Carl Zeiss lenses are renowned for their image sharpness, high contrast and rich color. On the sharpness front, the 16-70mm f/4 falls a little short of expectations, though still puts in a solid performance. Images show good central sharpness throughout the zoom range right from f/4. Image borders and corners are a little soft at the widest aperture. Stopping down brings the central part of the frame into outstanding territory and the image borders to a very good level, though the extreme corners lag a bit and never really get sharp. That last remaining softness is of minimal concern in daily use, though it does limit the lens’ usefulness as a landscape optic for those who are picky about cross-frame sharpness.
To get an idea of how the lens performs, click on the image to the right, then click on the green arrow at the bottom of the screen to view a large version of the image.
With a maximum aperture of f/4, there’s not a tremendous amount of blur that can be created throughout most of the range, though the lens is capable of providing some subject separation at the longer end of the zoom range, and provides plenty at 70mm when shooting tighter portraits or closer objects. Given the relatively close minimum focus distance of 13 inches, the lens does a good job for closeup photography, though it falls far short of a macro lens.
The 16-70mm produces quite pleasing bokeh for a standard zoom lens, with smooth gradations and very even and smooth specular highlights. The quality of the bokeh doesn’t vary much over the focal range, maintaining good smoothness at any zoom setting and both close up and at further focus distances. Overall, this is a very impressive performance in a standard zoom.
Color, Contrast and Chromatic Aberration
Typical of most Zeiss lenses, the 16-70mm provides ample image contrast and very pleasing, rich color response. There’s just a little something extra that ‘pops’ a bit with this lens
The lens isn’t perfect with regards to chromatic aberration, but I found it not to be particularly noticeable in everyday shooting. Longitudinal CA can be present in out of focus areas under the right circumstances, but even there, it’s relatively well controlled. The minor lateral CA can be taken care of with a simple click in RAW development programs such as Lightroom.
Distortion, Vignetting and Flare
The 16-70mm features a fairly typical distortion profile for a standard zoom lens. There is some barrel distortion at the wide end (which can be quite visible at 16mm when shooting architectural subjects), and a bit of pincushion distortion at the long end. These distortions are corrected in-camera if you shoot JPEG, and Lightroom contains a profile that will also correct them automatically if you so desire.
The 16-70mm f/4 shows some visible corner shading at wide apertures, and even a small amount of residual vignetting when stopped down, though neither are particularly objectionable.
With regards to flare, I unfortunately did not get a chance to test the lens against bright light. The first day I had the lens, we had plenty of sun, but I was simply intent on getting to know the lens at that point. Later in the week, we had a series of overcast days that precluded shooting into the sun, so a thorough evaluation of flare couldn’t be performed.
14 thoughts on “Review: Carl Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 Vario-Tessar T* ZA OSS”
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.
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…
That’s exactly what my review sample did.
Mine has play as well. a bit disappointing. This lens should cost half the price.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Been looking at your site for many years and like your down to earth reviews In your test of the sony 16-70 f4 you mention professional photographers being happy with 16 mega pixels . I photographed my neices wedding when film was still the in thing and as an aside borrowed a kodak 1 mega pixel camera ,yes that is ONE and the images from it were outstanding , so dont worry about what anyone else thinks about anything you shoot as long as YOU are happy . And that shot of your daughter on the top of that cliff is scary . I hope it wasnt windy that day like it was in a harbour on holliday last year and I was nearly blown into the sea , frightening !