Love it or hate it, that's the term or review I have found the most about this lens, but one statement I have also heard is how this lens has a special character to it. If your looking for that classic or Hollywood glam look of the 1950s, this lens design is your lens. That is really what drew me to this particular lens, my style is looking for those timeless photographs that feel like a lost memory. So I took the plunge and made the effort to make this my primary lens for over one year and decide whether I love it or hate it. With that, I look to share an extensive review of the Sonnar f1.5 to provide a personal field test and view of the lens. When I first started looking at this lens, there really was not any reviews or articles on it, probably due to the fact that there are not many fans of this lens. I've often heard comments about it's softness or so but I will go through how to overcome this and hopefully through this post I can add public information about this lens for anyone interested.
body & build
Before going into the character and the IQ of this lens lets start with the basics and talk about the physical feel of the lens. Whenever you touch this lens it has a solid build feel, small and light but you instantly know that there is a lot packed inside by the density you feel. Focus ring is smooth and it has a nib at the bottom which helps with manual focusing. Aperture clicks are clicky and with 1/3 stops, this gives you more flexibility when trying to control light.
One disclaimer I do want to mention is that with the first few months of usage, I had trouble nailing focus. I would focus as accurate as could possibly focus with my SL using the zoom focus but often times I would look at the image in Lightroom and find out that I missed the focus. This lens had me scratching my head the first few months and it bugs you when your focusing is hit or miss. At first, I blamed it on going full manual focus for the first time with M lenses, maybe it was a user error. But as time went on and even when I would spend more time than I wanted focusing, I would still miss the focus. It was not by much but enough to have for example the hair on a face in focus rather than the eye which is what you aim for.
After the trials and tribulations, and the headaches of focusing, I found some info from other users online that had a similar issue. Apparently earlier versions of the lens were not optimized at f1.5, and the advice was to send it to Zeiss to have it adjusted and optimized for f1.5, and so I did. I sent the lens to Zeiss germany, had the lens optimized, CLA'd, and also had the front glass element replaced. Upon receiving the lens again and using it over the last 6 months, it really has been accurate to focus, and so my perception and review of the lens changed as well. Just a piece of advice for anyone looking to buy a used version of this lens, if you buy brand new then these should already be optimized.
That hOLLYWOOD lOOK
Obviously, the reason for this lens is to shoot with this lens at f1.5, just as with the Leica Noctilux or the Summilux. These lenses were built for that purpose and the character you get shooting at that aperture. Later in this article I will talk about landscape use with this lens as I do like to shoot landscapes quite a bit and wanted to know how this lens will perform in that area, but for now lets focus on that classic look. When I shoot street or any details I find on the street, I often times am looking for a shot that gives me a feel of the glamour days of yesteryear. I find nostalgia and the lure for wanting to relive the glory days of your life a large part of every persons happiness. Capturing moments that portray this is what I want people looking at my photographs to feel and hopefully it brings joy.
This lens after one year of use, really does bring that character to the photograph. Every time that I have found that particular classic look, this lens renders it spot on. Its the perfect lens to portray that glam look. For some out of this world reason, I feel like with using this lens, I seem to attract or find vintage people or things more often than not. Maybe its just me thinking so but it sure damn feels like it. The bokeh of this lens is noisy or swirly but that's exactly what I am looking for with this lens. If you want a creamy or modern bokeh look then you go with the Leica Summilux or the Leica Noctilux. After one year of use, I consider this as a keeper, but for specific uses.
If I need a portrait lens, or a lens for capturing details as I walk around the streets, then this is the lens I am bringing with me. If I am looking for a more modern look then I will likely leave this in my camera bag. My opinion is that this is a special use lens, but a must have for the right reasons. If you want that vintage, classic or glam look then I say to give this lens a consideration. I used to be a skeptic when people would talk about the character of a lens, but after using this, you start to see what people refer to when talking about character.
Beat up truck
Now that we have talked about the build and character of the lens, I wanted to get into the image quality as you need to understand how this lens renders to properly adjust to it. Numero uno, is that this lens is soft around the edges, but in reality majority of the fast 50mm lenses are the same way. The Noctilux and Summilux both render softly at the corners, same with the Voigtlander that I have tried. If you are looking for sharpness from corner to corner then get the Planar, Summicron or better yet the APO. But when your looking at these line of lenses, my guess is that your looking for bokeh or character more than full end to end sharpness.
With the optimization of my lens as discussed above, sharpness of this lens is good. Not tack sharp but sharp enough with a unique looking bokeh. After one year, I can honestly say that I love this lens and probably would not consider selling it. For around $1,000 or cheaper when buying it used, its a bargain compared to Leica lenses. Yes it does not have that Leica look, its also a colder image than Leica but it has its unique character.
Now as for other usages such as landscapes, my opinion is a different story. I gave this lens a go for landscape, but I feel like you start to lose the character benefits as I start to dial up the aperture. You get more in focus by f4 but there is still corner softness that's not for my liking when shooting landscapes or architecture. For times when I want to shoot landscape and architecture, I would recommend going with a more modern design lens. The lens still performs great but when I am shooting landscapes or architecture I want every detail in focus, or my lines to look tack sharp. That is why I say that this is lens with a specific purpose, once you start to understand that then you start to appreciate the lens. I think the negative review I have seen are probably users who are expecting a different experience.
Overall, in the end, I feel like I have grown to love this lens and appreciate it for what its purpose is. I think this is a lens that is misconceived and put in a bad light for the wrong reasons. Yes its soft, yes the bokeh is swirly but that is part of the character. That vintage, yesteryear or classic photography look paired modern/digital body. This lens is definitely not a jack of all trades lens but more of a specialty. If you pair this with a modern lens and know when to pull it out of your bag of usage then the more you will learn to love it. If your looking for a lens to give you the timeless character then I say go for it, but if your looking for something modern then there are definitely sharper, contrastier lenses to purchase.
Austin Street Art
my son Noah pORTRAIT
Milwaukee seafood market
Austin Texas @ Night