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Sony Carl Zeiss SAL 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 T* ZA DT

A review by David Kilpatrick from Photoworld Spring 2007 with additional updates

MY SONY Carl Zeiss 16-80mm “superzoom” arrived from Warehouseexpress – the best price I could find and one of the very best dealers in terms of service – packed rather minimally for a £465 purchase..

The neat Sony orange and silver box was wrapped in a layer of bubblepack and popped into a jiffy bag, that was all. As you will learn later in this report, I had to notify them of possible damage to the lens. The replacement (replacements, as it happened) arrived packed just the same way, so they must trust CityLink carriers to be gentle folk indeed.

The inside of a postbag or a courier van is a vicious environment and you never quite know what kind of heavy stuff your treasured consignment is going to meet there. There was a hint of a dint on one corner of the box. However, the lens appeared well protected inside. It comes inside its soft pouch, wrapped in expanded polystyrene thin film, with the lens further protected by a bag. Strong corrugated card moulded forms surround this, and the outer box is strong. Sony seal their boxes with a tamper-proof tape which rips the moment you go to open the lid. Needless to say, I was able to open replacement lens boxes to select a satisfactory lens, and leave this seal in perfect order as if never touched. It just requires forewarning and a little care.

The package you get from Sony is comprehensive. In addition to a CZ quality control certificate stating that your lens “fully compatible with the Dynax 7D and 5D” meets Zeiss standards you get the usual warranty papers, a soft drawstring lens case, front and rear caps and a superb lens hood. This shade, unlike earlier Minolta designs, is not ribbed inside but painted in about the deadest matt black you can imagine.

Canon lenses, as sold, normally include just front and rear caps – no case or pouch, no hood. They may now be addressing this parsimonious approach but for many years part of the small price difference between Canon and Minolta equivalents has been the lens hood, sometimes a lens case. Magazines making price comparisons often fail to add the price of the essential extra – the hood – on to the Canon RRP. Nikon include hoods, as do Pentax and Olympus. All Sony lenses, like all Minolta lenses before them, come complete with hood. The value of the hood and pouch included in the CZ 16-80mm package is around £50 RRP judging from average costs for similar “separates”.

The new Zeiss lens cap, like the Zeiss side badge on the lens, is a great touch added to the Sony branding. It works the same way as the earlier caps, with clip-in spring action easily operated when the lens hood is fitted for action. The painted inside of the lens hood would be vulnerable to mucky fingers. I found the required action, above, a little fiddly for professional daily use. In practice, a 62mm multicoated B+W UV filter (Zeiss quality glass of course…) lives permanently on my lens and because it is a slimline model will not accept the cap. Despite being slim, when in place it results in a tiny amount of extreme corner vignetting.

The 16-80mm f/3.5-4.5 is equivalent to a full frame 24-120mm f/3.5-4.5, so it is no surprise to find it is larger than the 24-105mm f/3.5-4.5 which has been one of the best of the late Minolta designs. This lens is available in Sony form as well. Even so, it uses the same 62mm filters and feels much the same in the hand. The overall action is also similar, with the same position and direction of focusing rings. The fine ribbed surfaces are hard rubber, not unlike the Minolta material but moulded with a very fine parallel knurling. They collect dust rapidly and even our mint lens, out of the box, was difficult to photograph in the studio without small white specks appearing.

One big difference between the 24-105mm (full frame) and the 16-80mm is close focus. The 24-105mm can only manage a repro ratio of 0.18X, while the CZ manages 0.24X plus the 1.5X factor of the APS-C format, making that equal to 0.36X on full frame. So, when the full frame Sony Alpha 900 arrives, my 24-105mm may be a suitable general purpose lens but close-up objects that fill the frame on the CZ 16-80mm will fill just one quarter of the full frame.

As for ‘feel’, you will need to read on. Our final sample (of three lenses) is smoother in operation than my now one year old 24-105mm, though the focusing action is not very slick on DMF or Manual Focus. In fact it refused to switch to manual focus on my Dynax 7D using the MF setting on the A/S/C/MF switch; it was necessary to press the AF/MF button before the lens dropped into manual mode.

