The Sony 35 mm 1.4 ZA is quite a heavy and large lens mainly suited for environmental portraits, as its characteristics are tuned towards that application, as we will find out.
Build and handling
Like other lenses bearing the “ZA” moniker, this lens was designed together with Zeiss, but build by Sony. It features an all metal construction and weighs in at a whopping 630 g, is 112 mm long and comes with a nice lens hood made from metal and rubber. The lens features an declickable aperture ring (I really like to have the aperture ring on the lens) and a wide, metal focus ring. As I am now on a Sony A7III and my main subjects with this lens are my kids, I rarely use this lens in manual focus mode, so I can not comment on how the MF experience is. Comparing the aperture ring and the declick switch to Sony’s newer GM lenses (e.g. the 24mm f1.4 GM), the clicks are less defined and the switch can often be accidentally moved to de-click the aperture, for instance when (un-)mounting the lens on the camera body. This is somewhat less as to to what expect for a lens with this price-tag.
Having the camera on a tripod, I manually focused on the buildings about 600-800 m away (interestingly, the lens reported 20 m distance when I considered to have achieved max sharpness) and used a 2s delay self-timer to shoot an aperture series from wide open to f16. Crops are from OOC JPEGs (standard picture profile) with all corrections on, thus there should be no visible distortion or vignetting. These are tested for in dedicated sections of this review. Note that these tests were done with full-mechanical shutter (EFCS off).
While I would consider the sharpness at landscape distances very good to excellent, there might be sharper even 35 mm options available, if landscape is the primary focus. In some tests, the 35 mm 1.4 AF by Samyang appeared to be sharper, but the bokeh is not as smooth (see this excellent comparison by Lex & Josh on YouTube). But due to the high sample variation of this lens, such results may as well be due to a bad or non-optimal copy of the lens. In fact, I consider the homogeneity of the sharpness across the frame to be very similar (at least on the meagre 24 MP of my A7III) to the highly respected and tested 24mm 1.4 GM.
To test the performance on higher-pixel density sensors, I used the lens on a Sony A6000. Note that the image was overexposed at F1.4, as the A6000 only has 1/4000s as minium shutter speed.
With the 24MP of the APSC sensor having a higher pixel density than the A7rII/III, the corners are a bit soft until f4 or f5.6 and max. center contrast is only reached at 2.8. So I would not use this lens wide open on an APSC body, if you are after corner sharpness and maximum contrast.
Decent sharpness at f1.4 even at minimum focus distance, stopping down to f2.0 increases sharpness and contrast to excellent levels, it does not get much better after that.
Vignetting is quite strong at 1.4, gets less at 2.0 and 2.8 and only in the extreme corners at f4 and pretty much absent from f5.6.
Having read quite a bit about decentering issues, I tested the lens for decentering as soon as I received it. Fortunately, it appears as if my copy is very well centered.
The main application of a fast 35 – 40 mm prime lens are environmental portraits, using the shallow depth of field to isolate the main subject and to remove distractions by blurring them out smoothly. In this respect, this lens really delivers. The smoothness of the bokeh, especially in the transition zones close to the focus plane, is a defining character of this lens. It is not easy to make a sharp and well corrected (e.g. for chromatic aberrations, CAs) 35 mm f1.4 with pleasing bokeh characteristics, as some of the lens traits needed for pleasing bokeh work against correction of optical defects such as CAs. In addition, the use of aspheric elements for higher sharpness might introduce bokeh artefacts, such as onion rings in blurred out light sources.
The lens shows both cat-eyes in the corners of the frame and onion rings, if you expose for the light sources and they are not blown out as in the image above.
To test the shape and potential artefacts within bokeh balls, I made an aperture series. Click to see full size gallery. A few observations: There is some onion-ring like structure within the bokeh balls, and there is quite some mechanical vignetting towards the image corners, which results in cat eyes at F1.4 and can lead to the effect of “swirly bokeh” with high contrast backgrounds (i.e. foliage). Bokeh balls appear evenly round throughout the frame at F2, from F2.8 to the shape starts to become nonagonal because of the 9-bladed aperture. Sunstars at smaller apertures (F11 and F16) are not very well defined. The internal structure of the bokeh balls is however not too distracting.
However, the modern Sony GM lenses have special lens elements, which can produce really clean bokeh balls as you can see in the comparison with the 24 GM below.
Below you can see a shot of some of my kids lego figures wide open using f1.4. There is very little outlining and the figures behind the focus plan just smoothly “melt” the further you get to the back. I believe this is what contributes to the 3d “pop” often associated with Zeiss lenses and which is particularly present in this one.
The rendering of out-of-focus foliage at middle distances is a very good real-world indicator for the quality of the bokeh. Below, I used the lens wide open at f1.4 and started with about 0.5 m distance to the object and then moved gradually (over a total of 5 images) further away until a distance of about 2 m was reached. The bokeh stays exceptionally smooth even at these medium distances and never gets distracting.
Electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS)
It is known that the electronic first curtain shutter can have a detrimental effect on the bokeh for very high shutter speeds, i.e. > 1/1000s, which would be typical values for shooting wide open on a sunny day. Below you can find two images, one with EFCS on and one with fully mechanical shutter to see for yourself. EFCS on yields busier bokeh, with more contrast due to more outlining around high-contrast subjects. I have placed the EFCS setting in my shortcut menu and hope that Sony introduces some sort of automatic EFCS off setting for higher shutter speeds.
The smooth bokeh helps to isolate the subject and create that 3d effect.
As a fun comparison, I have added a shot of the 24mm GM at 1.4 mounted on an A6400 (APSC sized sensor), which turns the 24/1.4 into a 35/2 equivalent many are missing in Sony’s AF FE mount lens lineup. JPEGs are in standard picture profile, but AWB, so this might have contributed to the slightly more saturated colours on the A6400 with 24 GM, however, I have noted before on the A7III that the 24mm GM is capable of producing very vibrant colours. One can note the about 1 stop difference in the blur potential when looking closely, but other than that the images are very similar. The combination of the A6400 with the 24GM weighs ~500g less than the A7III and the 35ZA, which is a lot in everyday use. It balances very nicely as well.