Sony FE 1.8/55 ZA Sonnar T* – Long-Term Review

For this independent review I bought the Sony Sonnar FE 1.8/55 ZA T* and used it for a period of several months during which I performed many tests and used it in a wide range of applications.

Sample Images

DSC09468

Specifications

Diameter 64 mm
Length 70.5 mm
Filter Diameter 49 mm
Weight 281g / 324g with hood
Max. Magnification 0.14
Close Focusing Distance from the sensor 50 cm
Number of aperture blades 9 (circular)
Elements/ Groups 7 / 5
$898 at amazon.com or B&H photo,  848€ at amazon.de (affiliate links)

Handling

I wouldn’t call the rather light FE 1.8/55 a small lens but it is still very manageable and very well balanced on my a7II.

Built Quality

The Sony FE 1.8/55 feels nice since it has a metal hull and a nice, wide focus ring with zero play. Most markings are engraved and filled with paint. The serial number though isn’t engraved which I find a bit annoying for a $1k lens.

While having a metal hull (inside it is made from plastics) feels nice it comes with a downside: The FE55 (and all the other ZA lenses) easily attract scratches in the rather soft aluminium. I think the premium feeling was prioritized over actual premium longevity. Canon’s L series and Sony’s GM series which use less metal are more durable.

I asked Roger Cicala of lensrentals.com about the FE55’s reliability and he told me that “It’s really not problematic at all for a Sony. Good in-service rate and no obviously recurring problems. Like all Sony’s when it breaks it costs a fortune to repair, but no more likely to break than the average lens.”

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. Personally I wouldn’t dare to expose it to much humidity since Sony has a rather weak track record in that regard.

The lens hood is made from thick, high quality plastics and attaches firmly. It is rather large and increases the volume of the lens a lot. The upside is that it protects the front of the lens very well.

 

Autofocus

AF-performance depends a lot on the camera you use the FE 1.8/55. On my Sony a7II it is usually quick enough in good light but it leaves quite a bit to be desired in lowlight. On a camera with a more advanced AF-system like the a6500 or a7rIII the FE 1.8/55 can focus super fast though.

The FE 1.8/55 focuses internally and is nearly noiseless.

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 50cm 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 so far I have failed to get to a point were my I am able to use this subconsciously, and I have used manual focus with this lens and the FE 2/28 a lot.

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 noticeable.

Another problem I noticed when shooting my sharpness test was that focusing happened in small steps and it was quite hard to focus exactly at infinity. That was on my a7II. Bastian on his a7rII found it impossible to focus exactly.

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).

Optical Performance

Flare resistance

Zeiss has a reputation for very effective coatings and it is justified in this case, the lens does not loose contrast even in very demanding situations.

DSC09318
no contrast loss in the most demanding scenario I could come up with

I could provoke minor ghosting under extreme conditions but still I would call the FE 1.8/55 an excellent performer in this regard.

Chromatic Aberrations

The CV 2/65 APO demonstrates the weakness of the Sony in this aspect.

While lateral CA are very well corrected longitual CA correction is one of the few weaknesses the lens has. This is a torture test but with high local contrast you can easily run into issues. Most classic normal lenses are no better here but some modern lenses like the Sigma Art 1.4/50 or Sony 1.4/50 ZA correct axial CA a lot better.

Distortion  Sony FE 1.8/55 | distortion

The FE 1.8/55 shows minor barrel distortion which can easily be corrected by profile in your Raw-converter of choice.

Bokeh

The FE 1.8/55 has pretty smooth bokeh while most normal lenses are rather busy. Oof highlights are rendered with very little definition and smooth transitions.

Since the FE55 uses three aspherical surfaces it is no surprise that it can show distracting onion rings. We also se rather strong cat-eyes. Thanks to 9 rounded aperture blades oof-highlights are rendered more or less round at smaller apertures.

In this series we see a rather smooth transition zone.

There are situations where cat-eyes or onion rings can be an issue but all in all I would rate the bokeh very positively.

Vignetting

Vignetting of the Sony FE 1.8/55 ZA is pretty strong. Even if you set vignetting correction to off a correction is automatically applied in LR. Here are my measurements (before and then after correction):

  • f/1.8 – 2.3 stops | 1.4 stops
  • f/2.8 – 1.4 stops | 0.5 stops
  • f/4 – 1.1 stops | 0.4 stops
  • f/5.6 – 0.8 stops | 0.3 stops

In reality these won’t often cause issues but especially at f/1.8 you might notice increased noise off center.

