Review: Sony Zeiss Distagon T* FE 35 F/1.4 ZA

There is something fascinating about prime lenses, especially fast ones.

I don’t know if it’s because it makes us work harder as a photographer to snap that perfect moment or the way we have to be more creative to compose our image the way we want it.

The 35mm prime has been my go to lens since my early days with Nikon and it’s been attached to my old D40 and D60 98% of the time. That lens had taught me everything about “zooming with my feet” and composing shots on the fly when timing was everything. Admittedly, this wasn’t easy since if you can’t compose your image with your eyes at 35mm (standard field of view), most likely you won’t be able to compose it in frame. Which is part of the problem with standard primes, because these lenses usually require patience and persistence.

To that end, I’ve went through a handful of Sony E mount primes in the past couple of months:

They’ve all been excellent and I loved taking environmental photos with these primes, but I’ve ultimately sold them all. The E 35 F/1.8 was returned because I was moving up to full frame and the Zeiss 35 F/2.8 was returned because it was overpriced for $800 new.

It felt like I was settling with the Zeiss 35 F/2.8 only because a true king of the 35mm primes already existed: the Sony Zeiss Distagon T* FE 35 F/1.4 ZA.

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The best native 35mm FE mount available today.

One thing that would shock most people would either be the price tag or the size because their is nothing “small” about both.

The lens costs a small fortune at almost $1,600, so there is your sticker shock right there.

The lens also weighs almost 1.4 lbs, so it’s not light (it weighs more than the Sony A7II’s body alone).

But what is it about this lens that make it so special?

A versatile lens

The Zeiss FE 35mm F/1.4 is a robust fast wide-angle lens that looks more like a telephoto lens than a mirrorless wide-angle. Sony and Zeiss have done away with the whole compact credo and focused on absolute build quality and high quality optics.

The lens is large and relatively heavy (still lighter than the FE 24-70 F/2.8 GM) with a solid all aluminum exterior construction. The lens is very tightly assembled with a flawless matte black finish and a wide ribbed focus ring for a silky smooth manual focus.

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The lens is one of two native lenses for E-Mount that has an aperture ring (the Zeiss FE 50mm F/1.4 being the other). The wide aperture ring features 1/3 stop clicks that are individually marked and dampened to perfection.  It has enough resistance to avoid accidental aperture changes, but not too tight to make it difficult. For video shooters, the lens includes a switch to remove the clicks for the aperture ring, allowing the aperture to be changed silently.

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Optical quality can sometimes come hand in hand with large size lenses and the FE 35mm F/1.4 is no exception. The lens is larger than other 35mm F/1.4 lenses for DSLRs and significantly larger than its slower sibling, the very sharp Zeiss FE 35mm F/2.8. Most photographers understand that a lens with an aperture two stops faster than most 35mm fast primes, there will be a notable size increase.

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35mm | f/1.4 | ISO 125 | 1/40

 

When the lens is mounted onto the A7 II, the overall size increases substantially, but the improved ergo grip on the second generation A7 make the lens manageable for carrying one handed. It will be front heavy, but when supporting with two hands, the lens feels solid. If you want peace of mind, I recommend using a camera strap or wrist strap, like the one from Peak Design.

The larger size and the added heft will be felt in your bag. It will also be less subtle and more intimidating for your subjects if you’re doing any portraiture work. While the weight and size is definitely noticeable in hand, it’s not as detrimental as people would believe.  However, this lens is not for everyone. For those looking for a lightweight, everyday carry setup, you may want to look at the excellent Zeiss FE 35mm F/2.8. If you’re a manual focus fan, then the Zeiss Loxia Biogon T* 35mm F/2.0 will serve you well.

Autofocus and Manual Focus

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35mm is perhaps the most versatile focal length. From street photography, photo-journalism, environmental portraits and even the occasional landscape shot, most everyday scenes look “just right” through a 35mm lens. And at f/1.4, there’s plenty of control over depth of field — can you say bokeh? — as well as enough speed for low light photography. It will come as no surprise, then, that 35mm f/1.4 lenses are a staple of every Full Frame camera system out there.

The Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T* is the first such lens for the Full Frame E-mount system, and what a lens it is. Designed as a collaboration between the two companies, it is manufactured by Sony up to Zeiss specifications, and it’s currently the fastest 1st-party lens for the E-mount system, together with the 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 primes. But more on those later.

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