Few lenses have the reputation of being sharp, fast(ish), small, light, feature the best coatings, and boast quick autofocus. This premium lens with Zeiss glass for less than $1,000 does.
The Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA is not new. Indeed, it has been around for years and has a reputation as being one of the best lenses you can get for the money. It has a metal exterior (plastic interior) with a beautifully simplistic style. It should be noted, however, that though the exterior is metal, it does not have the same feel as other metal barrel lenses and is reportedly pretty easy to scratch and scuff. At 55mm, this lens a bit of an odd bird. Of all the other autofocus lenses for the Sony system, it is the only focal length between 50mm and the new Sigma 65mm f/2 DG DN, which is, in my opinion, also a bit of an odd focal length. It is also, aside from the Sony 50mm f/2.8 macro lens, tied for the slowest ~50mm lens made for the Sony E-mount system.
Left: Uncropped, Right: Cropped Corner
Build Quality and Handling
The build quality is definitely on the nicer end of lenses; however, I would rather have a more durable metal or plastic exterior. That said, my ultimate preference would be a hard metal exterior similar to that of the new Sigma L-series lenses or Sony Planar ZA f/1.4 lenses.
With as nice and simplistic in its design as this lens is, I don’t particularly like the way it feels to use it. I like the small size (65 x 71 mm) and lightweight (281 g). Indeed, it is one of the smallest and lightest autofocus lenses you can get for the Sony. It’s just that, for me, I have a strong preference for an aperture ring and an AF/MF switch on the lens itself. Again, these are just my preferences, and should you not care, this really shouldn’t bother you or affect your enjoyment in using the lens.
More so than typical autofocus lenses, I don’t like the experience of manually focusing with the 55mm f/1.8 ZA. Though I only tried it about a dozen times, at no point did I ever really develop a sense of intuition for it. Though a dozen times may not feel like a lot, for someone like myself who is accustomed to manual focusing, even just 2 or 3 times should be enough. Perhaps if I used it for months and months if not years, I would get used to it. Autofocus, on the other hand, was really good when there was a lot of light out. In low-light situations, the focusing was still good and didn’t ever miss for me but it was a little slower to find focus.
Wide-Open Performance: Vignetting, Sharpness, and Bokeh
Without corrections, the vignetting is not that bad. Stopped down two stops to f/4, this pretty much goes away, completely and the image is pretty solid.
Left: Shot at f/1.8, Right: Shot at f/4
As far as sharpness is concerned, even shot wide open the center is impressively sharp as can be seen on these 200% crops. Stopped down two times, the sharpness gets quite excellent. As far as corner crops are concerned, the performance is still impressive, though a bit darker from the vignetting but with profile corrections, it’s an all-around good performance. With this said, it gets a bit sharper in the corner crop when stopped down twice. It’s an all-around good performer from start to finish once the vignetting is addressed.
Highlighted sections indicate where the below crops are taken
Center crop: Left: Shot at f/1.8, Right: Shot at f/4
Corner crop: Left: Shot at f/1.8, Right: Shot at f/4
On the topic of bokeh, shots wide open have a very nice and pleasing background blur and maintain their pleasing appearance when stopped down. As you can see from the below example, even stopped down, an otherwise busy background was still pretty tame.
Left: Shot at f/1.8, Right: Shot at f/2.8
What I Like
- Fast, confident, and reliable autofocus
- Very light and compact
- Good build quality
- Pleasing out of focus
What I Don’t Like
- Manual focusing was not particularly enjoyable for me personally
- Weather sealing is not what you’d expect from a premium lens — decent but not good
Similar Sutofocus Alternatives
Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 ($248): The most obvious and cheapest alternative is the FE 50mm f/1.8. It’s also slightly smaller (69 x 60 mm) and lighter (186 g). In fact, it’s closer to half the weight, which can be quite appealing. It should be noted, however, that the lighter build goes hand in hand with a cheaper, all plastic feel to the lens. This lens perfectly fine for the first 50mm, but if you’re someone who is comfortable spending the near $1,000, you probably wouldn’t want this cheaper lens anyhow.
Sony Planar T* FE 50mm /f1.4 ZA ($1,498): The bigger, faster, much larger brother to the Sonnar 55mm f/1.8 is the Planar 50mm f/1.4. It is considerably larger (84 x 108 mm) and more than twice the weight (780 g). I don’t have any personal experience with this lens but I’ve heard that comparatively, it’s a bit sharper than the 55m f/1.8 and has less vignetting but whether you care enough about that to justify the higher price, bigger size, and heavier weight to want it is up to you.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art ($950): This lens is pretty well known for four things: it’s a lens made for DSLR cameras with an adapter built-in, it’s incredibly sharp, it's very big (85 x 100 mm), and monstrously heavy (815 g). Indeed, it is the heaviest lens on this list, but it may also be the sharpest.
Samyang AF 50mm f/1.4 ($699): Not the smallest but not the biggest (74 x 100mm). Not the lightest but not the heaviest (585 g). It is, however, not in the middle of the road when it comes to sharpness or autofocus; on both of these fronts, it would be worse than all the other options. This includes the FE 50mm f/1.8, despite this lens being nearly three times the price.
Left: Uncropped, Right: Cropped Corner
As you probably already know, getting a shallower depth of field requires one or more of three things: a faster aperture, a longer focal length, closer distance to your subject. As such, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 has a wider depth of field at all distances to your subject compared with the 55mm f/1.8. What was surprising to me was just how much the 55 f/1.8 kept up with the 50mm f/1.4.
The Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA is an all-around solid lens that I can highly recommend. I wish it was styled more like the Planar lens, but so be it. At the end of the day, you’d be hard-pressed to find a lens that packs as much of a punch as this one for the price point. If you do a lot of traveling and are looking for a mid-range prime, this is about as good as it gets.