A guide to Zeiss lens choices for Sony FE

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The challenge we have now is no longer one of insufficient lenses: it’s almost one of too many. Having spent the last few months navigating the options and trying to figure out which of them work best for me, I now feel qualified to write this post which will a) explain the differences, b) make some recommendations both for the various series of lenses and within them as a whole. It’s worth noting that these comments and lens options apply to mirrorless cameras in general, though I’ve chosen Sony FE specifically because a) I own the A7RII, and b) there are several ‘native mount’ options that are available for Sony that aren’t for other systems – the first three on the list for starters, and won’t adapt because they require electronics*. I do honestly wish they’d thought out some of the naming better, though – it just lands up being both confusing for photographers and a bit of nightmare for their marketing team.

*Electronic mounts are a good and bad thing. Fully electronic mounts allow for some pretty cool capabilities – stepless aperture controlled from the body for video work; displays showing real depth of field on the lens, focus limits set by the body, optical stabilisation. But they’re also bad because it means the lens might be completely useless without a compatible camera – even focusing won’t work since most of these systems are focus by wire. You run the future risk of having the lens be a single focal distance and aperture optic, or a paperweight. On the other hand, the 100% mechanical lenses will last and be usable for a lifetime so long as you can find a compatible mount adaptor, but you will have to live with annoyances like manual stop down and manual focus. The bottom line is, there is no free lunch – but there are times when it doesn’t matter so much (e.g. AF on shift lenses).

In practice, the bigger headache is that for some focal lengths, you have to pick one or two from each lens line to cover a decent range – and deal with the cognitive switch in operation every time you switch lenses. I can understand why Zeiss wouldn’t want to duplicate lenses, but we’ve got a real consistency problem here. For others, you’ve got too many choices – count the ways to get to fast 50-e, for example : FE ZA 1.8/55; 2/50 Loxia; 2/50 ZM; 1.5/50 ZM; 1.4/55 Otus; 1.4/50 Milvus; 1.4/50 Classic; 2/50 M Milvus; 2/50 MP Classic – that’s nine, excluding the zoom, the not-quite-full-frame 2/50M Touit, and mount options for the SLR lenses. And all of them offer something different enough that you might have good reasons for deploying one over the other – AF, macro, rendering, for instance. Even the two f1.4 50mms in the SLR lines (Milvus, Classic) differ significantly in rendering due to their optical formulae.

Here we go. Please note: links in the section title take you to B&H or Amazon to order; I do get a small referral fee from these that helps cover the hosting and server costs for the site. You’ll notice there are no links for the last three, but ebay or Japan Camera Hunter can help. Direct links to individual products are to previous review articles I’ve written. I’ve ordered them in sequence from most to least native/functional.

Sony Zeiss FE ZA cobranded (B&H Amazon)
2.8/35, 1.4/35, 1.8/55, 4/16-35, 4/24-70, many others for DX and A mount via adaptors. Pick of the bunch: 1.8/55
These are native mount, offer full functionality and the best value for money. They are made by Sony and not QC’d by Zeiss as per the other lenses; this means there is some significant sample variation possible. The 1.8/55 can  be very impressive if you get a good copy; I’ve had to test six to find one though. Other lenses have significant field curvature/focus shift (the 2.8/35 for example) or are average (4/16-35). The 4/24-70 is a real mediocre disappointment and it’s a wonder that Zeiss ever agreed to have their name on this thing at all. I am not considering the SLR A mount lenses here because they are very expensive, clunky in operation via the various adaptors, and will really only work on Sony cameras – IMHO, not worth the investment given the recent confusion (by their own local principals, no less) over whether Sony was discontinuing the Alpha mount. Needless to say, it does not really inspire much confidence. But that might mean some used market bargains to be had…

Zeiss Batis (B&H Amazon)
1.8/25 Distagon, 1.8/85 Sonnar. Pick of the bunch: both are good. Personally, I use the 85 much more since the 25-end is covered better by the Q and 21 Loxia for me.
This is probably the best approach to E mount if Sony can speed up its focusing – the lenses are optically excellent, very well built, light/portable and have a handy display in the top for showing precise depth of field information adapted for the sensor and aperture. They are also weather sealed. I don’t like the fly by wire focusing, but with solid AF you seldom have to use it anyway. Needs a 50-ish thing to fill in the middle; the FE ZA 1.8/55 can do the job but isn’t weather sealed and just not quite as good optically. Oddly, the 85mm has optical stabilisation – good for owners of older Sony bodies but redundant on current and future generations. It suggests that perhaps Sony and Zeiss aren’t talking quite as much as they would like us to think…

Zeiss Loxia (B&H Amazon)
2.8/21 Distagon, 2/35 Biogon, 2/50 Planar. Pick of the bunch: 2.8/21
This series puzzled me at first. But I think they make sense for run and gun filmmakers because of the mechanical focusing with hard limits and declickable aperture rings. They make sense even more to me now given the leisurely and not always accurate nature of the camera’s focusing, especially in low light; the lenses are partially electronic so they trigger magnification in the finder when you turn the ring. This makes it easy to manual focus quickly, and is now my preferred way of working with the A7RII since it takes a lot of the timing limitations out of the equation. The 35 and 50mm designs are modified from the ZM versions; the 50mm is excellent but showing its age and limits on the 42MP sensor. 35 is not a focal length that interests me, so I never tested it. The 21 on the other hand, it absolutely superb – quite possibly the best 21mm made yet.  What’s missing is now is a longer option…though I doubt we will see one since the 85 Batis exists. One catch: diaphragms are mechanical and must be stopped down manually before shooting.

Zeiss Touit (B&H Amazon)
2.8/12, 1.8/32, 2/50M
APS-C only, but worth a mention because they are 18(!), 50 and 75mm-e, and with the A7RII you still have enough pixels to make a usable file, and some of them cover a little more area than advertised. Probably not worth the hassle new, but might be worth a look if you can find them cheap on the second hand market.

Now we start getting into the adapted options: for the Otus, Milvus and Classic lines, Nikon and Canon mounts are available. The Nikon mounts do have CPU chips that feed exposure and EXIF data back to the camera body, and have mechanical aperture couplings to be activated by the body, but this only works on a Nikon. On everything else, they are 100% mechanical and require manual stopping down for exposure. Nikon F mount also has the longest common flange distance which means it is probably the most ‘universal’ of all of the common SLR mounts.

Canon EOS, on the other hand, is fully electronic which means the camera controls the diaphragm electromagnetically; with use of the right adaptor (e.g. a Metabones Smart Adaptor IV) the camera body – even a Sony – can be used to select aperture and then stop down automatically when shooting. There are obviously advantages to this, however it means the lenses are only usable on Canon or Sony bodies; for everything else you will be restricted to the last selected aperture. My recommendation is for those shooting Canon/Sony, or only Sony, you may be best served by the Canon mount versions. However, for those who plan to shoot any other system, the Nikon mount is the way to go – it is slower, but at least you know it’ll always be fully functional so long as you can mount it.

Zeiss Otus (B&H Amazon)
1.4/28 APO Distagon, 1.4/55 APO Distagon, 1.4/85 APO Planar. No picks here; you can’t better any of them in that focal length optically.
The best of the best – what else is there to say? You will pay for it both financially and physically, though. These are special purpose lenses which require very precise focusing and will punish sloppy shot discipline. The A7RII is a good body to mount them on because of the EVF, magnification and stabilisers, but the ergonomics are terrible and I always feel like the mount is going to be ripped off. They are also slow to use and not suited for moving subjects, but the results are unbeatable when everything comes together.

Zeiss Milvus (B&H Amazon) / Classic (ZF2: B&H Amazon, ZE: B&H Amazon)
2.8/15, 3.5/18, 2.8/21, 2/25, 2.8/25, 2/28, 1.4/35, 2/35, 1.4/50 (two versions), 2/50M, 1.4/85 (two versions), 2/100M, 2/135 APO. My picks: 2/28 for the drawing style; 1.4/85 Milvus because it’s an Otus 85 on a budget, and better for portraiture with smoother transitions; the 2/135 APO because it’s one of the best lenses there is, period.
If you must have something to cover a focal length that is not covered by the native options, there are a lot of choices here – and they will also work on your DSLR. Some don’t make sense because the native options are better or have AF (the 21, 35, 50mms for starters) and others are unwieldy but good (the 135 APO). Others have no equivalent – the 2/28 draws very, very differently from the 1.4/28 Otus and is probably preferable for human documentary and filmmaking, in my opinion.

Zeiss ZM (B&H Amazon)
2.8/15, 4/18, 2.8/21, 3.5/21, 2.8/25, 2.8/28, 1.4/35, 2/35, 2.8/35, 1.5/50, 2/50, 2/85, 4/85
I can’t say I’ve tried all of these, but most. The 1.4/35 is a standout in the centre but has really poor edges without the Leica M’s microlenses, and is probably good for environmental portraiture or documentary work where the sides aren’t as critical. The 2/35 and 2/50 are available as Loxias with automatic magnification and native mounts. The 4/85 is interesting for its size, but the weight is close to a Batis and you lose two stops. Bottom line: I’m honestly not sure that many of these make much sense on the A7RII unless you really need the small size; and even in that case you may be better off with an A7II instead because lower resolving demands are placed on the corners.

Contax-Yashica and Contax N Zeiss
Far too many to list, including rare f1.2 exotics and f2 telephotos. My picks are the CY 28/35 PC Distagon, the CY 2.8/85 and the CY 100-300/4.5-5.6
Some of the older CY glass was really good – to the point that derivatives of the optical formulas survived all the way into the Milvus line; the 2.8/21, 2/28, 2/35, 2/100M for instance. It’s worth noting however that the CY housings were usually quite a bit smaller than the modern ones (though no less durable) and are available for reasonable prices on the used market – so this might be worth some consideration, too – especially if trying to make a very lightweight or compact kit. Other lenses were good but still went the way of the dodo – the three I’ve picked are lenses which have no modern equivalents yet perform very well indeed on the A7RII. To the best of my knowledge, the 2.8/35 PC is the only modern-ish Zeiss shift lens made; it is incredible unshifted and so good even when shifted that I put aside my 35mm-phobia to use it. Mechanically, it’s bulletproof too – and the shift mechanism is simplicity and precision in itself. The 2.8/85 is a tiny gem that’s smaller than most 50/1.8s; you can always have it with you and not notice it’s there til you need it. If you work stopped down on a tripod, this may be all the 85mm you ever need – except you’ll soon discover the spherical design leads to very smooth front and rear bokeh. Finally, the 100-300 isn’t small, but performs very well for a zoom – in fact, comparable to Zeiss’ own CY 4/300.

Contax G RF Zeiss
8/16, 2.8/21, 2.8/28, 2/35, 2/45, 2.8/90, 3.5-5.6/35-70
I include these as options for the simple reason that with the right adaptors, you can retain autofocus – albeit slow, and somewhat flakey. The optics do have a deservedly good reputation, but I personally find the setup a bit too temperamental in practice.

Hasselblad Zeiss
Fifty years’ in various versions covering 40, 50, 60, 85, 100, 110, 120, 150, 180, 250, 350mm and up. 
Not really worth bothering with unless you need the very large image circle from these lenses for movements in conjunction with one of the technical cameras like the Cambo Actus. Needless to say, the whole setup is extremely unwieldy. Not all of them have sufficient resolving power, either – the 40 IF FLE is probably about the only one on the wide end, the 60 is borderline, and the telephotos are good, but you tend not to need movements so much at 120mm…

A final word: On adaptors
Much has been said both here and elsewhere in the past about adaptors degrading image quality. They do so not because there is any glass in the middle extraneous to the original optical design – there usually isn’t – but because you’re introducing two more mount surfaces to the equation, and possible skew and planarity issues in each case. And you can be sure that a $40 adaptor probably isn’t made to the same standards as the original mounts, nor is planarity checked to a high degree of tolerance. You could probably shim them yourself, but that’s a hassle and may introduce light leaks. I would stick to reputable brands – Novoflex and Metabones have proven reasonably consistent so far – but even then, you might want to test a few samples with the lens and body combination you intend to use to ensure there are no strange effects. I had one such problem with the 2.8/35 PC: it sang on the 50MP 5DSR, but was very soft on the A7RII – almost as though I was getting free tilt in addition to shift (or certainly exacerbated by the shift. A new adaptor cured that and results were more in line with what I saw from the Canon. The lens options are tremendous: but just because something can mount doesn’t always mean it should. MT

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Comments

  1. Great guide!!!
    One thing to point out.
    According to Zeiss FE 55 1.8 is weatherproof.
    http://www.zeiss.com/camera-lenses/en_de/camera_lenses/csc/sonnartfe1855za.html

  2. David Morgan says:

    Thank you for your great site.

    For shooting portraits and fashion photography on the Sony A7RII, which would you recommend between the 85 Batis and the 85 Milvus?

    • You’ll probably find the Batis much easier in practice because people move…though it depends if we’re talking elaborate studio setups or something more candid.

  3. Is the Contax 90mm F2.8 as good as the 85mm F2.8?

  4. As usual a very informative article.
    I have a couple of questions about the 55 FE 1.8. The one in six copies ratio is quite scary, so as it’s my only lense I am wondering how to detect if I have a bad copy in a way I could then return to Sony to get a better one (otherwise it will just make me sad). Since you’ve been through a few lenses can you share how you did it? Do you take a picture of a plane surface, and verify if the resolution obtained if significantly different from what the MTF charts advertise, and if so send a message to Sony support explaining the problem and from there they send a new copy and collect the bad one (do they question the protocol?)? or do you have a special setup (like the one described on the lens rental website?) or you rent a few lenses from a local vendor and eventually only purchase the best one? what’s the best approach?
    About the lensrental website and a previous comment on this page I could only find the following page: http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2015/10/sony-e-mount-lens-sharpness-bench-tests
    but it seems to conclude that the 55 is not too bad, are we all talking about the same 55?

    • Good luck with Sony. They will probably tell you it is within spec regardless.

      A good copy will be symmetric (i.e. equally sharp in the corners). Use a planar subject. A very good copy of this particular lens will also be reasonably sharp in the corners. Do tests at maximum aperture.

      There’s only one AF 55/1.8 FE for Sony.

      • Thank you.

        • After 2 years of use I recently started to look closely at some of the files from the FE55 and have noticed that it is slightly decentered towards the top left but I only notice it when the lens is stopped down and in most real-world-shooting it is not noticeable unless you go and pixel-peep at 1:1 Anyway of course it is now out of warranty and the chance of Sony actually being able to fix it in a service is minimal so it’s a bit of a pain. Anyway I have bought the Loxia 50 which is truly a lovely lens.

  5. Nice list Ming!
    You mentioned Contax N in a section title but not any specific lenses. I can highly recommend the ContaxN 85/1.4 which is a gem and one of Zeiss’ sbest 85’s IMO due to its great combination of sharpness and smooth bokeh wide open. The N 70-200 and 50/1.4 are good too. Mine are Conurus converted for EF mount and the AF is very accurate as the Conurus firmware allows micro-adjustments to be programmed into the lens.

  6. Hi Ming,
    I’d go with a Metabones adapter strictly because there is a nice Arca style bracket/L bracket you can use from HejnarPhoto (I’ve bought several plates from him): http://www.hejnarphotostore.com/product-p/metabones_foot_l_base_6.htm

    And also Really Right Stuff, though I don’t know how it will work with a battery grip: http://www.reallyrightstuff.com/BMBEFE-L-Plate-for-Metabones-MB-EF-E-BM4

  7. Thanks for this article! Very timely for me as I’m planning on moving from a Nikon D800 to the A7RII and all the different native lens choices are a bit overwhelming as a lover of primes. After reading your impressions, I think the Loxia line might my best bet since I prefer MF to AF.

  8. No mention of some of the excellent Voigtlander lenses. I find the CV15 mkIII to be very good and better than the FE16-35 in the corners

    • Hmm. I guess the post title and logic were not obvious enough: “A guide to Zeiss lens choices for Sony FE” and the logic behind it – a relatively consistent rendering. The Voigt glass does not render anything like Zeiss glass and I also dislike the native Sony/Zeiss branded FE AF options. If I were to consider ALL options, I’d still be writing the post now.

