2.07.2013

Crazy Photographer buys Wacky Off Brand 85mm Lens. Why? What was he thinking?



 I've been around the block long enough to know that there's no free ride. But I've also racked up enough lens purchases to know that there's also a lot of wiggle room between quality, branding, features and price. So you'll have to forgive me for going off the reservation and purchasing a wacky newcomer to the 35mm lens market, the 85mm 1.5 Cine Rokinon lens.

A couple of weeks ago I did a test with the 85mm 1.4 CZ for the Sony. While I'm a sucker for cool lenses and I would definitely toss one in the bag is the price was right I was also very underwhelmed by the center performance of the lens wide open. You may want a homogenous sharpness across the full frame but I'll trade some corner performance for center sharpness any time. Like it or not, the important and juicy stuff usually winds up in the middle of the frame. (Please don't be too literal, I'm talking about the inner 70% of the frame not the little 10% chunk right in the center...).

While I am deeply and irrevocably in love with the cool little Sony 85mm 2.8 lens I have found a few situations (mostly in video production) when I'd really like to use a decent 85mm 1.4 lens at its wide open aperture. So when I started having second thoughts about the venerable Zeiss offering I also started to look around at other options, like the Sigma. That's when I discovered this particular lens. The Rokinon 85mm t-1.5 Cine version of Samyang's well respected and inexpensive 85mm 1.4 still photography lens. I'm increasingly interested in the intersection of still photography and motion so this lens caught my attention for several reasons. First, the basic design is based on Samyang's latest permutation of their still lens and countless reviews have made it pretty clear that its optical performance is competitive. Secondly, the lack of click stops is a great thing for quiet interviews and other video situations where you might need to compensate for a light shift during a live take. Finally, the lens looked cool in the product advertising and it was dirt cheap compared to everything but my little 2.8. I figured I could compare it to what I saw with the CZ and if it wasn't as good I could send it back for a no hassle refund. A quick test with no harm done.

Short story: It's not going back. Long story? It toasts the Carl Zeiss lens for center sharpness wide open.  And to my eyes it's at least as good at the rest of the f-stop range as well.


The 85mm t 1.5 Cine mounted on a Sony a99.

As you can see in the image just above the lens has it's t-stops (actual light transmission stop as opposed to theoretical f-stops) running down the side of the lens when the camera is in a normal position. That's because filmmakers tend to prefer apertures on the side because there are so many attachments that loom over the top of their full configured cameras that getting to the ring and seeing the settings can be....challenging.  You'll notice that the focusing ring is rotated into this position as well. 

The focusing ring is deeply scalloped and it's done that way so it will mesh with most of the follow focus units that are on the market. Those are the units that use a geared attachment to the focusing ring so that accurate focusing can be done by rotating a knob. The focusing ring is also a long throw, linear ring so it's harder to overshoot your mark.

So, the lens is solid, the focusing ring is smooth as butter, the aperture ring is click-less but has enough resistance to stay put when you engage it and the whole package looks very professional. Optically, the lens is constructed with 9 elements and includes an aspheric element. I used the lens yesterday at a product shoot and stopped down to f16 without much perceptible diffraction effect on the Sony a99. Below are a couple of studio illustrations I did before I sat down to write this.

My favorite, older ball head. The Leitz Ballhead. This was shot at f4.

I wanted to see what the sharpness of the lens looked like in the center at f4. According to all the tests I've read this is where most 85mm's shape up and become bullet proof in their performance.

Here's what a 100% crop of the center looks like. 

But, if you are going to pay for a fast aperture you've got to be curious about what you're going to get as a result of your investement. With that in mind the next photo down is in my studio as well and is shot at the full 1.5 t-stop. First the full frame:


And then the 100 % crop (see below).


I'm happy with that kind of performance. But what are the downsides of a great performing but dirt cheap ($350) fast lens? Since Samyang/Rokinon didn't scrimp on image performance what got left out of the mix to hit this price point? Well, it's totally manual focus. The Nikon version has a focus confirmation chip but the Sony and Canon versions are bare-bones. That's okay for Sony users because we have focus peaking and it makes using this lens in most situations fast and accurate.

The lens also has no aperture automation. When you move the dial to a smaller aperture the lens stops down. Always. In a traditional OVF camera the finder gets darker and darker until (varies by camera) the finder gets too dark to be useful. For a number of situations it's useful to focus near wide open and then stop down and that can be a real pain in the butt. There's a reason people like automation.....

Their are two other glitches but neither of them shows up anywhere in my list of deal killers. I'll mention them anyway. First, the lens hood, while included ( take that, Olympus), is about as flimsy as it comes and most ham fisted American users will have theirs in small pieces in short order. The same sentiments for the lens cap. Look to the aftermarket market if these things bug you. I'm presuming most video users will be using a filter holder or compendium bellows shade on the front of the lens anyway and most of us still shooters have so many 72mm lens caps floating around from yesteryear's wonder lenses that it won't matter.

For studio shooters like me, and photographers who set up lights and work with maximum control, there are no real deal killers with this lens. It's a great value for us. If you do a lot of sports the long, linear focus ring will screw you up. So will the lack of automation in exposure.

My most anticipated use? Portraits. Wonderful portraits with vaporous backgrounds. I like the look of the files I'm getting enough so that the lens has not come off the front of my camera since I first got it. Your mileage will vary depending on what you'll be using the lens for but you won't be able to complain about image quality. This lens delivers that.

It is available in Sony Alpha, Sony NEX, Canon and Nikon mounts. 




20 comments:

Brad Calkins said...

These Rokinon lenses really seem to offer a lot of performance for the money. If you are the kind of person who buys and tries various lenses it is definitely work trying them out...

David Liang said...

