Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Sony E 16mm f/2.8 Review (Part 1)

Shadows. f/2.8, 1/60, ISO 400

 This is a user review of the Sony 16mm f/2.8 (SEL16F28), a wide angle pancake lens for Sony E-mount, as used on the Sony a6000.  I've had several ultrawide lenses for Nikon (Tokina 11-16, Sigma 10-20 3.5, Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6, Tokina 10-17 fisheye) and the Samyang 2.8 fisheye for m4/3.  Compared to those lenses, the 16 2.8 is unique because it can convert from a wide angle 24mm equivalent, to an ultrawide 18mm equivalent (with the VCL-ECU1 ultrawide converter), to a rectilinear fisheye (VCL-ECF1 fisheye converter).  With the converters, it is like having 3 lenses in 1.  Even better, the 16 2.8 and the converters are affordably priced.  But how well do they perform?  In this post, I will discuss the 16 2.8.  In Part 2 of this post, I will discuss the two converters (Part 2 here).

3/4/15 UPDATE: Sony just announced the VCL-ECU2 ultrawide converter and VCL-ECF2 fisheye converter.  Supposedly, the VCL-ECU1 and ECF1 were compatible only with the 16 2.8, whereas the ECU2 and ECF2 are compatible with both the 16 2.8 and the Sony 20 2.8.  However, it appears that the only difference is that the ECU2 and ECF2 have a black finish that match the appearance of the 20 2.8.

The Sony 16mm f/2.8 was one of the first lenses for Sony E-mount and was even included as a kit lens on some bundles, which is unusual, because it has a very wide angle, and is not a lens that would have a wide appeal (sorry for the pun).  The 16 2.8 is also unique in being a compact wide angle lens. Most wide angle lenses tend to have a wide diameter.  For example, the Nikon 14-24 2.8 is so large that there are no conventional filters for its gigantic front element (it doesn't even have filter threads). By contrast, the 16 2.8 is a pancake lens.

The Sony 16 2.8 has a metal exterior and comes in a silver finish.  It has a 49mm filter size, and is compatible with the bayonet lens hood.  It comes with a front and rear cap but no lens hood.  It can use the ALC-SH112 or ALC-SH113 lens hood without vignetting.

with SH112 lens hood (separate accessory)

The 16 2.8 does not come with a case, although JJC sells a soft neoprene pouch for pancake lenses, and fits the 16 2.8.

JJC pouch for pancake lenses

Optically, the 16 f/2.8 is mediocre. When used wide open, the center area is sharp, but becomes very soft toward the edges.  Fortunately, stopping down increases the area of acceptable sharpness. Even stopping down to f/4 is a big improvement, although the edges don't get very sharp at any aperture.

100% crop of f/2.8 vs. f/4.0 at the corners.
If I want maximum sharpness across the field, I need to stop down to f/11, although f/8 is almost as sharp if I need that extra stop.

100% crops of f/8 vs. f/11 at the corners

Here are full-resolution test shots from f/2.8 to f/22.  DP Review also has a widget that shows the resolution at each aperture here (on the DPR widget, the peak sharpness at the corners is at f/8, although for my lens it is f/11).  For a wide angle lens, the softness at the edges is problematic because many photographers who use wide and ultrawide lenses desire edge-to-edge sharpness.

There is some vignetting wide open, which almost disappears at f/4.

The 16 2.8 has very slight barrel distortion. (Note: in the shot of the train at the top, the train itself had curved sides.  The curvature is not due to distortion.)

The 16 2.8 has low chromatic aberration, slightly visible only at the edges.
slight chromatic aberration at the edges of the frame

The 16 2.8 has decent flare resistance, but is not immune to flare.  There is ghosting when there is a bright light source in the frame, especially when close to the lens axis.  There is veiling glare when there is a very bright light source around 60 degrees to the axis of the lens.  The 16 2.8 benefits from a lens hood.  As mentioned above, the ALC-SH112 hood (used in the Sony 35 1.8) can be attached without vignetting, but cannot be mounted in reverse because the lens is so thin that the reversed hood would bump into the camera.  The ALC-SH113 lens hood (used in the Sony 20 2.8 and 30 3.5 macro) works as well, although I haven't tried it.

Given the 16 2.8's atypical characteristics for a wide lens -- very compact, sharp only in the center area --  one wonders who this lens is designed for?  I don't think it is designed primarily for landscape and architecture shots, which generally need to be sharp across the frame.  I think it is targeted instead toward photos of a strong central subject, such as a portrait or still life shot, or for photojournalistic shots. 

an ultrawide portrait gives a sense of intimacy
f/2.8, 1/60, ISO 400

By portraits, I'm referring to environmental portraits.  The common wisdom for portraits is to use a longer focal length (e.g. 85mm equivalent).  A longer focal length allows you to maintain a good distance from your subject, which will usually lead to a more flattering image for your subject.  With environmental portraits however, the context is just as important as the subject.  The background is not just a decorative element, but is a storytelling tool that can help say something about the subject, such as their culture, their job, or the time and place the shot was taken.

