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Apr 09

Review: Sony FE 85mm f/1.8

Image Quality

Given the very large price difference between the 85mm f/1.8 and the other 85mm lens options for E-mount, I expected a fair degree of difference in optical performance from the higher priced optics, and while there are definitely some areas where the FE 85mm doesn’t quite perform up to the level of its more expensive counterparts, the compromises in optical quality are remarkably small.

Sharpness

One area where optical quality does not lack is in image sharpness.  The FE 85mm f/1.8 is a stunningly sharp lens.  At the widest f/1.8 aperture, the lens is exceptionally sharp over around 80% of the frame when focused closer up and in the general range of portraiture.  The lens is definitely optimized for these focus distances, as the lens softens a bit at wide apertures as you focus further out.  However, performance is again strong near infinity, especially stopped down a bit. At smaller apertures, the FE 85mm f/1.8 is very sharp across the entire frame, with only some slight softening at the extreme corners.

At the window - Sony A7 II with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8

At the window – Sony A7 II with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8

When wide open at portrait distances, the FE 85mm f/1.8 looks every bit as sharp as the Zeiss Batis wide open, and might even be slightly sharper.  It provides tremendous pop to the eyes, while fading gently away to the background, lending a nice three-dimensional effect to the images. Here is a 100% crop of the image above, taken at f/1.8.

Bokeh

85mm lenses are generally a go-to focal length for portraiture, and especially portraits with blurred backgrounds, so the quality of the out of focus rendition is quite important.  The FE 85mm f/1.8’s bokeh is often very pleasing, though it isn’t perfect.  In most situations, the backgrounds are rendered with a lovely softness, though perhaps with a bit more contrast you may be used to.  There can be some bright-ring outlining at further focus distances in the right circumstances, but these generally aren’t distracting.  There is some mechanical vignetting, which leads to an elongation of specular highlights, but whether this is an issue is personal preference.  There are many samples with different backgrounds in the image samples, so be sure to check those out.

Arch of Blossoms - Sony a6000 with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8

Arch of Blossoms – Sony a6000 with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8

In all, I think the bokeh is rather reminiscent of the bokeh of the Batis 85mm.  It’s reasonably smooth, but isn’t super creamy like the backgrounds rendered by the 85mm f/1.4 GM.  Still, I think the bokeh is generally quite nice out of the lens.  One area where bokeh does suffer is at distances of around 15-20 feet, where highlights can take a green fringe and look rather unpleasant if the background is busy and high in contrast.

Color, Contrast and Chromatic Aberration

The FE 85mm f/1.8 produces images with quite high contrast right from f/1.8.  Images are crisp and vibrant, without being overbearing.  Color is neutral and clean.  Compared to the Batis 85mm, the Sony produces images with a touch less saturation.

One area where the FE 85mm f/1.8 does fare a bit worse than the more expensive 85mm lenses is in chromatic aberration control.  Wide open, lateral CA is fairly well controlled, though lateral CA increases a bit as you stop down.  Still, this type of chromatic aberration is easily corrected with most RAW converters, and in the JPEG files, so its real world impact is minimal.  There is also some longitudinal CA that shows up as a magenta fringe in front of the subject and a green fringe behind.  In some cases, generally at further focus distances, the longitudinal CA can be rather visible, though it’s reasonably well controlled at portrait and closer focus distances. Longitudinal CA is similar to or even slightly better than most lower cost short telephoto lenses from other manufacturers, but it is definitely something that will be visible in many circumstances.

Purple fringing on very high contrast edges can also sometimes appear at wide apertures.  Again, this may require correction in some cases, but overall it isn’t out of line with other lenses of this type.

Distortion, Flare and Vignetting

The FE 85mm f/1.8 controls distortion quite well.  Uncorrected files show perhaps a touch of barrel distortion, but this isn’t really field relevant, and you’re unlikely to notice it in day-to-day shooting, even when shooting architecture.

The lens has mixed performance against bright light.  I found shots shooting into bright light with minimal ghosting, and yet in others ghosting can show rather significantly depending on the position of the bright light source.

The Stare Down - Sony A7 II with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2.2

The Stare Down – Sony A7 II with Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 @ f/2.2

There is also some loss of contrast when shooting something backlit, though post-processing can make up for a lot of this. You can see some of this contrast loss in the image above, taken with the sun to the top right out of frame.  The lens shows a bit of vignetting at wide apertures, but nothing major, and quickly moves to negligible shading as you stop down the lens.

In all, I find the optical quality of the FE 85mm f/1.8 to be on a very high level.  The color and contrast are excellent, the bokeh is generally pleasing and the lens is capable of exceptional sharpness, even wide open.  Considering the reasonable price tag, it’s quite excellent and compares favorably to the Batis 85mm f/1.8 in most ways.

Continue: Conclusion and Image Samples

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.

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