#456. A brief assessment of the Sony FE 90/2.8 G

By pascaljappy | Review

Feb 21

There are 3 reasons why this review of the Sony FE 90/2.8G is pointless

(1) Paul’s interview of Valerie Millet a few days ago has left me both gobsmacked at Valerie’s talent and ashamed at how much (over-)attention I give to gear. It’s just so obvious from her words that gear matters so little compared to shooting discipline. If, like me, you feel your addiction has gone too far, go back and read that interview now.

(2) I don’t review lenses I can’t immediately find a nickname for. If a lens doesn’t communicate a certain feeling (subtelty, sharpness, weight, …) it likely has no soul and is yet another product from the sterile lab rat school of thought. How can something called Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS have a soul. C’mon guys, couldn’t you have added a few more letters and symbols for good measure? An asterisk, at least?

(3) The review ends the second you understand the two missing letters in the name are actually the evil A & F holding the promise of a mushy focus ring and endless hunting for a focus point. Autofocus, in this day and age? When will they learn?

So yeah, now, I do have a nickname for it: Towser. Because it can only be a dog.

A dog sitting in the street photographed with a Sony FE 90/2.8 G

Sitting cool – Sony 90G

So, in the spirit of keeping pain to a minimum, let me just say quickly: I loved it !!! (every second of it)

Rewind, let me explain.

 

Sony FE 90G, the freedom fighter (the good)

AF sucks, there’s no denying it (particularly because I’m so biased and dishonest about it πŸ˜‰ )

But in spite of its sucking, it does add a whole new dimension to the shooting process. It allows a complete left brain experience that allows you to make images you might not have considered otherwise.

Spontaneous shot with a Sony FE 90/2.8 G

Such as people in dynamic situations …

Sponatneous shot with a Sony FE 90/2.8 G… or simply compositions you might simply not have thought about while labouring at focusing.

DSC09510or

no chain can hold you with the Sony FE 90/2.8 G OSS MacroSo, yes, life with an OTUS 85 is really great and the Milvus 85 is superb. But a short tele with a good AF is a liberating proposition.

Two caveats.

First of all, I do think this mind-expanding situation only works by contrast and it would be very easy to fall into a life-as-normal situation of reliance on the AF where laziness could easily push creativity out of the nest, cuckoo-style.

Secondly, notice the word good in good AF ? Yeah, about that …

 

Whatever way you look at it, AF is crap (the bad)

Two things are disturbingly wrong with the photograph below.

One is that someone apparently though it OK to defile the dignity of a wild animal in such a way.

A dead wolf photographed with a Sony FE 90 GThe other is that focus is on the hair below the right ear (viewer’s right).

That’s bad, but not the worst.

The deep zenitude in which the lack of focusing routine had led me during this short review turned to vein-popping rage when the damn lens tenaciously refused to focus on multiple types of subjects.

Low contrast subject (not that low) didn’t fare too well. Here, the focus fell on the jewelery, not the man examining it.

DSC09477Here, in dark-ish  conditions, well, there’s no here because the camera simply refused to shoot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(blank space intentional. Hey, it’s my blog)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here, I wanted to focus on the writing in the reflexion but it was a no-go because a 28nm silicon brain decided otherwise.  DSC09494And, yes, I know there is a manual override that probably requires fewer than 12 clics to operate and give you access to a delightfully soggy focusing ring but, when you’ve reach my stubbornness (who said ‘age’ ?), … there’s simply no way you’re going to read a manual to learn how to focus a lens.

One last thing. Facetious rant aside, and hugely important left-brain note aside, AF isn’t the miracle speed-booster many thing it is. On moving targets, yeah, there’s no real alternative. So for sports and possibly street photography, AF can be a life changer. In most other situations, I can focus faster and far more accurately with the superb ergonomics of a Loxia than with any AF I’ve seen up to this day (on the Sony camera).

This may not be the lens’ fault. It’s quite possible the camera (or my use of incorrect settings) is the culprit.

 

Steampunk ergonomics (the Ugly)

A skull and metal frame. Sony A7r2 and Sony FE 90 G macro lens

Trapped. In a cage.

We’ve already established that naming a piece of kit Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS (AF) bordered on lens abuse. Most vicars would have refused baptism and most kids afflicted with such a public denomination would have grown to become lens thieves, drug dealers or, worse, politicians.

As if the name wasn’t enough, Sony designers played the acne card to the max, cramming as many buttons on the barrel as conceivably possible without compromising shell integrity (user enjoyment and well established photographic practises ? Well, bollocks to that).

