Samyang AF 50mm f/1.4 Review
March 22nd, 2018
The release of the truly impressive new Sony a7R3 camera (and now the Sony a73!) has caught a lot of our attention. The a7R2 also caught my attention because of a great spec list and an impressive sensor, but when I spent time with it in 2017 I was left feeling a little ambiguous. It was just lacking in a few key areas and had more compromises than I was personally willing to make. When I got my hands on the a7R3, however, it was a different story. Within just a few days, I knew this was a camera I could happily use. My long term review revealed some weaknesses but a whole lot of positives. One of my viewers summed up my feelings well when they commented on how much they were enjoying using the camera. I enjoyed using the camera, and, as a result, made the decision to purchase one for my own kit. But at the time of purchase I owned no full frame (FE) native lenses for it. One of the most useful lenses for any photographer (and any system) is a good 50mm lens. So, I made my first project after purchase a three way comparison showdown between the three top autofocusing 50mm options for the system: the Sony/Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T*, the Sony/Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T*, and the Samyang AF 50mm f/1.4 (hereafter known as the Planar 50, Sonnar 55, and Samyang 50). Is the one in the middle the “Goldilocks” of this trio? Read on to find out…
These reviews will share some core content (like this intro), but will break into individualized reviews for each lens.
Prefer to watch your reviews? Here is the full, detailed final video review on the lens.
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Build, Handling, and Specifications
For lenses that are roughly similar in their basic design (wide aperture 50mm lenses), there is a surprising amount of difference in the size, weight, and price of these lenses. The heaviest option (Planar 50) is more than twice as heavy as the lightest (Sonnar 55), and the most expensive option (Planar 50) is nearly 2 ½ times as expensive as the least expensive (Samyang 50). Using US market prices from B&H Photo (who supplied me retail loaners of each lens) at the time of review, the Samyang costs $599, Sonnar 55 $898, and the Planar 50 is $1398.
I would recommend that you watch this video where I give you a close look at the design and handling of the Samyang 50:
Here’s a chart breaking down the other basic specifications of each lens.
|Sony 50mm f/1.4||27.36oz
|Sony 55mm f/1.8||9.91 oz
|Samyang 50mm f/1.4||20.64oz
It should be noted each of these lenses have a great feel to them. They all feel like premium lenses, with a lot of metals in their construction. They are all very handsome lenses, too, with a black anodized finish. The Samyang sports a very nice looking bright red accent ring that is reminiscent somewhat of Canon’s L series save in a brushed aluminum finish that is arguably more elegant.
The Samyang 50 is a beautifully built lens. It has a nice anodized finish on what feels like an aluminum alloy body (similar to Tamron’s SP primes). The finish is broken up by the ribbed focus ring, with a nice red accent ring in aluminum beyond that. A petal shaped lens hood is included, and, while it is plastic, it actually feels a bit sturdier than either of the Sony hoods. On the left side of the barrel is the Samyang logo, with the lens designation on the top (AF 50/1.4 FE), and the minimum focus distance on the right side of the barrel. The lens serial number is stamped on the lens mount, as is the information that this lens (like all Samyang lenses) is made in Korea.
It has a wide focus ring (about 1 ½ inches) with the weight a little on the light side. Out of the three options, the Samyang’s damping is the lightest, but it’s a little too light, leaving the impression that you could easily move right past your focus point without enough resistance in the fine-tuning stage. Like most “focus by wire” lenses, the Samyang 50 lacks some tactile feedback due to having no direct coupling to the lens elements. The focus ring only accomplishes something if the camera is in MF (or DMF) mode and powered on. Input from the focus ring in routed through the focus motor on the lens, which moves the elements. The focus feel is a little “numb”, and there can be the slightest bit of input lag between your input on the focus ring and the actual focus movement. In manual focus mode the focus motor makes a gritty kind of whine that isn’t overly reassuring; manual focus focus is a rather “nervous” experience with the Samyang 50. Samyang’s lack of experience with autofocus motors is perhaps in evidence here. We’ll explore that a little more in the autofocus section.
