Many photographers choose the Sony MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera) platform because of the compact size of these also-high-performing cameras. But, not all high-performing Sony FE lenses have the comparably-similar compact size. The Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens does and it is a great option when a wide aperture is needed at an extremely popular, "normal" or "standard" focal length. This is a sharp, fast-focusing lens that is very well-built, including weather sealing.
I just completed the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 Lens review. While these are quite different lenses in some respects, they are similar in others. I'll borrow the description of some of those similarities for this review.
Let's find out if you should add this lens to your kit.
No matter how amazing a lens is, it is not the right choice if the focal length isn't optimal for the intended use. And, when the lens has only one focal length available (it doesn't zoom), getting the focal length right is even more critical. The focal length determines the angle of view which determines the subject distance required for the desired framing and the resulting distance from the subject determines the perspective, an important image quality factor. Fortunately, the 55mm focal length is perfect for a wide range of uses.
The 50mm focal length is the wildly-popular one, but the 55mm angle of view is only slightly narrower and has the identical great number of uses.
On a full frame body, a 55mm focal length appears very natural, approximating how we perceive a scene with our own eyes in field of view and perspective terms. In the film days, a 50mm lens was often available in a 35mm SLR kit, indicating both this focal length's popularity and its general purpose usefulness. While not available in manufacturers' camera kits today, 50mm (or the very similar 55mm) focal length prime lenses are found in all major brand lineups, with some having numerous options, showing the continued popularity of this focal length.
Fifty or 55mm lenses are frequently used in fashion, portraiture, weddings, documentary, street, lifestyle, sports, architecture, landscape, around-the-home and general studio photography applications including product photography. As you likely noted, a number of the good applications for this lens include people as subjects. A 55mm lens used on a full frame body is modestly too wide angle for tightly framed head shot portraits (a too-close perspective is required, at least for my taste), but it is great for wider portrait framing.
It's a prime lens, so adjusting framing requires a sneaker zoom technique.
This was a great little lens to have for snapshots on the boardwalk after a long day in the sun and sand.
Even under dim lighting, relatively low ISO settings could be used with people-movement-comfortable shutter speeds: f/1.8, 1/160 and ISO 1000, in this case.
Mounted on a Sony APS-C/1.5x body, a 55mm lens delivers an angle of view equivalent to a 82.5mm lens on a full frame body. This tighter angle of view is useful for the same purposes with more tightly-framed portraits retaining a better perspective.
Among prime lenses, an f/1.8 max aperture is not greatly exciting, but for lenses in general, an f/1.8 aperture is very wide. Compared to the 55mm max aperture of kit lenses, f/1.8 is extremely wide.
Downsides of a wide aperture include increased size, increased weight and an increased price tag. Though not the smallest Sony FE lens, it is one of the smaller options. That this lens remains rather compact indicates that any penalty in this regard is also minor. Ditto on the weight. I'll talk about price later, but ... this is not the cheapest lens.
Use the wide aperture to gain a faster shutter speed, ideal for stopping motion, including moving subjects and a shaking camera, under even very low light conditions. A lower ISO setting is the alternative to a faster shutter speed and lower ISO settings mean lower noise images. Also use the wide aperture to create shallow depth of field, making the background strongly blurred and making the subject clearly stand out against an attractive, non-distracting background.
Note that, especially under full sun conditions, a 1/8000 shutter speed may be only marginally fast enough to avoid blown highlights at f/1.8. Cameras with shutter speeds limited to 1/4000 may need the assistance of a neutral density filter to keep images dark enough at f/1.8. Shooting with a narrower aperture of course remains an option.
As the aperture widens, the depth of field becomes shallower and the background blur becomes stronger. Here is an example of that principle.
If the goal is to emphasize the butterflies, you likely recognized the best aperture to use. At f/1.8, these subjects stand out against a blurred background. By f/4, the background is a big distraction.
The Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens is not optically stabilized, but Sony generally takes care of that issue with Steady Shot or IBIS, the acronym for "In-Body Image Stabilization". On a traditional DSLR with an optical viewfinder, IBIS results in an unstabilized view, meaning that stabilization was not helpful for composition or for providing a still subject to the camera's AF system. With EVFs being prevalent in Sony's lineup, the viewfinder image is being read from the imaging sensor, which is stabilized. Therefore, the viewfinder image is very nicely stabilized and sensor-based AF has a stabilized view of the subject.