The lens mount on all the 16-80s tried was noticeably looser in tolerance than other mounts, especially on the A100 body, which also seems to be looser. This discovery led to some try-outs with various lenses on our three bodies and some older film bodies. It’s surprising how much variation there is in tolerance of the bayonet fit. The plastic mount of our 18-200mm Konica Minolta lens actually proves surprisingly firm and positive. One of the best-fit mounts was a metal one on a Sigma 28-105mm. Maybe Sony err on the side of caution; after all, a slightly slack fit is still dead accurate in terms of focal plane alignment, while a too-tight fit would cause excess wear and might even risk jamming.

The lens hood was a positive click-fit which did not seem to need to same undue effort as the hoods for the 24-105mm (a bit stiff, tends to load the front unit of the lens too much) or 100-300mm APO D (extremely badly designed and puts the focus/zoom mechanism under real strain when removing and replacing). The very long extending zoom barrel was slightly sloppy in the first two lenses tried, and firmer in the final third sample which I was satisfied with. Many barrels like this have excessive play, the kit lens 18-70mm in particular. Even the best of the 16-80mms still had some play. The similar lens on the Sony DSC R-1 has much less. Even the lens on the old Dimage A2 inspires as much if not more confidence.

Before moving on to the mechanical aspects of the lens its optical pedigree is worth mentioning. It is a totally new Vario-Sonnar design, despite apparent similarity to the fixed zoom fitted to the Sony DSC R-1. It may be related to both the 24-105mm and the R-1’s lens but it is not identical to either in detail.

Optically, it is simply stunning. It’s head and shoulders above any wide to portrait zoom currently on the market, outperforming the 24-105mm but also beating independents with ambitious specifications. The whole emphasis is on sharpness, contrast and high MTF. It delivers the kind of the image you expect to see from a fixed focal length like the 28mm f/2, the 50mm f/1.7 or the 100mm macro.

Mechanically, it sucks. Sorry to say it, but the feel and handling of this lens are far below the expectations held by anyone who has used the Sony R-1 or pretty much any other Zeiss labelled SLR lens ever made. It is made of plastic, and when you operate the zoom you feel plastic on plastic. It may not be. It may be metal inside. But it feels like plastic all the way. The front barrel does feel hard, and quite cold. But if it really is metal, they have made it as unlike a traditional mount in feel as you can get. I appreciate many proud owners of the 16-80mm will fume at this suggestion, but sitting it next to the original Minolta 24-105mm, I know which actually feels more like a classic bit of good lens engineering. You can read my experiences with the lens as delivered, and with two replacements, here. It took three samples to get one which I was happy to keep. That’s not a wonderful experience to have with a lens which is supposed to bring the world to Sony’s marketstall.

Having said all that, it looks the part, doesn’t it? This is a new class of design in terms of appearance. It is uncompromisingly geometric, rectilinear, almost military. Could you imagine a lens with such extreme straight lines could ever produce a high level of image distortion?

The results

Time then to show some samples, some of which were used in the magazine report, plus a bit more. I can go beyond the restrictions of printed pages here, but to get a good idea of the potential of the lens, you need to see as many images as possible. I have therefore set up a pBase Gallery with nothing but medium sized examples, which will expand as I get more of suitable variety or merit to show.

Early in using the lens, I took an afternoon walk in Coldstream, the little town on the border between England and Scotland where the Coldstream Guards were historically based. Crossing the River Tweed, I found a viewpoint in a very special field. This one single farmer’s field is part of Scotland, but in England. The boundary runs down the middle of the river, then makes a diversion to include this single field. So I was standing in Scotland, photographing Scotland, but from the English side of the Tweed! Coldstream was 1.5 kilometres from my viewpoint (more or less one mile). When viewing the full size clip from the 80mm shot, consider carefully that the lens is resolving twigs and housebricks from a mile away, hand-held on a Sony A100.

