SAMYANG XP PRIMES
Samyang delivers a traditional mix of prime focal lengths and manual focusing in its accessory lenses plus significantly boosted optical performance in its new XP series models.
The accessory lens world is full of delightful surprises at the moment, among them South Korean company Samyang’s new premium level XP series primes… especially handy if you’re a traditionalist who still likes to be in charge of focusing.
Things couldn’t currently be much more varied or exciting in the world of interchangeable lenses, with a steadily expanding band of independent brands offer- ing numerous alternatives to the camera makers’ own products. The traditional ‘big three’ independents – Sigma, Tamron and Tokina – face growing competition from numerous newcomers, many of whom are Chinese and particularly keen to capitalise on the gathering popularity of mirrorless cameras. But D-SLR owners aren’t being neglected either and, if you’re ready to look beyond the mainstream brands, there are some interesting alternatives.
As it happens, Samyang Optics – which is a South Korean company – isn’t exactly a newcomer, having been around since the early 1970s, but it’s only recently that it’s started to gain some real traction in the accessory lens market. Ironically, the impetus for this mostly came from its range of prime cine lenses for D-SLRs which quickly gained a reputation for affordable performance. With cinematographers singing the brand’s praises, it wasn’t long before photographers started to get interested and found out that Samyang is just a little bit different to most of its competitors. For starters, it only makes prime lenses and, until quite recently, only manual focus models too. The first Samyang autofocus lenses are in the Sony FE mount, but the rest of the company’s offerings for both D-SLRs and mirrorless cameras are resolutely manual focus. The company believes that the combination of a prime focal length and manual focusing enables it to deliver optimum optical performance at a price that won’t break the bank. Well, primes are right back in fashion and focusing manually is a skill every photographer should have.
Samyang’s new XP series is the company’s premium lens line – similar to Tamron’s SP – and it kicks off with two models, an 85mm f1.2 short telephoto and a 14mm f2.8 ultra-wide. Both are initially only available in the Canon EF mount, but the 14mm will also be in the Nikon F and Sony E mounts.
It’s probably no accident that the XP 85mm f1.2 looks quite a bit like Zeiss’s Otus 85mm f1.4 model on the outside, complete with flush-fitting focusing collar and a smooth, satin finish on the sleek metal barrel tubes. And just like the Zeiss lens, Samyang says its XP 85mm has an optical resolution to match full-35mm sensors in the 50 megapixels class and 8K video productions (yes, 8K is rapidly becoming a reality). The barrel tubes are aluminium and all the elements are glass which all adds up to a substantial 1.05 kilograms, giving this lens a nicely weighty feel, but it also has a precision feel and is beautifully finished with all the quality normally associated with a German-made lens. The
focusing collar has quite a stiff action, but once moving, it’s very smooth and allows for extremely precise control.
On the inside, the optical construction comprises ten elements in seven groups, and including one aspherical type to correct for distortion and two made from glass with a high refractive index to minimise chromatic aberrations. The focusing group is internal with a minimum focusing distance of 80 centimetres, and the diaphragm has nine blades to give rounder, smoother out-offocus effects… something that’s particularly important when you’re combining 85mm and f1.2 to give an extremely shallow depthof-field. As with any EF mount lens, the aperture diaphragm is electromagnetically controlled and set from the camera body. Given the width of the front elements needed to deliver f1.2, not surprisingly the screwthread filter fitting has a diameter of 86 millimetres
The 14mm f2.4 also features aluminium alloy barrel tubes with the curved section stepping up to this lens’s truly massive convex front element. A petal-shaped hood is built in and it’s the only protection so it pays to get into the habit of always replacing the dish-like hood when this lens is not being used. Obviously, it’s not possible to fit screwthread filters.
The 14mm focal length gives an expansive 114 degrees angleof-view and the 18-elements construction includes three aspherical elements (one a hybrid type), three made from highrefractive index glass, and two made from glass with extra-low dispersion characteristics. For the record, hybrid aspherical elements are made by applying optical-quality resin to a spherical glass core, and it’s a cost-effective means of creating complex shapes to help correct for distortion and optimise corner-to-corner sharpness. Samyang’s ‘Ultra Multi Coating’ (UMC) anti-reflection coatings are used to minimise ghosting and flare.
The minimum focusing distance is 28 centimetres and again, of course, focusing is manual, but such is the massively deep depthof-field inherent with 14mm, you could use the hyperfocal distance to eliminate the need for any adjustment at all, especially when shooting with a smaller aperture. Use the camera’s depth-of-field preview facility to determine what’s already in focus with the lens set to infinity. Then pull the focus back to include more of the foreground, but distant objects will still be sharp because you’ve simply shifted the long depth-of- field closer to you (making use of what was previously ‘wasted’ on the other side of infinity). As on the 85mm, the focusing collar is flush-fitting with a fairly stiff action and there’s nearly 270 degrees of rotation to span the full focusing range. Nevertheless, its smooth rubber grip makes it very comfortable to use and, again, allows for very fine adjustments.
