Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Samyang 14mm f/2.8: Action Time and Vision

Samyang 14mm f/2.8 @ f/8, Kodak DCS 760

Until last year Samyang was not a name that most people in the UK would associate with esoteric full-frame lenses, or indeed anything at all. Nonetheless the company made a splash with an 85mm f/1.4 lens that I wrote about back in October 2009, and they have made another splash with a new lens that I will write about a few paragraphs from now, after I have had a drink. The lens is sold under a plethora of different names in different markets; in the US it seems to be sold as a Rokinon 14mm, and also a Bower 14mm, and no doubt Vivitar as well.

Samyang 14mm f/2.8 @ f/11, Canon 10D IR

100% centre and corner crops from same
0, 0.5, 100 unsharp mask

Did you know that Samyang is an anagram of "Amaysng"? The company is welcome to purchase that idea from me. I have more where that one came from. For example, we could solve the twin problems of Britain's pension deficit and Iceland's ash-belching volcano by rounding up all of Britain's pensioners, sticking them in a big aeroplane, and dropping them into the crater. They would plug up the hole and hopefully also cool the volcano down.

Samyang 14mm f/2.8 @ f/5.6, Canon 5D MkII
Uncorrected for distortion,
ditto the rest

Firstly I will copy and paste the introduction from my earlier post, because it is a brilliant piece of writing that is still relevant today:

""We bring you safety", that's their logo. 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. The company also sells a range of T-mount telephoto and mirror lenses, and 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. Most anonymous Far Eastern lens manufacturers that dabble in budget-priced lenses aim at the low-end consumer market, and sell cheap autofocus zooms."

In the event, Samyang launched their 14mm lens at the end of 2009, but decided to withdraw it shortly afterwards in order to work on the optical formula. The lens was reintroduced in early 2010 and, as far as I can tell, the only thorough test so far is this one at It is a very thorough test, by professionals.

The Centre Culturel Universitaire Yahia Ibn Omar, Sousse, Tunisia

EDIT: The men of have since added their sauce to the goulash, baby, with a test on a 5D MkII and a 50D here and here respectively. The other definitive overview is this one by Markus Keinath, who copied me even down to using an infra-red camera, and to really throw people off he did it a month before I did.

I'm not entirely sure where the lens is sold. It is available on eBay, and also straight from Samyang's Polish branch at - in which case I believe you would save on VAT if you order your lens from inside the USA, but don't quote me on that - and I have seen Samyang lenses on sale in the local London Camera Exchange, but not the 14mm yet.

Here's a photograph of my copy, mounted on a Kodak DCS 760:

It's manual focus, manual stop-down. You can't mount filters unless you blu-tak a gel onto the rear element, or mount something inside the mirror box. This latter option is feasible on the DCS 760 pictured above, because it has a mount for Kodak's infrared filter, and indeed that is how I took the infrared image of the church at the top of the page. More of that in a later post, although here's a shot of my high-quality workmanship:

Here's a shot of it on a Sony NEX 3, with a Nikon-NEX adapter:

On a crop-sensor digital SLR the lens becomes a bulky 21-22mm, and on an APS-H SLR such as a Canon 1D or a DCS 760 it is an 18mm. Just like the 85mm f/1.4, it doesn't make a lot of sense on a crop-sensor SLR, and I am still puzzled as to Samyang's business model. Surely there can't be a huge market for full-frame, value-orientated manual focus lens nerds? But then again, perhaps Samyang came to the conclusion that no-one would be interested in paying a lot of money for a lens with Samyang written on it. And rather than simply not make and sell this lens, they had a burning desire to get it off their ample bosoms. Ample bosoms. Why am I thinking of ample bosoms? For the heck of it, here's a graphic that shows the kind of coverage you get in a variety of different formats:

If you click on it you'll notice, even sized down, the full-frame corners aren't much cop, but with all the crop formats its basically sharp across the frame (at f/8, anyway; I believe I shot that image at f/8). The huge bulging front element doesn't let you use filters and of course you don't get autofocus and you only have one focal length. But it's very sharp at that one single focal length. You decide.

Did I mention that it costs about £300? Put into context, Canon's new 14mm f/2.8 sells in the UK for £1,800, and is apparently very good; Nikon's 14-24mm f/2.8 sells for £1,300 and is the finest ultra wide angle lens ever made. It's so good that it makes Canon owners envious and, judging by this test at, it's actually better than the Canon 14mm.

