#478. The Sony FE85mm G Master. Answered prayers?

By philberphoto | Review

May 13

Sony FE85mm G MasterIt is now some weeks, and the Sony has earned itself a place in my bag. Considering that I take that bag with me everywhere every time, which, for me, spells a limit of 3 lenses, that is no mean feat. All the more so as the Sony isn’t exactly light, at some 2lbs, nor cheap.

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterThat said, does that mean that I am going over to AF? Or to Sony rendering? Or is the approach of having “different” lenses in the bag rather than that of a “single-line-single-look” finally working out?

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterTo the first question, the answer must be “no, but…”. Fact is, the FE85 AF on A7RII is pretty good IMHO. With my settings and my mostly stationary targets, I get some 85%+ keeper rate, including a majority of large-aperture shots. That means a significantly higher keeper rate than with MF. Yesterday, I even found (caught?) myself not chimping, subconsciously knowing that the camera had nailed the shots. The one exception is when I am shooting at or close to minimum focusing distance. Then, if I am too close, the camera will focus on anything a bit further back that is “in its sights”, and I will get a properly focused picture, except my subject will be out of focus. That, however, is not a factor of my Sony, but of the principles of AF, and my Canon 5D II/III did it as well (or as badly, actually). So I am not going over to AF, but I could. Actually, I would, if I had the right choice of überlenses, because I find myself shooting more when I have my Sony mounted than my beloved B² (Otus 55). This is why I call it Felix. It recalls its FE DNA, and, in Latin, “felix” means “happy”.

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterTo the second question, the answer is a clear “no”. The Sony, to me, good though it is, very, very good, is still no Otus. Yes it does some things remarkably well. Its amount of detail, including minute detail, straight out of camera, is awesome. Definitely Otus-class. Its bokeh, if you happen to like it creamy, is world-class, maybe even the new gold standard. Sharpness in every respect and condition, including wide open, even with 42Mp, is something you’ll just never have to worry about. So what’s not to love? Maybe hanging Zeiss lenses on the mounts of my cameras has me spoiled. By comparison, Felix has one aspect that one has to be careful around, one weakness, and one question mark.

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterFirst, the aspect I need to avoid or circumvent. Remember the creamy bokeh? Well, Felix also has a rapid transition from in-focus to out-of-focus. Rapid, as in super-rapid. This means that the pictures transition from sharp, detailed and in focus to “pure cream” PDQ. And there are times when it just doesn’t feel right, because it is just not like that in real life. When I am shooting close up, and the background is close behind the subject matter, and I am close to wide open, that is when this can happen. Now that I know it, I don’t try that anymore. By comparison, for those shots, the structured bokeh of B² is much easier on the eye, and partakes in the storytelling as well. Of course there are shots where Sony approach actually helps, like portrait. Shoot up close, and wide open or almost, and Felix will blur anything but the right eye or eyelash….

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterSecond, the weakness. Because of the very thin DOF and rapid transition, capturing subjects where both the in-focus and the out-of-focus zones are a single, continuous part of the story is not gonna happen. Typical of this is a flower. Because of size, I will shoot it up close, meaning DOF is at a minimum, so lots of it will be out-of-focus. And because the lens transitions straight to creamy, non-structured bokeh, you don’t get the awesome curves, or for that matter delicious colour variations that you can get with an Otus 85, or, for that matter, a Milvus 85. No flowers for Felix! Not that they’d come out bad, of course, but B² does them more to my taste.

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterThough it does not mean that Felix is useless close up. Hardly. Look at this 100% crop…

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterThe question mark. There are times when colours are a bit strange, with a distinct yellow-green tint that ought not to be there, and that isn’t the prettiest. It isn’t WB, because changing the WB doesn’t put it right. I don’t know yet what to assign it to and how to correct it. So it is a question mark. But there are enough shots where the colours are not only all right, but actually delightful, that blaming the lens doesn’t wash.Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterSo, is my gamble of having “different-look” lenses in my bag panning out? Yes, it feels that way. Because there are more than a few shots that I can chose to shoot either with a 55mm or a 85mm lens. Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterSo, how does that work? Well, if the shot is tricky because there isn’t enough light, then Felix is my first choice; With its 5-way stabilizer, the Sony combo is very effective, giving me sharp images as slow as 1/15s. This is the case with these church ceilings, for example.DSC08556If I have good separation between foreground and background, then, though the results will be different, I can use either lens with delicious results. If I am close up, no doubt, B² should be my first choice, even more so if I add an extra close-up ring

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G Master Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterIf I am looking for a deliberately blurry background, such as with portraits, then Felix is my weapon of preference, because it can’t be beat for blur.

