Sony FE 85mm f1.4 G Master

Sony has worked hard to quickly build up a sys­tem of FE mount lenses and the new G Master mod­els are de­signed to be topof-range in terms of both build qual­ity and op­ti­cal per­for­mance.

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Sony re­ally has to be com­mended for the speed at which it’s built up a lens sys­tem for its ‘FE’ mount, and the new se­ries of G Master high­per­for­mance mod­els are an­other good rea­son for con­sid­er­ing an A7 Se­ries camera body.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that we re­view­ers were be­moan­ing the lack of Sony ‘FE’ mount lenses for the new line of Al­pha full-35mm mir­ror­less cam­eras. And it re­ally wasn’t all that long ago given the sys­tem was un­veiled right at the end of 2013 and de­liv­er­ies be­gan in early 2014, yet in that time Sony has turned the FE lens sit­u­a­tion around quite dra­mat­i­cally. It’s been helped along the way by the ap­pear­ance of many mount adapters – some­thing Sony has ac­tively en­cour­aged – so var­i­ous D-SLR sys­tem lenses could be fit­ted and, of course, there are now the Zeiss Otus man­ual-fo­cus lenses and Batis aut­o­fo­cus mod­els. But Sony has been busy too… 16 lenses in un­der three years is no mean feat and it’s un­doubt­edly a big part of the on-go­ing A7 Se­ries suc­cess story.

The new G Master lenses are at the top of the list in terms of both op­ti­cal per­for­mance and the qual­ity of the con­struc­tion. The ‘G’ des­ig­na­tion is car­ried over from the Kon­ica Mi­nolta sys­tem where these lenses were on a par with Canon’s L Se­ries mod­els. Sony – which pur­chased KM’s camera op­er­a­tion to kick-start its foray into D-SLRs – still uses the ‘G’ mark on its higher per­for­mance lenses, but the G Master line-up is de­signed to be a cut above again. It cur­rently com­prises the lenses con­sid­ered the ba­sis of any work­ing sys­tem for en­thu­si­asts or pro­fes­sion­als – 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 con­stant-aper­ture zooms – plus the 85mm f1.4 re­viewed

here and which is ac­tu­ally the first GM model to ar­rive on the lo­cal mar­ket.

These lenses are de­signed en­tirely by Sony with no in­put from Zeiss. Sony says the G Master lenses are de­signed to work with higher res­o­lu­tion sen­sors like the 42 MP de­vice cur­rently in the A7R II, and also with 8K video record­ing.

“Sony knows the fu­ture of im­age sen­sors;” it states (which is a bit omi­nous if you’re a ri­val camera maker), “the G Master se­ries an­tic­i­pates this progress and de­liv­ers lenses that will re­main rel­e­vant well into the fu­ture.”

HAND AND EYE

The 85mm fo­cal length is, of course, the tra­di­tional por­trait lens with the large max­i­mum aper­ture of f1.4 al­low­ing for the shal­low depth-of-field that’s of­ten needed to throw back­grounds well out of fo­cus. Be­yond por­trai­ture, such large aper­tures al­low for se­lec­tive fo­cus­ing which is a pow­er­ful cre­ative tool in both still pho­tog­ra­phy and movie-mak­ing. Street pho­tog­ra­phy, night scenes and land­scapes are all within the scope of this lens. This com­bi­na­tion of fo­cal length and lens speed in­evitably means a big­ger lens, al­though Sony’s 85mm f1.4 is ac­tu­ally pretty av­er­age in size for the full-35mm for­mat… it just looks a lot beefier when fit­ted to the more com­pact A7 Se­ries mir­ror­less bod­ies… and even more so on Sony’s ‘APS-C’ bod­ies. In com­par­i­son, the Zeiss Otus 85mm f1.4 is quite a lot bulkier and a sig­nif­i­cant 380 grams heav­ier, but the Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8 aut­o­fo­cus lens is both smaller and lighter – again sig­nif­i­cantly so in terms of the lat­ter (but ob­vi­ously it’s slightly slower in terms of its max­i­mum aper­ture too).

