12.26.2016

A modest and short list of the three most useful interchangeable lenses I used in 2016.

Sony 18-105mm f4.0 G lens.

 Hot cameras and fast, fast glass seem to get all the attention but I wanted to talk about the two top lenses that I used this year and what makes them special. They aren't sexy or fast and in both cases the web-based reviews are quite mixed. Don't just read mine, if you are in the market for one of these either shoot it and test it yourself or, at least, read a bunch of different reviewers and decide which ones you trust most. 

My top award for usefulness and profit-enabling is the middle of the road, Sony 18-105mm f4.0 G lens (which is also the "kit" lens for the Sony FS-5 video camera...).  It's not a small lens but it is much lighter than its bulk might suggest. It's part of a new generation of lenses that are pretty sharp but designed with (seemingly) no regard for actual, optical distortions. But, it's also of the generation of lenses that is designed from the ground up to be corrected by in camera and in software lens correction magic. My copy is nicely sharp in the middle and more than adequate on the edges. The optimal stop for balancing most of the parameters and giving good performance, is f5.6. I routinely shoot it wide open for both stills and videos with no ill effects. Most of what I shoot has a subject in the center part of the frame and background stuff on the edges. Unless I'm willing to shoot everything at f16 the background of nearly all my images is going to be somewhat out of focus anyway, making discussions about edge sharpness a bit silly. 

If you need a lens with which to shoot perfect brick walls or test charts with straight lines to the absolute edges of the frames this is NOT the lens for you. If you need a very versatile lens that covers a wide range of focal lengths well this might make you happy. I like it because it has a nice, variable response power zoom for video, it focuses silently, and the image stabilizations works as well as anybody else's stabilized lenses. Another nice feature (mostly for video but still shooters who use manual exposure will like it as well) is the fact that it's a constant aperture zoom lens. The f-stop doesn't change as you zoom. A downside for some videographers is the focus-by-wire nature of this lens. You won't be using this with a follow focus rig. That's okay, we have other lenses for those uses.

For about $550 it's, I think, one of the bargain lenses in the Sony APS-C lineup. I'd buy it again and, for paying work, it seems to stay glued to the a6300. It's a great combination for shoulder mounted and handheld video. It's probably my most used Sony lens in 2016. The one issue I have? It's not full frame....

Sony/Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 lens.

My second choice, based on the amount of use it gets and the amount of billing it helped to engender, is the 24-70mm f4.0. When I first bought it I'll admit to rushing into the system and not reading enough about the Sony lenses. In retrospect, I am happy it turned out that way because if I had read the reviews of this lens I probably would never have bought it. The biggest strike against it was, again, the edge sharpness. Probably not the optimum choice for shooting flat documentation of circuit boards....

A common, negative refrain was that it just didn't have the overall performance to demand the high price... What I found in day-to-day use was a good, medium range, standard zoom lens that created very nice images. It is, again, a lens from the new generation of firmware tweaking and software corrected systems. But it's nicely sharp (instead of clinically sharp) and seems to be a well behaved lens for photographing people and events. I've used it as the primary lens (along with the A7Rii) on eight multi-day advertising shoots and have never found it wanting. But again, I'm not shooting flat, perfectly rectilinear test charts, I'm photographing lifestyle images that have depth to them. 

The one stop difference in aperture between this and the new G Master lens means that this lens weighs less than half as much, is much smaller overall, and, according to DXO is about one point off the performance of the faster, fatter and heavier G Master f2.8 version. You get to spend about $1,000 more to get a very, very small amount of improved performance. The f2.8 might have been vital in the days of 400 ISO being the top sensitivity you'd be willing to use in digital imaging but now? With the amazing cameras we routinely shoot with the difference is a rounding error. 

