#184. The Zeiss Sonnar 2,8/35 ZA jewel in the A7r crown

By pascaljappy | Review

Dec 09
[Note : This post is part of the ongoing review of the Sony A7r system]

A few weeks ago, I postulated – from looking at MTF curves for this lens – that it would be a stellar performer. But MTF curves can be dangerous mistresses, often calculated rather than measured, and marketing departments have been known to alter them to make them appear more flattering.

So these curves must be used with caution as a distant proxy for reality. With that in mind, how does this little lens stack up ?

A brook and cascade in Provence - Sony A7r and Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 ZA T*

Brook in Provence – Sony A7r and Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8 ZA T*

Well, if the title hasn’t totally given it away for you, let’s just say I think it is one of the best lenses I have ever owned, Leica M and Mamiya 7 included ! Yes, it really is that good. It is not perfect, as a few samples below will demonstrate, but what lens is ?

It’s possible that sample variation may lead to different results from other reviewers, so I have included multiple full size files below for you to verify my claims by yourselves. Feel free to download and use any of these (please cite the source if you share them).

So let’s go through a little routine and check various characteristics of the lens. Please note this is not a scientific test. I shoot and inspect by eye and that’s enough for me ๐Ÿ™‚

Colour rendition

The photograph above has been processed (added vignetting …) but I think we can all agree colours are pleasant and the general aesthetics capture a bit of that medium format smoothness.

Pyracantha and yellow trees. Sony A7r & 35/2.8 Zeiss

Primary colours – Sony A7r & Sonnar 2,8/35 ZA T*

This second one is also revealing of the transparency of the optics, which let natural colours reveal themselves.

Sharpness

You could perform lab tests at f/2.8 all the way through to f/22 but there would be little point in doing so. The lens is beautifully sharp at any aperture and any distance. Equally nice is that diffraction really doesn’t hurt sharpness until after f/11. Absolutely fantastic. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but this lens is really that good.

Proof : how about individual hair at 40 feet ?

Enjoying the view - Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 ZA T*

Enjoying the view – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 ZA T*

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Or leaf details at 100 ? Again, 2 full size files for your inspection. First at F/9 then F/2.8. All I see is shallower depth of field in the latter (check the lower part of the trunk):

Fall colours in Provence 1 - Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 Z

Fall colours in Provence 1 – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 Z @ F/9

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Fall colours in Provence 2 – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8 Z @ F/2.8

Files made with this combo need very little sharpening (the second picture received +25 sharpening with a radius of 0.8pix in LightRoom). Your mileage may vary but this is plenty sharp enough for my needs.

Bokeh

Mostly beautiful, but a tad nervous. While not a serious issue, I do feel this is one of the areas the little gem falls just slightly short of perfect 10.

It’s quite possible Sony/Zeiss didn’t give the Sonnar ZA the full treatment not to outshine the RX1 too early in its life cycle. If so, that’s a real shame as the full stop difference is enough to assert supremacy. Whatever the case, the ZA lens has a 7 blade diaphragm whereas the RX1 has 9. And every now and then, it just shows.

So here’s one where this doesn’t bother me much (Full Size picture so you can see for yourself the insanely sharp image again, this time at close range and full aperture. See individual rope strands):

The remains of an alpinist's rope in the cliffs of La Ciotat - Sony A7r & Zeiss 35/2.8

Loose ends – Sony A7r & Zeiss SOnnar 35 mm f/2.8 FE T*

And another (tough conditions for any lens) where the effect is a tad more disturbing (again, Full Size sample, just look at the little cracks in the no parking sign and the superb colours):

No way ! - Sony A7r & Sonnar 35/2.8 FE T*

No way ! – Sony A7r & Sonnar 35/2.8 FE T*

I think we can agree it’s really pretty decent at worst (medium to long distances, sunlight through leaves) and very when the stars align (huge close to far range of subject planes).

The 3D pop Zeiss is famous for is very apparent on these 2 pictures when you enlarge them.