Mounted on a Sony a7R III with Steady Shot enabled, I was able to handhold this lens with an excellent sharpness rate at 1/8 second exposures. The keeper rate at 1/6 was noticably lower, but there were still a good number of sharp images at this exposure duration and just over 50% were sharp at 1/5. Combine an f/1.8 aperture with a 1/8 second exposure and this lens is ready to take on very dark conditions. At longer exposures, the sharpness rate dropped significantly, but I have rather sharp images captured at a full second:
This image is a 100% crop processed to our review-standard low sharpness setting of 30 (on a 0-1000 scale) in Capture One.
Image stabilization testing was under ideal circumstances (indoors, concrete floor) and your results will vary based on your own skills and the conditions you are shooting in. My experience showed a nice 3 or 4 stops of assistance being provided by IBIS for this lens.
With no IS switch on the lens, the camera menu must be used to enable or disable IBIS and that is a pain when needing to work quickly.
Wide apertures are great, but if the image quality delivered at those wide apertures is not good, their full value is not realized. Fortunately, the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 Lens delivers nicely in this regard.
The f/1.8 results are very nice, showing good resolution and contrast from the center to deep into the periphery of the image circle. Some improvement is seen at f/2 and at f/2.8, this lens is extremely sharp over most of the full frame image circle and another slight improvement is seen at f/4 where this lens is razor sharp. Extreme corners trail the center by roughly 1 stop at this point and f/5.6 makes them impressive also.
Here are some real world examples. Below you will find sets of 100% resolution crops captured in uncompressed RAW format using a Sony a7R III. The images were processed in Capture One using the Natural Clarity method with the sharpening amount set to only "30", again, on a 0-1000 scale. These examples are from the center of the frame.
Find the center of the depth of field and make your comparisons using those subject details. Note that the f/1.8 samples are slightly brighter than the f/2 samples. I am consistently seeing this difference in testing, despite equivalent exposure parameters being used.
One thing you don't see here is focus shift. Lately, it seems that most lenses I'm testing shift their depth of field rearward as the aperture is narrowed, but this one holds the center of the depth of field very nicely.
Want to make even a great lens look bad? Show extreme corners, where light is being refracted to the greatest angle, captured with a high resolution camera. These are top-left 100% crops.
As usual, improvement is seen in the corners at narrower apertures, but even landscape photographers (among those who care most highly about corner performance) with very high standards are going to find this lens performing well, especially beyond f/2.8.
Corners of course show the most peripheral shading and wide aperture lenses often show strong amounts of this. Expect roughly 3 stops of shading in the f/1.8 full frame corners. The reduction at f/2 is about 1/2 stop and about 1.6 stops remains at f/2.8. Corner shading slowly decreases until nearly .5 stops remains at f/11.
The effect of different colors of the spectrum being magnified differently is referred to as lateral (or transverse) CA (Chromatic Aberration). Lateral CA shows as color fringing along lines of strong contrast running tangential (meridional, right angles to radii) with the mid and especially the periphery of the image circle showing the greatest amount as this is where the greatest difference in the magnification of wavelengths exists.
There should be only black and white colors in this top-left corner crop and that is mostly what we see, with only very minor color fringing evident. This lens performs stellarly in this respect.
A relatively common lens aberration is axial (longitudinal, bokeh) CA, which causes non-coinciding focal planes of the various wavelengths of light, or more simply, different colors of light are focused to different depths. Spherical aberration along with spherochromatism, or a change in the amount of spherical aberration with respect to color (looks quite similar to axial chromatic aberration but is hazier) are other common lens aberrations to look for. Axial CA remains at least somewhat persistent when stopping down with the color misalignment effect increasing with defocusing while the spherical aberration color halo shows little size change as the lens is defocused and stopping down one to two stops generally removes this aberration.
In the real world, lens defects do not exist in isolation with spherical aberration and spherochromatism generally found, at least to some degree, along with axial CA. These combine to create a less sharp, hazy-appearing image quality at the widest apertures. And when a lens' widest apertures are very wide, the effect is often magnified. Here is an aperture series utilizing silver bracelets that readily show these aberrations.
