The Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm 𝑓/1.8 ZA

Notes from a week at Disney World with Sony’s workhorse of a lens.

Assumed Audience:

People interested in cameras and photography.

My family and I recently went to Disney World as a huge celebration of paying off our house (!) this spring. For the trip I rented the Sony α7 IV and the Tamron 35 – 150mm 𝑓/2 – 2.8 Di III VXD, and I also took along my recently acquired Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm 𝑓/1.8 ZA. Over the course of the week, I took a bunch of notes on using each. This post focuses on the Sony lens; see the sibling posts for details on the camera and the Tamron lens!

Posts in this little series:

First impressions (June 4)

This thing is small: smaller than my previous go-to standard lens, the Sony FE 35mm 𝑓/1.8, and waaaaay smaller than the 35mm – 100mm Tamron I am comparing it to most directly. But it’s also incredibly sharp, fast, and easy to use. The only thing that I find as an immediate downer is the lack of a switch to toggle between manual and auto focus — something which has become standard on Sony’s lenses since this was released. Toggling between the two requires going through menus or wiring up a custom button. (I’ll probably do the latter, since I don’t have any other custom button mappings I rely on yet.)

That one minor issue notwithstanding, my immediate impression is that this is probably going to become my default lens for most day-to-day things… which is exactly why I bought it. I have spent the past year or so constantly feeling This is slightly too wide” when using the aforementioned 35mm and This is slightly too narrow” for my other favorite prime lens, the Sony FE 85mm 𝑓/1.8 Lens. The thing which tipped me over the edge was taking a bunch of pictures at an Anselm Society pub night late in May, where I debated before leaving which to take, chose the 85mm and found it, once again, just a bit too narrow. As I was picking between the two, I thought to myself, The 55mm would be perfect for this…” and the very next day I got on [/r/photomarket][reddit] to buy the lens.

Travel day (June 5)

As is my habit in airports — especially when, as today, we ended up with an hour-long delay to our flight — I shot a handful of photos to entertain myself. For the airport time, I stuck with the 55mm lens on the α7 IV body. It continues to impress. I took a handful of photos with it, in the same place I took some of the earliest photos I took with the α7R IV and the 35mm lens which has been my go-to when I rented that back in October 2019.

ISO 125, 36mm, 𝑓/8.0, 1/40s

After a walkabout day

Written June 10.

Yesterday, with my back and shoulders feeling a bit tired after days of carrying a very heavy bag (and, Wednesday, also carrying a bunch of custom lightsabers!) I decided to walk around with this lens instead of the Tamron I had carried up the earlier days in the week. It is incredibly lighter, and I was glad of the choice throughout the day. It reconfirmed to me overall that I really do prefer primes as a default; I would rather walk around with a single really solid lens at a fixed focal length and roll with the challenges that presents that work with a zoom most of the time. That said, as I note in the sibling post, I really liked walking around with the Tamron and I think I will carry that lens instead of this prime for the rest of the trip.

For portraits, it’s simply phenomenal. It feels like cheating.

ISO 400, 𝑓/1.8, 1/8,000s
ISO 320, 𝑓/1.8, 1/8,000s

The lens isn’t without some downsides, though. One I noticed is the fringing which shows up here, particularly on the edges of the shadows and the birds and the edge of the concrete:1

ISO 125, 𝑓/1.8, 1/8000s

I was able to fix most of that with Lightroom, but not all: if you look closely shadow of the bird on the left, you’ll see there is still some green fringing, and likewise some purple fringing on the shadow of the bird on the right:

ISO 125, 𝑓/1.8, 1/8000s

Net, it seems to me that fringing in particular is a case where you get what you pay for! Of course, you also get what you weigh for, as it were: the much better 50mm G Master lens for Sony is much larger and heavier at 1.7 pounds vs. this lens’ 0.6 pounds. The Tamron 35 – 150mm, for comparison, is 2.6 pounds, so the alternative Sony lens is closer to that huge zoom than to this small prime!

Parting thoughts

Written June 14. Unlike the α7 IV and the Tamron lens, this 55mm didn’t go back to LensRentals today — and I’m glad! As noted at the top, it filled a key hole in my collection of prime lenses: I now have very good primes at 20mm, 35mm, 55mm, and 85mm. While, as noted in the companion post, I will be saving up for the Tamron, I feel really happy with these as my go-to lenses: they’re flexible enough to shoot basically any conditions I normally shoot in, and cover the kinds of photographs I generally like to take.

This lens in particular will likely become my go-to for family events: it’s a better portrait lens than the 35mm, but wide enough to be easier to use in group settings than the 85mm. It’s also much smaller than especially the 85mm and is therefore somewhat less obtrusive. I will always be The One With A Camera™, but if that camera’s lens can be smaller that means it attracts much less attention, and in most of the group settings to which I take a camera, that is only a good thing.

Given all of those, I’m not at all tempted by Sony’s much larger and heavier 50mm lens. A revision to this lens with some of the features which the 35mm and 85mm lenses feature — especially the focus lock button and the focus mode switch on the body — might get me looking. (I did indeed set up a custom button to switch from manual to auto focus, and that was better than nothing, but I do very much prefer the clicky switch on the lens itself!) For now, though, I’m set and happy with this.

  1. This photo ending up being a great demonstration of the tradeoffs of the camera body, as well: thus ending up in both posts! ↩︎