Let’s face it, EVERY photographer would secretly love to have a gigantic telephoto lens, even if they are not quite sure what they would ever do with it other than fondle it and show it off to turn friends green with envy. You imagine all of the cool shots you could take from astonishing wildlife shots staring down the fangs of a grizzly to shots of stars where you might capture the mother ship on its way… if only you had a big telephoto lens.
But there is a catch… big telephoto lenses are not cheap! In fact they are downright pricey and for students especially, very often simply out of the range of possibility.
So it was interesting when two bits of information came to my attention at precisely the same time. The first was that the Korean Lens maker, Samyang, who makes lenses usually rebranded by a number of other “distributors” such as Bower and Phoenix, was actually creating some very nice lenses. Among their lenses that are being promoted to pro-sumer grade photographers in the US was the brand “Rokinon.” Of course it was a blatant attempt to be purposefully confused with the extremely high quality “Rokkor” lenses for the old Minolta cameras, but if they worked and worked well, who cares?
The other bit of information flowed from a student’s question about a lens that the same company, Samyang, was selling under that Rokinon™ label: a super telephoto zoom lens with a 2X range of 650mm to 1,300mm. And it was selling cheap! And I mean REALLY cheap! Something in the $250.00 vicinity through B&H!
Holy Nodal Point, Batman, that is about 1% of the cost of a major brand prime lens with any similar focal length, much less a zoom. Canon’s 600mm prime lens is priced to pretty much vaporize a $13,000.00 bill. How is the low price of the Rokinon even remotely possible unless the lens has a barrel made from a paper-towel-tube and lens groups made from old soft drink bottles?
This was so outlandish I decided to look deeper into it. Fairly quickly the cost cutting steps required to target this price point started to surface. For one, even though it is a refractor-style lens, it is the same sort of fixed aperture design you would find in a mirror reflex lens. And it is fairly slow at f8. Plus it has neither image stabilization nor autofocus capability… and it is a T-mount lens (meaning the company only has to make one body then have the customer get and use a T-Mount adapter as a separate piece to mount to various camera bodies). Fit and finish was less like a Maybach and more like a Volkswagen… not bad but not perfect.
Those items, especially added together, would have a major impact on the lens’s costs. So maybe they put the money into the glass and this was a real sleeper? We’ll see. One can only hope…
However before one becomes too critical or adopts unrealistic expectations, one must think about the more common and reasonable uses for a lens like that. A 600mm lens, much less a 1,300mm lens, is likely not going to be used to capture large wall hanging fine art pieces where ultimate detail and resolution are the major factors. But for editorial, photojournalism, and sports shots where the horrors of newspaper or magazine reproduction will make even top quality lenses look awful, or for shots for blogs or email or even for book illustrations, where the need for tack-sharp or major enlargements simply is not an issue, it might be fine. And for wildlife shots where the mere fact that you actually got a shot of the rarely seen Paisley Throated Triple Breasted Nut Case would make you a local legend, perfect Zeiss or Leitz level resolution was not a requirement.
The reviews on line were generally worthless since the complete original collection of reviews I read were all over the map with negative sets countered by positive ones. Many of those negative reviews were from people whose self-anointed sense of expertise needed no actual personal experience or evidence to denounce the possibility that anything not of a favored brand or an anticipated price point could ever be even worth considering.
It seemed that for some commentators, if it didn’t come wrapped in fine Corinthian Leather and bundled with a gallon of Grey Poupon and Rothschild Champagne it was beyond comprehension that it could possibly be any good. Only one or two reviewers tempered their remarks with mention of final intended use. And fewer still talked as if they had ever actually had one in their hands to shoot but were nonetheless offering specific and serious conclusions from a complete absence of actual experience or knowledge. Sort of like a politician…
The conclusion about a lens’s comparative optical quality is fascinating information, but sometimes in order to better decide the cost/rewards equation for your own situation, knowing the likely use of a contemplated tool can change the importance of different variables and lead to a far more practical consideration. And among the missing variables in the bevy of opinions was what sort of image does this lens actually produce.
Adding some sport to it all is the unfortunate fact that for many 3rd party manufacturers where quality control is an unknown, a given specimen may or may not be typical. That means that for off-the-shelf examples, one reviewer’s hidden gem may be another reviewer’s trash. As they say in all the weight loss product adds just after asserting that the person on screen lost 185 lbs of ugly fat in just 3 hours and has kept it off for two days, “results may not be typical.”
So there was nothing to do but get one and test it and at least for the review, pretend as if it were, in fact, typical of the lot of them.
I ordered the lens through B&H since they are an extremely reputable company with great customer service and I have always had a good experience dealing with them. If there was a truly silly problem with the lens, I was confident they would make it right. Worst come to worst, it would make an incredibly impressive paper weight.
When it came I could hardly wait to rip open the packaging. My initial inspection was not all that assuring. The lens had to be used with a T-Mount adapter but the supplied lens case was not designed to accommodate the lens with adapter attached. That was not an altogether sterling precursor for good design. The lens itself, however seemed OK in other ways. The barrel was metal, probably aluminum which is good. And it does have a built-in hood which is also a good thing. However, the front filter thread is 95mm and there is no slot in the rear for smaller drop-in filters. Have you priced a 95mm polarizing filter lately?
