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Apr 09

Review: Sony FE 85mm f/1.8

The Sony full-frame E-Mount lens lineup is beginning to get crowded at the 85mm focal length, but Sony’s latest entry, the FE 85mm f/1.8, is the first to come in at a relatively affordable price: $598.  The lens joins the existing Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 ($1199), the Zeiss Loxia 85mm f/2.4 ($1399) and the Sony 85mm f/1.4 GM ($1798) at the 85mm focal length, and even shares the same f/1.8 aperture as the Batis.  However, Sony has done fairly well with their lower cost prime lenses, and if this lens performs, it’ll make for an excellent option for many Sony shooters.  Let’s dive in!

Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 on the Sony A7 II

Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 on the Sony A7 II

If you haven’t read my reviews before, I do not generally perform resolution tests or make charts to track quality measures.  I take a real world approach to my reviews and evaluate how a lens or camera handles and works in regular use.

Construction and Handling

The FE 85mm f/1.8 fits into Sony’s lower-cost range for FE mount lenses, so the construction doesn’t feature the tank-like build of the GM line, nor the solid-all metal build of Zeiss’ Batis line, but it nevertheless feels very nice in the hand. The lens is constructed with a metal lens mount and a plastic exterior, though the smooth finish and tight tolerances make it difficult to distinguish from a metal barreled lens.  There is no flex and no movement anywhere on the lens body, and everything is very well put together. The 85mm f/1.8 is fairly lightweight for a fast 85mm lens, and handles nicely on both my A7 II and the diminutive a6000.

The broad ribbed focus ring turns very smoothly, and with a touch of damping, though it does move rather freely.  For manual focus use, Sony has nicely made this lens focus consistently and linearly in manual focus mode, with around a 180 degree turn to move from the fairly close 0.8m minimum focus to infinity.

The Focus Hold button and AF/MF switch are nice additions at this price point

The Focus Hold button and AF/MF switch are nice additions at this price point

There are two other controls placed on the left side of the lens barrel: an AF/MF switch and a programmable button.  It’s nice to have a focus mode switch on the lens body, and it’s something I wish was present on more Sony lenses.

The programmable button, which is by default set to the Focus Hold function to keep the lens from refocusing between shots, has been present on a number of Sony lenses over the years, but usually only lenses in the ‘G’ or ‘GM’ series.  Sony has added it to the FE 50mm Macro lens, and now to the 85mm f/1.8. While focus hold is the standard function, this can be changed to a number of different functions through the camera’s menu system.  I personally have it set to activate EyeAF.

Sony states in their literature that the lens is sealed against dust and moisture, but has a caveat that it is “not guaranteed to be 100% dust and moisture-proof.” I take that to mean it should be fine for shooting in a light drizzle, but I wouldn’t trust it to anything beyond that.

The lens hood is thin plastic, but provides reasonable shielding and protection for the front element.

The lens hood is thin plastic, but provides reasonable shielding and protection for the front element.

Sony includes a relatively thin plastic lens hood with the 85mm f/1.8, which snaps on to the front bayonet.  The lens hood can be reversed for storage, and mine snaps solidly into place.  There’s nothing special about the lens hood, but there’s also nothing really bad about it either.  It provides nice shading of the front element and isn’t too large, though the thin plastic feels a bit flimsier than the hoods on some of Sony’s other lenses.

Autofocus

The FE 85mm f/1.8 features a dual-linear focus motor, and unlike the recent FE 50mm f/1.8, the 85mm f/1.8’s focus is quite quick and very quiet.  In good indoor light and outdoors, the lens focuses very quickly and in my experience, very accurately as well.  In dimmer light, at least on my A7 II and a6000, the focus can be a little more hit or miss, with occasional hunting, though I found these situations to be fairly rare.  It’s quick enough that the newer bodies with good tracking should have no issues with continuous autofocus in good light, and video users will also be quite satisfied with the very quiet motor.  Below is a shot captured with the subject in motion towards the camera.  I was able to accurately track her eyes, and capture this expression of concern of a potential collision between her scooter and the photographer.  No worries; the crisis was averted.

Oh No! - Sony A7 II with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2 (continuous AF)

Oh No! – Sony A7 II with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2 (continuous AF)

The lens doesn’t feature an image stabilizer, which isn’t a big deal if you’re using a newer body such as the mark II bodies in the A7 series, or the recent a6500, as they all feature in-body image stabilization, but those with older bodies may lean toward’s the Zeiss Batis 85mm, which has an optical stabilizer.

Continue: Image Quality

About the author

Jordan Steele

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Admiring Light; Photographer; Electrical Engineer and Dad

24 comments

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  1. Bakhtiyar Tleubekov

    Wonderful Review as always. Thanks a lot for being objective and fair!
    I have ordered mine as well (after deep thought against Batis) and look forward to make my first shots with new 85mm.

  2. Tom

    You had stacked the Batis against the 90mm 2.8 Contax in a previous post. I believe you mentioned holding onto the Contax given it’s remarkable performance.

    What’s your thoughts on that. Do you still consider the Contax a worthwhile purchase? Thanks.

    1. Jordan Steele

      The Contax is definitely still an excellent lens optically. I no longer have the Contax, though. It’s a great option if you don’t need faster than f/2.8 and can deal with the somewhat frustrating AF with the Techart adapter.

  3. pepou

    I’m hesitating to change my m4/3 system to Fujifilm or Sony FF.

    About you, which combo 55mmF1.8/85mmF1.8 or 35mmF1.4/56mmF1.2 can you recommend for children/adult portrait (overall rendering, character, sharpness, bokeh quality, joy of use, AF speed…) ? They are similar price.

    The built-in IBIS of Sony is a must-have with comparaison with Fuji system ? or not necessary.

    1. Harvey

      Portrait lenses are typically about 85mm, or a little longer, as they provide the necessary compression for flattering portraits. So, those shorter focal lengths you mentioned would not be considered ideal for portraiture. Although, the 55mm and 56mm lenses you mentioned would likely be good enough for full-body shots.

      As for whether IBIS is necessary, that depends on whether shooting at faster shutter speeds (or faster flash duration with the ambient killed) is consistent with your style of shooting and whether you posess good hand-holding technique (or a tripod). Photographers have been taking sharp, blurry-free, images for years before image-stabilization came around. If your technique is solid, you can definitely do perfectly fine without the IBIS. Two caveats, though: (1) IBIS is certainly nice to have as it does provide you greater flexibility in lower light without flash or a tripod, (2) IBIS is very helpful for video. If you plan on shooting a fair amount of video, then get the IBIS.

      Perhaps, Jordan has something to add.

      1. Jordan Steele

        Remember that with the Fuji, you’re cropped, so the perspective distortion will be identical between these setups (Fuji with 56 yields the same FOV and therefore the same level of ‘compression’ for the same subject as an 85mm on full frame).

        Read here for additional information: http://admiringlight.com/blog/perspective-correcting-myth/

        As to the first, I think that either will make an outstanding combination. The 55/85 combo of the sony is a bit sharper, especially the FE 55mm wide open vs the Fuji 35/1.4 wide open, but the Fuji lenses in both cases produce a bit creamier bokeh, and the Fuji 56mm is quite sharp (if not quite as sharp) even at f/1.2. I’m actually going to be doing a head to head with these two in the next week, so stay tuned for that.

        1. Kyle

          Thanks for this review, Jordan. I am looking forward to the Fuji comparison…. noodling on whether I can downsize to one system with this lens and still handle the occasional family portrait (senior pics) decently. Before this came out, I had been thinking that a Fuji or Olympus kit for these photos would be useful for these. My hesitation is on colors and aberrations with the Sony 85 and that PP will take much more time.

    2. Harvey

      I should add one more point. Even with IBIS, you may find that your constraint, in regards to slower shutter speeds, is not camera-shake caused by the photographer but rather motion-blur caused by the subject. Particularly with portraits of children, who often have difficulty staying still, you are still going to want to shoot at faster shutter speeds, even with IBIS.

  4. Harvey

    Excellent review, once again, Jordan! How much would you say the lens needs to be stopped down, so that Longitudinal CAs become negligible?

    1. Jordan Steele

      It’s hard to say since it varies in its visibility based on focus distance, and whether you can see it depends largely on the contrast in the scene or the background. I have many images taken with the lens where there’s no visible LoCA at f/1.8, and I have some that show a touch of it at f/5.6, though for the most part it’s the f/1.8-f/4 range where it generally crops up. In practice, I really don’t think it’s a big deal. It controls CA better than a lot of similar lenses in this range, though not quite as good as the Batis and 85 GM. Still, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about as far as ‘I’m going to stop down to eliminate it.’

  5. Harvey

    Thank you, Jordan.

  6. Harvey

    Thank you, Jordan, for clarifying the perspective myth, which you explained so well. I too, have heard respected experts (including educators) perpetuate the notion that the crop factor should not be taken into account for perspective, just the focal length of the lens, regardless of the format.

  7. EM

    I would like to know when this is going to be available in the US? I see it is available on pre-order in most outlets but would like to ensure I have it by the time Summer vacation comes around in July. Any ideas?

    1. Jordan Steele

      It is available in the US. The tested lens is my personal copy, which I purchased from B&H on March 30. Now, a lot of gone out of stock and backordered, but if you check around, you’ll likely be able to find one.

      1. EM

        Thanks Jordan, I enjoyed your review.

  8. Stevedexteruk

    Excellent review. Really well done. Looks like a really great lens at a good price.
    I already have the more expensive FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS, which seems to be pretty good as a portrait lens also. I wonder how that compares to the 85mm lenses when used for portraits. The 90mm might be a good option for those who want the portrait type focal length and also wish to do macro. But obviously its twice the price.

    1. VPR

      I was wondering the same thing.

      The FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS is a nice lens and, although I’ve read many adverse comments about the “laggy” auto-focussing performance of that lens, in fact the only time I noticed a problem was when I was doing something it was not designed for (trying to take photos of moving subjects). But, as you noted, it is almost twice the price…

      I don’t own the lens, BTW, I’ve only ever used it for short periods of “borrowed time”.

  9. VPR

    I enjoyed reading your review.

    I’ve been visiting your website on and off for the past few years. The style and approach you’ve adopted enlivens the subject material. You’ve taken some lovely photos with the equipment you review.

    Thank you for all that. Ohio looks lovely, BTW.

    1. Jordan Steele

      Thanks!

  10. Chris

    Great review, the scooter “Oh NO” shot is awesome.

  11. VPR

    Oh… I forgot to ask. How well do you think this lens would go with the A7RII?

    I note that the photos displayed here were taken using either the A7II or the A6000; is it possible that the sensor on Sony’s flagship mirrorless camera might “out resolve” the lens?

    1. Jordan Steele

      I think it’ll go very well. The a6000 has higher pixel density than the A7R II, and it was quite sharp on that as well.

  12. Baha

    I recently got the lens, and so far it is on my camera. Love the form factor, build quality and handling. But CA sucks. They are everywhere as long as you shoot wide open.

  13. Pepou81

    About head to head, I’m interesting about Autofocus.

  1. 85mm f/1.8 FE review by Admiringlight: "the lens exceeded my expectations" - sonyalpharumors sonyalpharumors

    […] Image courtesy: Admiringlight. […]

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