Testing a cheap lens under the conditions I would normally use a lens like this... A Rokinon 85mm f1.4 on a Nikon D750 body.

Please don't rush to help me select a "better" lens. I've owned two versions of the Nikon 85mm 1.4 (MF and AF-D), I currently own the very good 85mm f1.8G and I've owned literally dozens of Canon, Leica and Zeiss 85mm lenses. This article is not a plea for anyone to step in and "guide" me. I am not woefully undereducated in what is currently (or previously) available in this focal length, for Nikon. 

I was curious. That's why I took the particular lens out to shoot in the near dark. About a year ago, just after wedging myself back into the Nikon system, I came across a used Rokinon 85mm 1.4 lens in the used case at Precision Camera. They didn't think much of the lens and sold it to me, willingly, for around $125. I had owned the later, "cine" version of this lens for the Sony Alpha system so I was more or less familiar with its general characteristics but I was happy to have this lens instead of the cine version for Nikon precisely because this one has click stopped aperture settings and it also has a chip that transmits f-stop information to the Nikon cameras, as well as enabling focus confirmation. 

What that means is I can focus wide open and when I hit the shutter button the lens stops down to the aperture I've set using one of the control wheels. In short, the lens works just like one of the regular Nikon AF-D lenses ---- minus the auto focus. 

I've done a little bit of work with this lens and, like most modern, short tele lenses in play since at least the 1960's it can be very sharp and contrasty at f5.6 and f8.0. It was difficult to focus the lens on an APS-C body but I no longer have any of the smaller sensor Nikon bodies and I'm finding that I have a better chance of hitting sharp focus on the D810 and D750 focusing screens. 

What I wanted to find out is whether or not the lens is good at its widest f-stops in real shooting situations to which I can relate. I headed out the door for a walk on Saturday evening, just as the sun was setting. By the time I got to downtown there was only an afterglow of sunlight. 

Then I saw the space aliens try to kidnap Madonna from her Bentley and..
Oppps. Sorry, I just thought I would throw in a dramatic page break.

So I parked near the ancient Treaty Oak tree and set the camera to auto-ISO, Jpeg fine and auto white balance and I headed down Fifth St. to see what I could see. While it will take me some time and practice to become quick at manually focusing this lens on the Nikon bodies I actually had a pretty high hit rate. I tried using the focus confirmation dot in the viewfinder but it soon became apparent that the confirmation light is probably good with depth of field generated by an f2.8 aperture but not necessarily an f1.4 aperture. There was quite a bit of focus ring movement happening during which the dot stayed green. I had better luck looking for shimmer in the highlights and training my eye to look at contrasty intersections of tone and color. 

Here is my assessment of my $125, used, manual focusing Rokinon lens. When used wide open. Or thereabouts:

It works pretty well. I'm sure some Zeiss or Leica lens in this focal length range was sharper when used wide open but I'm equally sure that walking around, handholding the lens and shooting in the shutter speed range of 1/80th to 1/125th of a second that my body induced camera movement easily obscured the difference. If I had used a tripod and focused via live view at 100 % I'm reasonable sure that the vaunted German glass, and even the pricier Nikon products, would produce a better image but I am equally sure that putting the Rokinon lens on the same tripod, and using the same care in camera technique, that lens would also be vastly improved.  In terms of wide open sharpness I can safely say that in these available light situations the Korean lens is a good performer. 

When I stopped down to f3.2 everything looked pretty darn good to me. Again, the limiting part of the shooting equation continued to be my frailties as a camera support mechanism but the smaller aperture gave me a bigger focusing performance envelope and started to allow me to get some good use out of the focus confirmation dot. I guess on a $125 lens I should not talk about a "performance envelope" as much as a cheap performance pouch... Like the ones that comes with all the Rokinon lenses. 

At 3.2 and smaller I would be pleased to use the lens for general portraiture as well. 

Some good points about the lens: It doesn't seem to be prone to flare. 

If you look at the image of the mural just above you'll see that there is a light source in the shot, just above the male character's head, to the right side of the mural. There were several direct light sources just above the top of the frame as well. But there is no flaring from the direct light source, even though the lens is being used wide open. The system does a good job rejecting veiling flare and holds onto color and contrast well. 

If you drag a tripod around and you want a little bit of extra depth of field I think you'll be happy with the lens in almost every aspect at f4.0, f5.6 and f8.0. Since I'm hazy about the real, visible effects of diffraction at smaller f-stops I'll leave the performance evaluation, as regards overall lens sharpness, right there. 

One thing I like about this lens, and have been missing on all the AF lenses, is the silky smooth, no rebound or slop, manual focusing ring. It's wonderful to focus carefully, recompose and shoot, shoot, shoot. As long as I don't change the subject to camera distance I just keep my fingers off the focusing ring and shoot to my heart's delight. It's a nicer way to shoot than whatever AF method you are just itching to educate me about...

