Vignetting is quite apparent wide open, but I did not find it objectionable and its easily removed in post if you wish. Stopping down to f4 sees a significant reduction in vignetting and personally I am very happy. If you are shooting snow scenes, or cloudy seascapes, you may find this lens requires some tweaking in post to get things perfectly even, but this is perhaps a small price to pay for the optical excellence elsewhere. If I can tear your attention away from the exquisitely romantic rooftop scene to the vignetting you will see how it it largely disappears one stop down. I’m usually quite happy with vignetting most of the time anyway and if its not there, I’ll often add it in post.
Bokeh is beautiful. That’s not a term I use regularly, but it really is excellent most if not all of the time. There’s no caffeinated energy to be found here. A bit like the 35 Summarit-M I have made references to (which has utterly dependable smooth bokeh), this is one you can rely upon to produce relaxed backgrounds. This is something Zeiss and Canon tend to be quite good at, even with aspherical lenses, whereas some of the mode modern asph Leica lenses have had quite unsettling Bokeh at times. I still think the 35 Summarit-M is the best 35mm lens I have ever used i this regard, but the 35 Sonnar is within spitting distance.
CA, now I have not left this till last with a view to hiding it. Rather it’s just that I don’t think it s a big deal. It is however a little disappointing. CA seems to be more of an issue with this lens that it is with the 28-70 Kit lens. This is something I just can’t get my head around that, but it seems to be a fact and not something specific to my sample. Its generally easily removed in post anyway, so I am not going to worry. Interestingly, it is a criticism levelled against some of the ZE and ZF lenses and so I wonder if it is something to do with the T* coatings that otherwise give beautiful colour, contrast and flare resistance. If so, I’ argue it’s a price worth paying for most people.
So there you have it: a very well made, reasonably compact, ultra light and perfect handling lens, with fantastic optical performance for about £650. While it may not survive being thrown around a room as well as a Leica M lens, it is less than half the price of a Leica Summarit-M, which is the only comparable lens in that lineup at £1365. As lovely as the Leica lens is, I know which one produces the sharpest edges and corners at wide apertures and it is the Sony Zeiss, by quite a margin. Stopped down, the Zeiss 35 Sonnar does not improve to the point that some other lenses do and it gets overtaken by a small margin. Here is the compromise and it won’t be for everyone. I’m certainly not inclined to lug the tank-like 35 CV 1.2 II around for scenic work, despite the slightly better overall performance at f8.
I think that Sony has sought to maintain the integrity of the Sony A7/A7R full-frame system, which is exceptional imaging performance in a compact and lightweight package. It’s perhaps not surprising that their first 35mm is this one, rather than something larger and more expensive that results in a more cumbersome combo. Considering the superb high ISO performance of the A7/R cameras, f2.8 is not much of a hindrance from a light gathering point of view, but it does limit subject-background separation. I suspect that Sony have pitched the A7/R cameras at travel, scenic and landscape photographers more than hard core people photographers and so regarded this as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good. That they have managed to produce an AF lens that is lighter than the lightest M lens in production (the 28mm f2.8 Elmarit asph) is quite astonishing.
Personally, I would have traded a little edge sharpness at f2.8 and f4, for a greater degree of perfection at f5.6 and f8, but everyone is different and for many the wide open performance will be where its at. While this might sound like a criticism, 1:2 images shot using the 35 Sonnar on the A7R (a 37″/94cm print) already show utter perfection at the edges at f4 and pretty well the same at f2.8, so I’m being really, really hard here. Just a bit more performance at f5.6 and f8 at the edges would have been welcome for those making super large prints in the 50″ range. I can’t believe I am saying this, because only two years ago, before the Nikon D800, such performance was way beyond full-frame and now here it is in a camera and lens combo that weighs just under 600g!!!!!
At this point I will add that I was sceptical of this lens. I had heard the complaints about its lightweight construction and price, but all I can say after consideration is ‘wow’. This is a direction worth heading in Sony and please keep going. My first sample was decentred unfortunately, with a very soft bottom right corner which never got sharp. Amazon’s replacement process was super slick and I had my second copy the next day, which happens to be the little gem on review here.
Pick up a Sony A7/A7R with the 35 Sonnar FE mounted and you’ll see why I find it so exciting. I am a self-confessed 35mm lover (on full frame, or equivalent on other formats) and this combo delivers an unmatched performance to weight ratio. I can’t think of anything that comes close and that’s before you factor in price. It is therefore highly recommended for travel and scenic shooters – an absolute must have at the core of your new Sony A7/A7R kit.