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.

 

Log in or register to post comments

42 Comments

Previous comments

Ok I just have to put this here if the argument is on its size, just saying ($150):

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/870179-REG/Canon_40mm_f_2_8_EF_Pan...

You can add a used Canon 5D mk 1 to that and still not pay the price of that lens.

Benjamin Thomson's picture

A fine article. I briefly owned this lens and thought it was great! My only comment is that the the lens on the rx1 contains a leaf shutter, so would take a lot of fandangling to adapt.

DXO scores are based on the resolution of the sensor. So the Canon lens gets a lower score because DXO tested it on a 21mp 5D2 camera. If and when DXO ever tests it on the 50mp 5DS, it will get a higher score. In the meantime, it is meaningless to rank the Canon lens based on a 29 DXO score when the other lenses were tested on 36mp cameras (D800 or A7R). For what it's worth, the Canon lens gets a 33 DXO score on the 22mp 5D3 camera.

The RX1 lens would stick out a bit- notice where the film plane mark is on both cameras

michael barlow's picture

I'm hoping for a FE wide angle that has the same slim, pancake, profile that the 20mm f/2.8 lens for the aps-c nex cameras has, when i stick that on my a7rii it sits flush with the handle

There are many good reasons why Sony nobbled this lens at f/2.8 instead of f/2 like the RX1:
1) A Sony 2/35 lens with the form factor of the RX1 lens would be a threat to RX1 sales.
2) Its relationship with Zeiss. They're clearly partners working closely together to build two separate systems of lenses that are well coordinated with each other. Thus, a 2/35mm would overlap too closely with Zeiss's Loxia 2/35.
3) The RX1 lens patent is owned by Zeiss, therefore Sony doesn't even get a say in the matter.
Thought through in these terms, the Sony 2.8/35 makes complete sense in the scheme of things.

I couldn't agree with this more. I bought the original A7 With this 35mm f2.8 lens. Since then I've considered getting other bigger lenses with better image quality and faster... but I haven't. In the end I got my camera to get full frame quality images more portable and if I get a much bigger lens then I'm defeating the purpose (not that having the option to turn it into a bigger mega powerhouse isn't a good thing, I just am a casual shooter that wants to be more portable).

Completely agree with (most of) this.

35mm is my second most important focal length, and I just can't bring myself to buy either of Sony's options. The 35 f/2.8 is too slow, especially for the price. The 35 1.4 is a ridiculous size for a mirrorless, bigger than some DSLR counterparts.

I keep irrationally waiting for an f/2 or f/1.8 from Sony or a Batis. This lens should have been that fast/size from the beginning - essentially what I'd really like is the sister lens to the perfect Sony 55 f/1.8, shouldn't that have been the obvious design choice to Sony from the start?

Maybe I will finally buy this lens. I had been holding off due to the 2.8. Wish they made it like the 55 in 1.8. Strange that it goes 1.4 to 2.8 and nothing inbetween :( Instead they make a cheap 50 1.8? Doesn't make sense. Still love my sonys

Allen Freeman's picture

I just got a 35 f/2.8 for my A7R2 today. Though I paid $475 (and used a $50 coupon from eBay) - so $425. Off tomorrow to put it thru it's paces. Loved your article! Will search out more of your work!

Here are my two cents:

I just bought the Sony A7 II and the only lens I bought with it was the 35mm Sonnar F2.8.
I got it because it is small and amazing.
Ken Rockwell loves it and praises it because this is not a telecentric design per say (DSLR Lens) it is actually closer to a Rangefinder lens. As a result it does not need to compromise its optical design to throw a beam of light to a sensor sitting way the heck back in the camera so a dumb mirror can flip up and down and not hit the lens.
This SLR lens design compromise is why historically Rangefinder lenses usually have much greater optical performance than their SLR counterparts.

That being said, I directly compared the 35mm Sonnar to the renowned Zeiss 35mm Distagon F2.
The Sonnar trounced it in sharpness at all apertures and had far less distortion.
Additionally lensrentals.com did a direct comparison between the 35mm Sonnar and the 35mm Distagon F1.4 which DxO claims is much sharper and better than the Sonnar.
You can read that review here: https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2015/04/sony-fe-35-match-up-is-more-more/

In summary, the Sonnar was the equal and in some important ways, better than the Distagon, especially in sharpness on the sides at infinity.

I don't really trust the measurements or conclusions of DxO actually. Real world tests have shown that what they say about some lenses do not really pan out in the field.

My personal tests have shown that the 35mm Sonnar F2.8 is one of the sharpest lenses I have ever used on my Sony A7 II. At F8 it is silly sharp across the whole frame. Also the Sonnar has a lower contrast style that allows more subtle detail to be seen. A higher contrast lens, like the Zeiss Distagon F2 actually will hide detail in shadows because of its higher contrast. So the 35 Sonnar gives me more open files, more dynamic range to work with.

The 35mm Sonnar has vignetting, but I like this because for people it focuses the attention on them.
For landscape, stopping down reduces the vignetting.
In my humble opinion 35mm Sonnar has been maligned by DxO and some reviewers.
This lens is actually super amazing and at the top of the game in 35mm lenses.
It is better than almost every 35mm lens out there. You will never regret owning it, it is that good.

I will end with this statement from Ken Rockwell:

"This is a unique lens. No other 35mm f/2.8 lens has anywhere near the optical technology of this lens. It is significantly sharper wide-open than anything from Canon or Nikon. This 35/2.8 is significantly sharper than any zoom from Sony, so it you really want to get all the pixels for which you paid with Sony's latest cameras, you need this lens.

Like taking a foreign-language class for a language in which you are already fluent, this lens gets an easy A+ for anyone shooting with the Sony system."

His review: http://www.kenrockwell.com/sony/zeiss/35mm-f28.htm#perf

Austin, I know this review was done a couple of years ago and many new lenses came up and more are on the way (i.e. Samyang 35/1.4 and 35/2.8), do you think availing this Sony lens still a viable choice as an entry lens to FF Sony to be used for general photography and occasional wedding gigs? Especially if one can find a used copy for about sub $500. Thank you.