With their range of movements tilt and shift lenses offered in various focal lengths for 35mm full-frame DSLRs have become indispensable for architecture, interiors, still-life, food and product photography. Before Canon redesigned their film-era 24mm version with an improved optical design and uniquely, adding a user-selectable option of aligning the tilt function with the shift movement, these lenses were quite reasonably priced.
Just four years ago, Canon offered the three focal lengths (24, 45 and 90mm) at £899 each, suggesting that these were marketed a ‘loss leader’, to entice users to switch from Nikon. At that time, with just one 85mm f/2.8D model in the range lacking automatic aperture control, Nikon was lagging behind.
The firm was soon to refresh the 85mm, while adding a 24mm and 45mm each with electronic automatic aperture control (a first for Nikon), identified by the PC-E designation. As with the earlier Canon TS-E models, they lack the option to tilt and shift in the same plane, prompting some users to call these lenses shift and swing. While you can specify the movements to be aligned at the factory when ordering new, or retrospectively via the subsidiary for a fee, it’s not exactly flexible if the user wants to switch back and forth regularly.
While Canon has yet to upgrade the 45 and 90 mm models to include this sought-after feature, the upgraded version, the EF 24mm f/3.5L TS-E now retails at just over £1,700, while the less capable Nikon 24mm f/3.5 D ED PC-E is just shy of £1500.
Third-party offerings are limited to three Schneider Kreuznach models, which start at £2,800 for the 90mm but increase dramatically to £5,400 for the 28mm. Crucially though, these can tilt while shifting, like the new Canon models.
However, ROK based Samyang is the first to offer a accessibly priced 24mm f/3.5 at £950 inc VAT and in a number of mounts, including Sony A and Pentax K, as the usual Nikon and Canon. The manual claims Sony E, Samsung NEX, MFT and even Fujifilm X-mount, but these have yet to be seen. The optical construction is promising with 16 elements in 11 groups, of which two elements uses ED glass and two adopt aspherical surfaces. However, movements are still quite conservative (though similar to rivals) with ±8.5-degrees of tilt, and ±12mm of shift.
As with others in the firm's range, the Samyang lacks autofocus, obviously, and any automatic aperture control. In fact, there are no mechanical or electronic interfaces on the lens mount, so there’s no lens data exchanged (or EXIF data visible in post). The Schneider models are the same, in that respect. Most cameras don't have a problem with stopped down metering but this may be an issue. It's simply all too easy to forget, especially if you have already worked with the Canon and newer Nikon equivalents with their electronic aperture control.
Build quality is good rather than great. The body including the tilt-unit and shift plate is made from an aluminium alloy but the plastic aperture collar seems rather cheap. On a short-term loan, it's impossible to say just how well it stands up to professional use. From a quick look inside the throat of the lens, the rack and pinion teeth seem sturdy, but the same can be also said of the Canon models and they're known to break (usually when trying to make an adjustment while the mechanism is locked).
The lens has no hood, which is a pity as the front element is both barely recessed and heavily convex. To its credit it's largely free of flare on the Canon EOS 1 DS MK III I used for testing, but it is highly prone to ghosting. Patches are small but it's worth shielding the lens at all times if shooting even vaguely towards the sun.
While one of the less visually interesting stitched panoramas taken with the Samyang, this particular image was chosen for the presence of ghosting. It's a fairly common phenomenon with this lens, necessitating effective shielding and just one of a couple of reasons that dictate the use of a tripod pretty much exclusively.
A small depth of field scale is included though this is largely redundant on today's high-res digital bodies. With the relatively short throw of the manual focus collar, especially between infinity and 1m, focus accuracy is critical. My Canon focus screen is usually accurate enough for manual focusing at this maximum aperture but I had a number of poorly focused images when handheld. And, that's despite owning two Canon TSE lenses (one a 24mm) and having experience of using virtually every other model for DSLRs, including the Hasselblad HTS adaptor. I can really only conclude that tethering or focusing by live view (or EVF if you have it) is essential.
As with the Nikon and Canon models, the Samyang adopts knurled controls to adjust the movements and has smaller versions of the same positioned 180 degrees apart on the outer casing to lock them. These are all made of plastic and are quite small. They're also fiddly to use when the movements and their associated controls are 90 degrees apart let alone when the tilt option is aligned with the shift movement.
The much more expensive (and much larger) Schneider models avoid this scenario completely by adopting locking collars and by duplicating markings on the barrel, which may account in some part for the additional price.
Although the slim profile of the Samyang’s controls is a necessity to avoid obstructing each other, it is not the Samyang's only shortcoming. More of an issue is that movements are slack, and that once unlocked the barrel is free to move and more often than not simply drop, due to gravity. This alone makes it almost impossible to use without error when hand-held, something that I do regularly with my own TS-E lenses. Locked down on a tripod it's a different story, but it's an unnecessary complication that's avoided with the Canon and Schneider models. With that proviso, the Samyang is sharp centrally wide-open but optimal performance isn't achieved until stopped down to f/5.6-8. Some slight fringing is visible on high contrast edges if you look carefully but it's negligible and easily removed in post.
For me, personally, the Samyang's inability to reliably hold tilt and shift movements while making adjustments for occasional hand-held use is disappointing. However, if it's to be used exclusively on a tripod, as is often the case, the Samyang can be recommended. It will certainly be attractive to Sony full frame users, where the EVF and focus peaking of the Sony SLT-A99 will be a huge advantage over the OVFs in the current Nikon and Canon models.
B&H in New York at $999.
Adorama at $999.
Amazon at $859 (Branded as Rokinon)
WEX at £949
Amazon UK at £813