Sony FE 85mm F1.8 sample gallery and first impressions
The Sony FE 85mm F1.8 joins Sony's full-frame E-Mount lineup as the most affordable native lens that offers a short telephoto focal length. Other full-frame systems have had comparably low-cost 85mm lenses for quite a while, and it's nice to see Sony filling in some of the gaps for budget conscious users.
The FE 85mm balances superbly on Sony's a7-series bodies, and though it's no G Master lens, it feels solid enough. Focusing is silent and fairly quick (contrary to Sony's 'nifty fifty' FE 50mm F1.8), and it has excellent sharpness wide open, even well off-center. It's even sharper by F2.5, seemingly peaking by F4. Bokeh appears very smooth. There's an awful lot of purple and green fringing wide open though, as you'll see in our gallery, but this is to be expected, and is indeed common, in lightweight fast primes (they're far less distracting by F4.5). Careful software corrections might be able to take care of most of it (remember: it's lateral CA that's easy to remove, not axial), albeit typically at a cost to other areas of the image - download a few of the Raw files to see for yourself. Needless to say, we're itching for a proper shootout vs. the Batis 85mm, but having shot both, we can confidently say the FE 85 is no slouch in comparison.
Of particular interest is our observation that this lens, currently, focuses wide open* on an a7R II (or, technically, opens up to F2 if you've selected an aperture smaller than wide open). This addresses one of our largest complaints with recent Sony lens releases that focus stopped down, often slowing focus in low light or forcing otherwise capable phase-detect AF systems to revert to contrast detect-only. It appears that, at least for now, Sony's recent 100mm STF and 85mm F1.8 lenses address this issue, and without an image cost to boot: take a look at our aperture series with our LensAlign target here (please choose the option to 'Open Link in New Window'), and you'll note no focus shift as we stop down (the lens was focused once wide open, then switched to MF for the series). You can also judge problematic apertures for axial CA in this series, as well as how circular out-of-focus highlights remain as you stop down the 9-bladed aperture.
Oddly, the same doesn't hold true on other Sony bodies: the lens focuses stopped down at the shooting aperture on an a7 II, a7S, and a6300/6500. Oddly, this sometimes leads to slight front-focus at smaller apertures on those cameras, though it's not a huge deal as the focus shift is often masked by the increased depth-of-field. It's interesting from an academic standpoint though - as focusing at the selected aperture should increase focus accuracy, not decrease it. We have our hypotheses, but for now, we've reached out to Sony for comment.
*Note this only holds true for AF-S and for initial focus acquisition in AF-C, after which the lens stays stopped down, presumably to avoid having to constantly open and close the aperture during continuous drive. We still wish this weren't the case, as (1) AF-C is often useful even in Single drive mode, and (2) DSLRs are fully capable of opening and closing the aperture in between shots, even at 14 fps. There may be other nuances we're missing that explain why Sony chooses to focus stopped down, but the inconsistencies between bodies is confusing. Rest assured, we are in constant discussion with Sony engineers about this issue.
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