At wide apertures, strong and differing color fringing is seen in the foreground and background of this lens' images.
Even in our brutal standard flare test with the sun in the corner of the frame, this lens shows a very low amount of flare. The tiny lenses/groups count of 7/5 in this simple lens design shows an advantage here and the Zeiss T* anti-reflective coating aids in minimizing flare.
There are two lens aberrations that are particularly evident when shooting images of stars, mainly because bright points of light against a dark background make them easier to see. Coma occurs when light rays from a point of light spread out from that point, instead of being refocused as a point on the sensor. Coma is absent in the center of the frame, gets worse toward the edges/corners and generally appears as a comet-like or triangular tail of light which can be oriented either away from the center of the frame (external coma), or toward the center of the frame (internal coma). Astigmatism is seen as points of light spreading into a line, either meridional (radiating from the center of the image) or sagittal (perpendicular to meridional).
The stars in this extreme a7R III frame corner are rather sharp, but ... they have some wings.
As is often the case with prime lenses, the 55 ZA shows a very low amount of geometric distortion.
With an f/1.8 aperture, this lens can create a nicely-strong background blur. As always, keep the subject close and the background distant to maximize this capability. Here is a look at the bokeh from this lens.
All except the CE (Cat's Eye) example show f/8-captured results. The first four examples are 100% crops and the "Full" example shows a complete image down-sized. In the first sample, we see out of focus specular highlights that are reasonably round (9 rounded aperture blades at work here), but not especially smooth inside. Looking better to me are the outdoor examples, showing nicely smooth background details.
The CE (Cat's Eye) example, a somewhat-reduced lower-left corner crop captured at f/1.8, shows some mechanical vignetting with a large entrance pupil.
When stopped down, this lens' 9-blade aperture produces beautiful 18-point stars from point light sources.
While the aperture created by the leaves is not perfectly round, the star being created by this lens shows nice definition.
Overall, the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens is one of the best optically-performing lenses I've used in the 45-55mm range.
The Zeiss-made Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA lens is a premium model and premium lenses typically get premium AF systems and that is the case with this one. That a lens consistently focuses very accurately is of great importance and this lens has that feature.
A linear autofocus motor internally drives AF with good speed. While the speed of focusing is in part the lens' responsibility, the camera has a role and currently, Sony cameras de-focus the lens slightly before focusing on the subject in AF-S single shot focus mode, even if focusing at the same distance with the same subject. Even when the lens focuses very quickly, the camera sending it on a hunt significantly impacts the overall focus speed.
In AF-S single shot focus mode, expect to wait about a second (1.066 seconds was a normal measurement) until the camera locks AF, even if the camera is tripod mounted, the subject is motionless and you have just taken a photo of the same subject. Better is that the camera will take a take the photo in just over .4 seconds if the full AF fine-tuning is not waited for, though focus accuracy is sometimes impaired. But, when we look at camera shutter lag specs in the low milliseconds, this focusing time is very slow. If you need to focus and shoot quickly, to catch a fleeting moment, you need to know about this.
Switch to AF-C continuous focus mode and focus acquisition speeds are far faster. This motor can drive AF very fast and with the defocus-then-focus routine gone in AF-C mode, the experienced speed is much faster. Why shouldn't AF-C mode be used all of the time? AF accuracy is sacrificed with a much lower frame-to-frame focus accuracy consistency being realized with a still subject.
For the current Sony FE-compatible cameras, this lens focuses with good speed relative to the other FE lenses.
Only some light clicks and whirs can be heard in the lens while focusing.
With no AF/MF switch provided, this lens relies on the camera's menu system for that feature. I'd rather have the switch.
FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing is supported in Sony's DMF (Direct Manual Focus) AF mode.
The manual focus ring is nicely sized, very smooth, ideally dampened and the slow rotation speed is just right for precise manual focusing at all distances. I mentioned "slow" speed. This is a focus-by-wire AF system and faster rates of focus distance change initiate higher speed focus distance adjustments. While I typically dislike these designs, this implementation seems to work well, with enough rate change needed to make the speed shift change happen more intentionally. Only a short rotation of the focus ring is required to go from minimum focus distance to infinity if the rotation speed is fast.
