Sony FE 85mm F1.8 Lens Review
The Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 is a very popular lens and rational thinking has created this popularity.
While it has a variety of uses, the 85mm focal length screams portraits and portrait photography is very popular. Wide apertures such as this lens’s f/1.8 enable the creation of a strong background blur and permit low light action stopping, both features worth getting excited for. Everyone appreciates good image quality and this lens checks that box. The FE 85 f/1.8’s build quality seems nice, the design looks great, and the lens functions very well.
Those are all strong popularity-driving attributes but this lens’s very low price, currently the 5th lowest in Sony’s FE line-up, is a huge popularity factor.
With a prime lens, you get a single focal length that provides a single angle of view and for the lens to be useful, that angle of view must work for the intended subjects. Fortunately, there are many subjects that 85mm aligns with and the standout use is portrait photography.
Primarily for perspective reasons, the classic portrait focal length range is from 85mm through 135mm (after any FOVCF is applied). An 85mm lens hits the bottom classic range figure on a full-frame camera and, with a 127.5mm angle of view equivalent on an APS-C 1.5x body, it remains in the ideal portrait range on this format also. As always, an APS-C format camera requires a longer working distance to get the same framing as a full-frame camera (and therefore will have more depth of field and a less-strongly blurred background at the same aperture).
The “portrait photography” designation is a broad one that covers a wide variety of potential still and video use including subject framing variations ranging from moderately-tight headshots on full-frame to tight headshots on APS-C to full body portraits on either system with a wide variety of potential indoor and outdoor venues. Portrait subjects can range from infants to seniors, from individuals to large groups if sufficient working distance is available. Engagements, weddings, parties, events, theater, stage performances including concerts and recitals, families, small groups, senior adults, fashion, documentary, lifestyle … all are great uses for the 85mm focal length. There is often adequate space in even a small studio for portraiture with an 85mm-provided angle of view. I have done entire senior sessions with a wide aperture 85mm lens and subjects always love the results from this focal length.
That portrait photography is one of the best revenue-producing genres out there helps justify the acquisition cost of this lens (you cannot buy stock photos of most people). I also argue that there are no subjects more important than people.
Regardless of the camera format being used, the 85mm focal length can be useful for landscape photography. Some sports, such as basketball, can be captured with an 85mm lens, and thanks to the ultra-wide aperture, this lens can capture such events in very poorly-lit venues including gymnasiums. This focal length also works very well for products (medium through huge), commercial and general studio photography applications, and a wide range of other subjects. An 85mm lens is fun to simply take for a walk when looking for subjects, such as with street photography, if in the right environment. Or, just find subjects around the house.
The following images illustrate where 85mm fits into the focal length scale.
If your kit does not currently include the 85mm focal length, compare against a focal length you do have.
Each “stop” in aperture change (examples: f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6) increases or reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor by a factor of 2x (a big deal). At 85mm, most zoom lenses open no wider than f/2.8, giving the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens a 1 1/3 stop advantage. Among the 85mm prime lenses, the f/1.4 option is readily available, yielding a 2/3 stop disadvantage for this lens. The relatively-wide f/1.8 aperture design choice gives this lens a significant size, weight, and price advantage over all of those other wider aperture options.
The f/1.8 aperture allows a significant amount of light to reach the sensor, permitting a fast shutter speed useful for freezing action and camera motion in low light levels and/or the use of lower, less noisy ISO settings. This wide aperture is especially valuable after the sun sets, in the shade, and when shooting indoors, including indoors using only ambient light. A wider aperture typically results in improved low light AF performance.
Perhaps my favorite feature of a wide aperture lens is the strong background blur it can create. Increasing the aperture opening reduces the depth of field, creating a stronger background blur at the equivalent focal length. The shallow f/1.8 depth of field must be acceptable to you for the scenario at hand, but shallow depth of field can make a subject pop, isolated from a strongly blurred, non-distracting background, drawing the viewer’s attention to the subject. The 85mm short telephoto focal length is also an advantage in the creation of a strongly-blurred background.
Here is an aperture comparison:
Strongly blurred backgrounds are on this lens’s capabilities list.
The above image is an example of the maximum background blur this lens can produce. Let this lens unleash your inner artist.
This lens is not optically stabilized, but Sony generally takes care of that omission with Steady Shot or IBIS (In-Body Image Stabilization). On a traditional DSLR with an optical viewfinder, IBIS results in an unstabilized view, meaning that stabilization was not helpful for composition or for providing a still subject to the camera’s AF system. With EVFs being prevalent in Sony’s lineup, the viewfinder image is being read from the imaging sensor and that is stabilized. Therefore, the viewfinder image is very nicely stabilized and sensor-based AF takes advantage of the stabilized view for improved accuracy.
Prime lenses are praised for their image quality. However, just because it is a prime lens does not mean the image quality at that lens’s widest aperture is acceptable to you. The question is – is this lens sharp at f/1.8?
With a wide-open f/1.8 aperture, this lens delivers reasonable image sharpness throughout the full-frame image circle. In general, lenses are not as sharp at their wide-open apertures as they are when stopped down one or two stops. By f/2.8, most of this lens’s image circle is impressively razor-sharp and the extreme full-frame corners achieve the razor-sharp descriptor by f/5.6.
Below you will find sets of 100% resolution center of the frame crops captured in uncompressed RAW format using a Sony a7R III. The images were processed in Capture One using the Natural Clarity method with the sharpening amount set to only “30” on a 0-1000 scale. Note that images from most cameras require some level of sharpening but too-high sharpness settings are destructive to image details and hide the deficiencies of a lens.
In the center of the depth of field, this lens turns in reasonable sharpness at the center of the frame. A noticeable improvement shows at an only 1/3 stop narrower aperture, at f/2. The results are razor sharp at f/2.8.
A bit of focus shift, the plane of sharp focus moving forward or backward as the aperture is narrowed (residual spherical aberration or RSA), appears to be illustrated here. Watch the area of sharp focus move forward slightly at f/2.8.
Next, we’ll look at a comparison showing 100% extreme-top-left-corner crops captured and processed identically to the above center-of-the-frame images. These images were manually focused in the corner of the frame.
The f/1.8 results are decent for a corner and would be quite nice with some additional sharpening applied (and brightness increased). By f/2.8, the vignetting substantially clears, resulting in much-improved contrast. The f/4 corners are very nice and f/5.6 corners are quite impressive.
Corner sharpness does not always matter but it does matter for many disciplines including landscape photography. When I’m photographing landscapes with corner sharpness being desired, I’m probably using f/8 or f/11 to obtain enough depth of field for in-focus corner details and this lens works beautifully for this purpose at these apertures. When shooting at wide apertures, especially when capturing portraits, the corners are most often rendered out of focus. Videos captured at normal wide-aspect ratios also avoid the use of corners.
As mentioned and as usual, full-frame format cameras are going to capture some peripheral shading when using this lens at the widest apertures. The about 2.5 stops of corner shading at f/1.8 is quite noticeable though not too strong from a relative standpoint. At f/2.8, the vignetting is greatly diminished with just over one stop of shading remaining in the corners. Further reductions happen much more slowly until about 0.4 stops of shading shows in f/16 corners.
APS-C format cameras using lenses projecting a full-frame-sized image circle avoid most vignetting problems. In this case, the just-over 1 stop of shading showing at f/1.8 may be visible in some images, especially those with a solid color (such as a blue sky) showing in the corners.
Vignetting can be corrected during post-processing with increased noise in the brightened areas being the penalty or it can be embraced, using the effect to draw the viewer’s eye to the center of the frame. Study the pattern showing in our vignetting test tool to determine how your images will be affected.
The effect of different colors of the spectrum being magnified differently is referred to as lateral (or transverse) CA (Chromatic Aberration). Lateral CA shows as color fringing along lines of strong contrast running tangential (meridional, right angles to radii) with the mid and especially the periphery of the image circle showing the greatest amount as this is where the greatest difference in the magnification of wavelengths typically exists.
With the right lens profile and software, lateral CA is often easily correctable (often in the camera) by radially shifting the colors to coincide though it is always better to not have the problem in the first place. Any color misalignment present can easily be seen in the site’s image quality tool, but let’s also look at a worst-case example, a 100% crop from the extreme top left corner of an a7R III frame showing diagonal black and white lines.
There should be only black and white colors in these images and the additional colors are showing a modest presence of lateral CA.
A relatively common lens aberration is axial (longitudinal, bokeh) CA, which causes non-coinciding focal planes of the various wavelengths of light, or more simply, different colors of light are focused to different depths. Spherical aberration along with spherochromatism, or a change in the amount of spherical aberration with respect to color (looks quite similar to axial chromatic aberration but is hazier) are other common lens aberrations to look for. Axial CA remains at least somewhat persistent when stopping down with the color misalignment effect increasing with defocusing while the spherical aberration color halo shows little size change as the lens is defocused and stopping down one to two stops generally removes this aberration.
In the real world, lens defects do not exist in isolation with spherical aberration and spherochromatism generally found, at least to some degree, along with axial CA. These combine to create a less sharp, hazy-appearing image quality at the widest apertures.
In the examples below, look at the fringing colors in the out of focus specular highlights created by the neutrally-colored subjects. Any color difference is being introduced by the lens.
There is a very noticeable amount of color showing in the widest aperture samples.
Flare and ghosting are caused by bright light reflecting off of the surfaces of lens elements, resulting in reduced contrast and sometimes-interesting artifacts. This lens’s 9 element count (in 8 groups) is quite low, improving expectations for flare avoidance while the short telephoto focal length is somewhat disadvantaged in our sun in the corner of the frame testing. Only mild flaring is seen at f/1.8 and, as normal, flare effects increase as the aperture is narrowed with a moderate amount of flare effects showing at f/16.
Flare effects can be embraced or avoided, or removal can be attempted. Removal is sometimes very challenging and, in some cases, flare effects can be quite destructive to image quality.
Two lens aberrations that are particularly evident when shooting images of stars, mainly because bright points of light against a dark background make them easier to see. Coma occurs when light rays from a point of light spread out from that point, instead of being refocused as a point on the sensor. Coma is absent in the center of the frame, gets worse toward the edges/corners, and generally appears as a comet-like or triangular tail of light which can be oriented either away from the center of the frame (external coma), or toward the center of the frame (internal coma). Coma clears as the aperture is narrowed. Astigmatism is seen as points of light spreading into a line, either meridional (radiating from the center of the image) or sagittal (perpendicular to meridional). Remember that lateral CA is another aberration apparent in the corners.
The image below is a 100% crop taken from the top-right corner of an a7R III frame.
The brighter stars show some obvious stretching but the amount is not extreme.
A defect this lens delivers little of is geometric distortion. Expect your straight lines running along the edge of the frame to remain straight.
Most modern lenses have lens correction profiles available for the popular image processing software and distortion can be easily removed using these, but distortion correction is destructive at the pixel level as some portion of the image must be stretched or the overall dimensions must be reduced. It is much better to have a distortion-free lens.
The amount of blur a lens can produce is easy to show (and was shown earlier in the review) but assessing the blur quality is a much harder challenge due in part to the infinite number of variables present in all available scenes. That said, I like what I see. I’ll share some f/8 examples below.
In the first 100% crop example, the defocused highlights show aperture blade interaction at f/8 as expected but the shapes remain well-rounded and very smoothly filled. The second and third examples are reduced to 25% and then cropped and the last example is a full image reduced in size. These examples (and the others I’ve reviewed) look very nice to me.
Except for a small number of specialty lenses, the wide aperture bokeh in the corner of the frame does not produce round defocused highlights with these effects taking on a cat’s eye shape due to a form of mechanical vignetting. If you look through a tube at an angle, similar to the light reaching the corner of the frame, the shape is not round and that is the shape seen here.
As the aperture narrows, the entrance pupil size is reduced and the mechanical vignetting absolves with the shapes becoming round.
With a 9-blade count aperture, point light sources captured with a narrow aperture setting and showing a sunstar effect will have 18 points. Wide aperture lenses tend to have an advantage in this regard and this lens is capable of producing beautiful stars.
This f/16 sunstar has a good shape with each point being clearly defined.
The above illustration shows the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens design with the colored element being ED glass for chromatic aberration reduction.