  9. Very nice summary. But wondering why you left out Leica R glass? It’s flange distance is even larger than Nikon’s (47mm vs 46.5mm). Are you covering only the lenses in production?
    (I haven’t read the entire comment section therefore not sure whether you addressed it).

    • I’m assuming you read the title “A guide to Zeiss lens choices for Sony FE” and the logic behind it – a relatively consistent rendering. 🙂 If I were to consider ALL options, I’d still be writing the post now.

      • Well, I just read the title… 🙂 Seriously, I saw the comment on the adapted options and reference to Nikon, Canon etc and saw Leica R missing. That’s why I asked. I should have been specific.
        I agree that you can’t keep writing about all options. (Although many, I included, wish you cover ALL things that can be covered) 🙂

  10. Hi Ming
    I have been a professional photographer for years and recently added the a7rll to my collection.
    I was on location for an assignment at the magic hour with a moving subject. I had the a7 in my hands
    and quickly put it down and grabbed my 5dmklll to be certain to get the shot I needed. I just didn’t
    trust the Sony. Once I got the shot, I picked up the Sony and did a few extra shots. Upon review
    back in the studio, I reviewed the Sony shots and found that they were better than my trusted Canon.
    I know the Canon will perform, but it takes time to build the trust in a new system.
    Thank you for this article, it was very enlightening. However, for me, it is still all about the image.
    John

  11. Sean Quigley says:

    I am surprised not much is being said about the 15mm – 35mm range z series which are stunning and please nobody mention smearing it does not happen.

    • Haven’t used one, so I refrain from commenting 🙂

      • Sean Quigley says:

        I thought I would post a link to the 15mm f2.8 ZF.2 on a Sony A7r just to show it’s abilities in the corner’s
        Victorian boiler room
        Please delete if inappropriate.

        • There’s definitely some smearing there, even at web sizes. What aperture?

          • Sean Quigley says:

            Ming I have investigated it and what your seeing is in my opinion distortion the movement is the same on a DSLR I have looked hard, but there is also the fact that it was taken very fast as I only had permission to hand nold, no flash so it’s taken at 1/13 sec at f5.6.
            Obviously there will be some movement and of course it was with A7r shutter shock.
            The effect is a pulling in the corners which is to some degree normal for these wide angles.

  12. Barry Reid says:

    Ming, if you like the C/Y 85 then you’d love the 100/3.5 which has a similar character size and handling but could be a touch sharper – subject to the vagaries copy variation of course…

    Personally I love the look of my C/Y fit 18/4, 25/2.8, 28/2.8, 35PC, 50/1.7 (or 1.4) & 85/1.4. The 28-85 is also a very good zoom, for its age, which I particularly like for the way it renders colour gradients. I do however understand that where critical corner sharpness is required the 18 & 25 may not offer the best option, even stopped down. I also own but have less love for the 135/2.8, 180/2.8 & 300/4 due to excessive CA.

    • I tried several copies of both at the same store in Tokyo, actually – the 85 I landed up with was a bit sharper than all of the 100s, smaller, lighter, slightly cheaper, a bit faster, and had a better focusing feel. Plus I have a Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar in that speed…which I hardly use because of the limited maximum aperture.

      Agree on the 135/2.8. Try the 180/4 APO-Lanthar.

  13. Copy variation on many natives, you mention the 55/1.8, is a real scandal. Lensrentals managed to document this issue, and you can find a blog post there. My solution was to have Kolari strip the thick sensor stack and replace it with a thin one. Whole new camera. Shoots the film lenses wonderfully, and even ZM18, SEM 21, 28cron, and ZM35/2 are now very good on even the original A7 with the mod. Obviously, if one needs AF, then this is not going to help much, though. I’ve been having alot of fun lately with the great long Nikkors, 300/2.8 EDIF, and the 500/4 P, which I know you also owned at one point.

    But the idea there is too much choice? No. Where is the trinity of fast great zooms? Where are the ultra-wides (21 coming, true)? Where are the long fast primes? It’s not a system, but a hodgepodge of attractions which must be sorted carefully to find a few diamonds. They are making a killing though, and Canikon must notice that, and perhaps even the Leica SL, with it’s beautiful build and mostly slick design.

    Interesting times, and great reporting by you, sir.

    • The 500/4 looked like it had potential, but not sure about this pixel density. I last used it with the D200…

      Kolari – Lloyd was on the fence, not tried it.

      • Jim Kasson posted some tests with the Kolari filter stack on an A7ii (not R); it was vastly improved in the corners for M lenses but slightly worse for native lenses designed for the filter stack.

        There were strong color differences but you profile your cameras anyway…

  14. Thanks for the article and thoughts Ming. I’m tossing up buying into digital again the a7rii is an option. this article was really what I needed to learn more about this option. The fact the 55 1.8 can be so variable is a definite concern as it was first cab off the rank if I went down this road. The 21mm Loxia is ideal feedback for landscape work or closed down street type images. The 85mm was the final pick to close out 3 focal lengths. Though given the AF can be hit and miss even using the zone type tech Sony have makes me balk at this option. A D810 may be worth looking at. If I am going to buy an AF camera (currently use and have done so for 3 years RF camera’s only) I’d rather it be relatively consistent!!

  15. My Voigtlander close focus “M” mount adapter lives on my A7II. I use my Zeiss and Voigtlander (VM/ZM mount) glass on the A7II all the time and I’m quite pleased with the results.

