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 ?
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 🙂
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.
This second one is also revealing of the transparency of the optics, which let natural colours reveal themselves.
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 ?
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):
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.
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):
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):
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.
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).
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).
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.
Both are very fuzzy because this beast of a camera will not tolerate the slightest shake …
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 😉
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.
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 😉 😉 ) 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 😉 ).
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.
Be seeing you.
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