The current king-of-the-hill 35mm, the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A DC HSM, costs $900. That's not too shabby for a lens that absolutely dominates its "L" and high-end Nikon competition, which both cost significantly more. Canon and Nikon offer budget 35mm options: a f/2.0 IS and f/1.8G, respectively, both of which cost under $600 and are no slouches themselves. With the availability of extremely well performing 35mm lenses at the sub-thousand-dollar price point, why on earth would someone buy a slow (f/2.8) 35mm for $800?
Trust me; I've been asking myself that same question
After jumping into the Sony ecosystem with a beautiful little α7II, I really only wanted three lenses: a 50-ish mm, an 85mm, and my favorite all-purpose, a 35mm. Right now, Sony has their bases pretty well covered with their premium-priced Sony/Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 and Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 (both of which are fast enough for my purposes). They also have two 35mm options to choose from (I'm excluding the manual focus Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2.0): the Sony/Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 and the Sony/Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8. I chose the latter for some reason.
I'm no stranger to sticker shock on photo-related items; I don't think anyone reading this is. But the idea of paying north of $800 for a f/2.8 prime that has exactly zero bells or whistles is bordering on insanity.
Like I said above, the Sigma Art line 35mm costs a hundred bucks more, is two stops quicker, and has performance only rivaled by the Otus. Almost every other company has a low-end 35mm (or 35mm equivalent) that is better specced in terms of speed and/or image quality and costs about $200 less than the Sony.
What's up with that?
As everyone knows, Zeiss lenses (or Sony lenses with a Zeiss badge on the side) come with a price of admission, but for a lens this simple, the price seems well over where it should be.
The $800 Sony 35mm gets destroyed by similarly priced 35mm options in terms of image quality. I, personally, am not a pixel-peeper/MTF chart nerd, but there certainly is something to be said for a lens that receives a DXO score of 39, in the case of the Sigma 35mm A, compared to the 33 of the low-end Sony, beating out the one-stop-quicker Canon f/2.0 and performing equally as well as the 1.3-stop-quicker Nikon 1.8G.
Below are some resources for comparing the IQ from DXO:
Features (or lack thereof)
Speed. I'm not sure if you're aware, but f/2.8 is slow. My iPhone has a faster lens (in order to avoid troll comments, yes, I know it's not a fair comparison; I'm just making a point). Every other low-end 35mm I can think of is f/2.0 or faster.
No IS/VR/VC/OSS. Built-in stabilization is becoming more and more common in primes: Canon's 35mm f/2.0 has it, as does the newly announced Tamron 35mm f/1.8. It's helpful for videographers looking to handhold and photographers looking to shoot at a shutter speed their shaky hands might not be able to hold up to. While the new model α7-series bodies feature in-body Steady Shot, it's not unreasonable to want a stabilized lens that would work in tandem with the in-camera stabilization.
I bought my α7II after a summer of shooting almost exclusively my Contax G2 (a 90s film rangefinder popularized by fancy lawyers and doctors on family vacations, Juergen Teller and Uncle Terry types). I loved the ability to throw my rig in my backpack, glove box, etc. Over a couple months, I felt less and less willing to grab my D800 and set of heavier primes for personal work. In my opinion, the α7 series is made for small primes and the 35mm is no exception. When rocking the α7II + 35mm f/2.8 combo, I have no problem walking around the city all day with it on a strap, something I would have probably skipped with my D800 + Sigma 35mm A combination.
When mounted, the lens barely extends beyond the grip of the camera, making it darn-near pocketable (though I wouldn't recommend this for obvious reasons).
Of course, another benefit of such a small rig is the ability to blend into whatever environment you find yourself. A professional Nikon or Canon body with a gold or red ring 35mm is significantly more attention-grabbing than an α7 and a tiny prime, something I enjoyed while filming in NYC last week.
I'll just say it: shooting wide open is too easy. As a (reformed) 35mm f/1.4 owner, I know the temptation to shoot at f/1.4 or f/1.6 all day and just forget that images can include environmental context if you like. Of course, f/2.8 is still wide enough to blur a background if your subject is fairly close, but not quite as easily as a lens that is one or two stops faster. I'm 100% willing to admit it may be my own eccentricities, but I've found shooting a slower prime makes me more likely to stop down to f/4.0 or f/8.0 and shoot some images with more than one layer.
Image Quality: Yes, I know
I know I just bashed the lens for not living up to the Sigma (or any other modern 35mm).
MTF charts don't lie. Or do they? A summer of shooting film taught me, for better or worse, not to get hung up on anything. Images can come out blurry from handholding at 1/25th, things aren't always sharp, grain exists and it's beautiful. A lens doesn't have to be sharp edge-to-edge, doesn't have to eliminate distortion, doesn't have to prevent flare when shooting directly at the damn sun.
This lens is fine at f/2.8. It's excellent at f/4.0. It's nearly flawless at f/8.0. Unless you're sitting at home shooting charts all day, this lens can do whatever you need it to; a kit lens can.
An Open Letter to Sony
For the reasons above, I obviously love my FE 35mm f/2.8. I do, however, wish it was a wee bit better equipped for the price. I can't help but notice, along with some other people on the internet, that the FE f/2.8 is eerily similar in size to the lens that's built into the RX1 camera, which is a full-frame-covering 35mm f/2.0, as seen below:
Despite the differences in flange distance from the RX1 to the α7 line, I'd have to imagine modifying the current design of the RX1's lens to an E-mount would be cheaper than designing a new lens from the ground up.
While it hurt my wallet to spend a premium price on a somewhat poorly equipped lens, I'm happy I did and would do it again; I just wish it was slightly closer to the competition's 35mm offerings in terms of features and cost.
If you have an α7 and you want a 35mm as small as your camera, you need this lens. This lens is a workhorse; it does what it's made to do and nothing more. The only other options for a compact 35mm are all manual focus and homie-don't-play-that. So, until Sony decides to come out with their retrofitted RX1 lens or Zeiss makes an autofocus alternative, this is about as good as it gets.
Is $800 a lot to pay for a low-end compact 35mm?
Is it worth every penny?
Maybe it's not the most rational choice, given the availability of other high-performance/similarly priced 35mm lenses out there, along with the extensive line of mount adapters also available, but it is a valid one, one I'm truly happy I made.
What's your favorite irrational camera/lens/gear purchase? Let me know in the comments below! I'd also love to hear about your experience with the 35mm f/2.8.
Convinced? You can pick up a copy right here.