Sony

Review Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss

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Personally, I drive a Volkswagen Golf. And if there's a Ferrari Testarossa in front of the door, of course, the question arises of how much faster that can go. Curious and with sweaty palms – you don't want to fly off the road during the test – I crept behind the wheel of a Ferrari to figure that out. Fortunately, this is not a website about cars. The Ferrari that I was talking about was a Sony FE 55 mm f/1.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar, in combination with the Sony A7R and its 36-megapixel, full-frame sensor.

The Sony FE 55 mm Sonnar T* FE F1.8 ZA is one of the first FE lenses available for the two spectacular full-frame mirrorless cameras (Sony A7 and Sony A7R) that appeared at the end of 2013.

SonyZeiss55mm

This bright, fixed-focal length lens is universally usable, with which you immediately think of low-light situations or creating a beautiful background blur. With a suggested retail price of 1,000 euros, this is not a cheap lens. The Sony Zeiss lenses, recognizable by the blue logo on the side of the lens, are the showpieces of the Sony lens stable. How well they would perform?

Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T with a Sony A7R

Construction and autofocus

This lens breathes luxury and has a very nicely executed, dust- and moisture-resistant, matte black metal body. It comes with a lens pouch and a metal lens hood. The new FE mount fits on both Sony cameras with a full-frame sensor (Sony A7R) and on Sony cameras with an APS-C Sensor (Sony A77). For a standard lens, the Sony 55 mm f/1.8 Zeiss is relatively long (71 mm), which is further accentuated if you used the included lens hood. The lens hood is reversed for transport on the lens, but then you can no longer focus well manually. The lens body weighs nearly 3 ounces, is made of metal and has a broad focus ring that turns deliciously smooth. Manual focusing is done with a focus-by-wire system, which means that there is no hard stop at infinity or the shortest setting distance (50 cm).

The AF is fast, quiet and accurate.

Specifications
Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T
Image Stabilization:-
lenses/ groups:7/5
length x diameter:71 / 64
filter size:49
Weight:281
Lens hood:+

Vignetting

Vignetting is, as with virtually all lenses on a full-frame sensor, in some practice shots visible at maximum aperture. At maximum aperture, the vignetting is just over 1 aperture stop, after 1 stop stopping down cut in half. On this point, I would classify the Sony 55 mm 1.8 Zeiss as good/very good, instead of first class. Fortunately, vignetting is easy to correct with software, if you do have trouble with it.

In our measurement results from lab test shots, the vignetting in jpg files is slightly higher than in RAW files. We see the same phenomenon when testing with a Canon camera, and this may have to do with the in-camera conversion from RAW to jpg.

RAWvignet

Distortion

Distortion is absent. And that is not because it's corrected by the camera. We measure 0.1% barrel distortion in uncorrected RAW files. That's not visible to the naked eye. Perfect.

RAWdistort

Flaring

 

The original T* surface coating works with Carl Zeiss ' advanced optical design and suppresses internal reflection in the inside of the lens. This guarantees, according to Sony, strong contrast with bright accents and deep blacks – a typical feature of the top-class Zeiss lenses. However, in extreme situations such as night shots or direct backlighting, ghosts will appear, such as the night shot on the right shows. I would also rate the Sony 55 mm 1.8 Zeiss here as good/very good.

flare

Sharpness

 

The Sony 55 mm f/1.8 Zeiss makes maximal use of the 36 megapixels of the Sony A7R. With this combination, you actually make sharper images than with an exceptional lens on a camera with a 24 megapixel sensor, although you will have to significantly magnify the image to see the differences.

This lens delivers sharp images, starting from full aperture, from the center to the corners. You see the sharpness increase after 1 stop stopping down, but the sharpness is also very high at maximum aperture, which is accentuated by the beautiful background blur. The highest sharpness we measured after stopping down 2 stops, but with the naked eye I see no difference in sharpness between recordings made with an aperture between f/2.8 and f/11.

Resolutie

You don't generally achieve this enormously high sharpness. It's best when photographing from a tripod. If you shoot with this lens on a Sony A7R by hand, then make sure that you have a shutter speed of 1/125 second or faster. At slower shutter speeds, you run a big risk of losing some resolution to motion blur. Given the high resolving power of this lens, that isn't that bad.

Tip: If you use the 50 ISO setting of the Sony A7R, not only do you get low-noise, very natural looking files, but you can use the longer f/1.8 for a beautiful background blur, without fear of overexposure. One stop difference is more than you think.

sample-imageImage cutout of a 50 ISO picture made at f/5.6, 1/160 sec

Click (2x) on the image for a larger version, shown at 100%

Chromatic aberration

 

The Sony FE 55 mm f/1.8 Zeiss is a surprising design that contains only 7 elements in 5 groups. In its simplicity, it shows its mastery. There are various aspherical lenses applied to combat aberrations. And that design was successful: we looked at the chromatic aberration in uncorrected RAW files (many cameras automatically correct chromatic aberration in jpg files, meaning you're not looking at the pure performance of the lens), then the measured values for the Sony 55 mm 1.8 is among the best 5 (of the 700) measurement results that we now have.

A good lens design ensures a complete absence of lateral chromatic aberration.

