Jun 15

Review: Carl Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 Vario-Tessar T* ZA OSS

Carl Zeiss has been making lenses for longer than most anyone in the industry, and while they still produce their own lens lines for a variety of camera mounts, they have a more intimate relationship with Sony, producing a variety of E and A mount exclusives.  Today’s review focuses on a somewhat recent release for Sony’s E-mount mirrorless cameras, the 16-70mm f/4 Vario-Tessar (Given the designation SEL1670Z in Sony land).  This standard zoom for APS-C cameras covers an extremely useful range of focal lengths, equivalent to 24-105mm on a full frame camera.  The lens’ constant f/4 aperture and relatively compact size makes this a very attractive offer for Sony shooters, though some will be put off by the $999 price tag.  Let’s dive in and see if it is worth the cost of admission.

The Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 Vario-Tessar on the Sony NEX-6

The Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 Vario-Tessar on the Sony NEX-6

If you’re not familiar with my reviews, I review from a real world shooting perspective.  You won’t find lens charts or resolution numbers here.  There are plenty of other sites that cover those.  I review products on how they act for me as a photographic tool in real-world shooting.

Around the Lens – Build Quality

The 16-70mm f/4 is a relatively compact lens considering the constant maximum aperture and relatively wide zoom range.  It is constructed predominantly of metal, with the main barrel, zoom and focus rings all having a rigid aluminum construction.  These parts feel very nice in the hand and solid.  The extending barrel of the lens, which protrudes as the focal length is increased, is constructed of plastic.  While the plastic extending tube doesn’t wobble and is sturdy enough, the feel of the plastic is a little underwhelming.  It has an almost cheap feel to it, which is the very opposite of the rest of the lens.

The zoom mechanism is smooth and the focus ring is silky, though I wish it had slightly more damping.  The review sample tested had a very small amount of play when operating the zoom ring, though in talking with other photographers, this appears to be a minor issue with this specific copy of the lens, and not a widespread concern.

The Zeiss 16-70mm at 16mm (left) and 70mm (right)

The Zeiss 16-70mm at 16mm (left) and 70mm (right)

Included with the lens is a plastic petal type lens hood that is well constructed and finished.  The hood clicks on to the recessed bayonet mount, providing a fluid appearance when the lens is set to 16mm.  The hood reverses for storage and doesn’t take up very much additional space.

Handling, Autofocus and Stabilization

Fallsville Falls, OH - Sony NEX-6 with Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 ZA OSS @ 38mm, f/13, 1/8 second handheld

Fallsville Falls, OH – Sony NEX-6 with Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 ZA OSS @ 38mm, f/13, 1/8 second handheld

The 16-70mm is small and light enough to handle quite well on my NEX-6.  The useful focal range makes it an ideal walkaround lens for street or event shooting, as well as convenient for landscape photography.

The autofocus motor on the Zeiss 16-70mm is rather quick and very quiet.  I had no issues with autofocus accuracy, and focus acquisition was generally quite quick and sure.  In dim light, focus can slow down a bit, but accuracy remained high.

The Vario-Tessar features Sony’s Optical SteadyShot stabilization (OSS) to allow for handholding at slower speeds than would otherwise be possible.  Given the modest f/4 maximum aperture, the OSS comes in quite handing for typical shooting. The 16-70’s OSS I found to be decently effective, though it falls short of the very best stabilization systems that I’ve used.  I found I could typically handhold the 16-70mm at speeds between two and three stops slower than I would otherwise be able to handhold.

The shot at the right was taken handheld.  I stopped by this waterfall on a whim last week, and I had forgotten to pack my tripod quick release plate for the camera (though I did have my tripod).  While I wasn’t going to be able to get great shots without my tripod here, I decided to use the visit as a scouting trip (I’ll post photos from the real trip, which I did this past Saturday, very soon).  Using only the image stabilizer and handholding, I was able to take this image at 38mm at only 1/8 second.  This is around 3 stops slower than the typical 1/(35mm equivalent focal length) rule that most people use.  Due to the angle I was holding the camera and my precarious positioning in the stream, I had to take several images at this speed to get one that was sharp, though the lens more consistently produced sharp results at 1/15 second.

