Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 G-Master lens SEL85F14GM
Being a short telephoto prime lens, the FE 85mm f/1.4 GM is designed primarily for portraiture.
Optically and mechanically, this lens is certainly a very good performer and one of the best lenses we’ve tested to date. It is capable of delivering very sharp images at virtually any aperture setting and will focus very quickly and accurately.
When Sony announced a new range of ‘G Master branded lenses on 3 February 2016, they created a flurry of excitement through the imaging press. The FE 85mm f/1.4 GM (model SEL85F14GM) lens is the first in the line to be released and it’s likely to be of particular interest to portrait photographers since, according to Sony, it ‘strikes a perfect balance between resolution and bokeh’.
Sony’s new FE 85mm f/1.4 G-Master lens, shown without the supplied lens hood. (Source: Sony.)
The optical design of this lens is complex for a prime lens, with 11 elements in 8 groups. Among them are three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) and one XA (eXtreme Aspherical) elements which, again according to Sony, ‘work together to ensure that the in-focus areas are captured in extremely high resolution while the surrounding out-of-focus areas dissolve smoothly into a beautiful soft backdrop’. Sony’s Advanced Nano AR Coating has been applied to minimise flare and ghosting.
The iris diaphragm (which controls lens apertures) has eleven blades, an unusually high number and the most ever used in a Sony lens. These close to produce a smooth circular aperture, which makes it easier to deliver smooth rendering of out-of-focus areas in scenes.
Autofocusing is driven by a ring SSM (super-sonic motor) system plus two position sensors that together control the motion of the large, heavy focus group of elements within the lens. All focusing is internal so the lens doesn’t extend and the front element doesn’t rotate when focus is adjusted.
Another feature of this lens is dust and moisture resistance, which enables it to be used in challenging environments and makes it an ideal partner to Sony’s α7 camera bodies that have similar characteristics. A dedicated aperture ring provides direct manual control over aperture settings and users can opt for silent aperture switching while shooting movies.
The lens is supplied with the usual front and end caps plus a cylindrical lens hood and a soft carrying pouch. The hood attaches via a bayonet mount and has a locking mechanism that keeps it in place but makes it easy to remove when required. It can be reversed over the lens for transport and storage.
Who’s it For?
As indicated, this lens is designed primarily for portraiture. Being a short telephoto prime lens it’s not versatile enough for general photography and a bit limited for shooting sports and wildlife.
Its minimum focusing distance of 80 cm makes it largely useless for close-up work, unless the subjects are moderately large (or the lens is used on a camera with a 23.5 x 15.6 mm sensor, where the effective focal length becomes equivalent to 127.5mm). Nor is it suitable for use as the only lens for travellers.
Its high price tag (more than $2750) puts it out of reach of most hobbyists so the main buyers will almost certainly be specialist portraitists who use Sony’s α7 cameras. And they’re likely to be impressed.
Build and Ergonomics
Although Sony describes this lens as ‘compact’, it’s actually quite large and moderately heavy. Without the hood, we measured it at just under 110 mm in length, with a girth of almost 90 mm and a weight of 820 grams.
Attaching the supplied lens hood increases the length of the lens by about 45 mm. (Source: Sony.)
To attach the hood you must align the red dot on its trailing edge with the red line near the leading edge of the lens barrel, This increases the length by about 45 mm and the weight by 54 grams. The total weight including the lens hood and both caps is 905 grams; adding the carry pouch takes it 65 grams over a kilogram. (The pouch has a belt loop and removable shoulder strap and is more solidly built than average.)
Sony doesn’t list the materials used in the lens construction in its specifications, by going by the tear-down findings of the Lens Rentals team (links provided below), the outer and inner barrels of this lens are made from heavy-duty polycarbonate. They concluded the lens was ‘really solidly assembled’ and out subjective assessment confirmed it felt that way, too.
The focusing ring is 25 mm wide and located 15 mm behind the front edge of the filter thread, which has the bayonet mount for the lens hood on its outer side. A red dot between the end of the bayonet and the start of the focusing ring is there to help you align the hood so it clips into place.
Approximately 20 mm of the front of the focusing ring is covered with fine ridges, which provide a secure grip. The ring turns through 360 degrees when the camera is switched off because there’s no mechanical linkage between the ring and the focusing element. Focusing is ‘by wire’ (i.e. electronically driven) with gear that turns an electrical actuator or position sensor.
