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: