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Full review of the Vivitar 85mm F/1.4 lens

MARCH2011/viv8514box.jpg
Box and contents

 
 
The Sony A700 and A900 were used for this review.  For a better understanding of terms and methods used in this review, go here.
 
The usual center, mid-section and corner crops are located at the very bottom of the page.
 
 
Introduction.
 
The inexpensive Vivitar 85mm F/1.4 IF aspherical lens was introduced in 2009, and is available for most major camera mounts, including Sony alpha.   It appears this lens is identical to the "Bower" brand and may also be found labeled Rokinon, walimex, Falcon, Opteka, and Samyang.  I'm told Samyang of South Korea is the original manufacturer.  The lens says "made in Korea."
 
Found on the outside of the lens is a plastic aperture ring and metal manual focusing ring, no focus hold or limiter buttons.  Build materials of the body seems to be a mix of metal and plastic.  Build quality is just ok, and by that I mean; the trim paint (orange and white) application is sloppy with over-spray of both colors, although hard to see unless viewed closely.  Additionally, the plastic filter ring at the front that surrounds the odd bulbous looking front element is thin, and bends easily with finger pressure.  Make sure you don't strip the threads when mounting a filter.  The lens body has an appealing black spatter paint finish.  Vivitar claims the use of one aspherical element in the design of the lens. 
 
Use.  Make sure you select "enable" for "release W/O lens" on your camera, otherwise, the camera thinks no lens has been mounted, and won't release the shutter.  This is a manual lens only, meaning there is no communication with the camera, you must use manual focus, and choose an aperture.  Metering is ok, but you'll need to check your LCD after each shot for best results.  The aperture settings are marked in one stop increments between F/1.4-2, and F/16-22, everything in between is in half stops.  It is possible to use an in-between aperture, you'll have to carefully turn the ring and set it between marked stops, although I don't know why you'd want to do that.  The viewfinder is very dark when the aperture is set smaller than F/8.
 
One thing I noticed with this lens is; light fall-off is so heavy at F/1.4 that you'll probably need to drag the shutter at least half a stop for a correct exposure, so that means the light gathering ability is not really F/1.4, it's more like F/1.8.  Of course, depth of field is still the same, and backgrounds can be wiped out easily with this lens, just make sure you focus accurately.  
 
Note; bright daytime use at F/1.4 will often result in having to use a shutter speed of 1/8000 at ISO 100.  Most consumer grade cameras don't have that shutter speed, (the pro bodied Sony A700/A850/A900 do) so you'll need to use a neutral density filter to bring down the light value and get the proper exposure.
 
The aperture blades form a nice circle between F/1.4-8, however, at F/11-22 the hole becomes oblong.  
 
EXIF data reads 0mm for focal length, and F/1 for aperture.  The live view screen will read F-- with no aperture.
 
In the box is the lens, front and rear caps, plastic solid hood, a carrying bag and owner's manual.  Note; the hood will not fit over the cap, so if you want to put the hood on, you have to take the front cap off, unfortunately, the cap is not a pinch type which might allow you to put it on once you install the hood.
 
Focusing.  Manual focusing only.  The focusing ring is damped a little too much in my opinion, and is hard to turn with one finger.   Focus ring travel is over 1/3 of a turn form close-up to infinity, which is a good amount of travel, but precise focusing at F/1.4-2 requires practice as you can't see the difference in the viewfinder, even with an "M" focusing screen.  Don't worry though, it's pretty easy to get acceptably sharp shots using manual focus or focus check live view in most situations.
 


Requisite product shots.

MARCH2011/8514sd3.jpg
Side shot showing odd bulbous front element
MARCH2011/viv8514bk.jpg
Back side, no contacts
MARCH2011/viv8514ft.jpg
Recessed front element with plastic filter threads
MARCH2011/viv8514xray.jpg
Samyang X-ray view

 
 
General information and specifications.

Lens

Box contents

Front cap, rear cap, hood, carrying bag and users manual.

Cost

Approximately $269

Build quality

Ok to good.

Additional information

Introduced about 2009.  Also may be marketed under the names; Falcon, Bowers, Samyang, Opteka, Rokinon, Walimex

Specifications below

 

Optical configuration

9 elements in 7 groups

Angle of view

28.3˚ full frame,  18.8˚ APS-C 

Aperture

8 blades, curved

Full frame and APS-C

Made for full frame, but works fine on APS-C cameras.

Depth of field and focus scales?

Aperture scale and focus distance scale.

Minimum focus, image plane to subject

About 46"  (1168mm)

Minimum focus, end of lens barrel to subject

About 41.5"  (1054mm) 

Hard stop at infinity focus?

Goes just a hair past infinity, but focuses correctly at this position.

Length changes when focusing?

No.

Focus ring turns in AF?