Samyang's lens is therefore a bargain. Based on Lenstip's evaluation, and my personal experience with the lens, and the blur plot at SLRGear, it seems to be optically on a par with the MkI version of Canon's 14mm f/2.8 albeit with more distortion, but I admit that this is a very tortuous chain of reasoning. The Fall's new album, Our Future Your Clutter or Your Future Our Clutter, I can't remember, is very good and well worth buying.

On a physical level the lens is constructed to the same standard as the 85mm f/1.4, which is to say solidly, out of metal, with a build quality that is absolutely not what I expected from a cheap Korean lens. In fact it feels like one of those vintage manual focus lenses from the 1970s, but less sloppy and without any dust. My 85mm f/1.4 has seen steady use since late 2009 and has not broken or become loose or developed a fault yet, and so I surmise the 14mm will be similarly durable. It's not waterproof as far as I can tell, and the front element will be a chore to keep clean. I almost feel as if Samyang is trying to shame Nikon and Canon - and Zeiss and Voigtländer, the only other major manual focus lens manufacturers that most people will have heard of - into lowering their prices.

The barrel is surprisingly compact, but the lens has a huge front element with a built-in hood, and a separate lens cover that clips onto the petals of the hood. I bought the Nikon version, which I use on my Canon 5D MkII with an autofocus-confirmation Nikon-EOS adapter. In practice this is a needlessly complicated arrangement, because with the lens set at f/8 and just to the left of the 0.5 meter mark everything is in focus. There's no need for autofocus confirmation. The lens is available in Nikon F-Mount, Canon EOS, and I believe Pentax K-Mount and Sony Alpha (and presumably Minolta) as well.

This post should ideally have far more images, but the weather is terrible and so that will have to wait until next week. Perhaps at some point in the future I might pop over to Tunisia and photograph El Jem, the huge ruined old colosseum.

England is not the right place for a 14mm lens. The country is too small and flat and the weather is too grim. The capital city has a few buildings which are grand enough for a 14mm lens, but beyond that there is nothing. England is a puny place. Safe from earthquakes and wars, but flat and bland. Composing images with a 14mm lens is very hard. Its field of view extends vertically to the extreme of my peripheral vision and so I cannot easily visualise the image before I have brought the camera to my eye. Everything is far away through a 14mm lens, and I have to stand right inside the subject if it is to make an impact. If the image does not have a vertical component - an interesting cloud, overhanging trees, a roof, a bridge - it will just be a thin strip of horizon and it will be boring.

But I have been here before, with my 16mm fisheye lens, as described in this post from November 2009. When stretched out with software the field of view of a 16mm fisheye lens on a full-frame camera is roughly equivalent to a 7mm rectilinear lens, and so a 14mm lens is quite conservative in this respect.

Mention of software stretching brings me to the lens' biggest flaw, which is distortion. It was noticeable in the first samples posted in late 2009, and has not gone away. Judging by, there is a zone of bulging barrel distortion in the APS-C portion of the lens coverage, and twisty "moustache" distortion at the full-frame edges. Fortunately this can be corrected with software at the expensive a loss of field of view, but the uncorrected result is often alarmingly reminiscent of a fisheye image. The following photograph is presented normally at the top, and corrected with PTLens at the bottom:

PTLens costs £25 and is ideal for correcting this kind of complex distortion. It would be worth its weight in gold if it had a weight, which it does not because it is made out of software. Which doesn't weigh anything. Here's an example of the distortion on an APS-C camera, an infrared 10D:

Here's what the vignetting is like at f/2.8 (lots) and then f/8 (not so much):

Here's the centre resolution at f/2.8 and then f/5.6, unsharpened, a 100% crop from a 21mp original. It starts off sharp enough and then gets very sharp and stays that way:

I'm wary of making pronouncements on the corner sharpness of an ultra wide angle lens; such lenses have considerable and inherent perspective distortion at the edges of the frame, and furthermore I was standing right next to the cyan Seat in the photograph, and so it may well have been outside the plane of focus. Here are corner crops of the same image, shot at f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8, and f/11, unsharpened, uncorrected for distortion, but with "auto contrast" so that you can see something:

Dunno about f/16 or f/22. At f/11 - not an unreasonably setting for the kind of lens you're likely to use on a tripod - it is sharp out to the hubcap, murky beyond that. On a 5D MkII there appears to be a zone of about 200 pixels at the corners that will never be sharp. I was very angry to learn this, and so I smashed the lens into pieces and did that thing to the photograph of Kate Moss that I use whenever I self-harm.