Behind the focusing ring is a 20 mm wide fixed section of the outer barrel. Around the left hand side of this section you’ll find the focus hold button and the AF/MF switch. Manual focusing in the AF mode is not supported because the mechanism that drives it is not engaged in AF mode (which drives focusing electronically).
The focus hold button lets you set focus in AF mode by half-pressing the shutter button and keep it by holding down the focus hold button while re-composing your shot. It’s particularly useful on fast lenses like the SEL85F14GM.
The aperture ring slots in behind this section of the barrel. It’s 14 mm wide, with a 7 mm wide band of ridging around its trailing edge. In front of the ridges are the aperture settings, stamped in white numbers along the leading edge of the ring with full f-stops identified numerically and intervening 1/3EV stops by lines.
When shooting with the camera’s Auto and P modes, the aperture ring should be set to the A position (left of the f/16 mark) to engage auto aperture control, although this actually happens electronically inside the camera by default. Consequently, you can’t over-ride the auto aperture control in P mode by turning the aperture ring.
Around the right hand side of the fixed section of the outer barrel is the Click on-off switch that lets you shift between audible clicks as you adjust aperture settings and de-clicking the aperture to make adjustments noise-free. This switch is easily reached by your left hand fingers when you’re cradling the lens.
The lens barrel slopes inwards for about 20 mm immediately behind the aperture ring before straightening out for a final 20 mm run down to the lens mount. A cinnabar-coloured branding ring is located at the junction between the lens and the camera body.
We tested the review lens on a Sony α7 Mark II camera, which has an effective resolution of 24.3 megapixels. We reviewed this camera in April 2015 and found it to perform well with a lens that was lower-specified than the FE 85mm f/1.4 GM lens.
The α7 Mark II’s sensor gave the review lens an opportunity to shine and it performed extremely well in our Imatest tests. NOTE: All in-camera corrections were switched off for our Imatest tests.
Imatest showed resolutionmatched expectations in the centre of the frame at the widest lens aperture and exceeded expectations for JPEG files by a substantial margin both in the centre of the field. The highest resolution was achieved when the lens was stopped down to f/3.5. Small differences between centre and edge resolution persisted throughout the aperture range, although they were greater at the widest apertures, as expected. The graph below shows the results of our Imatest tests.
Lateral Chromatic aberration remained well down in the ‘negligible’ range at all lens aperture settings and we found no evidence of coloured fringing in any test shots. In the graph of our Imatest results below, the red line marks the border between negligible and low CA.
We took most of our shots with the Single-shot AF mode, using the Centre and Flexible Spot area modes. Face detection was switched off, even for portrait shots.
With these settings, the linear SSM system and internal focus mechanism provided fast, quiet and accurate autofocusing for shooting both stills and movie clips, regardless of the shutter speed or aperture settings used. Setting the Click lever to the ‘off’ position slightly reduced AF speeds but had no other impacts on performance.
We tried the lens out in different kinds of lighting and with static and moving subjects and found it great for quick panning shots. Switching between auto and manual focusing was easy and intuitive.
When the in-camera corrections were switched off, we found obvious vignetting at wide aperture settings. Switching them on mostly corrected the problem. The potential for vignetting is acknowledged in the instruction sheet supplied with the lens, which notes: When using the lens, the corners of the screen become darker than the center. To reduce this phenomena (called vignetting), close the aperture by 1 to 2 stops.
Very slight pincushion distortion could be discerned in test shots. But it was so small it would be unlikely to affect even architectural photographs taken with the lens, as shown by some shots in the Samples section.
The supplied instructions advise users to remove the lens hood and shoot at least one metre from the subject when using a flash. They also cautioned that: certain combinations of lens and flash “¦ may partially block the light of the flash, resulting in a shadow at the bottom of the picture. We were unable to test the lens with a flash since the camera doesn’t have one.
The quality of the bokeh (out-of-focus softening) was much as we expected and generally very smooth at wide apertures. The term ‘buttery’ is often used to describe smooth transitions and it could be appropriate for describing them in test shots where tones were evenly distributed.
