Review: Sony Zeiss 50mm f1.4 (Sony Alpha)

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 product photos (5 of 5)ISO 1001-100 sec at f - 4.5

Sony’s older 50mm f1.4 lens was really a rebadged Minolta, and the company has been overdue on creating their very own version for the system. Earlier this year, they announced it. And Sony’s new 50mm f1.4 is really as glorious as we thought it would be to start with. The lens has been co-designed with Zeiss and features autofocusing, dust resistance, and a very sleek body.

But man, is it expensive.

Pros and Cons

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 product photos (1 of 5)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 3.5

Pros

– Solid build quality

– Hella sharp

– Focuses quite quickly and quietly

Cons

– Expensive

– Heavy

– A bit large, but we completely understand why

Gear Used

For this review, we used the Sony A7r, Sony LA-AE4, and the Sony Zeiss 50mm f1.4.

Tech Specs

Tech specs taken from the B&H listing of the product.

Performance
Focal Length 50 mm
Comparable APS-C Focal Length: 75 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/1.4
Minimum: f/22
Camera Mount Type Sony Alpha, Minolta AF
Format Compatibility 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
APS-C
Angle of View 46.8°
Minimum Focus Distance 1.48′ (45 cm)
Magnification 0.14x
Groups/Elements 5/8
Diaphragm Blades 9
Features
Autofocus Yes
Physical
Filter Thread Front: 72 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 3.19 x 2.81″ (81 x 71.5 mm)
Weight 18.27 oz (518 g)

Ergonomics

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 product photos (2 of 5)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 4.5

The Sony Zeiss 50mm f1.4 is one hell of a lens. When this lens was announced almost a year ago, we were all quite smitten. And then we got our first hands on with it and we were dying for a review unit. The front of the lens shows all the trademarks of a Zeiss optic–not a Sony one. It really makes one think about the beautiful lenses that that company creates out of absolute pure magic.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 product photos (3 of 5)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 4.5

The lens is also quite large, and with an adapter it is an even bigger package. Granted, this lens was designed for A mount cameras. If you want to keep the size down, we recommend taking off the lens hood.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 product photos (4 of 5)ISO 1001-100 sec at f - 4.5

On the left of the lens are the only controls: an AF/MF switch. Otherwise there is a manual focusing ring and a smooth metal barrel all around the glass. The design, though very standard, is really quite beautiful. But the design also elicits the feeling that it should be placed on a higher end camera than Sony’s current offerings.

Build Quality

This thing is a beast of a lens. In fact, it actually feels like something that Zeiss would make if they didn’t embrace the whole manual focus philosophy. It feels like a quality piece of glass that you’d be proud to own–and that someone would need to pull out of your cold, dead hands. The lens is said to be dust resistant–sadly we didn’t exactly take it outside to go play in the sandbox.

Autofocus

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (4 of 16)ISO 1251-4000 sec at f - 1.4

Our unit focused quicker than basically any other 50mm f1.4 lens that we’ve tested. This is thanks in part to Sony’s Sony LA-AE4 adapter which has phase detection sensors. The focusing speed can hold up for landscape, studio, street photography and even candid shooting work.

When switching the lens into manual focusing mode, you’ll feel a smooth focusing–almost Sigma smooth but not quite there.

However, in lower light situations, we felt that even though the lens nailed the focusing quickly, it wasn’t always accurate. Sometimes we thought that it was an AF adjustment issue but when we brought it back out into good lighting, the focused quite accurately. Perhaps something was wrong with our Sony LA-AE4.

Ease of Use

This is a Sony lens, but one of their Alpha lenses instead of their Full Frame E Mount lenses. Generally, you’ll mount the lens to camera, focus, and shoot. But if you want to manually focus, there is a switch to go from AF to MF unlike with the company’s full frame E Mount offerings.

Beyond this, the lens actually has a decent depth of field scale that starts at f8. It’s rare for this to actually be on a Sony lens–but it’s quite a welcome relief.

Image Quality

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 review zeiss vintage train ride stuff (6 of 6)ISO 4001-80 sec at f - 2.8

This lens is the thing that fanboys in forums everywhere and Sony Alpha Rumor’s comments dream of but will never be able to touch because of the massive price point.

A forum troll can only dream though…

When using this lens with the A7r, we were floored by nearly every image that came out of the camera. Mostly everything we shot was sharp and beautiful. And if it wasn’t, the image could still be used in some way or another due to the A7r’s sensor performance.

Even if you don’t achieve a sharp image, you’ll be quite pleased with the color rendition, bokeh, and just the overall look to it. There is something very Zeiss-like and organic about the images that we can’t put our fingers on except that it elicits a feeling and look of medium format film–Portra with a tad extra saturation to be exact.

On a personal note, all my personal work is done on medium format film, and much of it is Portra. So to say that combining this lens with the A7r and shooting made me feel right at home is a very accurate statement.

