Hands On With The Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM

zoom lenses
Kendo practice, Japan

Regardless of their specialty or their preferred camera brand, the modern professional photographer tends to have three key zoom lenses in their arsenal: a 16-35mm, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm, or their equivalent in whatever sensor size a photographer shoots with. These staple lenses, usually with a wide aperture of ƒ/2.8, offer a range of coverage that extends from wide-angle to a medium telephoto, allowing the shooter to pick the right lens for the subject the way a golfer picks clubs based on the conditions of the green.

This has been a little problematic for users of Sony’s E-mount mirrorless cameras, especially those that turned to the high-resolution G Master series of lens, since Sony’s first wave of G Master glass included a 24-70mm F2.8 GM and a 70-200mm F2.8 GM, but no 16-35mm G Master. Users needing wide-angle glass turned instead to the existing Sony Vario-Tessar T* 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS, an excellent lens, though not one with the resolution of a G Master nor with an aperture as wide.

The 16-35mm lens has always been my favorite focal-length zoom. Not quite as portrait-friendly as a 24-70mm, the wider range makes for an excellent travel lens and a superb sports lens for those trying to get an alternate “look” at an event. While the normal cadre of sports shooters goes super-long, I often try to go wide and find some interesting action or composition.

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I’ve spent an enormous amount of time since the launch of the 16-35mm lens in May of 2017 at a number of Sony’s hands-on press events and traveling on my own. The lens has produced some tremendous images with very high resolution, very little aberration and excellent sharpness, especially at the widest end of the focal length, and is on par with (though different than) the gold standard for this focal length, the Canon EF 16-35mm F/2.8L III USM.

Testing The Claims

Sony’s G Master line of lenses are designed with a minimum resolution of 50 line pairs per millimeter, a resolution sufficient for sensors up to 100 megapixels, though more than resolution goes into the evaluation of a lens than the sharpness. Sony has stated that this lens also exhibits very little distortion, very low chromatic aberration and high-edge sharpness.

In my test shooting with several samples of this lens, I found the sharpness generally excellent, especially at 16mm, though it’s not quite as sharp at 35mm. I like to think of these ultra-wide zooms as really being 16-24mm lenses, since at 24mm I’d be more likely to switch to a 24-70mm anyhow. Center sharpness was generally great on the lens at all focal lengths, with slightly less sharpness at the edges, especially at the 35mm range. From my personal shooting experience, I feel that the Canon EF 16-35mm F/2.8L III USM has slightly better edge sharpness from 24mm to full zoom at 35mm. That said, it’s still an all-around sharper and more accurate lens than the Vario-Tessar T* 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS, and the differences between the Sony and Canon lenses are hard to pick out.

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NY Redbulls vs. NYCFC at Redbull Stadium

Chromatic aberration was pretty much nonexistent in my test images, as well, and I tried to shoot many scenes with contrast edges of different colors to test this and could find virtually no chromatic aberration issues. Shooting directly into stadium and high-powered LED lighting seems to create a bit of an aberration at the edges of the light, though I suspect that has more to do with the way that LED lamps are built. Just keep that in mind if you’re shooting at an LED sign or a high-intensity light.

Sony stated that its optical coatings prevent flare, and I saw very few examples of flaring in general use. I photographed people and still objects with the sun directly behind and also to the side, and also shot at night with extreme ranges of lighting from harsh streetlights to dark asphalt. It’s possible to overexpose an image, but there’s not much contamination of the rest of the scene, and I couldn’t find any instances of a sun or light flare appearing on another part of the image.

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Shooting the Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 G with the a9, Santa Barbara, California

The wide-angle G Master is built with two XA (extreme aspherical) elements and an 11-blade aperture design for super-smooth background-defocus “bokeh,” which is clearly important to Sony, as it was a major feature of the company’s original presentation of this lens. The design of the blade combined with the optical coatings create a smooth background defocus and crisp subject.

There aren’t a lot of companies that tout the bokeh capabilities of their wide-angle lenses, but it’s a nice consideration, since there’s so much of a scene in a wide-angle shot. With many possible distracting elements, it’s nice to be able to throw part of the scene out of focus and see a smooth transition in the bokeh.

zoom lenses
The Tokyo Dome, Japan

There’s some barrel distortion and some vignetting at the widest focal lengths, though all within the range of being correctable by any photo-editing program. It’s not uncommon to have either of these elements present in a super-wide lens, though it’s something to keep in mind if you’re shooting against a deep blue sky or sticking your primary subject at the edges.

Body By Design

The Sony 16-35mm is small, relatively light and fast, especially when coupled with the Sony a9. It’s no slouch on the a7R II, either, but the speed of focus is really noticeable (or I suppose not noticeable) on the a9.

On the side of the lens is a programmable button, set by default to focus hold, though I often reprogram it to trigger eye-detect autofocus. The zoom ring is smooth to operate, and when shooting in manual focus modes, the fly-by-wire focus dial is smooth as well.

Sony has told us that the lens is dust- and moisture-resistant, as is the a9, which is to say it will keep out most of the elements, but it’s not waterproof or dustproof. Sony’s press release says, “lens and body sealing enhances reliability for outdoor shooting.”

Price And Conclusion

Priced around $2,200, the Sony FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM is about $200 to $300 higher than the equivalent Nikon and Canon lenses of this focal length. There’s very little to complain about in this lens, and the company’s claims for control of flare and chromatic aberration, combined with the level of sharpness and bokeh, make it a perfect lens for the pro looking for a zoom in the ultra-wide range.

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