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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 😉 )
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.