I had fun standing outside shops on Second St. and shooting in. The image above is the Swatch Watch store and I wanted to see what that mirrored behemoth of a camera (the D750) could do in Jpeg; as regards automatic white balance. Hmmm. Rumors of its inadequacy may be a bit overstated...

The camera and lens are being shot through the thick glass doors but it doesn't seem to effect perceived sharpness. In fact, at f3.2 I think I'm beginning to see some of that famous, Rokinon nano-acuity. 

The reason I tested my lens last week should be obvious. I have read so many things about the potency and brutal superiority of the Zeiss Otus 85mm lens I thought my career would screech to a halt if I didn't sport one around and talk about it incessantly to my clients, or anyone else who would listen. I was about to sell that redundant kidney when my business partner suggested a test of the existing lens. 

My results here may not impress you in the least. The only evasion I can offer is the typical "But they are compressed on the web and if you could see them at 6000 pixels wide instead of 2100 pixel wide then you'd get a much better idea of my innate, and inalienable, visual genius --- as can only be adequately expressed through thoroughly superior "tools."

But all kidding aside, I think the hoary and battered Rokinon is a pretty good for a high speed lens. Not perfect but certainly not 40 times less good than the Otus, and not burdened with such a silly name. I am happy with this lens and I am equally happy with the Nikon G lens which I keep around for all those times when I am too old, lazy and unenthused to focus manually. But in the rare moments in which I am on my game I think I'll reach for this one first. It fights back against me. I like that. I think a little friction makes the art get better. Gear that is too good makes it all too easy. Like having a trust fund. You never get around to taking it all seriously. A little frisson makes you push a bit harder, and it may be inside the process of pushing harder that creative thoughts take root.

Hey! Look! It does BOKEH. Well, I don't quite know about the hokeh but it sure does narrow depth of field pretty convincingly. 

Sadly, the colors are all wrong. But I guess I can't blame that on the lens, can I?

To sum up, you can bitch and moan about the inadequacies of just about any piece of gear on the market or you can stop the whining and get on with the photography. To be truthful, all this stuff is better than most of the photographers wielding it. It's not the hammer, it's Thor. 

Scratch a guy who constantly bitches about his gear, or the shortcomings of gear in general, and you'll most likely find a techno-dweeb with lots of charts and damn few interesting or fun photographs. Now, where did I put my Canonet and that brick of Tri-X???


Anonymous said...

Loo ya Kirk!!

Wylie S.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Justin Bonaparte uses the 85/1.4 Rokinon on 4/3rds and ยต4/3rds cameras, and shows great photos taken with it. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/jfinite/tags/rokinon/ or for an example https://www.flickr.com/photos/jfinite/5195047266/ - who says flare can't be beautiful?

Ivan Singer said...

And...why did you sell off the Sony Alpha 57 with the Rokinon Cine 85/T1.5? That's still one of the best manual 85mm combos in town. You certainly convinced me that it was.

Mohammad Shafik said...

Me likey. I have the same lens in Canon mount, which I use via an adapter on the Sony A7. I like it a lot, apart from the closest focusing distance of one meter.

Just recently bought the 135 f2 Rokinon and I like it even more (stupid sharp and lovelier background rebedering). And for a 135mm it has a MFD of 0.8 meters, which makes for easier tight headshots.

Enjoy what you have and like, and keep posting.

Faithful reader here.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Ivan Singer, At the time it was introduced the Alpha 57 was a great camera (and still is) that also did very good video. The Cine 85mm is a great lens. I didn't sell the first Alpha 57, I gave it to my son to use for his video projects. He ended up doing nearly 60 projects with the camera before one of his friends accidentally destroyed it. I had a second one (I believe they like to travel in pairs...) that I traded in when I switched systems. I switched systems for many reasons but the biggest being that the video on the a99 wasn't as good as it should have been and I had a suspicion that Sony was orphaning the Alpha line ---- which would be bad news for someone who makes a living with the cameras. Replacement lenses? Evolving bodies? Updated video codecs? I'm thinking it's probably not my fault that Sony decided to concentrate their dollars where they have instead of where I might have wanted them to.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Mohammad, I have my eye on that 135mm Rokinon. I have a feeling I'd like it.

Travis said...

Kirk, I've used the Fuji-mount version of that lens on my XT-1 for over a year now, and I just love it for head and shoulders portraits. I'm certainly not looking for abrasive sharpness, and with Fuji's manual focus AIDS and a well-damped ring, it's a real pleasure. I paid something like $350 new for mine, and consider it worth every penny.

Marshall said...

Heh. Just got one of their 14mms at an auction. It is just a tiny bit south of being architecturally perfect, but it is a whole lot of fun.