1.02.2015

Great lenses should be great values and fun to use. I know which one I liked best in 2014 and which one will see some hard use in 2015...

The Battle Collection. 

Photography is an interesting thing right now. All the focus for the last ten years seems to have been firmly placed on cameras. People wait breathlessly for reviews of the newest camera bodies. They place themselves on waiting lists to make certain that they are in the vanguard of early recipients. Hobbyists agonize over various camera faults. They boil up into angry mobs when they discover red disk reflections in mirror less cameras or, as in the current case, shaded flare, when shooting the new Nikon D750. But I am rediscovering something that I've always known and seem to keep forgetting; the real magic is in the lenses. (Actually, the real magic is in just showing up and doing the work---but that's a whole other subject).

There are advantages to buying the most modern lenses from the company that makes your cameras. They fit together precisely and the lens and camera are programmed and firmware calibrated to take advantage of all the nuance-y feature sets they each bring to the table. But it's good to understand that lens design itself can be a trend or depend on a style of design and construction which gives the camera/lens system a specific look. A really specific look. And it may be a look that doesn't necessarily correspond with your way of seeing the world. 

Everyone seems crazy for Zeiss lenses lately but even though I've owned the ZE version of the 35mm f2.0, the 85mm f1.4 and the 50mm f1.4 I can't say that any of them really knocked me out and generated a set of images that wowed me. The 50mm and the 85mm both have a lot of focus shift as one stops down from wide open to about f4.0 and that can make them hard to use when manually focusing. Wide open they are smooth and mellow but not particularly bite-y. I like some of the current Nikon primes but they tend to be too snappy and saturated for the portrait work I like to do. Don't get me wrong, I like a sharp lens but I don't need the lens to add more snap to my tonal pallet or to make my reds look raunchy with saturation overkill. But here's my real beef with a lot of modern, autofocus lenses: They are too imperfectly perfect.

There are two ways to design a lens like a high speed 50mm lens. One method is to bow to the market and try to make a lens that is sharp all the way across the frame at as many aperture settings as possible. The idea is that a "good" lens should have the same resolution and contrast characteristics across the frame and into the corners. But since all fast 50mm lenses depend on large, spherical front elements the design parameters and the nature of lenses is in conflict. All spherical lenses are sharper in the center third than on the out two thirds of their frame field. As one stops down a greater and greater amount of the frame comes into higher sharpness. 

But current users believe that the lenses should have homogenous sharpness across the frame so designers have to do a number of things which ultimately compromise a different style of performance characterized by an extremely sharp center core and a natural fall off of sharpness in the corners and on the edges. I prefer a fast lens that loads tremendous sharpness in the critical middle section of the lens for the fast apertures understanding that the curvature of the front element mandates that performance style. It means the stuff I want to see most is very well defined and the stuff I don't care about falls out of sharpness and out of focus quicker and with a natural looking slope. 

To achieve high homogenous sharpness requires a more complicated design with more elements and more esoteric kinds of glass or grinds, or, in less expensive lenses, more plastic coated variations of aspherical lenses with their own compromises (plastic/glass interfaces and interference patterns). More elements creates more issues with manufacture and assembly which is troublesome at a time when most lenses are made with plastic cells with no tolerance correction fixes and are machined to fit a range of tolerances in a design that can't be hand tuned. The short version is that the cells that contain the glass elements have to have enough wiggle room to accommodate slop which makes the designs more vulnerable to decentering, depth discrepancies and angular positioning errors. 

What you end up with are generally lenses with less bite wide open and a more plastic rendition of tones in the range of usually useful apertures. Part of what people pay for when they buy Leica high speed lenses is high sharpness in the center brought to you by designs that are made to be adjusted for ultimate performance, by hand. While both choices are compromises the lenses we seem to love best have nothing to do with corner to corner acceptable sharpness and a lot more to do with high amounts of micro contrast over most of the frame and a convincing profile of sharpness that is diffraction limited at the maximum aperture. At this point it's almost all theoretical since the lens makers in Japan are going to go on designing most of their lenses based on the base marketing preference for measurable uniformity over ultimate center performance and decent edge performance. Apparently most people would rather have the uniformity throughout rather than the brilliance in the sweet spot. But that brings me to my topic: What lens did I buy last year that wowed me the most?

While the two fast lenses for the Panasonic G cameras, the 12-35mm f2.8X and the 35-100mm f2.8X lenses are good performers they are a bit bland because their interpretation is more aimed at frame homogeneity and less at imperfect brilliance. I like them for most work but end up shunning them for personal stuff. 

The same is true for most of the modern Nikon lenses except for the 85mm 1.8G lens. It's so sharp across the frame at f1.8 that it's seems it has a foot in both design camps. Perhaps that's an advantage of a longer focal length. But the family of lenses that is more like the alternative of design----high center sharpness  with improving sharpness in the edges and corners when stopping down---came to me in the form of the Rokinon/Samyang lenses.

I bought the Rokinon 14mm f2.8 last year (a new Nikon version to replace the departing Sony mount version) and while it has plentiful distortion and fall off it's also amazingly sharp, even wide open. But where it is sharpest is right through the middle two thirds of the frame. After my positive experiences with the 14mm I bought the 85mm 1.5 in the cine dress and was delighted with that lens. I was saddest to see that one go when I got rid of the Sony Alpha system (the a99 and a77). While I am happy with the performance of the 85mm Nikon f1.8G lens I am still planning to get a copy of the Rokinon 85mm f1.4 because of its distinctly different sharpness profile across the frame. It's the style I like.

