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ZEISS LOXIA 35/2 ON SONY A7R BODY - REVIEW


Zeiss Loxia 35/2

WHY A LOXIA 35/2?


I've now owned Sony A7 series cameras for over a year, including the A7, A7r and A7s. It is my opinion that at present Sony are producing some of the best (the best?) sensors in the digital photography market.

The first lenses I acquired for the A7 series were the Carl Zeiss FE 55/1.8 and Voigtlander CV Ultron 21/1.8. Both are excellently performing lenses on all A7 cameras - and the use of the manual, M-mount CV Ultron emphasises that they are also useful full frame platform.

My only disappointment in the last year has been the lack of a really good 35mm prime lens from the Sony product line. I tried the FE 35/2.8 but I found it a distinctly unappealing lens and I sold it very quickly. It produced superbly sharp snapshot images but coming from a period when I was almost exclusively using Medium Format film cameras I found the output of the FE 35/2.8 completely underwhelming. There was no character at all.

Most of my work is urban landscapes and while I do use the 21/1.8 extensively I also rely on 35mm for the majority of my shots. In fact, I have often joked that if someone made a 35mm lens with a fixed f8 aperture that would be enough for me. So, a lack of a really good 35mm lens was a limiting factor for me.

Click for full size file First 'wall test' Loxia 35/2 iso800 f5.6 1/400 - click for larger file

As I was already using the M-mount lens in the CV Ultron I decided to try a Leica C-Summicron 40/2 and the results were immediately much more suited to my liking. Colour, luminosity, character all started appearing in my images. I was so impressed that I took the plunge and bought another staple Leica M mount lens, the Summicron 35/2 (Version III). Again, I have absolutely no complaints with this lens which creates some fantastic results - also full of character, draw, colouration and sharpness.

I might well have stopped there were it not for the announcement of the Zeiss 35/2 Loxia.

The Zeiss Loxia series are dedicated prime manual lenses with the electronic couplings to pass EXIF data to the camera and to drive focus magnification automatically - which is one of the great strengths of the A7 series.

Now, I could quite happily continue to shoot with my forty-odd year old Leica M-Summicron 35/2 as it will give any modern optic a run for its money but I will confess to two major drawbacks. Firstly, I find the aperture and focus rings fiddly in the extreme. I don't have particularly big hands but I have to take the camera from my face and often look at the lens to ensure I am still on the aperture I have set. And of course I have to select focus magnification from one of the buttons I dedicate from the back of the camera. There is no EXIF data at all. Again, having come from film I was used to this kind of 'lack' of information so for me it was a nag but no big deal.

The idea of a manual lens manufactured in a Sony E-mount dedicated to the Alpha 7 series is always going to be of interest to me.

A week ago my favourite UK camera store indicated that it had the Zeiss Loxia 35/2 in stock and I must admit it was one of those occasions where the plastic flew out of my wallet and onto the order form. For good measure I also bought a Zeiss T* 52mm UV filter and in anticipation of what I will do with the lens over time, a 52mm adapter ring for my Lee Seven5 filter system.

FIT AND FINISH

I don't get particularly worked up about packing and unboxing so I'll skip that section of the review. You can see what the lens looks like mounted on my Sony A7r (above).

The fit and finish of this lens is of a very high quality. For me, the bar to beat is any Leica lens and the Zeiss certainly equals, if not betters that. The lens claims to be dust and moisture sealed and this is achieved by a distinctive blue rubber outer ring. How this will stand up over time remains to be seen but it is a nice feature to have.

The focus on the lens is described by others as 'buttery' and I really cannot think of a better term. The aperture ring is not as definite as I would like but is clicked in 1/3 stops. There is the ability to make the lens 'stepless' by turning a screw in the mount but this has very little interest for me and I haven't tested it (it is designed for video use).

All in all this is a package which on the face of it deserves its asking price but for one important omission. A lens case! Come on Zeiss, this really should be part of the price - and I cannot even find one as an accessory.

FOCUSSING

As promised as soon as the focus ring is turned the viewfinder turns into focus magnification mode. Note, as soon as it is turned. If like me you are almost permanently on f8 and infinity then this is not apparent. However, what is apparent is the readout in the viewfinder which shows aperture selected. A very useful feature in my experience for a manual focus lens. Aperture confirmation means that if the ring is accidentally moved you can immediately reset it without taking the camera from your eye.

IN USE

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I am not one who is particularly fond of kit for its own sake. I don't really care what it looks like because my interest is what it does.

I've only been able to use the lens on a single day and in early morning and late afternoon light. These are my normal working conditions when doing urban landscape photography. My usual beat is around Spitalfields and Whitechapel in the East End of London.

All my photographs are shot in RAW and then imported into Lightroom 5. I have applied the lens profile for the Loxia which already exists in Lightroom. In all cases I will have adjusted white balance or I may have lifted shadow areas. In some cases (where indicated) I have further processed the photograph in Color Effex 4 where I have created some recipes. Where indicated you can click through to a full size JPEG.

