In the last two years, Samyang has introduced a number of autofocus prime lenses specifically for Sony’s FE mount and, having recently bought the Sony a7 III, two in particular caught my eye: the 24mm and 35mm f/2.8. These tiny lenses have been in my bag for the last month and I think they’re fantastic value for money with unexpected performance given their size.
These lenses are not brand new to the market and a number of reviews are already floating about on the internet. With that in mind, while there will be some discussion of image quality in this review, I’m much more interested in how these lenses can be used: essentially, they fill an interesting niche, being reasonably fast (though not as fast as you’d typically expect from a prime lens) and astonishingly small while also managing to cram in autofocus. As a lens manufacturer, making third-party prime lenses with manual focus is comparatively straight forward; building third-party prime lenses with autofocus is a bold move.
Having recently acquired the Sony a7 III, I started researching my lens options for making the transition from Canon. One of my favorite lenses for my 6D was the 40mm pancake: essentially a piece of glass that turned my small-body, full-frame camera into something that felt much more like a point and shoot. A minimalist lifestyle combined with the fact that photography is only a part of what I do, I don’t have multiple camera bodies, so small lenses give me the opportunity to shoot friends and family without having huge pieces of glass stuck in front of my face. Of course, smaller lenses have other advantages: for example, they can feel less intrusive for subjects (such as those focused on climbing very difficult rocks), and are less conspicuous when shooting street photography.
In addition to these factors, I spend a large amount of my time in a forest full of sand with hands covered in chalk; whenever a grain creeps into the zoom ring of my workhorse, my beloved Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, I feel a little bit sick inside. As someone who also loves to travel light, being able to pack a prime — especially something as tiny as these two lenses — makes much more sense. Moving from Canon, I was desperate to find something similar to the pancake lens, and was delighted to discover that the Samyang 35mm was almost as slim and significantly lighter.
With sand and chalk dust an issue, I was pleasantly surprised during the unboxing: the instruction manual mentions that “this is an inner focus lens, meaning the lens has a consistent length and does not rotate despite changes in focal distance, keeping it free from dust.” At this price, it’s no surprise that these lenses are not weather-sealed, but knowing that they do well against dust was a welcome bonus.
A Compromise of Size, Not Quality
Both of these lenses are remarkably small. The 24mm is less than an inch and a half in length (37 mm) and weighs 3.35 ounces (93 grams). The 35mm is even more of a pancake: a mere 1.3” long (35 mm) and a shade over 3 ounces (85 grams) which means that you're adding only 13% to the weight of the Sony a7III. Both feature a thin aluminum shell which gives them a much nicer feel compared to other, plastic lenses, despite their plastic internals.
My immediate comparison on the a7 III were two lenses, one of which was adapted: Canon’s EF 40mm f/2.8 pancake in concert with the Sigma MC-11, and Sony’s own FE 50mm f/1.8, its most affordable prime lens. Despite the 40mm pancake’s low profile, coupling it with the adapter renders it noticeably larger than the 35mm Samyang and doubles its weight (8.7 ounces, 249 grams). Adding either Samyang to the camera doesn’t feel like much more than adding a lens cap.
So what sort of expectations should we have for a prime lens that’s fast but not very fast, and retails at less than $300? I assumed I would receive something small and fun, compromising quality for cost. In speaking to Samyang, my contact was keen to emphasize that these lenses have not been designed to be cheap, however: Samyang is keen to point out that the compromises have been made regarding its size, not the quality of its components. These are not budget lenses that should be lumped in with the likes of the Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8, a lens which I love (see my article here) because of its capacity to offer such a wide aperture for the cost of a meal for two at the Cheesecake Factory. The Samyang lenses are not “fun” lenses, but it’s good to understand what these lenses can deliver. Do not expect edge to edge sharpness wide open, but do expect more than solid performance for glass that is so light and, again, so unbelievably small.
Autofocus and Sharpness
Autofocus compares well with Sony’s own 50mm f/1.8, another sub-$300 lens. Both lenses grab subjects well when shooting with a wide autofocus zone in street photography situations. Having not played with any expensive glass for my a7 III, I’m assured that eye AF performance improves significantly with pricier lenses but the Samyangs seemed on par with the Sony 50mm, as was their subject tracking.
Sharpness between the two lenses when shooting wide open differs noticeably, and physics plays a part in that. The 35mm focal length lends itself particularly well to the pancake format both in terms of size and ability to render sharp images, and the Samyang 35mm performs better at f/2.8 compared to its wider brother. Some reviews have compared the Samyang favorably with Sony’s own 35mm f/2.8 lens (the Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA) and being almost $500 cheaper albeit without weather sealing, you get an idea of what Samyang has managed to achieve with their version.
