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Rokinon (Samyang) SP 85mm f/1.2 Review

Dustin Abbott

February 27th, 2017

Korean lens maker Samyang has settled into a certain niche in the past: they develop manual focus only lenses (with a few Sony exceptions) with highly competitive optics, consumer grade builds, and inexpensive prices. Well, a few of those things are still true. Recently another Korean company (automaker Hyundai) has launched a premium brand (Genesis), and Samyang has done the same with its new XP line of premium lenses. Samyang lenses have always been sold under a variety of different brands, but the main alternate brand is Rokinon, and, thus far, I have only seen Rokinon branded versions of this lens available to the North American market. I’ve been spending some time with one of these premium lenses, in this case the Rokinon SP 85mm f/1.2. The XP 85 premium lens has gone to a whole new level of build and image quality, and it’s a lens that I have really enjoyed using.

Before proceeding, let me mention that I wish Rokinon had gone with the XP branding (like Samyang) rather than the SP branding (which is already one of Tamron’s branding marks). For the sake of clarity here I will refer to the lens as the XP 85 to avoid confusion with Tamron’s lens. This lens joins a select few full frame lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.2; one third stop faster than even f/1.4 lenses. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM is one of the few other options at the 85mm focal. The Canon 85L II still wins for having autofocus, but in most other ways this new Rokinon is a clear winner. Let’s see why.

Prefer to watch your reviews? Check out my final video verdict of the Rokinon XP 85!

Build Quality

If I closed my eyes and just handled the lens, I would say without hesitation that I was handling a Zeiss Milvus lens. It feels just like a Zeiss lens. It has an all-aluminum body which feels extremely premium. Samyang/Rokinon lenses have competed fairly well on an optical level with Zeiss glass in the past, but the build and handling of the Korean lenses was a distant second. I don’t think that is the case with this new XP line.  I encourage you to watch this video episode to see the design and build of the lens:

There is only one thing lacking in the XP 85, and that is weather sealing. There is no rubber gasket near the lens mount, but one thing I did note is that there is no gap at the rear of the lens where I can see the inner part of the lens. Everything seems very tight and very well engineered.

The focus ring imitates recent Zeiss Otus and Milvus lenses with a very “grippy” rubberized focus ring. It feels great and is perfectly damped all throughout the approximately 200 degrees of focus throw. I actually prefer the focus action to that of the Milvus 85mm lens, which had a bit more resistance in the focus ring than what I’ve seen with other Milvus lenses. The damping on the XP 85 is perfect, allowing for highly precise focus. The focus action is manual focus perfection, and might just make a believer out of those leery of manual focus lenses. The XP 85 actually borrows a page of the Otus 85mm book and has a high contrast color (not quite as bright a yellow) on the distance scale to allow of easy visibility in dimmer light. I’ve got only one gripe about the highly “grippy” focus ring; it likes to grip dust, too. You will almost always find something stuck to it!

Like the Otus/Milvus series the lens hood is a clear part of the lens’ design and profile. It is a metal-looking lens hood (I think it is actually engineered plastics) that really completes the lens and adds an elegant curve onto what is otherwise a fairly squat lens. The lens is nearly as big around (3.66”/93mm) as it is long (3.87”/98.4mm) without the lens hood. It weighs in at a hefty 2.31 lb (1050g), though that is still a fair bit light than either the Otus/Milvus 85mm lenses or the new Sigma ART 85mm f/1.4. It outweighs the Canon 85L II by a miniscule 25g. Like the Milvus 85 the width of the barrel leaves little clearance between it and the camera grip, though I found a slight bit more room with the XP 85 than I did with the Milvus. The lens is considerably shorter than very long Sigma 85 ART lens which is over an inch longer.

The minimum focus distance is a reasonable 2.62’ (80cm), a figure shared by the Tamron 85 VC lens, though the Tamron squeezes a class-leading 0.14x magnification out of this MFD. The XP 85 has a slightly smaller 0.13x magnification. No 85mm lens is particularly strong in this regard, so this is a better than average performance that is still very useful in a number of settings (including tightly framed headshots). The lens gives a strong optical performance at minimum focus, which certainly helps, and extension tubes can provide you more magnification if needed.