There is modest change in subject size as focus is adjusted to full extents. Here is an example:
While a distance window is not provided, a focus distance meter shows in the lower portion of the electronic viewfinder during manual focusing. Of course, the camera must be powered on to see that meter and to adjust focus distance.
With a 19.7" (500mm) minimum focus distance creating a 0.14x maximum magnification, you will not find this lens comparing high on general lens specifications charts, but at 50-55mm, it is about average.
|Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens||13.8"||(350mm)||0.21x|
|Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens||17.7"||(450mm)||0.15x|
|Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens||17.7"||(450mm)||0.15x|
|Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens||18.0"||(457mm)||0.15x|
|Rokinon (Samyang) 50mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens||17.7"||(450mm)|
|Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens||15.7"||(400mm)||0.18x|
|Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 Lens||17.7"||(450mm)||0.14x|
|Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens||19.7"||(500mm)||0.14x|
|Tamron 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens||11.4"||(290mm)||0.29x|
|Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens||17.7"||(450mm)||0.15x|
|Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Classic Lens||17.7"||(450mm)||0.15x|
|Zeiss 50mm f/2M Milvus Lens||9.4"||(240mm)||0.50x|
Expect a subject measuring 9.8 x 6.7" (249 x 170mm) to fill the full frame viewfinder with this lens mounted and focused at its closest setting. The butterflies in the aperture comparison set were captured at this lens' minimum focus distance.
To reduce the minimum focus distance and thereby increase the maximum magnification, mount an extension tube behind this lens. Infinity and long distance focusing are sacrificed with an extension tube in use, but extension tubes make a noticeable difference in a 50mm lens' magnification capabilities. Sony does not publish extension tube specs nor do they offer extension tubes as of review time. You'll have to chose a third party extension tube if this feature is desired.
The FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens is not compatible with Sony teleconverters.
Especially with the Zeiss name on the side, it is not surprising to find this lens having a great appearance and corresponding professional-grade build quality. This is a very smoothly-shaped lens featuring a semi-gloss black metal barrel exterior with etched focal length and other markings.
With the already-discussed focus ring being the only externally moving part on this lens, the lens exterior discussion will be brief.
I personally miss having an AF/MF switch and, with IBIS, a stabilization switch. The switches are much faster to use and it is easier to visually confirm settings than looking at menu options. Of course, it is harder to inadvertently change a menu setting than move a switch and switches add moving parts that could be a source of failure and, minimally, increased cost.
Sony claims that this lens has a "Dust and moisture-resistant design", but the rear mount is not gasketed. That seems a rather large omission to complete the sealing and I strongly suggest using a rain cover when working in (potentially) wet or dusty environments with this lens.
This lens has a small size and light weight that maintains the spirit of Sony's compact mirrorless cameras. The small lens size means that fingers are not too cramped in Sony's compact camera grips and, along with the mostly-straight exterior design, the light weight makes this lens comfortable to carry for very long periods of time.
|Model||Weight||Dimensions w/o Hood||Filter||Year|
|Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens||10.2 oz||(290g)||2.9 x 2.0"||(74.0 x 51.0mm)||58mm||1993|
|Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens||5.6 oz||(159g)||2.7 x 1.5"||(69.2 x 39.3mm)||49mm||2015|
|Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens||9.9 oz||(280g)||2.9 x 2.1"||(73.5 x 54.2mm)||58mm||2008|
|Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens||6.5 oz||(185g)||2.8 x 2.1"||(72.0 x 52.5mm)||58mm||2011|
|Rokinon (Samyang) 50mm f/1.4 AS UMC Lens||18.9 oz||(535g)||3.2 x 2.9"||(81.6 x 74.7mm)||77mm||2015|
|Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens||28.8 oz||(815g)||3.4 x 3.9"||(85.4 x 99.9mm)||77mm||2014|
|Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 Lens||6.6 oz||(186g)||2.7 x 2.3"||(68.6 x 59.5mm)||49mm||2016|
|Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens||9.9 oz||(281g)||2.5 x 2.8"||(64.4 x 70.5mm)||49mm||2013|
|Tamron 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens||19.2 oz||(544g)||3.2 x 3.6"||(80.4 x 91.4mm)||67mm||2015|
|Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens||32.5 oz||(922g)||3.2 x 3.8"||(82.5 x 97.5mm)||67mm||2015|
|Zeiss 50mm f/2M Milvus Lens||25.8 oz||(730g)||3.2 x 3.0"||(81.0 x 75.3mm)||67mm||2015|
For many more comparisons, review the complete Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens Specifications using the site's Lens Spec tool.