Flare

Another (very slight) stumble for the Sonnar here.

Long story short : put the sun in the frame and you’re fine. Flare resistance and transparency are astounding. I can think of no other description. Let the sun graze the surface and you’re in trouble. See examples below (all with lens shade in place).

Flare? Wot flare? - Sony A7r & Zeiss 35//2.8 FE @ F/8

Flare? Wot flare? – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35//2.8 FE @ F/8

No flare, no veiling glare to speak of. Just perfect transparency and clarity.

Now a Full Size file so you can judge for yourself how well this is handled at pixel level. There is colour in the blades of grass (also note the slight smudging of the jpeg engine in the low contrast zones at the base of the grass).

DSC01297

Flare? Wot flare? – Sony A7r & Zeiss 35//2.8 FE @ F/11

Off axis is where the cookie crumbles : in the second picture, I blocked the sun with my hand. It appears there is a small angle not covered by the (otherwise excellent) lens shade.

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Both are very fuzzy because this beast of a camera will not tolerate the slightest shake …

Sexy sunstars

Not important to some, vital to others. If there’s an international rating committee for sunstars, it’s unknown to me, but members should nod heads in approval of this ๐Ÿ˜‰

f/11 (I think)
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f/22 (I’m pretty sure)
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Vignetting

This is not something that bothers me and I’m often adding some to what the lens produces. So I didn’t check formally. But most of the photographs on this page are untouched (if any PP has altered vignetting, it has added some, as in the first picture).

I only mention it because some forum users have reported very poor vignetting performance, which clearly isn’t the case in my setup.

Conclusion

You know what ? I'm happy

You know what ? I’m happy

Just as I wrote the Sony A7r is the Goldilocks of cameras from a size perspective, this Sonnar 35 ZA is the Goldilocks of aesthetics. Although much of the Zeiss DNA is present (fantastic optics, crappy lens cap ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) there is also a touch of modern Leica fluidity in this lens. Fantastic sharpness and clarity are delivered with the mellow smoothness that makes my eyes water. This is the antithesis of the Distagon 21/2.8 and its ruthless scrutiny into every detail and occasional harshness (don’t hate me ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

If this test proves anything, it’s that technical limitations are very unlikely to hinder serious art, whatever your style. I cannot see a street photographer finding fault with this marvel. Or a landscape photographer. Or a fashion photographer. Maybe I’m wrong, I’ve never seen a model in a studio. But from my limited experience, there’s very little to dislike in any situation.

I would be hard pressed to name a better combination of practicality, image quality and joy of use at any price point, let alone at 750 euros ! Just stick your A7 in aperture priority, use the upper wheel to set aperture and shoot away knowing it will not let you down.

So let’s forget about reviews and reviewing and let’s focus on photography instead ! Have fun and thanks a bunch for reading.

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Be seeing you.

 


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  • cafelebrocq says:

    It’s annoying that this lens seems so good! I decided not to go for the 35 as I didn’t want to usurp my RX1 so I am just going for the 55 and the 24-70 when released. I hope the 55 proves to be just as spectacular. Thanks for the review, Tony

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Tony, my impression is that the 55 will be every bit as spectacular in terms of sharpness and clarity. I’m not sure it will have the same personality. But that’s just from viewing half a dozen samples on the Internet. I’d be surprised if if wasn’t stunning. You can always get the 35 later ๐Ÿ™‚ I had no choice as this is the only FF lens I can use on this camera at the moment. Cheers, Pascal

  • Great review Tony, I think even with not a super speed aperture, it will fit as natural combo with that body. And one of the most important features is the size and weight. Thanks

  • Romeo says:

    I’m a fan of sunstars (usually to f/11) and these remind me of my made โ€‹โ€‹with the Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar 24mm f/1.8 with NEX-7.
    Here the examples:
    http://www.romeocolombo.com/SonyNex-7/Sony-24mm-f18-Carl-Zeiss
    Greetings
    Romeo

  • onamort says:

    Back in the old days in college, I used to print 16×20 E3 prints with my buddy… we used to stay up all night in the darkroom….. c1974, then a little later went to professional school and lost interest. In 2001 I got a Canon G1, then a Casio Ex-750, both died / broken. Then really lost interest as the iPhone became my main camera as a convenience. I have always thought about getting back into photography. About 6 months ago I saw the Rx1 and thought this would be a great camera, small rangefinder with a big sensor, then the Rx1r. I didn’t like that there was no viewfinder except a removable one. Then my prayers were answered! The Sony A7r. Now many around the web are commenting on the pros and cons about the A7 vs the A7r. From the posted pictures, it is clear that the A7r wins out. I like the sharpness, more importantly the fact that you can crop and still have high resolution images is the hands down determining factor. So much of the web postings are about how these bodies work with existing lenses ( old leica, voightlander, canon, nikon, etc.) and how they do or don’t work. I have no existing lenses. I plan on getting the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm FE 2.8 lens which I think is the one you are using…. am I correct? Also is there any value in buying manual lenses for the A7r? A longer or shorter voightlander for example.

    Thanks,

    Ted

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Ted, yes, that is the lens I am using. The main reason many people are talking about legacy lenses is that they own them already and the short registry on the Sony A7 plus the huge range of adapters from Novoflex, Metabones, Fotodiox, Hawks … allows you to mount most of them. Plus, the A7 (& A7r) provide a focus peaking feature that helps tremendously focus these lenses. That said, it appears the A7 is the better of the 2 cameras for alternative lenses (at leat for M-mount lenses) as its larger pixels seem more tolerant to their optical formula. Part of the fun is finding old treasures that give a vintage look to your photographs without the complication of a vintage camera. I you’re looking for wide angles, be very careful of what you choose. The Voigtlander 21/1.8 for M mount seems OK, but many other solutions are out of bounds on the A7r. Others, made for SLRs are just fine (old Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Minolta … are dirt cheap on ebay, too) We’ll be testing a few on these pages. Enjoy your come back ๐Ÿ™‚ Pascal

  • peter says:

    hi pascal
    if a filter is mounted onto the lens, can the hood still go on top of that?
    or should the filter be mounted on the hood itself?
    thank you

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Peter, you need to remove the hood, which is more of a mask, to install a filter. The hood is a very clever design (90ยฐ rotation), though, and it’s just a matter of seconds to have it off and on again. Cheers, Pascal

  • […] The lens used is the mighty lighty FE T* Sonnar 2,8/35mm ZA reviewed previously with much exhilaration. […]

  • Pim Heuvel says:

    Some people have found ‘sun dots’ when including the sun in the frame. It seems you have captured them too. Sexy sunstars for sure, but also some really ugly sun dots. It doesn’t really bother me personally, because the overall performance of this lens is very good to excellent. Great compact walk around do it all kind of lens.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, the lens is great. It’s just a shame that it’s impossible to shoot into the sun with the A7r and this lens.

  • […] in the well-received Touits. Here is a more photographically-oriented review of the FE 35/2.8: #184. The Zeiss Sonnar 2,8/35 ZA jewel in the A7r crown | DearSusan [disclaimer is I write for these […]

  • serge says:

    Bonjour et merci pour ton travail.

    J’ai actuellement un DISTAGON C/Y 28mm 2.8 montรฉ sur un A7; penses tu que ce SONY 35mm 2.8 soit aussi bon, voir meilleur (sans parler de l’autofocus etc…).

    Je fais surtout des photos de paysage, rues, monuments; un 35mm serait mieux ou moins bien qu’un 28mm sachant que j’ai eu un 50 et j’ai abandonnรฉ; il fallait reculer et reculer et en mรชme temps “attraper” tout (fils, arbres etc etc).

    Merci pour ton aide.

    Serge

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