Review: Carl Zeiss Sonnar FE 2.8/35 ZA T*

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Sample Images

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Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 | full resolution
Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8
Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8
Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8
Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/5.6 | full resolution

 Specifications

    • Diameter: 61.5mm
    • Length:  36.5 mm
    • Weight: 120g
    • Filter Diameter: 49mm
    • Number of Aperture Blades: 7
    • Elements/Groups: 7/5
    • Close Focusing Distance: 35cm
    • Mount: Sony FE

The Sony FE 2.8/35 sells for $799 at B&H photo* or Amazon.com*.  Used it sells for around $525 at ebay.com*
In Germany you can buy it for 659€ at Amazon.de*. Used  it sells for around 460€ ebay.de*. *= affiliate link

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Compatibility

The Carl Zeiss 2.8/35 work on any camera with an E-mount. Be it a full frame camera like the Sony a7 or an APS-C camera like the Sony a6000.  On an APS-C camera it is equivalent to a 52.5/4 on a full frame camera.

Build Quality

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The lens seems to be built to  high standards with a metal hull and a focusing ring which has zero play so it feels very nice.

One nice touch is that all the markings are engraved and filled with paint. Not just printed on the hull like with the FE 2/28.

I didn’t disassemble the lens so I can’t tell you how robust it’s inner construction is which is probably more important than the outside. Extrapolating from Roger Ciciala’s teardown of the ZA 4/24-70 I would guess that it’s mostly plastic inside.

Although Sony claims that the design is “dust and moisture resistant”  the lens has no gasket around the lens mount, so weather resistance will be limited.

The lens shade feels solid and attaches firmly to the lens. It is made from plastics and feels robust enough but not as nice as the shades for other lenses of the ZA line.

Size, Weight and Handling

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The Carl Zeiss 2.8/35 is the smallest native lens you can buy for the a7 series. It is still a bit too large to call it a pancake but it comes close. I prefer a little larger lenses on my a7 but handling is still very good and at only 120g it is an excellent choice when you want to travel light.

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Lens Hood

The Zeiss 2.8/35′ lens hood has a very unusual design. It is only about 5mm deep and it isn’t open like conventional hoods.

This design is very handy, because the hood is very small I always left it attached to the lens and it also comes with it’s own lens cap.

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Filters

The 49mm filter thread is made from plastics.

The lens hood has a 40.5mm filter thread.

The front of the lens does not rotate so polarizers are easy to use.

Auto Focus

AF performance on the A7 and a7ii is fine as long as there is enough light. In darker scenarios I often found the AF lacking but that’s more an camera issue than one which could be attributed to the lens.

The AF drive is very quiet and the lens does not extend.

Manual Focus

As mentioned before, the focusing ring feels nice nice, what I don’t like too much is the focus by wire implementation.

One problem here is that it matters how fast you turn the focusing ring,  if I turn it by 45 degrees very fast the focus changes from 35cm to infinity. If I turn it slowly it takes more than 360 degrees (one full turn) to change focus from the close focusing distance to infinity. In theory this sounds like a great idea because focusing should be either super precise or very quick, depending on what you need but in practice it’s quite fiddly.

The other problem is that there is a small lag between the moment when you turn the focusing ring and when the lens reacts. It is only a small fraction of a second but detracts from the experience and makes it very hard to focus on anything moving.

I am used to manual lenses where the focusing ring is coupled directly to the focusing helicoid and I am faster and as precise with them. So manual focus works okay but it isn’t very enjoyable (says a hardcore manual lens user).

Image Quality

Vignetting and Color Shift

At f/2.8 vignetting is severe  at close to 2.5 stops. At f/4 it is reduced only a little to about 2 stops and by f/8 it is still at 1.5 stops which is about the highest value I have ever seen at f/8.

I tested with deactivated vignetting correction (which affects the raw) but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was still some correction, other lenses improve much more from f/2.8 to f/4.

On my a7 I see minor color shift, I guess on the more problematic a7r it could sometimes be a problem. The a7s and a7rii will most likely show even less color shift than the a7.

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Flare Resistance

Since the Zeiss FE 2.8/35 is a modern lens with T* coatings and a very small front lens I expected better performance than I actually saw.

I saw no ghosting at all but in critical situations you will se some veiling flare.

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Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 | developed with default settings in LR

In less critical situations performance is fine:

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Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/11 | full resolution

Distortion

The FE 2.8/35 shows some barrel distortion. Lightroom has a profile which corrects the distortion very well.

