The FE 85mm f1.4 GM – more than just a coffee machine?
– with update to the lens on the A7R III –
First of all: I chose this headline because I was annoyed by some first net-reports of my brand-new lens. Why coffee machine? More about this later and in detail – but first let's clarify what this is about at all!
In classical portrait photography you need a lens with 80 to 90mm focal length. The SONY FE 85mm / f1.4 GM is one of them. And I bought it. But this is not about a test with measured values and tables, but about my experience so far with my camera A7R. By the way, without Sony paying me for it. An important point, I think.
Basically I do not really need the lens. I like to take my portraits with 55mm or even with the 35mm lens. Especially for artistic photography, the wider angle of view is important to me, as I like to include the surroundings instead of just head portraits (some pejoratively call them "passport photos"). Besides, for "85mm" I already have the legendary PanaLeica Nocticron. Only it doesn't fit on my A7R. So if you want to be ambitious with portraits, you should definitely consider the very good Zeiss 55mm/f1.8 as well.
Anyway, with the FE 85mm I am what is called an "early adaptor". Meaning that I had already ordered it 2 months before it was released. To my great joy it came much earlier than announced. Until then I was a bit confused about reports on the net. Because due to its (alleged) loudness it was already called a "coffee grinder. And that it doesn't focus properly on the Sony A7R resp. the eye AF (eye detection) does not work at all. More on this later as well.
The unpacking was therefore tense. Unveiling such a high-end lens has something almost religious about it anyway. Supplied with a solid carrying pouch and a lens hood. I find the latter too short and thus limited in their effect. And it should also, as with the PanaLeica Noctricron, be made of metal and not plastic. This does not look really stable. Sony probably thought about the weight and the fact that the lens is not delicate anyway. At least the front edge of the lens hood is covered with rubber. That avoids ugly scratches in front in the long run. So exactly where the customer is looking in.
After the unveiling, it's time for the basic function tests as usual. The first thing I always check is the centering. I once had a lens and even a camera that were decentered. In concrete terms, one or two corners of the image are significantly blurrier than the others. In such a case, you should return the device – you will hardly be happy with it.
Sharpness like an eagle eye
But my Sony FE 85mm f1.4 GM is free of such complaints. And anyway: The sharpness is just brutally good. We don't mean the typical digital sharpness, which we are all taught by over-sharpened smartphone pictures. But a natural sharpness produced by good glass, which looks far more impressive. At least if you haven't already ruined your visual taste with just such photos from smartphones. And something else was noticed during the decentering test: Even the corners are sharp as a rat. This is not a matter of course, even with more expensive lenses. And certainly not in 35mm, also called full frame. The larger the sensor format, the more difficult it is to get unattractive effects under control. So: This lens has a dreamlike sharpness. It's one of the few lenses where I spontaneously think "hey, that's as good as it gets". Or more precisely: the sensor could have even more pixels, and the lens brings them over as well. By the way, it is already excellent at the wide open aperture f1.4. Whereby the performance here already improves with stopping down to f1.6 to f2.0 to perfection.
In any case, it is almost dramatic how well and contoured even people are shown who have been cropped out of only 20% of the image area.
In the background
But sharpness is not everything. Nowadays almost all lenses are sharp. Because unfortunately it is so that the manufacturers neglect more and more the quality of the image and trim their lenses on sharpness. Because of the test reports of course with their "lines per mm". Often the blurred background suffers from this, which is often called "bokeh" in amateur circles (at first hearing I thought it was an Indian garment). However, in classical portrait photography, cropping, i.e. separating the foreground (i.e. the person) from the background (by blurring it) is an impressive stylistic device. How strong this effect is depends on the focal length (here 85mm), the largest possible aperture (here f1.4) and also the distance to the person and the sensor format.
So with many lenses today there is an "ugly" blurred background due to sharpness optimization. This is definitely a subjective assessment. But especially with the full-frame cameras, the so popular "circles of light" in the out-of-focus background suddenly become egg-shaped at the edge of the frame. In the last consequence this often leads to a "swirl"-effect, as if the environment turns around the portrayed person. What I do not find so great. Technically, a larger front lens helps against that. And that also explains why this lens is so big. Because the "egg-formation" here is very low for full-frame conditions. Overall, the out-of-focus background is structurally as nice as with my best ZUIKO lenses. Which also applies to the so-called "chromatic aberrations", which are the ugly green and purple edges at high-contrast edges e.g. Tree branches. Here the Sony 85mm/f1.4 GM is clearly better than most of the competitors at Canon and Nikon. Even the former "king of portrait lenses" Canon 85mm/1.2L has to pass after a direct comparison of a colleague overall against the Sony.