Overall, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens is a very good performer from an optical perspective. Stop this lens down about a stop and it delivers very impressive image sharpness. Expect rather mild lateral CA and a more noticeable amount of color blur at wide apertures. Bokeh is nice, sunstars are nice, stars in the corner of the frame are not as nice but not terrible either, and vignetting is not unusually strong at f/1.8, eventually mostly resolving at narrower apertures.
“A double linear motor system directly drives the lens’s focus mechanism without intervening gears for precise, quiet operation that is ideal for movies as well as stills.” [Sony]
The Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens internally and nearly silently focuses with good accuracy, speed, and smoothness. With a wide aperture advantage, this lens focuses in very low light levels.
Unique among lenses of this class is an AF hold button. While in continuous focus mode, this button can be pressed to lock focus at the currently selected focus distance, permitting a focus and recompose technique. This button also acts as a custom button (C5) and can be programmed to another function using the camera’s menu (note that not all models are supported).
FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing is supported via Sony’s DMF (Direct Manual Focus) AF mode.
Normal is for the scene to change size in the frame (sometimes significantly) as focus is pulled from one extent to the other, referred to as focus breathing, a change in focal length resulting from a change in focus distance. Focus breathing negatively impacts photographers intending to use focus stacking techniques, videographers pulling focus, and anyone very-critically framing while adjusting focus. This lens shows a considerable change in subject size as full extent focus adjustments are made.
Focus distance marks are not provided but a focus distance meter will show in the electronic viewfinder during manual focusing.
The sharp/fine-ribbed non-rubberized focus ring is large and, being raised slightly from the lens barrel behind it, is easy to find. This ring is very smooth and has a somewhat-light amount of resistance. With about 149° of rotation, this linear response ring adjusts focus distance at an ideal rate, allowing precise manual focusing.
With a 31.5″ (800mm) minimum focus distance, the FE 85 f/1.8 generates a rather low 0.13x maximum magnification. When comparing this lens with a set of lenses in its class, we find this maximum magnification spec in the middle of the range that varies by only 0.02x.
ModelMFDMM Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens33.5″(850mm)0.13x Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens31.8″(807mm)0.12x Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens31.5″(800mm)0.13x Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens31.5″(800mm)0.14x Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens31.5″(800mm)0.12x
If you want an 85mm f/1.8 lens, this is (about) the maximum magnification you are going to get. A subject measuring approximately 11 x 7.3″ (279 x 186mm), about the size of an adult head, will fill the frame at the minimum focus distance and with portraits being one of this lens’s specialties, that capability is very adequate.
Need a shorter minimum focus distance and greater magnification? An extension tube mounted behind this lens should provide a nice decrease and increase respectively. Extension tubes are hollow lens barrels that shift a lens farther from the camera, which permits shorter focusing distances at the expense of long-distance focusing. Electronic connections in extension tubes permit the lens and camera to communicate and otherwise function as normal. Sony does not publish extension tube specs nor do they manufacture these items, but third-party Sony extension tubes are available.
This lens is not compatible with Sony teleconverters.
Build Quality & Features
As usual for Sony’s lenses, this one is aesthetically attractive, primarily featuring a semi-gloss black finish that includes the non-rubberized focus ring.
Sony provides an AF/MF switch on this lens, a feature I appreciate and that is unfortunately being omitted on many current model lenses.
According to Sony, this lens is dust- and moisture-resistant. However, the mount does not appear to have a gasket seal, creating concern for not only moisture penetration into the lens but also into the camera body.
The 85mm focal length paired with an f/1.8 aperture yields a relatively compact design with a modest weight that is comfortable to carry for long periods.
ModelWeight oz(g)Dimensions w/o Hood “(mm)FilterYear Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens15.0(425)3.0 x 2.8(75.0 x 72.0)581992 Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens12.4(350)3.1 x 2.8(80.0 x 70.0)672012 Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens13.1(371)3.1 x 3.2(78.0 x 82.0)672017 Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens24.7(700)3.3 x 3.6(84.8 x 91.3)672016 Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens28.9(820)3.5 x 4.2(89.5 x 107.5)772016
For many more comparisons, review the complete Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens Specifications using the site’s lens specifications tool.
