Monday, March 21, 2011

The Samyang Trio

If you happen to be a camera enthusiast who's looking for something novel from Korea other than kimchii, taekwondo and Hyundai cars, your best bet would probably be Samyang. Established in 1972, they manufacture a wide range of optical equipment, CCTV and photographic accessories. Their manual focus SLR lenses are also sold under a variety of names such as Rokinon, Vivitar and Bower.

I was first introduced to Samyang lenses when a sales rep from fotogears visited us a month ago. I was quite impressed with their products, so I requested another set for review as their display set was for Canon mount. So here they are, the Samyang 8mm f/3.5 fish eye (for APS-C / DX sensors), Samyang AE 14mm f/2.8 IF ED AS UMC Aspherical and  Samyang AE 85mm f/1.4 IF Aspherical.

Being manual focus lenses, the engineers at Samyang have placed a high priority on the build quality and tactile quality of their lenses while maintaining state-of-the-art optical quality comparable to or superceeding Canon and Nikon equivalents. And all of these come at a significantly cheaper price =). The lens barrels are made from high quality aluminum (without the plastic junk of some lesser lenses), while the focusing rings are sufficiently damped and operate smoothly without having too little / much resistance. All lenses are supplied with focus scaling rings and aperture rings.

The advanced aspherical formula of the lenses are designed to produce high resolution and contrast at the center and peripheries even at maximum aperture. I'm not going to produce MTF charts here, but if you'd like more information, you can check out the lens reviews at

Despite all of these, I wish the lens pinch caps were better designed and the lens hoods were made from metal instead of plastic. Oh well, all for the sake of cutting costs I suppose.

Image taken with the Olympus E-3 and wonderfully sharp Zuiko 50 f/2 macro

The newest AE lenses for Nikon mount have electronic contacts to enable automatic exposure in all modes (P/A/S/M), and when a subject is focussed correctly a beep or indicator light is shown. The exif data from the lens is also conveniently stored into the image EXIF.

For older samyang lenses without electronic contacts, if a smaller f stop is chosen (eg. f/8 or even f/4 in poor light), the camera viewfinder will be dark and make may inhibit you to set the correct focus. Therefore, set the lens to maximum aperture to set the depth of focus, and then stop the lens down and change other image parameters (eg. shutter speed, ISO) with the camera set in manual mode.

*Note - all the example images here used medium file sizes at basic quality, with sharpening set to +6.

Samyang AE 14mm f/2.8 IF ED AS UMC Aspherical

The samyang 14mm is supplied in a box together with a plastic lens cap, instruction manual and pouch. All lenses come with a 1 year warranty.

Because of the bulging front element, the petal shaped lens hood is built into the lens chassis. Filters can't be mounted too, so its better to be careful for obvious reasons when using this lens.

At f/2.8 the Samyang lens resolution at the center and image periphery bettered Canon's 14mm f/2.8 USM L II (Nikon's 14-24 is in a league of its own). Unfortunately the barrel distortion on the Samyang is quite substantial, although it shouldn't be much of an issue for landscape photographers. They've also managed to correct CA quite substantially using their magical optical formula, so that's a first we've seen so far for a lens that costs 5 times cheaper than its competitors.

Looking for a lens that makes otherwise drab buildings instantly dramatic? Just whack on this 14mm and be amazed.

Despite the large depth of field at f/2.8, there is still a need to manually set the focus instead of just setting it at infinity to get the correct plane of focus.

Vintage car? No, its just a plain old truck.

Samyang 8mm f/3.5 fish eye

This lens is optimized for crop frame sensors, and promises high resolution / contrast and the center and edge of the image.

 Fish eye lenses add some twist to some otherwise conventional images. If you want the least distortion, keep your main subjects in the center of the frame.

Unfortunately, fish eye lenses aren't to my fancy, hence the lack of example images here. Perhaps I shall revisit this blog post in the future and add more to what exists.

Samyang AE 85mm f/1.4 IF Aspherical

And if you've not guessed it already, this lens has impressed me the most and is hence the highlight of this review.

This lens can be considered a bargain considering the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G costs almost 5 times more (the 85/1.4D was discontinued a few months ago). At f/1.4, the Nikon 85/1.4D has slightly better resolution at the center whereas the Samyang has better corner resolution. When stopped down, the Samyang maintains its better corner resolution performance while the Nikon is still the undisputed champion for center resolution.

The honey-glazed charsiew at Chan Meng Kee cafe in PJ ss2 is quite a sight to behold, and yes, it tastes as good as it looks! :)

This lens has poor macro performance due to the fact that its minimum focus distance is 1 meter. The slightly telephoto focal length compresses the background and makes it closer than it seems to the viewer, even though it really isn't that way. It also makes people's faces appear slimmer, which is a good thing.

On the first day that I got this lens, I immediately took a little photo walk around the neighborhood to see what this lens is capable of in dim conditions.

Manual focusing is really hard to execute perfectly at night. But when you succeed, there's some form of satisfaction involved which is really great.

The Samyang 85mm renders out of focus highlights as almost perfect circles thanks to its rounded aperture blades..

As with all large aperture lenses, purple fringing is quite evident at high contrast areas when you use the lens wide open.

When I'm walking around the neighbourhood at night, I'm usually on manual mode as aperture priority would tend to overexpose the images. Of course, we have to be mindful that any introduction of external light sources would screw up our exposure, such as the light from the vehicle headlamps. Nonetheless, I still like the effect over here.

Using this lens requires a lot of patience and a keen eye. I managed to lock focus on the cat's body, but not its head unfortunately. It retreated moments after I shot this image.

The phone booth is under a tree shielded from street lamps, so it was really hard determine the plane of focus, especially when you're using the lens at f/1.4

Finally, lets take a look at what this lens excels at: portraiture.

It takes much patience if you aren't a manual focus user to get spot on focus at f/1.4. Here, I erroneously focussed on my colleague's left eye instead of his right eye.

I love the creamy backgrounds offered by the large aperture lens and full frame sensor. It was something I could never have achieved with Olympus.

I used the modeling lights of the studio flash to take this portrait while carefully focusing the lens at maximum aperture. The light fall off is significant enough to render the background very dark. [Ok, this image isn't exactly straight out of camera. I did some skin smoothening and slight vignetting in photoshop, but otherwise this is it].

Hmmm.. I could've done better with some background lights and hair light to make my subject 'stand out' from the background. Oh well :s

Some wedding photographers such as Cliff Mautner adore the Nikon 85/1.4 and try to get some headshots from above of the bride using the f/1.4 aperture. Its a great concept, and I hope to try it for myself one day if I have that opportunity.


I've had a lot of fun testing these lenses. Although they're not the cream of the crop for build quality (because of plastic lens hoods and badly designed lens caps) and optical performance, Samyang deserves some compliment for making lenses with very affordable price tags.

Of course, one of the biggest gripes of these lenses are that they cannot autofocus, so you have to heavily rely on your eyes and manual focus confirmation from your cameras to get a sharp image (and hope that the subject still maintains that pose while we strive for perfect focus). Yes, it is a laborious task, so if you're shooting fast paced action (such as sports or event photography), you're better off looking somewhere else. But for those who can afford to slow down and be more deliberate about their photography (and enjoy the tactile qualities of the lens), one of these might be the lens for you at very affordable price tag.




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