Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 Vario-Tessar ZA OSS Review

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As Sony expands their full frame mirrorless lineup, the system as a whole becomes more complete, and one of the key pieces of that more encompassing lineup is the first native ultra-wide-angle lens.  In this case, it’s the Carl Zeiss 16-35mm f/4 OSS, which covers a great range in a pro-grade lens for Sony’s E-Mount. The 16-35mm f/4 covers a wide focal range from ultra-wide angle to moderate wide angle, and features an optical stabilizer to aid in hand-holding. The lens isn’t cheapat $1348 US, but promises outstanding optical quality and a top-notch build. In this 16-35mm review, we’ll see whether the Zeiss name holds up to its reputation for optical excellence.

Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4

Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4

Construction and Handling

The Zeiss 16-35mm f/4 OSS is a full-frame ultra-wide angle zoom lens with optical stabilization, and as such, it’s not exactly a petite lens. In fact, there is essentially zero size and weight savings when compared to full frame DSLR ultra-wide zoom lenses. It’s also a rather dense lens, with a solid heft that oozes quality.

The FE 16-35mm with its hood

The lens barrel and external design is entirely constructed of metal (likely aluminum) and is finished with the Sony/Zeiss satin black finish. Construction quality is top-notch, with absolutely no creaks or flex anywhere in the lens body. The broad finely ribbed zoom ring is beautifully damped and has a smooth solid action when zooming. The focus ring is also wonderfully damped and silky smooth. The lens is also sealed against dust and moisture, and the overall package is definitely impressive.

The lens handles quite well on the new A7 II, which was the body used for testing the 16-35mm. While the lens and body together are a somewhat hefty package to carry, the balance is right and the excellent feel of the lens contributes to an assurance of quality. The only down side is that the lens does not stay constant in length. The lens extends about an inch during zooming and is longest at the 16mm wide-angle focal length. However, this is a minor point.

The 16-35mm f/4 OSS comes with a reversible petal shaped hood that is well constructed, but extremely short, providing rather limited coverage for the front element. I have to imagine there was more room to shade the lens given the other lenses with similar fields of view that have more substantial lens hoods.

The barrel extends towards the wide end of the zoom range

The barrel extends towards the wide end of the zoom range

Autofocus and Stabilization

The 16-35mm f/4 features a fast and silent autofocus motor that acquires focus very quickly and very accurately. I had no issues at all with the focus performance of the lens, even grabbing focus surely in lower light situations.

The lens features optical stabilization, and as I tested the lens on the A7 II, it was tested in conjunction with that body’s new in-body stabilization system, with the lens utilizing its optical sensors and element shifts, with the body picking up the other three axes of movement. While stabilization was decent, it fell short of the best stabilizers I’ve used, even among ultra-wide zoom lenses. I generally found the stabilizer was good for around two extra stops of handholdability, with around 1/5s generally yielding sharp shots at 16mm and around 1/10s for shots at 35mm. This is still rather handy, but nothing exceptional.

Image Quality

Courthouse Lines – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/8

Sharpness

The name Carl Zeiss has become synonymous with impressive lens sharpness for some time, and the 16-35mm continues that trend. I found the 16-35mm to be a very impressive ultra-wide zoom, with high image sharpness at the vast majority of settings. Central sharpness is very high straight from f/4 at the wide and middle of the zoom range, and this continues into the borders for the most part.

At all focal lengths, stopping the lens down to f/8 or so yields extremely good edge to edge sharpness and even good corner sharpness, which is quite difficult to achieve in an ultra-wide zoom. Click on the image to the right, then click on the green arrow at the bottom to view the image at full size. While falling short of the very best wide-angle prime lenses, the 16-35mm is among the sharpest ultra-wide zoom lenses I’ve had the chance to use. The only place the lens falters is wide open towards the end of the zoom range, especially at closer focus distances, where the lens produces only average resolution. Stopping down at 35mm is advisable for maximum sharpness.

Bokeh

Bokeh isn’t often discussed much in the realm of ultra-wide angle lenses, but being a full-frame lens at f/4, the 16-35mm is capable of blurring the background throughout the range when shot wide open, especially towards the long end of the zoom.

Bokeh on the 16-35mm is surprisingly nice, with a generally smooth rendering of out of focus areas with evenly lit specular highlights. I have to say that the lens produced far nicer bokeh than I was expecting, which was a very pleasant surprise. One thing to note is that the aperture stops down slightly at the wide end, even if wide open, in order to keep the lens at a constant f/4 aperture.  As such, a hint of the 7-sided aperture can be seen in the specular highlights when shooting at f/4 and 16mm.

Fenceposts - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 35mm, f/4

Fenceposts – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 35mm, f/4

Color, Contrast and Chromatic Aberration

The Zeiss 16-35mm f/4 produces images with that rich Zeiss color and contrast that the brand has become known for. Images have pop and clarity throughout the range, with only a minor falloff in contrast towards 35mm. Overall, the rendering is beautiful for landscape and architecture shooting, which will make up a large portion of many shooters uses for the lens.