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Sony a7II | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/8 | LR default settings | full resolution

Chromatic Aberrations

The Zeiss FE 2.8/35 shows some lateral CA, significantly more than my 30-years-old Canon FD 2.8/35. You won’t see any of that when you import a raw file into LR because it automatically applies a profile embedded in the Raw file which you can’t deactivate. I used Raw Therapy to check this.

LoCA correction is only average as well.

Bokeh

The Sonnar has quite good bokeh, oof highlights are rendered quite smooth.

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Sony a7 | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8
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Sony a7 | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 |full resolution

Foreground bokeh is very smooth as well.

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Sony a7 | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 |default setting | full resolution

At longer distances bokeh stays smooth which can’t be taken for granted with other lenses.

The only issue I could see are some onion rings which can appear in critical situations.

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Sony a7ii | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8

The only issue I could see are some onion rings which can appear in critical situations.

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Sony a7ii | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8

Sunstars

Not a strength of this lens. Sunstars are very fuzzy even at f/11.

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Sony a7ii | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/11

 Astro Use

The FE 2.8/35 performs well here. Brighter stars have a small comet’s tail but compared to other lenses it is very small. The only real issue I see is the very significant vignetting.

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Sony a7 | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 | processed heavily, vignetting corrected | full resolution

This is a 100% crop from the lower left corner of the image above.

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Sharpness

My copy was well centered but I have read more reports than usual about decentered lenses so I can only recommend to check your copy when it arrives.

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The FE 2.8/35 shows an interesting behavior. At f/2.8 it is very sharp with surprisingly good across the frame sharpness. It outclasses any classic 35mm lens I know of at this aperture. This is a remarkable performance for such a small lens.

As you stop down there is very little change. The center improves a little to excellent levels but there is next to no improvement outside of the center. So at typical settings for landscape use, e.g. f/8 or f/11 other much cheaper lenses are sharper in the corners. The Canon FD 2.8/35 for example.

Field Curvature

There is minor field curvature, at around r=15mm the plane of focus moves closer to the camera but the effect isn’t strong.

 Close Focus Performance

The Zeiss FE 2.8/35 has a close focusing distance of 35cm which results in a reproduction ratio of 1:8 which is below average for a 35mm lens.

The FE 2.8/35 does not feature floating elements so performance suffers quite a bit at shorter distances.  F/2.8 is a bit soft, f/4 is good and you should stop down to f/5.6 for very good results.

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f/5.6 vs f/2.8 – 100% crops, LR default settings
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Sony FE 2.8/35 at it’s close focusing distance | f/5.6 | full resolution

Alternatives

Sony FE 2/28 – A different focal length of course but many people buy just one of both lenses for their kit. The FE 2/28 is quite a bit larger and the FE 2.8/35 has sharper edges and corners at f/2.8. I think the FE 28 is a bit sharper in the corners around f/8 but of course you will sometimes have to correct the spectacular distortion. I think the 28 works great in a kit with the FE 1.8/55 while the FE 2.8/35 is the better one lens solution.

Sony FE 4/16-35 ZA OSS – At f/4 the FE 2.8/35 is a bit sharper across the frame. At f/8 I see a quite small advantage for the 16-35. The 16-35 is of course a very big and heavy zoom lens.

Canon FD 2.8/35 – I think the Canon is the better landscape lens because it is sharper at f/8 and it has a real focusing ring. With adapter it is about twice as large and costs only a small fraction of the Sony.

Voigtlander Ultron 1.7/35 – If you like fully manual lenses this is probably a better choice. While it is a small lens it isn’t as small as he FE 2.8/35  but it is 1.5 stops faster and feels a bit nicer. Optically it is at least as sharp as the FE but it has quite strong field curvature. I didn’t compare them directly but I am quite certain that the Voigtlander has sharper corners stopped down. It also has less distortion, less CA and is more flare resistant.

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Conclusion

good

  • very small and light
  • very sharp at f/2.8
  • bokeh
  • small lens hood
average

  • corner sharpness stopped down
  • flare resistance
  • manual focus
not good

  • strong vignetting
  • price
  • long short focusing distance
  • sun stars

If you consider the small size the Sony FE 2.8/35 is a remarkable performer, especially wide open. You can use it at f/2.8 without hesitation, it is very sharp across 90% of the frame and bokeh is good as well. Only the very strong vignetting could be a problem for some uses.

