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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.