Moreover, using a wide angle for portraits forces you to move close to the subject, making the viewer a part of the action instead of an observer.  See here or here.  For environmental portraits, the compact size of the 16 2.8 is useful because it allows you to get close to the subject without drawing too much attention, as can often happen when using a large lens and/or a large camera.  At the same time, for environmental portraits, you don't absolutely have to have edge-to-edge sharpness.  The focus of the shot is the subject, which is usually not at the edges of the frame. 

In the real world, a more common threat to sharpness for casual users is the a6000's default shutter speed, which is 1/focal length or 1/60, whichever is faster.  In the case of the 16 2.8, the a6000 chooses 1/60 in Aperture priority or Program mode.  A shutter speed that slow makes camera shake more likely, and is in any case too slow for all but stationary subjects.  The solution is to shoot at Shutter priority or Manual exposure mode with Auto ISO, manually selecting a sufficiently high shutter speed.

Although the 16 2.8 does not have sharp borders, sharpness is usually not an issue for environmental portraits at common viewing sizes.  f/2.8, 1/400, ISO 100

The 16 2.8 has autofocus with manual override (use the DMF focus mode instead of AF-S or AF-C).  It focuses quietly and with decent speed.  However, it cannot use the phase detection autofocus of some of the newer E-mount cameras such as the a6000 and a5100.  Focusing is therefore a little slower than on lenses with phase detection support such as the Sony 20 2.8 or 35 1.8 but is still fast -- faster than the Fuji X100S, for example.  A more significant concern is that when you use continuous autofocus, the lens may sometimes keep adjusting forward and backward, even when the subject is stationary.

When using a wide lens for portraits or still life, it is useful to have a short focusing distance because you need to move very close to the subject.  The 16 2.8's minimum focusing distance is 24cm (9.6 inches), which is not as close as I'd like but it's not bad.

Here are 5 similar lenses for the E-mount that you may want to consider when deciding whether to get the 16 2.8:

1.  Sony 20 2.8.  This is a newer pancake lens.  It isn't as wide as the 16 2.8 but it's still a wide angle lens.  Optically, it is supposedly better than the 16 2.8 although I don't have one to confirm.  It is compatible with Fast Hybrid autofocus.  Unlike the other alternatives here, this one IS compatible with the ultrawide and fisheye converters (although of course you won't get the full fisheye effect).  The issue is whether you want to trade optical performance (and perhaps AF speed) for the wider field of view and lower cost of the 16 2.8.

2.  Sigma 19 2.8 (EX or Art).  As with the Sony 20 2.8, this will have a narrower field of view but is also a wide angle lens.  It is larger than the 16 2.8 although it is still fairly compact -- about the size of the Sony 35 1.8.  The Sigma 19 2.8 cannot use Fast Hybrid autofocus but then again, neither does the 16 2.8, so it's a wash.  It also has a slightly shorter minimum focal distance.  The biggest difference is that the Sigma's optical performance is far superior to that of the 16 2.8.  And the kicker for the 16 2.8's target market is that the Sigma costs even less than the 16 2.8.  The primary reasons to get the Sony 16 2.8 over this lens are for compatibility with the fisheye and ultrawide converters, or if you want the wider field of view of the 16 2.8.  There are two versions of this lens.  The first version is the EX, while the newer version is the Art.  I will post a hands-on review of the EX version of this lens in the future.

3.  Sony 16-50 OSS kit lens: This newer kit lens is just as wide as the 16 2.8, practically as portable, and only half a stop narrower in aperture.  In terms of minimum distance, it is practically the same as the 16 2.8, at 9.8 inches.  It has several advantages over the 16 2.8: it has the versatility of a zoom lens, it has a power zoom level (useful video), it has image stabilization, and it is fully compatible with Fast Hybrid autofocus.  Surprisingly, the 16-50 is just as sharp, if not slightly sharper, than the 16 f/2.8 at 16mm.  Other than cost, the primary advantage of the 16 2.8 is its ability to be paired with the fisheye and ultrawide converters.  The 16-50 cannot use the fisheye and ultrawide converters because it doesn't have a bayonet lens hood mount.  I will post a hands-on review of this lens in the future.

4.  Sony 18-55 OSS kit lens: The older kit lens is not as wide as the 16mm and is physically larger.  Size comparison.   I can't comment on performance because I don't have this lens.

5.  Sony 10-18 ultrawide zoom.  The 10-18 covers a greater range of focal lengths, even taking into account the 16 2.8's optional converters. On the other hand, the 10-18 doesn't have the option of a fisheye.  The 10-18 is optically better, and is compatible with Fast Hybrid autofocus.  The 16 2.8 has a wider aperture, is far more compact, and is much cheaper, even if you factor in the cost of an ultrawide converter.  If optical performance is a priority (e.g. landscape or architecture), or for a wider field of view, the Sony 10-18 is the better choice.  The advantage of the 16 2.8 is the much lower cost, the option to get a fisheye, and the smaller size.

Here are the primary advantages and disadvantages of the Sony E 16 f/2.8:
+ Portable and unobtrusive
+ Versatile when combined with fisheye converter or ultrawide converter
+ Inexpensive
- Soft corners and edges
- No phase detection AF

NEXT: In Part 2 of this review, we'll check out the Fisheye Converter (VCL-ECF1) and Ultrawide Converter (VCL-ECU1).