Here is a visual size comparison of some of the above-listed f/1.8 lenses. Note that these lenses are mount-aligned with the Sony lenses appearing to be positioned higher due to their shallow lens caps.
Positioned above from left to right are the following lenses:
Use the site's product image comparison tool to visually compare the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens to other lenses.
The Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA has 49mm filter threads. Among typical lens filter sizes, 49mm is quite small and affordable. But, they are not abundantly common.
Sony includes the classy ALC-SH131 Lens Hood in the box. This semi-rigid primarily-plastic hood is petal-shaped with a matte-interior. The rear exterior of the hood is metal for an especially high quality look and feel.
Hoods built for prime lenses, vs. zoom lenses, can be tuned to a single focal length's angle of view and this hood provides very good protection from bright flare-inducing light and also from impact.
Always use the hood.
While the camera and lens can sit lens-downward on a table or other flat surface using the flat end of the hood petals, you should use strong discernment when trusting this practice as the petals are not so wide, making tipping easy. A bit unique is that the bayonet mount on the hood slides into a grove around the end of the lens vs. mounting over the outside of the lens. Reversed, this hood stores compactly.
Sony includes a thinly fleece-lined vinyl drawstring pouch in the box. Aside from the well-padded bottom, this pouch affords little impact protection. Get a Lowepro Lens Case if you need individual lens protection.
The Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens has a mid-level price tag. While there are 45-55mm prime lens options available at a fraction (I'll throw out 1/4) of the price, this Sony lens brings more to the table, including better image quality and better build quality. It is easy to see the value in image quality and the first time you have a lens fail when you need it most will quickly clarify the build quality value. Look at the overall package, I think this lens is reasonably priced and a good value.
As an "FE" lens, the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens is compatible with all Sony E-mount cameras, including both full frame and APS-C sensor format models.
The reviewed Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens was online-retail acquired.
While 55mm lenses are not as common as 50mm options, these two focal lengths can typically be used interchangeably and that means there are many alternatives available, especially with adapters. The just-reviewed Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 Lens is one of them and I'll share this comparison to share with you.
Most notable is that the 50mm lens is significantly less expensive (figure 1/4 of the price). In the Sony FE 50mm vs. 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens image quality comparison, the 55mm lens is considerably sharper at f/1.8 and the real world difference is quite recognizable, especially in the extreme corners. By f/2.8, the difference in the center of the frame is mostly gone, though the peripheral difference remains noticeable until at least f/5.6. The 50mm lens has very slightly less linear distortion.
The 55mm lens is better-built, including weather sealing and it has a superior AF system with significantly faster and quieter performance. In the Sony FE 50mm vs. 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens specification comparison, we see that the 55mm lens has a 9 blade aperture (vs. 7). The 50mm lens is lighter (6.6 vs. 9.9 oz / 281 vs. 186g) and smaller (2.7 x 2.34" vs. 2.54 x 2.78" / 68.6 x 59.5mm vs. 64.4 x 70.5mm), though it makes up most of that difference at minimum focus distance by extending with focusing. The 55mm lens includes a pouch in the box. The difference between these two lenses is obvious both in the field and during post processing, but the 4x price difference is also a major differentiator. Those serious about their photography will choose the 55mm option while more casual and lower budget photographers will choose the 50mm option.
Use the site's lens comparison tools to compare other lenses to the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Lens.
The Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA is a high-performing lens that merges light weight, compact size and quality build with excellent image quality and AF performance. While not the cheapest option available, this easy to take with you lens performs excellently. Professionals and serious amateurs wanting a great 50 or 55mm lens should put this one on their short list.
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