The 24mm is soft wide open which, when compared to the 35mm, is a little disappointing but that's more a reflection of the performance of the 35mm which sets the bar quite high. The 24mm's comparative softness at f/2.8 does not detract too greatly from how much I like this lens, however. With such a wide angle, you need a significantly bigger maximum aperture to create any worthwhile separation so, for me at least, trying to get pin-sharp results at f/2.8 isn’t how I expect to use this lens, and sharpness is acceptable at f/5.6 and beyond. If you're after something with better performance, consider that the alternative is probably the ZEISS Batis 25mm f/2.8 at more than four times the price.
Being an architecture geek, I ended up using the 24mm as a walk-around lens for days when I knew I wanted to stare up at some impressive buildings without hauling my wide angle zoom along with me. In addition, it makes for an unobtrusive street photography lens when you want to shoot a bit wider, and I don’t find many occasions when I expect to use wider apertures in such circumstances. (Apart from at night, obviously! But in low-light situations, I’m already somewhat resigned to slightly lower image quality.)
Fit for Pro Use?
The big question: would I use these lenses professionally? Well, yes and no. For the 35mm, it’s a definite yes, but with certain caveats. For me, it’s an ideal solution for when I need to be light and fast and the image use is primarily social media, web and perhaps a lookbook. It’s perfect for situations that require a low-key presence assuming I don’t mind compromising a little when it comes to subject separation. (On that subject, why has no-one yet made a 35mm f/1.8 for Sony full-frame cameras?)
For the 24mm version, I have a beautiful wide angle lens that delivers super sharp results and while this is a nice substitute on days when the bag has to stay light, it probably won’t be used to deliver images to clients. However, I will still use it extensively, and having had it in my bag for the last month, I’ve stumbled upon one use that I’d not anticipated: this could be an excellent vlogging lens. If you’re a budding content creator and you’re pondering how to turn your refreshingly small full-frame Sony into a walk-and-talk vlogging setup, a wide-angle lens with a reasonably wide aperture that’s incredibly lightweight is an ideal and comparatively affordable solution. As you will note, I have very little experience of vlogging but I tried to put together a quick test:
During the edit, it became apparent that the AF motor noise is covered by outdoor ambient noise and me speaking. For these tests, the AF drive speed was set to fast.
Bits and Bobs
Both lenses feature a 49mm thread allowing a wide range of filter options, such as an ND filter if you want to try and achieve smaller apertures when vlogging during bright sunlight. The 24mm has a slim lens hood which probably doesn't achieve much more than a little protection for this slightly larger lens. Each lens is packaged with its own rather cute clamshell carry case. At first, I assumed I wouldn't use them but they actually proved useful for days when you don't take a camera bag but want to throw an extra lens in a jacket pocket.
Samyang still has a few branding idiosyncrasies which it is ironing out and the confusion over the difference between Samyang and Rokinon is still lingering. You'll find the 24mm for sale on BHPhoto under the name Samyang at $299, but also under the name Rokinon (used in North America) for $349. Both of these lenses are discounted from the RRP of $399, and they are indeed the same lens. You can learn more about these two names in this video from Gerald Undone, and I believe that the current duplication is a hangover from the quirks of being a small company developing global distribution.
Another aspect that Samyang seems to be addressing is quality control as customer experience appears to have been slightly patchy in the past. Each lens came with a signed note from the Director of Quality Control Team. During my testing, I had one instance where I switched to the 24mm and found that the autofocus did not work. Reattaching the lens immediately resolved this and I've not been able to replicate the problem. Beyond that, both have worked perfectly.
What I Liked
- The sharpness of the 35mm version. Though not super crisp, it's surprisingly good wide open and sharper than it should be at this price.
- Size and weight. Packing this much quality into such small units is embarrassing for some other lenses given the price.
- The zip-up clamshell travel pouches that proved surprisingly useful.
What I Didn't Like
- Wide open, the 24mm goes a little bit soft, but this is an inevitable compromise given the form factor and the physics involved.
- The AF motor is audible when shooting video, though ambient noise will usually drown it out.
Something of a curate's egg, a slower prime lens fills an interesting niche, one that works well for me personally, especially with the Samyang lenses being so small and light. Overall, I'm impressed; both offer good performance, particularly the 35mm which makes the 24mm version almost seem a little disappointing by comparison, and both have been a joy to use. I've a lot of respect for Samyang as there are very few lenses like this on the market, and I really hope that they're planning to introduce a 35mm f/1.8 lens that will fill another gaping void in the range of glass available for Sony's full-frame cameras. In the meantime, having spent a month using these two f/2.8 lenses on loan, I'll be speaking to Samyang to see if I can hang on to them.