In Chromatic Aberration control, the lens does fairly well, producing unobjectionable CA at the wide end and only moderate CA at the long end of the range, which is exacerbated when stopping down. Still, the CA can be corrected with modern postprocessing tools with relative ease.

Distortion, Vignetting and Flare

The 16-35mm f/4 OSS has fairly typical lens distortion for an ultra-wide zoom, with pronounced barrel distortion at the wide end and moderate pincushion distortion at the long end. Fortunately, distortion profiles are automatically applied to JPEG images and Lightroom has a built-in profile for the lens to correct the distortions for RAW files as well. The lens is sharp enough that the distortion correction doesn’t seem to affect edge resolution in any major way.

The 16-35mm also performs quite well against bright light, with minimal loss in contrast and minimal ghosting as well when the sun is included in the frame. Vignetting is fairly low at wide apertures and essentially gone by f/5.6.

Overall image quality is excellent, with only some distortion and a bit of CA to keep it from being flawless. I can’t really ask much more for an ultra-wide zoom lens.

Conclusion

The FE 16-35mm mounted on the Sony A7 II

Pros
  • Exceptional build quality with wonderful feel on the zoom and focus rings
  • Fast and accurate autofocus
  • Impressive image sharpness wide open at the wide and middle ends of the zoom range
  • Excellent image sharpness across the frame at all focal lengths when stopped down
  • Surprisingly pleasing bokeh when shot at wide apertures
  • Outstanding color and contrast throughout the zoom range
  • Minimal flare against bright light
  • Low vignetting
  • Optical stabilizer adds extra handholdability for lower light situations
Cons
  • Large and heavy lens that is as big as DSLR ultra-wide zooms
  • Some distortion present throughout the range (though easily correctable with profiles)
  • Moderate lateral chromatic aberration, especially at the long end of the zoom range
  • Underwhelming sharpness at 35mm and f/4
  • Hood provides minimal coverage
  • Expensive

The Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS is an extremely high quality ultra-wide angle zoom lens for Sony’s full frame mirrorless camera line. It produces images with excellent color and contrast and impressive image sharpness in almost all scenarios. The lens is truly built like a tank and feels wonderful to operate, but that build quality comes with a larger than hoped for size, with no reduction from a DSLR ultra-wide.  There’s really little to dislike about the lens.  There’s a little corner softness, but almost all ultra-wide zooms have some, and the 16-35 fares better than most in that department.  Overall, it’s a very sharp lens let down only by average performance at 35mm and f/4.

For landscape and architectural use, the lens sings, and the useful range makes for convenient shooting in the field.  I was very impressed with this lens, and it bodes well for future FE lenses for Sony’s very popular full frame lineup.  It is a rather pricey lens, though.  At $1350, the 16-35mm sits at a price point several hundred dollars higher than most f/4 ultra-wide-angle zoom lenses.  Other mirrorless ultra-wides are notably cheaper, with the Sony 10-18mm f/4 sitting at the $850 mark and the Fuji 10-24mm f/4 OIS at $999. This lens even costs $150 more than the brand new Canon 16-35mm f/4 IS. However, the optical quality helps justify the high price tag, as it sits near the top of the heap when it comes to ultra-wide zoom lenses.  If you like the wide angle look, this should be one of the very first lenses you buy for your A7 series camera.  It’s a marvelous optic.

Image Samples

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 28mm, f/18, 1.3s, ISO 100

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 28mm, f/18, 1.3s, ISO 100

Iced Columbus  - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 32mm, f/18

Iced Columbus – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 32mm, f/18

Huntington  - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/8

Huntington – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/8

Devil's Bathtub, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/11, 15s, ISO 100

Devil’s Bathtub, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/11, 15s, ISO 100

Statehouse Stairwell  - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/7.1, 1/5s handheld

Statehouse Stairwell – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/7.1, 1/5s handheld

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park  - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 35mm, f/18

Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 35mm, f/18

Middle Falls  - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 30mm, f/14

Middle Falls – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 30mm, f/14

Ohio Theater  - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/6.3, 1/6 sec handheld

Ohio Theater – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/6.3, 1/6 sec handheld

Ice at the Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 19mm, f/18, 0.8s, ISO 100

Ice at the Lower Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 19mm, f/18, 0.8s, ISO 100

Middle Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH - Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 29mm, f/14, 13s, ISO 100

Middle Falls, Hocking Hills State Park, OH – Sony a7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 29mm, f/14, 13s, ISO 100

Courthouse Reflections  - Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/8

Courthouse Reflections – Sony A7 II with Carl Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS @ 16mm, f/8

(admiringlight.com, http://goo.gl/U1JLFt)

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