N/A

Filter size

72mm.

Filter ring rotates?

No

Distance encoder?

No
 

Max magnification

Awful!  About 0.08x or 1:12.5

Min. F/stop

F/22  

Sony teleconverter compatible?

No

Length changes when zooming?

N/A

Dimensions WxL  (my measurements)

3.07" x 2.91"   78mm x 74mm.  

Maximum  extended length (my measurements)

2.91"  (74mm)                                                    

Weight bare (my scale)

18.0oz  (510g) bare, with hood and caps; 19.7oz  (558g)

 
 
Optical qualities summary.
 
 
Lens flare/ghosting.  Fair to poor control.  At large apertures I see some amber/reddish blobs when bright lights are near or inside the image, and at small apertures I see a string of amber ghosts in a line from the light source, see examples below.
 
Light fall-off.  Huge amounts at F/1.4, but brightens up at F/2.  See samples below.

Color fringing (CA).  Lateral color fringing control is above average.  I see just a little magenta and green at the edges of the image.  See example farther down the page in the full frame section.  You see some axial color fringing too, but it clears up mostly by F/5.6-8.
 
Bokeh.  Smooth, but depends on focusing distance, see examples below.
 
Color.   seems slightly cooler (more blue) than Sony lenses.
 
Close up filter.  N/A    
 
Coma.  None.
 
Regular filters cause a very small amount of additional light fall-off on both APS-C and full frame cameras.  
 
Filter size.  72mm.  Sony uses this size on the 20mm F/2.8, 135mm F/2.8 STF, CZ 24mm F/2, and CZ 85mm F/1.4.
 
Distortion.  Mostly flat on both sensor sizes.
 
Distortion example directly below.
 

MARCH2011/8514dis.jpg
Flat!

 

Distortion is not a problem with this lens.

 

 

Bokeh samples.

 

           F/1.4

             F/2

MARCH2011/8514bok14.jpg
MARCH2011/8514bok20.jpg

           F/2.8

             F/4

MARCH2011/8514bok28.jpg
MARCH2011/8514bok40.jpg

           F/1.4 background blur

             F/1.4 foreground blur

MARCH2011/8514rrblr.jpg
MARCH2011/8514ftblr.jpg

 

Bokeh looks pretty smooth at all apertures, but it does depend on focusing distance.  The last row left crop shows background blur quality, the right shot shows foreground blur.  Blur in front of the subject makes things look weird anyways, and the bokeh is poor, so try not to shoot in this way unless it's for effect.  I see some spherochromatism here, which means when the foreground is blurred, you'll get red outlined highlights, with the background blurred, you'll get green outlined highlights, (F/2 crop above), this usually goes away as you stop down, and is mostly noticeable on fast lenses when used wide open.  You can expect "swirling" bokeh at F/1.4 in certain situations, like the sample image in the full frame section.

 

 
 
Light fall-off samples.
 

           F/1.4

              F/2

MARCH2011/8514vig14.jpg
MARCH2011/8514vig20.jpg

           F/2.8

              F/4

MARCH2011/8514vig28.jpg
MARCH2011/8514vig40.jpg

 

Light fall-off is very noticeable at F/1.4, but improves greatly at F/2. 

 

 

 
 
 
Let's check out the macro capabilities of this lens.

Below, check out the cropped image (315kb) of the stamp.  The sample shot was taken with the Sony A 700 12.2MP camera.  The subject is a standard US stamp, 0.87"x 1.0" or 22mm x 25mm.  Also, note the macro shot was taken as close to the subject as focusing allowed; in this case a very long 41.5" (1054mm), measured from the front of the lens barrel to the subject.  
 
This lens has an approximate reproduction size of 0.08x (1:12.5) which is awful by today's standards.  The stamp shot is displayed at full size.  If you like getting close-up shots, this is not the lens to use.  As a side note; the "1996" on the bottom left of the stamp measures a mere 1mm wide.  
 

MARCH2011/viv85141547mac.jpg
As close as you can get, F/5.6.

 

 

 

_______________________________________________________________________

 

 

Full frame results using the Sony A900 below.

 

Check out the differences when using a film or full frame camera below.  I'm only pointing out the noticeable issues as compared to the APS-C bodies, so if I don't show it here, the results are not significantly different enough to warrant posting an additional set of images in this section.

 

Light fall-off 

 

            F/1.4

              F/2

MARCH2011/8514ffvig14.jpg
MARCH2011/8514ffvig20.jpg

           F/2.8

              F/4

MARCH2011/8514ffvig28.jpg
MARCH2011/8514ffvig40.jpg

 

I see exposure altering light fall-off at F/1.4, to the tune of at least -0.50ev.  However, by closing the aperture just one stop, the frame lightens up tremendously.  In fact, you can almost use the same shutter speed at F/2 as you did from F/1.4.  You really don't notice this so much in normal shooting, but I do, because I need to keep track of apertures and shutter speeds for the testing procedures, and to make matters worse, the camera doesn't record aperture data, only the shutter speed.