When holding the grip of the Sony A7R III and a7R IV with this lens mounted, my fingers are uncomfortable against the lens.
Here is a visual comparison:
Positioned above from left to right are the following lenses:
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens Nikon 85mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens
The same lenses are shown below with their hoods in place.
Use the site’s product image comparison tool to visually compare the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens to other lenses.
The FE 85mm f/1.8 provides common and relatively small 67mm filter threads.
As always, Sony includes the hood in the box and this time it is the semi-rigid plastic ALC-SH150 Lens Hood. This hood features a matte interior for reflection avoidance but does not feature a push-button release though bayonet mounting is still easy. The rounded shape means you can stand the lens on that end, even with the camera attached, in situations where you are comfortable doing so.
No lens case is included in the box, but finding a case for a common lens form factor is not challenging. Consider a Lowepro Lens Case or Think Tank Photo Lens Case Duo for a quality, affordable single-lens storage, transport, and carry solution.
As always, the caps are included.
Price, Value, Wrap Up
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens is currently the 5th least expensive lens in Sony’s FE line-up. That low price goes a long way toward creating a strong value and this lens’s other qualities come alongside to make this lens a great deal.
As an “FE” lens, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens is compatible with all Sony E-mount cameras, including both full-frame and APS-C sensor format models. Sony provides a 1-year limited warranty.
The reviewed Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens was online-retail sourced.
Alternatives to the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens
Within the Sony line-up, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens is the closest alternative option.
In the image quality comparison with both lenses wide open, the f/1.8 lens shows a slight sharpness advantage. Fairer is to compare at equal apertures. At f/2, the f/1.4 lens has a big advantage and by f/4, differences in sharpness become difficult to recognize. The f/1.4 lens has slightly less lateral CA. The two lenses have a similar amount of peripheral shading wide open which gives the f/1.4 lens a noticeable advantage at equivalent wide apertures. Stopped down, the two lenses perform similarly in this regard.
Looking at the specs and measurements, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens vs. Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens comparison shows the f/1.4 lens being very considerably larger and heavier. The GM lens has 11 aperture blades vs. 9 and takes 77mm filters vs. 67mm. As a GM lens with a 2/3 stop wider aperture, it is not a surprise that the f/1.4 lens is considerably more expensive. That the price difference factor is 3x will be the sole deciding factor for many photographers. Professionals and serious amateurs will want the wider aperture, higher-grade GM lens.
A Canon equivalent is the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens which requires mount adapter for use on the Sony E-mount. With a 25-year difference in age, it is not surprising that the image quality comparison strongly favors the Sony lens until the apertures are narrowed to f/4. The Canon lens has less peripheral shading including when stopped down.
Looking at the specs and measurements, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens vs. Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens comparison shows the Canon lens to be slightly smaller and slightly heavier. The Sony lens has 9 aperture blades vs. 8 and 67mm filter threads vs. 58mm. Being considerably less expensive than the Sony lens is the primary advantage of the Canon lens. Factor the mount adapter in for this sole purpose and there is little reason for a Sony camera owner to choose the Canon lens over the Sony lens.
Another interesting comparison is against the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens which also requires a mount adapter for E-mount use. The image quality comparison shows the Sony lens to be considerably sharper in the center of the frame though the Tamron lens performs slightly better in the periphery. These differences hold into narrower apertures. These two lenses differ little in other image quality regards.
Looking at the specs and measurements, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens vs. Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens comparison shows the Tamron lens to be modestly larger and noticeably heavier. The Tamron lens has built-in vibration control but Sony’s IBIS at least partially offsets this difference. The Tamron’s moderately higher price tag will likely seal the decision in favor of the Sony lens for those currently having Sony cameras (and the adapter may extend that difference).
Use the site’s comparison tools to create additional comparisons.
If you are on a tight budget but looking for a good portrait lens, look no further. The Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens has your name on it.
The 85mm focal length is perfect for portrait photography and is well-suited for many other subjects. The image sharpness this lens creates is impressive if stopped down modestly. The AF system performs well including in low light and the size and weight of this lens invite long-term use. The low price seals the deal.
The Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Lens is a great value.
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