#474. AF comes to überlenses! The Sony FE 85 G Master

By philberphoto | Review

Apr 20

DearSusan is a free Website. No advertising, no paywall. Hence we don’t play games and tease you with sensational headlines, but hide the meat of the info behind the paywall or after pre-roll ads have played out. So you get it up front, the spanking new Sony FE 85 f:1.4 G Master has joined the very limited, very select list of DearSusan-sanctioned Überlenses.



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True to belonging in that category, the G Master lens delivers first-class performance in every situation. Close-up or further out, wide open, but also stopped down, for portrait as well as for landscape. Pascal will publish later a comparison between it and the gold standard of 85mm lenses, the Zeiss Otus f:1,4. The very fact that the Sony withstands the comparison testifies to its quality.


Simply put, the FE 85 is fast (f:1.4), fully usable at that aperture, and a veritable bokeh machine, with colours and detail to boot. Add to that autofocus, and it begins to make total sense despite its not inconsiderable weight and cost.

DSC07763Now before you think that I have sold my soul to Sony  (I’d need to buy it back from Zeiss first, in order to be able to do that), let me tell you what is not right, or at least not perfect with that lens. First there is a modest amount of CA, even in the plane of sharpness. It is not critical, it is easy to cure, it may be a bit less than the already superlative Milvus 85, but we’d all prefer that it weren’t there, and there isn’t any in true APO designs (a claim that Sony don’t make). Then I found something unexpected. Some files looked slightly “dead”, or “artificial”, especially with regards to colours. It took me some time to map out colour and contrast treatment in post to get it to the point where I really like it, though, now that I am there, it takes me no more time to process those files than any other. YMMV.


Let’s start with the physical characteristics. The 85 Master G is a large (77mm diameter, almost 1kg) AF lens that works on Sony FE and E bodies. It is wide, and not very long. While heavy, in my opinion it balances adequately on its most natural partner, the A7RII. Manufacturing quality seems very high, as befits its price, around 2000€. There is a welcome aperture ring, allowing the user full control without resorting to the camera. AF action is not very snappy, and not very quiet either, but it does focus accurately including in very low light, except maybe, just maybe, at close range and wide open. The stabiliser of the lens+camera system is very effective indeed. I have taken sharp shots at 1/15s handheld, and I am not particuarly good that this. Focusing this lens manually isn’t as enjoyable as with the best MF lenses around, but it is as good -or even a bit better- than manually focusing any other AF lens that I have tried. Not bad at all. Of course, no infinity stop, because it is focus-by-wire, and the throw isn’t as long as with an Otus, but it does let me get the job done without fuss or muss. One disappointment is the minimum focusing distance, at 0,8m. I know it is not unusual for a 85mm lens, but it does mean you are not going to get any close-ups, and that is part of my photography. 0,5m would have been soooo nice.

^A1CA55E140282CBF07A26A90601276316773D1BF15404C53BB^pimgpsh_fullsize_distrNow to IQ. Sony’s marketing blurb says their twin design objectives were very high resolution, not only for this generation of sensors but all the way up to 80Mp, and lovely bokeh, and they definitely achieve these twin goals. Now bokeh is a subject of personal taste, so YMMV, but at least there are no “nasties”, such as “busy bokeh”, “Nissen boken”, etc. It will really please those of us who like it creamy rather than structured. Transition from in-focus to out-of-focus is fairly rapid, so it provides strong separation of foreground and background, though not as laser-sharp as Otus 85.

DSC07809Resolution of the lens is obvious, especially if you view at 100% on a 42Mp image. Very small details abound, including minute spatial information and transitions. In this respect, I don’t know of a lens that outperforms it, though some equal it. This suggests that the lens outresolves the sensor, as it should, according to Sony.

DSC07812Overall rendering is a bit warmer than the Zeiss Otii to which it was compared. Micro-contrast is a bit less, so the image prioritizes colours and detail over sharpness, though it is in fact sharp enough that one can shave with it. This is consistent with the “look” of Sony G lenses for FE (70-200 f:4.0, 90 f:2.8 macro), which display beautiful colours and great detail but don’t “wow!” with in-your-face sharpness the way a Zeiss 135 APO does.

