by Chad Wadsworth – See more from Chad HERE
Lens can be purchased at B&H Photo HERE.
There is a “journey of focal lengths” photographers take on the road from beginner to expert. In the film era, you would start with a normal 50mm lens and then move to longer or wider focal lengths, eventually settling in on a preferred way of seeing. For many, that favorite FOV is 35mm – a classic and flexible focal length, well suited for landscapes, street, reportage, weddings, fashion or portraits. 35mm is a desert island lens – the one you would keep if you could have no other.
Sony’s very first full frame digital mirrorless camera, the RX1 was built around this desert island concept because well, you couldn’t put any other lens on it – the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 lens was literally bolted to the camera. With its fast f/2 aperture and compact size, the Sonnar was quickly recognized as a one of the all-time greats. Not clinically perfect, it is what some call a “character lens” specifically recognized for its wonderful rendering of the transition between very sharp focus and out-of-focus backgrounds. The Sonnar also has excellent bokeh with soft edges and mostly round structure. The only complaint I have with the Sonnar is that you can’t use it on Sony’s more popular and prevalent E-mount. I’m not alone, as there has been a loud chorus of voices calling for a similar lens that could be used on our a7 and a9 cameras.
Enter the newly released and long awaited Sony FE 35mm/f1.8. Is this the compact and fast 35mm we’ve been waiting for? On the surface it checks all the boxes: fast (f/1.8), compact (280g) and at a launch price of $748, cheaper than both the compact f/2.8 Sonnar ($798) and the SLR sized f/1.4 Distagon ($1598). It doesn’t carry a G or GM badge, but at this price point, clearly it isn’t a budget lens. My gut told me this was a lens similar in concept to the popular FE 85mm f/1.8 – a compact, fast focusing, very sharp lens with hopefully some great character.
At the a7rIV launch event in NYC, while the YouTube review army were fixated on 61 megapixels, I arranged to meet my Sony contact for a covert handoff of the FE 35mm f/1.8. Since then I’ve captured a wide variety of images to illustrate how the lens performs in different scenarios. With the exception of a couple Sony production sets at their BeAlpha event in NYC, this was all done in real-world environments that would reflect street shooting, editorial, or just your everyday vacation snaps. Where would the lens shine and what if any compromises were made to deliver the final performance profile?
One of the things that attracts me to a fast 35mm is the dual personality it presents. I love doing street scenes and portraits at opposite ends of the aperture scale to create completely different looks. This is a lens that can produce both an evocative shallow focus portrait or a deep focus image with an incredible amount of detail.
Physically, the lens is well constructed in the same design language as the FE 85mm/f1.8, including a customizable function button on the barrel. Size and weight are nearly identical to the FE 55mm/f1.8. Focus is very, very quick, quiet and accurate. This is the type of compact prime that I signed up for when the concept of mirrorless was introduced.
Paired with an a7/a9 body; the weight, balance and focus performance is a dream. I haven’t had an opportunity to use it on the Sony APS-C bodies but I imagine it will be equally well balanced. On the topic of APS-C, throw this lens on the new a7rIV and you essentially have a two-in-one 35mm/50mm prime kit – that’s 61mp at 35mm and 26mp in crop mode at roughly 50mm!
The more I shot with this new lens, the more something nagged me, a sense of recognition…could it be that the FE 35mm was designed to match the performance of the beloved 35mm Sonnar on the RX1? If so, it would be an unexpected revelation.
It didn’t take but a few comparison shots to see that my suspicion was confirmed. The two lenses were surprisingly similar if not identical in many scenarios. Out of focus transition – something the Sonnar excels at – looks to be similar if not identical in most of my comparison shots. This is huge, as the transition zone is what makes the Sonnar so special and what I was hoping to see in the FE 35mm.
Bokeh is similar but the Sonnar distinguishes itself with slightly softer circles – the FE 35mm bokeh has a bit more highlight definition along the edges of the circles and some mechanical vignetting that can misshape the circles closer to the edges of the frame. You have to look close to see these differences but they are present.