At the front of the lens we find metal rather than plastic filter thread. The lens has a highly standard 67mm filter size shared with a lot of other lenses, which is always helpful. There is no front branding of any kind. Samyang’s Ultra Multi-Coating (UMC) has been applied to various elements. The aperture iris has nine aperture blades which are rounded and help retain a circular aperture even when stopped down. While the build quality is high on the lens, it does lack any kind of weather sealing, which is unfortunate. There is no rear gasket at the lens mount.
The lens looks good mounted on recent Sony cameras (it looks like it belongs), and the moderate size and weight means that it balances well on the full frame models and reasonably well on the smaller APS-C models.
Focus Noise, Speed, and Accuracy
The Samyang 50 is not a very good lens for video AF. The lens makes a lot of high pitched whirring noises during focus and is also the least confident for face tracking. It makes a lot of minor corrections, as if second guessing itself, and will occasionally go out of focus before picking proper focus back up. I did shoot a video segment with the lens, but had to majorly edit to cover up moments when it lost focus. Samyang now makes a Lens Station whereby you can apply firmware updates and make tweaks to lens behavior, so I wouldn’t be surprised if firmware further tweaks focus algorithms to smooth out focus behavior, but firmware can’t change the actual nature of the focus motor and the noises it emits…which are frankly not very reassuring. I did not have access to the Lens Station during my review, as it is still not widely distributed.
For stills shooting, Samyang’s lack of experience with autofocus is betrayed in the Samyang 50. Autofocus speed is the slowest of the trio and is the least confident. There is some occasional hunting, which is exaggerated by the somewhat painful noises the lens motor makes. It actually focuses fairly quick, though there is a split-second pause before the elements begin to move and sometimes a brief pause before final focus lock is achieved. I’m reminded of the sound/sensation of earlier lenses with micromotors. A little buzzy and unrefined. I think that the imperfections of the focus are exaggerated by the refined behavior of the two competitors. The amount of noise made by the focus motor makes one more aware of what’s going on with focus in general, which in turn makes you a little more critical.
My actual autofocus accuracy was pretty good, though I did note more missed shots than with the Sony lenses, and there were definitely occasions when the lens would rack focus looking for the proper focus point. Once it locked, however, it was usually accurately focused.
One thing to note with any of these lenses is the fact that depth of field can often be extremely small when working at close focus distances. I tend to use Sony’s mirrorless AF system a little differently than a DSLR, where I personally was most likely to choose a single AF point and place it where I wanted it (typically effective). Because of different AF options, selecting an individual AF point on, say, a Sony a7R3, is less necessary. I actually tend to use the wide zone and then employ face tracking and/or Eye AF to augment that. When working with a subject with eyes, Sony has refined this technology to near-perfection (particularly if they are facing the camera). Eye AF works fine with the Samyang 50, with the refined focus point following my subject around accurately. On some occasions if the subject’s face moves towards profile the lens did lose tracking and do a focus rack where, for a second or two, focus was completely lost, but for the most part I got good results with Eye AF. Even without Eye AF engaged the camera was quick to recognize when a face was in the frame.
When you can’t use face detection or Eye AF, however, you may need to adjust your approach to get the area you want in focus. If the autofocus doesn’t grab the area I want, I just override with my thumb on the touchscreen and move the “Flexipoint” around when I want it. This is typically effective, though with very narrow depth of field shots even the Flexipoint AF box is a little bit large, and the area selected may not be perfectly what you had in mind. I recommend a couple of alternate approaches. The first is to magnify the image, which refines down the focus area. The second is to enable DMF as your focus mode, and, if you feel the autofocus has not grabbed the point you want, just turn the manual focus (MF) ring to enable manual override. The great thing about all three of these lenses is that, in that scenario, the image automatically magnifies on either the LCD screen or in the viewfinder, making it easy to refine focus to the exact spot that you want. The former method may be preferred with the Samyang 50, however, as it’s manual focus process isn’t as refined as the two Sony lenses I compared it to.