DSC07850Wide open, there is a modest loss of apparent sharpness due to a very slight loss of contrast. But first it is very slight, then it clears up not only by f:2.0, but already by f:1.6 (the aperture range moves in 1/3 stops). From f:1.7 on down, the lens hardly improves, but its rendering becomes just a tad less warm and more neutral. So, in effect, you have a portrait lens wide open, where many prefer not to show too much detail and sharpness (I happpen to disagree), and lovely, romantic colours, then a lens for close-up and street from f:1.6 to, say, f:4.0, then a landscape lens from f:4.0 onwards. But please these are small differences indeed, and the G Master is by no means a lens with split or multiple personalities.

DSC07532 DSC07711_1And that is one of the 2 key drivers behind my decision to buy the Sony FE 85. Because its look isn’t quite the same as the Zeiss look, having “a bit of both” will, I hope, provide a bit more diversity to my range of results. The other reason, of course, is the AF. With it, I can take photos I cannot achieve with a MF lens. That simple. Pascal says he won’t touche a lens with AF because “it will make him lazy”. But, to you our fiends of DearSusan, I will reveal his dirty little secret: I saw him test a Sony FE 90 f:2.8 macro. I saw him shoot lots, in a really carefree way. How does one-handed grab you? From the founder of DS? So, yes, maybe just a little too flippant. But many of his shots were just excellent. Including some I know he’d never have attempted with Hubert, his mighty Otus. That’s all I’m hoping for with my FE 85. Tolerate my laziness, yet still make me happy. That’s why I call it Felix!

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There is lots more to say, a lens review is never really over. I could write about its excellent flare resistance. Discuss details of AF performance. Mention weather protection (some, but not fully sealed). Talk about the 3D (good, but not earth-shakingly great) I could discuss its performance relative to its competition: the Zeiss Batis 85 f:1.8 (the FE is, without a doubt, a better lens IMHO. It better be, because it costs and weighs twice as much). The Zeiss Milvus 85 f:1.4 (I would say, roughly equivalent performance, in a different sort of way. I’d need to shoot both face to face to be more definitive). The FE 24-70 f:2.8 (I’ve read excellent things about it, and seen pics that prove it, but, for now, I’m still not lazy enough to buy it as a single-lens walk-about tool. Or maybe I’m too lazy, because mastering all aspects of a prime lens is already painstaking, so fully mastering such a zoom must be a real bear). The forthcoming FE 70-200 f:2.8 (large, heavy, expensive, and nobody yet seems frightfully excited). And so on, and so on.

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But there comes a time where matters need to be wrapped up, lest Pascal does to me what bean counters in Holllywood studios do to film masterpieces that run too long. They carve them up mercilessly. So let me close the door on the review of this exciting new addition to my stable…

DSC07848Ooops! I was going to finish without showing what is a typical use of a fast 85mm lens: the portrait. Preferably wide open. Here it is. Courtesy of professional model Claire, who graced our own Ze Workshop with her presence.

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  • vladimir says:

    Photos 2 and 3 remain me of an episode about twelve years ago. I snapped a general view of Montmartre including paintings and lady artist standing by her pictures. Big mistake, she got stuck into me for doing so. At the time I was using film camera so no way of deleting the picture, so I apologise and walked away.

    • philberphoto says:

      Technically she was correct. But my epxerience is that a smile and an unspoken request for permission goes a long way towards getting an also unspoken approval. But once, on that same spot (place du tertre, in Montmartre, before its latest and shameless commercialisation), the exhibotor waved me off, and I just bought his approval with a 10€ note. Not a high prcie to pay for a picture I really like, if I do it only sparingly. And, guess what, even Pascal likes that shot. That is really saying something!

  • pete guaron says:

    Philippe, do these comments relate to the FE or the Otus? I was confused, I couldn’t relate them to the FE because you’ve only just started with it, and I was thrown by the sentence in the middle.

    that), let me tell you what is not right, or at least not perfect with that lens. First there is a modest amount of CA, even in the plane of sharpness. It is not critical, it is easy to cure, it may be a bit less than the already superlative Milvus 85, but we’d all prefer that it weren’t there, and there isn’t any in true APO designs (a claim that Sony don’t make). Then I found something unexpected. Some files looked slightly “dead”, or “artificial”, especially with regards to colours. It took me some time to map out colour and contrast treatment in post to get it to the point where I really like it, though, now that I am there, it takes me no more time to process those files than any other. YMMV.

    • philberphoto says:

      Pete, the text you are referring to references the FE 85, not the Otus. With the latter, there is no CA in the plane of sharpness, for example, as befits an APO lens.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Thanks for clarifying that – one day when I’m rich, I want to get the uber 85 from Zeiss, and I subsided into shock in my confusion, reading that passage.