What else is there? For £300, not a lot. Assuming you want something wider than 17mm, the only other option is a used Sigma 15-30mm, which is an autofocus zoom. It's larger than the Samyang but lighter, and has a similarly impractical bulging front element and vestigial built-in lens hood. I used to own one. It was sharp in the centre at all apertures, and it had very little distortion. Compare the following two images, Sigma at the top and Samyang at the bottom:

Lovely straight lines in the Sigma image. Not perfect but easily correctable. Not so good in the Samyang image. However the Sigma image tends to have an oddly yellow hue, and beyond the APS-C zone the Sigma lens is not as sharp as the Samyang lens. The left and right borders start to become ropey whereas the Samyang is only problematic in the very extreme corners. In my opinion it is easier to correct for distortion than it is to correct for a lack of sharpness and definition; indeed there really isn't a way to correct for a lack of sharpness and definition, the data is either there or it isn't.

Sigma discontinued the 15-30mm in favour of the 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6, which is the widest 35mm-format zoom lens currently available. Based on the reviews I have read it is not particularly sharp, but at least consistent across the frame; it is really an f/8-11 lens; but it is extremely well corrected for distortion. And by golly if you want 12mm with a single exposure, without software trickery, and you want autofocus, it is the only choice. I imagine if you are an estate agent or party photographer it is a godsend. If your job involves photographing the inside of elevators, jet fighters, tanks, submarines, Christina Hendricks' brassiere, and other confined spaces, it is superb.

Did I ever tell you about the worst job I ever had? Retrieving lobsters from Christina Hendricks' cleavage. She was upset that they kept nibbling her and so I had to fish them out. It was dark; a man could get lost in there. Fortunately I took some sandwiches and a flashlight and laid a trail of string behind me, but it was almost impossible to find the lobsters in the vast expanse of bosom, and it was very hard to persuade them to stop, which is understandable because why should they? I could even begin to sympathise with them, in a strange way.

With apologies to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and indeed Christina Hendricks. And you, dear reader. I apologise to you. And to me. And to you.

He must love Emily very much. As for the bokeh, it doesn't really have any, even at f/2.8 on a full-frame camera at a close focus distance. Have a look at the elephant's arse just above - the background just looks blurry, rather than the lovely dreamy mess we know and love as bokeh. In fact the background looks like a stretched texture map rather than something to cherish and adore. It's not a bokeh-licious lens. Compare it with some of the shots taken with my Olympus 21mm f/3.5, which is slower but less wide and focuses to a much closer distance. The 21mm has bokeh; the 14mm does not. While I'm on the subject of close focus, here's a comparison of the two lens' close focus distances:

Samyang 14mm at the top, Olympus 21mm f/3.5 at the bottom. Same subject, slightly different angle, standing as close as I could get.

EDIT: Does it flare? I haven't taken all that many shots into the sun, but it does flare. Here are a couple of examples shot with an infrared-converted Canon 10D, which has a smaller sensor than the 5D MkII:

Shot at I think f/5.6 and f/11 respectively. I ended up taking the lens to Barcelona and Italy, permanently on the front of my 10D, because it has a hard infrared infinity focus stop and I like the 22mm-ish focal length. There is flare. Here's another one, shot in Tunisia:

Monday, 3 May 2010

Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 II: X is the Third Consonant

Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 28mm, f/3.5, Canon 5D MkII

Today I'm going to have a look at an absolutely ancient lens from the early days of the Canon EOS system. The 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 was part of the launch range, and was a bit odd at the time; the other early EOS zooms were larger, push-pull designs, whereas the 28-70mm had a turny-zoomy ring of a style that is very common nowadays.

In common with all the pre-digital EOS lenses it has full-frame coverage. It begat a short-lived 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6, which in turn begat the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5, which in turn begat the 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, which is still sold today. Most of the early EOS lenses are forgotten nowadays, although a few still have a following; people still speak highly of the 80-200mm f/2.8 "magic drainpipe", which was launched in 1989, and the 28-70mm itself has a tiny bit of a cult.

Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 42mm, f/4

The only extensive profile of the first-generation EOS zooms is here, at the ever-handy The 35-105mm f/3.5-4.5, 50-200mm f/3.5-4.5 and the 70-210mm f/4 all have interesting specifications, but the internet is full of people asking about the lenses rather than taking photographs with them, so I have no idea if they are any good or not. EDIT: Or at least I didn't back in 2010; since writing the above I bought a 70-210mm f/4, and it's not bad. Similar to the 28-70mm, in the sense that it's not great on a full-frame camera, much better on an APS-C camera, and the colours are nice.

Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 28mm, f/8, Canon 5D MkII
Polarising filter for great justice

A full-sized crop from near the centre of the above image
0, 0.5, 100 unsharp mask

A full-sized crop from the extreme bottom-right corner of the above image
0, 0.5, 100 unsharp mask

Nestled amongst them is the subject of today's post, the Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and its MkII sequel. They have a very small cult, which amounts to a positive review on, in the context of APS-C sensors, and some scattered posts on I was curious to see what it was like on a full-frame camera. The dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

The 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 has always been overshadowed by the later, top-quality 28-70mm f/2.8 L, which has the same zoom range and dominates Google's search returns. The f/2.8 L is made out of metal and is apparently wonderful. The 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5, on the other hand, is mostly plastic, although it has a metal lens mount. There are a few physical oddities. The front part of the lens, which has the filter thread, retracts back into the barrel between the two extremes of the zoom range, which makes it hard to put the lens cap on, and impossible to rotate a polariser at most zoom settings. Some polarisers might even get stuck inside the front of the lens. The rear of the lens is sealed by the rear element, and thankfully my aged copy does not have any dust inside. It is small and light and doesn't extend when zooming. As with the 50mm f/1.8 MkII, I am wary of screwing anything too forcefully into the filter thread for fear of breaking something inside the lens.

The 28-70mm dates from the very earliest days of the EOS system, and went through two variations; an initial model with metal gears, and a later version - the 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 II - which has plastic internals. Mine is the latter type and was built in August 1988, just a year after the introduction of the EOS system. It tested well in the magazines. It was discontinued at some point. I apologise for being sketchy, but there is almost nothing about the lens on the internet. I surmise either that it was sold as a kit lens, but it was too expensive and too good for Canon's taste, or it was offered as a wider upgrade for one of the kit lenses, but no-one bought it because it wasn't wide or long or good enough for professionals and it was either too expensive or not flashy enough for amateurs.

Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 70mm, f/4.5

Still, what's it like? On a full-frame camera? Hmm? The answer is that it's a bit like Star Trek: The Animated Series; better than it has any right to be, but still not good enough. It's sharp in the centre at all focal lengths and apertures, doubly so at 70mm; it's terrible in the corners at 28mm wide open, but improves dramatically when stopped down to f/8, f/11; it's good all over at 70mm, but on a full-frame camera you'll wish it could zoom more than 70mm. And that it was faster and wider.

Canon 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 @ 62mm, f/11

Here's an example of vignetting at 28mm wide open and then f/8, shot with a Canon 5D MkII using Live View, the usual:

Culver Street car park. Even the name is like an air strike on a family wedding, an army boot stamping on a human face. By spooky coincidence another man has stood on that spot and taken the same photograph, back in 2006. What is it about Culver Street car park that draws men to it? Apart from the fact that there is space to park cars?

Now the middle of the frame at f/3.5 and then f/5.6. It doesn't seem to get sharper beyond that so I have left off the other apertures:

Not bad. This is a tiny crop from the middle of a 21mp original and I haven't sharpened it. And now roughly the edge of an APS-C frame, again wide open and then at f/5.6 (it doesn't improve at f/8):

There's a bit of CA and it's not bitingly sharp, but it's decent. After CA correction it sharpens up well. Now the very bottom-right corner of the frame, at f/3.5, f/5.6, f/8, and f/11:

Ulp. It's not a low-light lens. For the sake of completeness, here's the same edge-of-frame crop taken with a Canon 28mm f/2.8 prime lens at f/2.8 and f/8, on a different day with different lighting conditions:

Neither lens shines at the extreme corners, but the 28mm f/2.8 shines less because it is a prime lens, and should be better, and it's not. Oddly, it seems to leap from being decent to being soft towards the edge of the frame, whereas the 28-70mm gradually transitions into mush. Compare both with The-Digital-Picture's ISO 12233 crop of the 24-70mm f/2.8L at 28mm, f/8, to see why Canon can sell the 24-70mm at such a high price without feeling guilty (and then compare them with the 24-70mm's crop at f/2.8, which very good).