My experience says that many photographers are willing to put up with a little focus noise (or even manual focus), pay more, or tolerate larger size and weight if the image quality results are exceptional. Let me first say that the competition here is very strong, and while there is a clear loser in terms of absolute sharpness and contrast, that lens has some other redemptive optical qualities. There is also a clear winner at the top, though the competition there is a little fiercer.
I did a comparison of image quality on both a 24MP APS-C (a6500) and 42MP full frame (a7R3), with fairly similar findings on both.
Samyang 50mm APS-C Result (Sony a6500)
You can see a more detailed breakdown of my findings on APS-C in this video here:
At wide open apertures the Samyang 50 is noticeably softer than the other lenses in both the center of the frame and also along the edges due to reduced contrast and less resolution. Chromatic aberrations are less corrected on the Samyang 50, which creates a bit of veiling at wide apertures. This axial chromatic aberration reveals itself as a reddish purple fringing before the plane of focus and green fringing after it:
The chromatic aberrations reduce contrast, created a slightly “veiled” look to wide open image quality. You can see the end result in this portrait distance comparison even in the center of the frame:
Now, to be fair, the Planar lens costs nearly three times as much, but even if we compare to the Sonnar lens at f/2, we see there is still a significant difference in sharpness and contrast:
Corner contrast and resolution also lags a little at f/1.4 compared to the center, though not by a wide margin.
When stopped down, the lens is sharp and contrasty in the center, and the edge only lags behind a bit on APS-C.
I like the lens for landscapes better on its native full frame than on APS-C.
The bright point in the APS-C (and full frame) performance is in the bokeh performance and rendering, which is the nicest of this trio. Sometimes lenses with lower contrast and less absolute sharpness are the better portrait/fine art lenses, where it is more about the “look” or “feel” of images rather than pixel peeping. People value the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and 85mm f/1.2L for just this reason. I do like the images out of the Samyang 50 when viewed on a whole; I like them less on a pixel level.
Here’s a few APS-C samples that demonstrate what I’m talking about.
Samyang 50mm Full Frame Image Quality (Sony a7R3)
As before, you can see an interactive breakdown of the image quality from the Samyang 50mm and how it compares to the two Sony options here:
As previously noted, a lot of the APS-C observations are also true on the full frame Sony a7R3 (which isn’t surprising due to the pixel pitch/density of the cameras being fairly similar). You can expect a little more vignette on full frame and a little less CA. Sony’s approach to lens profiles means that even with this third party lens there is a “Built In Lens Profile” attached to both JPEG and RAW images. The images arrive at least partly corrected, though you can further improve vignette performance by then adding the lens profile in Lightroom/ACR. There is also a very mild amount of barrel distortion that is corrected with the lens’ profile in software. For the most part, however, what you get is an already corrected image with only minimal things left to do.
Distortion will not be a real factor for anything other than the most demanding situation, anyway, so I don’t consider this a real issue. Here’s a look at an image with just the embedded profile (on the left) and with the software profile also applied on the right. Note that this is at f/1.4, where it makes the biggest difference:
Adding in the “remove chromatic aberrations” checkbox along with a little “dehaze” in Lightroom does help improve image “punch”, so you do have options. The axial chromatic aberrations (purple fringing before and green fringing after the plane of focus) cause some veiling/lack of contrast, so the dehaze helps restore some contrast. The absolute resolution and contrast still doesn’t compete with the Sony/Zeiss options in an absolute sense, though. Still, I felt like these two steps made a noticeably improvement in my infinity focus images out on the edges.
Using the latter image, I compared the center and edge performance, and didn’t really see a major difference. The lens isn’t amazing sharp at either point, but neither does edge sharpness strongly lag behind center sharpness.