Sony’s GM 85mm feels ex­cep­tion­ally well-made too, and on a par in con­struc­tion terms with the Zeiss lenses. The main bar­rel tubes are poly­car­bon­ate with metal al­loy ‘dress’ rings and weather seal­ing, in­clud­ing a very sub­stan­tial gas­ket around the lens mount. The bay­o­net-fit hood is also poly­car­bon­ate, but again feels heavy-duty. Us­ing GRP ex­ten­sively for the phys­i­cal con­struc­tion is prob­a­bly one way Sony has been able to save so much weight. The fo­cus­ing col­lar has a beau­ti­fully fluid and nicely-weighted ac­tion, al­though it’s ac­tu­ally ‘fly-by-wire’ elec­tronic rather than mechanical. The aper­ture col­lar is grad­u­ated in one-third stop in­cre­ments, but can be switched from click-stopped ad­just­ment to con­tin­u­ous con­trol for smoother vari­a­tions (and vir­tu­ally si­lent op­er­a­tion) when shoot­ing video. In ad­di­tion to this switch, there’s a sec­ond on the other side of the bar­rel for AF/ MF se­lec­tion, along with a fo­cus hold but­ton.

On the in­side, the op­ti­cal con­struc­tion com­prises 11 el­e­ments in eight groups. Three of these el­e­ments are made from op­ti­cal glass with ex­tra-low dis­per­sion (ED) char­ac­ter­is­tics to cor­rect for ax­ial chromatic aber­ra­tions, but there’s also a spe­cial as­pher­i­cal type – which Sony calls “Ex­treme As­pher­i­cal” (XA for short) – for han­dling spher­i­cal aber­ra­tions, astig­ma­tism, coma and ac­tual cur­va­ture of field. The XA el­e­ment has a sur­face pol­ished to an ac­cu­racy of just 0.01 mi­crons pri­mar­ily in or­der to not only en­sure ab­so­lute uni­for­mity of sharp­ness at the plane of fo­cus, but also a pro­gres­sively smooth tran­si­tion to the out-of-fo­cus ar­eas. In­ter­est­ingly, Sony con­sid­ers the out-of-fo­cus char­ac­ter­is­tics of this lens – the so-called bokeh – to be just as im­por­tant as its res­o­lu­tion and sharp­ness. Sony’s ‘Nano AR’ multi-coat­ing re­duces in­ter­nal re­flec­tions to min­imise ghost­ing and flare.

Given the im­por­tance of se­lec­tive fo­cus­ing with this lens, Sony has given it an 11-blade di­aphragm to en­sure a more cir­cu­lar aper­ture which re­sults in ex­cep­tion­ally smooth and pro­gres­sively softer out-of-fo­cus ef­fects. A by-prod­uct of ad­ding the ex­tra blades is that the di­aphragm assem­bly can ac­tu­ally be made a lit­tle more com­pact de­spite open­ing up to f1.4.

For aut­o­fo­cus­ing, the Sony 85mm lens has a new and more com­pact ring-type ul­tra­sonic drive which ad­di­tion­ally em­ploys ball-bear­ings for a smoother op­er­a­tion, and has dual po­si­tion sen­sors to more pre­cisely con­trol the move­ment of the fo­cus­ing group. Fur­ther­more, a re­vised drive al­go­rithm is claimed to al­low for con­trol of the lens’s fo­cus­ing po­si­tion “at the one-mi­cron level”.

The fo­cus­ing group is in­ter­nal so the lens’s front el­e­ment doesn’t ro­tate dur­ing the process and the over­all bar­rel length re­mains un­changed. The min­i­mum fo­cus­ing dis­tance is 85 cm when us­ing aut­o­fo­cus­ing (and frac­tion­ally

CEN­TRE-TO-COR­NER UNI­FOR­MITY OF SHARP­NESS IS EX­CEP­TIONAL EVEN AT f1.4, BUT IT’S AB­SO­LUTELY BRIL­LIANT AT f2.0 AND BE­YOND, WITH THE FINEST OF DETAILS RE­PRO­DUCED WITH THE CRISPEST OF EDGES.

closer at 80 cm when fo­cus­ing man­u­ally) so this is ac­tu­ally no macro lens, but ob­vi­ously close enough for ap­pli­ca­tions such as por­trai­ture, street pho­tog­ra­phy and land­scapes.

PER­FOR­MANCE

We tested the G Master 85mm f1.4 on an A7S body (which needs to be run­ning firmware up­grade Ver­sion 3.10 or higher), but it’s com­pat­i­ble with the full A7 line-up plus many ‘APS-C’ E Mount bod­ies, al­though in many cases, a firmware up­grade will be needed, par­tic­u­larly to fully utilise the AF ca­pa­bil­i­ties for video record­ing. The ‘Steady Shot’ sen­sor-based im­age sta­bil­i­sa­tion is only avail­able with the Mark II A7 bod­ies.

