Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Zeiss Distagon T* SEL35F14Z
Lab Test Results
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March 12, 2015
by William Brawley
When the A7 and A7R were first announced, alongside them was the FE 35mm ƒ/2.8 Zeiss lens. We reviewed this lens and found it to be an excellent optic: sharp images even wide-open and a super compact design. But despite its compactness, the ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture was a bit underwhelming for those looking for premier low-light shooting and background blurring effects. And while the new FE 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss is noticeably larger and heavier than its ƒ/2.8 counterpart, it answers photographers' calls for a more pro-oriented lens with a full two stops of additional light gathering capabilities.
Carrying the Zeiss brand, the new 35mm ƒ/1.4 lens features an all-metal construction, dust- and moisture-resistance, Zeiss T* lens coatings and Sony's Direct Drive SSM autofocusing system.
Shipped with a petal-shaped lens hood and soft pouch, the Sony FE 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss has an MSRP of around $1,598.
Being an ƒ/1.4 lens, it's not unexpected to have some softness when using it wide-open, and this is the case with the Sony FE 35mm ƒ/1.4. Especially on a full-frame camera, at ƒ/1.4, the corners in particular are quite a bit softer than the center of the frame, and even the center itself is not tack sharp, though not bad. Stopping down to ƒ/2.0, however, we found a significant improvement in sharpness, especially in the center. Corners still display some softness here, but as you continue to stop down we find corner sharpness to noticeably improve. Softness caused by diffraction is rather minor, and only really comes in to play at around ƒ/16.
On a sub-frame camera, we found a similar pattern of sharpness to the full-frame results, which is expected. Corner softness at ƒ/1.4 is not nearly as exaggerated as on a full-frame, which makes sense, as the smaller sensor does not use the lens's full image circle. The center sharpness wide-open is again not tack sharp, but as you stop down we found sharpness -- both in the corners and in the center -- to improve considerably. Diffraction softening was less pronounced on a sub-frame camera, even fully stopped down to ƒ/16.
Like it's ƒ/2.8 counterpart, the 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss lens performs remarkably well at controlling CA on both full-frame and sub-frame cameras. On average, we found extremely low CA on both sensor sizes, however, out in the extreme corners at ƒ/1.4 we did see some very soft-edged, light purple/magenta and green fringing along high contrast edges on a full-frame camera. This isn't all that unexpected from a wide-angle lens with such a wide aperture, and if you stop down some, such as ƒ/8 for example, CA is practically eliminated. On a sub-frame sensor, the corner CA is understandably reduced, both at ƒ/1.4 and stopped down, since you're capturing an image with a smaller, central region of the lens's total image circle.
At ƒ/1.4, we weren't surprised to find significant vignetting on full-frame cameras. As we found when testing the 35mm ƒ/2.8 version, Sony RAW image files will have vignetting correction baked in if this option is enabled in the camera. We've tested the lens both with and without vignetting correction, and we found that there is a marked improvement in vignetting with the correction enabled. The graphs here in this review, however, represent the level of vignetting without correction applied.
Wide-open, we see that vignetting is off the charts at ƒ/1.4 on a full-frame camera with over 1.25-stops of light loss in the corners. Vignetting drops, as expected, when you stop down, but even at ƒ/5.6 and smaller, vignetting remains present at around 0.5-stops of light falloff.
Of course on sub-frame cameras, vignetting is much less of an issue. Without in-camera corrections enabled, corner shading at ƒ/1.4 is under 0.5-stops, and once the lens is stopped down to ƒ/2.8 and smaller, vignetting hovers rather steadily under 0.25-stops of light loss.
Despite being a wide-angle lens, the FE 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss lens displays impressive distortion control, on both full- and sub-frame cameras. Like vignetting, Sony cameras can apply in-camera corrections for distortion. We measured both with and without, and it does appear that Sony RAW files are affected with this correction as both tests showed nearly identical results. We found average barrel distortion was well under +0.5% and even the maximum value of distortion -- typically displayed in the corners -- was still under the +0.5% level.
The Sony 35mm FE ƒ/1.4 Zeiss offers very fast autofocus performance thanks to Sony's Direct Drive SSM focusing system, which utilizes a linear, piezoelectric actuator to move the focusing group quickly, precisely and quietly, even down to its minimum focus distance of 12 inches. The lens took well under a second to rack from minimum focus distance to infinity. The quiet focusing performance should work very well for video recording, plus the manual aperture ring can be "de-clicked" at the flip of a switch for even further noise suppression for video as well as smooth exposure adjustments.
The large focusing ring is an electronic focus-by-wire system, and switching into manual focus is controlled via the camera body itself since there is not a manual AF/MF switch on the lens. Also lacking on the 35mm ƒ/1.4, like most of Sony's other FE lenses, is any form of focus distance scale.
As mentioned above, the minimum focus distance for the FE 35mm ƒ/1.4 is just shy of 12 inches, which is very close a wide-angle lens such as this. It's not designed for macro photography, but with a 0.18x (1:5.6) magnification ratio, you can produce decent wide-angle close-up shots with this lens.
Build Quality and Handling
As with Sony's previous FE-mount lenses, the new 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss follows the same design aesthetic with a sleek, matte black barrel design with modern, sharp edges. Like the FE primes before it, the new 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss lens barrel is constructed out of sturdy, solid-feeling metal, which Sony claims is also dust- and weather-sealed -- though we do not see a rubberized gasket seal around the metal lens mount as with the previous FE lenses.
