Triple ultrawide lens test - Samyang 20mm f/1.8 vs Tokina 20mm f/2 vs Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8
Updated: Sep 20, 2019
So... why 20mm primes?
I'm primarily a landscape photographer, so my go-to lenses are always wide/ultra wide. I've had a 'thing' for 20mm primes since I was rocking the Nikon D810 with the amazing Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 G - what a combo! Now i've moved to the Sony E mount system's excellent A7R III (via Fujifilm's X-T2 & X-T3) I didn't have a massive amount of money left for lenses, but I still need my main landscape lens to be (in order of importance):
Sharp as a very sharp thing from corner to corner
Low coma for astrophotography
Must take 'normal' filters
Reasonably lightweight and small
If money were no object then i'd be buying an ultrawide zoom like the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM but £1,500+ is way too rich for me at the moment. I could also look at adapting the excellent Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 G2 from the Canon mount, but that doesn't take filters and it's a heavy old beast, so I feel these three primes are my best options... until I can get my hands on the new Tamron 17-28 f/2.8 (spoiler alert - it's coming soon!).
As we head into a closer look at the three lenses, you'll notice that two of them are manual focus. This isn't an issue for me at all due to Sony's excellent focus peaking abilities coupled with AF not being an advantage for landscapes and astro shots. I wouldn't turn down an AF lens though, as long as it is easy enough to manually focus with, and it performs well enough.
Specifications & details
Let's take a more detailed look at the three competitors in this test, beginning with the...
Samyang 20mm f/1.8 ED AS UMC
First up we have the well-regarded Samyang 20mm f/1.8. This is the cheapest of the three, retailing at approximately £449/$599, but it's widely available for much less if you're happy to buy grey market or lightly used on eBay. My copy was just over £300. It might be the cheapest lens on test, but it's also the fastest with a maximum aperture of f/1.8.
I have previously owned the equally impressive Samyang 12mm f/2 on the Fujifilm X-Mount system, which was great for astro landscapes, so as soon as I bought the A7R III I grabbed this 20mm f/1.8. Unfortunately, Samyang do have a reputation for producing 'cheap and cheerful' lenses, whilst being a bit slack with their QC, leading to some less than perfect copies being put on sale, but if you win the 'lens lottery' and get a good one, they're a real bargain.
When it arrived, the main thing that struck me was the size of it. It's not a native mirrorless lens, so it's essentially the same as the Canon version but with an adapter attached to the rear (as you can see on the pic) so it's pretty damn long. It adds a good 25mm in length vs the Canon version, plus an additional 28g in weight. I'm used to their teeny tiny APS-C 12mm f/2 lens, so this felt like an absolute beast in comparison!
As a quick side note, this Samyang doesn't contain the necessary electrical contacts to pass information on to the camera, so you won't see the correct EXIF data when in Lightroom/ACR etc.
Let's look at some of this lenses other details, as sourced from Samyang's website:
So, the Samyang appears to tick plenty of boxes. It's cheap, not too big and it takes a 77mm filter. Join me later to see how it fares in the test.
Next up we have the...
Tokina FíRIN 20mm f/2 FE MF
As with the Samyang lens, this Tokina FíRIN comes with a great reputation... if you're lucky enough to get a good copy. This is also manual focus, although Tokina do offer an AF version for an extra couple of hundred pounds/dollars, but you'd have to have a specific need for AF to take that one over this MF version, as it has the exact same internals.
The Tokina is priced in-between the Samyang and the third lens in this test, retailing at £699/$699, but as with most lenses, you can pick them up for much less if you shop around. I was lucky enough to grab mine from Amazon for just under £450! It's now hovering around the £600 mark, but they are readily available on the grey market for around £475.
It has a very nice feel to it. It's solid without being too big or heavy. It also features distance markings as per the Samyang, but has a nice little additional feature - a de-clickable aperture ring (see pic). It's not something I would use, but for you video shooters out there it'll be a welcome feature, and it shows great attention to detail from Tokina.
Let's look at some figures for this lens, as taken from Tokina's official website:
So, the FíRIN is notably smaller than the Samyang, plus it's a touch lighter. Likewise, the filter thread is 62mm vs the 77mm of the Samyang. It's also not quite as fast, being a third of a stop slower @ f/2, but that's a moot point these days given how newer cameras generally excel at higher ISO's.
Let's move on to the final contender in this triple lens battle, which is the...
Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8
This one shouldn't need any introduction. It is widely touted as one of the best premium ultra wide options for the Sony E mount. It even comes highly recommended as an astrophotography lens, with low coma and great optics.
This is the most expensive lens on test, coming in at an RRP of £1,299/$1,499, but again, can be found for much less online, especially on eBay where I picked up a very lightly used example for just £750 (still more than i'd like to pay, but if you've got PayPal 0% Credit you may as well use it, right?!). Even though it's the costliest lens, it's actually the slowest @ f/2.8. This should be a problem, as i'd rarely be shooting at wider apertures for landscapes and astro shots are easily achievable @ f/2.8. It's also the widest lens, with an angle of view of 99° vs the Samyang's 94.8° and the Tokina's 92°, allowing me to squeeze a bit more into my shots.