The photograph below is taken at the typical working aperture (for me) of f8. In all the samples I have so far looked at in detail at f8 the lens is very sharp from edge to edge. Working with the high resolution sensor of the A7r yields wonderful detail and the image will stand up well to cropping. This is pretty much straight out of the camera with a small amount adjustment in LR as explained above but no further post-processing.

Click for full size file Quaker Street, Spitalfields back of the old Truman Brewery, Loxia 35/2 iso500 f8 1/60 - click for larger file

It is immediately apparent to me that the Loxia 35/2 draws light beautifully. I must admit to being a 'Leica-snob' and to me the M-Summicron 35 sets a high bar for other lenses to reach. I am very pleased with these captures which seem to preserve the delicacy of early morning spring light.

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Runner, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, Loxia 35/2 iso800 f8 1/160 - click for larger file

At full size the sharpness of the image betrays the fact that the lens is manual focus. Between hearing the runner behind me and framing the shot I forgot to focus and I afterwards I noticed that the lens was not set to infinity, which at f8 should have produced good sharpness throughout the frame. This is one of the dangers of working in a mixed environment of both AF and manual lenses. However, I still think that as a capture it works because even in print up to A3 it should appear focussed - just not so for pixel peepers.

The next two photographs demonstrate the quality of the lens wide open at f2 and then stopped down to f5.6. This was done more as an exercise to see what difference in landscape shooting wide open versus stopped down would make. Once again, these are shots pretty much straight out of the camera with only cropping and minor adjustments to shadow and highlights.

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Lone Tree and Overground Train, Spitalfields, Loxia 35/2 iso800 f2 1/2000 - click for larger file

Here is the same shot taken a few minutes earlier at f5.6 (note: both were shot hand-held)

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Lone Tree and Overground Train #2, Spitalfields, Loxia 35/2 iso800 f5.6 1/1000 - click for larger file

I must admit by this point in my usage of the Loxia 35/2 I was sold. Handling is ideal for an A7 size camera. The lens barrel is a good size and in proportion to the camera. It is a heavy lens but it does not appear to overwhelm the body and make it front heavy. Holding the camera and lens it fits perfectly into my hands. The focus ring is the right size and although the aperture ring, like most manual lenses is slimmer after a while I began to find the ridged area and move it easily. The feedback in the viewfinder of aperture selected is a very useful feature. Automatic change to magnification as the aperture ring is turned is the icing on the cake - although be aware it only brings up the first level of magnification (as far as I can tell) and not the second higher level of magnification for which you still have to use the button you have set this feature to.

From here on I was largely shooting for myself and not for purposes of testing out the lens.

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From a series on 'hidden Whitechapel' Loxia 35/2 iso200 f2 1/1000 -1.3eve

This is straight out of the camera with no adjustment at all. Focus was on the centre of the frame which is the edge of the headstone

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Headstones, Brady Street Cemetery, Loxia 35/2 iso64 f2 1/400 -0.3ev - click for larger file

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Leopard Skin Beetle, Loxia 35/2 iso2500 f8 1/1000 -0.3ev - click for larger file

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Another Wall Test, Sclater Street Spitalfields, Loxia 35/2 iso640 f8 1/200 - click for larger file

The last two photographs were both post processed in Color Effex 4 according to a personally developed recipe. I include them to show how in the real world I would manipulate an image and what I expect to create from a lens and camera.

I particularly look for how well diffuse light is reproduced in an image and whether I can tease out glass reflections which look authentic. I believe the Loxia and the A7r combined do a great job with this.

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Go Go Philip, Sclater Street Spitalfields, Loxia 35/2 iso800 f16 1/125 -2.3ev

A final shot of the day, with similar post-processing to the one above.

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Sclater Street Spitalfields, Loxia 35/2 iso640 f8 1/500

FINAL THOUGHTS

In a nutshell - the Loxia 35/2 and the A7r (inasmuch I haven't tested it on any other camera) were made for each other.

First and foremost to me in any lens has to be image quality and the Loxia demonstrates that it draws light beautifully and is capable of creating maleable images which can be shown 'as-is' or post processed further. It is a true professional-class optic and will reward the user (and myself, specifically) with many fine images.

It is also a benefit that the ergonomics of this lens are well thought out - which is a trademark of Zeiss optics generally. The fit and finish of the lens is first class. The operation of the lens is the same. It sets a new high benchmark for other third party manufacturers developing manual (and even AF) lenses for Sony Alpha cameras.

It is hard to think of drawbacks. The obvious one is the price. This is not a cheap lens by a long chalk. The asking price places it in the band of professional class lenses but it does deliver on that front. Indeed, the original asking price of its stablemate, the Carl Zeiss FE 35/2.8 was also steep and I am afraid to say did not and even at a lower price point justify this when considering image character. Another point is that I think it is a bit mean of Zeiss not to include some form of lens case - even a soft one with this lens.

Of course, I would ideally like a Zeiss optic of this quality with AF as is the case with the excellent FE 55/1.8 with which this compares on an equal footing.

To my mind at present there is no other choice for a first class FE-mount 35mm field of view lens for the Sony Alpha cameras.

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