Pretty much everyone agrees that Sony's A7-series cameras are brilliant, especially given that they're the pioneers in a brand-new genre of cameras. What's not so brilliant, however, is the range of lenses available for the fledgling system.
At launch, just four lenses were available: two expensive Zeiss primes, a Zeiss 24–70mm f/4 normal zoom, and a Sony-branded "kit" zoom, the 28–70mm f/3.5–5.6. It was pretty slim pickings for anyone who wasn't bringing along a collection of legacy glass. Since then, Sony has launched the 70–200mm f/4 G OSS and announced the development of four other lenses including a macro and a 24–240mm superzoom.
But Sony has also outed the brand-new Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* 16–35mm f/4 ZA OSS (MSRP $1,349.99), which aims to give A7 early adopters a powerful yet lightweight tool for capturing landscapes, architecture, and even extreme sports. It's expected to hit store shelves in mid-November, but we got our hands on it ahead of schedule at Photokina 2014.
Look and Feel
Solid as a rock
Most Sony FE lenses feel like they're worth every penny of their not inconsiderable price tags. The new 16–35mm zoom is no exception. The body is made of metal (including the zoom and focus rings), it has a pleasant heft, and it feels like it's meant to be used—not just put on a shelf and admired.
Though you can't tell from outward appearances, the 16–35mm is also dust- and weather-sealed. That said, it's anyone's guess whether the camera you mount it to will be.
The visceral impact of the Zeiss badge on the side may be a little watered down at this point thanks to the optics giant's overzealous co-branding of everything from webcams, to phones, to security cameras, but this one exudes quality. Inside are 12 elements in 10 groups, including 5 aspherical elements. One of those is an "advanced aspherical" piece, and three are ED glass elements. It takes a lot of special glass to prevent outlandish distortion when you're shooting at 16mm on full-frame.
At a little over a pound (18.3 oz), the 16–35mm f/4 certainly isn't featherlight, but it felt well-matched to the Alpha A7S it was paired with at Sony's booth. The zoom action was buttery smooth, and the manual focus feel, while far from that of a traditional Zeiss manual focus prime, was more than acceptable for the class.
This isn't a Power Zoom lens, so there aren't any buttons or levers anywhere on the lens body—it's a simple, purpose-built tool, and to that end it performs admirably.
Through the Finder
Quality throughout, but watch those edges
On the Sony show floor at Photokina, my choice of subjects was a bit limited, but I was still able to take some early impressions away with me. (Sadly, I wasn't allowed to keep any photos to back them up.)
Sony claims the 16–35mm f/4's exotic glass is intended to counter distortion, and for the most part it seems to do an admirable job. Through the A7S's EVF, I could make out some slight curvature toward the edges of the frame at 16mm, but for the most part straight lines stayed straight. My coworker's head, however, doubled in height. (Be careful with wide-angle lenses and portraiture, guys!)
Optical SteadyShot stabilization (OSS) worked well, keeping both the EVF stabilized and images sharp. Images in playback certainly didn't want for fine detail, though it's worth noting that everything tends to look great through the A7S's brilliant OLED EVF. Zooming in to 35mm and keeping the aperture at f/4, I was able to produce some decently smooth bokeh, but this definitely isn't a portrait photographer's dream lens.
Autofocus was impressively quick, though not as blazing fast as we've seen from some other mirrorless camera/lens combos, including Sony's own A6000 and its kit lens. Even on a rather dim show floor, the camera had no trouble locking focus on distant subjects.
The minimum focus distance of 11 inches (throughout the entire zoom range) is perfectly acceptable, though nothing mindblowing. Still, it's closer than the Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm f/2.8 can get, and up-close shots looked very crisp indeed.
Expensive? Sure. Worth it? Seems likely.
Ultimately, any new addition to the FE mount family is going to be welcomed with open arms by A7 shooters, purely thanks to the lack of available options. But the Zeiss 16–35mm f/4 ZA seems to be more than just another lens; it feels like one any system would be happy to have.
The $1,350 asking price is on the high side (as are all of the current FE lenses) but it's actually only a little bit more expensive than Nikon's own 16–35mm f/4 VR, for instance. And that lens is comparably massive and made of plastic.
We'll have to reserve final judgment on the lens's optical quality until we can test one under lab conditions, but everything we saw at Photokina points toward a winning combination of build and image quality—something Sony's full-frame E-mount users have come to expect.