I was a disappointed by the fact that it hardly improves when it is stopped down.  The corners are sharp enough but much cheaper lenses are sharper in the corners at f/8

Distortion isn’t too bad and thanks to a profile it is easily corrected in LR. Vignetting ist very strong at f/2.8 and never goes away, I guess this is a penalty for the small size. Lateral CA correction is average but you won’t see any CA because the correction can’t be turned off in LR.

So I think the Carl Zeiss Sonnar FE 2.8/35 ZA is a good choice if you are looking for a very small but capable lens. It works okay as a small landscape lens so I wouldn’t hesitate to take it with me when a light kit is essential. But more often when weight and size doesn’t matter that much I would take a sharper and easier to focus manual 35mm lens with me.

There remains one issue and that is the price. I think it is totally overpriced at the normal retail price. It is a good optic but quite far from an outstanding one so you pay a lot of money because it is small, looks nice and carries the Zeiss badge. When you buy used or know that you will use it a lot it might still be a perfectly reasonable purchase for you. But since Canon sells an optically superior 2.8/40 for less than $200 I think that it has a pretty poor price/performance ratio.

All in all the FE 2.8/35 has some strong selling points: It is very small, feels very nice and it performs remarkably well at f/2.8, if this matters to you the price might be justified. If you remove the size from the equation it is a good performer wide open but below average at smaller apertures and the high price will be hard to justify.

The Sony FE 2.8/35 sells for $799 at B&H photo* or Amazon.com*.  Used it sells for around $525 at ebay.com*
In Germany you can buy it for 659€ at Amazon.de*. Used  it sells for around 460€ ebay.de*. *= affiliate link

If this review was helpful to you, please consider using one of my affiliate links. I will earn a small commission on your purchase and it won’t cost you anything. Thanks!

Carl Zeiss Sonnar 2.8/35 T* Sample Images

All images are processed in Lightroom from Raw. Many more full resolution samples in my Carl Zeiss 2.8/35 flickr album.

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Sony a7 | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/11 | full resolution
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Sony a7 | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 | full resolution
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Sony a7| Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 | full resolution
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Sony a7ii | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/2.8 | full resolution
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Sony a7ii | Zeiss FE 2,8/35 | f/7.1 | full resolution

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I like to be outside with my camera and I am also a gear head with a love for manual lenses.

16 thoughts on “Review: Carl Zeiss Sonnar FE 2.8/35 ZA T*”

  1. Thank you for the review! A pretty nice, but ,sadly, overpriced lens. Thinking about buying it every now and then, but it is not worth the money in my opinion.

  2. hello Philip and thank you for the nice reviews you publish.
    i have the sony zeiss FE 35 2.8 and i think it’s best thing is it’s size. IQ is ok but not that illuminating for landscapes which are my main interest. I am considering the Voigtlander 35 1.7 after having read your review. I also need a brighter lens to shoot at night time. How do you compare IQ of both ? Center and corner rendering ?
    I need to decide before i sell the zeiss for the voigtlander.
    Thank you !

    1. I never compared them directly but I think the Voigtlander is a bit sharper in the corners. The field curvature can be a problem though.
      The Voigtlander is super sharp from f/1.7 in the center. The corners a good but not in the same plane

      1. I have both and the Voigtlander is not as sharp as the FE35 at the corners, and it’s not sharper in the center either, maybe as sharp but not sharper. Made the tests at 5.6.

          1. I posted it somewhere at DPR and I have photos, just give me an email and I’ll send them to you. I’m Jose Viegas at Fredmiranda.

  3. ok thanks,but doesn’t the field curvature you talk about in your Voigtlander review affect the edges of the frame ? Usually field curvature does not give even sharpness. You mean the Voigtlander has,let’s say at f4 the center in good sharpness but the corners defocused by the curvature ?
    A Quick comparison from the two lenses at f4 or 5.6 on a landscape at infinite focus would be useful. Not saying you have to do this comparison obviously but to see the results would be very interesting
    By the way the Voigtlander focus well to infinity on the A7 ?
    Thank you !!

    1. sure it does if you photograph a flat subject the corners won’t be very sharp at f/4
      I returned the Voigtlander and sold the Sony so no direct comparison from me, sorry
      Infinity focus was no problem with the Voigtlander

  4. How did you focus the lens stopped down?
    A number of Sony and Zony lenses have a lot of focus shift, as they rely on a final tweak of cdaf stopped down when using AF. When focusing manually, this means stopped down focusing is necessary.

    I ask because this sometimes explains the lack of improvement as you stop down with thes lenses.

  5. Hi Phillip

    Always like reading your reviews. I had this lens and it was interesting to see your sample of the sun stars. The copy I had gave awesome sun stars!

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