Wednesday, August 21, 2013

This is not a review of the Rokinon 8mm


This is not a technical review of the Rokinon 8mm. This is just some musings about actually using the lens.

My evolution into an all-Fuji toolkit has had an empty hole: the ultra-wide. I do a lot of wide work, and have daily relied upon the Canon 10-22mm, which is an absolutely superb lens. Fuji's product roadmap has them releasing an XF 10-24mm sometime in March 2014. It will be a half-stop slower than the Canon, but it will fill a serious optic need that’s kept me tied to Canon. 

One of the primary reasons for the move to Fuji was smaller, lighter, less obtrusive gear for documentary work. Having to lug the Canon along to get the utility of the 10-22mm is unfortunate. So while I wait for Fuji to get it's manufacturing act ramped up, Rokinon’s lens makers offer an engaging and fun fill in. 

While I had a few off brand lenses when I first started as a photographer, I quickly replaced them all as soon as I could. I've kept the tradition of sticking to lenses within the brand ever since. (That hasn't been true of accessories, but glass is a separate issue.) There are many benefits of buying within a brand, especially with digital bodies and the communication that needs to go on between lens and the camera's computer.


I happened across a review of the Rokinon 8mm, however, and was intrigued. Although slightly less than a true fish-eye, it's an ultra wide. It's wider than I usually work with, but that also means that it will still have a purpose once Fuji releases their lens. B&H had one in stock, and I'm up for any excuse for a trip to Manhattan. With my bank account $300 lighter, I've rolled the Rokinon into steady use rotation.

I have no prior familiarity with the brand. Apparently Ronkion also sells under the name Samyang. I have no idea if there's a difference. All I know is that the lens I bought is solid, doesn't rattle, has positive (if possibly stiff) clicks on the aperture ring, has a stiff focus ring, and has a mount that fits solidly to the X-E1. It's a heavy lens, with a lot of glass in it. The X-E1 is small and light to begin with, so any lens on the front is going to unbalance the camera. There's enough room to grab the Rokinon  by the barrel and keep things steady, though. 


In operation, it's fine. It doesn't have the polish and subtlety of the Fuji lenses (whose feel reminds me most of the bulletproof Nikkor glass of yore). But, it doesn't feel cheap. It feels quite acceptable for the price point. It has an integral hood, which is useful for not chipping up the glass. However, because of the extreme convex, it picks up smudges very easily.

Part of what that price doesn't buy you, though, is the ability for the lens to talk to the camera. And so we learn some of what all those extra dollars are paying for: there's no autofocus (though, focusing is overrated on an ultra wide). There's no aperture control. In fact, the camera doesn't think that there's actually a lens attached, necessitating you to turn on the "Shoot Without Lens" option. That means there's no record of the lens or its aperture setting in the EXIF data (though you do get shutter speed and ISO). Although the camera doesn’t know what the lens is up to, the sensor on the X-E1 will still figure out the required shutter speed and ISO. The electronic viewfinder on the X-E1 does a very decent job of representing the scene, making full manual an option, too. 


These are minor annoyances, though, and I’ve been pleased with the performance of the lens. I don't worry about things like edge to edge sharpness, and lens flare and chromatic aberration, and I'm sure that the Rokinon suffers from some or all of such things as compared to a Zeiss or Fuji lens. The images I can make with it are interesting, and there's enough resolution that I can crop out excessive distortion if that seems to be the right thing to do. Focusing seems to be largely irrelevant so long as nothing is closer than a foot away, and it gathers quite a bit of light at f/2.8. It's very wide, though, which means that fingers, shoes, and sometimes my shirt can find their way into the corners of the frame. 

The center of the lens suffers surprisingly little distortion. Depending on the subject matter, the edges sometimes aren't that when they aren’t close in. Even when the distortion is severe, however, it’s less distracting than I would have guessed. All the images here are uncorrected for lens distortion. It's obvious that it's an ultra wide, and I think viewers are more comfortable with that than the subtle distortion of, say, a 20mm lens. Subtle distortion is more easily mistaken for a manipulated photograph, or just a feeling of queasiness. In either event, in my experience a subtle distortion is more likely to cause unease than an ultra wide, so I don't mind it.


This is a very decent lens. The perspective is easy to abuse and could easily get tiring, but with mindfulness and the occasional crop, it fills the ultra-wide void for a very reasonable price, and has the quality to remain a working tool after Fuji finally catches up to their production calendar.

[This review appeared on SteveHuffPhoto.com in February 2014.]