Date: 24/04/2015 | By: Mathieu
Sacrificing small size for quality – The Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA Review
When Sony announced the development of the Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 last year at Photokina, I was surprised at first because it was the third 35mm lens on the roadmap for a system that was less than one year old at the time. At the Cologne show Mr. Yasuyuki Nagata (General Manager – Lens and Peripheral Business) explained that this lens was in fact highly requested. Users wanted a 35mm with the best possible performance, which put Sony in a difficult position because CSC users also deeply care about the size of their kit. And the size of this new fast prime lens can’t be ignored.
This dilemma ultimately leads us to the following question:
Is the performance of the Distagon 35mm f/1.4 good enough to make you forget about the size?
The Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA Main Specs
- Focal length: 35mm
- Maximum aperture: 1.4
- Minimum aperture: 16
- Number of aperture blades: 9 circular aperture
- Angle of view: 63°
- Closest focusing distance: 30cm
- Lens configuration: 12 elements / 8 groups
- Special elements: a AA element, 2 Aspherical elements
- Lens surface coating: yes (T Coating)
- Maximum image magnification: 0.18x
- Optical Image Stabilizer: No
- Dimensions: φ78.5 Ø, 112 mm
- Filter diamater: 72mm
- Weight: 630g
Table of Contents
Below is a quick hands-on video about the lens that also shows you image and video samples. Read further for a more in-depth analysis and image samples.
Build quality and ease of use
The Distagon 35mm shares the same strong build as many of the other Sony FE lenses. It has an all-metal surface and is dust and moisture resistant. The lens hood is made of plastic with a metal ring on the external surface. The focus ring is really large which makes it easy to operate in all conditions. It is a focus-by-wire type but very precise when I used it for both stills and video. The downside with video however is that you have to turn it a lot to switch from infinity to the shortest focus distances.
The most interesting characteristic is the presence of an aperture ring with 1/3 markings. It is very precise and smooth to use and has the convenience of a de-click option via the dedicated switch on the side. This feature will certainly be appreciated by filmmakers.
I wish that every Sony lens could have an aperture ring. It is so nice to use.
As you can see from the images, it is a big lens. We are definitely in DSLR territory here. Actually, if I compare its size with the equivalent offerings from DSLR systems, the Distagon is the longest and heaviest out of the five (excluding the Sigma Art in terms of the weight):
- Sony 35mm f/1.4 G (A-mount): 69mm x 76mm, 510g
- Canon 35mm f/1.4 L USM: 79mm x 86mm, 580g
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 G: 83mm x 89.5mm, 600g
- Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4: 77mm x 94mm, 665g
Is this bad or good? Well, I don’t want to crucify this lens for its size but it is certainly controversial because most brands (including Sony) are pushing mirrorless cameras for their compactness. I am not an engineer but I can certainly understand that designing a compact full-frame lens with great performance and autofocus must be challenging. Actually this is exactly what Mr. Nagata explained to us. In a quote from his interview, he states:
“It’s a big issue. Customers request three things: performance (including sharp corners and no vignetting, distortion and chromatic aberration). They really care about size and weight. Certainly they really care about the price. It’s really difficult for us to create lenses by combining these three aspects.” – Mr. Yasuyuki Nagata (General Manager – Lens and Peripheral Business)
So I guess that the FE lens line-up could split into two distinct categories in the future: the small and compact lenses on one hand (like the FE 35mm f/2.8) and the bigger, more expensive lenses on the other (like the one I am reviewing here). Customers will have more choice but at the same time, more to sacrifice if they place performance first. And that’s just the prime lenses. I wonder what the reaction would be if Sony decided to develop f/2.8 constant aperture zooms for the E-mount system in the future.
But back to this Distagon. If we put specs aside, I admit that it isn’t that heavy to carry around and it handles quite well with the A7s. With the A7 Mark II, it is certainly better. So now we know that it is big, let’s now turn to how great this lens is.
Through the lens: image quality
Given the size and the price (around $1600) you would expect top quality and while the Sony Zeiss 35mm 1.4 doesn’t fail, it is not perfect. Colour rendering is great and gives the same results as the other Sony ZA lenses. But let’s start from the performance at the fastest aperture, since it is the main reason you’d be interested in this lens in the first place. The good news is that at f/1.4 the lens is really sharp. The bokeh can be really creamy and pleasant and the minimum focus distance of 30cm can be of help as well. You can definitely detect Zeiss quality here.