Image resolution and contrast makes minor improvements at f/2, and a little more at f/2.8, but the biggest improvement comes between f/2.8 and f/4. At that transition the axial chromatic aberrations are finally eliminated, and image contrast drastically improves, as does apparent resolution. You can see a big improvement between f/2 and f/4 in this example here:
If I compare the f/4 example to the more expensive 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar lens, there is still a very mild advantage for the Sonnar, but it so small as to be hard to detect in regular field use.
But, as previously mentioned, while the Samyang 50 is the loser in terms of raw resolution and contrast, it does win in the bokeh rendering. The bokeh quality is the softest and least busy from the Samyang. It is more optimized for portraiture than high degrees of resolution and contrast. The disadvantage of really high microcontrast and sharpness is that it can be hard to “turn that off” in defocused areas, and the Samyang’s naturally lower levels of microcontrast and sharpness are actually an asset in the defocused regions.
In these you can see how the bokeh rendering is less “busy” than the Sonnar and also produced more geometrically pleasing shapes:
In this comparison to the very expensive Planar lens you can see how that the Samyang produces bigger, softer defocused highlights:
The latter comparison is interesting as it points to another Samyang advantage: light transmission. The Samyang 50 required less light than the Planar 50 in equivalent situations to achieve an equal exposure value.
What’s even more interesting is that the while the subject magnification is similar at close distances, the defocused highlights are bigger and softer on the Samyang. In my experience with other lenses, that usually points to a larger diaphragm opening, which leads me to think that the Samyang may actually have a larger aperture opening despite both lenses having a stated aperture of f/1.4.
One thing is clear: the Samyang 50 has some of the nicest bokeh rendering from a 50mm lens that I’ve seen:
In doing direct comparisons between the three lenses, I noted that each of them had a certain character in their color temperature. The Sonnar 55 tended towards the cool end of the spectrum. The Planar 50 was the most neutral (and accurate) in its interpretation of color. The Samyang was definitely on the warmer side. In some situations, I liked the effect (it gives a warm, analog feel like in the example below):
In other situations (landscapes, for example), it almost seemed like a filter had been applied globally to the image; an effect I didn’t like at all.
Once again, this is a taste thing, but you might want to consider if this will be an asset or liability to your particular shooting style.
One final observation is that the Samyang 50 is somewhat flare prone. If you are dealing with very bright backlighting situations, you will experience both some veiling (loss of contrast) and some ghosting (prismatic blobs of color). This is a frame from a video where I tested this:
All in all, the image quality story is a little complicated. In some ways I like the look of the images that the lens produces; in other ways I don’t. I’ve tried to present both strengths and weaknesses to help you make an informed decision about it. Here’s a look at a few more images from the lens.
As always, I would encourage you to visit my lens specific image galleries to help you evaluate the lens’ performance in real world situations.
The Samyang AF 50mm f/1.4 is a somewhat complicated lens. It has a beautiful design and build, a reasonable size and weight, and has the best price tag when compared to the more expensive Sony options. It’s autofocus, however, is somewhat primitive when compared to the more sophisticated focus systems in the Sony lenses. I cannot recommend it to those who want to do video, but, while a little noisy, it does work fine for stills work. The image quality is the most complicated of all, as it lags well behind either Sony/Zeiss option in absolute resolution and contrast, and only becomes competitive at f/4 or smaller. It has some real weaknesses, though the “look” of the images it produces are anything but clinical. They are genuinely pleasing in a lot of situations. If you are pixel peeper, look elsewhere, but if your tastes trend more towards images that are more about artistic feel than clinical sharpness, then you may actually find a hidden treasure in the Samyang AF 50mm f/1.4. It will be a disappointment to some, and a delight for others. Which one are you?
- Attractive design and very nice build quality
- Good size/weight/balance
- Beautiful bokeh rendering
- Has a unique and artful global rendering
- Excellent price compared to alternatives
- Low contrast at wide apertures
- Lower resolution than competitors
- Flare prone
- Some chromatic aberrations
- Autofocus motor is noise and unsophisticated
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