DSC07564The other case when Felix is a killer lens, even over B², is when the foreground and background are very much apart. Felix manages a very nice rendering of a distant background, like tree leaves. Very blurred and very pleasant at the same time. Because B² has a more structured bokeh, a shot can easily become “encumbered” by elements that aren’t contributing to the storytellingPhotographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G Master Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterThat’s it for now. So far, so good. I am actually enjoying the fact that I can select on the basis of the look rather than on the focal length. That gives me an extra dose of creative freedom (whether I make good use of it is an entirely different story!). So, is my early report that it is an überlens confirmed? Definitely. I just look at the variety of shots on this post to appreciate how wide its spectrum is. Finding a lens that can do one thing brilliantly is easy. Why, Pascal even gets some brilliant shots out of his smartphone. But an überlens does it across many different subject types. Like Felix.

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G MasterAnd, yes, the FE 85 G Master is a keeper. Not only that, but I would love to have a wider one. Please Mr Sony, a 28 f:1.4 or a 35 f:1.4 G Master! That would make such a great 2-lens kit!

Photographed with a Sony A7rII and Sony FE85mm G Master


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  • pascaljappy says:


    given the waistline and the stubborn inability of this lens to focus during my extended 30 second try, I believe Garfield would be a better naming choice. After the cat, not the president of the free world.

    Secondly, you know how colour rendition of the A7rII is my pet peeve with that (much improved) camera. While not a criticism of the lens itself, I can’t help notice the ugly yellow cast is more pronounced with a native Sony, and a “Gee, Master!” at that, than any other lens that you own (in fact your photographers almost never display that cast). So, again, from a purely chromatic standpoint, Garfield seems to define the lens better than the B&W Felix 😉

    I can’t argue with the Bokeh, though. This is one sweeeeet lens design. Better, in more than one occasion, than my own Hubert (OTUS 85/1.4). I wonder who would slurp down cream and capuccino faster. Felix, or Garfield ?

    More seriously, great choice and great article, thanks. It’s true that, by tuning into the lifesucking world of autofocus, you are taking one step towards Smartphone photography. But this is still a great lens. Expensive and big, but a bargain compared to my resident 85 and every bit as interesting. I wouldn’t be caught dead with one, but I have concede it *is* a great lens 🙂 Kudos Sony.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Have the pair of you ever considered taking up fencing? – I used to do it, it’s a great sport !!!

    Love your photos Philippe – stick to “Felix” – both names are feline, but Felix is more likely to purr.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha, Pete, this is spot on 😀 😀 😀 We keep fencing all the time (Philippe is always on the fence, anyway). Part of the fun of being co-authors. Delix is indeed a much better name, but tell “him” I said so. In all seriousness, though, that really is a lovely lens.

  • Orville Griffiths says:

    Are you shooting RAW? If yes, the bad color rap that Sony’s files are getting is because people are using Adobe’s default file settings for Sony RAW files. They’re no good. Search the internet for Sony camera-specific RAW file settings and import them to LR/Bridge. You’ll see a world of difference! Btw, the default settings in Capture One and Sony’s own RAW file converter are much better than Adobe’s!

  • philberphoto says:

    Pete, I can’t fence with the guy! His understanding of fencing (dealing with anyone who doesn’t agree with him and/or honor him like a living deity) is using an anti-aircraft gun!!!
    Orville, good try but no cigar!! You are right, Capture One does a batter job with the Sony files than Adobe. Which is why I am using it. There are even 2 posts comparing C1 and LR on DearSusan.

  • Mark Muse says:

    Batis 85? a very fine lens at half the weight.

    • philberphoto says:

      Half the weight, and pretty much half the price, too. On the one hand, Batis 85 was the only fast short tele lens in native FE mount before the FE 85 GM (the excellent Sony 90 macro doesn’t quite rate “fast” at f:2.8), so the GM will probably take some sales that would have gone the Batis way previously. OTOH, the price and weight difference ensure that the Batis keeps a healthy place in the market. That said, buying the GM instead on the Batis offers benefits other than merely saisfying my snobbery and stupidity…:-)

      • pascaljappy says:

        A focusing ring, for instance 🙂

        No device, even coming from Zeiss, made with a crappy focusing ring deserves to be called a photo lens 😉 Leica, for all their pink crocodile leather, fake-aged-bronze and “screenless digital” wanderings, never forgot that.

        Phewww, that feels better.

        • artuk says:

          I must conceded you are correct about Leica, some of their lenses are excellent – although its easy to make excellent lenses when unconstrained by the need to hit a retail price that most people can afford (its far harder to make something 95% as good at 1/4 of the price).

          As for the Batis, it has only one obvious good attribute – sharpness. Its the thing that gets everyone on the internet talking about how amazing it is. I used mine,again today to take some physique portraits, some with a background with an artificial waterfall in sunlight. Needless to say, the entire background is full of nissen rings, blurry discs caused by badly made aspherics that I would expect in a cheap kit lens, and cats eyes anywhere off axis. Opening raw files often shows excessive sharpness, especially on the A7s and with my raw converter of choice (not Adobe) to an almost comical level.

          It vignettes like crazy, as is well reported.

          Fortunately today I was using it in good light so it would focus fairly quickly (but still did the odd bit of hunting). In low contrast light on the A7, A7ii and A7s it hunts, often very slowly, and fails to focus whereas the Sony Fe 24-70mm f4 will focus. Where this has been mentioned in other forums there is often lots of superior talk about the A7R2, PDAF etc none of which explains why an f4 zoom will focus on a scene when an f1.8 prime will not. I fail to see how that can possibly be an issue with the camera body.

          It is the latter issue for me which means I simply cannot trust and rely on it. Where I may need a portrait lens, it is often using wireless studio type flash where ambient light levels are low – and it has caught me out more than once with slow focusing or complete failure to focus. I know other peoples experience may vary – but there is a technical difference between low contrast light and low but contrasty light, which I think gives different results for different users in different situations.

          The bokeh is almost always disappointing in more challenging lighting – i did take some flower portraits recently with nice flat tone backgrounds that came out smooth, but anything with any mixed light or highlights just isn’t rendered at all nicely in my opinion.

          I actually think the Sony FE 90mm f2.8 is a much nicer lens in its drawing and rendition, and the GM 85mm appears to be in at least the same league or rather higher. The Batis has been a disappointment – but wow, look how sharp it is!

          I wish people wouldn’t be so precious about it – its only because it has a blue Zeiss badge, even though its made by Cosina.

          • pascaljappy says:

            Yes, it’s probably more difficult to design great compromises than no-limits items (though, to be fair to Leica, the size contrainst they set themselves are very stringent limits). AF, bokeh, sharpness, colour … all of these are tradeoffs and it’s really a case of caveat emptor. Sharpness is an easy sell. The look and feel of a great lens such as the G90 is much more difficult to convey in graphs and press releases. So it’s unavoidable that the entry ranges will focus on that over other criteria. I’ve never tried the Batis 85. It’s a shame that you don’t find the bokeh pleasing.After all, it is a Sonnar design, so bokeh should have been a strong point. But, then again, original sonnars weren’t full of aspherics. Compromises again 😉 Don’t get me started on AF… 😉 It’s great 80% of the time but the other 20% outweigh the positives for me and by a large marging. But these cameras are customisable and can probably perform better than mine in more interested hands. I’ll just stick to MF for as long as it’s official canon to do so. Cheers, Pascal

  • Mark Muse says:

    As far as a focus ring goes, focus by wire has come a long way. I find it to be completely satisfactory now. But I bought the 85 Batis to photograph people in action and typically in low light. For that I want autofocus. I just shot a gig over the weekend, all at 1.8, and performance was superb – as was image quality. Haven’t done any serious landscape work with it yet. I do love my 90mm Sonnar G for that, manual focusing by adapter not withstanding.

    Yes, half the weight, half the cost, and 98% of the performance.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Aaah, the Sonnar G 90mm, what a nice lens that is. I must say, the Sony G90 is really lovely too. Great delicate colours, lightweight, easy. If the Batis is the combination of the best these two have to offer, you enthusiasm is easy to understand 🙂

  • Jess Demant Aggeboe says:

    Great review! Get the Sony/Zeiss FE 35mm.f.1.4, it is also a Keeper, I love it …..

  • philberphoto says:

    Jess, thanks for your suggestion. However, I have never liked Sony-Zeiss lenses. I tried the 24mm f:1.8 and declined to buy it. I tried the 35mm f:2.0 incoroporated in the RX1, and declined. Then bowing to everyone’s glowing opinion of the FE 55 f:1.8, I bought one and haven’t a single really nice shot to show for it. Personally, I prefer the G lenses (FE 90 macro, FE 70-200). So, while your suggestion makes total sense, I wonder whether I will like this lens. I also recall comment indicating that it was not optimized for landscape. But I would love to be wrong, and for you to tell me that the 35 is not like its Zony brethren…

  • Lawrence says:

    “The question mark. There are times when colours are a bit strange, with a distinct yellow-green tint that ought not to be there, and that isn’t the prettiest.”

