Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 Lens Review

What We Love. Sony users who might not be willing to take the plunge and shell out $1,800 for the Sony FE 85mm F/1.4 G Master, which we must admit is as close to perfection as you can get, will take comfort in the fact that budget-minded shooters have a much affordable option that delivers excellent image quality, offers creamy bokeh, and boasts terrific focusing. The secret to the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8's powerhouse performance is its combination of a double linear motor system that offers beautifully quiet focusing, 9 elements in 8 groups with one extra-low dispersion glass to decrease chromatic aberration, 9 aperture blades for rounded bokeh, and a weather-resistant design for protection against the elements. It's also lighter and more compact than its more expensive cousin at 13.1 oz and 3 1/8 x 3 ¼ inches, which makes it easy to carry wherever you go. This glass may have an astoundingly affordable price tag, but the super sharp and very clean photos we have taken with it look and feel like they've been taken with a much more expensive lens.

What We'd Change. If you were to make a side-by-side comparison with its G Master cousin, then you'll definitely notice the glaring differences. It doesn't have the super handy aperture ring, for instance. But extra features come at a cost, and it makes sense to forgo them to keep the cost down without sacrificing image quality. Perhaps the biggest thing we'd change about this lens is its ability to reduce color fringing. While the G Master boasts 3 ED glass elements, this one only has one, which, frankly, isn't enough. Unfortunately, we've found some signs of purple fringing in some of our higher contrast test shots.

Pick This Up If... you're a Sony shooter on the budget. Whether or not taking portraits is your cup of tea, the $600 Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 is almost a necessary addition to your lens collection. It takes gorgeous portraits, yes; but we've found it to be an excellent companion for shooting street scenes, landscape details, urban sights, and even some sports, if you can get close enough. That F/1.8 aperture is also excellent for shooting indoors at events.

INTRO

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It's hard to come back from using and testing the Sony 85mm F/1.4 GM lens for a couple of weeks. The lens is impeccable in almost every aspect, and it's so incredible, you have to be a really bad photographer to mess up your shots with it. Which was why we were kind of nervous when we got our hands on its considerably cheaper cousin, the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8. After all, at more than $1000 less than the G Master (or the ZEISS manufactured Planar T 85mm F1.4 ZA), it's easy to assume that its performance might not be up to par.

It was, needless to say, a pleasant surprise when we took it for a test run in the streets of Santa Barbara and San Francisco, as well as the Route 66-worthy stop of Salvation Mountain, and the 85mm F/1.8 performed just as beautifully as its pricey counterparts.

Of course, it may fall short on a couple of things, but they're nothing you will sorely miss, can't find an easy fix for, or get in the way of taking gorgeous shots. The most important thing is that this lens offers image performance that closely rivals the more expensive 85mm on the market and at a much more affordable price.

GEAR USED

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We tested the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 with the Sony a7R III, which we reviewed earlier in 2018. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to shoot it side-by-side with the G Master to really see which one performs better in different situations, but we're hoping to do a lens comparison on the blog sometime soon, so stay tuned!

FEATURES

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  • Model: SEL85F18
  • Fits: E-mount system
  • Focal Length: 85 mm
  • Maximum Aperture: F1.8
  • Minimum Aperture: F22
  • Angle of View (diagonal): 29° (full-frame), 19° (APS-C)
  • Lens Construction: 9 elements in 8 groups
  • Minimum Focus Distance: 2.63 ft (0.8 m)
  • Maximum Magnification Ratio: 0.13 x
  • Filter Size: Φ67mm
  • Length: 3 ¼ in (82 mm)
  • Weight: 13.1 oz (371 g)
  • Diaphragm Blade Number: 9 (circular)
  • Image Stabilization Performance: body integrated
BUILD QUALITY

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Made of high-quality plastic with a somewhat matte finish, the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 feels solid enough, though it probably isn't solid enough to survive a hard fall.
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It is, however, dust and moisture sealed so that you're able to take it out in harsher weather conditions. Sony doesn't exactly specify what temperatures this lens can withstand, but we did shoot it in the desert in the middle of a hot day in the summer, and in San Francisco on a very chilly weekend, and it worked swimmingly on both occasions.

We also appreciate the fact that the exterior keeps fingerprints and greasy smudges away, and that the ribbed focus ring, which is plastic instead of rubber, doesn't attract dust and lint like the G Masters.

As we mentioned above, there is no aperture ring, but it does have an AF/MF switch as well as a focus hold button that's customizable so you can change its function to whatever suits you. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to test this, but as a focus hold button, it's pretty effective and easily accessible.

