There's been a lot of buzz these past few months about Rokinon's new 24mm tilt shift offering. Many enthusiasts are interested in tilt and shift capabilities, but are not interested in shelling out the $2,000+ for the Nikon or Canon equivalents. Rokinon's entry into the field has been widely anticipated and it was finally my chance to get my hands on this little lens for a review.
Being primarily an architecture and interiors photographer, I use tilt-shift lenses on a regular basis. I use the Canon 24mm and 17mm TSE lenses more or less daily - there isn't a single shoot that goes by where I don't use these lenses extensively. They are, for certain, the bread and butter lenses of my kit. I know many Nikon shooters who could say the same, as well. So when Rokinon announced that they were entering this market, there was, as you can imagine, a lot of buzz. Both from photographers looking for backup lenses, photographers looking to get into the tilt shift game without dropping over $2,000, and from photographers who had always been curious but not curious enough to spend so much on one of these lenses.
Rokinon must have known that it was going up some of the best lenses ever made - there is no question in my mind that the new iteration of Canon's 24mm tilt shift is about as perfect as a lens will ever get. Incredible color rendition, sharpness across the frame at all apertures, and the incredible benefit of being able to tilt and shift this lens across multiple axes make this lens one of the single greatest lenses for technical 35mm photography available today. While I'm a Canon shooter, I've heard much of the same about the Nikon version of this lens, and I know many photographers who use it day in and day out.
Alright, so the lens arrives in a standard cardboard box with minimal accessories. Not the worst thing - as I'm not one for clutter and I don't need all the fluff that comes with most cameras and lenses that we buy today. So far so good, nothing crazy to note here. As soon as I unpacked it though, I had immediate mixed reactions. The lens is really good looking - somewhat reminiscent of a Canon L lens - but feels a bit plasticky in the hand. It is immediately apparent that the lens is made of plastic, and for a $1000 tilt shift lens, this didn't exactly instill confidence. I would much prefer lenses with movements and manual everything to feel completely solid. For some reason the lens doesn't come with a hood. This was mildly annoying, because when shooting architecture, light can come from the least anticipated directions and cause loss of contrast in your shots. I'll never understand the practice of not including hoods with lenses. Canon does it too, and it drives me to drink. The glass is gorgeous and I had no problems screwing it onto my camera body, unlike some 3rd party lenses I've used which took a bit of force, possibly due to some sloppier tolerances, but I digress. There was no real slop or play in the connection to the camera, and despite the plastic build it fit pretty snugly.
The manual aperture ring was also nice and snappy, and easy to grip and turn without looking at it. It's crisp and pretty solid feeling. However, the rest of the controls leave a bit to be desired. The knobs are again made of plastic and are pretty easy to push around and slightly bend, which, again, doesn't instill a ton of confidence. They're also really small; I have huge hands and to be honest I struggled a bit to adjust the tilt and shift accurately because of this. There were times where it was actually painful to turn the knobs because I was gripping those little things so tight while fighting gravity with almost no leverage. Check out the size of the Rokinon knobs compared to the beefy Canon knobs in the picture above and you'll see what I mean.
The manual focus ring is well-textured and wide enough to never miss. It operates smoothly and was for the most part, pretty accurate when focusing in live view. There was no slop or play here at all.
So How Does it Work in the Field?
Despite my somewhat lukewarm first reactions to this lens out of the box, I was really interested in seeing how it held up compared to my Canon tilt shifts and how it would work on my camera. I can so easily forgive the plastic and the quirks if this thing kicks butt when shooting. I'm happy to report that in my initial tests, this lens seemed to hold up fairly well when used for some casual architectural shooting. I took the lens on a stroll at a nearby office park, as well as on a walk to some cool architecture in my town, and just shot some casual snapshots on a tripod to get a better feel for how this lens works. All of these shots are with a 1d Mark III and completely raw - no editing whatsoever. Some JPEG compression is visible, as well, so keep that in mind when judging sharpness.
First, let's take a look at some general snapshots that I've taken with the lens. Everything up to this point is pretty straightforward - live view, manual focus at 10x magnification, and snap away. I wanted to use the lens in a manner consistent with the way most people will use this lens - on a tripod, stopped down between f7.1 and f11-13. I'm going to be completely honest here, in owning a number of tilt shift lenses over the years, I can count on one hand the amount of times I've used them handheld. Sure, you CAN, but do you really want to? It's such a pain in the butt that I've almost entirely foregone shooting my tilt shifts handheld unless I'm in a big pinch. So, in an effort to keep this practical and true to life, I'm using this lens how I'd use my other lenses on a job. If you're looking for a more technical review, check out the LensRentals.com review of this lens, which has plenty of charts and numbers to view. The first thing I did was setup, focus, and shift this thing as high as it went to capture a building that was relatively close, as seen here:
You can see the major shift up, as the building seems to be slightly distorted near the top. Here's a 100% crop of the corner, showing that this lens is decently sharp when used at the extremes. This would clean up very well with a bit of sharpening.