DSC09508Imagine some crackpot car manufacturer decided the steering wheel was better hanging from the ceiling and the brakes had legitimacy inside the boot. We’d all riot. Heck, even flappy paddles have driven many purists up the bend.

But, in the photo world, it seems OK to assume that a universal ergonomic design (shutter release and speed on the camera, along with other controls such as ISO, focus and aperture on separate rings on the lens) that held for the best part of a century could be blown into the weeds for no valid reason.

To my retrograde tastes, having the lens controls on the lens and body controls on the body, placed where human fingers naturally fall, had a certain simple elegance that could/should have warranted survival.

Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 G macro OSSBut apparently, sprinkling random bits and bobs like candy on a frozen yogurt is all the rage among the cool kids. That alone is a major turn off for me and a definite no-go. But … not so fast, angry-Jappy.

 

Image quality (the Excellent)

But, but …

… young Towser here turned out pretty well. A fine young man, with style and poise, in fact. DSC09548I don’t know how sharp the lens really measures. There are plenty of airbrush MTF curves on the Sony website and sites such as lensrentals.com have probably done a super job of determining its true performance.

What I do know is that, in many situations, the Sony FE 90G creates jaw-dropping beautiful images. The vertical pano below illustrates this well. In B&W textures play a more important role and many lenses tend to give surfaces identical looks. While a little hint of that is present in this photograph, there is still plenty of info and 3D is superb. And all analysis set aside, the photograph just looks lovely. With the great AF (outdoors, in good light) the possibility of creating photographs like that in a second or two really puts a smile on your face.

DSC09540-PanoThe 3D quality is also absolutely superb on lower level details such as in the two photographs below.

DSC09472At 100%, the impression of realism and depth on the clock arms and in the little ceramic number plates is staggering. While Hubert (my Otus 85) wasn’t around to prove my bold claim, it’s my impression that it would not have done any better.DSC09467 This superb ability to structure an image in well-defined depth layers is evident in the photograph below. It has no strong composition and no subject other than the rich variety of little shops and the ambience in this arcade (one of the must-sees we will cover in our coming photo workshop in Paris). A lesser lens, even a sharp one, would have destroyed the meaning of this photograph, creating mush instead of order.

DSC09488Colours are often excellent, with super differentiation, whether on colourful subjects …

DSC09471

… or more mundane ones.DSC09503Does the wizkid do any wrong?

It’s a bit soft at wide apertures. Not just in terms of detail at 100%, but also in a slightly lifeless rendition. In fact, my brief spell with the lens left me the impression that it really comes alive at f/5.6. Not that it’s bad at wider settings, just not as lively and fun. At f/8, not much I know could stay with it. At 100%, my files are every bit as sharp as those from my Otus and the photographs are vibrant and fun.

F/4, below, seems to be the threshold for my tastes. Here the Otus 85 would create a much greater difference in acuity between the sharp zones and the others, giving the former more punch and the latter more creaminess. Here, the sense of depth is very real, but the photograph doesn’t grab your attention as much. Still, for 23% of the price and 50% of the weight, the FE 90/2.8 G delivers in spades. DSC09485And when it gets into its peak rev zone, it’s utterly fantastic, with gorgeous colour, perfect 3D, sharpness to cut through adamantium and true personality that helps create memorable photographs of ordinary scenes. I LOVE IT !

DSC09466 DSC09461DSC09480

Concluding thought: Towser is a keeper, oh yes!

Vernacular photography, when you’re neither Pee wee nor a forensic doc, usual involves a subtle balance between creativity and technique. Bring in too much left-brain button-pushing and inspiration dissolves faster than French employment. Sony and other manufacturers know that, but MTF curves and techno-features sell more lenses than the promise of creative enhancements to the customer photographic life.

DSC09474Which leaves us traditionalists looking, puzzled, at modern lenses that evoke a NASA-bred sea cucumber and handle like pigs when you’ve come to expect the immediate response of full manual. Some of these lenses add insult to injury by packing as much soul and personal style as the love child of a lavatory blueprint and an Excel spreadsheet. Not our Towser here!

Great colours are … great. Super sharpness is … super. Triff 3D is … well, triff.

At the end of the day, what matters most is that the files produced by the lens / body pair recreate the pic that was in your mind’s eye at the moment of capture.

