When you spend £750 on a relatively slow fixed focal length camera lens, you expect something special and quite rightly so. Many of us are conditioned to look for solidity and speed as hallmarks of an ‘upmarket’ lens, but it would seem that Sony is pursuing a completely different strategy when it comes to delivering ‘performance’ in its lens line up for the Sony A7/A7R. In this review of the Sony Zeiss 35mm f2.8 Sonnar, I’m going to look at what’s really on offer.
As a quick aside, prices in the UK seem to be a little unstable. I picked up mine for £620 off Amazon, but I see they are now retailing everywhere at around £700-750…
Some people have responded to this very lightweight and compact lens with skepticism. It’s somewhat fatter than a 35 f2.5 Summarit-M, or 35 Summicron f2 asph and a little longer, but lets not forget there is an AF mechanism to accommodate. Its a bit shorter than the 50mm ZM Planar in the photo above and that’s with the Sonnar’s hood fitted compared to a ‘naked’ 50mm M-mount lens. It falls under the ‘plenty small enough’ category for me and, were it any smaller, handling issues would arise, especially for men with large hands.
Then there is the weight, or more accurately, the lack of weight. At 120g, this lens feels incredibly light and, due to it having a greater volume than the tiny rangefinder lenses, it lacks density. You’d also be forgiven for thinking it is made of plastic at first glance, but it is actually constructed from metal alloy. And then there’s that bizarre hood. It looks like…. no, no, I’m not going to say that…. it looks like no hood I’ve ever seen!
It’s already pretty obvious that Sony is skinning the cat very differently with this one and so here goes:
Fit and finish is superb. The accuracy of construction and quality of materials is top notch and the feel of the focus ring is very nicely weighted. At 120g, it is dramatically lighter than a 35 Summarit-M, at 220g.
The hood attached securely and does a great job of not only reducing unwanted flare, but also protecting the front element from damage. The ‘innie’ rather than ‘outie’ design also means it won’t snag or catch on things. Its also very low profile, so with hoods fitted, this lens is very much shorter than a 35 Summilux apsh, or even a 35 Summarit-M. Beneath the hood is still space for filters, so don’t be concerned about that.
Fitted to the camera, handling could not be better. The A7/R body balances neutrally, which is handy for those using straps. The lens mounts and dismounts very smoothly and locks on positively.
The super light weight means that when carrying this combo around on a wrist strap, a Leica M (M240) with 35 Summarit-M would weigh in at 900g and the A7 + 35 Sonnar is only 590g, which is a whopping 310g difference. That’s six mars bars that you are not carrying around all day and that really will be noticed. The impression it leaves is long lasing too, because picking up the Monochrom with lens now feels remarkably heavy.
So there we have it; a well made, smooth handling, streamlined lens that balances perfectly on the camera is was specifically designed for.
Can a 120g Lens Perform Well?
The AF is pretty quick and I had no issues hunting or failing to lock on. This is good, which makes it surprising to note that the 28-70 f3.5-5.6 OSS ‘kit lens’ is a little faster! I wasn’t expecting that, but its more a point in favour of the kit lens than a problem with the Zeiss 35.
Manual focus is very nicely implemented and has evidently been well thought through. It’s the opposite of the manual focus ring on the X100. With the 35 Sonnar, there is no real lag, the feel is comparable to an all-mechanical manual focus lens and I could not be happier. I’m sure with each generation the feel will improve further, but they are definitely in the outer ring of the bullseye already.
What about the Pictures!?
Thankfully, they are superb. At f2.8, central sharpness is within a gnat’s whisker of being at its best and very, very sharp. It’s so good that at 1:2, which is a 37” print on the A7R, you are nowhere near being able to see any difference between f2.8 and smaller apertures. At 1:1 you can only see a difference if you stare, squint and have recently done a full body detox. By f4 the lens has clearly already reached max, which it holds through to f8, after which there is a subtle diffraction based reduction in resolution. Well, this section was short!
In the below two frames you will see the on-centre resolution in completely unsharpened files. Not how subtle the difference is, bearing in mind we’re looking at a 74″ representation (100% or 1:1 view):
Now for a sharpened f2.8 frame. Yes, exactly. Seriously SHARP for f2.8!
The edges are already in the ‘err, I must have made a mistake because this cannot really have been shot at f2.8’ category at f2.8 and improve a teeny weeny bit as you stop down, but I could not see any improvement past f4 really. F4 and f5.6 are effectively identical. I have never seen this sort of performance at f2.8 from any manufacturer other than Leica.
And now for an unsharpened example, where resolution might be a bit lower due to shutter speed (hand held).
The corners are very good at wide apertures and perhaps better than they have any right to be on the lower portions of the image, which suggests some sort of field curvature may be at play. This ensures the bottom corners, which will invariably cover subject matter close to you are nice and sharp, but counts against you in the top corners, which are likely to be covering distant subject matter in typical scenic use. Still, overall, I was very impressed by the corners and if you are shooting a typical scenic with ground on the bottom and sky at the top, you win with the bottom edge and lose nothing in the top corners.
Contrast is already very good wide open, but there is a subtle increase in contrast that occurs at one stop dow. It does not take long to realise that this lens is going to be deliver great colour too. It’s a bit more saturated than with the standard kit lens, which combined with the additional contrast gives images something extra.
This is clearly a low flare lens, which is not surprising considering the Zeiss T* coatings and tiny front element. I have not tested resistance to direct sun, but the level of veiling flare is very small, so it should perform nicely
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