Updated: Feb 6
...in defence of the Sony 85mm f1.4 GMaster Lens.
Not interested in the test and just want to see the image of the pretty girl? click here Rant Warning: This is a rant warning from the author. I just read through the post and wonder what goes through my head sometimes? Too much coffee maybe? Here it is anyway :)
Just recently, I have been contributing and engaging on some photography Facebook groups. The lockdowns across the globe have seen a growth in subscriptions to these groups, and I have enjoyed interacting with newbies and salty old snappers alike. There is often lively debate about the sharpness of a given lens, especially when one Lens is compared to another. This is well intentioned, and usually courteous, however, it is often riddled with absolutes, received wisdom and opinions from the extreme end of the bell curve. This preoccupation is quite prevalent and enduring in many groups.
Some of the comments on a particular group (not a Sony Group!) were that the Sony FE85mm GMaster f1.4 Lens...
"...is not sharp by "modern standards..."
" There are sharper third party lenses..."
"It doesn't compare well with other lenses that are currently available..."
According to the Facebook group grapevine, it is due for an upgrade soon, so it has become persona non grata amongst users within the groups. Personally, I think that the upgrade will have more to do with the speed of the autofocus, as opposed to significant optical improvements as this seems to be Sony's focus at the moment (pardon the pun). This issue of sharpness came as a bit of a surprise to me, as I have been using this lens professionally for a few years now, and have never had a "soft" image from it? I would characterise myself a a salty old pro, who has been around the block a few times and I have had my fair share of poor kit. This lens does not fit into that category.
This phenomenon of bashing kit by "technical comparison" is new to me, and I must admit that it leaves me cold. Optically, the 85mm it is a work of art, that renders blended skins tones and critically sharp images.
"A rare combination indeed."
There may well be other lenses that are marginally sharper, even considerably sharper, but I wonder to what use anyone would put that sharpness? Up and coming photographers have been sold a pup on this. I cannot see the value in arguing the toss without testing in the real world...
I'm told that the auto focus hunts and that it is slow? It makes me wonder how realistic users expectations for kit it are? I simply can't find fault with it. For portraits and Llifestyle it is exemplary. I wonder if people are employing it for other uses? Maybe that's why they find fault where I cannot? The auto focus on the lens is bullet fast, with a satisfying instantaneous thud as soon as the button on the lens is pressed.
"Why are photographers preoccupied with sharpness?"
One issue today is that the world wide web has technical information about absolutely everything. There are lens performance charts and optical comparisons everywhere. They use esoteric terms like "chromatic aberration" and "edge fringing" and discuss "better quality bokeh". In reality this information has no practical use to most photographers. It's only really interesting to about 5 blokes at Cambridge University and the Optics department at Sony. All of this available information seems to blind photographers to the fact that all modern lenses are computer designed. All premium lenses, developed in the last 15 years or so, far exceed any use that 99.99999% of all photographers could possibly want, let alone see. Yes, I want better bokeh, but have I ever seen "bad bokeh"? Maybe on a VHS video camera from 1987?
Prioritising and overcoming obstacles that can ruin an image is an imperative, however, if a photographer has time to worry about quality of the bokeh that the lens will render, I would advise them to write down a new shoot priorities list and take another look at it to see how far down the list "better bokeh" comes. A simple test on any lens will reveal the quality that it can reproduce. Once you have seen that the performance of the lens in your bag can far exceed your requirement, it becomes moot that there may be a sharper lens available.
A word to the wise: "There's always a bigger fish in the sea, and there's always a sharper lens."
OK, enough talk... I thought I'd demonstrate below why I believe, for most photographers, including me, our time is better spent working on our composition and lighting and myriad other elements, as opposed to worrying if I have the sharpest available lens...
I was working on an art nude shot of Cody and I thought I'd use the result for this test, and, as an example of just how much information is recorded by a digital sensor, using a modern premium Sony lens. In this case a Sony A7R III and a Sony FE85mm GM f1.4 Lens
This is the finished Image:
Despite it being shot "wide open" @ f1.4, and despite the depth of field being super shallow. Despite the fact that it is handheld @ 1/50th of a second, because the monkey (that'll be me) set the ISO to 50 and not 100! Despite the white reflectors everywhere flattening the image, reducing the shadows, and therefore the overall image contrast, and despite that it is backlit by streaming sunshine from the window directly behind the model... Despite all of this, the lens nailed the focus on the front eye perfectly with a combination of Sony EyeAF technology and the lens button (with a some help from the IBIS in the body), and it did this for every frame. Despite all of the above, it is tack sharp for any purpose whatsoever.
This is a screen grab of a tiny portion of the image at 1:1 - 100%
Every pore on the surface of her skin is visible. Every hair on her brow is defined, as are the lashes, despite shadows being very open. The lens has rendered the eye make up, critically. The powder application on the bridge of her nose is clearly visible. You can see every imperfection and plucked eyebrow. Now, I'm sure that the sharpness could have been further improved, by shooting at f2.8-5.6. Clearly, f1.4 is not the sweet spot on this lens, but my point is that I'm not sure I've ever met a client, or a picture editor, that would consider this unsharp? I've never had a ad agency, repro house or magazine call me up and say "this image isn't suitable, as the detail is too soft... You should have used a sharper lens." We are now so far away from any issues of sharpness playing any part in the lifecycle or use of this shot that it is a non-issue. Looking at the detail and the tones that that lens has resolved and rendered reveal that they are both sublime. The lens has rendered a blended, soft, subtle look that I cannot reproduce with my other Sony GM lenses. (eg 70-200Gmaster 2.8) This is why I use this lens for portraits. This is why Sony designed and created in the first place. To do exactly this. And, this is why I recommend you buy one now if budget is not an issue. And if you have a lens that is sharper and cost less... Shoot with it and enjoy it. In the words of the great philosopher Mick Dundee, discussing which lens is sharper:
"Sounds like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog."
Note: Before posting this I returned to the .ARW file to see if I can squeeze anymore detail out of the image by using unsharp masking and I could indeed make the image sharper using these tools but I wanted to show you what can be achieved without it.
This is the full frame, uncropped image for reference: You can use this to gauge the extent of the crop above:
And, just for some fun... I thought I'd rotate one of the monitors to see how tall Cody would be when reproduced @ 1:1 on a screen used for social media...
I estimate she would be 20ft tall. Only 30ft shorter than the 50ft woman below. Tee Hee!
Trust me... The Sony 85mm GM 1.4 is tack sharp for my use, and it's tack sharp for your use too. I'd go further than this... I recommend that you test the lens that you are currently using in this way. I suspect that you'll find, in terms of sharpness, the lens in your bag, whether it is a kit lens or a premium lens, far exceeds any use that you may have for it.
But, then again, What do I know? I'm just the monkey who pushes the button.
I hope you enjoy the image of Cody - C