As we pointed out above, there are very few external markings or features like a focus distance scale or AF/MF swtich. The manual aperture rings is marked from ƒ/1.4 to ƒ/16 and softly clicks into place in 1/3-stop increments. There is a full electronic "Auto" aperture setting past ƒ/16, which lets the aperture be controlled automatically or otherwise via the camera itself. The clicked aperture ring can be de-clicked using a located on the lower right side of the barrel (4 o'clock position), which allows for smooth and quiet exposure adjustments for video recording.
In a stark difference from the ultra-light and practically-pocketable FE 35mm ƒ/2.8 lens, the new ƒ/1.4 version is significantly larger and heavier -- a consequence of the much faster aperture. To put the size in comparison, the new 35mm lens is similar in length to the Canon 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II lens, and still a bit heavier. It's also larger, longer and wider than the Sony FE 24-70mm ƒ/4 Zeiss zoom lens. By the numbers, the new 35mm lens weighs about 630g (about 1.4lbs.) and is about 4.5in. x 3.13in. in size. Mounted on an A7-series body, the pairing is a bit front-heavy but not unwieldy and awkward to hold by any means. It's certainly comfortable to use with a traditional two-handed grip.
And speaking of grip, the large 1.5-inch-wide metal focus ring has a vast array of deep grooves, which provides an excellent amount of real estate for a secure grip. The aperture ring, which sits right behind the focus ring, is much thinner, but also has nice textured grooves for your thumb and forefinger.
The focus system is all electronic, so the focus ring itself rotates continuously with no stops on either end. The rotational action is very smooth with just the right about of resistance for controllable and precise focus adjustments. Similar to the aperture ring, the clicks between aperture settings have a nice, soft clicking feedback, and when de-clicked, the ring is very smooth to rotate and also has a nice amount of resistance.
With the FE mount being in relative infancy, there is not a huge selection of alternative lenses for Sony shooters here. However, with this FE 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss lens coming in as the second 35mm prime for the FE mount, the obvious first choice alternative is its smaller, lighter companion: the FE 35mm ƒ/2.8 Zeiss lens. The ƒ/2.8 version of Sony FE-mount 35mm prime produces very sharp images with overall excellent image quality. The lens is also significantly lighter in weigh and more compact than this ƒ/1.4 version, not to mention a good chunk less expensive (currently, the ƒ/2.8 retails for around $798, while the new ƒ/1.4 goes for $1,598).
Another option could possibly be the FE 24-70mm ƒ/4 ZA OSS Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* zoom lenses, which will give you the capability of a 35mm focal length. However, for those who are considering a lens like a 35mm ƒ/1.4, the significantly slower ƒ/4 aperture offered by the 24-70mm is most likely to be a deal-breaker.
However, Sony does offer a few 35mm full-frame primes for their A-mount cameras: the Sony 35mm ƒ/1.4 G and Sony 35mm ƒ/1.8 DT SAM. Using Sony's own LA-EA3 A-mount to E-mount adapter (no AF) or Sony's LA-EA4 adapter (adds Sony's Translucent Mirror technology and autofocus), you could use these lenses with the A7/A7R camera. However, on the 35mm ƒ/1.4G lens, at least, despite having a much wider maximum aperture, the images are not very sharp until you stop down to ƒ/2.8 and the CA is much higher than with this new FE 35mm lens. And it's also quite pricey, at just under $1,500. We've yet to test the Sony 35mm ƒ/1.8 DT SAM lens ourselves, but readers have given it generally favorable reviews, although many consider the plastic construction as a downside. However, it's very affordable at a little over $200.
The new Sony FE 35mm ƒ/1.4 Zeiss lens is another fantastic prime lens for the Sony A7-series cameras, and it gives shooters an excellent, general-purpose wide-angle focal length perspective that's great for travel and street photography as well as portraits. Unlike the earlier 35mm ƒ/2.8 lens, which was at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the brighter ƒ/1.4-2.0 full-frame 35mm lenses from other manufacturers, Sony has now brought a 35mm ƒ/1.4 lens to the FE-mount for those photographers who demand top-notch low-light capabilities and improved subject isolation and background blur.
Image quality from the new 35mm ƒ/1.4 lens is very good, with excellent sharpness -- though being an ƒ/1.4 optic, there is some softness, especially in the corners, when shot wide-open. Other optical qualities such as CA and distortion control are also very good, and while vignetting is understandable strong at ƒ/1.4, it's less of an issue at smaller aperture.
Overall, Sony has produced yet another very good lens for the A7-series cameras -- a super-solid lens with excellent build quality, a nice feel and great image quality. Sure, it's significantly larger, heavier and more expensive than the earlier FE 35mm ƒ/2.8 lens, but if you're a professional or advanced enthusiast photographer in need of a superior low-light lens for the your full-frame Sony mirrorless camera, this is the one to consider.
The VFA targfet should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Zeiss Distagon T* SEL35F14Z
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Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Zeiss Distagon T* SEL35F14Z User Reviews
9 out of 10 points and recommended by coma (23 reviews)center sharpness, bokehsize, price
To make it short: most things about this lens are great. It's corrected beautifully and center sharpness is nothing but breathtaking.reviewed December 7th, 2015 (purchased for $1,700)
But I tried 3 lenses and all of them had one really soft corner (it was always another corner).
Reading on the internet this seems like a common problem - it seems that Sony has quite some quality control and built issues.
Furthermore size and price are way too high - even if all corners would be sharp