Review Sony 50mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar (S APS-C)
How good is the Sony 50 mm f/1.4 Zeiss, which was introduced mid 2013 with a suggested retail price of 1500 euro? This standard lens with a focal length of 50 mm is a popular lens. This is a high quality Carl Zeiss design: a bright Planar lens with minimal field curvature which makes the sharpness perfect in 1 flat plane. There are few, often macro, lenses that offer this. The high brightness makes this lens ideal for shooting in low light. And you can also use the large f/1.4 aperture to isolate a subject from the background and to create a beautiful background blur. The lens has a sturdy, sealed aluminium construction that is dust-resistant and waterproof. The Sony 50 mm f/1.4 Zeiss is designed for use on a camera with a full frame sensor, but we tested it first with a Sony A77, a camera with a smaller, APS-C sensor. With the 1.5x crop factor you would be able to use this standard lens as a portrait lens.
Sony 50mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T review @ Sony A77
Zoom lens or fixed focal length? Today there are multiple zoom lenses on the market that in terms of image quality are not inferior to lenses with a fixed focal length. The Sony Zeiss 24-70 mm Zeiss and the Sony Zeiss 16-80 mm are examples. When you compare the performance of these lenses with that of the Sony 50 mm f/1.4 Zeiss, you will notice that they are not equal to each other in terms of image quality. The difference in brightness of the lens with a fixed focal length extends your creative possibilities through an incomparable background blur at f/1.4. There are also many, particularly advanced, photographers who prefer working with a fixed focus rather than a zoom lens. A fixed focal length forces you to think carefully about point of view and composition. By photographing more deliberately, you also come home with nicer recordings.
Do you have a minute? Because on this part we could dwell for a long time on the qualities of this Sony Zeiss lens. The Sony 50 mm 1.4 lens has a metal body and mount. It's not light (1/2 kilogram), but this lens is really a pleasure to work with. The drive of the autofocus (with an SSM: Super Sonic wave Motor) is fast, quiet and even in low light the AF works well. Without a switch, you can overrule the AF manually at any time by depressing the button, which is in the middle of the AF/MF switch. Even on manual focus, we noticed no shortcomings. The front lens does not turn while focusing. This lens uses an internal focusing mechanism. The Sony Zeiss 50 mm 1.4 lens has no built-in image stabilization because with Sony, the image stabilization is in the camera. You get less advantage with that in comparison with the image stabilization of other brands. You might see that as a flaw. The high light brightness in combination with the good signal/noise ratio of modern cameras means that in practice you will rarely miss it.
Resolution Sony 50mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T
In many lens designs there is field curvature: the sharpness is not perfect in 1 plane. With the resolution measurements we sometimes encounter this because the sharpness in the corners appears higher than the sharpness at the edges. Assuming you have focus at the center, you expect that the sharpness decreases from center, from the edges to the corners. If there is field curvature, you can see that in practice shots because the sharpness then does not lie in 1 plane.
Macro lenses are usually designed so that the sharpness lies perfectly in 1 plane. And with the Sony 50 mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T (the name says it all: "Planar"), there is sign of field curvature. That's good for us, when measuring the resolution. This lens already has a solid sharpness at maximum aperture. At aperture f/5.6, this lens achieves the highest center sharpness, while the sharpness at the edges lags still slightly behind the center. Secretly, especially after testing the Sigma 35 mm f/1.4 Art and the Sigma 18-35 mm f/1.8 Art, we were expecting a bit more from the Sony 50 mm f/1.4.
That this Sony 50 mm 1.4 Zeiss is designed for use on a camera with a full frame sensor, you'll see immediately in the excellent performance for vignetting. Even at f/1.4 you will not be bothered at all by vignetting if you use this lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor, such as the Sony A77.
You'll have practically no problems with distortion. In the jpg file, we measured a lower distortion than in the RAW file. The in-camera correction for lens errors by the Sony A77 did a good job. Just make sure that you install the most current firmware on your camera: this lens is more recent than the Sony A77.
Bokeh Sony 50mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T
This time we haven't made any pictures with our traditional test set-up for bokeh, but we have used a number of practice shots for the assessment of the bokeh. In our test shots, the sharpness transitioned very nicely about into the background blur. And the bokeh was, thanks in part to the high brightness and a diaphragm with 9 lamellae, nicely round and quiet. If you didn't know, you might think that the pictures were taken with a camera with a full frame sensor. The nice bokeh opens up a world of creative possibilities and is ideal for portrait photography to isolate the subject from any distracting elements in the background.
Flare Sony 50mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T
Mastery is displayed in moderation. Sony has a number of lenses that consist of a handful of elements. This reduces the chance of internal reflections. The Sony 50 mm 1.4 Zeiss is built from only 8 elements in 5 groups. Clever of Zeiss. The special Zeiss T* coating should, according to Sony, prevent virtually all flare. That seems to us somewhat exaggerated. You won't often encounter flare and ghosts when using the Sony 50 mm 1.4 Zeiss. Even so, flare is not prevented in all cases. Even when using the included lens hood, under extreme conditions you have to watch out for the sun. The picture shown here was taken with the sun just out of frame, with the lens hood on.
Lateral chromatic aberration, colored edges at sharp contrast transitions in the corners of the image, is at a magnification of 100% just visible on the screen. In practice, it will probably be rare the lateral CA disturbance is present. This lens performs well here, but maybe not as excellently as you would expect from the price.
Longitudinal chromatic aberration is a phenomenon that can occur with lenses with a high brightness (< f/2.8). And that's the case here. As you can see in the image here, there is a light color bokeh visible, whereby sharp contrast transitions behind the focus point are tinged with green and those in front of the focus point are tinted purple. It's a bit dependent on the subject whether you come across this in practice. In the practice shots we made, we had little trouble with it.
Conclusion Sony 50mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T review
WYSIWYG score: This table shows the performance of this lens when you store the files in the camera as jpg, with all available in-camera lens corrections applied. This score gives you for this lens/test camera combination: "What you see is what you get".
Pure RAW score: This table shows the performance of this lens when the file is stored in the camera in RAW format. This score approaches the intrinsic quality of the combination of lens and test camera.
Super solidly built
Fast and quiet AF
High image quality
Beautiful portrait lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor
Softer image at maximum aperture
Given the high price, this lens is intended for a small target audience of demanding amateur photographers and professionals. The Sony 50 mm f/1.4 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Planar T is a fantastically well-built lens, that is delightful to use. It is so well put together that without doubt under the most extreme conditions it will keep working perfectly. Also in terms of image quality (center sharpness, distortion, vignetting) this lens meets the highest demands. But if you're already happily in possession of a Sony 24-70 mm Zeiss or a Sony Zeiss 16-80 mm, then the question is whether you gain anything in terms of image quality. Or you need it for the bokeh. The bokeh of the Sony 50 mm 1.4 Zeiss is – also on a camera with an APS-C sensor – stunningly beautiful. To take advantage of the highest resolution, you can stop down two stops. Each disadvantage has an advantage, said a well-known footballer. If you're using this lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor as a portrait lens, then you will perhaps appreciate the softer image at maximum aperture.
Author: Ivo Freriks
With Camera Review Stuff I hope to make a modest contribution to the pleasure that you get from photography. By testing cameras and lenses in the same way, evluating the results and weighing up the pros and cons, I hope to help you find the right camera or lens.