The 35mm focal length is a popular one, and owners of Sony full-frame camera systems have no shortage of options when shopping for a lens. There are numerous first- and third-party 35mm primes available, but the Sony FE 35mm F1.8 ($749.99) may do the best job of balancing size, optical performance, and f-stop. It costs more than some budget alternatives, like Tamron’s promising 35mm F2.8 ($349), but backs it up with solid construction and optics that capture more light.
Not Quite Pancake
The FE 35mm is a small prime, but not quite a pancake lens. It measures 2.9 by 2.6 inches (HD) and weighs 9.9 ounces, so it won’t add that much bulk to your camera. There are other small 35mm lenses available for the Sony system, like the older FE 35mm F2.8 ZA—one of first lenses released with the system in 2013—and the brand new Tamron 35mm F2.8, which we’ve only just received for evaluation.
But an f/1.8 lens captures more than twice the light of an f/2.8 when shot at its maximum aperture. It’s a cost- and weight-saving choice when compared with even brighter options, like Sony’s FE 35mm F1.4 ZA (1.4 pounds) and the Sigma 35mm F1.2 DG DN Art (2.4 pounds).
The FE 35mm isn’t a member of any of Sony’s premium lens series—it badges midrange glass with G and top-end optics as G Master (GM). But it’s still well built, with a lightweight metal barrel along with dust and splash protection. It doesn’t include fluorine protection, so you’ll need to take care to keep the front element free of smudges.
You’re less likely to fingerprint the glass if you use the included lens hood. And you have the option of adding a protective filter—the lens has a 55mm thread size. Front and rear caps are included, but no pouch or soft case.
There are a few on-lens controls. The manual focus ring occupies a good portion of the barrel, though we expect most photographers to take advantage of autofocus—the lens focuses quickly and quietly. There is a switch to quickly toggle between the two focus modes, as well as a programmable function button, both accessible using your left hand when holding the camera to your eye.
There’s no stabilization in the lens, but that’s not a surprise—Sony puts the feature into its camera bodies, with all but the earliest full-frame models offering it. It’s quite effective; with the a7R IV, I’m regularly able to snap handheld long exposure shots relying entirely on camera’s in-body stabilization.
Focus is available to 8.7 inches, which is good enough for a 1:4.2 life-size reproduction ratio. It’s not quite macro territory, but isn’t limiting either. If you love close-up focus, the Tamron 35mm F2.8 is a promising option in this focal length thanks to 1:2 magnification, but we’re holding off recommending it until we’ve had a chance to fully evaluate it.
Good Wide Open, Excellent Stopped Down
I tested the FE 35mm F1.8 along with the 60MP a7R IV and Imatest software. At f/1.8, it delivers detail that’s near the top of our good range for the camera, about 3,880 lines (we use 3,900 lines to mark very good resolution on the 60MP sensor). Edges lag slightly behind, but are still solidly very good (3,500 lines).
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Even though it’s a modest drop in f-stop, we see a sizable increase in clarity at f/2, to about 4,200 lines, right around the middle of very good for this sensor. The lens is excellent starting at f/2.8 (4,625 lines), and continuing through f/4 (4,690 lines), f/5.6 (4,875 lines), and f/8 (4,910 lines).
Diffraction cuts down on clarity at very narrow f-stops. It’s an academic concern at f/11 (4,445 lines), but you should be wary of using the lens at f/16 (3,630 lines) and f/22 (2,350 lines).
There’s a little visible pincushion distortion, about 1.1 percent, but it’s a very modest effect. Likewise, you’ll see a slight vignette at f/1.8 and f/2, but it’s not apparent at narrower apertures in most situations.
The Sensible 35mm Option
As SLRs have slimmed down into mirrorless form factors, it seems as if lenses have swelled. Photography enthusiasts have clamored for lenses that capture a ton of light, are sharp from edge to edge, and are within budgetary reach. The trade-off has been heft—you can get impeccable results, but expect the lens to add a pound or two to your kit.
In that regard, the FE 35mm F1.8 is a breath of fresh air. It’s not the only one of late—I adore the Sigma 45mm F2.8 DG DN Contemporary, which is designed with similar intent, but in a focal length that I’m personally more comfortable using. Hopefully we’ll see some more modestly bright, compact primes in the future.
It’s because of the balance in size, aperture, and general overall quality that we’re recommending the FE 35mm as our Editors’ Choice. I’d give it preference over the older Zeiss-branded FE 35mm F2.8 ZA, given the current wealth of 35mm options—when we reviewed it in 2013, it was one of only a few lenses available for the Sony system.
If you’re on a tighter budget, there are some other 35mm options to consider. Rokinon sells a pair, an ultra-light 35mm F2.8 and a budget-friendly 35mm F1.4. Tamron is also starting to ship its 35mm F2.8, which has a lot of appeal as a low-cost option on paper—we’ll see how it performs in the real world and report back.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can go with a premium f/1.4 or f/1.2 option. The heavy Sigma 35mm F1.2 Art manages as much detail at f/1.2 as the FE 35mm F1.8 does at f/2.8, and puts up a few hundred more lines on a test chart when stopped down. But unless you’re viewing images from a high-resolution camera system at very high magnification, there’s little chance you’ll be able to tell the shots apart based on sharpness.