Though Korean lensmaker Samyang was founded way back in 1972, it toiled in relative obscurity until about 2009, when its manual focus 85mm f/1.4 lens hit online shops for the eye-popping price of $400 and quickly fell to $300. Since then, the company has gone on to produce a broad range of manual focus prime lenses for full-frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds cameras, virtually all of which have been well-received.
It’s no wonder: From the 8mm f/3.5 fisheye, to the 35mm f/1.4 wide-angle, to the recent 24mm f/3.5 tilt-shift, Samyang's lenses are sharp, solidly built, and incredibly affordable. At CP+ 2015, the company is showing off its latest (and longest) full-frame prime, the Samyang 135mm f/2 ED UMC (MSRP $549). This is pretty exotic glass—a variety of lens currently only being offered by Canon, Nikon, and Zeiss—and it’s exciting to see a bargain alternative on offer.
We stopped by Kenko/Tokina’s booth to give the lens a try.
Look and Feel
A bare-bones presentation
Samyang lenses are all about value: a principle clearly reflected in their construction. That’s not to say that they feel cheap; the body of the 135mm f/2 is plastic, but it’s an extremely sturdy polycarbonate that feels every bit as reassuring as the aluminum used by pricier brands.
Instead, the value proposition manifests in a stripped-down look and feel. The aperture ring doesn’t lock when it hits the camera-control position—no bearing or plastic switch. That's five cents saved. The markings are silkscreened, rather than engraved or embossed, and the focus scale is also painted on. That's another ten cents per lens. Even the caps feel a bit less luxurious than what you’d get from Canon, Nikon, or Sigma.
But the lens itself does everything you want it to do. The focusing ring is huge, pleasingly grippy, and rotates with exquisite smoothness. That’s no surprise, since Samyang’s other lenses share the same silky feel; it’s something the company absolutely had to nail in order to sell manual focus lenses in an autofocus world.
The nine-bladed aperture is nearly circular even stopped down quite a bit, though it doesn’t use curved blades for a perfectly circular bokeh effect. The aperture ring isn't quite as robust as one might hope, but it feels fine and, given the price, is more than adequate. The lens is chipped, so you can control the aperture from your camera body.
A cylindrical plastic hood is included, mounting via a bayonet. It’s fairly deep, and should work to protect the large front element from catching stray light rays and creating nasty internal reflections.
Through the Finder
Samyang’s earlier 85mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4 were both noted for their exceptional sharpness wide open, and the 135mm f/2 looks set to join their ranks. Though the only camera available for use at the Kenko/Tokina booth was an aging Canon 40D, we were still able to tell that this thing is razor sharp all over. (An observation backed up by Samyang’s own MTF graph.)
At f/2, images showed plenty of edge-to-edge resolution and just a hint of reduced contrast. Bokeh, as you’d expect from a lens like this, was lovely. People’s faces popped out of creamy backgrounds, making isolating your subject absolutely trivial. Though the 40D doesn’t offer much in the way of focus confirmation, we managed a pretty decent hit rate; on a body with better assists, it seems like it should be pretty easy to nail focus with regularity.
(It's worth noting that some previous Samyang lenses have had issues with sample variation, particularly with focus confirmation accuracy and infinity focus. Having only handled one sample, we’re unable to comment with regard to the 135mm f/2.)
Stopping down only increased the resolution; it appears to peak around f/8 or f/11, though in the dim light of the show floor we started getting into pretty rough ISO territory for the 40D’s circa-2007 sensor. The 9-bladed aperture keeps the bokeh looking nice even stopped down, so f/2.8 through about f/5.6 should still be useful for headshot portraits if you stay close enough to your subject. Minimum focusing distance is about 2.5 feet, so that’s easy.
We didn’t note any fringing issues, which may be thanks to an extra-low dispersion element that’s designed to combat chromatic aberration. That said, the 40D’s low-res sensor isn’t the toughest test bed; we'd want to put the lens on a Nikon D810 or Canon 5DS before we declare it CA-free. We did note visible vignetting at f/2, but that’s easily correctable in your photo editing program of choice.
The Samyang 135mm f/2 ED UMC seems to be just as spectacular a value as the full-frame primes that preceded it. At an MSRP of $550—and a street price likely to drop to about $400–$450 within the next year, if past lenses are any guide—this lens is between one half and one third the price of its Canon ($1,050) and Nikon ($1,300) rivals.
Of course, those lenses offer autofocus, better warranties, available professional repair services, and better fit and finish. But for an enthusiast on a budget, Samyang’s offering should be extremely appealing—particularly if the buyer is already comfortable with (or a fan of) using manual focus lenses.
You can find the 135mm f/2 under both Samyang and Rokinon branding at online retailers like B&H Photo, Adorama, and Amazon.com. It’s already in stock and shipping, as is a 135mm T2.2 “cine” version of the lens designed for video use.