Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* SEL55F18Z
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November 21, 2013
by William Brawley
The Sony FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 ZA Zeiss Sonnar T* lens is a new fast prime lens released alongside Sony's Alpha A7R and A7 full-frame mirrorless cameras. The E-mount lens, which Sony has placed into a sub-category called "FE-mount" -- denoting their full-frame E-mount lenses -- is one of a set of new FE lenses; the others being the Sony FE 35mm ƒ/2.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* and the Sony 28-70mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G OSS lenses. Sony also plans to launch a couple more FE lens, the FE 24-70mm ƒ/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* and an FE 70-200mm ƒ/4 ZA OSS, in January 2014.
The new Sony Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.8 lens, as the name indicates, features classic Zeiss design with a smooth, black metal construction, a buttery smooth focus ring, high-end optical construction plus a rugged, dust- and weather-resistant build. It also features Zeiss's T* coating for increased contrast and reduced glare as well as a 9-bladed rounded aperture for great background blur.
This fast, rugged and relatively-compact prime lens ships with front and rear caps, a metal and plastic lens hood and a soft case, and is available currently for pre-order at around $1000 with an estimated shipping date of Dec. 22, 2013, according to Sony.
Overall, the Sony 55mm ƒ/1.8 is an extremely sharp lens. Wide open on a full-frame camera -- the Sony A7R in this case -- there's a little softness at ƒ/1.8, but the center is still quite sharp. As expected, on sub-frame cameras, we saw a little more sharpness wide open, particularly in the center. After dialing down to ƒ/2.8, we saw a dramatic increase in sharpness with only minor corner softness. On a sub-frame camera, especially, ƒ/2.8 looked amazingly sharp.
We find the sweet spot for this lens -- on both full- and sub-frame cameras -- by stopping down between ƒ/4-ƒ/8, with the maximum amount of sharpness across the frame. Having extremely sharp images around ƒ/5.6-ƒ/8 should make this a great compact portrait lens.
At the smaller apertures, we saw diffraction-limiting softness come into play, although ƒ/11 was still quite sharp. It's only at the smallest of apertures, around ƒ/16-ƒ/22, that softness becomes more noticeable.
CA? What CA? The Sony FE 55mm lens shows very little to almost zero chromatic aberration on both full-frame and APS-C cameras. On the Sony A7R full-frame camera, we saw very little CA across all apertures, even wide open. On a sub-frame camera, we saw a little more CA at the wider apertures on average, between ƒ/1.8-ƒ/4, but it was still a very insignificant amount. Past ƒ/5.6 and beyond, CA control was excellent.
No lens is perfect, however, as there's pretty significant vignetting on full-frame cameras, especially at the wider apertures. At ƒ/1.8, light falloff is just shy of 1.5 EV and is still around 0.75 by ƒ/2.8. At the smaller apertures, like ƒ/11 and beyond, there's still about a quarter of a stop of light loss in the corners.
As expected, things are better on a sub-frame camera. Wide open, we saw a little over 0.5 EV of light loss and quickly reducing to around 0.25 EV at ƒ/2.8. Vignetting is reduced ever so slightly to under 0.25 EV by stopping down to ƒ/4 and holds basically at that level for the rest of the aperture values.
Similar to what we saw with chromatic aberration: distortion? What distortion? The Sony 55mm is displays extremely low distortion on a full-frame camera (and even less on a APS-C camera). On average, with both sensor sizes, the average barrel distortion is just a small bit above zero. Out in the corners, we saw only around 0.2% barrel distortion on the full-frame camera but actually a small bit of pincushion distortion on our sub-frame camera. Overall, however, the distortion is very minimal and would not be visible in real-world images.
The electrical, linear motor autofocusing system of the Sony Zeiss FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 lens is very fast and very quiet, allowing for near-silent AF that takes under a second to rack from its minimum focus distance to infinity. Autofocus feels speedy, accurate and locks onto subjects easily.
Of course, there's also manual focus on this lens via a focus-by-wire system. As with other focus-by-wire lenses, there's no mechanical adjustment when turning the focus ring on the lens alone; it's only when coupled with a camera with manual focusing enabled that the ring adjusts focus. The focus ring on the new Sony FE 55mm lens is buttery smooth, and allows for both coarse and very fine adjustments to focus depending on how fast you rotate the ring.
The Sony Zeiss FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 has a close focusing distance of 1.64ft (50cm) with a maximum magnification 0.14x (1:7.1 ratio), and as such, doesn't provide very good macro performance.
