The Irrational Reasons to Buy an $800 35mm f/2.8 Lens

The Irrational Reasons to Buy an $800 35mm f/2.8 Lens

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.

There are plenty of reasons that the Sony/Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 doesn't make sense.

Price

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. 

Note: at the time of this article's publication (9/17/2015), Sony is running a $100 promotion on the lens, bringing the price down to $698.

Image Quality

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:

Sigma 35mm 1.4 A | DXO score of 39

Nikon 35mm 1.8G ED | DXO score of 33 

Canon 35mm 2.0 IS USM | DXO score of 29

Sony 35mm 2.8 FE ZA | DXO score of 33

Sony 35mm 1.4 FE ZA | DXO score of 38

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. 

Then again, there are even more reasons why it's my favorite lens.

Size

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. 

Crutch-Killing

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

Dear 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.

Bottom Line

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?

Of course.

Is it worth every penny?

Yes.

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.

 

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41 Comments

Michael Comeau's picture

I just got this lens used in excellent condition for $540 on a flash sale.

I'm a street photographer that regularly takes 10+ mile walks.

So if you gave me a 35mm f/1.4 for free, I'd thank you, but I'd never use it.

Worrying about which lens is sharpest is a complete waste of time because most lenses are sharp enough.

A Zeiss (like the fancy manual focus Zeiss lenses) will get you marginally better image quality at a huge cost in money and size.

What I want to see is more blind taste tests of lenses.

I think too many photographers let preconceived notions, brand loyalty, and the need to justify their purchases color their opinions.

I used to shoot Canon.

I've looked back at older images, and for some of them, I couldn't tell whether I shot something with the 100mm macro (great reputation for optical quality) or 70-300mm zoom (not so great reputation).

Austin Rogers's picture

That's an awesome deal! I couldn't agree with you more, Michael. I'd love to see some of the work you've shot with it so far! This weird little lens has quickly grown to be one of my favorite lenses ever.

Michael Comeau's picture

I just got the 35mm f/2.8 in my hands yesterday.

I'd been using the 28mm f/2 (a very solid lens) for a couple months as my wide angle for street photography.

But I suspect the 28mm will end up on Craig's List soon. The size/weight and the hood design of the 35mm f/2.8 makes it way, way more practical.

In fact, when the Fedex guy handed me my box, I thought nothing was in it.

Austin Rogers's picture

Ha! I actually had the same experience when I got the box in my hand at the store. Do you use the hood, Michael? I'm just going hood and filter free right now. I picked up a 49mm cap for when I'm not actively using it.

Michael Comeau's picture

Hood only, unless I'm using a filter.

"So if you gave me a 35mm f/1.4 for free, I'd thank you, but I'd never use it."

IMHO, If somebody gave me a 35mm f/1.4 for free, I would say: OM*G thank you thank you thank you! I'll use it all the time!

Actually, I bought myself that absolute jewel the Sigma Art 1,4. It puts a smile on my face every single time I see RAW results this lens brings me. The general WOW about this lens is truly not exaggerated.

The Sony 35 2.8 costing $800 vs Sigma 35 1.4 costing $900, without a doubt I go for Sigma.

Yes, Sigma is bigger, but that is not a problem for me personally even for street photography. The advantage for me of the Sigma is its versatility. All those missing stops from 1.4 to 2.8 make a difference, ESPECIALLY Sigma is gorgeous from 1.4 and stratospheric when closed down a few stops. I just can do more with 1.4. And when I make blind shots (not sticking my eye to my viewfinder) I can still close 1.4 lens to f8, f11... isn't it?

But hey, do not make me wrong, tech talk is nice, but what's nicer? It's Simple: the photography itself, the result we get no matter what camera we use - The subject, the composition, the light... the purpose of the photo itself.

But somebody else could say, getting back to tech talk: Sigma $900? no way, I go for Sony 35 1.8 for $400! Stoped down it is goergeous too. And that guy, will be absolutely right about his choice.

