#379. Of cherry blossoms… (Sony FE 90/2.8 Macro short review)

By philberphoto | Review

Jul 19

If I had one word to define Japan, I would say: “relentless”. The Japanese have no choice, they need to be relentless, in order to survive what is a very difficult set of natural circumstances. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis…

DSC00189Yet, there is a more delicate side to Japan. Think delicious “toro” (bluefin tuna) melting in your mouth. Think wonderful calligraphy. Think haiku, and noh, and kabuki. Think geisha. Think maybe last of all, the yearly viewing of cherry blossoms’ ephemeral beauty.

DSC00136That is the delicate side that the Sony FE 90 Macro lens definitely shines at reproducing. I found that out during a brief loan when I could use the lens in one short walk-about.


Let’s get the hardware details out-of-the-way first. Size-wise, it is pretty much what you’d expect of a 90mm f:2.8. And it is rather less heavy than its bulk might indicate, though build quality is as high as you’d expect from a premium lens.

DSC00198It has one unusual feature: the reach is divided in 3 steps: full reach, from close-up (0.28m) to infinity, or longer reach (0.5m to infinity), or close range (0.28m to 0.5m). The advantage of the last 2 positions is to get faster and more accurate AF than in full range. Similarly, you have a switch to turn off the stabilisation, in case you are using a tripod.

DSC00172Let me also say that changing over from a manual-focus-only set of lenses to AF wasn’t that easy, but I still got a reasonable keeper rate, with focus placed pretty much where I wanted it. But don’t expect  the autofocus to do all the work in your stead. If the wind moves the flowers around, you are on your own! All the more so with the A7R, where, frankly, the autofocus totally sucks at tracking fast movements at close range, and I couldn’t get a single sharp shot this way. Hopefully the A7 II and soon A7R II are better (or less bad) at it. To get some keepers, I stopped focus tracking, and used DMF to switch from AF lock to focusing manually. This is, BTW a focus-by-wire lens. Some aren’t huge fans, but this one isn’t particularly objectionable, and the long throw lets you place focus exactly where you want it. Obviously not the case in the shot below…


Another feature of hardware is the stabilizer. I had neither the time nor the inclination to establish exactly how many stops it gets you, but the fact is, not a single of my shots shows movement blur. That even led me to sloppy one-hand shots, just to see how far I could go down the slippery slope, and still no blur, even at 1/50s. My guess is that is worth 3 stops, maybe even a little bit more.

DSC00176I had high hopes for the IQ of this lens. It is the second one in the “G” range, indicating premium but not Sony-Zeiss, after the 70-200 f:4.0 OSS. I had seen fine pictures from that lens, confirmed when I tried it out. Very delicate and beautiful colours, poetic even. And the first samples I saw, months ago, from the FE 90 seemed to be in that same vein.


So what is the lowdown on this lens’ IQ? Fully as expected, very beautiful, dreamy, easily poetic. Hugely detailed, much more “leica-esque”, like the Leica R Makro Elmarit 60 reviewed by Pascal than like the Zeiss Makro-planar twins (Z* 50Mp and Z* 100 Mp). Probably even more so than the Leica.

DSC00185The FE 90 seems particularly at ease, even remarkably so, with delicate, pastel colours, and gentle, soft materials. It isn’t so eloquent with hard, gritty, grotty surfaces and crude colours, as you can see with the picture up top, or the ones above and below this.

DSC00166Lots of creamy bokeh, even when the lens is closed down to f:5.6, with a very fast transition from in-focus to out-of-focus. Plenty of 3D too, as you can see from the metal bracket above.

This affinity with pastel colours is also evidenced by shots at longer range, where the FE 90 acquits itself very honorably indeed, but does not offer anything that other premium lenses can’t do, such as the forthcoming Zeiss Batis 85 f:1.8.

DSC00173_1 DSC00174_1The last picture is one of a similar, but not identical fixture (but colours and materials are the same) which I also shot, on another day, with the formidable Zeiss Otus 55mm with a 8mm tube (lower picture). I’ll let you decide for yourselves.


DSC09898In conclusion, the Sony FE 90 macro f:2.8 OSS is a fine lens indeed, definitely worth its not inconsiderable price (let’s not forget it is almost 50% more money than the identically specced Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L macro IS usm). But worth it if your taste leans more towards the mild, the sweet, the delicate than the hard-core. More towards Japanese cherry blossoms than Icelandic lava and ice blocks.