Build Quality and Handling
As expected based on other Carl Zeiss and Sony Zeiss lenses, the new Sony FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 ZA Zeiss Sonnar T* lens is a very well-built, solid lens with an all-metal barrel, metal lens mount and a sturdy, part-metal-part-plastic lens hood. Inside the barrel sits a lens configuration of 7 elements in 5 groups with 3 aspheric elements with a 9-bladed circular aperture (for great background blur). The lens also includes Carl Zeiss's T* coating for reduced glare and enhanced contrast.
The lens features a similar matte black finish as the new Sony A7R and A7 cameras and matches nicely with these cameras both aesthetically as well as being similarly dust and moisture resistant. Note: there is no rubber gasket around the lens mount like there are on some Canon L-series and Nikon lenses, for example -- so the lens doesn't appear to be fully weather sealed.
When it comes to buttons, rings or other exterior features, prime lenses are generally quite sparse and the Sony 55mm lens is no exception. In fact, it's a very minimalist design with single 1-inch wide focus ring and not much else. Since manual focusing is electronic, there's no focus distance window built-in to the lens, nor is there a manual AF/MF toggle switch either -- that's controlled via the camera as well.
The new Sony 55mm lens is relatively compact, with the diameter of the barrel being only slightly larger than the lens mount itself. The lens, in fact, accepts 49mm filters, which are much smaller than the usual 67-82mm filters seen on larger APS-C and full-frame DSLR lenses. However, unlike other full-frame ~50mm prime lenses like the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.4 and the Nikon counterpart, the Sony FE 55mm is proportionally a bit on the long side. Especially when you factor in the longer, wider petal-shaped lens hood, the Sony lens is just shy of 6-inches long. Regardless of this length, the Sony 55mm lens still feels comfortable, compact and overall a very lightweight yet solid-feeling lens.
As this is a brand new lens category with a brand new type of camera, there aren't any direct alternatives to this lens yet. However, Sony does make the FE 28-70mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 OSS and the upcoming FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* zoom lenses that will give you the capability of a 55mm focal length, but you sacrifice a lot of stops on the aperture with both options, though both have optical image stabilization -- all in all, however, not really direct competitors to a 55mm ƒ/1.8 prime lens.
If you're a fan of adapters, the smaller flange distance of the Sony A7R and A7 makes using adapters with a wide variety of third party lenses quite simple, as the A7R/A7 use a standard Sony E-mount. 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 the Sony 50mm ƒ/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T* lens, which also has great Zeiss optics, a slightly faster aperture and a typical 50mm focal length. However, this is quite an expensive alternative, as you'll have to buy not only an adapter, but also the $1500 lens, whereas the new FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 is only around $1000.
There's other adapters out there allowing users to mount Canon EF lenses and Nikon F-mount glass to E-mount cameras, and the resulting combinations would be too much to list here. It's still worth knowing though; the Sony A7R and A7 provide a very flexible full-frame camera platform for fans of lenses from a variety of manufacturers.
The new Sony FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 ZA Zeiss Sonnar T* lens is a fantastic fast prime lens for the Sony A7R and A7 full-frame mirrorless E-mount cameras and gives shooters a "normal" focal length perspective that's great for portraits and street photography as well as low-light shooting. Optically, this lens is a stellar performer, as many Zeiss lenses are, with very sharp images on both the new full-frame cameras as well as sub-frame Sony cameras. Other factors like chromatic aberration and distortion are practically nonexistent with this lens, but there is noticeable vignetting, particularly on full-frame cameras at wider apertures -- a pretty small price to pay for outstanding performance otherwise.
On the physical side of things, this lens is very well built with an all-metal construction that's still lightweight but solid-feeling. The lens is also dust and moisture resistant to match the ruggedness of the Sony A7R and A7 cameras, but there isn't a rubbery gasket around the lens mount, so the lens doesn't appear to be fully weather-sealed.
Sony's new full-frame mirrorless cameras seem to be quite groundbreaking with excellent image quality, and it looks like Sony's pairing them nicely with a series of excellent lenses. This is the first Sony FE lens we've tested and so far, we're very impressed (an initial peek at the FE 35mm Zeiss lens looks very promising as well). If you're a full-frame fan looking to downsize their gear from a big, bulky DSLR to Sony's new full-frame E-mount cameras, the new Sony FE 55mm ƒ/1.8 ZA Zeiss Sonnar T* lens is a definite winner for these new cameras.