DSC09517At that little game, the FE 90/2.8 G really pulls ahead of most competitors I’ve been able to use. It doesn’t force a style upon you (unlike the Loxia 35 I’m really struggling with, as the delay in my ongoing review may have revealed πŸ˜‰ ), but it’s never bland. From f/5.6, it seems to strike a perfect balance (for my style) between impetuosity and the gentle touch. The photo above and the one below were made meters from one another and could hardly be considered similar.

DSC09547-2 All said and done, even a facetious old fart like me can get used to new-age ergonomics. Whereas no amount of digital trickery will revive a photograph left dead by a bad lens. So Towser comes with my highest recommendation for anyone interested in a short tele with no super-pop-out-subject-on-capuccino-bokeh-backround dreams.

Let me leave you with a few more photographs which, I hope, convey some of the possibilities of the lens. All those on this page were made in a couple of hours in a same area of Paris. What do you think ?

DSC09526DSC09496DSC09489DSC09465

 


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  • Marty Knapp says:

    Thanks for the interesting review and great examples to support your impressions of this lens. But, did I miss something? What about Macro? Would have loved to see what this lens was also designed for: 1:1 Macro imaging.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hey Marty, I actually didn’t think about macro, it’s not something I often do. The only close-up pic is the one at the very top of the page (header) and I didn’t even take that one, it was Philippe. I’ll try to get the lens back quickly to post macro samples.

  • Øystein says:

    DMF mode allows you to tune focus manually if AF fails.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, thanks. The focusing ring isn’t super pleasant, though.

      • PeterJ says:

        Hi, are you aware that you can simply pull the front ring of the lens backwards to initiate manual focusing? Also,for some reason f4 seems to give nicer OOF than 2.8.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Yeah, I agree too. The whole image seems nicer at f/4, including OOF.
          Just kidding about MF requiring 12 clicks. I just think MF should require no other manipulation than rotating the focus ring. But it’s no big deal when the lens is a good as this.

          • PeterJ says:

            Thought you may have been kidding. I keep looking at the Batis and the new 85 GM, but I keep wondering what extra they bring to the table apart from extremely shallow DOF. I know the trend if for nothing apart from 0.5mm either side of the focus point to be sharp but this style loses the context of where the subject is situated. Of course, neither are as versatile as this lens. Every time I use mine I can see no reason for either of the others and yet a little voice beckons somewhere in the distance.

            • pascaljappy says:

              All of this is very personal, so I would never want to give advice that you might regret. But if you’re happy with the lens, my guess is you shouldn’t part with it unless you are getting something really different with the successor. I’m not sure the Batis would be entirely groundbreaking (it’s very good but not extremely different). The new GM85 promises to be very very good and might be interesting. We have one on order and will report on it asap.

      • Artuk says:

        I feel you were being a little disingenuous about the focusing. To switch to MF doesn’t require 14 button presses, just a pull or push on the focusing ring to engage MF instantly. As for it focusing on the wrong thing, it sounds like you were using wide area AF, rather than selecting your own point of focus? Granted, the A7 system can hunt in low contrast light, and this lens certainly so. The controls on the barrel – OSS, Focus Limit, and a focus hold button – are all there for a reason, and relevant to the lens no the body, in my opinion (long time Sony user back to Minolta days, where some of these ergonomics come from). It’s a beautiful lens, much nicer than the Batis 85mm, which in comparison can seem crude and harsh. I would say this lens has a classic Minolta G look. The fall off from focus to out of focus is quite gentle, which I like, which perhaps accounts for your feelings of lack of “3D pop” (my words) in your review. The way it draws reminds me of the Minolta 135mm f2.8 STF, which is a good thing.

  • Dennis L Manning says:

    Pascal,
    The only thing shining more brightly than your prose is the imagery. You’ve probably made a shoe box with a pinhole look sharp.
    Anyway I’m in complete agreement with you on Sony Af lenses. I love the bite my Zony 55/1.8 puts on the captures, but suffer as with loose dentures trying to “bite” the peak manual focus point. The problem is that the ring response is not linear, changing with the speed it is turned. Possibly a new, linear response algorithm driving the “linear motors” would fix or at least improve the handling. Sorta like Porsche and BMW are getting their digital steering racks closer to the feel of the old analog hydraulic ones. Meanwhile viva la MF!
    DL Manning

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, you made me blush, Dennis πŸ™‚ Thanks a lot. I’ll try to push a needle through a shoe box one of these days. Slightly closer to home, but not that much, I played with my daughter’s instant camera during the week-end and found it really a lot of fun. More to come on that soon.

