Thursday, November 27, 2014

Look Before You Leap: the Sony a6000 and a5100 lens guide

The Sony a6000 is an awesome camera -- it was awarded Gold by DPReview and recently came out on top of the mid-range mirrorless camera roundup.  On top of that, the a6000 is available at a $100 discount for Black Friday.  The Sony a5100 is likewise a great camera, and is one of DPReview's best cameras for beginners, with the same great sensor and quick autofocus ability as the a6000.

However, when choosing your first interchangeable lens camera, I find it helpful to consider not just the camera specifications but the system as a whole -- especially the lenses and to some extent its accessories (e.g. flash).  So if you're considering the a6000 or a5100, you may want to check out its lens selection to see if it has the lenses that you'll need.  The italicized ones are the lenses I have.

Note: to the extent DXO has tested the lenses below with the a6000, you can expect identical results for the a5100 due to the identical sensor.

UPDATE: Sony has new FE lenses that can also be used with the a6000, a5100 or other E-mount APS-C body.  I added those to this list.

a6000 + Sony 35 1.8.  The 35 1.8 is sharp even wide open and focuses quickly.
Fast normal prime
     Zeiss 32 f/1.8 ($999): If your priority is image quality, this is the sharpest fast normal prime for the a6000 (13 Perceptual megapixels).  However, it is pricey, and lacks image stabilization. 
     The next best option depends on whether you prioritize sharpness over image stabilization and autofocus performance: 
     Sony 35 f/1.8 OSS ($450): It has image stabilization and fully supports the a6000's hybrid autofocus.  The Sony 35 1.8 is equivalent to a 52.5mm f/2.7mm full frame lens in terms of field of view and depth of field.  In terms of sharpness, it is quite good, but nowhere near as great as other fast normal primes I've tried.  The 35 1.8 OSS is rated by DXO as having 11 perceptual megapixels on the a6000.  By comparison, the best-in-class Sigma 35 1.4 (not available for NEX) is rated by DXO as 16 Pmp on a 24mp D7100.  But 11 Pmp is not bad at all.  In terms of effective resolution, it is similar to the 11 Pmp of the highly regarded Panasonic 25 1.4 on the Olympus E-M1 (although the E-M1 is only 16mp).
     Sigma 30 f/2.8 EX ($189)This lens is almost as sharp as the Zeiss yet costs much less than either the Zeiss 32 1.8 or Sony 35 1.8.  According to DXO, the Sigma is about as sharp as the Zeiss 32 1.8 (12pmp vs. 13pmp on the a6000).  However, it has several disadvantages:  First, it doesn't support the a6000's hybrid phase detection and relies only on contrast detection, so it focuses much more slowly compared to the Sony 35 1.8.  Second, its maximum aperture is 1.3 stops less than that of the Sony or Zeiss.  Third, there's no image stabilization.  Please note that Sigma has updated this lens with the Art version but based on DXO's tests, the older lens performs significantly better (12 Pmp vs. 9 Pmp).
     NEW! Zeiss FE 35 f/1.4 ($1600):  This is a lens designed for Sony's full frame cameras (A7, A7R, A7S, A7II).  However, it can also be used with the a6000, a5100 and other APS-C format E-mount cameras.  If you are thinking of upgrading to full frame in the future, you might consider getting this lens, which acts as a fast normal prime on APS-C.  It also has the widest available aperture at this focal length.

     NEW! Sony FE 28 f/2 ($450):  This is another full frame lens.  On APS-C, it is 42mm equivalent, a slightly wide normal lens.  If you are thinking of upgrading to full frame in the future, you might consider getting this lens, which acts as a fast normal prime on APS-C.

a6000 + Sony 50 1.8.  The 50 1.8 has very good bokeh (even with challenging backgrounds such as foliage)
Portrait lens
     Zeiss 55 f/1.8 ($999): If money is no object, this is the best portrait lens for the a6000.  It's a full frame lens but on the APS-C a6000, it provides a field of view similar to 82.5mm on full frame, similar to the traditional 85mm portrait focal length.  It is one of the sharpest lenses available for the a6000 at any focal length (15 Pmp).  It has gorgeous bokeh (check out the Flickr pool for the 55 1.8).
     Sony 50 f/1.8 OSS ($299): It's a little short for a portrait lens but it does the job.  It is one of the sharper lenses for Sony E-mount although again, it isn't legendary compared to equivalent lenses on other systems, with a rating of 13 Pmp on the a6000.  Besides having excellent sharpness, it also has image stabilization, and is affordably priced.  The downside is that it focuses slightly more slowly than other NEX lenses on the a6000.  However, the autofocus is still fast enough to capture moving cars.
     Sigma 60 f/2.8 Art ($239): This is the sharpest lens that has been tested by DXO for the E-mount (16 Pmp on the a6000) and it is very inexpensive.  On the a6000, its equivalent focal length of 90mm is just right for portraits.  But it has similar disadvantages as the Sigma 30 2.8: it focuses more slowly (only with contrast detection), its maximum aperture is 1.3 stops less than the Sony or Zeiss, and there's no image stabilization.
     NEW! Sony FE 90 f/2.8 OSS ($1099): This is a full frame macro lens but on APS-C, it has a 135mm equivalent focal length, which is at the long end of the traditional focal length range for portraits.

