#239. Zeiss FE 55mm Review. How Photographing La Defense Gave Me Second Thoughts!

#239. Zeiss FE 55mm Review. How Photographing La Defense Gave Me Second Thoughts!

A Sony – Zeiss FE 55mm review is a very easy piece to write. The lens is so flawless, there’s very little to say. It’s one of the sharpest pieces of photographic glass ever designed and who doesn’t dig the reassuring comfort of perfection ? In the image below, the original file resolves the individual steps in the staircases of the cranes. If there were operators in the cabins, you might be able to recognize them.

 

Glass buildings reflecting in the evening light in La Défense, Paris. Zeiss FE 55mm & Sony A7r. Zeiss fe 55mm review

Evening reflections at La Defense (Paris)

 

Why is it, then, that the photographs from official reviewers left me so unmoved? Why did I fall in love with the FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA and not find any sympathy for the bigger brother?

 

A portrait of a photographer using the Sony / Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 lens in La Defense, Paris. Zeiss fe 55mm review

The rightful owner (a.k.a. Philippe)

 

The fact is that many commented that pictures made using this lens during Sony’s official launch in Memphis were lifeless, particularly compared to lenses such as Zeiss’s C-Sonnar 50. Colour seemed weak. Drawing, clinical and harsh.

To me, it might have been an engineering triumph but had no place in an artist’s bag.

I could not have been more wrong !

 

The GDF - Suez tower in La Défense, Paris, photographed with the Zeiss FE 55mm 1.8 on the Sony A7r

Tour GDF – Suez in La Défense, Paris (click for full-size jpeg)

 

The image above is a tribute to the FE 55/1.8 ZA’s test lab abilities. You can click to download a (large) full size photograph. Strong added grain and heavy jpeg compression have harmed the sharpness significantly but the lack of distortion (around 0.2%) and low vignetting (less that 0.5 stops in the corner at this f/8 aperture, around 1.5 wide open) are plainly obvious.

The image below reveals almost total absence of chromatic aberration. This is spectacularly good. It’s the first time I have used a lens that good in this respect. Bright/dark edges are almost perfectly clean which contributes to this impression of high acutance.

Veiling glare is also a notable absentee and flare is non-existent with the sun in the frame. Like the FE 35/2.8 ZA brother, some situations with a very bright highlight just at the edge of the frame will send an unsightly plume scuttering through the photo (see the FE 35/2.8 ZA review here). I didn’t try making pointy sunstars so have no idea whether the “spotty sensor flaw is present or not”. If a reader has tried this, I’d be happy to hear about the results.

 

The tent structure in the huge arch at La Défense in Paris. Sony A7r and Zeiss FE 55/1.8 ZA (lens review).

Arche de La Défense, Paris. Zeiss FE 55mm & Sony A7r.

 

Is the Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA an Artist’s Lens ?

I’m revisiting this lens because Philip Partridge recently sent me 2 of his superb Tibetan portraits. One made with the Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA and the other with a Leica Summicron-R 50/2. Light conditions were different, rendering comparisons impossible. But the Zeiss had produced the more subtle, more elegant photograph! That was an eye opener.

 

Shadows and silouhettes of workers in La Défense, Paris, heading into the evening sun. Sony A7r & Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA.

Gangs of Paris, Sony A7r & Zeiss FE 55/1.8 ZA

 

Time to pull out the photographs made with co-author Philippe‘s lens and gallant company one sunny spring evening in La Défense, Paris’s financial heart.

Time to assess the creative potential of the lab rat !

And what a tool ! (the lens, not me).

This thing clings to highlight detail like a limpet in a Hebridean storm. The micro-contrast at both ends of the range is so good, there’s unlimited fun to be had in backlighting situations.

If you want to create an Edward Hopper look in your photographs, look no further. It will also get you closer to that ethereal modern Medium Format aesthetics than anything else I know in the same price range.

