Crazy Photographer buys Wacky Off Brand 85mm Lens. Why? What was he thinking?

 I've been around the block long enough to know that there's no free ride. But I've also racked up enough lens purchases to know that there's also a lot of wiggle room between quality, branding, features and price. So you'll have to forgive me for going off the reservation and purchasing a wacky newcomer to the 35mm lens market, the 85mm 1.5 Cine Rokinon lens.

A couple of weeks ago I did a test with the 85mm 1.4 CZ for the Sony. While I'm a sucker for cool lenses and I would definitely toss one in the bag is the price was right I was also very underwhelmed by the center performance of the lens wide open. You may want a homogenous sharpness across the full frame but I'll trade some corner performance for center sharpness any time. Like it or not, the important and juicy stuff usually winds up in the middle of the frame. (Please don't be too literal, I'm talking about the inner 70% of the frame not the little 10% chunk right in the center...).

While I am deeply and irrevocably in love with the cool little Sony 85mm 2.8 lens I have found a few situations (mostly in video production) when I'd really like to use a decent 85mm 1.4 lens at its wide open aperture. So when I started having second thoughts about the venerable Zeiss offering I also started to look around at other options, like the Sigma. That's when I discovered this particular lens. The Rokinon 85mm t-1.5 Cine version of Samyang's well respected and inexpensive 85mm 1.4 still photography lens. I'm increasingly interested in the intersection of still photography and motion so this lens caught my attention for several reasons. First, the basic design is based on Samyang's latest permutation of their still lens and countless reviews have made it pretty clear that its optical performance is competitive. Secondly, the lack of click stops is a great thing for quiet interviews and other video situations where you might need to compensate for a light shift during a live take. Finally, the lens looked cool in the product advertising and it was dirt cheap compared to everything but my little 2.8. I figured I could compare it to what I saw with the CZ and if it wasn't as good I could send it back for a no hassle refund. A quick test with no harm done.

Short story: It's not going back. Long story? It toasts the Carl Zeiss lens for center sharpness wide open.  And to my eyes it's at least as good at the rest of the f-stop range as well.

The 85mm t 1.5 Cine mounted on a Sony a99.

As you can see in the image just above the lens has it's t-stops (actual light transmission stop as opposed to theoretical f-stops) running down the side of the lens when the camera is in a normal position. That's because filmmakers tend to prefer apertures on the side because there are so many attachments that loom over the top of their full configured cameras that getting to the ring and seeing the settings can be....challenging.  You'll notice that the focusing ring is rotated into this position as well. 

The focusing ring is deeply scalloped and it's done that way so it will mesh with most of the follow focus units that are on the market. Those are the units that use a geared attachment to the focusing ring so that accurate focusing can be done by rotating a knob. The focusing ring is also a long throw, linear ring so it's harder to overshoot your mark.

So, the lens is solid, the focusing ring is smooth as butter, the aperture ring is click-less but has enough resistance to stay put when you engage it and the whole package looks very professional. Optically, the lens is constructed with 9 elements and includes an aspheric element. I used the lens yesterday at a product shoot and stopped down to f16 without much perceptible diffraction effect on the Sony a99. Below are a couple of studio illustrations I did before I sat down to write this.

My favorite, older ball head. The Leitz Ballhead. This was shot at f4.

I wanted to see what the sharpness of the lens looked like in the center at f4. According to all the tests I've read this is where most 85mm's shape up and become bullet proof in their performance.

Here's what a 100% crop of the center looks like. 

But, if you are going to pay for a fast aperture you've got to be curious about what you're going to get as a result of your investement. With that in mind the next photo down is in my studio as well and is shot at the full 1.5 t-stop. First the full frame:

And then the 100 % crop (see below).

I'm happy with that kind of performance. But what are the downsides of a great performing but dirt cheap ($350) fast lens? Since Samyang/Rokinon didn't scrimp on image performance what got left out of the mix to hit this price point? Well, it's totally manual focus. The Nikon version has a focus confirmation chip but the Sony and Canon versions are bare-bones. That's okay for Sony users because we have focus peaking and it makes using this lens in most situations fast and accurate.

The lens also has no aperture automation. When you move the dial to a smaller aperture the lens stops down. Always. In a traditional OVF camera the finder gets darker and darker until (varies by camera) the finder gets too dark to be useful. For a number of situations it's useful to focus near wide open and then stop down and that can be a real pain in the butt. There's a reason people like automation.....

Their are two other glitches but neither of them shows up anywhere in my list of deal killers. I'll mention them anyway. First, the lens hood, while included ( take that, Olympus), is about as flimsy as it comes and most ham fisted American users will have theirs in small pieces in short order. The same sentiments for the lens cap. Look to the aftermarket market if these things bug you. I'm presuming most video users will be using a filter holder or compendium bellows shade on the front of the lens anyway and most of us still shooters have so many 72mm lens caps floating around from yesteryear's wonder lenses that it won't matter.

For studio shooters like me, and photographers who set up lights and work with maximum control, there are no real deal killers with this lens. It's a great value for us. If you do a lot of sports the long, linear focus ring will screw you up. So will the lack of automation in exposure.

My most anticipated use? Portraits. Wonderful portraits with vaporous backgrounds. I like the look of the files I'm getting enough so that the lens has not come off the front of my camera since I first got it. Your mileage will vary depending on what you'll be using the lens for but you won't be able to complain about image quality. This lens delivers that.

It is available in Sony Alpha, Sony NEX, Canon and Nikon mounts.