Sony FE Five Wide-Angle Comparison
***Now Updated with Photographs and further thoughts***
This took me longer than expected and I will tell you now what you can expect: a stream of consciousness on these lenses (for better or for worse). Time seems to be eluding me at the moment, so apologies for not writing this some time ago. I’ve now added photos and some additional text, which is in green to help speed things up for those coming back to the article.
We now have a feast of wide and super wide angle lenses to choose from for the Sony FE mount. This raises a problem that we are all begging for two years ago: which to choose! While there are several distinctive lens ‘families’ now available, reaching decisions is not as easy or as simple as some might suggest. I am going to approach this from two points of view: 1) comparing the lenses that appear closest direct competitors and then also taking a ‘system view’, because there are some fundamental differences between some of the lenses. I have decided to write about the 85mm f1.8 Batis separately, because it has no peers here. I should point out that a number of these lenses are no longer in my possession and I did not conduct a formal shoot out. I’d also point out that (for me) this was unnecessary, as my impressions were quickly formed, in part due to some of the ‘investigating’ I needed to do.
Voigtlander Heliar FE 15mm f4.5 vs. Zeiss Batis 18mm f2.8 vs. Zeiss Loxia 21mm f2.8
In terms of their physical characteristics, these lenses could not be more different. While all three are made from metal, the 18mm Batis is considerably larger than the other two, but is actually about 70g lighter than the Loxia and essentially the same as the Heliar at roughly 320g. That said, both the Heliar and Loxia feel like they are built like tanks, whereas the Batis feels almost hollow in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, it is a beautifully built lens and oozes class, but I would not consider its robustness to be on the same level. While the Batis is the only properly weather sealed lens in this line up (the Loxia has only a blue rubber gasket around the lens mount), I am not entirely convinced that it would stand up as well to bumps and knocks over the years. My context is a very expensive and ultra-light weight Zeiss riflescope I own made from super light alloy. It has the same feel as the Batis and is beautifully made, but it is not as robust as scopes that are not trying to save weight as aggressively. One light turn too many on the allen key tightening up the mount and there was a pinch in the tube. I have never had such a thing happen with any other scope, with far less care used in the process. There was no warning. I was not trying hard, but using the short end for leverage between two fingers. Weight saving can be handy, but something usually has to give. So, while this may seem unfair, my gut tells me the Batis is pushing things in terms of how light you can make a fairly large wide angle lens. The Loxia has a slightly more luxurious feel than the Voigtlander, but the latter feels every bit as well made and even more robust.
I did not have any handling complaints with any of them. The aperture ring on the Loxia is a bit close to the mount and could do with more textural distinction, but I had no problems using it. You do need to be careful mounting and unmount the lens as there is not as much ‘body’ to grip on compared to many lenses, but you can grasp the nose of the lens instead of the base. Easy. Both the Voigtlander 15mm f4.5 FE Heliar and the 21mm Zeiss Batis have silky smooth focus rings with good weighting. They really do feel like conventional manual lenses in this respect. The Loxia is a bit heavier to focus, but which you’ll prefer will be personal. Both are top class and of course bring up the magnifier when you focus, assuming it is set to do so on the body.
Compactness: there is no comparison. The 21mm Loxia and 15mm Heliar both feel much more in keeping with the original A7 series concept. While light, the 18mm Batis feels a bit bloated on the A7 (especially Mk I bodies) in my opinion. It is fine and certainly not a problem at all, just less harmonious. Filters are of course much larger and more expensive for the 18mm Batis and there is a slight compromise in your middle finger positioning because where the lens widens causes the finger space to be smaller than with narrower designs. With the Batis attached, you feel more like you are using a small DSLR. With the Loxia and Heliar the camera feels smaller, more discreet and a bit more like a Leica M with a grip. It does seem to change the ‘size class’ of the camera and lens combo. The balance of the camera and lens seems better with the 21mm Loxia than the 18mm Batis, despite the latter being lighter. It must be down to where the weight is carried in the lens (further forwards in the Batis?).
Anyone who believes the click-bait nonsense on some other sites about how SLR systems aren’t really much bigger, has clearly never actually compared an A7 with 21mm Loxia with a D810 and 21mm Zeiss ZF Distagon. Or compared the same bodies with the 18mm Batis vs 18mm ZF Distagon, 25/28mm options… and so on. Yes, put the heavier lenses on the Sony FE bodies and you narrow the gap, but if you choose smaller lighter options, the gulf is vast.Thankfully, we now have a range of options and even the larger Batis lenses are still very compact and light in real (and relative) terms.
Optical Performance: This is where I was quite surprised. To make this simple, the two Zeiss lenses pull noticeably ahead of the 15mm Heliar (and note this is the native FE mount version I am using). The 15mm Heliar never gets 100% crisp into the very tips of the corners, although it does get somewhat close. At f4.5 it is tack sharp on centre and the edges and corners gradually improve all the way to f13. I’d say f11 is the sweet spot with this lens, with f8 being only a little behind. The Heliar’s colour saturation and contrast are very good, but slightly behind the Zeiss offerings. What I would say, however, is that the Heliar had perfectly matching corners. With a 15mm lens (this being significantly wider than 18mm in actual use) one rarely looks at the very tips of the corners much as the visual effect tends to sweep the eye into the middle of the frame. The sharpness also trails off very naturally (but quite quickly in the extreme corners) with the Heliar and the slight residual softness at f11 would only be noticeable with quite large prints. I certainly noticed it, but I did not find it very off-putting. It seemed to work somehow, perhaps because of the natural vignetting, which is noticeably higher than with the 18mm Batis.
See the improvement in vignetting from f4.5 to f10 on the Voigtlander 15mm f4.5 Heliar FE below. You can clearly see corner softness at f4.5, even at this size. Please note the dark, flat lighting. don’t expect to see sparkle under such conditions! All of June was like this and so is today. Yuk.
The Voigtlander 15mm is a lens that requires a little experimentation to get the best out of the corners. It seems that there is some field curvature at play and that the corners may benefit somewhat from changes in focus distance. They’ll never compete with the 18mm Batis’ corners, however. I did notice that strong downward tilts of the camera often helped the lower corners (unlike in the above frames, where I have deliberately tried to keep things level). More playing around required.
Click below for next page!