        Right now I’m following up on Paul’s suggestion of looking at the X100T – which led me to the X-t1 – and it was a short jump from there to the X-pro2. It looks to me as though the X-t1 is about to be superseded by a new X-t2, so my attempts to “find out more” apparently have to be put on hold for a couple of months.

        Sadly, my little Nikon compact isn’t capable of producing the results I want, so it has to be replaced – the question is “with what?” And while of course I’ve no idea what prices are like in France or South Africa, the prices of this kind of gear are all over the place here in Australia. Which doesn’t help me make up my mind.

        In the meantime, I’ve been sent a wonderful shot of a victim of GAS. Just as well I don’t know how to post photos here, or you’d all be staring at it, by now.

        And I’m running test checks on one of my lenses – I suspect its AF needs a slight adjustment. Now is as good a time as any, because my geckos seem to have started hibernating and God is not producing any “interesting cloud formations” for me to continue experimenting on them.

  • Mike says:

    Your review confirms my not so scientific findings which makes me so happy to own this lens. As to autofocus making you lazy. This lens will do it. I use this lens on my A7r2 and a6300 set to continuous focus /eye autofocus, and it is too easy to get perfectly focused portraits.

    I’ve been a Sony shooter for about 10 years and the one thing that I really like about this lens, is the aperture ring. It’s minor but makes the shooting experience just a little better. I wish more sony e mount lense are made with aperture rings.

    Keep up the great work. Love Your site..it is refreshingly different

  • artuk says:

    I briefly tried the GM 85mm at a trade show in the UK just after Sony had announced them, and my impression was of a very good lens, albeit a quite fat and weighty one. The feeling through the viewfinder was of something superior to my Batis 85mm, which in comparison feels cheap and plastic. Having used the Batis recently for portraits, stopped down in controlled lighting, the resolution, micro contrast and somewhat 3D rendering has impressed. However, at times I had to take it off the camera as in anything except good contrasty light, it hunts and refuses to focus – so Zeiss /Cosina have made a fast aperture AF lens that cannot reliably be used in low light. Great to have a physique model holding a pose as the lens slowly hunts and fails to focus when the maligned Sony FE 24-70mm f4, which lets less than a quarter of the light onto the sensor, focuses quickly and with aplomb. So, rather like the Touits, it looks like Zeiss dropped the ball again on the focusing or at least the software integration with the cameras. In less controlled lighting, for example dappled wet foliage, highlights turn into a nissen-ring-tastic horror complete with fringing at times, and even moderate areas of highlight (not specular ones) get the same treatment and turn into hideous doughnut shaped hot-spots.

    It seems only people who shoot out of focus backgrounds many tens of metres behind the plane of focus in nice low contrast flat light could say the Batis has “good bokeh” (much like any kit lens would have in the same situation) – or maybe photographers not graced with good visual acuity.

    It seems the Sony GM is a somewhat better lens from your writings and many other samples, and I think probably worth the extra size and weight if it can actually focus is modest light and not turn backgrounds with any highlights into a horror show.

    At best in controlled lighting the Batis can appear to shine, but in almost every other situation the GM seems like a far far better option. I feel the Batis is quite over-rated, or used and written about by people who don’t really understand how to gauge “good bokeh”.

  • Craig says:

    Thanks for picking so many great lenses to test for Uber status. I have read and re-read your articles on the Otus 85mm, Milvus 85mm, and now the Sony G-Master. I have had the luxury of having the Zeiss 135mm APO to fill the gap of not having an 85mm. Someday, I will need to stop reading and make that commitment. What I hope to ask from you is to help me make some type of ‘arranged marriage’ commitment. Just tell me what is best?

    I agree with your earlier sentiment that autofocus is not a bonus and can be frustrating. It seems like the Milvus almost made the Uber list and the Sony did make that list. The Otus would be an ideal match, but ideal matches are not always available.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Craig,

      all of this is unfortunately a bit subjective. I would have the Milvus over the Sony any day of the year. In fact, the Milvus is almost as good as the Otus in any area that counts, for me. BUt Philippe, who wrote about the Sony, prefers it to the Milvus. It’s certainly a super sharp lens with very creamy bokeh and the benefit of AF, for situations where AF is useful. The colours from the Milvus are nicer and I feel the Milvus is probably the best value for money out there. But it’s quite large and heavy. If you’re not in a hurry, Photokina is around the corner and might bring more alternatives to make choice even harder for you 😉


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