Recently, I have been happily blogging here about my newest “toy.” I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea; I am totally committed to my (so-called) “full frame,” FX, 36mp Nikon D800 and my “pro” f2.8 Nikkor lenses. I am not abandoning them by any means. I do, however, see their use becoming more “focused” (yes, pun intended 🙂 ). The “big gun” will still be carried into the field for serious landscape work and of course any of my limited wildlife and sports shooting. I will pack and carry it on my upcoming trip to the Mediterranean, but I see its use there more limited than originally thought.
There is more to the equation than sharpness
The NEX is just so beguiling. It is small and light, which is really nice, after carrying the DSLR around for so long (I can remember a time not so long ago when I actually favored the size and heft of the DSLR body). I spend a lot more time traveling these days. For just carrying around to many of the new places we visit, I can see the NEX being used much more conveniently–and more consistently.
But the proof is still in the image quality results. And for me, the jury is still out. I am “experimenting” with different lens combinations, and shooting scenarios. Nothing “scientific”; just kind of empirical experimenting. And, as such, after reading the reviews in a number of different places, and learning of the B&H deal to purchase the pair for $199, shortly after receiving my NEX, I ordered up the Sigma f2.8 19 and 30mm e-mount lenses. For anyone who has ever purchased camera lenses, you know that is in “junk bond” range. But the reviews were mostly positive, so it seemed like it was worth taking a “flier.”
Why? There is, in my view, little not to like about the Sony 15-50 f3.5-5.6 lens I bought with the camera. The 35mm equivalent of this lens matches pretty much to my Nikkor 24-70 f2.8, but at 1/10 of its size and nearly weightless, it is very compact and easy to carry. It is reasonably sharp, renders good color and contrast. However, at its modest wide open aperture, there is little room for creativity. It should be a fine working lens for “reportage” style shooting (capturing the daytime cities, buildings, and activities). It appears to be at its sharpest right around the f8 range (though my non-scientific testing seems to tell me this isn’t a critical issue) and this will work for daytime shooting in most instances. But here was a reasonably inexpensive opportunity to try two fixed aperture f2.8, fixed lenses.
The “pixel peepers” will immediately note that the Bradford Pear in bloom image; shot at a fairly wide avenue, suffers from many variations in sharpness at different depths of field. I don’t find the result “bad,” but it is certainly not the kind of image quality I would expect from a higher end lens–at least not at a very close viewing distance. The isolation shot of a shoot of blossoms is a perhaps less difficult test and shows the estimable capability of this inexpensive optic to create reasonably nice bokeh with decently sharp areas of an image even with relatively shallow depth of field.
The low light capability of “fast” lenses is less of a factor today
Still, it’s hard to go wrong with these lenses for their modest cost. They are both about the same size and weight. Both are larger (nearly 2x as long as the 16-50) and therefore slightly less convenient, but not by much. They are still much smaller and lighter than their 35mm DSLR equivalents. They are not going to win any awards for build quality or beauty of construction. Externally, they are all-plastic, and I would guess they are plastic wherever metal or glass are not required. This makes them lightweight, but I would guess, not particularly durable. I hear stories about photojournalists and traveling photographers who beat up their equipment. If you are in this business, you probably won’t be using these lenses anyway. I have known others like me, who seem almost proud of the fact that they beat their equipment up. I am not in that camp. My father and grandfather were engineers and master craftsmen, and both taught me from an early age to appreciate and care for your tools. I “baby” my photographic equipment, and durability will probably not be an issue, unless it is just mechanical build quality (when I first moved to AF camera’s I owned a Ritz Camera Brand Quantaray zoom lens. I think it was one of the sharpest and nicest lenses I ever owned. But I took two of them back because the focusing motor/gear gave out within a year. Then I gave up).
All photographic gear is a compromise – no exceptions
I have read reviews (particularly on Amazon) about there being a “rattle” in the lens. If you rotate it lengthwise, you will feel a part that moves back and forth. I am told that this is part of the AF mechanism in the particular lens design. It doesn’t seem to affect the lens working or the images; so I am not bothered by it (particularly at a $99 price point). My friend, Kerry Liebowitz once said to me that “all photographic gear is a compromise—no exceptions.” Wise words. And for the rather modest cost of these lenses, I expect some compromise. I was not surprised at what I received (at this time, Sigma has completely re-designed both of these lenses, as well as bringing out some new offerings. I have not seen them. They are priced a twice the price of these 2 lenses, and I suspect the deal from B&H was tied to their knowledge that they were going to be older/discontinued models soon. I expect that they will continue to be widely available on eBay and Amazon).
Over the nearly 40 years I have been photographing, the technology of lens manufacture has become so much better that the difference between a “cheap” lens and a very “expensive” lens is much less apparent. Indeed, there are those who assert that the $99 Sigma 30 is every bit as sharp as the $1100 Carl Zeiss e-mount lens. Maybe (though I have my doubts). But there is certainly more to this “equation” than sharpness. In my view the Sony 16-50 is sharp enough for everyday use and if that were the only factor, I wouldn’t ever take it off the camera. The low light capability of “faster” (wider aperture) lenses was once a much more important factor than it is today, in my view. With the NEX capability of acceptably low noise images at very high ISO settings, it becomes less important.
The 19mm (roughly 28 mm at the 35mm-equivalent on the NEX’s “APS” sensor) produces about what you might expect from a $99 lens from Sigma. The image of the church does not seem to me to be any improvement in terms of sharpness, color or contrast than equivalent shots with the Sony 16-50 lens has produced. So I will need other factors to cause me to use it over the Sony.
It’s hard to go wrong with these lenses at their modest cost
Now, the elusive concept, bokeh, becomes a serious consideration. “Faster” lenses should afford the ability to use selective focus (by intentionally creating or leaving out of focus areas in the image) to make creative images. Indeed, it may well be the difference between “making” and “taking” photographs. The bokeh of both these lenses is “better” than the Sony 16-50 (which is to be expected, both from the fact of the wider aperture, and the fixed focal length). Is it good enough? I think a lot will depend on the image and the lighting. I think the bokeh on the 30mm (45 at 35mm equivalent) is marginally better than on the 19mm. I do see some (almost unpleasant) circular out of focus areas, though, on the daffodil images shot at large apertures. Still, the sampling is small, and I will continue to carry them and play with them.
Would I recommend them? That’s a harder call; but probably. If your budget is tight, they are your “gateway” to e-mount, AF, relatively fast 2.8 fixed lenses for the NEX. If your budget isn’t tight, they are a pretty low-cost way of seeing what the NEX sensor will do with such lenses (unless, of course you have already budgeted for and will be able to immediately get the Zeiss lens). I suspect that I will eventually “replace” these lenses with something of higher quality, but time and experimentation will tell. I have the Carl Zeiss 24mm f1.8 e-mount lens for the NEX on the way. This lens is actually badged as a “Sony” lens but is marketed as a co-designed Carl Zeiss Sonnar T lens. I believe that what this means is that it is Zeiss glass (Sonnar optical design is patented Zeiss technology) and a Sony focusing motor and e-mount. I’ll know more, of course, when I have it “in hand.” I am looking forward to mounting it on the camera and seeing what the extra aperture will do and if that “legendary” Zeiss glass will really outshine the cheaper glass. I am also watching for reviews of the announced Sony 35mm, f1.8 e-mount later this year. Those could easily be replacements for these two lenses. I will surely be reporting back in over the next months on this subject.