Lensdesign

Bokeh

The Sony 55mm f.18 Zeiss on the Sony A7R with its full-frame sensor offers at maximum aperture a beautiful bokeh thanks to the 9 aperture blades from which it's built. From vignetting, the bokeh has a cat's eye character in the corners, as with virtually all lenses we've tested on a full-frame sensor. On the right, you'll see that there's even a tiny bit of an onion pattern just barely visible in the bokeh. That phenomenon we see more often in very sharp lenses with aspherical lenses, and in this case it's definitely not disruptive. Also the shift from sharp to unsharp runs very naturally. Here you see the enlarged version of the above practice shot.

bokeh

bokehoverview

Conclusion Sony FE 55mm F1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T test with a Sony A7R

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See our overview of all tested lenses or the list of tested lenses with a Sony mount to compare the performance of this lens with other lenses.

ECWYSIWYG 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".
55
55
8.8
8.9
9.3
6.0
9.4
9
ECPure 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.
55
55
9.0
8.7
9.7
8.3
9.5
9

Advantages

  • Very high image quality (resolution, absence chromatic aberration)
  • High corner sharpness from full aperture
  • Very well built
  • Beautiful background blur/bokeh
  • Perfect auto focus; fast and reproducible

Disadvantages

  • Visible vignetting at maximum aperture. Somewhat prone to flare.
  • No built-in image stabilization

The English-language press describes this lens as a "stellar performer". That may sound even more beautiful than the Dutch "top class", but both terms are accurate. A comparison of this lens with a (black) Ferrari Testarossa isn't really that crazy. Fortunately, the price of the Sony Zeiss 55 mm f/1.8 is much lower.

The introduction of 36 megapixel cameras with a full-frame sensor places extremely high demands on lenses. The Sony FE 55 mm Sonnar T* FE F1.8 ZA gives the best performance of all lenses with a focal point between 45 and 60 mm (35 mm equivalent) that we have tested to date. It is an absolute must for every owner of a Sony camera with a full-frame sensor. The image quality on virtually all fronts (resolution, distortion, chromatic aberration) is extremely high. But nothing is perfect. Vignetting, as with virtually all lenses on a full-frame sensor, is visible at maximum aperture. In night shots, you need to watch out for ghosts from a bright light source. If you really want to get the maximum resolution, then you will have to exclude movement blur. If you work with a tripod, or, if you are shooting by hand, choose a shutter speed of 1/125 second.

Ivo Freriks
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.

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  • Thanks for your contribution Pete.

  • I find it very strange that Sony makes these super high quality sensors and doesn't seem to be able to make more excellent native FE lenses like this Zeiss 55mm. The Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 zoom is an optical disappointment, the 35mm f/2.8 is only mediocre and the kit lens is nothing to write home about either. What's going on at Sony? Zeiss is capable of making truly excellent lenses, but where are they?

  • Nick

    COM_KOMENTO_COMMENT_IN_REPLY_TO_NAME

    As much as I enjoy my a7r with this Zeiss 55mm, I would love to see high quality 28mm and 85mm lenses that match the excellent sensor. Maybe it's a real technical challenge to design lenses for the a7 series?<br /><br />"you actually make sharper images than with an exceptional lens on a camera with a 24 megapixel sensor, although you will have to significantly magnify the image to see the differences" - Or crop the image (i.e. use the popular square format). Never enough megapixels my friend.

  • Pete

    COM_KOMENTO_COMMENT_IN_REPLY_TO_NAME

    <br />For 28mm, I use Takumar 28mm F3.5. The sharpest lens I owned to date (was a Canon user). It's very good for street photography and landscape if bokeh is not on your requirement list. Very SHARP.

  • Bob

    COM_KOMENTO_COMMENT_IN_REPLY_TO_NAME

    Hi Sam,<br /><br />Thanks for your comment.<br />You're not the only one desperately waiting for lenses to match the quality of the Sony A7R.<br /><br />Regards,<br /><br />Bob

  • You suggest that "if you are shooting by hand, choose a shutter speed of 1/125 second" with this lens, but that's true of any lens - even those with stabilisation - since shutter speeds slower than that will blur even the tiniest movement in your subject. To a newcomer/ beginner, you make this sound like a fault of this particular lens.

  • Hakan

    COM_KOMENTO_COMMENT_IN_REPLY_TO_NAME

    You're totally wrong about lenses with OSS (optical steady shot). I've SEL50F1.8 OSS and SEL35F1.8 OSS.Although 50mm equals to 85mm FF focal leght, in other words way longer than 55mm, OSS provides tack sharp photos even at 1/30s., 1/20s. ... As you disable it, this shutter speeds are dream for sharp photos.OSS changes the game.period

  • mb-de

    COM_KOMENTO_COMMENT_IN_REPLY_TO_NAME

    Mr Hakan, your statement may be correct for the influence of camera shake (if the shutter shock does not upset the stabilizer - which by my experience can and will happen - I have seen this with a number of stabilized Panasonic lenses for MFT on the GX1 and GH3 and with the SEL50F18 on a NEX-5N…). <br /><br />What the IS will not address is any object motion - which will be quite detrimental at longer exposure times - like the ones you mention.<br /><br />With a static object and correct breathing techniques I have frequently produced blurr-free images with analogue Leica Ms and with the digital Sony RX1 at exposure times of 1/8..1/15s without support - but any object motion will remove any chance of success.

  • COM_KOMENTO_COMMENT_IN_REPLY_TO_NAME

    Hi Dave,<br /><br />Your observation that my suggestion is true for every lens is absolutely right. <br />A beginner might perhaps think that this is true for this lens only, which is not the case.<br /><br />This very good lens seems to me a lens for experienced photographers. And I meet many experienced photographers that shoot by hand with a 1/50 sec for a 50mm lens @ full frame. I made the remark with this group of photographers in mind.<br /><br />Thanks for your comment,<br /><br /><br />Ivo