Anyway, first we have a full 16mm view, filter removed. You can just see a tiny hint of mechanical vignetting in the top right of the sky. If you click the image, you open up a full size 10 megapixel file on my pBase pages. Select ‘Original’ size on the pBase page to view these images at full size.

Next we have a shot taken at 50mm: again, clicking on the image leads to a full size result.

Finally we have one at 80mm (same goes), plus, below it for those who don’t want to spend hours, a 100 per cent clip from part of the shot.

Here is the 100 per cent detail:

The white fence at the right hand end shows a slight colour pattern. This extinction resolution moiré – it means the lens is resolving to the limit that the 10 megapixel sensor can manage. No other lens I have produces results like this, except perhaps the 100mm f/2.8 Minolta Soft Focus when used without SF at medium apertures – maybe the 28mm f/2, maybe the 100mm f/2.8 macro. But no zoom. When the first 16-80mm was performing – AF locked on and no need to reframe, zoom or tweak the focus – it transformed the quality of Alpha 100 images. Unlike many other lenses, it matches or exceeds the demands of a 10 megapixel sensor and even makes 6 megapixel shots look better. Our final 16-80mm is, I suspect, a little less sharp centrally but displays better edge sharpness and lack of chromatic aberration.

For further images, I’ve put them on another page. All this scrolling. You could be an ancient Egyptian newspaper gossip columnist and do less!

Further examples can also be found in my general Sony A100 gallery on pBase. This is now huge, and contains many comparisons and tests. The 16-80mm images are around page 9 on a normal viewing.

So -¦ I’m not living with a Zeiss lens that doesn’t feel as if it will be perfect in a month’s time. I expect a Zeiss lens to feel perfect in ten years’ time. I don’t expect it to feel like the first one did when new. I am a little worried that even my – good – lens may slacken up, develop inaccuracies with use and wear. I have paid my money, I’ve got a superb lens – probably the best zoom in its class from any maker – but I’m not convinced it will outlast my current camera.

I would not put anyone off buying this lens – nothing else offers the same range or the same bitingly sharp image – but you should be aware it’s not in the same build class as the Zeiss ZA 85mm f/1.4 or the ZA 135mm f/1.8 with their heavier barrels.

The Zeiss T* coating is entirely unlike former Minolta coatings, and gives the lens a much higher overall contrast with saturated, very neutral colours. You may find it a little clinical for portraits and a soft-focus filter plus some warming-up of white balance is advised. It has very good resistance to flare, but produces visible chromatic fringes at both extremes. These are readily corrected when processing raw files using Adobe Camera Raw (-30 at 16mm, +20 at 80mm, are good startpoints for red/cyan fringe correction). Distortion is noticeable at both extremes too, but in horizontal format architectural views like room interiors at 16mm it is not visible. Anything other than the thinnest of filters may produce a shadow in the extreme corners at 16mm, just visible in the abbey shot.

This lens has a performance which combined with reasonable speed and good close focusing should make it the reason to choose the Alpha system. It must be the ultimate travel companion. It’s a pity that mail order could be a lottery if my experience is in any way typical.

My final example lens, after further experience, turns out to have focusing issues which are clearly connected to the way the Alpha 100 autofocus works. It pays to focus at 80mm, lock the AF, and zoom back to 16mm rather than attempt AF at 16mm most of the time. Generally any error is masked by depth of field in normal shooting conditions. Indoors, in low light, 16mm focusing is very unreliable and errors depend on the particular sensor in use and the colour or illuminaton of the target.

You may also like to read my initial review of the Tamron 18-250mm f3.5-6.3 XR Di II IF-LD superzoom which is now available in Sony/Dynax A-mount.

Update

After two months of use as my main lens, the 16-80mm is showing no signs of slackening off. The zoom remains as firm as ever. With over 1,000 shots just completed in the south of France, the resistance of this lens to flare and its ability to cope with extreme lighting conditions meant no missed shots or spoiled frames.