Full frame and f/1.4 also means having the option of isolating your subject with a shallow depth of field even when you don’t focus at the closest distance. The Distagon offers good performance here as well and can generate a nice 3D feel but it also depends on the type of background and how far off it is.
At f/1.4 there is vignetting but it can be easily removed in Lightroom, especially with the new version (CC/6) because it includes the lens profile. You can also find traces of chromatic aberration but in total honesty I didn’t find it too invasive at least on the A7s. Some users have reported this issue but I don’t find it very annoying. The only picture I have where it is clearly noticeable is the one below but it is silly to shoot such a frame at 1.4 if not to highlight CA. With Lightroom or other software, it can be removed or at least reduced.
At the smaller apertures, the lens delivers sharp results across the entire frame, both at the centre and in the corners. It’s a great performer overall in terms of sharpness with excellent micro contrast. There is no doubt that this is its best characteristic. I could have appreciated the sharpness even more on the A7 or A7r but unfortunately I could only test this lens on the A7s. But there is no reason to suspect that the lens couldn’t handle higher resolutions.
The lens includes the Zeiss T* coating to reduce flare. Overall the lens handles backlight and direct sun well but it isn’t perfect. Ghost flares can be present like in some of the examples below. Fortunately it is nothing really dramatic but it can leave a trace of imperfection on your composition.
There is some slight barrel distortion that the camera won’t correct perfectly. However I don’t see this as a major problem because Lightroom 6 will automatically correct the distortion since it has the lens profile.
Autofocus and performance
The autofocus is not the lens’ best characteristic, at least in my findings. The first day the AF performed poorly with my A7s. However I made the mistake of not checking for firmware updates right away. Sometimes you can’t help but get excited about testing new gear and you just want to go out which, in my case, was also due to my limited time with the lens. So on the second day I updated my A7s with the latest firmware version 1.20 which improves the use of the camera with the latest FE lenses including the 35mm. Yes, the AF was a little bit better but there is still a constant back and forth movement when focusing even in good light conditions. Sometimes it was less annoying, sometimes it took the camera almost 2 seconds to focus. I believe that the performance should be better on the A7/A7 mark II because they include phase detection AF but it is also true that my A7s performs better with the 55mm f/1.8. For video, I couldn’t test the lens’ autofocus that much but judging from the few shots I took, it wasn’t bad. You can see an example with the squirrel shot in the video at minute 3:54 (beginning of this article).
One thing that I find a little bit disappointing about this lens is the lack of optical stabilisation. Considering that it is bigger than most 35mm DSLR lenses on the market, I would have been more accepting of the size had the lens also been stabilised. This means that right now you’ll have stabilisation only if you use the A7 Mark II with this lens. But considering that it is also nice to use for video, it would have been great to have this option on the other A7 cameras as well. After all, the A7s is the most natural choice for video out of the FE series.
The Sony FE 35mm f/1.4 is a nice lens that delivers the kind of results you would expect. At the same time, it is not perfect from an image quality point of view (CA, some distortion) and to be honest it is not one of those lenses you fall in love with right from the start. Its size certainly doesn’t help but even if you consider its overall performance, it is really good but not stunning.
Personally, I would never buy it mainly due to the size issue. I would prefer the 35mm f/2.8 or even better the Loxia 2/35, as it would suit my needs just fine. The FE 35mm 1.4 is a professional lens that can deliver great results in the right hands and can be of great use for various assignments where having a fast lens is key. I can see it doing well for reportage, events, weddings, astro-phototography and video use. But it is not for everyone, especially those who have left a DSLR system for a smaller and more compact alternative.
What I like about the Sony Distagon T FE 35mm F1.4 ZA:
- Great sharpness at f/1.4
- Sharp from corner to corner at the smallest apertures
- Nice bokeh
- The aperture ring is really nice to use
What I don’t like about the Sony Distagon T FE 35mm F1.4 ZA:
- It is a big lens, even slightly larger than most DSLR equivalents
- Lack of optical stabilisation
- Autofocus is a little bit slow with the A7s
What are your thoughts about the 35mm f/1.4? Is it a lens you’d add to your collection? Share your thoughts below!
This lens was rented from the amazing people at HireaCamera.
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