SAMYANG XP 50mm f1.4
South Korean lens maker Samyang is on a roll at the moment and its latest new model is a third XP series high-performance prime for the Canon EF mount. It’s a classic ‘fast fifty’ which means there’s plenty of competition, but the Samyang XP 50mm f1.4 is up to the challenge.
the ‘fast fifty’ lens sector is hotly contested by just about everybody and samyang is throwing a new high-performance Xp series model into the mix… manual focus too.
t one time the vast majority of 35mm SLRs would have been sold fitted with a 50mm lens which, as a result, became known as the ‘standard lens’. The word “standard” has subsequently often been interpreted as meaning that the 50mm focal length (on the 35mm format) best represents the way we see the world, particularly in terms of the angle-of-view and perspective.
This is partially true (in fact, 40mm is arguably the closest to the human eye), but the 50mm focal length is a standard for a variety of other reasons, most notably for how it covered the 35mm film frame, firstly in movie cameras and then in still cameras. The world’s first 35mm still camera, Leica’s I, had a fixed 50mm lens because it was this focal length which optimised sharpness across the frame while also minimising distortion. Importantly, it delivered this quality while also being comparatively compact and, as time went on, easier to manufacture in higher volumes while still maintaining the necessary level of optical precision. The transition from the hand-crafting of individual lenses to the massproduction of a standard design largely came about because of the industry’s adoption of the 50mm focal length as the benchmark for optical quality.
Since then, building a better ‘50’ has pre-occupied lens makers both big and small, aided by technological developments such as multicoatings, special glass formulations and advanced CAD-CAM production techniques. And the ‘fast fifty’ has become the badge of honour, proof of the ability to both design and build a high performance prime lens capable of competing for the title of the ‘world’s best’.
The fast fifty sets the highest bar for optical performance and, consequently, there are some real high-fliers in this category – among them the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f1.4 T* Distagon, Sigma’s 50mm f1.4 DG HSM Art, the Leica SummiluxSL 50mm f1.4 ASPH and Canon’s mighty EF 50mm f1.2L USM. It’s a very brave – or very confident – lens maker which decides to play in this pool, but Samyang has already proved itself capable of matching it with the better-known brands via its line-ups of surprising affordable
PERFORMANCE IS HARD TO FAULT AT EITHER EXTREME OF THE APERTURE RANGE WHICH IS QUITE AN ACHIEVEMENT AND SHOOTS THE SAMYANG XP 50MM F1.2 STRAIGHT TO THE TOP OF THE SHARPNESS CHARTS.
high-performance lenses for photography and cinematography. Recently the South Korean company upped the ante with its new XP series of manual focus primes for full-35mm format D-SLRs. XP is short for ‘Excellence In Performance’ and the new 50mm f1.2 model joins the 85mm f1.2 and 14mm f2.4 which we reviewed in the November/ December 2017 issue. It’s initially only available in the Canon EF mount, which is interesting given the huge reputation of Canon’s own 50mm f1.2 L series lens, but it’s perhaps no surprise that the styling is reminiscent of Zeiss’s Milvus and Otus models, including a flush-fitting and smooth-coated focusing collar.
a BiG handFuL
It’s a big beast of a lens too, weighing in at a hefty 1.2 kilograms and with a wide-enough diameter to necessitate a screwthread filter fitting of 86 millimetres. All this weight is actually a good thing though, because it’s the result of a solid construction which employs all-metal barrel tubes and all-glass elements. There’s no weather sealing though.
Not surprisingly, it feels very solid in the hand – indeed very similar to a Zeiss lens – and balances well on any full-35mm format Canon D-SLR. The external styling is fuss-free with a black satin finish, simple markings and the discrete silver band which is the hallmark of the Samyang XP series. In fact, the markings are probably just a bit too simple, because if ever a lens could benefit from having a depth-of-field scale, it’s one with a very large maximum aperture… particularly as the focusing is manual.
It would be nice to be able to see, at a glance, what’s going to be sharply rendered at a particular combination of aperture and focusing distance.
