I will start by stating the obvious. I am very late on this one. In what is arguably a nonsensical pastime, i.e. photography, I can be nonsensical at times. I am aware of it. I will own it. Gave a recent example regarding phone cameras. Spent money on a phone for its photography specs… Would rather use a nearly no-feature plastic $50 half-frame film camera instead if given a choice.
This post is another example of this. Aligns with a weird feature/value matrix I have in my head. On the one hand no matter how good a product may be I am unwilling to fork out the loot for it if I believe the price to be too high. On the other hand, if it has some pixie dust spec or lineage the sky is the limit price wise. This is an example of the former. I have known since its release ten years ago I would really like the Sony Sonnar T* FE 50mm f/1.8 ZA.
Why? I am glad I imagined you asked.
- Near 50mm and that extra 5mm would make portraits taken with it that much better.
- While not extraordinary f/1.8 is a decent spec.
- Has Zeiss written across it. I love Zeiss glass.
- The lens is a looker and well built by all accounts.
- Stellar IQ and AF accuracy/speed/silence.
So what was my beef? Well…
Nifty 50mm lenses did not cost $1,000 in my little universe…
That is it. That is all I’ve got. I know. I know. Makes no sense. I will not pretend it does. What I would have preferred was something like the significantly cheaper Canon EF…
…50mm f/1.8 lenses. When I think of 50mm lenses they are tiny affairs with reasonable prices. So what happened?
The used price dropped below my $400 magical arbitrary price threshold.
That is it. That is all it took after 10 years. Made this realization after an email exchange with Hamish Gill, founder of 35mmc.com among other things. I gave my reasons above. He extolled the virtues of the 55mm f/1.8 ZA. I agreed with all of his points and reminded him that I knew my justification for not owning one made no sense. Then I did the thing. The thing that always gets me in trouble. I had not looked them up in a while so I went to KEH.com to see what the current asking price was. Realized it had dropped below $400. And then I bought a copy. So far so good a couple of days in.
Day 1 (Around the house. Things change at just day 2 out in the wild after this.)
One tiny ding out front at the outer rim, which I did not expect due to EX grade, but I will give it a pass since it came with caps and hood and it is otherwise clean. Also does not hurt that it was $392.
It is amazing how something can seem completely satisfactory in isolation. I had made my peace with the smaller/cheaper FE 50mm f/1.8.
Sat by itself I had few if any complaints since a firmware update that made AF usable was released. I never compared it directly to the 50mm f/1.2 G Master or 40mm f/2.5 G because that just seemed mean. Plus those are tools for a different task in my mind. That will be a future blog post for sure. But a direct 55mm to 50mm comparison makes sense. The specs are so close. Shot them both side by side on two A7 bodies. And what I found was not what I expected.
I expected the 55mm to utterly blow the 50mm out of the water IQ wise. Better? Most definitely. Much better zoomed in. The colors were better with little if any editing needed. Sharpness was better, especially in corners… But I use a lens spec like this to blow out the background with the subject near or in the center of the frame, not for corner to corner sharp landscape photos so this is not a deal breaker. Plus there are other lenses better suited for that. Bokeh is more pleasing with the 55mm for sure. But on a pixel-peeping and bokeh fetishist level. I have retired from pixel peeping (Hello. Artisans lenses on a Leica user here.). I doubt a casual observer would be bothered by any of this in isolation as viewed from a reasonable distance. Practically speaking I personally think the 50mm does a commendable job, especially considering its price point. The 55mm is definitely better for sure. But the base competence of even the “worst” options available nowadays leaves one wanting for less and less it seems.
Another surprise here. Thought the all-metal Zeiss build would blow the small plastic coconut (Same issue I had with the otherwise excellent Rokinon/Samyang 45mm f/1.8. Makes little sense I will admit. It is what it is.) 50mm out of the water here also. Again, the 55mm is better built for sure. Especially in hand. The 50mm looks just like the excellent sturdy metal Sony FE 85mm f/1.8, that I would own instead of the much larger and heavier SIGMA 105mm f/1.4 Art if I had any sense, but the similarities end as soon as you pick it up. That being said on the camera, this is a nonissue since these are both one hander lens/body combinations. And I actually think I prefer the short squat build of the 50mm compared to the more snoot like 55mm. And the petal hood will likely stay stowed reversed until absolutely necessary where the smaller 50mm with hood is barely longer than the 55mm on its own. Better build for sure. But not a deal breaker.
I do prefer the 55mm overall and will definitely be keeping it. But my initial reasons for keeping it surprised me.
Noise and Speed
Again, I was fine with the noise of the 50mm for stills. With all its chirping, I knew it was a no-go for video, but I do not often shoot video so that was not necessarily a deal breaker. But what seemed reasonable before sounds like a ridiculous racket used alongside the 55mm. The same can be said about AF speed. Alone I was fine with the 50mm, but used next to the 55mm it really lost its shine. It was in line with what I experienced with the Rokinon/Samyang 50mm f/1.4 one of the about 15 times I tried to convince myself it was fine. That brief momentary AF acquisition hesitation is fine in isolation but seems like an eternity directly compared to the instant and silent 55mm. If you have the FE 50mm already… or the Rokinon/Samyang 50mm f/1.4… there is an easy solution. Never compare it to the 55mm.
The family crest is emblazoned with, “Never pay retail!”. I love a good deal. A 55mm f/1.8 lens at $998 is simply a no from me
Sidebar: A job in the Zeiss lens pricing department must be a snap. Especially for 50mm-ish lenses. 55mm AF f/1.8? $998. 50mm AF f/1.4? $998. Oh, a 50mm manual focus f/2? Now that is completely different… That will be $999. Conclude sidebar.
No matter how good it is. A personal affliction that I will own. But that same lens in nearly perfect condition for around $500 less or less than half the price used is a win in my book.
The odd thing is I am not sure I will get rid of the 50mm yet. Might. May even say likely. But right now at this very moment, I am not sure. Why? Paid peanuts for it and will get even less if I sell it. Plus having four Sony prime lenses between 40mm and 55mm is a very Eric thing to do. As is speaking in the third person evidently.
Day 2 (Out in the wild.)
Remind me why I have any of those other lenses again?
Ignore most of my day 1 rambling.
I now understand why so many have such strong feelings about this lens. I inadvertently stepped on a 55mm user’s feelings with my 50mm f/1.2 G Master post on Twitter. Thought I had qualified myself in the post when I said.
- Honorable mention 1: Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8
- Costs too much for an f/1.8 lens. Personal preference. That is all I have got.
Even though I said “Honorable mention” and made it clear that I meant no slight, it took me about four attempts to reiterate the concept of personal preference. Even after saying that, it was my personal preference. You would have thought I called his baby ugly or something. When people argue about camera gear, I usually have the same thought. Remind me why we are choosing again. Given the means and/or inclination, I am perfectly fine getting as many options as my accountant/attorney (aka my wife and enabler) allows. If I need to choose one option over another, why on Earth would I waste my time arguing with another person over what they chose. To each their own. Whatever is clever. Whatever floats your boat. Etc, so on, and so forth. I try my best to avoid it, but if I ever neglect to qualify anything stated in this space as purely personal opinion, please allow me to apologize up front. Wait.. Where was I? Right. Day 2.
This lens is cuss word awesome. Why?
It is like the best of all the others in one.
- Fast, accurate, and silent AF like the 40mm f/2.5 G and 50mm f/1.2 G Master.
- Compact and light like the 40mm f/2.5 G and 50mm f/1.8.
- Faster than f/2 aperture like the 50mm lenses.
- Great IQ like the 40mm f/2.5 G and 50mm f/1.2 G Master.
A great compromise between them all. But I could make a case for the others as well, depending on the use case. But the 55mm is a bit unique in that it could cover the duties of all the others without issue. What am I on about?
Supports Sony’s insane AF speeds.
The first time I recall the full impact of Sony’s AF speedy, silent, accurate, and nearly vibration free AF was with the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 I mentioned above. The first night I used it in the wild, I thought it was broken or not focusing. Since my SLR days up until then, I developed a tactile method for testing if a camera at my side was on. Half press the shutter. If I feel the AF motor engagement, I am ready to go. At first, I thought the camera had either gone to sleep or was not focusing. But it was fine. It was just that there were no tactile indicators that it was at work. Later, I thought I missed focus on a burst because I did not feel or hear the lens focusing. But nope. It was focusing away.
Remarkably, this generation 1 Sony FE lens can pull off the same trick. So much so that I find it surprising that the 50mm f/1.8 came out years after it. Lenses are supposed to get better, not worse… right? I found it impossible to catch the 55mm flat footed. For this shot, I was sitting at a light and saw a firetruck approaching on the other side. Barely got the camera up when it passed, thinking that there was no way that it acquired focus. But it had.
Truck moving. Camera moving. Objects in the way. Did not matter. Cool. 50mm f/1.2 G Master and 40mm f/2.5 G aside, I can not say this for any other 50mm-ish lens that I have personally used. As good as some third-party primes had been, they were not on this same level of competence.
Queue eye rolls. One of those, if you see it, you see it things. In the past, I had not tried this lens long enough or in the correct environment to fully flesh this aspect of this lens out. I have tried this lens on a few occasions, but it was always in a camera shop setting. Like other Zeiss lenses, this lens really struts its stuff with some sunlight. Some examples.
What I have struggled with is a way to describe adequately:
- What is it exactly that I am seeing?
- Why do I like it so much?
There are those much better versed in the technology and lens design artistry at play, but please allow me to take a swipe at a layperson’s perspective on both.
What is it exactly that I am seeing?
Richness? A depth of color I do not see to the same extent elsewhere? An almost hyper realistic color rendering? An almost perceivable thickness or depth to colors and textures? Take this simple throwaway snapshot of a school bus as an example.
Open it up in Flickr and take a look at the top of the school bus. You may think I am nuts, but I see it. It is one of th reasons why I am quick to reach for film cameras with Zeiss lenses or adapt Zeiss lenses. I had not even seriously considered that this was possible with a Sony produced lens. Since I did not see it in my in store tests, I thought it was yet another branding exercise. A Sony lens in Zeiss livery. But this is not a brand label engineering situation like some other gear on the market.
Why do I like it so much?
Makes purdy pictures.
It is there. That Zeiss look I enjoy so much. It can render the most simple shots in a most interesting manner.
Pleasing subject isolation and transition between in and out of focus elements. Take this quick arm’s length hip shot below.
Had thought it missed focus completely, as I let the camera choose the subject, but the stream of water at the front is perfectly in focus. I really like this photo. The subject isolation and focus transition are pleasing to me. Will provide more samples below, but I have already added more images to this lens’ Flickr gallery in two days than I have for some other lenses in weeks or even months. For example, I have owned the 50mm f/1.8 many times over many years, and the Flickr gallery count for it sits at 446 images. In two days, my 55mm f/1.8Flickr gallery has more than a quarter of that number. At this rate, I expect the 55mm to surpass the 50mm in a week or so.
That brings me to another aspect of this lens I like. It teams the Zeiss IQ I love with the best of Sony’s performance attributes.
All is not rosy, however.
Like I noticed on the Canon EF and RF 50mm f/1.8, Pentax 50mm f/1.4, 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1, and the FE 50mm f/1.8 this lens has this issue just like all other relatively fast and compact 50mm lenses have. Took a minute, and it popped its head up with the 55mm as well. Take that last sample photo above. Had to zoom in to see it, but after I first linked to this post, there it was in the water droplets. Fortunately, my easy fix for other lenses works here as well. Take the “amount” slider under Defringe in the Lens Correction box all the way to the right, and all is well.
Hamish pointed this out to me in an email, but he saw it as a perk used to his advantage for a certain look. And I intend to agree. I had not seen it at first. But when I tried for it there, it was just like he said.
I like it. Not for everyone. Next topic.
As compared to the 50mm f/1.2 G Master.
Same idea, a different class of lens. Where the 55mm has its compromises, the G Master has none. Additionally, in my opinion, the G Master is a specialist tool. A “How can I get close to a medium format look on full frame?“…
…and special occasions…
…proposition not suited for day to day use. As far as Sony lenses are concerned, the G Master sits in a class of one for me.
As compared to the 40mm f/2.5 G and 50mm f/1.8.
I championed the 40mm f/2.5 G as an excellent prime lens alternative. And I stand by every word said in that post. That lens is awesome. A perfect lens aesthetic and ergonomic pairing with the A7C.
But here is the thing. As I wrote about in a post about the FE 50mm f/1.8, I have a problem… Ok, that could be plural. But the specific problem I am talking about is a massive predilection for a certain lens spec.
- Not 35mm, 40mm, or even 55mm. 50mm please and thank you.
- f/1.8 or faster.
- Not f/2, f/2.5, or f/2.8.
And this lens holds it down wonderfully for that spec. I had said the following about the FE 50mm f/1.8.
What it is not.
- Great at everything.
- The sharpest.
- But plenty sharp.
What it is.
- Good at many things.
- A solid stills and even video solution in a pinch.
- Not prestigious, but very practical.
- Not gorgeous, but a solid aesthetic pairing.
- Released many years apart they make for a great match in look and feel. Especially with an all black A7c.
Well the 55mm bests the 50mm in every aspect above.
So back to my original hang-up.
Knowing what I know now would I have bought this lens early on at its original as new asking price?
I still do not think so.
It is just the way I am built. Photography is not a logical endeavor for me. I enjoy capturing images, trying out different gear, and writing about that different gear. Honestly, I have had so much fun using, testing, and writing about so many other offerings that I would not change a thing. Your mileage may vary. I shy away from handing out advice , rarely write a put down post, and often do not recommend the paths I have chosen to take to others. This would be one of those times for the latter. I would implore others to buy this lens and call it a day. And you would not be disappointed.
In closing here are some additional sample shots from day one and two.
Well done, Sony. Appreciate you getting an excellent, no-compromise lens out so early that is very competitive today at an atractive used price point.