It’s only natural that a camera platform as new as the Sony’s a7 series would be perceived as being a little bit short on lenses. When the first a7 shipped—only a few years ago—you could count the number of lenses that designed for its full frame sensor on one hand. The rest of Sony’s lenses were designed for their smaller APS-C sensor equipped NEX and a6000 cameras or their DSLR bodies, which required an adapter to use.
Many potential early-adopters were scared off due to the scarcity of lens choices and speculation about Sony’s lens roadmap, which makes sense when you think about the massive lens arsenals that companies like Canon and Nikon have.
In the three years since Sony rolled out the first a7, they’ve worked very hard to combat both the impression that they have too few lenses, and the problem that at first they actually did have too few. Sony’s been pursuing a very aggressive development path for optics, and in several of our recent press events they’ve mentioned that as much as forty-percent of their imaging revenue has come from lens sales. (Of course that seems obvious when you consider that each new convert to the platform is likely to buy more than one lens.)
Thanks to their relationship with Zeiss, Sony quickly released not only a number of in-house, Sony-branded glass but a number of excellent lenses with the Zeiss badge on them. Zeiss, in turn, released the Batis line, a series of lenses only available in the Sony E-Mount. With Sony’s aggressive push, there are now more than forty native Sony and third-party lenses available.
Last February though, Sony stepped up the lens game when they announced two new lenses in what they’re calling the “G Master” series and they’re designed, in part, for cameras that aren’t even available yet. The three new G Master lenses are the FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM, the FE 85mm F2.8 GM and the 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS. While I’ve had time to play with all three lenses, I spent extended time with the 85mm and the 24-70mm and they’re among the best lenses I’ve tested in the full-frame market.
To some degree, most camera companies and lens manufacturers are building lenses around the original needs of film, both in terms of the way the light passes through the barrel and the way that the light passing through the optics is resolved.
Without getting bogged down in optical science, one of the primary ways to measure the resolving power of a lens (how much detail it can capture) is in the number of line pairs per millimeter the lens can capture. In the days of film, and with digital cameras, “standard” resolution sensors of 10-30MP lenses came with a more typical 10 line pairs per mm or 30 line pairs per mm, and had more than enough resolution because the imaging media couldn’t record any more detail than that anyhow.
The Sony a7RII, though, is in a class of cameras like the Nikon D810 and the Canon 5DS that have very high resolution sensors. At this point having a lens with more resolving power means having more detail in a camera with such a high-resolution sensor.
Sony is building the G Master lens with a minimum resolution of 50 line pairs per millimeter, which is useful not just for the a7R II, but clearly designed for a future range of cameras with incredibly high resolution sensors. That means that Sony G Master lenses designed today will provide outstanding performance (relative to a lens with 10 or 30 line pairs per millimeter, all else being equal) if and when sensors hit 50, 60 or 100 megapixels.
The company also has been taking great pains to emphasize the quality of the images possible with the G Master lenses, especially their emphasis on both sharpness and bokeh—the term for background defocus blur.
While the two lenses are very different—the 24-70 is an all-around daily shooter and the 85mm is a full-on portrait superstar, they both have similar qualities. The build on the lenses feels much better than anything else for the Sony system, and their size is much more equivalent to a DSLR lens.
The fit and finish on the lenses is excellent with no cheap-feeling switches. The zoom ring on the 24-70mm is smooth and easy to operate and the manual focus rings on both feels good to use. The aperture ring on the 85mm is a particularly nice touch—with portrait shooting I often prefer setting the aperture with the hand holding the lens as opposed to the rear dial, but the lens can be set to “A” and camera controls then change the aperture.
The 85mm is not a particularly fast focusing lens, at least in several of our tests, but on par with most large portrait lenses.
The 24-70mm G Master lens brings to the Sony platform the same level of image quality in this essential zoom range as can be found on Nikon or Canon platforms. That’s important, as the availability of a versatile zoom is key for most working pros. I know few shooters that don’t own that staple zoom lens in their camera mount.
Images from the lens are, as expected, excellent. Sharpness is superb from edge to edge, images are vibrant and handle contrast well and there is minimal distortion and vignetting on the wide end of the lens. Chromatic aberration is nearly non-existent, even on very high contrast area.
The 85mm notches up this image quality even further. Thanks to the Sony a7 series camera’s ability to do eye detect AF, it’s possible to shoot portraits with this lens fully open and have tack-sharp eyes and eyelashes. Anyone that’s ever tried to shoot portraits with a 1.4 lens at 1.4 knows how many shots it takes to usually nail the focus of the eyes, but the combination of this lens and the eye detection makes for incredibly sharp images with great bokeh.
I have a collection of all-time favorite SLR-style lenses in my head, which includes the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, , Nikon’s current 24mm f/1.4, the 85mm f/1.4 AI-s Nikon lens I owned when I started shooting, Canon’s 300mm f/2.8L and a few others. The Sony G Master 85mm lens has joined the ranks of those lenses as one of my favorite pieces of glass, ever.
For professional Sony shooters, the FE 24mm-70mm f/2.8 GM and to a lesser extent the FE 85MM GM are must have lenses. The 24-70mm (finally) gives the system much-needed versatility and an all-around excellent workhorse that not only doesn’t lack in image quality, it has it in spades.
The 85mm isn’t for everyone—there aren’t a lot of wildlife photographers that are going to go for this focal length, but portraits shooters on the Sony platform now have a lens that meets or exceeds the offerings from the competition.
Of course, the professional-quality lenses also carry a professional level price with the 24-70mm available (on pr
eorder, as of this writing) for around $2200 and the 85mm (also on pre-order) for around $1800, on par with the similar focal-length offerings from Nikon and Canon.
If nothing else, the Sony G Master lenses shows that the company is seriously thinking about the future of digital photography, and their offerings—after all, why put so much money into developing a future-proof lens if you’re not planning to stick around for a while. That means that people that are hesitant about making a switch based on concerns about Sony’s long-term dedication to the brand should be comforted by the existence of a series of lenses designed to be best in class for year—or decades—to come.
Galleries — All photos by David Schloss: