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Whip Smart: Sony’s new FE 35mm f/1.8 is the lens we have been waiting for

There is a “journey of focal lengths” photographers take on the road from beginner to expert. In the film era, you would start with a normal 50mm lens and then move to longer or wider focal lengths, eventually settling in on a preferred way of seeing. For many, that favorite FOV is 35mm – a classic and flexible focal length, well suited for landscapes, street, reportage, weddings, fashion or portraits. 35mm is a desert island lens – the one you would keep if you could have no other.

Sony’s very first full frame digital mirrorless camera, the RX1 was built around this desert island concept because well, you couldn’t put any other lens on it – the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 lens was literally bolted to the camera. With its fast f/2 aperture and compact size, the Sonnar was quickly recognized as a one of the all-time greats. Not clinically perfect, it is what some call a “character lens” specifically recognized for its wonderful rendering of the transition between very sharp focus and out-of-focus backgrounds. The Sonnar also has excellent bokeh with soft edges and mostly round structure. The only complaint I have with the Sonnar is that you can’t use it on Sony’s more popular and prevalent E-mount. I’m not alone, as there has been a loud chorus of voices calling for a similar lens that could be used on our a7 and a9 cameras.

Enter the newly released and long awaited Sony FE 35mm/f1.8. Is this the compact and fast 35mm we’ve been waiting for? On the surface it checks all the boxes: fast (f/1.8), compact (280g) and at a launch price of $748, cheaper than both the compact f/2.8 Sonnar ($798) and the SLR sized f/1.4 Distagon ($1598). It doesn’t carry a G or GM badge, but at this price point, clearly it isn’t a budget lens. My gut told me this was a lens similar in concept to the popular FE 85mm f/1.8 – a compact, fast focusing, very sharp lens with hopefully some great character.

At the a7rIV launch event in NYC, while the YouTube review army were fixated on 61 megapixels, I arranged to meet my Sony contact for a covert handoff of the FE 35mm f/1.8. Since then I’ve captured a wide variety of images to illustrate how the lens performs in different scenarios. With the exception of a couple Sony production sets at their BeAlpha event in NYC, this was all done in real-world environments that would reflect street shooting, editorial, or just your everyday vacation snaps. Where would the lens shine and what if any compromises were made to deliver the final performance profile?

One of the things that attracts me to a fast 35mm is the dual personality it presents. I love doing street scenes and portraits at opposite ends of the aperture scale to create completely different looks. This is a lens that can produce both an evocative shallow focus portrait or a deep focus image with an incredible amount of detail.

This nice lady shared her watermelon with us while we waited for the train to Coney Island – f/5.6 1/60 sec
f/3.2 1/2000 sec
f/4.5 1/250 sec
The a9 perfectly tracked this woman’s eyes as she walked towards me – I was also walking
f/1.8 1/8000 sec
I love the tiny Sony FVLF20M for fill flash – f/10 1/250 sec
f/6.3 1/80 sec
A man after my own heart – f/13 1/250 sec

Physically, the lens is well constructed in the same design language as the FE 85mm/f1.8, including a customizable function button on the barrel. Size and weight are nearly identical to the FE 55mm/f1.8. Focus is very, very quick, quiet and accurate. This is the type of compact prime that I signed up for when the concept of mirrorless was introduced.

Coney Island wipes everyone out – f/1.8 1/60 sec
Man in the mirror – f/1.8 1/200 sec

Paired with an a7/a9 body; the weight, balance and focus performance is a dream. I haven’t had an opportunity to use it on the Sony APS-C bodies but I imagine it will be equally well balanced. On the topic of APS-C, throw this lens on the new a7rIV and you essentially have a two-in-one 35mm/50mm prime kit – that’s 61mp at 35mm and 26mp in crop mode at roughly 50mm!

Still adored – f/1.8 1/2500 sec
The Empire struck out that night – f/1.8 1/800 sec
f/1.8 1/1250 sec

The more I shot with this new lens, the more something nagged me, a sense of recognition…could it be that the FE 35mm was designed to match the performance of the beloved 35mm Sonnar on the RX1? If so, it would be an unexpected revelation.

Set designed by Mark Seliger! f/2 1/500
f/2 1/100 sec

It didn’t take but a few comparison shots to see that my suspicion was confirmed. The two lenses were surprisingly similar if not identical in many scenarios. Out of focus transition – something the Sonnar excels at – looks to be similar if not identical in most of my comparison shots. This is huge, as the transition zone is what makes the Sonnar so special and what I was hoping to see in the FE 35mm.

Sony a9 f/1.8 1/320 sec
Sony RX1 f/2 1/250 sec

Bokeh is similar but the Sonnar distinguishes itself with slightly softer circles – the FE 35mm bokeh has a bit more highlight definition along the edges of the circles and some mechanical vignetting that can misshape the circles closer to the edges of the frame. You have to look close to see these differences but they are present.

Another area where the two lenses share DNA is sharpness. Both are biting sharp wide open but stop down to f/5.6 for crystalline perfection to the edges. I can still remember the first landscape I took with the RX1 and how it blew me away – that same feeling is there with the new lens.

South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center – f/7.1 1/400 sec
Lunch – f/1.8 1/4000
100%
Young Dinos – f/3.5 1/1250 sec
Slow and Low – f/3.5 1/100 sec

Chromatic aberrations look to be well controlled with the FE 35mm – maybe even more so than the Sonnar. Barrel distortion is minimal and easily corrected in camera or post. Vignetting is probably the biggest sin committed by the FE 35mm, with Sony using profile corrections to eliminate the effect before the images hit your computer. You can see the vignetting in a few of the sample photos as I had in-camera compensation turned off for a bit.

Image comparisons aside, what really impressed me about the new FE 35mm compared to the Sonnar is the usability on the latest generation of a7/a9 bodies. On the a9 specifically, focus was virtually instant, and the camera’s ability to automatically track my subject or shoot wide open at f/1.8 at ultra-high electronic shutter speeds (1/12800sec) in bright daylight enabled images I could never capture with the RX1.

f/1.8 1/2000 sec
Tournament Winner – f/3.5 1/3200 sec
f/1.8 1/1600 sec
f/1.8 1/10000 sec
f/8 1/320 sec

It has been several weeks since I first laid hands on the FE 35mm f/1.8 and it continues to impress; so much so that I can give it an unqualified recommendation for anyone looking for a go anywhere, fast semi-wide prime. It’s a sleeper lens that doesn’t need a GM badge to prove its capabilities. It marries the best of the classic definitive moment reportage concept found in the RX1 to the latest generation of Sony’s impressive autofocus systems in a significant evolutionary leap that is going to put a smile on a lot of faces.

Good Vibes f/1.8 1/800 sec
f/1.8 1/2000 sec
f/1.8 1/1000 sec
f/2.5 1/1600 sec

UPDATE 8/13/2019

Some people have commented on another forum that the FE is not nearly as good as the RX1’s Sonnar. One person even stated that the Sonnar has some magical micro contrast not present in the FE lens. The more I shoot both side-by-side, the more I confidently can say that this is not true. The two lenses are simply well matched in performance and draw a very similar image. To stir the pot some more, I’m going to post some real world comparison pics below with no indication of which lens took them – see for yourself.

About the author Chad Wadsworth

Chad is a Sony Artisan of Imagery and Red Bull Global Photographer based in Austin, TX.

All posts by Chad Wadsworth →

23 Comments

  1. Hi i am a fan of yur work thx for a good review

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  2. Reading this post, I realized that it’s actually quite rare to read or watch gear review with content that can back up the author’s words. Beautiful photos throughout, and great examples of what this lens can produce.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Well thank you! I only write about gear that satisfies me and I enjoy spreading the word. This little lens surprised me in a good way.

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  3. Hi, your reviews are amazing! Now, I’m torn between getting this lens or Voigtlander 40mm f1.2 (which you have reviewed). In my country, the CV used costs almost the same as the Sony 35mm. If you have to choose, which one will you take?
    I mainly shoot wedding and engagement photos, and like to take artsy and character pictures. Autofocus isn’t a matter to me. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks Natanael. Based on your photography I think you would be happiest with the 40/1.2 as it will give you that more dramatic subject isolation that I see in your beautiful images. Good luck.

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  4. Thanks for an informative review and great sample images. I’m considering replacing my Sony Zeiss F1.4 35mm lens with this new F1.8 version (The F1.4 is just too large and heavy and more ofzen than not gets left at home).

    How does the F1.8 compare to it’s older and much larger F1.4 sibling?

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    1. You are welcome Matt. I have the same issue. The Distagon f/1.4 is a very different lens – one built almost specifically for dreamy out of
      focus and sharp subject isolation – as you know. In a perfect world, I would keep both but you are probably right to think that the FE 35/1.8 will get used much more due to its great performance and small size.

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    2. I’ll add that the major difference between the lenses is the bokeh. If you only shoot the Distagon wide open and are addicted to that look, the FE will not be able to match it.

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      1. Thanks for your reply Chad. I appreciate your comments. The F1.4 has served me well for quite a few weddings and lots of events…..but now I find I’m using the 24mm F1.4 GM more and more instead. For the venues where I would need a tighter 35mm focal length the F1.8 would probably be a more sensible choice especially if the focussing is faster. I’ve pre-ordered the new lens but ….I have some time to think about it I guess.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ahh, well if you have the 24mm GM….

        I’m in the exact same boat and love that 24mm.

