Hands-On Review: Rokinon XEEN, True Cinema Lenses for Full-Frame Production

I recently got a chance to test out the new XEEN by Rokinon line of professional cinema lenses. First impressions matter, especially in this industry, and my first impressions of these lenses are that they are complete cinema lenses that would be right at home on a feature film set. This is not just a re-housing of the CineDS line of cinema lenses. Available immediately are three lenses in a matched set of a 24mm, a 50mm and an 85mm. What I found by testing and using them was surprising enough to make the lenses quite a pleasant contradiction. Let me explain what I mean.
The lenses are housed with a 114mm front diameter and they look just like you would expect high-end cinema lenses to look, with dual focus and iris scales, and a solid mechanical feel. Yet there is more going on,?because these lenses cover full-frame sensors and are suitable for 4K+ capture. All three lenses are T1.5 and solidly built. Usually fast lenses require a lot of glass, making them heavy, but these lenses are considerably lighter than you’d expect them to be. Yet they’re made with all-metal bodies (not plastic) and they are built with a lot of attention to detail.
It doesn’t mean they’re perfect but they are surprising. It’s also obvious from the design that these lenses could have been made smaller, with a smaller front diameter. However, the large barrel diameter provides 200 degrees of barrel rotation, which is room enough for a large focus scale. This provides precision where it¡¯s needed most, as you focus close to the camera. The large front diameter also led me to believe, and I was able to confirm this with Rokinon, that they are expecting to bring out more lenses as part of the XEEN line of professional cinema lenses. Although my source wouldn’t confirm the exact lenses, they did confirm that a wider lens and two longer lenses would be announced in the near future. If they match the same quality as the three lenses I tested, this is going to make for a very complete set of lenses.

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Physically the lenses share a common front diameter, but they also share gear positions for focus and iris and, more important, they’re all the same length so working with them on the set and having to change lenses is going to be a breeze. No tweaking of the matte box or follow focus positioning; just swap out a new lens and off you go. Oh, and before I forget, the lenses all have internal focus with non-rotating fronts. This means no focus gear travel, and even more important, focus breathing is greatly minimized. Every lens breathes to some degree when you change focus, but I really didn’t notice it with these lenses. One thing to make note of is that the lenses are completely manual. They have no electronic connections, and can’t share any information with, or use any electronic functions of, your camera.
I want to jump a head a bit, because what matters most about the lenses is the image quality, and I found the XEEN lenses to be quite good. Faces appeared natural and pleasant under a variety of shooting conditions. The lenses resolve good detail in close-ups without becoming harsh or unflattering. The lenses undergo a 14-layer coating process that renders consistent color, good skin tone reproduction, and anti-glare properties. Of course this is all very subjective, so I recommend checking out some of the test video shot for this article.
The lenses are available in Canon EF, Sony E, Nikon F, ARRI PL, and Micro Four Thirds mounts. So you’re going to have a wide choice of cameras and formats to shoot them with. As I wrote, the lenses are suitable for full frame, and use the same optics, no matter what the mount. I’m told that separate mounts will become available, so that you can modify your lens to a different mount in the future if you buy into a new camera system. Disclaimer: Rokinon is stressing that you must have a qualified service center swap the mounts, otherwise you may void the warranty. (Rokinon has included a 3 year limited warranty on the Xeen lenses ¨C a first in the industry for Cinema lenses.) I was also told that Rokinon is working on shim sets, and I’ll get to why that’s important in a little bit.
I received the lenses in Canon EF mount, and I really wanted to test them by shooting video with a full-frame sensor camera. Unfortunately I don’t own a full-frame cinema camera, but I was able to wrangle a Sony a7S which allowed me to shoot full-frame stills and also shoot 1080p which I felt would give me a really good idea of what the lenses were capable of. Fortunately I have a BlackMagic Pocket-Cinema Camera and I was able to arrange a Canon EF to Micro Four Thirds adapter, so I was able to shoot some of my test with two cameras switching lenses between them. The full-frame capabilities of these lenses really shines here. With adapters, I could swap lenses between cameras and increase their usefulness going all the way up to full frame, or shooting with a super 35 camera. I can even use the Pocket-Cinema camera with its super 16 sized sensor.