    • Dirk De Paepe says:

      Initially, when I bought the A7r1, I had about the same idea: keeping the M-mount adapter permanently on the body. But since the first Loxia, I really experienced something else: superior IQ and a better operation. So my decision was quickly made, and with the R2, my motivation for Loxia only increased. If you’d try it once, you’d be sold (I guess). It’s a perfect match on all domains.

  16. I’ve never used anything better than Zeiss ZF.2 lenses. They always impress me.
    When you hear “best lenses I’ve ever used”, what pops up in your mind? I’m curious to know (perhaps that’s an article in itself).
    Thank you, Sir!

  17. Dirk De Paepe says:

    Dear Ming,
    It’s really remarkable to find this article on your blog now. I’m sure it’s gonna be very helpfull for many. But who would have thought this would happen a year ago! But a lot has changed, with Sony for sure, with Zeiss as well, and probably even in MT’s head – as a result of both the former. 🙂

    Still, between the lines, sometimes, I can read that you still don’t really like Sony as a company, which I can absolutely understand, after all what told me to have experienced with them. I also told you that my experiences are different, but then, we are totally different in how we use our gear and… we live more than 10.000km apart!

    Here are my comments and thoughts on some of your writings in this article.

    1. “The challenge we have now is no longer one of insufficient lenses: it’s almost one of too many.” What a change! There are still people though who state that the lens offer for Sony FE is too limited. Out of a habit, I suppose. IMO, the key word in this sentence is “almost”. This phrase sounds and surely feels again a bit negative, as if it’s not a good situation. But the “almost” saves it. There can never be too much choice, I guess, although the lesser adept will gradually need some help. That’s when an article as this one comes at his rescue!

    2. “I can understand why Zeiss wouldn’t want to duplicate lenses, but we’ve got a real consistency problem here.” I see this differently. At this moment the lines aren’t fully developed yet, indeed. (I’m mainly thinking of Loxia and Batis.) But I think they will be in time. And then there will be overlapping lenses, of course. But as far as I experience those lenses, I’m convinced that Zeiss is putting a whole lot of work in their development, the FE not being the easiest mount for flawless working full frame glass. When I regard the quality of the Loxia’s and compare them with their ZM counterparts, Zeiss did more than just a good job. The optical improvement is remarkable IMO. And their third Loxia, the 21mm, even is a superior Distagon (not an impoved ZM Biogon), which you call the best 21mm nowadays available – and to think that this lens is developed for the difficult FE-mount! This is another proof that Zeiss is putting a tremendous effort into the development of their FE lenses. In this faze Zeiss is only being wise, to start with non-overlapping focal lengths. But in time, I’m sure both lines will be completed.

    3. Concerning the 50-ish mm lenses. “And all of them offer something different enough that you might have good reasons for deploying one over the other.” Personally I have quite some 50mm lenses, since I like to have a few “different characters” to choose from. So I don’t mind.

    4. Concerning Batis: “I don’t like the fly by wire focusing, but with solid AF you seldom have to use it anyway.” I have the Batis 85, the first AF lens I ever bought. I guessed it could make sense in an 85, to have it AF. But as far as now, I have about as much mishits than with MF, although for other reasons. What I find particularly annoying is that the AF is very hard to really point, I mean it’s always a zone, a small one, but still a zone. So to be really precise, it’s no good, or I am doing something wrong. And when I want to be fast, when shooting in MF and taking a few shots, I (almost) always end up with at least one really good one. But the AF always works in the same way and will remake the same mistake. When I miss focus myself, I kind of can deal with it more easily than when the machine makes the mistake. I guess when Zeiss comes with a Loxia 85, 90 or 100, the Batis will have to go. I find myself putting it in MF mode quite often, wondering why I need an AF lens anyway. And it’s big as well, not discrete at all. Another big minus, IMO. I think the Loxias are simply perfect: in size, feel, built, look, IQ. I guess I will end up using only Loxia lenses, ones the line is more complete.

    5. Again Batis. “Oddly, the 85mm has optical stabilisation – good for owners of older Sony bodies but redundant on current and future generations.” I wonder if it could ever be possible to make the two stabilization systems to work together, reinforcing the effect. I guess not. But it would be great for sure. I already have creative applications for that in mind…

    6. About Loxia. “This makes it easy to manual focus quickly, and is now my preferred way of working with the A7RII since it takes a lot of the timing limitations out of the equation.” Absolutely. I am a lifelong hardcore “manual focalist” and find this an absolute delight as well. I call this “modern manual focusing” – even “the future of manual focusing”.

    7. “35 is not a focal length that interests me, so I never tested it.” It wasn’t really mine neither, but I bought the Loxia 2/35 anyway (ordered it the first hour of its release as a matter of fact), because I absolutely believed in the Loxia concept from the start. In the meanwhile, it became by far my most used lens. I really love it. It has a pretty unique character, being not harsh at all, but still with tremendous detail. And what astonished me is that, when zone focusing or even hyperfocusing, there’s perfect detail all over the dof, without any loss. I always thought this was pretty much impossible, but I found it simply jaw dropping when I saw my pics. Of course, this has to be performed with great care to obtain. But I know no other lens that does this in this way. (Didn’t try as much lenses as you did, of course.)

