Here’s my dilemma-slash-privilege: meet my two favorite lenses.
Those would be the Zeiss ZM 35mm f/2.0 Biogon and 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar. To my eye, they are the among the greatest lenses ever made, lenses that are excellent, small, lightweight, and fast. Bonus: they’re probably the best-handling lenses you can buy.
There’s only one thing wrong with them: they go on a film camera.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the look of film. But I also like shooting over ISO 250 sometimes. Or changing ISO on the fly. Or shooting in color without pulling my hair out. Or getting photos into Lightroom without having to scan them first, a time-consuming and tedious barrier.
But I really do love those lenses. I don’t get tired of looking at images made with them. So if I could use them on a digital camera somehow, that’d be super.
Leica makes digital rangefinders that can use these lenses, but they cost $8,000 dollars. Nope.
There are adapters to use these lenses on other mirrorless digital cameras, but those cameras typically have smaller image sensors than 35mm film. So, for example, on a Fujifilm X camera with an adapter, my 35mm and 50mm would behave like a 53mm and a 75mm, respectively. Not the end of the world, but not what they were designed for, either.
Enter Sony’s new-ish A7 with a film-sized image sensor and the ability to stick my lenses in front of it (with an adapter).
For most of this year I’ve been lusting after the A7 (or its high-ISO specialist sibling, the A7S). It’s pretty nice: well-built, highly customizable. The sensor is excellent.
I had some handling concerns with the A7, but nearly all of them appear to have been addressed with the just-released A7II.
First up, while the A7 isn’t an ergonomic disaster, when I was holding one I found myself wanting a bigger hand grip and an easier reach to the shutter and front command dial.
Second, in my experience setting these up for shooting with adapted lenses, I always ended up juuuuuust one custom button short. Like I could assign one button to set the peaking sensitivity, but I would end up without another button free to change the peaking halo color. That sort of thing.
Sony could do the right thing and clean up their menus and options to combine related commands like that. Or, let’s look at that top plate again…
Oh, look, the A7II has one more custom button.
Third, the A7II adds image stabilization to the camera, a massively useful addition.
Because of the light weight and high pixel count, the original A7 punishes sloppy hand-holding technique. The ol’ 1/focal shutter speed rule doesn’t cut it for me. With a 50mm lens, I was much safer with 1/125 or 1/250 to keep the shakes under control.
But if you’re using auto ISO, Sony doesn’t let you do something useful like set a minimum shutter speed; the camera defaults to 1/60, which is too risky. So I have to watch the shutter speed obsessively and toggle between Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority depending on how much I need to control it. It’s not the worst thing, but it’s a hassle. It reminded me of the extra cognitive load of the hybrid viewfinder in the Fujifilm XPro1.
(This is why I was looking hard at the A7S: the lower pixel count and ability to boost the ISO with impunity made me look like a better technical photographer than I am. On the other hand, 12MP won’t even fill an iMac retina screen now.)
With the A7II, I’m hoping that the stabilization will claw back at least those 2-ish stops and make this problem mostly moot for non-moving subjects.
The one big thing holding me back is the name on the camera.
It’s a Sony, which means when it comes to native lens selection, I’m in for a bumpy ride.
Yeah, yeah, I mostly want something for my rangefinder lenses, but, hey, it’s an expensive camera and sometimes autofocus is nice.
Compared to full-frame Nikon/Canon DSLRs, the Fujifilm X lineup, or especially Micro4/3, the Sony FE lens selection is, uh, lacking.
They now have a set of f/4 zooms from 16mm–200mm, but I don’t particularly like zooms. Nothing against them, but I find that I think more clearly and take better pictures with primes. Also: big.
So that leaves a whopping two lenses. 35mm f/2.8 and 55mm f/1.8. Since I have the best 35mm lens already, I’m not so interested in the 35/2.8.
So, a whopping one lens. About the 55/1.8 though: in my time with one, it is a jaw-dropping lens. Very nearly flawless.
I could use a wider lens, but in reality I’m going to grab my Ricoh GR for that.
So the other lens I’d want would be a short telephoto. The announced 90mm/2.8 macro looks nice but also too big. I could get a ZM 85mm f/4 and use the same adapter as my other lenses. Maybe the Sony A-mount 85mm f/2.8 on a different adapter? I suppose I could put the 55/1.8 on an A6000 where it will behave like an ~83mm. Maybe Sony will announce a native 85mm f/2-ish someday?
Experience has shown that with Sony, this is a dangerous way to think.
As always with Sony, watch it with the lenses…make sure the lenses you want exist, and that you can afford them. I invested in a Zeiss 24mm for my NEX–6, but it’s waaay overpriced. The lenses for this camera are an utter hodgepodge, as if Sony just completely gave up. You can build a good lens kit for it, but it can be far from a simple task. […] I think one of the reasons people liked the NEX–7 so much is that we assumed Sony was going to do the reasonable thing and provide a lens line for the NEX series; now we know better. It had no such plans. There wasn’t even a meeting.
Our standard advice for Sony is the same as for Kyocera’s old Contax (for which Zeiss also made lenses): make sure the lenses and accessories you want already exist and are offered for sale, and do not count on any particular lenses, even specifically promised ones, actually appearing at any time in the future. You have been warned! Sony is not a system camera company.
But if you can deal with that, oh boy are these things wonderful.
This is the problem with Sony. They’ll probably never address usability issues with their cameras via firmware, they’ll announce new lenses in nonsensical, seemingly random order, the lenses they do release will probably be overpriced, and they’re very likely to drop all development and chase some newer shiny thing. They’re the anti-Fujifilm.
If I start thinking about building a complete system around Sony cameras, Sony will leave me hanging. I’ll spend too much time on rumor sites looking for hints about whatever lens I need that will probably never come. They’ve probably already decided to stop supporting the barely-year-old A7. Makes me sweat a little.
On the other hand, how much of a system do I need, anyway? If I start thinking I need a “complete” system, I could just assume Sony is never going to deliver and look literally anywhere else.
On the other other hand, it’s expensive and I hate to spend so much on something Sony is unlikely to support in a sensible way.
On the other other other hand, there’s nothing else cheaper that’d let me use my rangefinder lenses.
This is why it’s been in and out of my shopping cart ten times this month. I wish Sony made this easier.