 

 

Full image below illustrating light fall-off from A900.

 

MARCH2011/8514cacvig2.jpg
F/1.4, ISO 100, 1/3200sec.
MARCH2011/8514ffvigdet2.jpg
Detail from center of image above.
MARCH2011/8514ffsb.jpg
Swirling bokeh and example of heavy off-center light fall-off.

 

At the top we have a full scene of a huge and ancient Saguaro cactus (the holes are from birds) that shows actual-use light fall-off, It's noticeable, with an almost over-exposed center, but correct mid-sections and corners.  Be careful when using F/1.4, make sure the centers are not over-exposed!  This bright daylight scene could have been shot around F/2, while still providing a blurred background, and light fall-off would be mostly gone.  Data for the image is; F/1.4, 3200sec, ISO 100. 

 

The middle shot is a 100% crop of the top image, taken from the center.  It looks pretty good for F/1.4 in bright sun! 

 

The boring bottom image shows basically the same thing as the top image, but with a clearly over-exposed middle, and what's called "swirling" bokeh, formed by the background highlight blur being "lentil" shaped around the image periphery, which is quite common with large aperture lenses, go here for more info.

 

 

Flare and Ghosting.

 

Huge ghosting with sun out of shot.

Huge blobs with offset sun.

MARCH2011/8514gst1.jpg
MARCH2011/8514gst5.jpg

Small aperture with sun centered looks awful.

Small aperture with offset sun looks awful.

MARCH2011/8514gst2.jpg
MARCH2011/8514gst4.jpg

 
Ghosting control is rather poor, as seen above.  When the sun is in the image, there are amber colored blobs visible, but severity depends on angle and aperture.  As you stop down, you'll see a disc or two around the sun when centered.  When the sun is out of the image there are still ghosting problems, so use your hand as a light block, which works better than the included hood.
 
 
Full frame distortion.
 

MARCH2011/8514ffdis.jpg
Almost flat on A900

 

I see almost no distortion with full frame coverage.

 

 

Bokeh and axial color fringing.

 

MARCH2011/8514bokff28.jpg
Detail from center of image.

 

This shot shows another rendition of bokeh, this time close up at F/2.8.  I see some axial color fringing too in the water, in this case the color compliments the flower color in the background!  It's not very strong, but shows up in shots like this.

 

 

Lateral color fringing.

 

MARCH2011/8514ffcf.jpg
Color fringing crop from far right side. F/8

 

This crop is from the last 700 pixels on the middle right side.  I see a little magenta and green color fringing along the window and light fixture, but it's controlled well, and not really noticeable unless viewed closely.

 

 

 

  
Conclusion. 
 

The inexpensive Vivitar 85mm F/1.4 turned in a darn good performance, making an medium telephoto 85mm F/1.4 accessible to cost-conscious people, as this wonderful lens is priced $1000 less than the Sony CZ 85/1.4 planar!  How does the Vivitar stand up to the CZ, or Sony 85mm F/2.8 SAM?  I don't have the CZ 85mm with me, but if memory serves me correctly(!), I think the CZ is sharper with better contrast at F/1.4, although I'm not sure about the mid-sections and corners, other differences can be culled from the Sony CZ 85mm F/1.4 review.  The Sony 85mm F/2.8 SAM is very similar to the Vivitar in sharpness, see the comparison crops in the bonus section at the bottom of this page, and check out that lens review for other info.  Of course, the Sony lenses are fully automated with the camera, and don't need to be hand focused and constantly adjusted to compensate for aperture and light changes.  Camera metering on the Vivitar is only approximate, so you'll need to review the image on the screen after each shot to see if you got the right exposure.  It's no big deal, but if you're used to full auto operation, this will be pain in the behind until you get a feel for it.  I don't mind using full manual controls, as that's what I use most of the time anyways.

 

The Vivitar 85mm F/1.4 is pretty sharp at all apertures, but lacks contrast at F/1.4, and needs to be stopped down to F/2 to get rid of the "veiling haze."  One thing I noticed with this lens is; light fall-off is so heavy at F/1.4 that you'll probably need to drag the shutter at least half a stop for a correct exposure, so that means the light gathering ability is not really F/1.4, it's more like F/1.8.  Of course, depth of field is still the same, and backgrounds can be wiped out easily with this lens, just make sure you focus accurately.

 

Note; bright daytime use at F/1.4 will often result in having to use a shutter speed of 1/8000 at ISO 100.  Most consumer grade cameras don't have that shutter speed, (the pro bodied Sony A700/A850/A900 do) so you'll need to use a neutral density filter to bring down the light value and get the proper exposure.

