East Grinstead photographer and filmmaker Nitsan Simantov. Wedding photography and commercial video production in London and West Sussex.

Best autofocus lens in the world? - Sony Zeiss FE 55mm f1.8 T* ZA with the A7s - First look review

This is the Zeiss FE 55mm f1.8 T* ZA. According to several big photography blogs this is the best autofocus lens in the world, based on DXO Mark test results. I wasn't able to find this information directly on DXO Mark though.

I don't really care about super-amazing sharpness which is why you won't find any test chart photos on this blog. But I do want a decent autofocus lens for my A7s which is why I bought this. I wanted to share my first thoughts about it, and I will have a more full review at some point after I've used it for a while. 

The good:

  • Great image quality, although I find the bokeh kind of boring.
  • Decently compact and lightweight. I personally would have chosen a smaller lens if one was available. For example I love the utterly tiny size of the Voightlander 35mm f1.4, and I chose that rather than the f1.2 version which is sharper but larger, even though both were within my price range. Lets hope Sony will release a cheaper 50mm at some point.
  • Stills autofocus is really nice on it, although just like any other autofocus system it doesn't always know the exact area you want it to focus on. It mostly does a good job of knowing where to focus. I do prefer manual focus when I can see a really detailed image to focus on, such as with some optical viewfinders, but with the Sony I find myself zooming in to manually focus important shots which is slow and annoying. I don't find the focus peaking reliable enough at large apertures.
  • Video autofocus with the A7s is a mix of good and bad. It can follow me moving forward and back in the frame surprisingly well, and most of the time does a fairly smooth focus move when something moves on screen or when you point the camera in a new direction. I think I will get some good use out of it for interviews or other similar shots and for filming myself in reviews. It seems to want to follow subjects as much as it can, which is good for filming people most of the time. Once it's found focus it won't want to move away from that subject even if something else is closer, even if that second thing is the center of the shot. Luckily so far this doesn't seem to be an issue like the A7 which just wants to focus on the background most of the time.
    However, there are sometimes tiny stutters in the footage, more when shooting close ups, I don't think they will be visible in most normal shots, such as when shooting people. You cannot override the autofocus with the focus ring while filming, you only have the option to press the shutter to search for focus again, but that isn't pretty. I'll need to shoot more with it to be sure of the performance. The option for dual AF/MF exists but Sony's genius software team (note the sarcasm) managed to disable it in video mode. Their lack of competence never fails to amaze me.
    Note: So far all my autofocus tests were at f1.8.
  • The 50cm minimum focus is fine for this kind of lens but I would have loved to have a little more, especially now that I'm so spoiled by my helicoid adapters which let me focus all the way from infinity to super-close without messing about with extension tubes or macro filters, but these adapters won't work with Sony FE or E mount lenses.

Here's an example of just how good the A7s autofocus system is with the 28-70mm:

Test shot with the A7s. it's only 12 megapixel so we're not getting the crazy amount of detail as you would when combining this with the A7r. Processed in Lightroom. Click for larger. 

The bad:

  • Sony's software/firmware team are at it again. They screwed up big time on the camera firmware (read more in this link) and this is now showing itself in the focusing system too. You can tell the camera what area of the frame you want it to try to focus on, but when you press record in video mode the camera ignores this completely and uses all the autofocus points. This is acceptable most of the time but may be problematic for some shots.
  • The electronic focus ring (often referred to as "fly-by-wire", which is a term coming from electronic control systems for airplane pilots) is very smooth, but it has one incredibly huge flaw which has been mentioned by many people online, it moves the focus based on how fast you turn the ring, not the amount of rotation. I can't even tell you how much this annoys me. It's such an awful system. This focus ring works in a studio situation for moving your focus to exactly where you want it but it will be pretty useless and annoying for pretty much anything that requires faster focusing. It's very difficult to bring your focus to where you want without going back and forth or going very slowly, let alone follow a moving subject or do any sort of reliable focusing when shooting a video.
  • It works pretty well with the A7s but if you own the A7 you still may end up with focus on the background instead of the subject a lot of the time. I have not had time to fully test the two together, so please don't take this as gospel. I'm not sure about the A7r.

Sharpness-to-price ratio:

For 99% of my work, most lenses are sharp enough. Sharpness itself doesn't give me more enjoyment, it doesn't get me more paid work, it doesn't win me any awards, etc. My images are more limited by the 12MP of my A7s than the resolution of most lenses, and in any case my clients and viewers see my images fairly small on their computer screens.
In some cases I do find sharpness helpful when I need to crop into an image, or when shooting a difficult subject such as jewellery. Printing large is also better with sharp images, but I've only done that once in the past few years.

I'm not saying sharp lenses are bad or that I want a terrible lens, I'm just saying that I would want the option to have a lower budget option. The Sony is £850 retail or £520 on eBay UK, which is a big step up in cost from Canon's 50mm f1.8 which costs just £75 retail or £60 on eBay and still has pretty decent image quality. Sure, the Sony is better, but it's overkill for my uses. The FE mount system is still pretty new so hopefully we'll get some more large aperture lenses for these cameras soon.

I could start adapting lenses from Sony's A-mount system but the adapter is large and expensive, and A-mount lenses aren't very cheap or very compact. Sony do have a cheaper E-mount 50mm f1.8 which will work in crop mode as an 85mm lens, but that is too long and on the A7s the crop mode is way too low resolution for photography. With the A7 the crop modes are disgusting and utterly useless in video, and of course if I buy a lens for bokeh then I want it to use my entire sensor, so the cheaper E-mount 50mm just isn't suitable for me.

Another test shot with the A7S. Processed in Lightroom. Click for larger. 

My conclusions, for now..

Super sharp photos with fast autofocus? - Sure, it's certainly going to be useful.
Fairly reliable video autofocus with lots of bokeh on the already incredible A7s? - Yes please!

Ignoring the "Oh dear god why the balls did I pay so much for a 55mm f1.8 lens" feeling, it's actually very enjoyable to shoot on and very useful for both video and photography with the A7s. I will still use manual focus lenses, but I find it very useful to have at least one decent autofocus lens.

I got mine used for £460, or you can get them new for about £520 in the UK. (I don't recommend buying expensive stuff from Hong Kong, it's a hassle and doesn't end up much cheaper after import costs.) To be fair, this price is pretty awesome if you want a crazy-sharp large aperture autofocus lens, it's just not a great price-to-bokeh ratio for people like me who prefer bokeh over sharpness.


eBay UK link   -   eBay USA link

Amazon UK link   -   Amazon USA link

Here are some alternatives if you want something with more bokeh. All of them are in a similar price range as the Sony (£350-£750) but are manual focus only.

  • Voightlander 35mm f1.2 or f1.4
  • Mitakon 50mm f0.95
  • SLR Magic 50mm f0.95
  • Nikon AI-s 50mm f1.2 or f1.4
  • Samyang: 24mm f1.4, 35mm f1.4, 50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.4, 135mm f2.0.
  • Helios 85mm f1.5 (crazy lovely bokeh)
  • Honorable mention: Helios 44-2 (58mm). It's only f2 but cheap as hell with lovely unique bokeh.