An 85mm lens is great fun to use, even if you never shoot portrait (like me). The lens has a really unique look, which I really love.
The reason I wanted an 85mm lens, was for that super shallow depth of field. I always wanted more background separation. Without buying a full medium format setup, an 85mm lens seemed like the next best option for more blur. When I first started looking at lenses for my Sony A7 I was a little bit shocked. A lot of the lenses at this focal length are aimed at pros and come with pro prices. The Sony 85mm f/1.4 is £1,750, which is way way way more than I was looking to spend.
The choice was either an older manual lens with an adapter (Philip Reeve’s website is an absolute goldmine for information on older manual lenses) or a cheaper option from one of the budget friendly brands.
I’m terrible at making decisions, and will spend forever weighing up all the options before making a decision, then overthinking that decision and changing my mind again. I saw a used Samyang on ebay, impulsively made an offer, which was accepted, then breathed a sigh of relief that I can stop spending all my time reading reviews and watching youtube videos about different lenses. It can be fun to geek out about gear, but I find the obsession of technical details like MTF charts ends up boring me to tears.
The main thing I want to know about the lens, is it any good under normal everyday use? From a price point of view the Samyang costs about 10% of the price of the Sony, so even if it is just broadly fine, for the price that seems fair enough.
All the images in this blog post were taken with the Samyang 85mm, which hopefully that gives a good idea of what the final images look like. I;ve added a few zoomed crops, so you can slide between to see what it looks like at 100%. Personally, I’m really happy with it, it’s pretty basic, and definitely has it’s quirks, but I’ve really grown to love it, and can’t see myself ever replacing it as I have a real fondness for the type of images it produces.
Lets start with it’s quirks.
Fully manual – Manual focus only, plus there are no electronic contacts so it doesn’t communicate with the camera at all. Its basically a big dumb lump of metal and glass. Which suits me perfectly, I’m sure 90% of the features on my camera are wasted on me, as long as it has Aperture mode and focus peaking, that’s all I really need. My dream camera would be the A7r I have now, but with an iso & shutter dial, I’d never have dive into the settings ever again.
Sharpness – at f/1.4 it’s a little bit fuzzy, but step to f/2 and it’s it more than sharp enough. I treat it like an f/2 lens, and avoid f/1.4 completely.
Chromatic aberration/purple fringing, you will definitely notice this if you are used to a more premium lens. You can see an example of the purple fringing in the image below. I’m not looking for optical perfection, so I can live it.
Low contrast – none of the images are what I would describe as being ‘punchy’ even in midday sun. I personally like this look, and even push it a little further in post. But if this isn’t your thing, I can imagine being a little bit disappointed
It’s pretty big – the Sony mirrorless version is even larger than the version for SLR’s, it definitely sticks out lot; plus be prepared that none of your filters will fit the huge 77mm lens ring.
But on the list of positives, the background separation is everything I hoped it would be. It really is amazing how great it is at separating the subject from the background. Once you nail your focal point, the background just seems to slowly melt away. You can isolate objects that just wouldn’t be possible with a shorter focal length. The ramp in that photo above is roughly 3 metres, but even getting far enough back to fit it all in to the frame, you can still achieve that nice separation.
The downside to this, is when I first got the lens I was obsessed with shooting everything wide open, and just trying to get the background as blurry as possible. As fun as this was, it can start to get old quite quickly. So now I try to use it in moderation, when the photo (I hope) calls for some blurriness, rather than using it for every photo just because I can. It reminds me a little but of getting stuck in the HDR hole in the stages of photography diagram.
Another problem, is that if you want to get perfect front to back sharpness, this lens is not going to do that. Even stopped down to f/8, the depth of field is surprisingly shallow.
This isn’t really meant to be a review of the lens, but more a rough guide of what it can do, ad how it looks under normal day to day use.