There are nine aperture blades, and the aperture stays reasonably round when stopped down (though a bit of a nonagonal shape will show at smaller apertures.)

The headline here, however, is that the maximum aperture is an extremely wide f/1.2, which puts it in very rare territory. I have previously reviewed a Rokinon lens with an aperture that wide (the 50mm f/1.2 – my review here), but that lens was designed for APS-C mirrorless and is a completely different animal. When you look into this lens you quickly see why it is called premium; it has what seems like acres of very expensive glass. This lens is ready to suck in a TON of light!

The XP 85 has a comparatively simple optical formula of 10 elements in 7 groups (the new Sigma ART is 14 elements in 12 groups). This will appeal to those of you who feel that adding too many elements results in reduced micro-contrast and three dimensional rendering. The XP 85’s optical formula includes one aspherical element and a pair of high refractive index elements along with Samyang’s Ultra Multi-Coating.

Another huge departure over any previous Samyang/Rokinon lens that I’ve used is that all previous lenses had a manual aperture ring. For that matter, they lacked any kind of electronics, period. Samyang has experimented with a few lenses with an AE chip (mostly for Nikon), but that really only allowed for some electronic communication to transmit some EXIF data and to help with metering. I’ve reviewed seven previous Samyang/Rokinon lenses, none of which had any kind of electronics. This meant that the aperture had to be controlled manual via an aperture ring. This has a few shortcomings. First of all, cameras don’t always meter right because they typically open the lens’ aperture to its maximum setting when autofocusing/metering, then stop down to whatever aperture you’ve selected. Previous Samyang lenses that I’ve reviewed didn’t communicate aperture information to the camera, and thus metering wasn’t always right (I particularly had issues in Live View). A second, more minor issue is that aperture rings often only allow you to select full stops (f/2.8, f/4, etc…) while electronically controlled apertures typically allow for 1/3rd stop aperture changes (f/2.8, f/3.2, f/3.5, etc…).

Another major issue is that no EXIF data was communicated from Samyang lenses (those without AE chips), meaning that lens specific information like the lens, aperture value, and focal length were missing from your EXIF data. That’s really a pain for someone like me who tests lenses and wants to report what aperture I used in tests or sample photos.

One final missing piece due to a lack of electronics was any kind of focus confirmation chip (the camera will “beep” and light up the appropriate focus point when it detects correct focus has been achieved). While focus confirmation chips are not always pinpoint accurate, it does help in achieving proper focus.

It is for these reasons that I’ve always preferred the handling of Zeiss lenses when compared to Samyang/Rokinon lenses…but that is no longer the case. The XP 85 handles as well and is as easy to use as any Zeiss lens that I’ve used, which is extremely high praise. It’s a pleasure to be able to control the aperture from the camera, to have focus confirm, and to have all of the EXIF data communicated to the camera…though there is one minor quirk there. For some reason everything seems to detect this lens as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. Camera bodies offer to provide correction information (Peripheral Illumination, etc…) for the 85L II, and Lightroom/ACR recognize it as the 85L II, too. I don’t know if this will get corrected in time, but the quirk definitely exists for now.

So far this lens is only offered in a Canon EF mount, and I have seen no indication of a Nikon mount following. That’s definitely a departure for Samyang, which frequently releases its lenses in a variety of lens mounts.  One theory on the XP 85 not coming in a Nikon mount is that the design of the Nikon F mount makes it difficult to design lenses with a larger aperture than f/1.4.  

I’ve knocked Samyang/Rokinon in the past for having somewhat poor branding on the final touches like the rear lens cap, but, like when Zeiss introduced the Otus line, Samyang has completely redesigned the front and rear caps with a decidedly more upscale look and feel.

The lens also comes with a more upscale lens pouch (compared to earlier Samyang lenses) that feels nearly identical to the pouch included with Canon “L” lenses. I prefer the Sigma approach of including a padded lens case, but I’ll acknowledge this as a step in the right direction. The pouch is one clear indicator of the Samyang origins of the lens, as it says “Samyang”; no rebranding at all. Stamped on the lens barrel is “Technology by Samyang Optics”. Other than the Rokinon branding on the lens (and front lens cap), the look of the Samyang and Rokinon lenses is identical.