Sharpness

Sony_FE_55mmf1p8 f/1.8: very good to excellent in the center, very good in the midframe region and good to very good in the corners where some coma is visible.
f/2.8: Excellent to the corners with a minor drop in the far corners. f/4 to f/8: Excellent across the frame.
f/11: Some softening due to diffraction.

This is a pretty remarkable performance.

Of course I can only test one copy but my results seem to agree with Roger Cicala’s average MTF. Also note the above average variance of the FE 1.8/55.

Compared to other Lenses

  • The Zeiss Loxia 2/50 is a more traditional design with not as smooth bokeh and not as sharp corners at faster apertures but it has no onion rings and less LoCA. Since it has a little higher contrasts, very nice sunstars and is a joy to focus manually it is preferred by many landscape photographers.
  • The Sony FE 1.4/50 ZA: I have never used this 800 g behemoth but from other people’s comparisons I know that the 1.4/50 offers significantly better CA-correction and higher central sharpness. Downsides are the price and a bit worse off-center sharpness. An excellent choice for environmental portraits.
  • The Sony FE 2.8/50 Macro is nearly as slow focusing as the 1.8/50 so not for action but for landscape and nature photography it can be an interesting alternative since it is easier to focus manually and as good as the FE55 stopped down with excellent flare resistance.
  • Voigtlander 2/65 APO: Twice as heavy and fully manual the macro outperforms the Sony with even higher sharpness and excellent CA correction. This is the lens I personally chose as my “normal lens” since it is a joy to use and such an exceptional performer.
  • The Samyang 1.4/50 is less sharp with an inferior AF drive and quite a bit bigger but more affordable and with even smoother bokeh.
  • The Mitakon 0.95/50 is much faster and bigger special lens. It performs quite well at f/0.95 but it is not as sharp as the FE55 and I wouldn’t want to carry it around as a general purpose lens but it delivers when shallow depth of field is called for.
  • The Zeiss Planar 1.7/50 is not as sharp at wider apertures, especially in the corners and bokeh is a lot less smooth (for most scenarios). Flare of the FE55 is also superior but for landscape photography I would prefer the Planar none the less because of the superior handling and because the differences in sharpness are minor at typical settings.
  • The Minolta MC 1.7/55 has less smooth bokeh, is much less sharp at f/1.7 and much more susceptible to flare. When I compared it to the FE55 I was surprised to see that there is very little difference between them at f/8.
  • The Canon nFD 1.4/50 is nearly as sharp in the center at f/1.8 but it is much less sharp in the corners. Bokeh is also inferior but it is much more affordable and still a very good lens.

Conclusion

good

  • Sharp across the frame from f/1.8
  • Pretty smooth bokeh
  • High contrast and excellent flare resistance
  • Small Size
  • Build Quality
average

  • Value
  • Sunstars
not good

  • Manual Focus Experience
  • LoCA
  • Onion rings
  • Vignetting

The list of the FE 1.8/55’s achievements is quite respectable. It’s one of the sharpest normal lenses around. You can use any aperture and put your subject everywhere in the frame never worry about sharpness. At the same time you get smoother bokeh than with most other normal lenses. Cat-eyes and onion rings can be a bit distracting at times though. Another thing you don’t need to worry about is flare which is very well controlled. Handling of the smallish lens is pleasant with quick AF and a very good balance.

Is it a perfect lens? No it isn’t. I found the manual focusing experience unpleasant so if you prefer manual focus this lens is probably not for you. The only aberration which can be really bothersome is LoCA. I should also mention the strong vignetting even though it has fewer practical consequences.

I would recommend the FE 1.8/55 to most FE-shooters since you can cover a very wide range of applications with great results while keeping your kit small and light. Only a 1.8/35 would be more universal but we have no good native option there. Only those who prefer to focus manually or are chasing after quality without any compromise will be served better by the alternatives.

All in all the Sony FE 1.8/55 ZA T* is a very well balanced lens which is both a very good performer in about any discipline and yet it is so portable that you don’t have to think twice about putting it into your bag. Few lenses manage this balance as well. In light of this performance the rather high price seems to be justified.

The FE 1.8/55 costs $898 at amazon.com or B&H photo,  848€ at amazon.de (affiliate links). You can buy the lens used at ebay.com ($650-700) or ebay.de (600-700€).
If this review was helpful to you, please consider using one of my affiliate links. Thanks 🙂

More Sample Images

More samples in this set: Sony FE 1.8/55 on flickr

edge of the forest

Sony FE 1.8/55 | f/8

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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.