Which again bounce back to what photography is. More expensive gear will not make a better photographer out of anybody.

ALEX ~'s picture

Nothing irrational about this lens, really, the way I see it... You pay for excellent IQ in a super compact package. A rather desirable combination in the FF world. Personally I skipped it, precisely because I own the RX1 too, which I still consider to be the best 35mm package across any brand.

I went for the monster 1.4 Zeiss instead and never looked back - have you tried it? I've shot it side by side with the Sigma Art and to me everything about the Zeiss was superior, though I wouldn't rule out some personal bias, admittedly. I don't count DxO scores that much, but since you've mentioned it, their technical tests show them to deliver nearly identical performance (albeit double the price) - throw in the native mount and the new A7Rii's sensor and IBIS and Zeiss becomes a no-brainer.

Anyway, nice writeup on a great lens - if one does not yet own a 35mm for the E-mount, this 2.8 is a fantastic place to start!

Austin Rogers's picture

Hi Alexander! I've only used the Zeiss 35 1.4 once and it was stellar. I have some files that I need to pull out to share. I was actually really astonished at its quality at 1.6 and by the time I hit 2.5 it was sharper than just about anything I've ever shot, Nikon 85 1.4G included.

The irrationality in buying the lens, for me, was just the price. I had a really hard time wrapping my head around it when Nikon and Canon's "cheap" 35 options were a stop or so faster and a couple hundred bucks cheaper and the Sigma was only a hundred more. Once I was able to get over the sticker shock this lens really became a no brainier for me.

I don't put too much stock in DXO scores either, I'm sure they're helpful to some people but honestly as long as a lens is "good enough" I'm happy as a clam with it. There are people who need edge to edge sharpness, no optical defects, etc but that's not me. :)

Share some pictures with the 1.4 if you get a chance!

ALEX ~'s picture

Ask and you shall receive, lol... I bough it just so I can shoot wide open, so these are all at 1.4. Background rendering is about the only thing that I didn't care for on the 2.8 (even at 2.8). I think FS kills the IQ once uploaded, but here are examples of stuff I shoot with it when I'm out and about:

Austin Rogers's picture

Internet compression is a losing battle my friend! That's awesome! Thanks for sharing! :)

Ryan Bartels's picture

I'm thinking of dodging this bullet by going slightly wider...

All good points. Being in a similar boat (though I care little for the 50mm focal length when I have a 35 and 85 - DESPITE the superb reputation of that Zeiss-branded 55 from Sony) I've actually considered - for the time being at least - going with the 28mm f2. Scored one better overall at 34 and two better on sharpness and comes in at half the price. Yes it's wider, but I can easily work with that for the extra stop and $400-500 back in my pocket.

The Tamron offering could be appealing for those with the A-E adapter - of course the two together will cost you the same as the Sony 35 2.8 and you'd get VC and more than a stop back.

Never have understood why this lens is priced where it is, really.

Side note: It's also worth noting that the DXO scale obviously fluctuates between camera sensors and the best numbers come from the A7r. It does seem that they fall off by a relatively consistent percentage, but the numbers get more interesting depending on your setup. Random example if you have an NEX7 (only consistently tested model below the 7r) a 21 score from the 28mm sounds pretty good considering the now legendary 55mm only scores a 25 on that body. This is not meant in any way to demean your point. We all get that. A lens is best judged by it's maximum potential.

Cheers

Austin Rogers's picture

Totally valid point about the DXO scores. I looked at the 28mm myself, honestly it's equipped how I'd like the 35mm but a little too wide for me! If you end up pulling the trigger on the 28 let me know how you like it!

Ryan Bartels's picture

Will do

Sean Molin's picture

f/2.8 lenses are fantastic for street photographers who are already stopping down a bit. It keeps the size down, and the image quality up.

