Disclaimer: As a member of Sony’s Artisans of Imagery program, I recently had the opportunity to extensively use an internal copy of the newly announced (and not-yet-released) Sony Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 lens. This review chronicles my experiences while using this lens in the field. Additionally, all photos and opinions are based off of a pre-production version of this lens. Any aspect of this lens are subject to change when released by Sony.
Switching to Sony
When Sony first announced their disruptive line of full-frame mirrorless cameras with the A7 and A7r in 2013, I immediately took notice. Being a devoted Canon photographer for the previous 10 years gave me reason enough to take a close look at this system because of the promise Sony made to pack tons of image quality inside a svelte body. However, a camera is only as useful as the lens(es) that you put on it, and while Sony did a great job of getting a complement of native FE-Mount glass out at launchnotably with the insanely sharp Zeiss 55mm f/1.8, the Zeiss 24-70mm f/4, and the Sony 70-200mm f/4 (released a few months after the A7 launch)there was a glaring gap at the ultra-wide focal length. Fortunately, that all changed when Sony announced the Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS at Photokina in September 2014. Currently, the lens is available for preorder from both B&H and Amazon with an estimated ship date of late November.
In addition to the fantastic array of existing Sony A-Mount glass that can easily be adapted for use with the A7 system,these native FE-Mount lenses made it a no-brainer to sell all of my Canon gear and move exclusively to Sony. Additionally, I was privileged to join Sony’s Artisans of Imagery program earlier this year, which further cemented my happiness with investing in this company’s digital imaging technology. What was an even bigger bonus was that I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one of the only pre-production copies of the yet-to-be released Zeiss FE 16-35mm F4 lens in the world and put it to use last week while visiting two of my favorite US National Parks, Arches and Canyonlands, both in Moab, Utah. Now that I’m back home, I’d like to share my thoughts on this wonderful lens along with some photos that it helped me create. Let me preface this review by saying that my goal is not to present a clinical analysis of MTF charts, lens element analysis, etc. I’m certain that there will be plenty of technical analysis available once this lens is released. This is more of a hands-on, experiential review, which I find to be way more helpful for most people (including myself!). For this review, I paired the Zeiss FE 16-35mm lens with my Sony A7r and A7s.
The importance of an ultra-wide angle lens
The 16-35mm focal range is supremely important to me, as well as to any landscape or architectural photographer. Being able to capture a scene in its entirety simply is a necessity at times. So, as an existing owner of the Sony Zeiss A-Mount 16-35mm f/2.8 lens, I was extremely eager to put its smaller, lighter cousin to use on my Moab trip. While the f/2.8 version is exceptionally sharp and fast, it is also rather bulky and heavy, especially when you factor in the need to use one of Sony’s A-to-E-Mount adapters (which are exceptionally capable in their own right). Every ounce adds up quickly, especially when you’re trekking through the desert, so my goal for the past year has been to optimize the gear I take in order to minimize the strain on my back and shoulders without compromising on image quality.
A Look At Lens Construction
Fortunately, the new Sony FE 16-35mm f/4 lens is exceptionally light, even when compared to its smaller siblings, the FE 24-70mm F4 and FE 55mm f/1.8. Sony lists the lens as weighing approximately 18 oz. and let me reassure you that it is very comfortable to use, especially when hand-holding the camera. The lens is fully compacted at the 35mm focal length and extends outward slightly as you go to the 16mm focal length. The lens telescopes straight out when you twist the zoom ring and does not rotate as some lower quality lenses tend to do. This is especially helpful for photographers who routinely use circular polarizer and soft-grad ND filters. Speaking of which, the lens has a 72mm threading on the front, for those you filter-lovin’ photographers. When I paired my Formatt-Hitech 105mm Circular Polarizer with this lens, there was some visible vignetting at 16mm, as would be expected at such a wide focal length, but totally disappeared between 17-18mm. Beyond that, there was no visible vignetting when using my other Formatt-Hitech 4×4 and 4×6 ND filters.
The overall construction of this lens is very sturdy, as is typically the case when there is a Zeiss badge emblazoned on the lens body. Both the focus and zoom rings rotate smoothly and with assurance. Speaking of focusing, I’m pleased to say that this lens auto-focused extremely quickly and quietly with both my A7r and A7s. It was also very responsive in those situations when I used manual focus, allowing me to adjust focus in accurate, reassuring increments, thanks in no small part to the outstanding rear LCD and electronic viewfinder displays.
How About Image Quality?
Images produced with this lens are very sharp and consistent with minimal softness in the corners. I also didn’t notice any chromatic aberration with photos taken at locations with very high dynamic ranges.
At 16mm, there is the usual type and amount of distortion that you would expect to get at such a wide focal length and while there currently isn’t a corrective lens profile for the Zeiss FE 16-35mm lens in Lightroom, I found favorable results when using the profile for the Sony Zeiss A-Mount 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. I’m also sure that a dedicated profile will be included in a subsequent Lightroom update after the lens is released.
The Sunburst Test
When I first shared photos takes with this lens, one of the more frequent questions that my followers asked was, “What is the quality of the sunburst produced?” I’m glad that this question came up so frequently because I honestly think I would have forgotten to test that out. Fortunately, I was in an ideal place to give this a whirl as the sun first peeked over the horizon while my camera was pointed straight at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. As you can see, the resulting starbursts are quite lovely and well-defined. The FE 16-35mm lens does a great job in elegantly slicing up the sun’s light as it passes through its seven aperture blades
There is no doubt that a ton of Sony A7 photographers are eagerly awaiting the release of FE 16-35mm f/4 lens. Its small size and weight are matched only by its prowess to output sharp, clean images. It also closes that crucial gap in the holy trinity of lenses by pairing up with its Zeiss FE 24-70mm f/4 and FE 70-200mm f/4 telephoto siblings. When you put these three lenses and an A7 body together, you have an exceptionally powerful full-frame camera system that takes up nominal room in your camera bag while also saving your back and shoulders from excessive strain. As far as I’m concerned, this is a Must-Have lens for all of the Sony A7 shooters out there. Now, if you’ve got any questions about the lens that I didn’t cover in this review, leave ’em in the Comments section below.
Disclaimer: I was not commissioned by Sony nor any other organization to test this lens or write a review about it. This is solely for the benefit of all the photographers out there who are interested in this lens. As a reminder, you can preorder the Sony Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 lens from B&H or Amazon with an estimated ship date of November 18th, 2014.