Wide angle prime.
     Zeiss 24 f/1.8 ($999):  This is the best wide angle prime lens for the Sony E-mount.  It has a field of view equivalent to a 35mm lens.  It has the widest maximum aperture, it is the sharpest wide angle prime for E-mount, and it has awesome bokeh.  Unfortunately, it is also quite expensive.  Used prices are more reasonable but still kind of expensive.  I had been thinking of getting one but at this price, I could just get a Fuji X100 or X100S and have an extra body...
     Sony 20 2.8 ($349): This is a pancake lens with a field of view equivalent to a 30mm lens.  It is ok for sharpness (9 Pmp on the a6000).
     Sigma 19 2.8 EX ($139): This lens is sharper than the Sony (10 Pmp on the a6000) and is very inexpensive.  However, it focuses much more slowly.  It focuses only with contrast detection except for the middle AF point which can use phase detection.  Continuous AF also doesn't work very well except for the middle AF point.  On other AF points, the lens continually focuses back and forth when using continuous AF.  One strange aspect of this lens is that it rattles - there's a moving element inside (even though it doesn't have stabilization).

a6000 + 16 2.8 with Fisheye Converter.  A fisheye lens provides a unique perspective.

     Ultrawide Trio. The Sony 16 f/2.8 ($249) (reviewed hereis a pancake lens with a less than stellar reputation for optical performance but it is at least reasonably priced.  What makes this lens useful is that it can be paired with a Sony Fisheye Converter ($149) or a 0.75x Ultra Wide Converter ($129) for a true ultrawide lens that is equivalent to 18mm on full frame.  I just ordered this so I will be posting my experience with it.  Part 1 of the review now posted here.
     Sony 10-18 f/4 ($849).  One of the sharper zoom lenses for the E-mount (8 Pmp) but it's not cheap.
     Zeiss 12 f/2.8 ($999).  This is the premiere ultrawide prime for E-mount.  Among Sony's ultrawide offerings, it is the sharpest (9 Pmp on the a6000) but is not as sharp as some ultrawides on other mounts, and is expensive.
     Samyang f/3.5 fisheye, f/2.8 fisheye, and 12mm f/2 ultrawide.  These are manual lenses but they have very good optical performance.

a6000 + 18-105 f4.  The 18-105 is very versatile, focuses quickly, and is unique in having a constant f4 aperture
Walkaround zoom:
     Zeiss 16-70 f/4 OSS ($999).  This lens hasn't been tested by DXO, but is reportedly the sharpest walkaround zoom.  However, it is significantly more expensive than the 18-105 f4 below.
     Sony 18-105 f4 OSS ($599).  This is a very versatile lens, and at the time of this writing there's no exact equivalent lens for other camera systems.  Canon, Nikon and Fuji have lenses with similar range for their APS-C DSLRs but those lenses have variable aperture.  The constant f4 aperture is useful for low light, enabling either a lower ISO or higher shutter speed.  The 18-105 does have a lot of distortion but the distortion is corrected in realtime automatically in photo and video, or can also be corrected in postprocessing of a raw file, without significant loss of resolution.  Reviewed here.
     Sony 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 OSS ($899).  If your top priority is versatility, and you don't care about maximum aperture ("What's that?") then this might be one alternative.  There are three lenses that have similar names: the Sony 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 (SEL18200), the 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 LE (SEL18200LE), and the 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 PZ (SELP18200).  The first one is the sharpest one (7 Pmp).  The LE is smaller but is not as sharp (5 Pmp).  The PZ has a power zoom and hasn't been tested by DXO.

     Sony 70-200 f4 ($1499).  This is the sharpest zoom lens for the E-mount at any focal length (11 Pmp). It's actually a full frame lens but there are slim pickings for telephoto lenses for the E-mount.
     Sony 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 OSS ($899).  As I said, there are not a lot of telephoto lenses for the E-mount.  The 18-200 has decent sharpness for a zoom (7 Pmp).  Not to be confused with the 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 LE (SEL18200LE) or the 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 PZ (SELP18200).  As mentioned above, the LE is smaller but is not as sharp (5 Pmp).  The PZ has a power zoom and hasn't been tested by DXO.
     Sony 55-210 f/4.5-6.3 ($349).  Besides having a variable (and narrow) aperture, it's not very sharp (6 Pmp on an a6000) but it's the most economical choice here. 
    There's also the 18-105 f4 above, but it's short for a telephoto (it's usable for smaller viewing sizes if you are fine with cropping).
     NEW! Sony FE 90 f/2.8 OSS ($1099): As discussed above, this is a full frame macro lens with a 135mm equivalent focal length on APS-C.  It is not long for a telephoto, but at least it has a wide aperture, has image stabilization, and true macro capability.  It is reportedly very sharp but DXO won't be able to test it for a while.
a6000 + 18-105 f4 (cropped with Clear Image Zoom)