barrel; only the fast, long-range telephoto prime lenses are dearer. Judging by this comparison by a Polish gentleman, the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 delivers most of the art that Canon's lens will deliver, but for one-ninth the money. However, judging by this review at, and comparing it with this review of the 85mm f/1.2 at the same site - which was conducted with a different camera, although they were both full-frame and had similar resolution - it does not deliver nearly the same science. At f/1.4 it makes a brave stab at emulating the Canon lens at f/1.2, but when stopped down it slowly improves to an unexceptional level whereas the Canon lens becomes very sharp.

That image was shot with the S3 Pro again. Sadly I can't find a site that compares the Samyang lens with the Canon 85mm f/1.8, which is a more apt opponent. It's one of Canon's most well-liked lenses, one of the few that people seem to enjoy paying for, rather than grumbling about the price. It would also be interesting to compare it with the Jupiter 9 85mm f/2.0 I used to own; I sold it a while back, and from what I recall the bokeh was lovely from the 15-blade aperture, but it was never sharp.

There are fewer used vintage 85mm portrait lenses than you might expect. It seems that the photographic fashion back in the 1970s was for 135mm lenses, perhaps because they were easy to make. Used Pentax Takumar 85mm f/1.8 lenses tend to sell for more than more than a brand-new Canon 85mm. In general, anything with Takumar on it tends to sell for an inflated price because of blogs very much like this one letting the cat out of the bag. The irony is that my own Takumar lenses are too bashed-about from constant use to be worth anything on eBay. Whatever hype I have helped to generate for them was wasted on me.

In my previous lens test I enlisted the help of Kraftwerk, because the lens was German. Today I shall enlist the help of the Pet Shop Boys, whose poignant programmed plastic pop successfully bridged the gap between the brain, the heart, and the toes in the late 1980s. The following images present crops from a full-frame image shot with a Canon 5D. On the left, the centre of the frame. On the right, the bottom-left corner. The targets are the inner and outer sleeves of the Pet Shop Boys' debut album, Please, with the craggy face of motionless keyboardist Chris Lowe as the eye of the storm. I understand that the fashion nowadays is to call them "Pet Shop Boys" without the "the", but that is not how I do things.




Please came out in 1986, at a time when sampled orchestra stabs and parkas were very fashionable.

It's not immediately apparent unless you compare the full-sized images side-by-side, but the lens starts off decently but not spectacularly sharp in the centre at f/1.4, which doesn't improve a lot when you stop down; in the corners it improves from f/1.4 to f/5.6. Compared to the Porst 55mm f/1.2 that I covered in much less depth beforehand, it has much less colour fringing and distortion, indeed it does not appear to have any. This is good, because softness can be easily improved with post-capture sharpening and by sizing the image down, whereas colour fringing and distortion take a bit more work.

So there. The box contains an instruction manual, a soft bag, front and rear lens caps, and a bayonet-mount lens hood that leaves the 72mm filter thread free. The hood is plastic, but at least Samyang gives you one, unlike mean old Canon. The hood reverses over the lens. The lens itself appears to be multi-coated (it is a deep golden yellow green colour, and large enough for the model to use it as a mirror).

The lens is made by Samyang, and I assume it was designed by Samyang too. It is sold under a multitude of brand names, including Opteka, Bower, Rokinon, Polar, Falcon, Walimex and Vivitar. The Opteka and Rokinon names appear to be more common in the US. Mine is from Samyang in Poland and has a Samyang nameplate. As far as I know, the nameplate is the only difference between the different lens brandings. In the past, the Champion of OEM Rebranding King was Cosina; a challenger appears.