But back to the lenses, the all-metal bodies provide a solid feel, not at all ¡°plasticky¡±, yet light and easy to handle. I was really pleased with the feel of the focus. For me the focus felt very nice, with the right amount of resistance. It wasn’t too easy to move, and was smooth with no grinding or binding. The same was true for the iris, and as an added bonus for those running around handheld without a follow focus unit, the gear teeth were actually comfortable on my fingers. I can remember when I was an assistant at many low-budget music video sets, going home with tender and sore fingers from pulling focus on geared lenses without a follow focus unit. So even though you’re shooting with a lens that has a 114mm front diameter, you can still use it without a follow focus and have a comfortable day, and small package size.
Now that I’ve droned on about the mechanics of the lenses, which are surprisingly good, it is time to talk about the optics and focus charts. I was very impressed with the images I shot using these lenses. Of course I went with some kind of focus chart, but beyond wanting to see the lenses focus ¨C which they do a really nice job of – I wanted to get a sense of the focus falloff so I shot two passes of the focus chart. In the first pass I’ve added a string of holiday lights to augment the focus chart. The holiday lights extend 5 feet behind the focus chart, back to a textured fabric backdrop, with one of the holiday lights on the same plane as the chart. We ramped iris from T1.5 wide open all the way to T22 in one stop increments. The stills were taken in photo mode, with a 3:2 aspect ratio, using aperture priority so that the a7S would adjust exposure time and keep the exposure fairly consistent.
For the second pass of each lens we changed nothing except for extending the holiday lights forward between the focus chart and the lens itself so we could see the fall-off, both behind the focus chart and towards the camera. In these focus chart tests I was ably assisted by David Adler, who assisted with the a7S. One caveat to mention is that the lenses consistently came up short, i.e. if the camera was 4 feet away from focus chart to the image plane marking on the camera body, the lens would eye focus below 4 feet. This was consistent amongst all three lenses, and at first I thought perhaps it could be from the lenses being pre-release versions. But we came up with another theory, which was that we were using a fairly inexpensive Canon EF to Sony E mount adapter, which is all I was able to get in time for the focus chart test. For the subsequent shoots I was able to obtain a Metabones adapter, which was significantly better-made. When I later compared eye focus to measured distance using the Metabones adapter, the focus marks lined up perfectly with the measured distance. I also think the first adapter may have played a part in the vignetting apparent on the 24mm focus chart stills from T1.5 to T2.8. Unfortunately, I ran out of time with the lenses and was not able to reshoot the focus chart with the Metabones adapter.

If you’re adapting lenses and not changing mounts, the adapter matters. Sure you can get by with an inexpensive adapter, but to have your lens hit infinity and have the marks be accurate you may end up having to shim the adapter, which is highly unlikely, or shim your lens. I do know a few owner operators that have their own collimating setup, but it’s most likely that you’re going want to go to an authorized rental house or service center to have your lenses shimmed so that they operate at their best. It’s probably worth the savings and time and wear and tear just to get a well-made adapter. There’s nothing wrong with using a cheap adapter in a pinch, or as a back¨Cup, but these lenses really fit the bill as professional lenses. As a teacher of mine once said, you don’t shoot with a tack sharp lens and use a lollipop wrapper as a filter. The same applies to the adapter. Think about it, we are talking tolerances as small as a thousandth of an inch. If you want your lens to perform well, you really want to make sure you have a solid well-made adapter that’s up to spec.
So looking at the stills from the focus test you can easily see a few things. You can view the chart test as a video here, and if you want to access the RAW stills, click here, for converted .tiffs click here. The first thing I noticed was, with the lenses open to T1.5, that the iris is no longer round; it kind of becomes more of an acorn shape as you can see by the out-of-focus highlights. This is really to be expected, as this is a full frame and you’re asking the iris to do a lot when being that wide-open. However, racking the iris to T2.0 rounds out the out-of-focus highlights

24mm, 50mm and 85mm resolution tests
I also noticed a subtle color shift as the lens transitions from wide-open to T4 / T5.6. It¡¯s nothing that couldn’t be corrected in post, but worth noting. Personally I don’t really like shooting wide open; I like to be closed down a little bit. Sure you can get away with it with smaller formats, but once you start getting into larger formats, shooting wide-open can really become problematic. This is because there’s just so little depth of field and your plane of focus becomes so shallow. I remember shooting 35mm motion pictures and swearing that it just wasn’t worth it to shoot wide-open. It was always a balance between not having enough light and getting a good exposure or having enough depth of field so that the actors were actually in focus during the take.
One of the things I really liked about these lenses, especially because they are full frame, is the feeling of shallow depth of field with cinematic focus fall off, while shooting at a T4 or higher. Plus I had the added benefit of not making my focus puller crazy with depth of field too shallow to work with. I really believe that the larger the format, the more apparent it is when something is soft. This may seem contradictory, but it means that by shooting full frame at a higher f/stop, you end up having more area in focus, but the transitions to soft / out-of-focus areas is more rapid, which allows you to get that cinematic soft focus separation and feel.
I found the Rokinon XEEN Cine Lenses to be well made, easy to work with and, overall, I enjoyed the image quality. They rendered naturalistic images with good contrast and a pleasing, slightly warm feel. Intercutting between the lenses required no additional color correction beyond applying the same LUT to the footage. It is my preference to shoot more closed down than wide open, and I did feel the lenses performed best starting around T4, but I was still satisfied with footage shot at T1.5. Overall, I was pleased with the XEEN lenses and look forward to working with them again.

To veiw the full resolution tests click on the following links: