I had to put one token B&W photo in here….All crops are 100%.
After the first copy broke new boundaries in poor optical assembly, the second copy turned out to be the very opposite. It possesses the sort of performance I had been hoping for, because the idea behind buying this lens was to be able to produce superb image quality at wide apertures for aerial work.
At the moment I have a project underway that began with a cell phone and some fairly dirty airplane windows. I then began shooting with the GM-1 and the A7R with 35mm Sonnar FE. Going forwards, I am going to switch the 35mm Sonnar onto the A7 and mount the 55mm on the A7R. I’ve found that anything wider than 35mm tends to result in snagging parts of the plane in the shot (or flare from sun hitting the white fuselage or engines) and I’ve been shooting a lot around the 50mm (equivalent) mark on the GM-1. Vibration from the aircraft is often substantial, as is air turbulence so the higher the shutter speed the better and I just don’t have anything full-frame that will produce the sort of image quality I want at, say, f2.8. One can shoot at wide apertures because the landscape all tends to be far from the camera and easily covered by depth of field, even at wide apertures. I used the 35mm at f4 most of the time, with good effect.
I did try the Canon 50mm 1.4 FDn on an adaptor, but for reasons I have yet to fully fathom, I was not getting sharp, contrasty frames. On the day in question contrast was low, the windows were particularly grubby (which can largely be edited out in post) and I wonder if the lens quite reaches perfect infinity focus with the adapter I have. I know that for regular landscape work the 50mm FDn is a stunning performer, but it wasn’t for this. I was shooting at f4-4.5 and could have done with another stop or more to maintain a high shutter speed whilst lowering the ISO. Opening it up to f2.8 was not really an option as this lens does start to soften at this aperture at the edges if making very big enlargements. With winter coming soon, I knew light levels would drop further, so I bought the lens I last expected to buy. I hoped I would be able to shoot at f2 if needed. So what’s it like?
Build quality is superb, with a very svelte metal exterior. It feels more substantial and heavier than the featherweight 35mm f2.8 Sonnar (110g), btu at 260g or so, its in the same wight category as the Leica Summilux 50mm 1.4 asph. Fit and finish is superb and once on camera, the handling is very good. It’s quite long for a 50ish lens and, with hood attached, it feels a fair bit larger than a 50mm f1.4 Summilux asph, but still a good deal smaller than the Sony kit zoom. The manual focus ring is buttery smooth and perfectly weighted and there is nothing I can fault it on. It’s an example of superb melding of form and function. I should also add that there is no slop in the mount. It’s nice and tight. All in all, unless you are determined to nit pick, there is nothing to fault here, unless you want to hammer tent pegs in with it, in which case the Leica optic is likely to be superior.
AF is reasonably quick and silent at all times. I know this will help me a great deal with the aerial work, as the aircraft descends or approaches passing elevated terrain. Although a camera can be set manually at an infinity focus point, its all too easy to fail to notice when your subject matter creeps inside this distance.
Optical Performance is best described as remarkable and I can say with absolute confidence that, when combined with the A7R, there is nothing in the Leica stable that can perform to the same standard, aside from the humorously priced 50mm Summicron asph.
Wide open there is superb sharpness on centre, which can only be discerned to be softer than stopped down, when viewed side by side at 100% and looking hard. This lens is very sharp indeed wide open and, without having made test prints, I think you are going to struggle to see any really significant difference on centre at 40” wide open versus, say, f2.8. There may just be a subtle perception of greater ‘cleanliness’ to the fine detail, but there is no doubt at all that this lens produces blistering resolution from wide open. It is in a completely different league to the 50mm ZM planar in this regard, which takes a big leap at f2.8 on centre and then again at f4 in the outer field. With the 55mm, off centre there is a gentle fall off in resolution towards the edges and corners, which still maintain a very good standard when viewed at 50%. Its only when viewed at 100% that one clearly sees the degradation compared to other apertures. By f2.8 the centre is as good as it gets really and the corners and edges are now really singing. You don’t expect the lens to get any sharper at f4, but in the outer field there is another subtle improvement and once again by about f5-f5.6, where overall performance peaks.
In response to this, please don’t go thinking, ‘oh, well this lens takes two and a half to three stops to peak and is therefore not in Leica territory’. Peak resolution is just so darned high that you can see any reduction from this astonishing level at wider apertures. The fact that the lens performs better at f2.2 or so than many good lenses ever perform is easily missed. Edge resolution, at f4 or beyond, is so good that it can only be discerned from the centre careful inspection at 100%. That’s incredible!
Contrast and colour are what you would expect from such a lens i.e. superb. CA is there under certain circumstances, at wider apertures and in contra-jour situations, but very well controlled and frankly the last thing that matters here.
Bokeh looks very pleasant. This lens can happily be used for people shots, as long as you are happy to show every pore like its been scanned by an electron microscope.
What about the ‘look’ of the images? I’m not yet able to draw firm conclusions here. It’s very sharp, but is it clinical? Perhaps a little. Is it ‘wire sharp’? I’d say no, its not. Images are not ‘edgy sharp’ just in possession of astonishjing detail.. There really is so much of it that this lens is going to be difficult to control for people work, assuming you don’t want to upset your subject or have good software of PP skill to soften things up again.
IMHO, this is lens that perfectly suits technical or landscape applications. It’s perhaps akin to Leica’s asph offerings, such as the 35mm Summicron asph, or 28 Elmarit-asph, only with better bokeh. The 75mm Summicron asph may be a good comparison, although I suspect that the 55mm Sony Zeiss outperforms the Leica optic in purely technical terms. Certainly, both possess the ‘sharp but smooth’ character.
So what is the conclusion? I would say this lens blows a big hole in the Leica Battleship’s bow. Sure, its expensive, but it still costs a third that of the 50mm Summilux asp and half that of the slower 50mm Summicron… It may be 2/3 of a stop slower than the Summilux, but its also sharper and on the A7R provides an overall optical performance that at times feels like a format up from ‘regular FF’. It really is as if you have jumped up from FF by the same amount as from APS-C to Full-Frame. If you aim to shoot landscapes and want a lightweight travel kit, the D810 is bulky and heavy and the Leica M expensive. The 35mm and 55mm Sonnars provide the backbone of a Sony kit that offers the absolute best performance in a very light package at a price comparable to the Nikon (but half the weight), but dramatically lower price then the Leica.
Now we just need them to deliver on the forthcoming 85mm f1.8 and for a handful of cracking lenses between 18mm and 28mm to finish things off for the landscaper crowd. Although regarding the 85mm f1.8, I’d suggest landscapers take a look at the 70-200 F4 OSS, because at 85mm performance is tremendous. The 85mm prime will be lighter, however.
So where does the 55mm fit into my kit? Well, I doubt I will use it heavily over the long-term, but for the aerial project that will take me another 12 months to complete in dribs and drabs, it will allow me to produce medium-format quality frames from the A7R with the prints to match, as one of two primes. Its not an obvious street lens and perhaps only suitable for documentary on the A7, where shutter speed is more forgiving. But when you want to pull out the big guns and produce prints that just have no right to come from such a tiny camera/lens package, this is it.
You can see full-size full resolution sample shots here.