In which I experiment with options for long lenses for the Fuji X series and compare the Samyang 300mm with a legacy telephoto.
Back in the depths of the last Millennium, when film was what you put on your camera and hipsters were low-slung jeans, I used to shoot a fair bit with longer lenses. Money was too tight to mention back in those days so if I wanted to snap a deer in Bushey Park or Derek Randall scuttling his way to another century for Lavinia Dutchess of Norfolk’s XI against the Visitors, I would reach for my trusty Centon 500mm.
This was a cadadiopteric (mirror) lens, made in Korea, with a fixed aperture of f/8. Mirror lenses are characterised by being smaller than telephotos of equivalent focal length. They achieve this by bending the light into a z-shape and bouncing it into the camera by dint of a distinctive circular mirror arrangement mounted in the centre of the lens front element. This is responsible for some interesting effects, of which more later.
Pirbright Village Sign: Taken with (1) Fujinon 60mm, (2) 300mm Samyang and (3) Tokina 400mm
Large tin of potatoes
I bought my Centon new, in a leather case. It came with three filters in the lid, one of which was supposed to be in place at all times to allow accurate focusing. There was a UV, an ND2 and a… something else which I can’t quite remember. The whole thing was the size of a large tin of potatoes and about half the weight of same. The clever bit was that it could be mounted to pretty well any SLR of the time by means of a T2 mount; a sort of universal screw mount for “dumb” connections like this lens, or a telescope mount, etc.
I would mount the lens to my SLR du jour (A Pentax Program A springs to mind), plant the pairing on a tripod with a motordrive and a cable release, prefocus upon a suitable target – a wicket, say, or a branch – and lounge back in my deckchair. Thus set up I managed some passable shots, within the limitations of the lens.
Fast forward to today. I am happily up to my hips in the exceptional and ever-expanding Fuji X system, with a native lens range that currently tops out at 300mm equivalent with the 55-200 XF zoom (360mm if you go for the cheaper and slower XC 50-230) – handy for things like air-shows, but not really enough for serious long-distance shooting. I have bleated for some time to anyone that would listen that a 1.4x teleconverter would be really useful, but to date nothing is forthcoming.
There is a “Super Tele Photo Zoom Lens” on the most recent roadmap, but that is currently sitting out in the second half of 2015, which as we all know is aeons away in the impatient world of digital photography. When it comes, unconfirmed rumours speak of a 120-400mm zoom – personally I have my doubts, for reasons of weight and cost. I am more inclined to expect something around the 300mm mark at the top end – I don’t really care about the other.
So in the meantime, what to do? I have been making use of an old Tokina SD 400mm f/5.6 telephoto, which gives me a convenient 600mm (or an improbable and as yet untried 1200mm with a doubler, and the loss of two stops of light). This is a bulky and heavy lens, complete with a tripod collar. Weighing 1.1kg on its own, when mounted to my X-T1 with vertical grip, it tops out at 1.8kg which is quite enough for a man of my age, thank you very much. The version I have is in Olympus mount, by the way, with a decent Kipon adaptor to convert it to FX mount.
Guildford roofscape and cathedral: Samyang 300mm comparison with the stellar Fujinon 35mm f/1.4
The lens is manual focus, of course, and has no way of communicating aperture to the X-T1 so I tend to shoot it in aperture priority mode, stopping down (if necessary) before the exposure. I usually shoot wide open, anyway, letting shutter speed and auto ISO take care of the overall exposure in all but the brightest conditions.
All that said, and mounted on a tripod, it delivers more than passable images. My test subject was the Pirbright Village sign, on the green (see examples at the head of this article). It co-operated by keeping stock still for my benefit, so I returned the favour by mounting my camera on a sturdy Manfrotto tripod for the purpose. For the purposes of this exercise I then compared the “old lady” with the (relatively) new kid on the block, from Samyang.
Guildford Houses: Samyang 300mm comparison with 35mm lens
Samyang Reflex f/6.3 etc, etc
In the summer of 2014, a new long lens option arrived, courtesy of Samyang and sold under that name, or Rokinon in other markets. The catchily-named Reflex f/6.3 300mm ED UMC CS is a mirror lens just like my old Centon. It’s made in Korea too. It seems a bit more sophisticated than the old 500 though, boasting 9 elements in six groups, including one ED element. Critically it tips the scales at a much less backbreaking 315g. In the hand it is about the size of the Fuji 56mm, but a bit lighter.
The Samyang 300mm comes with a dirty great bayonet hood that is almost as long as the lens again. It is reversible for storage, but although it undoubtedly improves contrast it makes handling or mounting the Samyang with the hood reversed a slippery process. In fact, with no aperture ring and a body that is comprised almost entirely of the focussing ring grip, it is generally tricky to handle this lens without the focussing mechanism racking in and out as you do so.
Once you get past this hand-wringing exercise and mount the lens to the X-T1, it makes a seductively handy package. I say seductive, because you will immediately want to try to shoot handheld. Now, unless your middle name is Gitzo, I would defy you to focus and hand-hold this lens firmly enough to get a sensible, consistent result. It CAN be done, as the Guildford images attest, but only in optimal conditions and with great patience. That wide focussing ring is once again the problem; the slightest shift in your grip on the lens and you have lost that focus that you have tried so hard to nail.
Guildford High Street: Samyang 300mm comparison with 35mm lens
So preferably not hand-held, then. Stick it on a tripod or even a monopod and you are in a different world of stability. The Pirbright shots compare the results from both the Tokina 400mm “traditional” telephoto and the Guildford shots show the field of view of the 300mm in comparison with the stellar Fujinon XF 35mm. The Guildford shots also demonstrate one of the other attributes of a mirror lens – the circular, doughnut-shaped out-of-focus highlights that are a signature characteristic of the lens design. Some like the effect, some hate it. I am reminded of the old adage – “The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole in the middle, the realist eats it.” You can’t have a mirror lens without doughnuts, so be realistic.
Guildford Detail: Samyang 300mm comparison with 35mm lens
Lot of length for the price
Bottom line. The Samyang 300mm is a lot of focal length for the price, but not without cost. The cost comes in the form of the necessity to mount it securely to focus accurately, hold steadily and arrive at sharp, blur-free images. That means you will need to dust off that tripod. “Ye cannae fight the laws of physics” – again. This is not a lens for the handheld-only, spray and pray brigade. To get the most from it you have to handle it with care, and move at it’s pace.
Guildford Sundial: Samyang 300mm comparison with 35mm
Where it does score, and score significantly, is that it is by any standards a cheap, lightweight long lens solution for the Fuji X system where there is as yet no home-grown substitute. Comparing it with the likes of the Tokina (many other legacy long-lenses are available, in more mounts than you can imagine) it also acquits itself well. It delivers a very similar end result, albeit via a slightly smaller aperture and with no chance to change same. It’s not a knock out, however, since the Tokina and it’s ilk can be picked up these days for relative pennies even with an adaptor. They are even cheaper than the cheap Samyang, are very robust and simply handle better, to my tastes at least.
The Samyang 300mm is therefore what it is – a mirror lens with all the advantages and disadvantages of the type – that provides a cheap and workable long lens solution for the Fuji X system. It’s not the only game in town, but it has size and weight advantages that will endear it to some. I suspect it will sell well for a while – until, say, Mid-2015 – but that there will also be plenty on the secondhand market as those who have bought it to try find it just a bit too fiddly and demanding to use in the “real world”.
Did I mention I picked mine up secondhand…?
Guildford is the county town of Surrey and is 27 miles south west of London. Pirbright village is part of the Borough of Guildford