      Your analogy with electric steering is spot on!! Porsche have been trying hard to make theirs feel as good as their previous iterations. I spent an afternoon racing a Cayman R round the Castelet track last year, and adored it. But it seems that more experienced drivers prefer the old steerings. So I guess it’s all relative to our background and experience, really. All the best, Pascal

    • Artuk says:

      I actually like the way the MF is geared – almost instant from near focus to infinity with a fast turn, but turning very slowly giving very precise control. The secret when trying to nail precise focus is to turn very very slowly, as a quick turn will make it jump large amounts. Not having ever owned an MF camera system, I’m ok with it, but accept others may not like it. An alternative is to set the camera to DMF focus mode, which allows AF and then releases the focus clutch to allow manual fine tuning. Make sure focus peaking is turned on. Works a treat for me, most times.

      • pascaljappy says:

        Hi Artuk. In order to allow for fast AF, some sacrifices have to be made. The optical system, for one thing, needs to be light. Hence the tons of ASPH lenses in the Batis 25, in order to keep them small, whereas the Milvus can use spherical. Also, the focusing rack needs to be a lot more “souple” or the AF motor would need to be super strong. Those used to MF systems feel that is soggy and unpleasant. Those used to AF systems don’t mind it at all. Horses for courses. The great thing is that we all have the choice.

        • artuk says:

          The Sony lens designs for FE all have designs with internal focusing, where the lens groups used are small and light. This allows them to use linear motors, making AF silent, a video requirement. Sony’s implementation of focus by wire could well be the best – its much better than Fuji’s, for example- but completely accept its very different from a manual mechanical lens. My “point” above was that maybe it’s something people need to get used to, although I’m sure some people will never like it.

          • pascaljappy says:

            Exactly. As gear gets more advanced, we are seeing a fragmentation of uses and a greater variety of looks/styles/ergonomics in the gear produced to serve those new niches. Interesting times πŸ™‚

  • John Adams says:

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on how it feels compared to the Batis 85. They are both on my radar but only one will make the cut.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi John, in terms of performance, both are excellent. You’ll probably find slight differences in renditions, but not huge. My experience with the Batis 85 is too limited, I wouldn’t want to comment. The main difference is probably the macro feature. Although I didn’t use it in this short test-drive, it’s very convenient and pleasing to have access to such short range focusing. I’d say the build of the Batis is better, if that matters to you.

      • Artuk says:

        I can’t agree with your comment on the build of the Batis (manufactured by Cosina in Japan). The barrel feels plasticy, the rear cap doesn’t stay on properly, and neither does the front cap, which constantly pops off particularly when adding or removing the hood. Minor things, but irritating on an expensive lens. In comparison, the Sony has a push/pull MF clutch, direct controls for it’s OSS etc. I also think they draw and render rather different, but haven’t compared side by side. I find the Batis slightly aggressive in its micro contrast, which makes it look very “sharp”, but I think works against its bokeh, which unfortunately seems to make it render specular details as nissen rings even in very modest contrast light (textured concrete in open shade rendered as horrible tiny nissen rings without much tonal blending). The Sony seems to have more gentle bokeh. Some lab tests seem to show the Zeiss edges and corners aren’t great at wider apertures, where as the Sony’s are. In fairness, at wide aperture and shallow depth of field, I rarely look at corners as they will generally be out of focus anyway, but it may be important to others, depending on use and subjects.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Zeiss have a tradition for poor lens caps. It’s uncanny for a company with such technical heritage. I guess their experise lies in glass and metal, not plastics.

          Thanks for the feedback on the Batis bokeh. That’s rather diappointing considering Zeiss started off with a Sonnar design, which has usually been a very pleasant one. I’ll try to get my hands on a copy soon.

          • Artuk says:

            Well bokeh can be “subjective”, and I’ve seen lots of photos from the Batis which looked fine, because the backgrounds didnt offer an challenge. It’s not dreadful, but I was very surprised that in modest contrary lighting, out of focus details behind the plane of focus seemed to be rendered as nissen rings that didn’t blend well. I might expect this in bright specular highlights, but not in rough textured concrete in open shade! I’ve previously owned the Sony Zeiss 135mm f1.8 for A mount, which wad also very “sharp” but I thought had rather hard and lumpen bokeh. My Batis has been used on an A7s which tends to render with a quite hard etched pixel level look – maybe that doesn’t play nicely with the Batis and it’s high micro contrast design. I’m sure some people really like it because it’s obviously “sharp” in the centre and it seems to work very well for black and white with the A7s. I was less convinced in colour for reasons I can’t explain. I think the Sony FE 90mm whilst also quite “sharp” renders in a gentler way – but like you I’d never “tell” someone what to get as we all have different tastes.