It seemed unexpectedly light but then no autofocus motor or IS or complex aperture or large objective lens element was needed to add to the weight. The Rokinon is about 4.5 lbs and the 600mm f4L Canon prime noted above is over 8 lbs.
But light or heavy, simple or complex, what really matters is how it shoots; so it was time for some testing. My longest lens is the above mentioned 400mm Canon f5.6L prime. I also have matching 1.4 X and a 2X telextenders to add to the mix. But even though the comparison is not, therefore, perfect it should still be informative. After all if an enlargement from my 400mm is still better than no enlargement from the 650mm then the longer lens becomes pointless. And it would be totally unacceptable if the 400 with telextenders was actually noticeably sharper.
Make no mistake, a little math and common sense will show that this lens needs to be shot from a tripod and a pretty sturdy one at that. It comes equipped with a tripod foot just for that purpose and to help balance it. Here it is mounted on my lightweight carbon fiber tripod.
The problem with shooting a long telephoto in the city is smog and air pollution doing far more to ruin image resolution and contrast than even a seriously flawed lens would shot so the first tests were shot at the close end of its focusing range. The large amount of “air” between the camera and its target creates a giant diffusion filter exacerbated by any haze or dust or water vapor in the air. There are some atmospheric issues encountered by extremely long lenses that no quality of glass can make perfect. So I tried to find a shot on a clear day to use for the tests but the haze simply did not go away for several days. So I simply shot the neighborhood from my pool apron.
The shots below show the results of the test shoot. You can further enlarge them so you can check out the quality comparisons even better.
Here are the lens configurations I used in the test. These are all mounted on a Canon 1Ds Mk II to take advantage of the slightly larger photosites compared to the 5D Mk II and to better balance the lens on a tripod.
But what do the images look like? Patience Grasshopper, patience…
First to give you a sense of the field of view of these lenses, here is a shot using a 40mm lens from the same position as the other tests. These shots can all be enlarged to get a better sense of how they look and compare.
Here now, at long last, are the full frame shots from each of the options above.
First up, a shot with my Canon 400mm Prime, the longest lens I have had to date. All of these are show full frame with no cropping so you can see the actual field of view.
Just as a point of comparison, here is the same 400mm lens with a Canon 2X Teleconverter.
Even though the lens is an extremely good one and the teleconverter is Canon’s top of the line converter, you can see that the shot is loosing some crispness. But lets see what the cheapie lens can do…
Well, not bad, but how will it compare at 800mm to the Canon and teleconverter?
And finally, here is the Rokinon set to 1,300mm.
No, of course it is not as sharp as a more expensive lens. Nor does it have the contrast and rich color; that is progressively lost as you zoom more and more. But that, as you can see, is well within fixable range.
However, shooting in the field does bring out some weaknesses in this lens’s design. Specifically, the fixed (and fairly slow) aperture forces you to adjust both shutter speed and ISO in order to get the shot if the light is not fairly bright. This is old hat to anyone used to shooting a mirror reflex lens but if you are not used to that it can be a pain.
Also if you have not been shooting with very long lenses you may not be aware of how little movement it takes to create softness due to even tiny amounts of camera shake. Even on the tripod it took increasing ISO to allow shooting at 1/1,000 at 800mm for both the Canon 400mm with 2X telextender and the Rockinon. But the Rokinon presented a larger area to the wind that was kicking up and it was moving it more. I have a heavier tripod and should have been using it. When I zoomed all the way out to 1,300mm it was incredibly sensitive to any wind or the slightest touch — such as on the shutter release! Plus at that extension, the lens slightly bowed in the middle but that was partly due to the weight of the 1Ds Mk II.
And how about other aspects of the image quality? All super telephoto lenses will show some pincushion distortion and this does as well. But that is easily corrected in ACR, DxO or other RAW converters. At the longer focal lengths (past 800mm) however, contrast falls off fast and has to be corrected in post.
It also does not focus as close as advertised. The box says 16 feet minimum focusing at 1,300mm but for my lens, at 650mm about 50-60 feet is about as close as it gets. But, in my opinion, you would rarely need this lens for that sort of distance anyway. And if so, an extension ring (for macro work) would make a huge difference though it would lose some light in the process.
So what are my conclusions? In my opinion this lens works precisely as I surmised it should. It does NOT produce images that are of a quality to withstand very much enlargement so making big wall-hanging prints is not recommended unless you have managed to capture a true once-in-a-lifetime shot in which high resolution is of far less importance than the unique quality of the image. 8x10s and 11x14s pretty much max out the lens’s quality. It is no coke-bottle glass by any means.
But, when that extreme detail is not the goal, for example when doing editorial shooting for magazine or newspaper reproduction, the lens seems quite adequate. Optically I’m sure it is not even in the same league as the Canon 600mm prime, but that lens is $13,000 and THIS lens is $250. I’d love to have that big Canon… but for the money and the rare occasion I might actually need a lens of this length for the types of things I normally shoot… I’ll keep this one.