As with the other XP models, Samyang says that the 50mm f1.2 has the optical resolution to match full-35mm sensors in the 50 megapixels class and 8K video productions. The optical construction comprises 11 elements in eight groups, including one aspherical element and one made from glass with a high refractive index. Respectively, these correct for distortion and chromatic aberrations. Samyang’s ‘Ultra Multi Coating’ (UMC) antireflection coatings are used to minimise ghosting and flare.
The focusing group is internal so there’s no change in the lens’s length and the front element doesn’t rotate which is important when using orientation-sensitive filters such as a polariser or a grad.
The minimum focusing distance is 45 centimetres, and by sticking with manual focusing helps optimise the optical performance and also maintain affordability (no CPU or drive system to worry about).
However, as we noted with the other XP models, the manual focusing collar is quite stiff in its action and, on the 50mm f1.2, rotates through well over 180 degrees so traversing the full distance range takes at least a couple of seconds.
On the plus side though, it allows for exceptionally precise fine-tuning of the focus which is particularly important when shooting at very wide apertures such as f1.4 or f1.2. Usefully too, there’s assistance from the focus confirmation indicators in the Canon D-SLR bodies.
The diaphragm has nine blades to give smoother out-of-focus effects and complement the very shallow depth-of-field inherent at apertures larger than f2.0. As with any Canon EF mount lens, the aperture diaphragm is electromagnetically controlled and settings are made from the camera body.
The XP 50mm f1.2’s optical design is all about the pursuit of image quality and it certainly delivers both high levels of sharpness and correction for aberrations. The uniformity of centre-to-corner sharpness is excellent across the aperture range, but truly exceptional between f2.0 and f11. It’s hard to fault at either extreme of the aperture range which is quite an achievement and shoots the Samyang XP 50mm f1.2 straight to the top of the sharpness charts. It can easily handle the resolving power of a 50 megapixels sensor, with very fine details being very crisply and cleanly reproduced.
Distortion is minimal with just the slightest barrel-type bending evident when straight lines in an image are situated close to the frame edges. Chromatic aberrations are very well-controlled across the frame and we struggled to see any colour fringing at all even along high-contrast edges. Coma is also very well-controlled even at f1.2 and f1.4 (and it’s totally eliminated from f2.0) which is good news for, in particular, astrophotographers.
both ghosting and flare are efficiently suppressed even when shooting in strongly contre-jour lighting (although the beefy lens hood helps here too).
as noted earlier, precise focusing becomes quite a challenge when shooting with very wide apertures because of the extremely shallow depth-of-field. using the camera’s depth-of-field preview function is pretty well essential to confirm what’s in focus and what’s not.
The 50mm’s substantial and heavily-damped focusing collar allows for very fine adjustments so it is possible to nail even the smallest of targets at f1.2. additionally, the transition from the in-focus zone to the out-of-focus areas is nicely smooth and progressive, giving a convincing impression of separation and depth.
interestingly, while the XP 50mm f1.2 may not have autofocusing, it’s still chipped and so sends complete exif data to the camera body. in fact, the eos 6d we used for testing recognised it as canon’s own ‘ef50mm f1.2l usm’ and allowed for the in-camera corrections of vignetting and chromatic aberrations.
bravo samyang! The XP 50mm f1.2 delivers a command performance and so it’s a bit of a pity that only the owners of full-35mm canon d-slrs will get to enjoy its full potential (at least for the moment anyway).
it’s a very big lens – bigger, in fact, than the XP 85mm f1.2 – but it rewards for effort and, perhaps more importantly, works so well at f1.2 it’s definitely worth considering over an f1.4 speed lens. it’s beautifully made – easily on a par with Zeiss’s best (yes, we know that’s a big call) – and suited to a wide range of applications from portraiture to astrophotography. Then there’s the price tag which (but don’t mention this to samyang) would still represent pretty good value for money if it was a grand more expensive.
however, in the end it’s the superlative image quality at any aperture that makes this 50mm standard lens anything but standard.