This is a guest post by Philip Partridge about his recent experience with the Sony A7r and the Zeiss FE 55/1.8 in Tibet. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did and that Philip will be back with more 🙂
After some reliable reviews of the new FE 55mm f1.8 ZA (or FE55) appeared I realised that the a7r with this lens could be valuable in shooting Tibet’s huge vistas and ancient monasteries. In conjunction with an RX1, it could effectively replace two regular lenses I used on my travels, saving significant weight and bulk. The subject matter for a travel photographer in Tibet is diverse:
Sony’s recent small full frame cameras are a godsend to travel photographers, not least because of the large strides made recently by Sony in high ISO quality, color handling and resolution.
The FE55 is recognised by the lens testing community as being technically the best normal focal length lens ever produced, with the exception of the very heavy, very large, manual focus Zeiss Otus. It has very good control over the aberrations that most afflict our images: distortion, lateral CA, astigmatism and importantly, field curvature. It features a new kind of design for a lens of normal focal length (those between 50mm-60mm). It has most in common with high end macro lenses such as Leica’s under-rated Macro-Elmarit-R 60mm f2.8, except the FE55 gets into stride two or more stops earlier in its aperture range. It also closely resembles the performance profile of the best short telephoto lenses (85mm-100mm). While the photo world views the FE55 as technically excellent, some enthusiasts have expressed the subjective opinion that it has a clinical rendering, is soulless, has less than ideal bokeh and lacks ‘mojo’. These are personal views obviously, and viewers can make up their own minds. I find the FE55 images to have very high photorealism – that elusive sense of ‘being there’.
Having used the FE55 intensively in real world usage to shoot over 1500 images in a recent winter trip to Tibet here is how I see it: Performance is already very solid at f2, which is often a far better aperture for focus fade characteristics than the faster lenses many of us crave.
Performance jumps considerably at f2.8 and the lens gives its considerable best at f5.6. F8-f11 are wonderfully suited to deep landscapes.
Focus fade just off the focal plane and bokeh character are sure to please the majority of photographers. The FE55 produces a very pleasing rendition of out of focus subjects, which will be gratifying to the design team. Skin tones are some of the best I’ve seen from a digital camera. I shoot Auto White Balance exclusively, and adjust a little in ACR.
Colour tonality is very well controlled and subtle, even in punishing low ambient light levels (none of the images here used flash). Clean grey tones can coexist with attractive strong colours. Sony’s signal processing is a big factor here, but the character of the lens works harmoniously with it. The colour tone handling and cross frame microcontrast are more important to me than the final gain in sharpness in the FE55.
AF speed is more than acceptable in good light and requires up to one second in poor light to lock on to the subject. Poor light to me is ISO 6400, f2 and 1/60s or shorter. Accuracy of AF is first rate, and it helps to hold the camera very still while focus in being acquired.
Already at f2 the FE55 provides for a very gradual fall off in performance across the frame, so you can place subjects off centre and still obtain consistent and high levels of sharpness. It also means that once you become familiar with the loss of main subject focus when using the ‘focus then recompose’ method, you can intuitively predict the results. Moving the AF spot to the subject within the final composition is of course preferable but to do this you need time that is often not available. Sony’s EVF instant image review can be invaluable for ‘one chance only’ shots.
The FE55’s low level of field curvature is as valuable as it is unusual in a normal lens because it can be difficult even for very experienced practitioners to guesstimate the effects of field curvature in a given composition, and the sudden drop in resolution can play havoc with portraying many subjects.
For example, lenses with high levels of field curvature may cause one side of a person’s face to be blurred while the other side is very sharp; or a body of water loses definition in mid frame only to become very sharp in the corners at the same focus distance. These problems are virtually absent in the FE55. The result is you can shoot strictly planar subjects like wall murals and building facades with confidence, and all other compositions also benefit, even if this is not apparent.
For landscape work F8 is my most used aperture, and I don’t hesitate to use f11 or even f13 if very deep depth of field is needed. This is a another major benefit of unfashionably slow yet high performance lenses with flat fields: the performance drop off at small apertures is reduced, and as the starting point is higher you can easily use smaller apertures with little penalty – even on a demanding camera like the a7r. The FE55 has better corners at f16 than the FE35 has at f11 for example, both mounted on the a7r.
It may be sacrilegious to some, but the lack of an aperture ring adds greatly to the usability of the FE55. The rear section of the lens gives the left hand a good position to hold the lens for the balance the a7r needs, and it means the camera can be operated solely with the right hand. This is a big benefit when shooting in difficult environments with poor footing and/or dim lighting, or when using the tilt LCD.
The fly-by-wire focus system is a love or hate feature and I seldom use it.
The lens looks very plain and unadorned, but all the quality lurks within. Nothing gets in the way of using the FE55, which also takes small, cheap and standard 49mm filters and comes with a easy fit reversible lens hood that can be a little sticky to mount in the stored position.
A lot has been said about the problems of hand-holding the a7r and its ‘shutter shake’. My experience is that – with care – the time-honoured formula of using a shutter speed of the reciprocal of the focal length, say 1/60 second for the FE55, is not far off the mark except for critical shots intended to be printed very large. I aim for 1/125 to 1/160 where possible as a hedge, as most of my subjects are difficult to revisit. A smooth slower shutter release is key in using the a7r handheld. Remember, slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
The FE55 is highly recommended.
It is an optical tour de force for many kinds of photography, and is almost certainly the most versatile normal lens ever produced in the format. It is compact and at 282 grams very light. Dust storms are frequent in Tibet but my copy of the FE55 is like new.
I think of the FE55’s qualities as multi-dimensional: performance is excellent from f2 to f11, resolution and microcontrast are excellent from the image centre to the very corners, and objects in image space are finely shaped with pleasing focus fade and bokeh, giving a splendid three dimensionality to images along with good separation.
This 55mm lens is reason enough to get into the FE system, as it offers a ‘back to the future’ kit lens option to the a7/a7r cameras for a reasonable outlay, considering the image quality they provide.
It is likely to remain a niche lens for some time to come – as it only fits Sony’s FE/E cameras, which the broader market is still coming to terms with. So to see what it can do for your work you will have to come over to the dark side, like the creature that left tracks in the snowy river image.
Philip James Partridge
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