DSC00152 DSC00153

Now the question: will I buy it? Is it good enough at enough “things” to earn itself a place in my bag? It could fill 4 spots, actually. That of short tele, that of autofocus lens (I haven’t got one any more, and there are times when it is helpful, that of portrait lens, and that of macro. Remember, too, that for yours truly, a lens is measured by how good its best shots are, and not by how many are good enough.

Its competitors? The Zeiss Batis 85 f:1.8, the Zeiss Otus 85 f:1.4, the Zeiss 135 f:2.0 APO. Strike out the Otus 85. Too large, heavy and expensive for the few breathtaking shots it does deliver in my not-so-expert hands. Strike out the Batis 85 f:1.8, where the preview shots leave me nonplussed (the 25 is another matter, though). The 135 f:2.0 APO is definitely a producer of Wow! shots, but is not easy to use at all (I am still waiting for that loaner, MM. Zeiss, anyone listening?).


But maybe its closest competitor is simply the Otus 55. Sure it’s “only” a 55, but it is so good, and I have so many pixels (36 Mp today, 42Mp tomorrow, hint, hint) that cropping is not an issue. Sure the 8mm tube does not bring me close enough, but I just need to buy a 20mm…

So, what remains? Autofocus, yes, definitely, for some situations. Stabilizer, yes, definitely. This gentle, romantic, poetic look. That is the key. If I feel that this alternative to the rather more stern  and imperious Zeiss look is worth it, I need to open my bag and checkbook. If not…


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  • Artuk says:

    Thank you for the very interesting review. I am surprised that this review has received no comments. You critique of the way the lens “draws” is interesting. Your descriptions remind me of some of the Minolta G lens designs, which never were particularly “sharp” but did have good resolution. Your words remind me somewhat of the way I feel the 135mm STF renders – I once had great debates with fans of the Sony ZA 135mm f1.8. They always thought the bokeh was better because if its faster aperture, but I always thought the STF just drew more beautifully with certain subjects – flowers and female portraits being 2 good examples. I actually bought the Batis 85mm and although exceptionally “sharp”, giving an instant gratification “wow” factor, I don’t especially like how it draws, and the bokeh behind the plane of focus can be surprisingly nervous with nissen rings. I am therefore left wondering if trading 1.3ev of light transmission and increased size for the Sony 90mm may give me a look I prefer.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for the kind words, and for the points you make. It is my view (and I am not alone in this) that sharpness is overrated as a mesure of lens performance. In a way, like resolution for digital cameras. That is because it is so eay to measure “objectively”. Whereas colours, contrast et al. are “subjective”. And when you get to bkeh and “3D”, it is impossible to get even a definition of what is “good” and what isn’t. And I would tend to say that, today, all lenses are sharp enough, and all premium lenses are more than sharp enough. So, to some extent, sharpness is the last reason you shold buy a recent lens for.
      That said, I do not for a second think that the Sony 90 Macro G is not very sharp. I think it is very sharp indeed. Just, the presentation does not highlight sharpness, rather, it highlights detail, which is what macro shooters love. While I am a technical ignoramus, I would suggest that this comes from lower micro-contrast than the very contrasty Zeiss and to some extent, Sony-Zeiss.
      I have played a couple of times with the Batis 85, and DS colleague Pascal more so. My opinion is that this lens offers a very high level of “instant gratification”. Nothing seriously wrong, and much that is right. You are not in love with its bokeh. I, for one, don’t care overmuch for its colours. Colour differentiation, in particular, is weak IMHO. But you lnow what lens won the spot for short tele in my bag. Hugely detailed like the Sony, and incredibly sharp like the Batis, and, and, and… But there is no free lunch: lots of weight, high cost, no AF, adapter required. The Zeiss 135 APO. Treat yourself to trying it out…

      • artuk says:

        Thanks for the reply.
        I also recently read the review on this site of the Sony FE 70-200mm f4 and the description reminded me so much of some of the Minolta era A mount “G” lenses – lots of nice attributes but never especially “sharp” looking. They just didn’t seem to have their contrast optimized that way – but plenty of detail none -the-less. I certainly didn’t buy the Batis for “sharpness”, more that I wanted a stabilized auto focus short tele portrait type lens with a large aperture. Alas several of those criteria discount your suggestion! Ironically I used the Batis 85mm today for some black and white work and was rather pleased, although I am far from a B&W aficionado. I tend to agree with your comment about it’s colour just based on gut feeling rather than any specific testing. I was actually horrified by its bokeh a few weeks ago when an out of focus background of textured stone became a horror of secular highlight nissen rings. I looked at the FE 90mm recently as was very interested, but as a traveler was rather put off by the size of it, and to an extent the weight. However your “review” makes me wonder if it would make an interesting E mount alternative to the 135mm STF.

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