Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM: Bridging The Gap

 
Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM

Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM

Does the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM do justice to the company’s full frame mirrorless line-up? Shridhar Kunte puts this portrait specialist through a series of gruelling tests.

One cannot clap with one hand. Over the past few years, Sony has been surging ahead with full frame sensor technology, offering cameras that have a high megapixel count, and also perform very well in low light. But until recently, the system has been handicapped with a lack of lenses. The G Master series, including the 85mm f/1.4 we are testing this month, are a part of the company’s effort to overcome this. These lenses have been designed, keeping in mind the future camera roadmap of the company, to complement future higher resolution sensors, and also 8k technology, that one would expect to see in the near future.

Features
As we saw with the 24–70mm lens that we tested in the last issue, the optical ingredients of the 85mm, too, are impressive on paper. There are three ED elements and one special element called XA, denoting Extreme Aspherical. This, along with Sony Nano AR coatings, aims to suppress chromatic aberration and maintain contrast and colour fidelity, even when working in strong lighting conditions. The 85mm f/1.4 has a minimum focusing distance of 0.8m, which I thought was slightly on the higher side, taking into consideration how close the new zoom lenses can focus. Quality of bokeh is crucial for a portrait lens, and the company seems to have paid critical attention to the same. The inclusion of a eleven-bladed circular electromagnetic diaphragm ensures that bokeh is soft and very pleasing.

The lens exhibits exemplary sharpness when stopped down and the hood takes care from the unwanted light entering in to the camera. Exposure: 1/60 sec at f/16 (ISO 200) Photograph/Shridhar Kunte

The lens exhibits exemplary sharpness when stopped down and the hood takes care from the unwanted light entering in to the camera. Exposure: 1/60 sec at f/16 (ISO 200) Photograph/Shridhar Kunte

Handling
The handling of a lens often has a lot to do with the camera that it is used with. While we had faced some issues with the 24–70mm lens, the 85mm ends up balancing well with the ultraslim A7 bodies. The portrait lens is a staple that we are used to using on conventional DSLR bodies, but after a few days of use, the initial unease wore off, and I found that I was able to balance the lens rather well. That said, one must remember that the 85mm (like some other FE lenses) is bigger and heavier than its identical counterpart from Canon and Nikon. It weighs 820g, which is around 300g heavier than the other manufacturers’ lenses. This almost negates the weight advantage that the bodies have, but the Sony lens/body combo still has a slight advantage. The lens is really well built, with an all-metal construction that is both dust and moisture sealed. The lens mount is made of stainless steel. Interestingly, there is an aperture ring in this lens, which I was extremely happy to see. There are clear markings with one-third stops, and on the lens barrel, there is a provision to disable the clicks of this ring. This is a great feature for video users, who would thus get a stepless aperture ring. Manual focus, like in all Sony FE lenses, is achieved via fly-by-wire, and to cover the full focusing distance, you need to turn the ring by a large degree, which basically allows greater precision while focusing manually. The focus-hold button on the side barrel is, as it allows you to lock focus and recompose, just like the AF-L button that’s there on camera bodies.

Performance
On the Alpha 7R II, the lens delivers excellent centre-to-edge sharpness. It is very sharp wide open and reaches its sweet spot at around f/4, where it delivers outstanding performance. The AF acquisition time and speed is decent, even in low light. When taking pictures outdoors, especially in high contrast scenes, I did see a hint of fringing, but it is correctible. There is an expected amount of vignetting while shooting wide open, which gradually reduces until f/4, where the illumination is uniform. This is an aberration that one sees in 85mm f/1.4 lenses of other companies too, and it works as an advantage while shooting portraits, as it helps emphasise the subject.

Conclusion
Until now, Sony A7 users had a rather nice option to use as a portrait lens, the autofocusing Zeiss Batis. But that is an f/1.8 lens, and with greater depth control, this 85mm f/1.4 is unique. Third party manufacturers that have a similar specced lens do not have anything with AF. The price tag of Rs. 1,29,990 is a little hefty, but the pleasing on-field handling, with the aperture ring and focus-hold button, and the sharp results, make this a critical lens that will be welcomed by the professional who shoots weddings, fashion and editorial assignments.

FINAL RATINGS
Features
Aperture ring that can be stepless
18/20
Performance
Quick AF, very sharp results, some fringing
33/35
Build Quality
Metal construction, weathersealing
23/25
Ergonomics
Lens well designed but balance on cameras is okay, useful focus-hold button
13/15
Warranty & Support
Large service network, two-year warranty
3/5
MRP Rs 1,29,990
OVERALL 90%
VALUE FOR MONEY 3.5/5
Who should buy it? Professional photographers and video pros shooting portraits, fashion, weddings
Why? This portrait specialist offers excellent optics. The two-third stop slower Batis is a lot less expensive, but the f/1.4 capabilities and stepless aperture ring make this lens stand out, especially for video users.
Tags: Better Photograhy, Better Photography Recommended, BP Test, September 2016, Shridhar Kunte, Sony FE 85 mm f/1.4 GM, Sony Lens, sony lens review