    8. About non-native lenses: “My recommendation is for those shooting Canon/Sony, or only Sony, you may be best served by the Canon mount versions.” I have tried both version before buying my Otus 55. At that time I found the following (this was performed with the A7rM1): both versions offer detailed checking of the DOF in VF magnification mode. But with the ZE, this is done in a static way: set the aperture and magnify to check. If you wanna change, leave the magnification mode, set a different aperture and check again. With the ZF.2 on the other hand, you can do this in a direct interactive way: go to VF magnification mode and determine the DOF by fine tuning the aperture ring on the lens, while monitoring the changes in the VF. Fast, simple and accurate. IMO the ZE version makes a lot of detours to end up with a crippled functionality. And on top of it, it’s pretty battery consuming, since every change of aperture requires battery power. That why I bought the ZF.2 version.

    9. Concerning Otus. “I always feel like the mount is going to be ripped off.” I can’t imagine that anyone would shoot with Otus on an A7(R2) by only holding the body. This simply doesn’t make any sense IMO. When placing the camera (with extra battery grip) in your left hand, index finger under the front of the lens, your elbow rests on your chest, your right hand is controlling every function of the body, the two control rings of the lens can be controlled, each by one finger of your left hand. I find this a great way to work (indeed different than when shooting other lenses, so a short time to get used to it is required) which offers incredible stability. In this way I performed shots with perfect focusing at f1/1.4 and 1/10sec with the 55 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/12661481955/in/album-72157641276669365/) and 1/25sec with the 85.

    10. Adapters. “stick to reputable brands”. I remember us having extensive exchanges of thoughts about adapters. I totally agree with what you write here – this has always been my opinion BTW. Indeed there is an increased danger for problems, but since it’s a matter of tolerances, one absolutely needs to stick to reputable brands.

    Well, I hope this wasn’t too long a comment…

    • Comprehensive, for sure! I still don’t like the camera either, but that’s another matter. I put up with it because of access to glass that would otherwise be impossible.

      2. I agree, though the initial choices could have been a bit more logically spaced rather than duplicating the popular 35-50-85 options…or consistently offering those popular options in one or more lines.
      3. I did not intend that as a negative comment. I also have a number of 50mm lenses.
      4. If you make the AF point smaller to limit the zone, the camera works with a lot less information so it’s slow. If you use a larger box, it’s faster but not accurate. Neither is ideal. It didn’t matter so much before because we didn’t have this kind of resolving power (and ability to discriminate the focusing plane).
      5. Sony could do it if they chose to. It’s a software thing – Panasonic already does it.
      6. Agreed.
      7. I’d prefer to use the 21 for that 🙂
      8. There are problems with both implementations: ZE is crippled and requires electronics; ZF.2 is slow to work and the 7R2 does not compensate exposure to be viewable in magnified mode unless you exit to full frame and go back in. I went ZF.2 simply because I also use Nikons.
      9. Handholding isn’t the problem: it’s tripod work…

      • Sean Quigley says:

        I use the novoflex tripod mount, for the sony/nikon adapter this removes the pressure on the camera mount 😉

        • Tried it; the contact patch was too small for my liking. Still possible to easily induce pitch vibration and the screw is really fiddly to tighten, and impossible with gloves…

          • Dirk De Paepe says:

            9. I don’t get this. As a see it, the contact patch is just full size, that is, it fills my tripod receiver completely. IMO, it gives me perfect balance on tripod (https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/12661533353/in/album-72157641276669365/), which is a vibration avoiding factor. I for sure have never been able to notice any pitch vibration, but my tripod experience is much more limited compared to yours.
            BTW are you referring to the collar screw, which is too fiddly to tighten? It is a bit indeed, being pretty narrow, but you need to use this only ones per tripod session, so I don’t mind that. And when frequently switching back from tripod to handheld, I just keep the collar on the camera. It really doesn’t bother me when shooting handheld.

            • Yeah and keeping the collar on the camera for handhelds makes you feel less like your going to tear the Otus out of the mount 😉

              • That isn’t the problem – when handheld, Dirk is right: you have to support the lens with one hand anyway to focus it. It’s when it’s on a tripod…either there is not quite enough clearance (especially not for the Cube, which is large and protrudes) or a lot of weight on the mount.

            • You have a 7RI, which is not the same shape as the 7RII. The foot on my Metabones adaptor won’t let the camera mount even with the narrowest clamp I can find. The Novoflex collar itself is very thin/narrow which is a potential vibration point, and yes, the collar screw is too small. You need to tighten and loosen it when you switch camera orientation, which I can assure you I do more than once per session 🙂

              • Dirk De Paepe says:

                The picture (probably you clicked on the link) shows the MK1 indeed, but I have the MK2 since the first day it was available in Belgium. The shape is indeed very slightly different, but the balance on the tripod remains the same. The picture was actually taken with all clamping knobs completely loosened, just to show how perfect it is in balance (both MK1 and 2, BTW). But I can’t speek for usage with the Cube of course. With my tripod, I only have a problem when wanting to point very vertical upwards. In that case, I should need to remove the battery grip.
                Regarding vibration with the Novoflex adapter, I guess you make a theoretical assumption here. I guess you didn’t buy it, so didn’t test it extensively. Novoflex is a very serious company. I don’t believe there will be any problem, especially because of the perfect balance. But I won’t swear by it…
                Indeed, when switching the camera orientation, I rather turn the camera within the collar as well, instead of tilting the ballhead.
                Finally, I almost always shoot without gloves. I don’t suppose it’s a kind of fashion to shoot with gloves nowadays! 🙂 So I guess that you too will shoot without gloves most of the time. And if you wear gloves, I wonder how thick they are. I read from other publishers as well that the A7 series are difficult to operate with gloves. Well, I do this on a regular basis in winter, and have no trouble at all. And also the collar screw, I find it quite easy to handle with gloves. But I don’t wear polar gloves, just those for Belgian winters. Leather ones with wool lining – not too thick though…

                • I did actually try one, and wasn’t convinced. It definitely doesn’t clear the Cube either; rotation isn’t easily possibly except in certain orientations.

                  Gloves are for not having frozen fingers, not fashion.

              • Dirk De Paepe says:

                The Metabones adapter indeed has a too small mounting foot. I didn’t like like, so I didn’t buy it. Also, it puts the camera out of balance on the tripod. Again a no-go, IMO. I really believe you should use Novoflex. Better on all fronts, the vibration (I believe it to be) a purely theretical problem.

                • Sean Quigley says:

                  I agree, I also mount the collar tight against the blue ring (Nikon to Emount) and have the foot under the lens, I have tried to wedge a rubber wedge between and found it degraded the picture slightly, there is a trade of between rigid and too rigid that is hard to find at times.

                • I have a mix of both adaptors.

  18. What about the other lenses adaptable on the A7Rii. I’m thinking of the
    Pentax FA 1,8/31 (one of the best lenses available inthe 28-35 region)
    Pentax FA 1,8/77 very sharp as well
    Pentax FA 1,9/43 similar rendering style as Zeiss 2,0/28 classic

    Any thoughts?
    Knut

    • It’s an open-ended universe. I deliberately limited the scope of the article because I both don’t have enough experience to comment, and because it would be an encyclopaedia otherwise… 🙂

    • Knut,

      I have all three FA Limited’s, a mix of AIV and MIJ copies. To date and after a bank account drained on Sony Zeiss and G lenses (which are not bad, but to be honest are a bit sterile) I can assure you that those FA Limited’s are “keepers”. It’s beyond sharpness and bokeh. They have a particular character, a drawing style which is very easy on the eye. They’re also small and light and beautifully made. All work well on full frame.

      The 43/1.9 is a bit misunderstood, it was designed to be glowy and soft wide open for an ethereal look but stopped down sharpens right up, intensely. Under the wrong conditions it suffers from PF too. It produces stunning B&W’s. The 31mm Limited, I had to get it fixed out of the box, it was terrible (PF) on arrival but now works as advertised. The 77mm is my favourite and I’ve never had a chromatic aberration problem with this lens, although many people report this issue. The 31 and 77 are particularly sharp with wonderful bokeh, but as I’ve mentioned there’s more too it than that. I’m not intelligent enough to convey what that is, but have a look online where a smart person has probably succinctly summarised it.

      So far my best photography has come from these lenses on a K-5IIs (K-3 too, but I still prefer the older model). Marketing man/internet gearhead sites (not you Ming!) tells me full frame Sony mirrorless, which I have and which at some point may be the future. The joy of shooting and proven results tells me stick with Pentax and these three primes, it’s way good enough for me and I don’t need much else bar a 70-200 f/4 or f/2.8 (very useful). I’m waiting for the full frame Pentax due in the spring before I decide what to sell off and what to continue with, but I think I already know the answer.

  19. I’ve been on the fence too, budget-wise since the ZF Zeisses on used market have ZF2 at about one and half times more than ZF. Electronic mounts give us the opportunity to go between stops by the half or the third. Would you say aperture stops between 1.8 and 2.8 matter or not in objective photography?

  20. Michiel953 says:

    Ha! Just sold my 1.4/35 and /85 C/Y’s, with an RTSIII body… Didn’t get enough use out of them.

  21. The AF for the Contax G lenses is now very fast for the a7rII when the adapter is updated to the most recent firmware (v2.1).

    • Useful to know. Which adaptor? And is it accurate?

    • Dirk De Paepe says:

      Is it possible to upgrade a Techart adapter? I own one, together with the 2/45 Planar. But I never use it, because I was very disappointed in the focusing, and the manual focusing by wire, which is lowsy as well, compared to for instance Loxia and even ZM. But I would give the update a try, since I like the optics. I’d even more like a good Planar 40mm or 43mm, but that simply will never happen, I guess. I wonder why the most natural focus length of 43mm is simply not existing…

  22. Sean Quigley says:

    On the Hasselblad front, I had poor pictures from my set, I was about to sell and decided to change to another brand of adapter and bingo, Otus like quality from my 2 superachromats. Adapter quality is crucial on these camera’s.

    • The SA lenses should be fantastic. Unlikely to be ray angle issues either given they’re teles. I found the problem to be the adaptor for me too in several cases – my 35 PC was great on the 5DSR but poor on the 7R2 originally; a Novoflex adaptor fixed that. Too bad they’re hard to get and expensive…

      • Sean Quigley says:

        I will only use novoflex now, but the adapter price is peanuts in the overall cost versus lens prices Otui and SA’s. Novoflex must be struggling with demand, like Zeiss. I have now put a permanant adapter on the Otus 85 especially due to the rear lens being so exposed.

  23. 1. The Contax 85/2.8 is a really, really, really wonderful lens. It’s my default lens choice.

    2. I wonder if SLR->SLR adapters are in general better aligned than SLR->mirrorless adapters, because they’re only one or two millimeters thick and one piece versus 20 mm thick and 3 or 4 pieces stacking tolerances…

    • 1. Agreed. Very underrated, probably because f2.8 just isn’t sexy.
      2. You might be right…

      • I keep thinking about getting the Contax 100-300, because I keep wishing that I had a longer telephoto on hand, and it’s honestly quite reasonably priced.