I would have been happy just to stick with the Nikon lens had I not stuck my toes into the Rokinon/Samsung inventory once again just last month. I bought the 16mm f2.0 lens in a Nikon mount with the intention of using it as a wide angle on the Nikon APS-C cameras and as a wide/normal lens on the micro four thirds cameras. The images in this post are both from the 16mm f2.0 Rokinon and they re-sell the lens to me every time I look at them. These were shot on a Nikon D7000 and with that set up the combo is equivalent to a 24mm lens on a full frame camera. While there is a bit of distortion in the frame (easily correctable in DXO or Lightroom) the camera, even at f2.0 has a center sharpness that's very, very good and a fall off that appears natural and even tempered.

The image below shows the lens at f5.6 and I am very happy with the performance there as well. The rest of the frame comes into very acceptable sharpness. In fact, in the full resolution version of the file I can almost read the type on the thermostat on the far wall behind the man leaning on the pillar. It's a different style of lens that Nikon's and Canon's. The performance wide open in the center is very high with lots of good detail. For some reason, to me, it's more photographic. But everyone's taste is different. It may be that most of my early photographic experience was with lenses from the alternative design school of letting the spherical reality of the lens exist and designing around it rather than disquising it's basic personality under layer after layer of design additions meant to average out the performance characteristics. As I said above, both approaches are compromises and the members of the mass market get to pick their own poison. 

I'm looking forward to acquiring more and more of the Rokinon lenses to use on the front of the Nikon D610 on which I will see the differences most clearly. I love the look of sharp faces coming out of a blur of defocused side areas which are partly created by lack of depth of field but also (and maybe even more interestingly) transformed by the focus shift toward the edges created by the very sphericity of the primal lens. (And yes, I will be trade-marking "primal lens.").

This year I look forward to adding the following Rokinon lenses in Nikon mounts:


Not to replace the lenses I've collected for the Nikon cameras but to give me a wider choice of rendering so that I can overlay my own sense of photographic style and voice to various projects. Not everything I shoot needs or wants to be homogenous across every square millimeter of a frame. And I'm pretty sure I'd rather have a big chunk of imaging that's breathtakingly sharp and detailed for some stuff, even if it means that the stuff in the background of an image, at the edge of the frame isn't "perfect."


10 comments:

Kevin said...

I can't help but mention a lens I think you should have tried (for an extended period) long ago. Forget focus shift it becomes irrelevant, forgot poor bokeh, this lens is awesome, it's fast focusing, it's great for portraits, and it's stabalised. Yes it's not cheap, and yes you'll have less lenses to write about once you've stopped looking for the "perfect lens" (which I'm not saying this is but hey it's damn close). Try the Pany Leica 42.5mm... ;-)

Frank Grygier said...

Rokinon has a special announcement. 135mm coming soon.

Geir said...

You say the Rokinons (Samyang´s here in Europe) are good for Nikon. What would be your guess for MFT versions of the same lenses? Would they play the same effect?

Murray Davidson said...

Perhaps Samsung --> Samyang in this article? Although I remember your enthusiasm about the Samsung 85mm...

Kirk Tuck said...

Geir, I'm not sure about all the lenses because the focal lengths get too long but I will say that the 16mm f2.0 is a great 32mm equiv. for the m4:3 cameras. I love that lens in the EM5.

Anonymous said...

I guess you mean Samyang not Samsung?

Carlo Santin said...

Lenses are always interesting, old or new. For 2014 I would have to go with the Sigma 60mm 2.8 for my Sony Nex 6. That lens really makes that sensor shine. Everything I shoot with that lens just looks fantastic. In fact, it's that lens that has kept me with the Sony up until now. I'm probably switching back to Nikon in 2015. Sony just isn't doing anything with its E mount lineup and besides I miss the boring old DSLR body type. It just works for me. As much as I like the micro four thirds stuff, most of the cameras are just too darn small for my hands. I have large hands and when I tried out the Oly EM 10, it was no fun at all fumbling with that camera. Any of the Nikon FF cameras feel great in my hands, but I may end up with a D7100 and the 85mm 1.8. There are some screaming deals on FF cameras right now though.

Kirk Tuck said...

Geir and Anonymous, you are both correct. I meant to write "Rokinon/Samyang" but wrote "Rokinon/Samsung" by mistake. I've now corrected that in the copy.

While the 85mm 1.4 Samsung is a really good APS-C optic you can only use it on a Samsung camera. The Samyang comes in many mounts and covers full frame...

Kirk Tuck said...

Okay. So we can take the 85mm Rokinon off the list. I went by Precision Camera today to do some post Holiday browsing and wouldn't you know it? they had a perfect copy, in the Nikon mount with confirmation chip for $229 used. My winning smile drove the price down and it went out the door with me for $200. Can't beat that. I shot with it this afternoon. Looked good in the camera but we'll see how it does when I drag a few files into Lightroom...

ezra said...

I shot with the D700 for several years and the Rokinon 85 1.4 rendered beautifully.Loved the images but what made it less *fun* to use was, coming from 30+ years of twiddling silky Nikkor manual focus rings, was that the focu, was s-t-i-f-f and required a good amount of finger-force to rack in and out. This was true on an early copy and a later chipped copy. Always wanted to get back into one but wished the gears weren't greased with molasses. Are they still coming out of the factory like this, or is it hot enough in Austin that your molasses flows easier than here in NY?