How is that now with the autofocus? And is the lens really loud when focusing?? Until the time of arrival I have found in the whole WWW only one statement about the function on the A7R. Obviously I am the only one (?) with this lens, who did not immediately buy the expensive A7R II for it. Whereby this one has a stabilizer built in, but otherwise costs only 2000€ more. No way for me! Why Sony didn't build in a stabilizer in the first version, but one again in one or the other lens, remains a mystery.
Here are my statements. As I said, everything on the A7R:
When focusing manually, the FE 85mm f1.4 GM is quiet but audible. But I rarely do it to myself. Why? Because the autofocus is still faster than my manual focusing. The autofocus is not fast and felt a bit slower than the popular FE 55mm/f1.8.
Unfortunately the aperture is not opened when focusing. This leads to the fact that from approx. aperture 5.6 the autofocus already has to search back and forth, the so-called "hunting". Strangely enough, switching to AF-C helps. I thought at first that the AF-C would hit less precisely. But this is not the case. And that, where the AF-C of the A7R is more of a publicity stunt in itself.
Of course, it's now quite stupid to switch to AF-C at apertures above 5.6. But you don't have to – because with this lens you will mostly shoot with a very open aperture. And also with AF-S you find everything – but sometimes a bit slower. Compared to the Nocticron, which is also a very good portrait lens, the FE 85mm is much slower. Which then becomes even more difficult in dark scenes. But here, too, it is mostly hit precisely. By the way, the Nocticron is not faster then either. Also not the ZUIKO 14-35mm/f2, which also hits in low light only hesitantly.
I would not use the lens for sports and action, but that is also due to the relatively slow A7R. But that's ok, because I'm not interested in these areas. But the A7R delivers sensational images in areas THAT interest me. And that counts.
Otherwise, the AF performance is much better than I expected. I even managed a sharp shot at f2 while walking, with a person walking in front of me and backlighting in the form of the evening sun. In "realistic" situations and for stills anyway, the autofocus is absolutely usable. By the way: Even with Eye-AF it worked fine on the A7R. More on this in the update below. Overall, of course, there were misses, but there always are and no more than with other camera systems.
The handling and the saga of the "Coffee Grinder
First to the "sound": Yes, when using autofocus, you can hear it clearly in a quiet room. This is doubly noticeable in that most try the part first in the apartment and not on the fairgrounds. That's the thing about first impressions. I do not want to relativize, because in fact it is not to be ignored. By the way, if you switch to MF, it is much quieter.
Outdoors I don't notice the focus noise at all. And reports that allegedly "brides and grooms suddenly run away" and the photographer's couple returned the lens as a result, I chalk up to "stupid" given the incredibly good image quality of the FE 85mm f1.4 GM. My still very good lenses ZUIKO 35-100mm/f2 and ZUIKO 150mm/f2 are in any case louder. Also with the ZUIKO 14-35mm/f2, which is about the same size and has a linear motor like the Sony, you can hear a sound. Even if quieter. With both it sounds as if something scrapes on each other. Hence the name "Coffee Grinder. I, on the other hand, find the noise normal, because these are photo lenses – and not maglev trains. I was really negatively sharpened due to the reports in the net, but now I do not register the noise any more.
From the handling point of view the lens is quite big. The lightness of the A7R with the ingenious 35mm lens is pretty much lost. And if you have the battery grip on it, you almost have DSLR dimensions. Whereas I still recommend the battery grip for serious shooting. The pictures just get better and used you can get it cheaply. No matter if with or without grip, the combo tends to remain top-heavy. At least, during a walk through the student quarter of Ghent I got some looks for a long time, by the way quite benevolent and female ones 😉 The Belgians are on average more open-minded in matters of photographic art and not as relaxed as the Germans. Ok, what the heck: the lens is too big for system camera standards! Ironic remark (but quite true!) you can say "You are perceived as a photographer again". You can't get more compact without compromises, which you can see in the crooked pictures of many smaller lenses. Which are then electronically bent again right. Here again I say: Not my way!
Besides various switches, there is another useful detail, namely a focus-hold-button. If this is pressed, the currently set focus is retained, even if the shutter button is pressed again. You can reprogram it, e.g. on Eye AF. Great thing! Unfortunately only from the A7R II. The A7R simply lacks the menu item to configure this button. There it is again, the usual bad firmware maintenance of Sony. There are other operating deficits that Sony could easily fix. I only mention the annoying pressing of the center button before you can move the focus point. And some more, but that's not the point here.