For the not so good, there is no hood lock or release button and the hood has popped off more than once during our test shoots, which is a tad inconvenient but hardly a deal breaker. Other than that, it has a pretty decent build that we're more than happy with.

ERGONOMICS

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At 13.1 oz, the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 is less than half the weight of its G Master counterpart. However, it still has some heft to it, enough to provide some counterbalance to the Sony a7R III that we were testing it with so that the setup doesn't feel too back heavy.

What we love most about this lens, though, is its compact size of 3 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches. The hood is sizable for a small lens, adding practically half the lens' length when attached, but without it, the 85mm F/1.8 feels very compact even in small hands. This is a lens you can easily add to your camera travel bag, even if you're traveling light.

The AF/MF switch and Focus Hold button are within easy reach of your thumb so you can get to them quickly without taking your eye off the viewfinder. While hardly flimsy, it also doesn't take a lot to press on the Focus Hold button, which makes it a great button to customize based on your needs.

Lastly, the ribbed plastic focus ring, while missing that resistance we like especially when we're really honing in on a subject. However, the fact that it turns like butter makes it easy to manipulate with just your thumb and index finger, allowing you to keep your palm on the lens (not that you'd need it since this lens isn't heavy.)

Overall, this lens has good handling, and we're pretty satisfied.

SPEED & FOCUS

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We're pretty impressed with the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 when it comes to its autofocus and speed. Its double linear motor actuator system gives it a quiet and precise autofocusing mechanism that performs beautifully when it comes to face/eye tracking and focusing on a subject even in low light situations.

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We tested this glass on a moving subject indoors in low light on continuous, and while we might have ended up with a couple of shots where the focus wasn't on point, most of the shots were impeccably focused. Thanks to its F/1.8 aperture, it's pretty fast and it allows you to handhold a lot indoor shots at relatively low ISOs.

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The autofocus is even better when you're working with enough light outdoors. We tested this lens at a park in San Francisco where there were plenty of dogs running around, as well as in Santa Barbara at a popular surfing spot, and we managed to take home a few well-focused action shots.

BOKEH

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With only 9 aperture blades, as opposed to the G Master's 11, the bokeh on the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 may not be as smooth and creamy as its more expensive counterpart, but the difference isn't staggering.

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This baby holds its own against most lenses out there, producing gorgeous dissolving backgrounds and rounded, buttery bokeh even when you're NOT shooting at its widest aperture, so that your subjects truly stand out even at F/5 while your backgrounds/foregrounds are soft and dreamy.

If you're a bokeh fan, you'll definitely love this lens.

IMAGE QUALITY

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Sony promised high corner-to-corner resolution with the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8, and they managed to deliver just that. This glass delivers extreme sharpness with no noticeable barrel distortion and hardly any signs of flare and ghosting. Even at its widest aperture, it amazingly offers incredible sharpness that gets even better when you step down.

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Unfortunately, despite Sony's attempt to minimize chromatic aberration with one ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass element, we have found a small amount of color fringing in a couple of our review images. However, they are very minimal, only noticeable when you zoom in and really look for it, and can easily be fixed in post. We've also found very minimal vignetting in some of our images, but not enough to distract from the images.

It is obviously not perfect, but even a couple of Sony's G Master lenses have shown signs of color fringing so again, its small flaws are no deal-breakers.

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When it comes down to it, this glass is incredible and well worth its affordable price. What you get when shooting with it are very clean images that boast great detail and sharpness, with colors that are natural and slightly subdued so that skin tones are beautifully rendered, and it's perfect for shooting portraits, not to mention great for capturing detail shots during your travels.

PROS & CONS

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Pros
  • Super sharp image quality
  • Dreamy bokeh
  • Fast and precise AF
  • Beautiful color reproduction
  • Compact and lightweight design
  • Weather sealing
  • Minimal distortion, ghosting, and flare
  • Affordable price

Cons
  • Minimal color fringing
  • Very minimal vignetting

FINAL THOUGHTS

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For only $600, the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 offers you more than your money's worth. Not only does it deliver such excellent image quality with superb detail, dreamy bokeh and creamy backgrounds at the wide apertures, and natural skin tones and beautiful color rendering, which is what you want from a portrait lens. It also boasts fast and precise AF even in low light, a compact and relatively lightweight design, and great weather sealing so it can survive and perform well in tougher weather conditions.

Long story short, we love the Sony FE 85mm F/1.8 so much we almost don't want to shell out the cash for the G Master, even if we did have the money for it.

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