Here's another image, but this time only with a moderate shift up:
And at 100%:
As you can see, if we zoom into 100% on the tree in the upper right corner, this lens really is surprisingly sharp. Keep in mind that I'm stopped down to around f11 here, and for any architectural purpose, f11 on a tripod is totally feasible. Again, I've never even come close to shooting a tilt shift lens wide open on an architectural gig, and for all intents and purposes, I'd really not have much of a problem with using this lens on a paying shoot because at these smaller apertures, the sharpness difference may be negligible from this lens to the Canon and Nikon equivalents.
Stopped down, the lens also handled high-contrast areas rather nicely:
And at 100%:
There is, however, a slight bit of barrel distortion evident with this lens, as I've highlighted below with the teal ruler lines. You can see how the vertical lines ever so slightly bow outwards:
In Canon's version of this lens, the barrel distortion is entirely negligible, and the Nikon suffers from just a touch. The Rokinon's is noticeable, and I would absolutely have to correct this before delivery to a high end client. A minor annoyance, but not a total dealbreaker if I'm looking to save a grand on my first tilt shift.
Oh yeah. It totally gets artsy, too. If we apply a bit of tilt, you are greeted with nice out-of-focus areas that are able to be controlled to create that miniature effect that everyone seems to like quite a bit, though my experience with this practice is admittedly rather limited.
It was at this point, however, that I started to notice another quirk of this lens. For some reason, there is almost no resistance, tension, or friction in the shift and tilt mechanisms. What I mean by this is that when the lens is mounted on a camera and all of the knobs are unlocked, the part of the lens forward of the tilt and shift joints just drops entirely as far as it will go. I found this to be really, really annoying - as soon as you unlock the tilt or shift joints, and let gravity do its thing, the lens just sags all the way down. Then you've got to reposition the lens for your next shot using those impossibly small knobs.
So, as you can see, for this test, I used the lens just like I would any of my other tilt shift lenses, in an effort to keep things practical and not turn this into a measurebation-fest. That being said, would I be happy to use this lens professionally? Yes, I would - the lens is plenty sharp at the working apertures that I use it at and it gets the job done. My big hesitation here is that the build quality and 'kinks' so to say, are a bit unlovable. I don't want to knock the build quality too hard because I haven't been using it for an extended period of time, and it may hold up just fine. Look at Canon Rebels for instance - those are plastic and they are tough as tanks. But the sloppy tolerances in the knobs, lack of tension, and nearly all-plastic construction don't make me want to rely on this lens in the long term.
To sum this up, I'd put it this way: If you're serious about purchasing a tilt shift that will last forever, be perfect in every way, and completely justify the purchase price, keep saving for a Canon or Nikon 24mm (in Canon's case, the new version II is the one you want, the old one is garbage). I would be happy to use the Rokinon as a backup to my Canon if it ever went down, but I know that the quirks I've mentioned above would probably drive me crazy after owning Canon's perfect tilt-shifts. If you're in desperate need of a tilt-shift or you're okay with living with these shortcomings, you'll be very happy with the Rokinon. At screen resolution and in print, when stopped down, it's going to be virtually indistinguishable from the Canon or Nikon versions.
I have to say that using the Canon versions has spoiled me a bit. They are seriously as perfect as lenses will get, and while Rokinon is offering a solid product at a good price, I would have been much happier with it had they made the body out of metal and beefed up the tilt and shift mechanisms and knobs. The slight barrel distortion is totally forgivable at this price point, but spending an extra $50 to make these out of all metal would have made this a great buy. Hell, I don't really know how much more it would have been to make the body entirely metal like the Canon or Nikon versions, but I'm sure the difference would not be very scary at all. For $1100 and a full metal body, this would have been a great, great buy.
All of this being said, I'd still rather have the Rokinon tilt shift than ANY conventional zoom lens (e.g. Canon 17-40, 16-35, Nikon 12-24, 17-35) for shooting architecture. Tilt and shift movements are just that valuable when it comes to this type of shooting, and I'd happily deal with the shortcomings in exchange for being able to adjust perspective. Paired with a telephoto extender, you'd be pretty set with just one 24mm tilt shift.
What I liked:
- Relatively sharp given the price and features
- Great contrast and color
- Cheaper than the competitors
- Tilt and shift movements - invaluable for architecture
What could use improvement:
- Plastic construction
- Weird 'lens sag' leads to a flaccid lens when knobs are unlocked, exacerbated by the tiny, hard-to-use knobs
- Marginal barrel distortion
- Lack of hood (seriously, it's 2013, there is no excuse for this from any company)
Worth Noting: The image supplied to us show the lens with much thicker adjustment knobs. See the featured image at the top of the article compared to the images that I took of the lens in my possession. Those thicker knobs would be great to have. I've reached out to Rokinon for comment and will update the article accordingly, as this was one of my major gripes with the lens.