We tested both the XP lenses on a Canon EOS 6D body and while its autofocusing is inferior to that of the new Mark II, obviously this is academic with manual focus lenses. What’s particular welcome though is that you still get the focus confirmation indicators which can be particularly handy with the 14mm. That said, if you’re a regular user of autofocusing, it takes a bit of adjustment to realise that you’re now on your own here.
Let’s talk about the XP 14mm f2.4 first, because it really is a remarkable ‘bit of bottle’, particularly in terms of its optical performance. The extreme angle-of-view presents particular challenges with framing and composition, as the foreground becomes a very important part of the image. It’s a case of experimenting with the viewpoint, but also bearing in mind that, if the camera is kept level (i.e. so the imaging plane is parallel with the focus plane) then you’ll maximise the ultra-wide effect. This is because there’s absolutely no curvature – nope, none – so tall buildings, for example, are rendered absolutely straight. However, tilt the camera up or down and some convergence will start to occur which, visually, looks a lot less dramatic. Distortion is minimal – which is quite an achievement with such an ultrawide focal length – and there’s just a hint of barrel-type bending that will actually be hard to notice with many subjects. Centre-to-corner sharpness is also surprisingly good with only a slight fall-off when shooting wide-open at f2.4. Stop down to f4.0 or beyond and the uniformity of sharpness across the frame is simply stunning.
Chromatic aberrations are very effectively controlled and so is flare, although with such a wide angle-of-view it’s sometimes a challenge to keep the sun out of the frame. However, even with it positioned just outside the frame – so quite a bit of contrejour light was falling across that massive front element – flare and ghosting were very well supressed. Vignetting can be quite dramatic when shooting at between f2.4 and f2.8, but it’s significantly reduced at f4.0 and gone completely by f5.6.
The XP 85mm f1.2 is another sharp shooter. There’s plenty of competition in fast 85mm primes at f1.2 or f1.4 – from both the camera makers and the independents, including heavyhitters such as Zeiss – so Samyang is jumping in the deep end here, but it’s more than able to hold its own. Sharpness is again the big story with excellent centreto-corner uniformity even when shooting wide-open. There’s a tiny amount of softening at the corners when shooting between f1.2 and f1.8, but it’s unlikely to be an issue – even with big enlargements – and from f2.0 to f11 the overall sharpness is exemplary. At f16 diffraction has an effect, but again the reduction in sharpness is very minimal. Chromatic aberrations are virtually non-existent except with very high contrast boundaries
SAMYANG HAS BUILT ITS REPUTATION – AMONG BOTH PHOTOGRAPHERS AND CINEMATOGRAPHERS – ON DELIVERING A WHOLE LOT OF OPTICAL PERFORMANCE AT A VERY REASONABLE PRICE.
occurring near the frame edges, and even then the degree of colour fringing is very slight. Distortion is very well controlled with just a hint of pin-cushion type bending which will be hard to see in most situations. Flare and ghosting are exceptionally well handled even when shooting into the sun.
Samyang has built its reputation – among both photographers and cinematographers – on delivering a whole lot of optical performance at a very reasonable price, made possible by sticking with prime focal length designs and manual focusing.
With the new XP series lenses, Samyang moves into price categories where it is facing stiffer competition with much more emphasis on performance. The bad news for those rivals is that Samyang has managed to raise the performance of its XP lenses to another level, so the value proposition remains the same. And the build quality is among the best there is too.
The 14mm ultra-wide is a joy to use – addictive even – and a reminder of the last truly stunning lens in this focal length: Sigma’s autofocus 14mm f3.5. The Samyang XP lens is, of course, faster and sharper thanks to the many developments in special elements – especially aspherical types – since the Sigma lens was new. The XP 85mm f1.2 is a solid performer in a class of very solid performers, including Sigma’s new Art series 85mm f1.4 and not forgetting Zeiss’s Milvus and Otus f1.4 speed lenses, but Samyang can hold its head high in this exalted company. It’s faster, of course, and its direct competitor from Canon is quite a lot pricier so if you have a full-35mm EOS D-SLR, the Samyang lens should be on your shortlist.
What about the manual focusing? If you’re a long-term AF user, it’s true that having to go D-I-Y may initially come as a bit of a shock, but you soon get used to it and will almost certainly end up relishing being in control.
Value-for-money has undoubtedly been a key reason for buying a Samyang prime lens in the past, but with the XP models optical performance moves to the top of the list… and the price tag is just an added bonus.
SAMYANG XP MANUAL FOCUS LENSES
Canon EF lens mount retains electronic diaphragm control. The 14mm will be available in Nikon F and Sony E mounts down the track.
Massive front element is shaded by built-in lens hood, but both flare and ghosting are well controlled for such a wide-angle lens.
Manual focusing collar is flush-fitting with a smooth rubber grip.
Samyang’s ‘Ultra Multi Coating’ (UMC) anti-reflection coatings provide very effective suppression of flare and ghosting in the XP 85mm f1.2.
The 85mm’s focusing collar has a fairly stiff action, but allows for very precise adjustment.
XP series lens mounts are in stainless steel.