I almost forgot another important detail, which also works on the A7R – the aperture ring. One was obligatory in analog times. With digital cameras, setting the aperture has become a fiddly camera-wheel-turning process. Positive exception here is Fuji with its lenses. The FE 85mm now has such an aperture ring. Thank you Sony, you make me happy with it! I didn't even know how great this is anymore. Portrait-shoot, turn the aperture ring on the lens, another shot, turn, shot! And that without taking the finger from the shutter release button. This is just incredibly sexy. And it looks unbelievably impressive on the portrait when the mighty aperture majestically opens and closes in the process. So turn the ring with pleasure, not only you will enjoy it.
Unpleasant side effect: Most lenses do not have this aperture ring and intuitively my hand looks for it. This looks like true love for this lens!
Times are changing
To get sharp handheld pictures on the A7R, I recommend a maximum exposure time of 1/250s. With the battery grip you can also use a bit longer times. But even without grip and with 1/100s I managed sharp pictures. But let's remember: The A7R has 36 million incredibly sharp pixels. Even the smallest shake is not forgiven here. So if you want to be safe freehand, take 1/250s or even better shorter. Since the lens subjectively lets in a lot of light, that usually works out, too. The A7R II with its stabilizer is of course in advantage here. Or just use a tripod again. Which, by the way, is what I basically intended to do when I bought the A7R. Only contemplative, calm photos with this camera. But in the meantime I do everything with this camera, which is still one of the absolute best ever.
Conclusion – so far
And this lens definitely makes it even better! If you have an A7R or compatible model and photograph people (classically), you can hardly get around the Sony FE 85mm f1.4 GM. Presumably even companies like Sigma or Tamron will not change that. Therefore I did not wait longer for anything. There is absolutely nothing to improve except for the autofocus. The indes could really hit faster!
The lens is not only great for portraits. A walk through the city of Ghent with this lens brought me again a lot of joy in photography. Such a lens you definitely want and will keep for 20 years. It's not only the super sharpness, but simply the whole impression of the picture, which is created by this. I like to call something like this "sharp and creamy at the same time".
This lens is not love at first sight. But good for a more intense and longer relationship. Go for it and you will not regret it.
Update 25. May 2016 – The tough practical test
At the weekend I had the first "serious" use with the Sony FE 85mm / f1.4 GM. More precisely, a full-day wedding reportage in Brunswick. It can hardly be harder and also this time I lost 2kg of weight. 350km drive – but every now and then I like to accept orders from further away. It broadens your horizons and it's fun to have a different backdrop for a change. In this case, noble guests, the best country inn in the area, and a gem of a castle in the most beautiful Lower Saxony countryside.
But back to the technique. Here the new lens has to prove itself without any ifs and buts. And in fact it does even better than expected in professional use. The shooting at the beautiful Richmond Castle went flawlessly. But it was best weather. But also "indoors" wonderful pictures were taken. Here, however, I used the lens less often, because the rooms are not very large and therefore shorter focal lengths are called for. Overall the lens focuses well. It pumped from time to time, but rather rarely and especially at high apertures. Only once, but in very good light, the AF didn't want to find anything at all. No idea what the reason was.
On the other hand again a plus when walking in the couple with a lot of back light. Everything sharp and the couple brightly imaged. 6 years ago there was only shadow theater with digital cameras in such light situations. The full-frame sensor of my camera also has an advantage here.
At the shooting and at the evening celebration I could use the 85mm abundantly. I have with it ca. 500 pictures taken and almost all are perfectly focused! And even the one at ISO 3200. Only at ISO 12800 (disco with very mean LED spotlights) was the end and I switched to manual focus. To be honest, this evening was the first time I really tried it out and I was surprised how easy it was to focus manually with the A7R.
While we're on the dark stuff: You would like to do portraits by candlelight? So right with 2 to 5 candela in the truest sense of the unit of measurement? This works with the Sony 85mm very well and delivers together with the A7R atmospheric pictures. Even at immorally high ISO values. Try it at your leisure – I had only the little time for a candlelight picture, when the DJ was paused.
Eye-AF ready? Yes!
Another insight: With enough light, the eye AF works perfectly when the A7R finds the eyes. But I didn't use it very often and I don't remember when. But since all pictures are ok, you can conclude that the ones with Eye-AF are ok too. Especially since I often used f1.6 or f1.7 for many group portraits, with a correspondingly very thin plane of focus. If someone stands 15cm closer to the photographer, he is already out of the plane of sharpness! The reward for moderate stopping down is the popular blur in the background and in the evening beautiful large circles of light. As already mentioned above, the motive should move however only little or not at all. The A7R is not an action camera, and with the Sony 85mm/1.4 GM it won't be any different. Addendum: The Sony 24-70mm/f2.8 GM is definitely faster with its 2 linear motors. But we are not talking about zooms here 😉
By the way group picture: I always found this task a bit exhausting so far. At least this time there was a nice staircase in front of the castle. With 85mm focal length the photographer has to move a little bit further away, almost out of calling range. And you should stop down to f8 so that everyone is in focus. But how sharp every single face on the group photo is, is simply the hammer. There you can cut a good passport photo out of any face.
After this compulsory task it is a lot of fun to shape the portraits with the aperture. Behind the castle there was a large, slightly sloping green area. With f1.4 to f2 the background was so blurred that it almost looks purely mounted. But all the more impressive for it.
I was able to provoke the "eggs" in the background highlights that I criticized further above. But very rare and not very pronounced, namely candle lights at f1.4. So open aperture, and candle lights are anyway never quite round, but elongated. So here again the all-clear and the dreaded swirl effect does not appear in any of the 500 pictures.
Looking through these pictures I notice again how sharp they are. Already with the Zeiss 55mm / 1.8 I always thought "Wow, that hardly goes better". But the 85mm GM beats even this lens. To see this you have to zoom into the image quite a bit, with web images you won't notice the difference. But I emphasize it again: Even small crops are fun to shoot. And that even at f1.4 and/or in the corners of the image. Like, you don't need sharpness in the corners because the subject is in the center anyway? Then I recommend a good photo coaching, e.g. here .
Perfectionists fade down to f2.0 with this lens. For most portraits you will have to go to larger values anyway, so that both eyes or multiple people are still in the plane of focus. Mind you, you can use the open aperture of f1.4 without any belly aches.
If you look at the pictures of the Sony wide-angle zoom, you almost shudder – even though the wide-angle delivers twice as much detail as my "old" Zuiko 7-14mm. And that has always been in the lead in all tests. All sharp stuff, but the Sony 85mm / f1.4 GM tops everything I know at the moment.
Comparison of the system giants
I already mentioned the Leica Nocticron 42.5mm / f1.2 which fits the mft system (Olympus, Panasonic). The Nocticron is currently the best lens of this system. After the first part of my post, I was asked several times how it compares to the Sony. Here are my impressions, if only to classify the Sony.
In the most important point, the image impression, both are on a par. Here you can see that uncompromisingness was the goal during development. There are definitely few other lenses besides these two that have this creaminess in the image, coupled with sharpness. The Sony seems to be slightly sharper at open aperture, regardless of the higher resolution of the A7R. But the Nocticron also does well in the group shots and shows the individual faces in detail. Especially more detailed than current zoom lenses. But you are not a convinced fan of zooms anyway, otherwise you wouldn't have read this far – or?
In the out of focus background the Sony gives me slightly larger light circles. On the other hand, the tendency to egg-shaped highlights is less with the Nocticron than it already is with the Sony. When it comes to autofocus, the point clearly goes to the Nocticron – it is always at least as fast and mostly faster than the Sony 85mm/f1.4 GM.
Other differences in the image are more system related: Sony scores in resolution, noise, dynamic range and mft in stabilization and vignetting. These parameters depend largely on the sensor format. Nevertheless: the lens decides much more about the image quality than the camera! By the way: The Nocticron also has the ingenious aperture ring. But this one doesn't work on Olympus cameras – I find that decidedly petty, when you usually invoke the common standard.
If you ask me now which system I would buy, I cannot give an answer. Because I use both 😉 I tend to get more pictures out of the Sony. But that also depends on which other lenses you use and in general, which photographic premises you have. Because we want to take pictures in the end. Both lenses play their trumps especially at open aperture. Oh, I see: With the Nocticron there is still so much left on the account compared to the Sony that you can buy a camera in addition.
There was still something?
I see, what was that about the "coffee machine"?? So the noise when focusing? Honestly: I didn't notice it once during the whole weekend after 15 hours of use. But the best is: No coffee machine makes such ingenious pictures. Not even the very most other lenses. And that is already what!