Sony has been heavily concentrating on fleshing out the full frame E-mount system with quality lenses, which is something that they didn’t really do with their APS-C e-mount lineup. As such, less than two years after the introduction of the A7, the FE lineup has grown into a rather full featured system. Today, I review the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro, which fills two key niches in the system: a high quality macro lens and a short telephoto prime. This is one of Sony’s top-tier ‘G’ lenses, and as such, expectations are high for good optical quality.
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.
Construction and Handling
The Sony 90mm f/2.8 is a large, solidly built lens. As with many of Sony’s FE mount lenses, there really is no size or weight benefit with this lens compared to full frame DSLR macro lenses. While large in both length and diameter, the 90mm is not quite as heavy as I expected given the dimensions. Still, it’s not exactly a light lens. The lens is constructed of a combination of high-grade plastics and lightweight metals, and there are no creaks or flex points anywhere on the lens body. Due to the size of the lens in comparison with the Sony E mount bodies, it can be a bit front heavy and unwieldy depending on the body used. While it handled decently on my A7 II, I have to say that it feels awkward when used on my a6000. I’d imagine the first generation A7 series cameras would similarly feel a bit awkward due to the shallow grips on those cameras.
The lens comes with a plastic lens hood that locks securely onto the bayonet mount on front. The hood isn’t huge, but it adds to an already rather ample girth. This can cause problems if you’re using a smaller camera bag for your Sony kit, as bags made for mirrorless kits aren’t generally designed to accommodate lenses with this large an outer diameter. As such, I ended up leaving the hood out of the bag most of the time.
The lens has a two position focus clutch mechanism for the focus ring, which is a broad metal ring with a dense check pattern for grip. When the ring is pushed forward, the lens stays in autofocus mode, and the ring turns freely, allowing for direct manual focusing. When the ring is pulled back, the lens enters manual focus mode and the damping of the focus ring increases. The ring also engages the marked focus scale, and provides a true manual focus feel, with hard stops at minimum focus distance and infinity. While the lens feels like it’s a direct mechanical connection to focus in this mode, it’s still by wire: there must be power to the lens to move the focus elements. The clutch mechanism works well, though I’d sometimes inadvertently pull it into manual focus and it would take a second to figure out why autofocus wasn’t working. I wish the position of the ring was a bit easier to discern from a glance or a touch, as the movement between AF and MF modes is fairly slight.
The lens also features an additional button on the side, which acts as a focus stop button. When after locking focus, the button will hold that focus location until you release it, even if you press the shutter button multiple times.
On the side of the lens, there are two switches to activate the focus limiter and the Optical SteadyShot (OSS) system. The focus limiter can be set for the full focus range, from 0.5m to infinity, or from 0.5m to minimum focus distance. I feel focus limiters are a must for any macro lens, so its nice to see one here. The OSS switch enables or disables image stabilization. Unfortunately, there’s no way to separate lens stabilization from in-body stabilization, as switching this off on the lens disables all stabilization, so you can’t use only the 5-axis IBIS on the A7 II. However, as we’ll get to in a moment, this turned out not to matter at all.
One negative about handling and use in the macro range is a rather extreme level of focus breathing. All internally focusing macro lenses have some focus breathing, as the internal focusing actually shortens the focal length. However, the 90mm seems to do it more than many other macros I have used in the past. In comparison to my Olympus 60mm f/2.8, the breathing is very noticeable. You really need to play with distance and focus to provide proper framing of your subject when you get really close.
Autofocus and Image Stabilization
I have very mixed feelings on the autofocus capabilities of the FE 90mm Macro. In good light, the lens focuses extremely quickly, even in the macro range. Using this for insect macros was easy and very accurate overall, allowing me to do nice handheld macro photography, such as the shot of the hoverfly below. I held the camera below me for this shot, framed the image on the rear screen and snapped the shutter to lock focus and take the picture, yielding focus exactly where I wanted.
However, indoors and in dimmer light, the autofocus can struggle. On both the A7 II and the a6000, I found the lens would often fail to find focus at all in dim light, leading to a full in-and out rack of focus past my desired subject. I found this to be the case both in the macro range and in more moderate portrait distances. When it does lock in, speed is slowed considerably in dimmer light. It’s a good idea to turn off exposure preview when using this lens, especially in the macro range where you will likely be shooting stopped down. This is because exposure preview on Sony cameras also stops the lens down to working aperture during focusing, which robs the sensor of much-needed light. I still had problems focusing in low light even with exposure preview turned off, but it becomes very difficult to get a lock with it on.
Update: May 2018 – I normally don’t update my reviews well after they’ve been published, but I recently acquired a 90mm macro for my personal use, and have been using it with the new A7 III. The autofocus experience with this lens and the A7 III (and by proxy the A9), is very different than on my A7 II, noted above. On the A7 III, autofocus does still slow down a little in dimmer light, but it is dramatically improved from earlier bodies, and still what one might call quick. I also have had very little observation of hunting in dimmer light with the 90 Macro and the A7 III.
However, I have no complaints on the optical image stabilization. The FE 90mm Macro has the steadiest stabilization I’ve used on a Sony lens, giving me around 3-4 stops of extra handholdability over unstabilized performance. It works well with the IBIS of the A7 II as well, providing very steady results in the macro range. I was able to get a handhold shot very sharp at 1/20s while handheld at 1:1 magnification using the A7 II, which is rather remarkable. At 1:1, one generally needs 1-2 stops faster speed than at normal focus distances, so I was quite surprised to see sharp shots there. I also managed some sharp shots at 1/8 second on the a6000, which is a bit over 4 stops of stability.
I have to say, the biggest difference between the optical stabilization of the lens by itself and the hybrid in-body and optical stabilization when mounted on the A7 II was in framing in the macro range. The extra 3-axes of stabilization helped to keep the viewfinder much steadier than the 2-axis OSS of the lens by itself.