One final observation about the build/design. The XP 85 follows the trend set by the Otus 85 and the Sigma ART 85, and that is a move to a very large 86mm front filter thread. That has good points (vignette is fairly well controlled as we will shortly see) but also negative ones. There’s a VERY good chance you will be in settings where you want to shoot at f/1.2 but you are hitting your shutter speed limit on your camera body. An ND filter or circular polarizer is a big help in those settings, but 86mm filters don’t come cheap, and it is VERY unlikely you already have some in your collection. A good quality CPL filter will probably set you back $200, and the better grade ones will be more expensive still  (the Zeiss version costs over $500!!!).  ND filters aren’t much cheaper, so this is a potential area where you can add a lot of unwanted expense.

That’s about as much as I can nit-pick, though. This lens is one of the more beautiful ones that I’ve reviewed, and gear lovers will love the way it looks and feels in their hands. I don’t need the lens one bit, but it is already weaving its spell on me.

Image Quality

Here’s a thorough, interactive look at the image quality from the lens:

In the past I’ve knocked Samyang/Rokinon lenses for their handling even while praising them for their image quality. Suffice it to say I expected great things from the lens optically, and I haven’t been disappointed. Samyang claims that this lens is designed to match 50 megapixel bodies and to support 8K video production. I’ve used a lot of high resolution lenses as of late (most recently the extremely sharp Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART lens), and I think the marketing materials might emphasize the wrong thing for this lens.

Don’t get me wrong: this lens is very sharp and is useful even at f/1.2. But it isn’t as absolutely sharp across the frame as the Sigma 85 ART (or the almost-as-sharp Tamron 85 VC ) at equivalent apertures. Where the XP 85 excels is in the exceptional quality of its rendering. It produces beautifully creamy and soft bokeh while still outresolving the Canon 85L II by a landslide. The Sigma ART wins in the absolute sharpness department, but the images it produces aren’t as “special” to my mind as what this lens can produce. Let’s break this down a little further.

Resolution

I no longer have the Sigma 85 ART on hand, but I run a fairly standardized test that allows me to compare past results, and I do have the Tamron 85 VC on hand (a lens that only slightly trails the Sigma and Zeiss Otus in sharpness on high resolution bodies). In this test I found the Tamron and Sigma delivered highly similar results in terms of overall sharpness at equivalent apertures (see this in my video episode here) The Tamron will serve as our benchmark here, too, though the XP 85 has few comparisons at f/1.2. I used a Canon 5D Mark IV as my reference body for this test.

At f/1.2 there is essentially only the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II to compare it to, and the XP 85 is easily capable of outresolving the Canon. The XP 85 does show a bit of softness and a minimal chromatic aberrations at f/1.2 at the edges, but the center performance is already strong. There is a tiny bit of LoCA (longitudinal chromatic aberrations) present in out of focus transition regions, but they are fairly minimal. The Canon 85L II, by comparison, has significant amounts of chromatic aberrations. Contrast is already very good on the XP 85 from f/1.2. There is visible vignette, though I note that it is less pronounced than the Tamron’s 2.5 stops in the extreme corners and is probably closer to the Sigma ART’s two stops in the extreme corners.  Out in the real world f/1.2 produces very useful sharpness – particularly in the center of the frame.  Here’s a full image plus a crop at f/1.2:

That vignette is noticeably better by f/1.4 (about as good as the Sigma’s performance) and basically gone for all practical purposes by f/2.8. Because vignette often “works” with a medium telephoto (read: portrait) lens, I don’t find the relatively mild vignette here objectionable at all, though your opinion may differ.

By f/2 the sharpness in the center is extremely impressive and the edges also look very good, though the Tamron I used as a benchmark is sharper at the edges even wide open. There is a touch of lateral CA that remains in the XP 85 shots (lateral CA isn’t entirely corrected by stopping down). As I noted in the Sigma ART review, however, I’m not personally turned off by a bit of CA in real world shooting as I sometimes find the pursuit of entirely eradicating CA results in a more sterile, clinical rendering that loses some “magic” in the pursuit of perfection.  The handling of longitudinal chromatic aberrations is actually very good; better than the Sigma 85 ART and close to the excellent performance from the Tamron 85 VC.  Take a look at the image and crop below:

Stopped down to f/2.8 and beyond resolution is pretty much perfect across the frame. The lens is exquisitely sharp at small apertures, and I find its sharpness profile a little more traditional (sharpness continues to grow through f/8 until diffraction starts to set in at f/11 and beyond). The Sigma 85 ART is more optimized for wide apertures, and I suspect the XP 85 is equally sharp at small apertures.  Here’s a small gallery of images shot at smaller apertures that show the extremely crisp results from the lens:

I don’t believe that when DXO gets around to testing this lens (if they do) that it will supplant the Sigma, Otus, or Tamron 85mm lenses as the new resolution king, but the XP 85 has more than raw resolution at it’s disposal. It’s in the next section that the true worth the XP 85 becomes apparent.

Bokeh Quality

I quickly fell in love with the bokeh from the XP 85. Taking a look at my bokeh highlight test tells the story why. First of all, at close focus distances the amount of bokeh this lens can produce is truly impressive. It blows away the Sigma Art in both the amount of bokeh it produces [bigger maximum aperture plus (unlike the Sigma) it is a full 85mm] but also in the softness of the bokeh.

The bokeh circles are HUGE, with almost no inner lines at all at f/1.2. There is almost no activity in the circles at all in the middle, with only a slight bit of activity in the circles near the edge. The Sigma was good, too, but there was certainly more busyness in the inner circle and a more defined inner line.  It is interesting to note that even with equal framing and aperture values the bokeh “circles” remain slightly larger from the XP 85.  Even with all things being equal it produces more bokeh than the competitors!

There is almost no sign of an inner line on the XP 85 until nearly f/5.6, which means that at most of your typical apertures that you will use this lens for bokeh the quality of the bokeh will be extremely soft.

Stopping the lens down produces slightly more busyness in the bokeh circle highlights, but this remains mild.

There is one place that the Sigma ART trumps the XP 85, though, and that is that the Sigma produces perfectly round bokeh circles across the whole frame at f/2. The XP 85 (like the Sigma) has some “cat-eye” bokeh distortion along the edges of the frame at wide apertures, though unlike the Sigma the XP 85 doesn’t produce perfectly evenly shaped “circles” across the frame until f/2.8, but by that point a slight nonagonal shape is starting to show from the 9 aperture blades. This shape becomes slightly more pronounced as the lens is stopped down further. At around f/2 you can also see a slight “jagged” quality in spots (a bit like a circular blade) due to the shape of the aperture blades. I’ve seen this before with other extremely large aperture lenses (most notably the Canon EF 50mm f/1.0L.)

At wide apertures, however, the bokeh is gorgeous from this lens, and real world bokeh agrees. Backgrounds melt away, even at full body portrait distances, and I didn’t see any ugliness in the bokeh in any of the transition zones. It was gorgeous, period!  I love the bokeh and overall rendering from this lens.

 

This is good part of the reason why this lens is a fabulous portrait option.

Portrait Setting Observations

I was reminded in the actual capture process that I definitely prefer autofocus in the studio, particularly when shooting a nine-year-old (trying to get him to stay still long enough to manually focus was a bit of challenge). I wanted to use the 5D Mark IV for its superior studio performance, but my 6D may have been the better choice because of the focus screen helping the shooting process to be faster and more organic. This is the nature of shooting a manual focus lens.

That aside, however, the XP 85 is a treat. It has such beautiful fall off and handling of skin tones that portraits really have a gorgeous pop to them. In a studio setting f/1.2 provides far too shallow a DOF, and really should be reserved for shooting full length portraits outside (though this doggy portrait shows off how nice f/1.2 can be!)

Shooting at more typical f/2 or smaller aperture produces great results, and vignette is almost non-existent by this point (I ended up adding a fair bit of vignette in post as I desired the look).

I liked the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART as a studio lens, and would probably still ultimately prefer it here because of the greater ease of autofocus, but I would give the ultimate rendering edge to the XP 85. It has really beautiful bokeh falloff, and you can see where the engineering priority was here. The Sigma is designed for ultimate resolution, but the XP 85 is designed for ultimate rendering. Which was the better choice will come down to your personal preference. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this question.

There is only one thing that will hold the optics back on this lens, and that is the challenge of getting focus right on modern DLSRs. They just aren’t designed for manual focus. With the EG-S precision matte focus screen on my 6D I’m able to easily visually confirm whether focus is correct within about 12 feet or less, but outside of that zone the limits of my vision makes this technique less precise. Using Live View and magnifying the image is a sure way to get focus right, but doesn’t make for nearly as organic or enjoyable a focus experience. The focus confirmation chip helps, but it really isn’t an adequate substitute for well calibrated autofocus.

Flare Resistance

I had to laugh when I read ePhotozine (a review source I do like) say this, “There are no signs of flare under any circumstances, the coatings, design and excellent lens hood all playing their part.” They must not have been reviewing the same lens I was. You just don’t have this massive amount of glass without some flare, and that’s certainly true of this lens. Put the sun in the frame as I did on a cold winter evening and you get a pretty significant amount of veiling (prismatic haze and loss of contrast at the epicenter of the sun).

There is also a noticeable ghost pattern that is soft and unobtrusive at wide apertures but will become more pronounced as you stop the lens down.

There is a clear loss of contrast with the sun directly in the frame, though in a stylistically useful way that I didn’t really mind.  It’s somewhat localized and doesn’t result in a complete loss of contrast (like the Canon 135mm f/2L).

I could do without the ghosting pattern, though, and I would advise you to be careful with where you place it as ghosting can be tough to eliminate in post…particularly with the lens stopped down and the pattern becomes more definied.

Conclusions

If only manual focus lenses were easier to nail focus with! Some of my favorite lenses optically are MF glass, but the reason more of them aren’t in my personal kit is that while I do enjoy using MF lenses, they simply aren’t practical in a lot of professional situations where focus accuracy is critical. I enjoy using manual focus lenses for me, for the joy of shooting, for the organic process of making an image through careful and deliberate focus. But when it is time for paying work (or critical work), I usually leave the MF glass at home and bring along the tried and true autofocus lenses. If the Samyang XP/Rokinon SP 85mm f/1.2 had gone all the way and added autofocus to its fancy new electronic suite this lens would most certainly end up in a lot of people’s kits. It isn’t as devastatingly sharp as the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART (or even the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 VC), but it renders better than either of them and has superlative bokeh and “drawing”. But, alas, the reality of manual focus only means that a lot you have read this review out of curiosity but without any real intention of purchasing this lens.

The price point of $999 USD is certainly more “premium” than previous Samyang/Rokinon lenses, but this lens is unquestionably a premium instrument in its build, handling, and optical performance. It undercuts the Canon 85L II and Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 by about half, and undercuts the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART by $200. All told it is a solid value for those not intimidated by manual focus…and with a Canon body. The lens is for Canon EF only, and I for one hope that Samyang finds some success with this lens. That might mean more mounts in the future, and, better yet, more of these premium lenses. Despite the limitations of manual focus, this lens is a delight, and easily stands as my favorite Samyang/Rokinon product thus far.  There’s a lot to make me smile over!

Pros:

  • Beautiful build and design.
  • Lives up to its premium branding
  • Fantastically soft and smooth bokeh 
  • Gorgeous overall rendering
  • Useful sharpness wide open; deadly sharpness stopped down
  • Handling (for a manual focus lens) is beautiful
  • Good handling of chromatic aberrations
  • Fully electronic aperture control and EXIF data communication
  • Great focus ring with perfect damping and long focus throw

Cons:

  • Somewhat flare prone
  • Some recent 85mm competitors sharper at large apertures
  • No weather sealing
  • Tests new price point for a Samyang/Rokinon lens
  • 86mm filters are expensive
  • Canon EF mount only

Thanks to my friends at B&H Photo for providing a retail sample for evaluation.

Gear Used:
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (5D4)
Canon EOS 6D DSLR Camera (Body Only)
Purchase the Rokinon SP 85mm f/1.2: B&H Photo: |  Amazon
Super Precision Matte Eg-S Interchangeable Focusing Screen
Adobe Lightroom CC Software for Mac and Windows (Boxed Version)
Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 1-Year Subscription
Alien Skin Exposure X2 (Use Code “dustinabbott” to get 10% anything and everything)

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