To be blunt, the FE 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar is simply a fantastic lens optically. Given the very high price tag for an f/1.8 normal prime, you’d expect impeccable image quality, and with few exceptions, the Zeiss 55mm delivers. Let’s dive into the details.
The Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 is a full frame ‘FE’ designated lens, and is designed to be a long normal lens for the A7 series of cameras. However, the 55mm focal length also makes it perfect for a short telephoto lens for Sony’s APS-C E-mount lenses as well, where the lens will have a field of view equivalent to an 85mm lens on full frame. While the vast majority of my shooting was done with the A7 II, I did test the lens on my a6000 as well. Zeiss is well-known for creating very sharp lenses, and the FE 55mm really shows Zeiss at the top of their game. On a full-frame body, the lens is a blisteringly sharp optic at smaller apertures and extremely good wide open as well. It is one of only a handful of lenses that I’ve shot with that is truly sharp to the corners wide open, with an aperture at f/2 or wider, and most of those were short to medium telephoto lenses, which are easier to produce for cross frame sharpness.
Perhaps the only other normal lens I’ve used that exhibits similar sharpness across the image frame is Zeiss’ own Touit 32mm f/1.8 for APS-C cameras, though the FE 55mm f/1.8 outclasses the Touit even in this regard. Now, I’m not saying it’s as sharp as it gets right at f/1.8 – the corners are slightly softer at this aperture than they are at, say, f/4, but it’s something that’s really only visible when doing some 100% pixel peeping. Shooting on the a6000, the lens is also very sharp right from wide open. While it’s not quite as pixel perfect sharp at f/1.8 on the a6000 as it is on the A7 II, it is very sharp across the frame, and tack sharp stopped down just a bit. It’s really a remarkable performance in this regard, and it is easily among the very best lenses I’ve used with regards to resolution.
Color and Contrast
In typical Zeiss fashion, the FE 55mm f/1.8 displays superb color and contrast, with a rich, high-contrast look at any aperture. The combination of high contrast with excellent sharpness and quick falloff to out of focus areas makes images pop out a bit when shooting at wide apertures. There’s really not much more to say here, so let’s move on to bokeh.
A fast prime is often used at wide apertures to create subject separation, and the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 is a lens that displays excellent bokeh to go along with the excellent sharpness of the lens, which is a difficult feat to accomplish in lens design. The out of focus areas are generally smooth and specular highlights are nice and evenly illuminated. It’s not ultra-creamy, as you’d expect for such a highly corrected lens, but the overall effect is very pleasing to my taste. If you look closely, some onion ring patterning can be seen in the specular highlights due to the use of aspheric elements, and wide open, a cat’s eye shape is created near the frame edge. Those tend not to bother me. However, bokeh is a very subjective thing, so check out the image samples to see how it measures up for you.
Chromatic Aberration, Flare, Distortion and Vignetting
With regards to lens aberrations, the FE 55mm f/1.8 again turns in an excellent performance, with a few small caveats.
The lens displays virtually zero field relevant lateral chromatic aberration at any aperture, which is truly excellent. Like many fast lenses, however, longitudinal CA, displayed as green and magenta fringes behind and in front of the focus point, is visible at wide apertures. Overall, however, a very good performance here.
The lens controls distortion fairly well, with just a touch of barrel distortion at the edges, which can be easily corrected with a lens profile if it bothers you. With regards to flare, the 55mm f/1.8 also performs very well. Some veiling flare can be introduced with the lens, especially if the sun is near the frame edge, but I find the effect subtle and rather beautiful, rather than distracting. Ghosting is well controlled and generally not an issue, though green blobs can be introduced in the right circumstances.
The Zeiss 55mm does vignette notably at wide apertures, and it improves upon stopping down, but vignetting never completely disappears. I am one who likes a bit of subtle corner shading, so I quite enjoy a lens like this, but for those who want pure even illumination, some minor correction in postprocessing will be required.
In all, it doesn’t get much better. The lens is optically stellar and probably the best corrected normal lens I’ve ever used. This type of performance is usually reserved for top-tier telephoto lenses, which are a bit easier to design.
20 thoughts on “Review: Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar T*”
the cz ultron for the icarex system from the early 70s had a concave front element. that lens is supposedly very well regarded. i wonder if these lenses share similar designs. here is a link to that particular lens.
Thanks for your review! How would you compare this one to Sigma 60 2.8 DN on A7II ? Does it really 4x better as price ? How much slower is the AF on Sigma?
Well, the Sigma is an APS-C only lens, so on the A7 II, it’s not a competitor.
Thanks for your response, Jordan. APS-C only ? But it can be mounted onto A7II, and shot in FF mode too, with some vignetting. People also reported removing baffle and reducing vignetting, with further processing in LR for even more vignetting reduction.
It will mount, and the lens is excellent. You have to decide whether saving the cash is worth losing some resolution, having to crop every image manually, having a notably longer focal length (once cropped, it’ll be closer to a 70mm FOV), and over a stop slower aperture. I view something like a manual focus 50/1.4 or 55/1.2 to be a much stronger ‘competitor’ than dealing with that regularly.
The Sigma 60 is an amazing optic, and the choice is much tougher if you’re an APS-C shooter (and where I think it makes more sense to shoot the 60.) The 55 sings on full frame.
Jordan, excellent comprehensive assessment of the virtues of the Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Sonnar T. So much so that I have opted to purchase the lens coupled with the A7II and a Metabones adapter (for my Nikon lenses). Thank you.
Your “Morning in Columbus” shot is exceptional.
What is your impression of the focusing speed differences between the Sigma 60 2.8 and the FE 55 1.8 on the A6000? I’ve read that the Sigma 60 2.8 never received a firmware update to take full advantage of the A6000’s improved focusing, but does this translate to a meaningful difference in focusing speed?
Thanks, Jordan, for a great review of a great lens. I currently own an A6000 with a Sigma 60 mm 2.8 DN. I am extremely impressed with the images that I am getting from this system. Even so, I am looking at the Sony 55 mm 1.8 ZA for a number of reasons: (1) the Zeiss lens can take full advantage of the A6000 hybrid autofocus, the Sigma can not; (2) the extra 1.3 stops, (3) the Zeiss lens will make for a smooth transition to full-frame, when I do upgrade.
My question for you is how the Sigma and Zeiss compare in terms of sharpness, both center and corners, and contrast on the A6000? Thanks.
I haven’t tested them side by side on the a6000, but my impression from using them is that there’s very little to distinguish them at similar apertures on APS-C, with regards to sharpness.
I recently bought the Sony A7II and thought about this lens. In the end, I decided to reuse the old Contax Carl Zeiss Tessar f2.8/45mm:
Nice review! Where did you get the wrist strap on this photo:
Gordy’s camera straps. http://gordyscamerastraps.com
Great review…Great images.
Hey Jordan, I was just wondering if the lens hood that your lens came with has a little play. I can wiggle mine 1-2mm (rotating) when it’s mounted in any orientation. Just wanted to know if this is normal since the rest of the lens seems to have a perfect fit and finish.