Samyang 135mm f/2 ED UMC hands on (part 1)
Samyang continues releasing new and interesting lens models; having more or less completed the lineup from the ultra-wide angle to short telephoto categories, their latest releases include a 100mm macro and a 135mm telephoto lens.
135mm is a traditional focal length in the standard 35mm format. There are hosts of legacy lenses and several current ones, which makes competition rather stiff. Thanks to our friends at All About Digital Photo I had the pleasure of having the lens for some time, and here is what I found out.
Important note: Any Samyang lens model is optically the same in any system. The only thing that differs is the flange distance; i.e. it's like having a spacer at the back of the lens. That's why I used a Canon-specific model in combination with good quality adapters in these tests. Results will be the same should you decide to purchase a system-specific lens, e.g. m43, Fuji, Sony, Canon, Nikon, etc, with minor differences allowing for the different sensor size.
First impressions are very positive: the lens looks and feels very well built, with tight tolerances. It comes with a nice cloth pouch and a hood, which is about average but welcome nevertheless. The whole lens is made of industrial type plastic, seemingly the same kind used e.g. by Canon in their L lenses.
This is not a small or light lens; after all, there is a lot of glass inside. If you factor in the included lens hood, you end up with quite a beast, on a smaller camera body. This is why it's certainly advisable to use it on a larger body, it would feel very front-heavy on smaller mirrorless bodies, in particular. Also be advised that it doesn't come with a tripod collar and I'd suggest you get one, should you need to use it on a tripod.
I tested the lens on a m43 as well as a Fuji-X camera (details to follow in part 2). The lens has different purposes in each format, becoming from a medium to a long telephoto. That said, conclusions regarding build quality, user experience, etc are exactly the same regardless the system, and optical characteristics can be only slightly different (e.g. there can be a bit more vigneting with larger sensors and higher resolution sensors will naturally resolve more detail).
Concerning the m43 ecosystem the lens is analogous to a 270mm lens in 135 format. There is currently no other prime lens available at this focal length. Olympus had a very high grade, and very expensive, 150mm f/2 lens for Four Thirds, that one can still adapt to m43. Problem is, that lens is still very expensive and literally huge. It offers AF though, albeit somewhat slow, with the adapter.
Having a fast prime at this focal length is indispensable for disciplines such as some forms of wildlife shooting and sports/action photography. The bright aperture means one can gain some ISO and/or shutter speed advantage in such conditions. Some caveats apply, namely, this being a manual focusing lens, it needs quite some experience in use. In fact, I'd not recommend it to photographers with little experience in manual focusing, older users will be right at home though. The "video" version (with clickless aperture) will also be a great addition for cinematography guys.
The lens, although hefty, as I mentioned, is a pleasure to use. The aperture ring has a firm click and the focus ring is as stiff as it needs, with quite a long throw. This is absolutely necessary if used with open apertures, since DoF can be tiny, and it helps to nail focus with precision.
The E-M1 has a very good, although not perfect, manual focusing assisting mechanism, and, between peaking and magnification it is fairly easy to achieve critical focus quickly. Again, experience is needed but the lens doesn't fight you.
Coming to the most exciting part, namely overall image quality. In a word, this lens is superb. I have seen several legacy 135mm lenses and a number of modern ones, and it goes from blowing them away to being the equal of the best of them.
First of all, image sharpness is excellent bordering on astounding. Even from f/2 the center is first-rate while the edges/corners are already very good. For a measure of this, I have seen samples from this lens alongside the (much more expensive) Canon 135L f/2, and the Samyang is better by more than a stop at the edges and more so at the corners. Stopping down from f/4 to (barely) f/5.6 allows for maximum sharpness over the whole frame. On m43 there is virtually no vigneting even at f/2.
Aberrations, both against backlight and bokeh fringing, are nowhere to be found; this was pretty impressive, since most high-end 135mm lenses display such behavior. Contrast is very good, with punchy colors, straight from wide-open, with some natural loss against backlit subjects, which can be easily dealt with in post (for example, look at the bear photo in the gallery for a worst case scenario of this). Multicoating probably helps a lot here. Stopping down to about f/4 again makes things even better.
I found bokeh to be very nice for my taste, smooth and pleasant, albeit not at the levels you'd expect from a high-end portrait lens (e.g. the 75mm f1/8, in this system). The lens has circular aperture blades, but you'd avoid using it below, say, f/5.6 if perfect bokeh balls are your purpose. All in all, a very good performer in this area.
For the m43 lens ecosystem in particular, only the Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 pro lens can compete with the Samyang. It is one stop slower, but has advantages such as AF and versatility; it is also weather sealed. I didn't have the lens to test side by side, but my guess the Samyang could be better at f/2.8, if absolute image quality is the goal. The Samyang also costs less than half what the Olympus does. So it makes sense, in my opinion, if one shoots at this focal length a lot.
Here is a small gallery of photos taken with the lens. Most were shot at f/2 with very few going down from f/2.8 to f/4. All shots were handleld.
We shall continue in part 2 with user impressions with the X-T1.