EDIT: A few months later I shot the same scene with my Carl Zeiss Contax 35-70mm f/3.4, which is one of the sharpest zoom lenses ever made, at f/8. Here's the field of view at 35mm:

And here's the bottom-right corner, a 100% crop with the contrast boosted so that you can see the detail:

It's not a fair comparison. 35mm is not 28mm, and the boosted contrast is flattering. But, heavens, it thrashes the 28-70mm and the 28mm. You can see the rough texture of the wall, whereas it is just a smooth mass in the other images. It's just as good at 70mm.

Digression: The Canon 28mm f/2.8
The 28mm f/2.8 is a contemporary of the 28-70mm - mine was built in July 1987 - and they are like two peas in a pod. They both have five aperture blades and they both take 52mm filters, and from the front they look very similar. The 28mm was never upgraded and is still available new, although I'm not sure why. It's one of the most anonymous of Canon's prime lenses, vying with the 20mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus in that respect. It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with it; the problem is that every single one of Canon's general-purpose zoom lenses has a 28mm setting, and on APS-C cameras it tends to be overshadowed by the faster 35mm f/2, which everybody likes. I own one because I found a cheap copy, but I rarely use it because my Canon 24mm f/2.8 is much better in the corners.

Still, back to the 28-70mm. Here's the whole frame, from the same viewpoint, at 70mm:

Here's a central crop at 70mm, wide open at f/4.5 and then one stop down at f/5.6. It doesn't seem to improve and I surmise that the 5D MkII's sensor outresolves the lens:

Here's the bottom-left corner at 70mm, wide open at f/4.5, then f/5.6 and f/8:

At 70mm it's very good. I didn't formally test it at 50mm, although I surmise it is in between the two extremes, and greatly inferior to any 50mm prime lens. On an APS-C camera it would be a good-quality 44-115mm telephoto, an odd range but perhaps handy if your only other lens is a 10-22mm ultra wide.

The 28-70mm has a cult because it's better than it should be, and it is available very cheaply on the used market. I can't find any good tests of Canon's 28-80mm, 28-90mm kit lenses on a full-frame camera, although judging by Bob Atkins' profile of the 28-90mm on a Canon 10D, the 28-70mm is much better than them; and judging by The-Digital-Picture's ISO 12233 charts, the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 is in turn better than the 28-70mm in the corners, as indeed is the 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS.

All of which makes the 28-70mm a bit of an oddity. If you're serious about photography but your budget doesn't stretch much beyond a used 5D body then a 28-105mm is a better choice, and there are lots of full-frame lenses that cover the 28-70mm's range. For ultimate quality on a budget then a pair consisting of a 24mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.8 plus lots of walking backwards and forwards are superior although more fiddly and around seven times as expensive. The aforementioned 24-70mm f/2.8L and 28-70mm f/2.8L are each twenty-two times as expensive and much, much better. Tamron's much-loved, relatively cheap 28-75mm f/2.8 is also much better - I bought one myself - and it makes a certain amount of sense on an APS-C camera as a kind of short portrait zoom.

Post-Match Ponderances
I subsequently bought a Canon 10D, a 1.6x crop-sensor six megapixel digital SLR from 2003, which I have converted to infrared and will write about in a subsequent post. I briefly tested the 28-70mm on the 10D whilst it was still a visible light camera, and it was essentially sharp in the centre at all focal lengths, and sharp across the frame at f/8. Unfortunately the combination of f/8 and 44-115mm is neither here nor there. The combination of narrow aperture and odd zoom range defeats most of the reason for using a digital SLR rather than a good-quality compact; I want narrow depth of field and I want to go wider and longer than a pocket camera with better image quality. The 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 only gives me some of that, and I want it all.