Years ago, Sony took Minolta’s 50mm f1.4 lens and rehoused it. We reviewed it and still found that it delivered good results. But pixel for pixel and lens element for lens element, it can’t overtake this new option. If we had to rank this lens amongst Sony’s other primes, it would be placed as sharper than their 85mm f1.4 and right on par with their 135mm f1.8 lens–both are known in the portrait world as optics to strive for.

Granted, a 50mm lens won’t offer the flattening effects that either of the longer focal lengths will give you. So just consider the 50mm f1.4 to be more versatile if anything.

Sharpness

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (7 of 16)ISO 1001-125 sec at f - 2.5

Wide open, the lens’s performance can be very sharp–but you’ll need to nail the focusing correctly and not move a single bit. We found our favorite rendering to be at f2.8–as it perfectly balances bokeh and sharpness. The lens is at its sharpest at f8 and after that it starts to experience diffraction.

Both pros and enthusiasts will fully appreciate the sharpness performance from this optic. During the test phase, we didn’t have the opportunity to test it with lighting to deliver specular highlights and show off its true potential, but with the right sensor behind the back element, we’re certain that it will blow the pants off of anyone else’s offering with the exception of Zeiss’s own 55mm f1.4 Otus lens.

Color Rendition

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (1 of 16)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8

We’ve always been very pleased with the color rendering from Sony’s lenses–and the 50mm f1.4 Zeiss is no exception. Combined with Sony sensors though, the images tend to be rendered a bit more to the purple side of the tint slider than we’d like. So all images require a slight pull back.

However, the images right out of the camera have some otherwise quite beautiful color–with lots of richness in the reds, greens, and blues. It’s a thing of beauty.

Color Fringing

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (13 of 16)ISO 1001-80 sec at f - 3.5

 

Color fringing for this lens only happens in the absolute most extreme of situations as you can see in the image above in the trees. But once again, as issue like this is easily nerfed in Adobe Lightroom 5. If you’re shooting a portrait with lots of backlighting, you might want to be careful–but otherwise there shouldn’t be a serious problem.

Bokeh

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (6 of 16)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 2.5

 

Nom, nom, nom, nom, nom…bokeh.

Sorry, before writing this post I just had pizza.

But anyway, in all seriousness, the Sony Zeiss 50mm f1.4’s bokeh is quite creamy. Add in the fact that it can focus pretty darn closely and you’ll get some beautiful images that bokeh fiends will froth at the mouth for. Of course, the best bokeh is at f1.4–but the best balance of bokeh and sharpness is at f2.8. Heck, we’d even say f2 if you’re really careful.

Extra Image Samples

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 review zeiss vintage train ride stuff (5 of 6)ISO 2001-10 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 review zeiss vintage train ride stuff (4 of 6)ISO 8001-80 sec at f - 1.4

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 review zeiss vintage train ride stuff (3 of 6)ISO 16001-60 sec at f - 1.4

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 review zeiss vintage train ride stuff (2 of 6)ISO 16001-60 sec at f - 1.4

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 review zeiss vintage train ride stuff (1 of 6)ISO 1001-2000 sec at f - 1.4

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (16 of 16)ISO 1601-100 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (15 of 16)ISO 1601-100 sec at f - 2.0

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (14 of 16)ISO 1001-50 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (12 of 16)ISO 1251-320 sec at f - 5.6

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (11 of 16)ISO 1001-320 sec at f - 13

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (10 of 16)ISO 4001-1000 sec at f - 5.6

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (9 of 16)ISO 4001-100 sec at f - 5.6

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (8 of 16)ISO 1001-640 sec at f - 1.4

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (5 of 16)ISO 1251-1250 sec at f - 1.4

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (3 of 16)ISO 1251-2500 sec at f - 1.4

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony 50mm f1.4 ext images (2 of 16)ISO 1001-320 sec at f - 1.4

Conclusions

There is very little to complain about with the Sony Zeiss 50mm f1.4 lens. It’s sharp, not too contrasty, delivers excellent colors, and is built like an early tank. When using this lens, we highly doubt anyone will be disappointed with the results that it can yield. But for the expensive price point, we really believe that it should have incorporated weather sealing. Sure, you’re not going to get comparable image quality from any other true 50mm lens out there, but that isn’t a reason to charge the equivalent of a month’s rent in Brooklyn for it.

Recommended Cameras and Accessories

Sony A99- The company’s flagship DSLR is still one of the best around, and our top pick for use with this lens.

Sony A7r: Sony’s higher end mirrorless camera in the full frame arena will give you the best image quality ever. If you’re not a Sony fan already, this combination will make you a believer.

Sony LA-AE4: This is the adapter to use with the 50mm f1.4 and your full frame Sony mirrorless camera.

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