    Hello: Is it possible to post to an example of the GM 85’s distinct yellow-green tint you describe compared to the same image taken with another lens? Thank you.

    • artuk says:

      Historically, different Minolta lenses had different colour signatures, one assumes as a result of different glass and different coatings. From memory, the G designated lenses tended to push greens more to a yellow green colour, whilst other lenses in the range had a darker (perhaps more neutral) pure green. On film, maybe it was important. On digital, I see less and less relevance. Some people tall about various modern Sony, Zeiss and legacy Minolta lenses and,their colour signatures when frankly changing the cameras creative style (colour profile) would have a far greater impact on colour rendition.

      I’ve also seen people say they don’t like Sony cameras because of their colour. I don’t know what this means. They don’t like the auto white balance? They don’t like the camera jpegs? If working from raw, they don’t like Adobes interpretation of colour data? (Adobe have along track record of making a poor job of interpreting various cameras raw files, and seem to do the minimum possible to implement a new camera). Capture One has better colour, but can be hopelessly unstable and slow on Windows machines, to the point where I stopped using it and gave it up (it leaked memory like a sieve, ate up all the machines ram and virtual memory, didn’t manage resources, and crashed multiple times a day). I actually find SilkyPix gives extraordinary detail and sharpness using the latest version, and excellent control over colour with various “film simulations” (colour profiles) plus user editable profiles.

      Judging a camera from jpegs for serious use is rather silly, and commenting on,colour otherwise is just meaningless. It’s just rgb data in a file off the sensor, that can be interpreted millions of ways depending on your software. I do agree that different lenses have different looks and drawing style however, though often very subtle.

      • pascaljappy says:

        Hi Artuk,

        first of all, none of us on this blog shoot jpeg. We’ve all been using raw from the day it became available, many many years ago. And when we say we don’t like Sony colours, it simplu means that the rendition of Sony cameras isn’t neutral and very often difficult to correct adequately. Yes, a strong digital filter has more impact and yes, profiling the camera would help. But I still think Sony could easily provide better out of the camera colours. It’s not just about the computer software, not all raws are created equal. Some manufacturers are closer to the real colours, some are just as distorted, but more pleasant. And many of them use Sony sensors. But you are correct, some software does a better job at reading proprietary raws than others. It might be worth trying Silky Pix these days. Past experience had just made the very thought unbareable 😉 But things may well have evolved for the best in recent years. Cheers, Pascal

        • artuk says:

          Sorry Pascal, I wasn’t suggesting you shoot jpeg only – my comments are broader but based an a large number of people I’ve come across online who base their views of camera and lenses on web sized jpegs and out of camera files. Really nothing personal.

          As for Sony colour casts… The RGB data off the sensor is just data that raw conversion needs to turn back into a full colour image. Of course, the color filters on the micro lenses will vary by camera maker (even if using the same Sony sensor), and my guess is that the analog to digital conversion process on sensor can be biased in various ways by manufacturer. If you feel there is a colour cast it could be this, though I’m more inclined to think its at least in part a function of how the engineers of the raw development software chose to interpret the RGB colour data. You clearly have a more discerning eye than me, since I can’t say I’ve noticed any issue – although as mentioned earlier, the choice of creative style, colour profile or film simulation in you chosen raw developer can have such a huge impact on the result. I tend to process each file on it’s merit to create a “look” that I like, which isn’t really based on accuracy or fidelity (for portrait work I often put colour shifts, white balance shifts, and ND tints to create a more “dirty” less neutral look – so colour response isn’t really a concern!). I would say I go get problems with shadows getting very “crunchy” and showing colour shifts and sometimes a kind of solarisation effect, where the data appears to have simply “run out” (not enough bits). This has been a problem with several generations of Sony cameras, but as I’ve never used other brands “in anger” I have assumed its a general issue rather than a brand specific one. Again, different manufacturers handle their files in different ways – Canon and Nikon tend to move the black point up in camera with increasing ISO to simply hide the noise – this seems to be a particular issue for Canon as the DR of their sensors tends to be rather poor with increasing ISO. But this is all a whole other conversation, not related to the GM85, which appears to be a lovely lens.

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