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      3. Would you say there’s still an obvious difference in the overall smoothness of the rendering when both lenses (35mm 1.4 & 35mm 1.8) are shot at the same f.stop?
        I use the Samyang FE 35mm 1.4 ony my first gen A7 and I’m very happy with everything about it, except for size and weight. I often find myself using that lens stopped down to 1.7 or 2.0 (it somehow has no stop at 1.8), and the OOF parts are still deep enough to me/the rendering still very smooth.
        So wonder if the Sony FE 35mm 1.8 can basically give the same results?

        Also, one other aspect: did you find the FE 35mm 1.8 to be a ‘true’ or ‘wider’ 35mm? I’ve heard that the RX1 Sonnar is actually closer to a 33mm FOV, just as my Samyang 35mm 1.4 (I’ve owned the Samxang 35mm 2.8 too, and there actually is a 2mm difference I’d say). In some pictures I see some difference, but I can’t confidently make out if you wanted to match FOV or if you used a tripod.

        That would help me a lot! Also, THANK YOU for that great review – not only are your shots great as always, but also the whole input when it comes to optics, comparisons to other lenses, etc. is sth. I appreciate A LOT.

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      4. Not sure on the true fov as it is tough to compare them without using a tripod and adjusting for the difference in distance between the front elements. All of my comparisons are loose as I was primarily evaluating the way each lens renders a scene holistically.

        As for your question about the Distagon vs FE at the same aperture. I did take one comparison image a few weeks ago and I threw them in a folder for you to access:

        https://www.dropbox.com/sh/7qmaq3mtnccr6xv/AABgu3HFrspoGGFwB9hpsvupa?dl=0

        Both were at f/1.8 but note that I was closer to the subject with the FE (or maybe it was just the shorter distance to the front element) so the bottle is larger and the background bokeh would naturally render a bit smoother. If the front element was the exact same distance, I think the bokeh would look even more similar – as it is they are close.

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  5. Hey Chad, thank you for that wonderful review and these beautiful images! Are there anywhere any information about which lens (RX1 Sonnar or Sony 35 FE) in your comparison?

    I see that they are quite equal but i see a difference in the colours. For example in the last picture the greens (box) and yellows (traffic light) from the second picture seems more punchier and i find it interesting to know which lens that is.

    Thank you and have a nice day 🙂

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  6. on the shot with the olivegreen scooter, bokeh is much smoother on the top photo, especially the writing on the UPS truck. Which one is the RX1?? i guess the bottom one

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    1. Well, I originally thought you were correct but no, the RX1 shot is the top. This is one of the few shots where you can see a difference in that out of focus transition – I would not call that bokeh, as it isn’t a highlight. On the subject of bokeh – I’ve noticed some onion rings in the RX1 shots that do not exist on the FE so I’m recalibrating my thoughts on which is better. I think generally, the RX1 can be a bit smoother along the edges of the bokeh circles but apparently, can also on occasion suffer onion rings, which I have yet to see in the 35/1.8.

      I grabbed some 1:1 crops here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/c99610e91noxmxg/AADKsmfoJtT-OZWcl-hWc19ca?dl=0

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      1. What about the last image, it’s probably the only one I can see clear difference zoomed out, one seems to have larger bokeh so I’m assuming the top one is the 35 1.8 and the bottom is the RX1, but considering the RX1 is smoother I don’t know.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. @Ppetrov – I should remove that last image comparison as the RX1 image (bottom image) is not focused properly on the traffic control box. Looks like it back focused a bit, thus the difference in the background.

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  7. Very nice review especially your comparison with the Sonnar. This is the lens I have been waiting for. I have the Samyang FE 35mm F2.8 and an adapted Carl Zeiss Distagon 35mm F2 ZS as my stop gap 35mm lenses. The Distagon has all the Zeiss signatures and this Sony 35mm seems to share those traits judging from your pictures. Thanks for the review.

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  8. I’m adding you to my reviewers list for lens reports – appreciate your side by sides of the RX1’s and FE. Makes a good case for the FE as a very pretty optical performer, regardless of the minuscule differences with the renowned Sonnar.

    A review of sharpness and vignette gets would be a needed addition to truly assess this or any lens – even just samples with 100% crops like Dusting and Phillip provide.

    Your imagery examples are very helpful to see OoF transitions, etc. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. For myself, I don’t need to see any additional testing on sharpness – in real world usage, it is as sharp if not sharper than the RX1’s Sonnar in the center. Pixel peeping tests might show a difference in the corners but my stopped down samples look fantastic.

      Vignetting is there, no doubt, but the in camera correction makes things useable at wide apertures.

      I certainly appreciate Phillip’s methodology but there are many “legendary” lenses he has tested that when analyzed with an eye towards flaws, look not so legendary. I guess I’m saying the sum is always greater than the parts – or something like that.

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  9. If you can only can keep one lens from 24mm 1.4 GM and 35 1.8 which one would you keep? I guess 24mm GM will be more useful if you use both APSC and FF. What do you think?

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    1. Yes, if I could only have one, the 24mm GM would be the choice – I would use it as a 35mm in crop mode as needed. This will be my standard setup on the new a7rIV.

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