47 thoughts on “Sony FE 1.8/55 ZA Sonnar T* – Long-Term Review”

  1. Great review once again. Thanks for sharing all these tests and information. Personally I am most interested in the comparison of new lenses with old manual lenses. This gives good insides how good the old lenses are, but why it’s worth buying premium lenses.

    Great work, keep it going!

      1. Thank you – very interesting. I would have been curious to hear how it compares to the CY Planar 1.7/50
        Best regards and keep up the good work – always inspiring

  2. Thanks again for your review! Your site continues to be the killer A7* user site for users of native AND legacy lenses
    I would love to see a similar review and discussion of legacy manual tele zooms (and primes) vs the FE 70-200 F4, though my sense is you don’t do a whole lot with telephoto zooms.

    For your style/process, what is the single native lens you find to be most worthwhile over legacy options?

    1. I own a few tele lenses but as you said I don’t use them that much. Right now I have little inclination to test the 4/70-200. I will probably shift my focus back to manual lenses for the next few blog posts.

      About the most worthwhile lens: thats a tough question but I guess it is the 2/28 FE because it is both smaller and better than my manual 28mm lenses.

  3. Good afternoon. Thank you for your blog. A lot of useful information. Often I come to you to check out the new articles.
    In this photo i can see a small speck in the sky https://www.flickr.com/photos/96189377@N08/19671598984.
    This dust on the sensor? On my camera I observe the same spot on the f > 8.

    Can you tell me how often do you clean the camera’s sensor, and how do you do it?
    Thank you.

    1. Glad to hear that you come hear regularly 😉

      thats definitely dust. I use a dust blower similar to this: http://amzn.to/1OZAiDj and it works very well. I am often not that bothered by dust so I forget to clean the sensor. How much cleaning it needs depens a lot on the conditions. Normally I am fine with cleaning it once or twice a month which takes about 30 seconds.

      1. Thanks for the answer. Dust blower does not help me. Recommended to use wet cleaning to me. With the help of this tool: http://photosol.com/products/.
        Which is called Eclipse. You do not have to use it?

        P.S. Sorry for the English, i am use a translator 🙂

  4. I just got my hands on the FE 55mm 1.8 on a good deal I found locally. I am planning some massive testing against my FD 50mm 1.4 but I noticed you mentioned the Mitakon .95 which was the lens I REALLY wanted to buy instead.
    I am not in need of AF although playing with it yesterday it was an interesting feeling to have AF again lol
    I just feel that a .95 lens, when stopped down should be able to match or get close to this 1.8 lens plus I get the .95 options which could create some interesting images…and these days, you need every tool at hand to be different from the rest I think.
    What are your thoughts? Have you personally tested the .95 mitakon? I can get it for $630 shipped.

    1. I haven’t personally used it, only read a few tests. I am very certain that it has a much worse corner performance than the 1.8/55. And it weights about three times as much.

  5. “The FE 1.8/55 has smoother bokeh than any classic normal lens I have ever used.”
    That’s what I feel about the Voigtlander 58/1.4 Nokton SLII, my favourite standard, very closely shared with the MC 58/1.2
    Like you, the AF and focus-by-wire would put me off this, though the rendering does look good.

  6. After more comparisons to my FD 50mm 1.4 (best copy of 3 I tried and also other brand 50s I tested against it) I can say that at 1.8 the FD is close but move a little away from that center focus and its a no contest right away…not even in the same universe.
    There is one interesting thing though…at 5.6 the FD gives the 55mm a run for its money and at F8 it seems to keep improving where the 55mm does not seem to get the same benefits from stopping down any more over all. Heck, I could swear that there are some areas on the frame where the FD actually looks a tad sharper at F8. 😀
    Then again, the so called microcontrast etc and overeall rendering its all for the FE55mm but I found it interesting on how the FD seems to improve more at F8.

    1. Modern lenses seem to be designed to reach their peak performance wider open (often around F/5.6), than older designs. Maybe because of the “fashion” for out of focus/bokeh backgrounds guiding designers, where in the past, sharp front to back was the desired look, and F/8-11 the sweet point designers aimed for.

  7. Hi! Great review indeed…
    Since 2 years I had been slogging with Canon APSC 70D+(10-18)+(18-55)+50/1.8+(55-250) with tripod & flash. Felt it was too heavy and cumbersome. Such a relief it was when I switched to Sony A7R2 + FE1.8/55 recently. Need to increase the focal range now – mostly for the stills of landscapes, family, travel & portraits.
    Kindly advise whether to go by primes or zooms. Do you think making use of APSC mode on A7R2 (thus adhering to a limited number of primes) is a good-enough strategy to eliminate zooms altogether? If so, I will add a FE2/28 immediately, instead of the FE4/16-35. Possible to add the 21mm converter later (slightly contrary to your views though) if needed…
    While meeting the tele-side, adding at least 1 heavy lens becomes inevitable…. How about Samyang manual lens – say 135 manual-cine?
    Appreciate your kind advice. Many thanks in advance.