What’s im­me­di­ately no­tice­able is that the AF op­er­a­tion is quite noisy – more like a low growl than a whirr – which is pre­sum­ably be­cause a fair amount of grunt is needed to drive a big and heavy fo­cus­ing lens group. The good news is that it’s a lot qui­eter when the camera is in video mode. It’s not the fastest in the busi­ness ei­ther, but still more than quick enough for its in­tended ap­pli­ca­tions… af­ter all, it’s not de­signed to be a sports lens. The man­ual fo­cus­ing ring is very com­fort­able to use and al­lows for con­sid­er­able pre­ci­sion.

Cen­tre-to-cor­ner uni­for­mity of sharp­ness is ex­cep­tional even at f1.4, but it’s ab­so­lutely bril­liant at f2.0 and be­yond, with the finest of details re­pro­duced with the crispest of edges. In fact, as far as por­trai­ture is con­cerned, it may be just a lit­tle too sharp. Diffrac­tion starts to have an slight ef­fect at f16, but the over­all sharp­ness re­mains ex­tremely high so, in terms of across-the-frame sharp­ness, the whole aper­ture range is avail­able.

The out-of-fo­cus ef­fects are not only smooth, but very uni­form with a beau­ti­fully lin­ear tran­si­tion in terms of not just the sharp­ness, but colour and con­trast. Con­se­quently, the iso­la­tion be­tween sub­ject and back­ground is nicely de­fined, but with­out look­ing ar­ti­fi­cial. Dis­tor­tion is nonex­is­tent and chromatic aber­ra­tions are neg­li­gi­ble. Some vi­gnetting – bright­ness fall-off to­wards the cor­ners of the im­age – is ev­i­dent when shoot­ing wide-open, but is vir­tu­ally gone by f2.8. Of course, the al­ter­na­tive here is to use the ‘Shad­ing Com­pen­sa­tion’ cor­rec­tion that’s avail­able in the Sony mir­ror­less bod­ies.

THE VER­DICT

At a whisker un­der $3000, the Sony G Master 85mm f1.4 isn’t a cheap lens, but it’s a pre­mium prod­uct that’s de­signed to com­pete with the Zeiss FE mount 85mm mod­els and be on a par with the best Canon and Nikon have to of­fer in their D-SLR sys­tems. And any­body step­ping up to an ul­tra-high res­o­lu­tion full-35mm sen­sor has to be pre­pared to in­vest in lenses which are ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing the nec­es­sary op­ti­cal per­for­mance. Sony clearly has plans be­yond the 42 MP de­vice cur­rently in the A7R II (re­mem­ber it’s al­ready mak­ing a 100 MP ‘645’ sen­sor), so the G Master lenses are de­signed for this next era and, con­se­quently, can be con­sid­ered a long-term in­vest­ment.

The 85mm is a beautiful piece of work. It may not have quite the same pre­ci­sion feel as, say, Zeiss’s glo­ri­ous Otus model, but it de­liv­ers a com­pa­ra­ble per­for­mance in terms of sharp­ness and just how well it’s cor­rected for both dis­tor­tion and chromatic aber­ra­tions. How­ever, where it re­ally stands out com­pared to any and all of its direct com­peti­tors is just how beau­ti­fully and pro­gres­sively it tran­si­tions from su­per-crisp def­i­ni­tion to silky smooth bokeh. This not only en­hances the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties de­rived from se­lec­tive fo­cus­ing and con­trol­ling depth-of-field, but also gives images a more lus­cious look that’s just so vis­ually ap­peal­ing it’s very hard to re­sist. Yet an­other rea­son – if one was needed – to se­ri­ously con­sider Sony’s full-35mm mir­ror­less camera sys­tem.

Sony’s new G Master FE/E mount lenses are de­signed to be a cut above the straight G mod­els – which al­ready de­liver ex­cel­lent per­for­mance.

Op­ti­cal con­struc­tion in­cludes Sony’s newly-de­vel­oped ‘Ex­treme As­pher­i­cal’ el­e­ment which is de­signed to de­liver a high uni­for­mity of sharp­ness at the plane of fo­cus, but also a pro­gres­sively smooth tran­si­tion to the out-of-fo­cus ar­eas. AF/MF switch on the lens bar­rel is ac­com­pa­nied by a fo­cus hold but­ton. Aper­ture col­lar is grad­u­ated in one-third stop in­cre­ments so there’s a big spread of click­stopped set­tings from f1.4 to f16.

The 85mm f1.4 looks big on an A7 Se­ries body, but ac­tu­ally feels pretty well bal­anced when shoot­ing. It weighs in at 820 grams.

Aper­ture col­lar can be switched to con­tin­u­ous op­er­a­tion for smoother di­aphragm con­trol when shoot­ing video.

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