We've only recieved a single Sony A7R, and it's quickly being sent through our camera review process. As such, we have not had the opportunity to shoot our full array of test images for this lens. The link below shows only our Still Life shot at f/8 and our VFA sample at f/5.6 with the Sony A7R. Stay tuned as we will, of course, update this review with the full set of sample images ASAP! - Thanks! UPDATE: All Sample Photos have now been added.
Check out some sample gallery photos taken by Rob, our lens technician, with the lens mounted on the Sony A7R, plus download the full-resolution files, over at our Flickr page.
The VFA target 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 55mm f/1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* SEL55F18Z User Reviews
10 out of 10 points and recommended by coma (20 reviews)sharpness, contrast, bokehprice
If you buy into the Sony FE system, this is the lens to get. Probably one of the best standard lenses overall.reviewed December 7th, 2015 (purchased for $800)
It's sharp already wide open (ok, f/1.8 isn't very fast by todays standards) and the bokeh is nice too.
If I had to come up with a con it would be the price.
But I'd say this lens is worth every penny
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Prime Minister (40 reviews)Compact, lightweight, silent, fast, sharpness, contrast, bokeh
I like the Zeiss 35mm f/2.8, but I absolutely love this Zeiss 55mm f/1.8. The build quality is good. The lens is lightweight, compact and it feels sturdy. I like the understated clean minimalistic design. Personally, I have no need for bells and whistles like an aperture ring, a lot of rubber and fancy coloured decoration rings.reviewed August 12th, 2014
The included plastic lens hood is relatively large and it shields the front element of the lens from stray light perfectly. Autofocus is fast, silent and accurate. Of course autofocus performance also depends on which camera you use.
There is some CA and vignetting at large apertures. Most of this can be corrected in post processing. I think the bokeh of this lens looks very good, especially for a relatively short 55mm f/1.8.
Sharpness is excellent, even wide open at f/1.8 photos are totally usable. Sharpness and contrast get better as you stop down. At f/2.8 the image looks terrific. Sharp from edge to edge and with good contrast. There's practically no distortion, perfect. This is one of the best lenses I ever used.
The price of this lens is relatively high, but you get what you pay for. This Zeiss defeats most of the other fast standard lenses from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Pentax and Sony. It's a good match for the Sony 36 megapixel sensor (without AA filter) and it wouldn't surprise me if this lens also shines on an even higher resolution sensor. Seems like a good investment. Excellent lens.
8 out of 10 points and recommended by louisjaffe (6 reviews)Optically excellentNot the best focuser on Sony a6000
This is a superb lens optically. I compared it with the Sony (non Zeiss) E-mount 50mm f1.8 OSS on a Sony Alpha a6000 in various shooting situations. The Sony lens is 1/3 the price of the Zeiss, or less.reviewed July 31st, 2014 (purchased for $999)
Surprisingly the Sony (with rev 02 firmware) focused quicker in low light than the Zeiss, and could lock focus in some situations where the Zeiss only hunted. The updated firmware for the Sony lens takes advantage of fast hybrid autofocus on the a6000 (NEX-7 doesn't have this feature). The Sony 50mm also grabbed more frames that were sharp at low shutter speeds, thanks to optical image stabilization.
The Zeiss lens is superior in contrast, color rendition, sharpness, and flare resistance. It makes some of the prettiest color you'll ever see. Yet the difference from the Sony lens isn't what the 3x price difference led me to expect-- on the a6000 anyway.
Admittedly, I had to try three samples of the Sony lens to find one that didn't have sharpness issues away from the center of the frame. That probably wouldn't happen with Zeiss. Too, comparing these lenses is apples-and-oranges, because the Zeiss 55mm covers full frame, the Sony 50 mm only APS-C.
You could say I took the Zeiss slumming by comparing it to a much cheaper Sony lens on a camera it's not optimized for. Still, I was surprised by how well my cherry-picked sample of the Sony 55mm f1.8 OSS performed.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by rponiarski (4 reviews)Awesome photos, fast autofocus, built to lastpricey
Had to have the A7 and wanted a fast prime to go along with my kit zoom. It was either the 35mm f2.8 or this one, and I liked the extra speed. It is exceedingly well built, with fast autofocus and the photos it takes are amazing. Sharp, contrasty and some of the best I have ever taken. Great street lens, as well as useful indoors. Now I understand why these Sony Zeiss lenses are so prized. Have to see what the 24-70mm zoom looks like, as that may be the perfect walk about lens for me...reviewed January 18th, 2014 (purchased for $1,098)