 

Two co workers stand alone in the strong evening light at La Défense, Paris. Sony A7r & Zeiss FE 55/1.8 ZA

La Défense Nighthawks – Sony A7r & Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA (click for larger version).

 

That lens showed me there’s creative life beyond the gooey comfort of Mandler Glow and that it was time for this old fart to learn new tricks (notice I didn’t mention bokeh …?*). It’s nice to see a lens having such a strong impact on the look of your files. It’s certainly not for everyone and C-Sonnar worshippers might not be impressed but many others will find a new source of inspiration.

I want one and hope Sony incorporate some of its DNA in whatever they will be releasing at Photokina (RX-2, fixed-lens medium format …) to make us poorer.

(*) Bokeh is good, with no unnatural oddities and faint onion rings in defocused highlights.

 

Zeiss FE 55mm Review Conclusion: is it suitable for Travel Photography?

As Philip Partridge has aptly demonstrated here (Tibetan review) and here (Landscapes of Ladakh), this is a 5 thumbs-up lens for reportage and travel photography. Compact, light-weight and nice to handle it is also an excellent performer in most situations.

Some landscape photographers will probably prefer more traditional lenses and this Sonnar 55/1.8 is not the ideal choice if you are trying to recreate the look of Cartier Bresson. You also need to take care with high contrast scenes, unless including pure black and/or pure white in your frame is by design (shock, horror for the Grad ND / Polarizer / Warm Up school of thought 😉 )

 

Provence Sunrise, with the Leica-R look

Provence Sunrise, the old fashion way

 

But I cannot imagine a more rejuvenating lens for fashion, street, architecture or travel photography. It is also wonderful at picking out detail in twilight, where lesser alternatives would retrieve nothing but mud pudding. Sony really have hit a home run with their first two A7/A7r lenses.


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6 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Krifka June 06, 2014

    You got it. This lens is a master piece and I do not talk about the technical achievement like resolution and so on. The lens is optimised for a polished, modern cinema look which is second to none. I always say, that there are lenses which cannot take a bad picture. This is one of them.
    The unsharp areas are especially important to create the hyper polished 3d look. While everyone praises the Otus I believe that this lens is actually the better one. The Otus pushes the effect to the extrem and after a while you get bored by open aperture pictures taken with the Otus. Too much is just too much while the FE 55mm is finding the right balance. This is especially amazing because it is an f1.8 lens. By moving the focus length from 50mm to 55mm Zeiss has achieved nearly the same field of depth than with a 50mm 1.4 lens. Brilliant.

    Needless to say that I always enjoy DearSusan articles.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy June 06, 2014

      Hi Krifka, thanks for the kind comments ! I agree entirely with you. This lens creates a completely different look to the OTUS (which I have never used on the A7r but did use on my previous D800e) and to Leica-R glass. NOt something I expected to enjoy, but so stimulating in the right conditoins! It’s also 96% as good technically as the OTUS and it far more convenient to handle.

  2. Avatar
    Michael June 07, 2014

    Could not agree more. The 35FE I found to be a delight from the start but my jaw dropped on first use of the FE55. It really is reason enough to consider buying into the A7r system. Both will get quite a workout while we are in France… in less than a month!

    Love what you’ve done with these images.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy June 07, 2014

      Thanks 🙂 Yes, these are a fantastic combination. I feel the 35 is a tad more versatile, but the 55 is simply brilliant at what it does.

  3. Avatar
    Moving Quickly August 11, 2014

    I have the 35, but this 55 really shines on the 7 series. The 35 sometimes produces some nasty colour halos. None of that with the 55 and although it’s slightly less versatile, it’s clearly the better lens. It seems to be made for people photography. A truly wonderful lens and I feel so lucky that I can afford it.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy August 11, 2014

      Agreed. I’d love to use it for night photography as well. Both in urban surroundings (the contrast would help pick up tons of details in the shadows) and for astrophotos. One day, hopefully 🙂

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