I had the Samyang 85 1.4 for a bit in the summer, I thought it was a fantastically sharp lens, although there's quite a bit of CA at f/2 and larger. I'm now sure how the Cine version is but what killed the it for me, was the extremely tough focus ring, while smooth it was a little too rigid. I ended up selling it and getting a pretty good deal on a Minolta 85 1.4G...haven't looked back.

How's the Cine's focus is does it feel rigid or a lot smoother? I image with a longer distance for focusing, it'd be hell to use if it were that stiff.

Kirk Tuck said...

Like Buttah.

Bill Beebe said...

What are your thoughts on using the α99 (and the α77) for video? I'm beginning to think about using one or the other primarily for video. The low-cost Rokinons are making me consider the Sony bodies.

Peter said...

Enjoy your Rokinon. What really hit a nerve for me though was the Leitz ball head. I owned one many years back, but sold it while the balance of my mind was disturbed. I regretted it ever since. Perhaps one day we meet again...

theaterculture said...

Golly, at the price of 35mm panchromatic negative film ($500-$800 for 11 mins/1000 feet last time I checked, not including developing and printing...) and assuming a fairly conservative 4/1 ratio of raw footage to finished product, you could buy that fancy NEX full-frame video camera and ALL the Rokinon Cine lenses for about 20% of what you'd spend on film stock to make a 2 hour feature film.

For about what you'd borrow to buy a compact car you can have all the technology you'd need to film, edit, and output verite documentaries or Cassavetes/early-Altman/Dogma style fiction films with picture quality to spare. The aesthetic potential enabled by this is beyond exciting.

Peter F. said...

Kirk, I think you have a Sony-to-NEX adapter. How about trying this lens on the NEX7? On the smaller sensor, the edges might be sharper???

I had the F1.4 85mm for a week or so and used it on my GH2 and compared it with the legendary Nikkor 85mm F1.4 AIS. The Nikon outperformed on the m43 GH2 but only slightly and of course the Nikkor is much more costly if one were buying it today than the cheaper Rokinon, and the Nikkor is far more heavy. I can't bear to sell the old Nikkor though it is overkill on m43.

I did buy a NEX6 and have very much enjoyed my old Nikkor 56mm (56 x 1.5 crop = 85mm)

Peter

theaterculture said...

No doubt Kirk will have insightful hands-on things to say about both cameras; just wanted to throw in that I have a couple of people who work in documentary film production in my immediate social circle and they're all favoring APS or m4/3 cameras over the 135 frame. This is partially historical - if you have experience using 35mm movie equipment the frame size is actually really close to APS so your mental image of what a given lens length means can carry over undisturbed - but I also know one producer who tried Canon 5D2s for a short and his photographers struggled with the shallow depth of field while shooting documentary footage in China.

Kirk Tuck said...

Bill, I'll agree with theatercullture and add that Ben and I have had much success in video production with the a57 which is a much less expensive Sony with not as nice a finder image. The upside is that the files are nice and clean, it does great focus peaking and, as theaterculture mentioned the increase in depth of field is very helpful in nearly all situations. The tradeoff is that I can do manual control of sound with the a99 and the finder image is nicer. No big deal if you're really after the video. I'm using one a99 and two a57s as a three camera set up for a project next week and have no trepidation whatsoever about using the a57s and a99 interchangeably. I would also mention that I like the look of the 24 fps better than the 60 fps but I guess that comes down to a matter of taste.

Kirk Tuck said...

I've owned a Leica ballhead for years but the one in the images above I saw in a camera store several weeks ago and picked up for around $50. I consider it a super deluxe bargain. What a lovely piece of industrial work. I hope you find a replacement for your "lost" one..

Kirk Tuck said...

And really, you could do it all with the least expensive of the cameras. That and a trio of lenses and you could even bypass the fancy Nex full frame video camera.... It's fun times to do motion.

Kirk Tuck said...

Peter, once you stop the lens down to f4 or smaller there's no lack of sharpness out to the corners that I could really see on the full frame. But yes, the 85's on the Nex are actually a perfect long portrait length. I'm pulling out my adapter as I type.

theaterculture said...

Indeed - and in the middle of the pack I just heard that the Panasonic GH3 has timecode support and the ability to pass uncompressed video through hdmi to an external recorder for not much more than a thousand bucks.

Ease of handholding and the ability to put XLR cables into something better than a 3.5mm plug adapter are about the last arguments in favor of a dedicated video camera...

Brad Burnham said...

I was just looking at the Samyang lenses a few days ago on Amazon. Funny that you should mention them here too. I've heard lots of good things about them. Add to that this post. I have been wanting an 85mm...

Jeff Greer said...

I have found my Rokinon 85 and 35mm lenses to be optically great. Mechanically, though, in the case of the 35mm, not so great. Mine developed a malady while still under warranty. I shipped it off to New York. That was months ago and I've yet to hear a peep from the company or get a fixed or replacement lens sent back. LensRentals reports the same problem with servicing these lenses. Great lenses if you do not need service. Terrible if you do.

Kirk Tuck said...

Almost cheap enough to be disposable but still not right.

Anonymous said...

"Nikon version has a focus confirmation chip"

Nikon cameras will provide focus confirmation with anything you can mount to them. Old lenses, new lenses, Nikon lenses, third-party lenses, manual-focus lenses, autofocus lenses, even Lensbabies. If the Rokinon has a chip, it must be for metering purposes.

mawz said...

The chip enables full aperture control and 2D Matrix metering on Nikons, the big deal is aperture control as that is limited on Nikon's without non-CPU lens support.

Anonymous said...

The 85mm focus ring is loosening after a while. The 85mm Cine ring feel is more like the 35mm ring.

Hamza Baig said...

Wait which tripod do you have? The yunteng? :O