Bright out-of-focus highlights tended to stand out from the smooth background blur. They were circular shape with smooth transitions between outer and inner areas. Traces of outlining could be seen around some bright blurred highlights. We found no evidence of bokeh fringing, a common characteristic with fast lenses, which manifests as halos that change from magenta in front of the focus point to green beyond.
Optically and mechanically, the FE 85mm f/1.4 GM is certainly a very good performer and one of the best lenses we’ve tested to date. It is capable of delivering very sharp images at virtually any aperture setting and will focus very quickly and accurately as well. Our main reservation about this lens is its price, which is high (even for a lens with premium performance).
Based in the US, the Lens Rentals website has carried out more detailed technical tests. Unlike Photo Review, which receives one copy of each review product, Lens Rentals tests multiple copies (generally 10 at a time) and they have a variety of similar lenses on hand to compare them with. You can find two postings on the Lens Rentals blog site. The first, posted on 11 April, looks at MTF tests of the lens, comparing results with three other well-known 85mm f/1.4 lenses: The Zeiss ZE 85 f/1.4, Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-S, and Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4. The second, posted a day later, takes a lens apart step-by-step to investigate claims the lens made ‘ horrible grinding noises when focusing, were filled with metal shavings, had huge scrapes on their inner barrels’ (it also added ‘and caused cancer’ to suggest the absurdity of these claims).
We haven’t noticed any untoward noises in the course of our tests, beyond the anticipated fair burr as the AF motor operates. And even that becomes barely detectable when the camera is switched to movie mode. (FWIW most of the claims made in online forums should be taken with capacious amounts of salt.)
Sony has this lens listed on its local website at AU$2999 and it was tagged “Currently out of stock” when we posted this review. Free shipping is available to local purchasers and you can register interest by clicking on the Buy Now tab in the online store.
Although the lens was scheduled for release in March, few Australian re-sellers had the SEL85F14GM listed on their websites when we published this review. Their prices ranged between AU$2549 and AU$2798. The US-based re-seller B&H, which markets aggressively into Australia, has the lens listed at US$1798 ($2 less than the MSRP), which translates into AU$2321.58 at current conversion rates (as of 19 April, 2016).
But to that you must add between AU$55 and AU$70 for shipping and AU$280.30 for tax, which totals up to AU$2656.88 at the lowest shipping cost. At that price, it seems more sensible to shop locally since the small savings you might make (depending on currency movements) won’t compensate for the immediate satisfaction of having your lens immediately and knowing it’s in pristine condition.
Picture angle: 29 degrees
Minimum aperture: f/16
Lens construction: 11 elements in 8 groups (including 3 ED, and a XA lens element)
Lens mount: Sony FE-mount (for 35 mm full frame cameras)
Diaphragm Blades: 11 (circular aperture)
Focus drive: SSM (Super Sonic wave Motor) ring drive with dual sensors
Minimum focus: 80 cm (manual focus), 85 cm (AF)
Maximum magnification: 0.12x
Filter size: 77 mm
Dimensions (Diameter x L): 89.5 x 107.5 mm
Weight: 820 grams
Standard Accessories: Lens front and end caps, hood (ALC-SH142), lens case, printed instruction sheet
Based upon JPEG files taken with the Sony α7 Mark II camera.
Vignetting at f/1.4.
ISO 100, 1/40 second at f/1.7.
ISO 100, 1/60 second at f/1.4.
ISO 100, 1/200 second at f/9
Crop from the above image at 100% magnification showing no coloured fringing.
Backlit subject; ISO 100, 1/3200 second at f/1.6.
Backlit subject; ISO 100, 1/2000 second at f/1.6.
Strong contre-jour lighting; ISO 100, 1/1000 second at f/2.8.
ISO 100, 1/2000 second at f/1.4.
ISO 100, 1/250 second at f/2.
ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/11.
ISO 100, 1/20 second at f/8.
ISO 100, 1/200 second at f/5.6.
ISO 100, 1/50 second at f/4.
ISO 100, 1/100 second at f/2.8.
ISO 100, 1/30 second at f/4.5.
ISO 200, 1/125 second at f/5.
ISO 200, 1/160 second at f/2.
RRP: AU$2999; US$1800
- Build: 9.2
- Handling: 9.0
- Image quality: 9.2
- Versatility: 8.5