Sunday, August 10, 2014

Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Review - OH WOW!

Preparing the next article for the Wedding Photography Tips, I take a break to review the Samyang 85mm f/1.4.
Part 4 of the Wedding Photography series will be ready in a few days. If you haven't done so yet, you can subscribe to the Amateur Nikon newsletter and get an email notification every time there is a new article on Amateur Nikon (~ once per week; you can unsubscribe any time)

Oh Wow. Let me say this again: Oh Wow. This is how reviewing this Samyang 85mm 1.4 AS IF UMC felt like. I had read all kinds of reviews on the net comparing it to, e.g. the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.4 (as well as the cheaper 85mm f/1.8), and I decided to give it a go. I don't trust diagrams and numbers, and I don't trust seeing photos of buildings and statues when the lens to be reviewed is clearly meant for portraits. I got a used copy in mint, like new condition, with boxes, instructions and all, for only 150 eur (200 USD; 120GBP). Is it worth that much? My answer: Oh Wow.

+ superb bokeh, even stopped down
+ very, very good wide-open performance; practically excellent at f/2.8-f/5.6
+ great construction quality, way better than the plastic consumer Nikkors of the same price tag

Sharp enough for you?
The wide-open performance of the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 is nothing short of stunning.

- manual focus is just a tiny bit on the stiff side. You get used to it quickly
- some bokeh fringing. Although occasionally visible, it's mostly irrelevant to real-world applications
- if you plan to stop down to f/11 to get razor-sharp images of foliage, this lens is not for you (read more info below)

Intended Users
Great for:
  • Portraits. Oh Wow. Portraits. Oh Wow. Did I mention how great this lens is for portraits?
  • Great for performances in dark clubs, theaters, and other places where distances are set (manual focus, remember?). No AF motor noise, either!
  • if you can go around the MF limitations, great lens for some indoor sports. Plan your focusing strategy.

Not for:
  • manual focus means it's pretty difficult to use with erratically moving subjects
  • those who don't plan to use it primarily as a portrait lens. You'd be better served by something else.
  • Landscapes or other high-resolution scenes. Like I mentioned above, if you plan to get an f/1.4 lens and stop it down to f/11, you're doing it wrong. Get a VR zoom instead, stop it down to f/11, and do your job. This lens is meant for people photography - and it is mostly meant to be used wide-open.
Even stopped down to f/3.5, the bokeh remains absolutely superb.
Click to enlarge and notice the perfectly round highlights. Stunningly better than, say, the Nikkor AF-D 85mm f/1.8

Final Verdict
Oh Wow. Very, very happily surprised. It's incredible how much quality you get out of such a cheap lens. I can't praise it enough. There are no words to describe how great this lens is for portraits - and for the right reason, which is not technical aspects alone, but a more general sense of design purpose (are you listening, Nikon?) - this lens was made as a portrait lens, to be used wide-open. In absolute terms, it's not as great as the $1500+ Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.4 - but guess what? For 1/10 of the price, you get almost similar results wide-open for portraits. There, I said it. Sure, if you wanna pixel-peep a diagram or an MTF chart, you'll find the Nikkor somewhat better (and the more you stop down, the further apart the difference). But if you have only couple of hundred bucks to spare and look for a portrait lens, the Samyang is a very serious contender.

Compared to the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.8:
Obviously, this is a much more sense-making comparison, because of the price being closer to the Samyang. The Nikkor has of course autofocus, and is a better all-around solution. Sharper closed down couple of stops (although at f/1.8-f/2.8 the difference is pretty minimal; especially at f/2.8, I find the Samyang a bit sharper even). The Nikkor will also have better resale value, if you care about these things. What the Samyang has?
- cheaper
- better construction quality (and hence more reliable, too, with less moving/electronic parts)
- f/1.4 is, at the end of the day, always great to have.
- bokeh? This is subjective, but I threw all kinds of crazy light at the Samyang, and its bokeh was always as smooth as warm butter. To be fair, however, I haven't used the Nikkor as extensively with weird light sources, so I don't wanna take a stand on this one.

It's hard to pick a winner. For most people, the Nikkor will be the best portrait lens for FX (and even DX, depending on their needs - see my article on portrait photography). For some people, the Samyang will be the obvious choice. What I can guarantee you though is this: You can't go wrong with either choice!

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