After fitting a Haoda Fu split-image/microprism focusing screen, I found that misfocusing at 16-20mm became easier to detect, and as a result found out more about why and when the lens fails to focus accurately. The culprit is the user! I have always selected the strongest possible ‘target’ to aim the focus point out. An edge, a pattern, a well-lit clearly defined hard textured spot at the right distance. In fact, the lens focuses accurately if you deliberately avoid such targets and aim for low contrast, badly defined surfaces which would be the last thing a rangefinder user would pick to focus on.

The 16-80mm accomplishes its full focusing travel in under 3 turns of the Alpha 100 focusing coupler. In contrast, the Tamron 18-250mm takes over 10 turns. The 16-80mm set to 70mm focuses from 2m to 15m in about 1/15th of a second; the 70-200mm SSM, despite its legendary smoothness and quiet sonic motor focusing, takes 1/5th of a second to make the same adjustment. The 16-80mm is the fastest focusing zoom lens of all those I own.

This focusing speed is combined with the extra high contrast and sharpness of the lens. It means that if you aim at a perfect ‘focus target’, the lens will confirm sharp focus even when the real setting required has not been reached. It confirms focus when focus is good enough for the system.

Random candid shooting and rapid responses proved to me that when you do not purposefully select such perfect focus targets, the 16-80mm is more accurate. Later on I discovered that it will focus on plain subjects with very little texture or defined edge contrast, even at 16mm. When it does this, the focus is far more accurate. The system is having to adjust the lens more perfectly to achieve recognition of a sharp image.

So, pick difficult things for the lens to focus on, when working at the wide-angle end, not obvious focus targets. The success rate with the 16-80mm over a period has been very high. I find the minimum focus distance (maximum magnification) slightly restricting. In the Gorges du Vesque, a mountain pass which almost certainly features in the Tour de France, we stopped to take landscapes and discovered a paradise of butterflies – striking varieties not seen in Scotland, feeding from a meadow of wildflowers. Shirley’s Tamron 18-250mm was perfectly suited to framing and capturing them all – the CZ 16-80mm didn’t really get close enough for the smaller species. It was just right for the larger swallowtail butterflies, which were also much better at posing for the camera. As for the ‘bokeh’ at apertures like f/9 to f/11 – only just enough to get sufficient depth of field – it became fairly wiry, but that is something we expect from a modern Zeiss zoom design, unlike the smoothness of Minolta’s classic lenses.

Butterfly 1680

Swallowtail butterfly feeding CZ 16-80mm at 80mm, Alpha 100, ISO 200, 1/200th at f/9

For this trip I also took my 28mm f/2 and 100mm SF lenses, but the 16-80mm proved so versatile these were only used after dark for the benefit of their wider apertures.

Further update

The lens is surviving well into 2008, with several expeditions including some hot and dusty shooting in Egypt, torrential rain in Portugal and bumping around mountain roads in Gran Canaria. It has been used on the Alpha 700 with accurate focus all the time; the complaints about the Alpha 100 focusing errors disappear with the A700. The new A200 and A350 also seem to nail the focus correctly. It is looking scruffy, and attempts to clean the rubber ribbed grips fail as any type of cleaning cloth just makes them look worse.

We now (April 2008) also have the 16-105mm SAL lens, which weighs 25g more and appears to be built more accurately and solidly than the CZ. However, there’s no optical comparison. The CZ is between 1/3rd and 2/3rds of a stop faster at most focal lengths in the range, due to the way the apertures change as you zoom. You might think the SAL could be f/4.5 and 80mm if it’s f/5.6 at 105mm, but no such joy – it is f/4.5 by the time you are at 24mm, and f/5.6 all the way from 70mm to 105mm. Similarly, you might think the 16-105mm would focus closer or provide a large magnification, because of the longer focal length and nearly identical focusing distance. This is not the case and the CZ actually takes a slightly a larger close-up.

– David Kilpatrick, Maxwell Place, Kelso, Scotland – April 2007. All photographs © David Kilpatrick/Icon Publications Ltd. No part of this review may be reproduced without permission but you are free to quote individual comments, or link to images, so long as the URL is made visible and quoted text is properly acknowleged. A further review update based on longer-term use will appear in the Summer 2007 edition of ‘Photoworld’ magazine.


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