Another area where the two lenses share DNA is sharpness. Both are biting sharp wide open but stop down to f/5.6 for crystalline perfection to the edges. I can still remember the first landscape I took with the RX1 and how it blew me away – that same feeling is there with the new lens.
Chromatic aberrations look to be well controlled with the FE 35mm – maybe even more so than the Sonnar. Barrel distortion is minimal and easily corrected in camera or post. Vignetting is probably the biggest sin committed by the FE 35mm, with Sony using profile corrections to eliminate the effect before the images hit your computer. You can see the vignetting in a few of the sample photos as I had in-camera compensation turned off for a bit.
Image comparisons aside, what really impressed me about the new FE 35mm compared to the Sonnar is the usability on the latest generation of a7/a9 bodies. On the a9 specifically, focus was virtually instant, and the camera’s ability to automatically track my subject or shoot wide open at f/1.8 at ultra-high electronic shutter speeds (1/12800sec) in bright daylight enabled images I could never capture with the RX1.
It has been several weeks since I first laid hands on the FE 35mm f/1.8 and it continues to impress; so much so that I can give it an unqualified recommendation for anyone looking for a go anywhere, fast semi-wide prime. It’s a sleeper lens that doesn’t need a GM badge to prove its capabilities. It marries the best of the classic definitive moment reportage concept found in the RX1 to the latest generation of Sony’s impressive autofocus systems in a significant evolutionary leap that is going to put a smile on a lot of faces.
Austin, Texas based music culture photographer Chad Wadsworth has contributed to Steve Huff Photo since 2012 and is a Sony Artisan of Imagery.
wonderful review! I preorderes this lens and i am really exciting to get it in my hands.
I had the Rx1r, too and were really happy with it.
Once i changed for the A7r2 i was always searching for an matching 35mm lens.
I started with the Sony Zeiss 35 2.8 and were happy for a while.
The lack of speed and bokeh was always a negative point which ended that i switched for the Samyang/Rokinon 35 1.4 .
That lens was perfect. Image quality is absolutley great and beautiful in my opinion.
Really special and as good as my beloved Sonnar 35 2.0 from the Rx1.
But the 1.4 has a disadvantage and this is the weight. It is too heavy for easy walk around in my opinion.
So i switched for another one.
The lens in that class i actually use is the Batis 40mm 2.0 CF.
Really lovely Zeiss Colours, great in weight and great close focus functions (as you can see here https://www.flickr.com/photos/114624643@N04/48371791627/in/dateposted-public/ ) !
But this lens has also a disadvantage and that is the focus.
When the focus nails all is good but sadly it misses focus quite often with a little front or backfocus. When i photograph my kids indoor with 2.0 there are too much pics i have to delete (sadly).
And so my next try will be this Sony 35 1.8.
And your article is really promising that colours are great enough for my high standards 🙂
So thank you so much for that teaser!
Still waiting for my 35mm 1.8 to come by the end of august here in Indonesia.
Glad the review is as good as my expectation, i hope when the lens come it’s even better
This lens looks like a great addition to the Sony system. So many people have been asking for a 35/1.8 for a long time now. It may not be exactly like the fantastic RX1 lens, but it looks quite good anyway. And the size looks perfect.
Very glad to read your review of this lens. I’ve started using the 35 f2.8 when I want a light one lens travel setup with my A9 but I’ve never been completely happy with the 2.8. Your terrific photos with this lens are very convincing. The 35 f1.8 will be my next lens. Your post is really a nice tutorial on how to get different looks using this lens. Thanks for posting.
Glad it was instructional!