Continue: Image Quality

About the author

Jordan Steele

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


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  1. john

    Thanks, I think this is a very accurate review and I agree with most of your findings. To be frank, this lens doesn’t have any particular strength except for contrast and color. Normally, I’m the kind of person who isn’t that picky about these aspects as they can be dealt with in post but this lens is on a quite high level. RAWs from this lens do almost look like processed images.

    It’s just too bad that things like that aren’t valued by many in the era of heavy post-processing. Maybe this lens would have been a big success in the days of film. In countries where people do little post such as Japan (they shoot jpeg most of the time), this lens seems to get more attention.

  2. Eleven01

    Hello Jordan, great review… after using this lens for 6months now I agree with all your findings.
    Just a question regrding build quality, as you state there is a minimal play on the zoom ring of your copy. Does this “play” create a “click” sound once you try to zoom into both directions? My copy has a play about 1mm or less in both directions and in any focal length and I was wondering if it’s something normal, or I have to worry about it…

    1. Jordan Steele

      That’s exactly what my review sample did.

    2. stefano

      Mine has play as well. a bit disappointing. This lens should cost half the price.

  3. ARTUK

    I purchased a second hand copy of this lens, in excellent condition. Unfortunately, together with obvious corner sharpness, the outer edges of the “long” side of the frame were also rather soft. To make matters worse, it varied by focal length, showing some softness on one or other side of the frame, which covered about a quarter of the frame. Needless to say, it went back the the dealer – though I notice that in SLRGear’s review they experienced similar issues, with their copy showing some softness on one side throughout it’s focal range, though with softness on the other side of the image too at some focal length and aperture combinations. Although I appreciate zooms are rarely “perfect”, the outer field was very disappointing given the quality of the centre. For the UK asking price for a new copy, I remain somewhat unconvinced given the rather “random” nature of the outer field at different apertures and focal lengths.

    From your review, you didn’t seem to find any of this with your sample? There has been some internet discussion since the lens was released about sample variation – if I purchased one and it seemed as good as yours, I would probably be happy, but the unpredictable nature of the lens for the price makes me nervous.

    1. Jordan Steele

      My review sample seemed to have no obvious decentering issues. I have also heard this can be an issue with this lens, but I didn’t experience it with the tested copy.

      1. ARTUK

        Hi Jordan
        thanks for your reply. It certainly seems there is some quite substantial sample variation, as other reviews seemed to find issues with edge performance – I looked at ePhotozine, and one of their sample photos showed very obvious softness on one side of the image that was not present on the other side, for example. Conversely, other reviewers such as you don’t find these problems. Personally, I have found with stabilised lenses that from time to time they seem to throw up edge and corner issues in some frames, I assume as a result of the floating elements moving around as part of stabilisation. I may well try another ZA16-70, but probably from a retailer with a good returns policy! Thanks for your review anyway – the decision between a 16-70 and 18-105 is not easy, particularly when factoring in price.

  4. Rhys

    Hey Jordan, I have this lens on my A7r and I was wondering about image quality, I’m not going to be printing my images to a large scale, but apart from the printing aspect, will the fact that the lens is cropping my photos to 15MP cause quality issues even at a smaller scale?


    1. Jordan Steele

      Well, you have the combination, so you’ll be the best judge. You’re getting a 15 megapixel APS-C crop. That’s the same as shooting with any high quality 15 megapixel APS-C camera, and as such image quality will be similar. Will it cause issues? Of course not. Unless printing at larger than 12×18″ you’ll be hard pressed to see any difference at all between the cropped and full images with regards to final quality. I’m actually in the process of writing an article about how our image quality perceptions have changed over the past 15 years, which will address a bit of this point. 16 megapixels was good enough for professional fashion photographers and landscape photographers 10 years ago…it will do fine for most everyone.

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