    1. I think the zoom vs prime decision is up to your taste. If you prefer faster and smaller lenses a prime is probably the better solution. If you value flexibility a zoom will suit you better. The FE 2/28 and 4/16-35 are my only FE lenses and I pack the 2/28 wen I want to travel lightly. The 16-35 when weight doesn’t matter too much.

      The Samyang 2/135 is a phantsatic lens optically and very affordable for what it does. One reason why it is so cheap is that Samyang has lousy quality control. Thats the reason why haven’t bought one yet.

    2. PS
      By reading elsewhere in your web-pages, now I realize of a recommendation of yours (Minolta manual 135mm). I am yet to read further about this lens. Probably needs an LEA3/4 adaptor to suit A7R2 mount???

          1. Kurt Munger reviews a different lens.
            On my Minolta Site I mention the Minolta MD Rokkor 2.8/135. It is important that all three words, Minolta, MD and Rokkor are in the name

  8. Regarding the Mitakon 0.95/50mm, why do you consider it not a general purpose lens? What makes it worse off than your other manual lenses? The size/weight? The lens flare? Or is it because you see no point in carrying it around if you stop it down to f2 ( or something slower than f0.95)? I am currently in the process of deciding if I could use the Mitakon for my photography and I see some people saying it isn’t a general purpose lens (and its been a love hate relationship from online reviewers). Thank you so much if you could answer everything!

    Or do a review of the Mitakon 😛

    1. Well it is mostly about the weight. Stopped down to f/2 it become an average performing f/2 lens which weights about 5 times as much as other 2/50 lenses. So if you want to shoot at f/0.95 half the time it is probably a decent general purpose lens for you but I wouldn_t.

      1. Thank you very much for your input!

        Keep up the amazing work on your photography and the reviews! They really help out a lot 😀

  9. Hi Phillip, firstly thanks for your reviews, keep up the nice work.
    I am in market for 50mm, i had three options in mind, the one on this page, i.e zeiss 55/1.8, the slr magic 50/1.1 and the new fe 50/1.8 sony just released, any suggestions as to which is good?

  10. I’ve found that with the latest firmware as long as there is enough light for PDAF to be active the FE55 is quite fast on my A7. Rarely have a problem unless my subject is moving very quickly (and no lens on the A7 does well with that!) but then I use AF-C and back button AF so maybe its partly an AF technique?

  11. Can you please tell me which adapter you use for your Minolta MC 55 mm / f1,7 lens to mount it on a Sony A7 body? Thanks!

  12. Thank you for reviewing this lens; it is likely the single most widely used lens on the A7 series, at least if one considers “normal” focal length lenses.

    I’ve found it to be easy to use and quite capable, as well (LOCA notwithstanding). The photos I’ve taken feature very good IQ–especially when the aperture is stopped down.

    It is very nice, of course, to have the little bit of extra speed that f/1.8 gives you in low-light conditions.

    Highly recommended.

  13. Thanks for the update Phillip, a realy interesting review!
    You decribed the sunstars of the loxia as nicer… Could you be more precise for the FE55?…
    Do you plan on doing a Loxia 50 VS FE55 article?… It’s really hard to make a choice 😉
    thanks again for all the work done on this site!

    1. I don’t have a single sample of a sunstar for the FE55, will try to add that later but it is 18-pointed and not nearly as well defined as that of the Loxia.
      No, I won’t do a comparison.

  14. “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. ”

    –> I can confirm that one. My copy is nearly 4 years old. Altough I haven’t used it quite often (maybe once per week) it sucked in 4 particles which become visible only by closing the aperture to f4.0.
    Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, especially when I do landscape with it and have to remove particles in the sky afterwards. But most time I use this lens from f1.8 to f.2.5, since it’s results are really stunning.

    I although have the FE 50 f1.4. The background melts more smoothly away, pictures out of it have a more special and eye-catching look than out of the FE55. Since I do not have problems with weight, I prefer the FE50. I still kept the FE55 because I can’t sell it anymore due to dust 🙁
    My opinion is, that the FE55 fits perfectly to first generation A7 (perfect small quality package to take everywhere). While FE50F14 is perfect on larger A7R3 and A9 bodies.

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