In my opinion, this does not compare to the RX1. Not even close. Sure it’s 35mm and F1.8 but the images speak for itself and I do not believe they are comparable to the amount of praise pitched in this review. Drawing comparisons to say they look similar if not identical really sounds a bit exaggerated and like a sales pitch. Later reading that the reviewer is a Sony Artisan of Imagery made this more clear. Nothing against this but I feel there is some unintentional bias here. Looking at the images, the 35mm F1.8 does not render close to what the RX1 can produce. If you’ve worked with this camera long enough before, you can immediately spot the difference in the rendering of the images. For the amount of praise this review produces, in contrary I believe Sony could have done a lot better and made a 35mm F1.8 GM or Sony Zeiss F2.0. It’s beyond a badge, one can tell from bokeh rendering, micro contrast, color and sharpness that the images do not render a quality comparable to the RX1. The 35mm F1.8 is a great addition to the E Mount lens lineup and looks to produce good images but it’s in no way a magical 35mm F1.8 and surely Sony can do better or is withholding to protect the RX1 series. This lens is good for what it is but I hope Sony has more in store for their 35mm focal range.
All I can say is that I have shot the original RX1 since it’s introduction and then the RX1RII. I’ve probably taken more images with the RX1 cameras than any other combination of my E-mount cameras and lenses and I have written several articles on the RX1 (some of which you can find here on Steve Huff). It’s your prerogative to be cautious about my praise but I stand by every word. I called it exactly how I see it. The lenses are not identical but they are similar – specifically in sharpness and out of focus transition. The FE 35mm looks to handle CA BETTER and I didn’t mention it in the review but the FE can also produce beautiful sunstars – something the Sonnar cannot. The ONLY area where the RX1’s Sonnar performs slightly better is in Bokeh and I clearly stated the difference. Being an Artisan doesn’t mean I heap praise on any Sony product. Like Steve, I usually only write about the gear I am passionate about and this FE 35mm turned out to be a surprise to me as I wasn’t expecting it to be in the Sonnar’s league. If you are interested in seeing more comparison shots, feel free to contact me via my website and I’d be happy to share them with you.
I agree with David on this one. The 35mm 1.8 just does not have the “zeiss pop” that the RX1 is known for. Your two images in the article clearly demonstrate this to me:
Sony FE 35mm 1.8: https://chadwadsworth.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/3518-web-08789.jpg
Peter, this is the trouble with doing “crazy comparisons”. These shots are not identical, the model’s pose and orientation is different, lighting is at slightly different due to the angle, etc. but it illustrates how similar the lenses render.
The only “pop” I see is the increased contrast due to that change. Notice the highlights on her nose and cheeks in the RX1 image. That has zero to do with the lens and I rather prefer how evenly the FE image is lit.
This is the trouble with doing loose comparisons – too many variables to account for. Some of the differences in rendering – like color and dynamic range – have as much to do with the sensor as they do the lens.
I’ve shot 10s of thousands of RX1 images and I love and appreciate the way the Sonnar renders but the concept of Zeiss “Magic” and “Pop” are not something I buy into. Every lens has a signature and the Sonnar’s is wonderful but I’m seeing that similar beauty in the FE lens.
We could go around in circles on this all day and this kind of debate is certainly entertaining – seems I’ve opened a can of worms. Time and public opinion (and more critical reviews) will tell but I’m 100% confident in what I’ve seen from this new lens and how it compares to the beloved Sonnar.
If Steve is up to it, perhaps we can amend the article with a few more of the comparison shots and let you guess which lens produced which file.
Great article and amazing shots. Love the color rendering. Are these post processed or files from the camera? If edited, whats done to them?
Great photos and great article. I am glad to hear that the FE 35mm lens is comparable to the Sonnar 35mm on RX1 cameras. Thanks for sharing!
Really nice written! I like your work! Isn’t it decisive moment? 🙂
Thank you! I certainly try and make it so.
I’m glad to read that this lens is so good.
I’ve been very disappointed and perplexed by the lack of a small and fast 35mm option for Sony (the 2.8 ain’t fast, the 1.4 ain’t small). I was hoping for something a tad cheaper, but I guess you can only pick two from good, fast or cheap. I’ll just have to save up for this one.
Agreed on all accounts