It’s no secret that one of the primary allures of the Sony full-frame mount is the absolutely primal elegance of the Carl Zeiss primes largely unique to the system.
Even the most adverse critic of Sony’s cameras will find that these are lenses to tug at your heart-strings, crafted with artful contours like a Frank Gehry building.
The Carl Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 was announced just last month, but we’ve been lucky enough to get our hands on one the moment they shipped to Hong Kong from the official local distributors of the brand.
In the Sony portfolio there aren’t any equivalents other than the Sony Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar T FE 16-35mm f/4, although Rokinon do have a manual focus 14mm f/2.8 IF ED UMC.
This is the first 18mm f/2.8 that Zeiss have made, and it comes with a brand new design for Sony’s mirrorless full-frame system. The lens is weather sealed and protected against dust, although it features the new Zeiss focus rings, which can get dirty very easily.
For our review, we decided to bring the lens to one of our favourite bars in Kowloon, and then after, for a walk around the neighbourhood in the evening.
What makes the 18mm Batis so unique is that, aside from the fact that it’s a Zeiss, it’s a pretty fast wide-angle prime. So while it can easily be stopped down and used for landscape, it also works well for indoor low-light photography. When you consider also that it uses a floating elements design, which usually helps close range performance, the 18mm Batis is perfect for getting unorthodox angles in places you might not consider.
So even if you aren’t a landscape photographer, don’t discount the advantages that going wide can bring you—especially in a tight environment such as a bar.
Most Zeiss lenses are known for their distinctive bokeh, which is not something we usually think about when talking about wide-angle lenses. But arguably ignoring the quality of the bokeh would be defeating the purpose of having a Zeiss.
When I was testing it out in this small eight or nine-seater bar I was able to capture foreground subjects in difficult lighting (thanks in no small part to the a7S II), to capture an environmental portrait. The layered separation between the bottles in the front, the drink, the bartender, and the stock in the back is probably more interesting than if I had just opted for a longer fast prime that would isolate just one of those subjects.
The fact that the Batis 18mm shows remarkably low distortion and excellent sharpness at every single aperture certainly aids this, and any potential buyers of this lens should not worry about shooting wide open.
In fact, it’s actually remarkable how good this lens is at all apertures. Between f/2.8 and f/5.6 there isn’t a notable difference in centre and edge sharpness, and even at f/8 onwards there isn’t a significant improvement.
We didn’t note colour fringing and the contrast is exceptional as you’d expect from a premium priced lens. Visible vignetting is also minimal, with the data sheet from Zeiss estimating the drop off at extreme corners to be around ~1.4EV. It’s worth mentioning that by extreme corners, they really do mean that, and most traces of vignetting will end once the lens is stopped up just a little bit to f/4 or f/5.6.
Autofocus is never much of an issue with wide-angle lenses, but in our tests this was fast and accurate with the a7S II. Personally I’m not a huge fan of the new Zeiss focusing rings, and much prefer a metal construction to the rubber that they use. However, this seems to be the path that Zeiss are going with all their new lenses, and will just be something I’ll have to live with.
Even if we ignore the lack of other options for E-mount, the Batis 18mm should be on the wishlist of any full-frame Sony shooters looking for a fresh perspective. It offers versatility, absurdly good image quality at all apertures, and excellent build construction in a fast and relatively compact package.
At around US$1,500 however, it’s clear that not everyone will be able to immediately justify paying for a lens like this. Rokinon’s 14mm f/2.8 is almost $1,200 cheaper at around $350—at the cost of autofocus and perhaps lesser image quality.
That’s a comparison we’ll have to test in the future, but regardless there’s no denying that Zeiss have set the bar high with this release.