            • pascaljappy says:

              You make a very interesting point that few reviewers and users take into account: the role of the camera in the final rendition. Lenses cannot be evaluated out of context. Sometimes because a lens isn’t optimized for a specific sensor (as in the case of the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM and Sony A7 range). Sometimes because the camera itself adds a strong signature. The A7 is again a case in point: the A7r2 gives the image a silky look, whereas the A7r has that etched quality that suits some lenses and not others.

              I agree entirely that the FE is a gentle lens with a lot of detail. That suits my tastes perfectly but I understand that others prefer a more apparent sense of “sharpness”.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    LOL – in fact LMHAO. Or something.

    Some of those photos are brilliant, Pascal – but of course we all expect that from you!

    I spent almost my entire life using cameras that only had manual focus, so I generally find AF more difficult to use.

    I also don’t appreciate “change for the sake of change” – I was raised on the principle that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” At one point, I was led to believe it was the application of that principle to the equipment they were using (often battered and bruised by enemy shelling) that enabled the Allies to win WW2. Although I’m sure other things contributed to their victory! So I don’t like the controls being moved around from one part of a cam to another – when I’m setting up for a shot, it’s the shot that I want to think about – not “where the hell have they put THAT thing, now?”

    A popular piece of advice from “photographers” to hungry young amateurs, when asked “what piece of equipment should I buy?”, is to handle them all and buy what feels good, to you. Some people will no doubt love this lens – and others will make a different choice.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks a lot, Pete, most kind of you. I get that things evolve and that some of the changes actually produce sgnificant improvements. I would never go back to manual exposure πŸ˜‰ But it’s my opinion that, for my style of photography, AF doesn’t add enough value to justify the losses it implies. But to each his own, that’s the beauty of our hobby. As for moving aperture from the barrel to a wheel on the camera, that drives me nuts. It’s not like we’re seing the industry move from one standard to another, but breaking up one standard into a multitude of proprietary ones. Yuk. And it bugs that Zeiss, of all people, give in to that trend with their Batis range of cameras.

      Couldn’t agree more: whenever you can, try before you buy. It’s a lot easier in the US than in Europe where the “money back” plans don’t exist. That’s why we try to describe the photographic look and user experience of gear more than its performance (which, let’s face it, is almost always good with new gear).

      Cheers, Pascal

  • jacquesherbert says:

    I go to see day-to-day some sites and sites to read articles, except this web site offers quality based content.

  • Mike says:

    Nice blog about the Sony FE 90/2.8 G. Some annotations:
    1. It does not matter what gear you use to make great images. Even a crappy camera can produce remarkable images that win awards.
    2. It does not matter how many people find a gear excellent. It only matters that YOU and only YOU think and feel so. You do not need to fish compliments for gear you use…
    3. You need to use your gear for a pretty long time to become familiar with it. Most manuals are a pain written by developers or even by people who do no photography. Usuall you use a camera like you are used to take images in the past. 90% of the “fitchas” of today’s cameras stay unused if you do not demand it explicitely.
    4. About left and right part of brain: You need to make a gear become a part of your body before you are able to let your feeling flow into your work. That will take time, with some gear it takes a lot of time if it works differently to what you were used to before you started to use it. That is IMHO main reason that pros (real professionals, not the who flame around) stay with the stuff they work since years/decades. It does not tell anything about quality of any gear. Remember: It takes years to become a good driver – experience makes the difference.
    5. If you do no macro this lens is not best choice. The Batis 2/85 would be a better one – even manual focus is a pain. But a Loxia 2/85 and manual focus only would not be a better option IMHO. Light tele lenses need autofocus today. the new 1.4/85 GM is expensive, made for professional and gear hunters. Image quality of all three lenses is pretty similar in real life work.
    Cheers, Mike

    • pascaljappy says:

      Mike, I totally agree with points 3 and 4. That’s why I’m so reluctant to give up traditional lenses (MF + aperture rings). Their use is so hard wired that their use doesn’t break my concentration and creativity. Younger photographers raised with AF and on-camera settings will probably feel differently. I can only hope a standard evolves for that though. It’s no good if every brand creates its own ergonomic brew. Cheers, Pascal.

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