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.
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.
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.
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.