        Can you compare it, optically, with the Canon 70-300L which you mentioned using before and which I have experience with? Things like longitudinal CA and overall “look”; does it match the other Contax lenses?

        Of course the downsides would include the loss of IS and autofocus…although I exclusively use manual focus on my current lenses, I’m a bit more hesitant about giving up autofocus on a long telephoto because although it’s fine for slow work, I’m not sure I could handle taking e.g. bird photos manually.

        What do you recommend?

        • I think it does match the other Contax lenses; the 70-300 has more aggressive overall contrast and slightly less microcontrast. The Contax is low overall contrast but better microcontrast. If bird photography is your main objective, the Contax probably isn’t for you. It’s best suited to landscape work and the like.

  24. Samuel Jessop says:

    A great read, thank you.

    “the 25-end is covered better by the Q and 21 Loxia for me.” Would you be able to elaborate on the reasons for this?

    • I find 21/28 and 24/35 to be similar in feel for reasons I can’t exactly describe – what works with a 21 works with a 28 without much adjustment and vice versa; same for the 24/35 pair. I just frame much more comfortably with 21/28, with a preference for 28 unless I am working in tight confines.

  25. I believe that Sony’s in-body stabilisation only takes care of the rotation axis (and calculations for camera tilt) when used with stabilised lenses. There may be some advantage to in-lens stabilisation for longer focal lengths – the upcoming Olympus 300/4 will be stabilised. Of course that’s 600mm equivalent and not 85…

  26. That’s so strange. Just before I clicked to open your blog Ming, I thought “I wonder if Ming would do a list of the best glass with brief explanations”.

    I read yesterday that the Zeiss 135/2 APO should have been labelled an Otus lens, but it was produced before the Otus line was born. Staggering resolution and available for £999 now!

    • It is definitely an Otus-class optical design, though the housing/mechanics are not – and my understanding is the Otus line is supposed to be maintained at f1.4 where possible.

  27. Good read 🙂 Personally I’ve gathered up a real mixture of those so far, but I’d love to standardize it more one day. Perhaps with a range of Batis lenses.

    But I didn’t know “Sony has publicly stated they are discontinuing the Alpha mount” ?

  28. I enjoyed your specific comments on the Zeiss lenses and often wonder how you can lead a busy life and still manage to crank out a blog every single day. I’m normally a Nikon user, but since I got the A7R II I’ve hardly touched the D800. I’ve been using a Minolta 58mm 1.2 lens from the ’70s on it for two or three months now and am very pleased with the combination. I love the colors, and the lens, though a little soft, is soft in a pleasing way. I’m getting used to the all-mechanical operation, which reminds me of the old days with my Nikon FM, and find it enjoyable stepping back and walking forward to compose a photograph instead of remaining in the same spot and zooming back and forth. At present, I’m waiting for the promised new 24-70 zoom.

    • Not much sleep and plenty of other compromises, to be honest. I write a lot on airplanes and snatches on the phone whilst I have a moment or two of downtime.

      My 7R2 decided to turn itself on (switch was in the off position) and deplete the battery by itself today – camera was very hot and battery flat. The mystery continues…and does not add any confidence to reliability.

      • I think the payback button powers the 7RII up?

      • Might be worth removing the battery while traveling. Similar thing happened to my a7II, switch accidentally move to the on position while in transport.

        • Sigh. Yet another silly thing that has to be fixed – surely making a power switch that doesn’t turn on by accident isn’t that hard. It has not happened to my Nikons or Leicas, and those have switches around the shutter, too. The perplexing thing in this case was the switch was definitely in the ‘off’ position – the only thing I can think of was accidental switch on AND off…which seems unlikely. I am more inclined to believe there is a firmware bug somewhere which accounts for both the power drain in standby and this odd occurrence.

      • You appear to have a love-hate relationship with your A7R II as do some other reviewers I’ve read. No complaints with mine except that Nikon ergonomics have spoiled me. I never realized how comfortable their rounded contours are until I hefted the A7R II, which has such hard, rectangular lines to bite into the palms of my hands. But it’s not a big deal like turning itself on or overheating.

        On another subject, will you comment some time on the state of the photography business? I read somewhere that when the dust settles, only the top three companies will continue making cameras. I also read that the clientele for all three companies has considerably shrunk in 2015.

        • Yes, I’m hoping Stockholm Syndrome will set in at some point. It frustrates me but oddly makes a very good digital back even though the size is better suited to portability. Operation speed is about the same as my last Hassy digital back from 2006, too.

          The Nikons are very comfortable – try a D5500 to see how a body the size of the A7RII should be contoured – but at least the A7RII can be improved with copious amounts of Sugru.

          I commented on the state of photography earlier in the year, and not enough has changed for the moment for a revisit – but there definitely will be when the situation warrants.

    • Sean Quigley says:

      If I want 50mm bokeh, the minolta is the king and very sharp from f2.8

      • Thanks for the comment. You’re right, the Minolta is sharp when not shooting wide open, but I don’t mind a little softness at 1.2 because I love the splashy colors you can get at that aperture.

  29. Great and very useful overview. Is there a star lens here that wins the grand prize for ‘best’ lens?

    • Not really; they’re diverse enough that you’d want different things for each focal length. I’m currently using the 21 Loxia, the 35 PC Distagon, the 55 FE, the 85/2.8 CY Sonnar and the 4/180 APO.

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  1. […] series was shot with a Sony A7RII and Zeiss FE 1.8/55, and a Leica Q. Postprocessing via Photoshop Workflow II. You can also look over my shoulder […]

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