The benefits of our lens is that it can be handheld for a lot longer because it doesn't make your (smallish) Sony camera too front heavy, the OSS (image stabilization) is very good and, you'll probably need to start at f4.0 and go to smaller apertures if you want to get enough in focus to satisfy most clients. It's as sharp as I've ever needed, even when photographing product in the studio, by the time I get to f8.0. The final point is that it's a congenial lens to carry along with you as a daily walk around lens. Not something I would ever say about its faster sibling...

Again, on the "con" side, the focus is focus-by-wire and that's always dispiriting and I'd love the lens even more if it was $895 (there I go, slagging it on price with the other reviewers....) but the reality is that you only pay for it once and you'll soon forget the premium you paid if it gets you the kind of images you need to make your clients happy. It's primary advantage over the 18-105mm is that the 24-70mm covers the full frame of full frame...

And, YES, I would buy it again (but I'd try to find a mint copy, used...). 

And that brings me to my "runner up." This is a lens I've been using more and more for portrait work. I use it instead of all the nice manual focus Rokinons and Contax Zeiss lenses for one simple reason: It works well with eye autofocus on the A7Rii and the a6300. Every frame with a person is tack sharp exactly where I want it; right on the eyes. 

But there are many more reasons to like this lens. It has very good image stabilization. The f4.0 max aperture keeps it from being too heavy and too big. Sorry, I just won't carry a 70-200mm f2.8 around anymore. There's no optical advantage and nothing but a cluster of handling issues. According to DXO, this is the sharpest zoom lens in Sony's entire lineup. Amazingly sharp for me, even at f4.0. And it's off white like the groovy lenses that Canon makes and I'm certain this gives comfort to my clients as they think they are getting something on par with the Canon lenses (dripping sarcasm...). 

The only reason this is not my first or second choice is that I've only started using it a lot recently. Given the results I've gotten I know I'll press it into service a lot more frequently in the year to come. As far as I can discern it has NO flaws at all. Not even the price. The only reason I can think of not to buy one is if you don't shoot with Sony cameras....

One more note about this lens; I don't have anything longer than 200mm for my full frame camera precisely because I have this lens and the amazing sensor in the a6300. The combination gives me great 300mm equivalent files with good, dense details as a result of the resolution of the sensor. It's the perfect combination of the strengths of full frame and APS-C, used across the system. Much like the combination of something like the Nikon D500 and the D5. Nearly equal image quality but with more reach on the smaller format. 

Sony 70-200mm f4.0 G lens.

These are the lenses that have been getting my attention this year. Not nearly in consensus with the majority of other users and reviewers but that's part of the rich stew of subjectivity. A lens is more than just sharp it is. Usability, color, contrast and, of course, NANO-Acuity are also vital features.
We could all be shooting with an 85mm Otus lens but the overall handling would cause us to end up hating photography and taking up some other passion. Not everything Zeiss makes is designed to really be used in the field. At least from my point of view....

Curious to know what your favorites are. If you have a moment, let us know.

10 comments:

Anders said...

My current favorites are the 32 mm f/1.2 (86 mm)) and 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 (189-810 mm) for Nikon 1 and the 24-70 mm f/2.8 for Nikon FF. All tree are phenomenal lenses.

I will probably get the Nikon 58 mm f/1.4 later as it should be a fantastic lens with character instead of just being clinically sharp and this is exactly what I'm looking for :-)

amolitor said...

I can't seem to leave this micro Nikkor 60/2.8 alone. It's a pain in the ass, manual focus only on my low budget body, and it has no focus throw at all and so is absurdly hard to focus accurately. But I love it so.

Clinically sharp. But then you can fix that in post.

Rene said...

Hands down, the Olympus M.Zuiko 75mm f1.8 and the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f2.8 Pro get 90% my time. Paired together, each on it's own body (EM-5 II), gives me the flexibility I need.

Thomas F. said...

Thanks for the write-up.

For me, it's the Nikon 35/1.8 DX. Cheap and good for low-light family photography.

Cornelius Madsen Photography said...

The Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-S G has been more or less glued to my Nikon D610 for portrait sessions, but for other work I have been surprised to find that I actually really like the Tokina 20-35mm f/3.5-4.5 AF very much.

It's an older lens (ancient, really) and it definitely has its shortcomings (especially in the vignetting area) but overall I'm very pleased with the performance and it has netted me quite a number of sales. Used at f/8 it's plenty sharp for most use and the distortion can be reasonably well corrected in Capture One.

I bought it used from a japanese seller on eBay because I needed an UWA for a specific project and was unsure if I would ever use an UWA again, which made an investment in a Nikon 14-24 or 16-35 somewhat overkill - if I did not like it or would not need it, I could just sell it again. I did like it and I did need it, but for now I see no reason to splurge for the much more expensive Nikon glass - this one will do fine until the day I upgrade to a higher-resolution camera.

Richard Handler, Evergreen, CO said...

Please allow me to add two tidbits, sometimes important, regarding the Sony 18-105/f4 G zoom.

1. Internal zooming and focus avoids dragging dust and pumping dusty laden air into the lens and camera. This was for me an important reason to select it over, for instance, the Zeiss 16-70/f4.

2. Principle drawback of the 18-105/f4 for me is its long minimum focus distance. Thus if hiking in wild flower country with this lens, I'll carry a second camera mounted with the Zeiss Touit 50/2.8 macro. (Zeiss 16-70/f4 zoom focuses closer than the Sony 18-105, but I do not own the Zeiss because of the issue mentioned in #1, above.)

My favorite lens from past year? It's the Zeiss - Sony 24/f1.8 which is tack sharp widely, even at wide apertures, and focuses so closely I can leave my macro lens home. The 24/f1.8 has brought back the fun of available light and the low noise of lower ISO, shooting at high shutter speeds from moving vehicles (someone else at the wheel...). And on my a6500 it becomes image stabilized. I may epoxy it to this camera.....

Actually tape the lens to the camera body. Put a twist of 1/4" wide gaffer's tape around the lens mount before using in high winds or wet weather. Not having done this recently, I had desert sand followed by ocean drizzle work its way between the 18-105 lens and a Nex-7 mount, contaminating the sensor and later resulting in electrical failures in this camera. Since autofocus is now so good, if you are not going to use the focus ring, tape can also be wrapped there.

Sony sales rep recently told me that since the a6500 is weather sealed, he expects Sony to develop APS lenses with sealing.

Michael said...

Since you focused on Sony lenses, I'll limit my comments to Sony. I debated the 24-70 and 70-200 lenses, but then I accepted the compromised focal length of the Sony FE PZ 28-135 f4 lens in favor of the other qualities of this lens not found on the three lenses you acknowledged: the power zoom and the continue aperture option. I really like this reasonably sharp zoom lens for stills and video. Since your skills include both stills and video, I am wondering if you have tried this lens? I am very pleased with its usefulness.

Kirk Tuck said...

Michael, The lens you chose is actually the lens I want for video. It's also par focal so it won't change focus as you shift the zoom. When I bought the system I was more concerned (at the time) with the stills end of the business and thought that the 28-135 PZ was too heavy to handle for events and long handheld shoots. I may still try to get one for the video end of the business. It would be the perfect complement to an FS7....

Michael Robbins said...

I have not had many lens but I once in a while the Sony 55mm gives me butterflies when a shot comes together. Slowly coming around to the 50mm fl and I enjoy it.
Can you comment how well it works with the crop bodies?
I also really enjoyed the olympus 45mm 1.8. Cheap, sharp, light. With a cheap small body it felt portable and almost disposable, so I used it a lot, got to know the length better.

Dave Kee said...

I really don't like changing lenses, so I leave my Nikkor 18-300 on my D7200 all the time. With VR and the D7200's superb high ISO capabilities, the slow lens speed doesn't bother me. It's effective 450mm reach is amazing.