Not only is it more expensive, wider & slower than the others, but it's also an auto focus lens! I haven't particularly tested the AF as it's not relevant for my photos, but it seemed to be fast and snappy on my A7R III, as you would expect. As it's an AF lens, there are no distance markings on the barrel, in fact there are no markings of any kind! One of the most striking features of this lens is how 'bare' it looks. It only has a rubberised focus ring and a small OLED screen which displays the distance markings along with the current aperture (see pic with included 'petal' lens hood). I didn't pay much attention to this, but when required for finding infinity on my astro shots it seemed pretty accurate, plus the brightness didn't cause any undue light spill onto my images.
Here's a quick summary of some key stats from the Zeiss website:
One point I didn't mention earlier was just how light this lens is! It's much lighter than the other two lenses, and it certainly feels it when mounted.
Right, enough of the boring stuff, let's get into the...
My aim with this test was to head out to one of my favourite local spots and give them some hardcore 'real world' testing. Unfortunately, 'the best laid plans' etc, I ended-up driving around, chasing the light and simultaneously missing most of the light! I ended-up at Winskill Stones in the Yorkshire Dales, just as the sun had dropped behind the distant hills.
Here's a look at the final edited image from my 'wild goose chase' around the Yorkshire Dales. It's no award winner, and probably not even a 'keeper' - it wasn't intended to be, but i'm happy enough with it given the circumstances. This was shot with the 'winning' lens, but I won't give the game away just yet!
In addition to my real world landscape test, I also shot a 'diorama' at home which served as a sharpness test (or at least it should have done - as you'll read later), along with an infinity and an astrophotography test, both in my garden, so I feel that I captured enough images in enough different situations to give me a true feel for each lens.
I won't dwell on this much, as all three lenses are solid enough with very few quirks between them.
The Tokina has the nicest 'feel' when in use, with very defined clicks between apertures and a nice, smooth focus ring. It also has the option to de-click the aperture ring, which is a nice touch for video shooters. The Samyang felt like a cheaper version of the Tokina, which it kind of is, and is in no way disrespectful. Things just didn't quite feel as precise as on the Tokina, but taken in isolation there wasn't anything to cause undue problems when shooting.
The Zeiss has to be looked-at as a separate entity when discussing ergonomics, as it's the only AF lens here, plus its body is very different to the other two - it's more a '21st Century' take on what a lens should look and feel like, vs the Old Skool dynamics of the Samyang and Tokina. I think Zeiss should be commended for trying to advance technology by adding the OLED screen, but I found it entirely unnecessary, even at night when it should probably shine, literally and figuratively speaking, helping to make focusing on stars an absolute breeze. But, to me it offers nothing over the tried and tested distance markings of old, and appears to be an attempt at justifying its rather high price - maybe they should've gone a step further and surrounded the front element with Swarovski crystals as well?!
As well as the rather divisive OLED screen, I wasn't overly keen on the rubberised focus ring either. Don't get me wrong, the Batis snaps into focus very nicely when using MF, but it just feels a bit odd in doing so. It may seem like i'm being a tad harsh on the Batis, but for me, any lens that retails for well over £1000 needs to be pretty-much perfect, and any perceived flaws should be scrutinised.
Please comment below if you feel like i'm being harsh, or if i've missed the point with anything!
Let's start by examining the shots I took on location in the Yorkshire Dales. Below you'll see 100% crops of the centre, mid-section and corner at each aperture.
Sharpness at short distance
So, I fully intended to show you some samples from a diorama i'd shot using all three lenses at various apertures... but as this is my first attempt at lens reviews, I made an absolute mess of the staging, which left me with only the absolute centres of each image being worthwhile showing you, so here they are. The camera sensor was approximately 1.2m from the point of focus, which was the water bottle. I have since designed and printed a large test chart which will be used for all these types of test going forward. You can see the selected area highlighted on the full image below the crops.
Even from f/2.8, none of the lenses differ wildly in their sharpness. The Samyang is definitely the softest, from f/2.8 through to f/11, but it doesn't disgrace itself. The Zeiss was tested wide open, whereas the others are stopped-down slightly, so this may have put the Zeiss at a slight disadvantage, as does it's wider field of view, but to my eye it loses out to the Tokina, which produces tack sharp images right through the aperture range. If you look at the 'aquea' logo at the top of the label, the Tokina appears to render much better micro contrast than the other two.
Real world sharpness at f/11
I also thought it would be a good idea to take a quick shot at f/11, as this is my normal aperture for landscapes. I used my garden as it was a) easy to access and b) full of various objects to help with the results. I focused on the tatty, old bird feeder in the centre of the shot. You can see the three defined areas on the full image at the bottom of the next shot.
Always have a Bokeh section, even if it’s a wide lens. Just make the area smaller for wide lenses.
Small section on this as it's generally removed in post - need to shoot some high contrast areas.
Shoot some shots into the sun to encourage lens flare
Again, this doesn’t need an in-depth review as it mainly dealt with in-camera. Worth mentioning added noise/loss of resolution when there’s a need for heavy vignette reduction.
Maybe cover how close a lens can get but again there’s no need to go into detail.
Give a brief run-down of the pro’s and con’s of the lens and write a para or two about it’s relative strengths in itself and also vs its rivals/other lenses tested.