Nikon and Canon spoil photographers with lens pricing because they are huge companies that put out a lot of glass; Economies of scale. It doesn't take much of a dive into the world of high-end glass to realize that $800 for a lens of this caliber is a steal. This is still less than half the price of the Leica Summaron, and a *third* of the Summicron. Don't even start talking about the Summilux.

Austin Rogers's picture

How about that Summilux, eh?
I think the experience of shooting a relatively slow prime has been awesome for me (so far). I don't do street work myself but I'd imagine for someone shooting at f/8.0+ all day this is a perfectly goood option and a real no brainer.

Sean Molin's picture

I'm too poor for a Summilux. I just have a measly 'cron.

"$800 for a lens of this caliber is a steal. This is still less than half the price of the Leica Summaron, and a *third* of the Summicron. Don't even start talking about the Summilux."

I often read those kind of argument. I think it is pointless. The Leica is a luxury company.
Sony is not. In this particular case, $800 is way too much. And the cost of Leica lenses or Zeiss Otuses is not here to justify this high price tag. It would be like: OK guys now we are putting high price on everything! What? Too expensive? Go check Leica. IMHO wrong way.

Sorry, have no hard feelings to my argument, but comparing prices with Leica price tags is quite nonsense.

Sony often put a high price on their lenses: see alpha mount, Sony Zeiss 50 f1.4 (the most recent one) $1500!!!! Damn, it is 3x the price of best Canon & Nikon for the same focal length & comparable quality. Even $1000, 2x price would be still a lot. More people could put their hands on it, & final count wuold be maybe more positive in termes of the revenue for Sony for this lens. But noooo, Sony wants $1500. Boom, deal with it.

Again, hopfully there is Sigma that puts some reason into this crazy world. And the quality is there on ART line lenses.

Disclaimer: I am not from Sigma ;)

Lee Morris's picture

We are currently working on the review of our A7RII. The lens system/mount is so confusing to me. The price of this lens is no exception

Austin Rogers's picture

Ha! How's the system confusing? Seems pretty intuitive to me thus far.

Lee Morris's picture

Why doesn't the A series camera work with an A lens?

Austin Rogers's picture

Like the older SLT / SLR lenses? Distance from lens to sensor. They will work, the just need a converter I believe.

Ingemar Kenyatta's picture

I can see why they would eventually do this but not quite at this point. When you have built in stabilization it allows you to put more profit margin in glass and still be price competitive with companies that put stabilization in lens but not body. I just figured that they would do it later after more market share had been captured with the new bodies.

Just as a heads up, its actually selling as low as $729 on DigitalRev with 0% tax and free Shipping!
http://www.digitalrev.com/product/sigma-35mm-f-1-4/MTAwMjE2Ng_A_A

I've been looking at the Sigma and the newer Rokinon 35m 1.4 with the AE chip. this is a tough decision but for a price dif of 229 i would be getting great AF and unparalleled sharpness wide open.. my bank account is gonna hate me lol

Austin Rogers's picture

That's an awesome deal! Will you be using it with a converter on the Sony? I'd love to know how your experience is! :)

I just own a Canon Aps-C for now, maybe one day I can take the leap. I'd be interested in the Sigma results paired with a Metabones Speed booster

Austin Rogers's picture

Oh gotcha. Maybe look at the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 then, it's specifically for APSC and is much cheaper if I remember correctly.

George Mahlum's picture

The FE28F2 does it for me...

Austin Rogers's picture

Heck of a lens! I'd love to see some of the work you've shot on it, George.

Allen Freeman's picture

I've also found the 28 f/2 very sharp and keeps surprising me. Shot a short video with natural light and it looked like a high end movie production, before processing! I also use this lens to shoot eBay objects to sell.

Ian Ludwig's picture

I went the Loxia 35 route myself and don't regret it. It is wicked sharp and fun to use. I haven't personally used this one yet but given the choice it would come down to this one and the Zeiss 35 1.4 if I had to have the AF.