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…
Yet, 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.
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.
It 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.
Let 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.
I 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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
In 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.
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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