 

On the upside; distortion and color fringing are controlled well, and sharpness is high as mentioned above, but on the downside, flare and ghosting control is poor, and while the lens feels heavy and solid, build quality is just OK at best, with a flimsy plastic front filter ring and sloppy paint trim spoiling the otherwise good build quality.  I guess that's why the lens is so cheap!

 

I would highly recommend this lens if you're familiar with using manual controls on your camera, and need this focal length and aperture.  This lens is best used at F/1.4-2, if you don't think you'll need those apertures, get the much easier to use, and cheaper Sony 85/2.8 SAM.

 

 

 

Sample crops from the centers, mid-sections and corners.

 

 

          Center

          Mid-section

             Corner

F/1.4

MARCH2011/8514ffctr14.jpg
MARCH2011/8514mid14.jpg
MARCH2011/8514corn14.jpg

F/2

MARCH2011/8514ffctr20.jpg
MARCH2011/8514mid20.jpg
MARCH2011/8514corn20.jpg

F/2.8

MARCH2011/8514ffctr28.jpg
MARCH2011/8514mid28.jpg
MARCH2011/8514corn28.jpg

F/4

MARCH2011/8514ffctr40.jpg
MARCH2011/8514mid40.jpg
MARCH2011/8514corn40.jpg

F/5.6

MARCH2011/8514ctr56.jpg
MARCH2011/8514mid56.jpg
MARCH2011/8514corn56.jpg

F/8

MARCH2011/8514ctr80.jpg
MARCH2011/8514mid80.jpg
MARCH2011/8514corn80.jpg

F/11

MARCH2011/8514ffctr11.jpg
MARCH2011/8514mid11.jpg
MARCH2011/8514corn11.jpg

 

Clearly visible here are the soft, wide open results, mostly due to a lack of contrast, there's pretty good detail though.  When you stop down to F/2-2.8 the image sharpens up dramatically, and doesn't get too much better by closing the aperture more.  Diffraction is noticeable at F/16.  Maximum performance seems to be around F2.8-4 in the centers, F/5.6 in the mid-sections, and the corners sharpen up slightly by stopping down to F/8-11, although not really noticeable in these crops.  Exposure differences are from light fall-off.

 

Please check out the Vivitar 85mm F/1.4 at B&H Photo and help support the site!

 

 

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Bonus section.

 

I've worked up a direct comparison using the Vivitar 85/1.4 and Sony 85/2.8 lenses.  The distance from camera to subject is 26' (8.0m).  The Sony A900 was used for this comparison, along with a tripod, remote shutter and 3200k hot lights.  Bracketed manual focusing was used, with the resulting absolute sharpest shot used as the base for the entire set, at each length.  Exposure differences are from light fall-off.  All camera settings were the same for each lens.

 


Centers

 

 

          Vivitar 85mm F/1.4

          Sony 85mm F/2.8 SAM

F/2.8

MARCH2011/8514ffctr28.jpg
MARCH2011/8528ctr28x.jpg

F/4

MARCH2011/8514ffctr40.jpg
MARCH2011/8528ctr40x.jpg

F/5.6

MARCH2011/8514ctr56.jpg
MARCH2011/8528ctr56x.jpg

F/8

MARCH2011/8514ctr80.jpg
MARCH2011/8528ctr80x.jpg

 

Very similar sharpness levels, although the Sony looks a hair sharper at F/4.  Also notice the color differences, the Vivitar is not as "warm" as the Sony.  All crops used the exact same camera settings.

 

Mid-sections

 

 

          Vivitar 85mm F/1.4

          Sony 85mm F/2.8 SAM

F/2.8

MARCH2011/8514mid28.jpg
MARCH2011/8528mid28x.jpg

F/4

MARCH2011/8514mid40.jpg
MARCH2011/8528mid40x.jpg

F/5.6

MARCH2011/8514mid56.jpg
MARCH2011/8528mid56x.jpg

F/8

MARCH2011/8514mid80.jpg
MARCH2011/8528mid80x.jpg

 

If you look really close, the Sony seems to be a bit sharper at all apertures here.

 

Corners

 

 

          Vivitar 85mm F/1.4

          Sony 85mm F/2.8 SAM

F/2.8

MARCH2011/8514corn28.jpg
MARCH2011/8528corn28x.jpg

F/4

MARCH2011/8514corn40.jpg
MARCH2011/8528corn40x.jpg

F/5.6

MARCH2011/8514corn56.jpg
MARCH2011/8528corn56x.jpg

F/8

MARCH2011/8514corn80.jpg
MARCH2011/8528corn80x.jpg

 

There might be a little difference in sharpness between the crops at F/4-5.6, but not something you'd normally notice unless viewed like this, side-by-side.  The Vivitar shows less color fringing in these corner crops.