Although I’ve been shooting with fixed lens compact cameras for the past few years (currently, a Sony RX1 paired with the fantastic Sony RX100 V), I’ve recently been looking to get back to an interchangeable lens system. I’ve found myself doing more and more video lately, and while the RX100 V is a superb (!) video shooter, I do miss getting the depth of field control offered by a larger sensor. If Sony comes out with an RX1R III with video specs in-line with their interchangeable lens line, I may prefer that. But since there isn’t even any valid rumor of an RX1R III in the pipeline, I’m naturally looking at the Sony a7 line, among others.
With the recent announcement of the Sony a7 III full-frame camera, Sony has really thrown down the gauntlet. This camera is a specs-monster. If you’re a hybrid shooter, it’s really one of the most appealing cameras right now. The flexibility of full-frame for stills shooting, and video-features that are not crippled, despite this being their entry-level full frame body.
But of course, I don’t just want to go in and get the best of the best lenses. I have practically zero interest in carrying large lenses. I want what’s best for my purposes. That means that the priority is to keep it as small as possible, as simple as possible. I’m willing to make certain sacrifices, in the name of portability and weight.
Naturally, I looked up the smallest full-frame lenses available for Sony E-mount. I was actually surprised that it is possible to build a relatively small Sony FE lens kit. The most obvious choice is the tiny Sony Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8. But another wide option (and the subject of this article) is the very interesting, and very well priced Sony FE 28mm f/2 lens.
For something longer, you’ve got the budget nifty fifty: the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8, or the widely popular Sony Zeiss Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8. For a portrait lens, you’ve got the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8, probably one of the best value lenses in the entire Sony FE line-up.
Not too bad. It’s entirely possible to make a lightweight trinity or combo. 28mm + 50/55mm; 35mm + 85mm or 28/55/85 etc…
It’s not going to be as small as a micro-four thirds set-up, but considering you’re shooting full frame, and are able to take advantage of Sony’s superb eye AF, these lenses are pretty compact. Almost as light and small as some APS-C set-ups too.
I also looked up some manual focus only choices, such as the well reviewed Voigtlander 40mm f/1.2 (manual focus only, but it is a native E-mount lens), and I dug deeper. And then I had a crazy idea…
But first, the Leica WATE and MATE
In 1998 (20 years ago!), Leica introduced the Tri-Elmar ASPH, a 28-35-50mm f/4 lens. It wasn’t a zoom lens, but it bundled 3 useful focal lengths in one lens. In 2006, Leica followed this up with a wide-angle Tri-Elmar, featuring 16-18-21mm focal lengths. The former is more popularly called the MATE (medium-angle Tri-Elmar) while the latter is called the WATE (wide-angle Tri-Elmar).
The MATE was discontinued in 2007, but the WATE is still in production, and can be had for the usual Leica prices.
Now, about that crazy idea I was talking about…
Enter the Sony FE 28mm f/2.0
The Sony FE 28mm f/2.0 is one of the more compact (and affordable) full frame options for the Sony E-mount. It’s roughly 2.5 inches in length, weighs just under 200 grams, and takes 49mm filters. As far as size and weight goes, this is perfect as a walk-around or travel lens. The weight also means its fairly easy to balance it on a gimbal.
The mount is metal, but the lens is made largely of plastic, not unexpected at this price point. Despite the plastic, it is well built though. It’s also dust and moisture resistant, a nice bonus at this price point.
At f/2, it’s perfect for low light, and the rounded aperture blades allow for some smooth bokeh rendering. The linear motor (meaning, the optic element doesn’t move in and out) allows for smooth and silent focusing, great for filming.
It’s not the sharpest lens, but at this price point I don’t expect biting sharpness. It’s more than good enough for my purposes.
I’m a huge fan of the 28mm FOV. Wide enough to provide drama to a shot, but not too wide that it becomes too hard to use for people shots. One of my favorite cameras of all time, the Ricoh GR (check out my real world review here), had a 28mm equivalent lens, and my current Sony RX1, officially has a 35mm lens, but it’s field of view is more like a 32mm lens.
Ok, so it’s a great lens for the price, it’s also nice and compact, and at f/2 it’s plenty versatile. But it’s still just a 28mm lens, how can it be the poor man’s Tri-Elmar?
Well, because it can turn into a 21-28-42mm lens! Well, sort of. 😉
One of the best features of the Sony FE28mm is that Sony also makes a conversion lens for it – one that turns the lens into a 21mm f/2.8 lens. We’ll talk about how to get that 42mm-equivalent in a bit.
There is also another conversion lens – one that turns the FE28 into a 16mm f/3.5 fish eye, but it’s not really something that interests me. I guess if you like the occasional fish eye, you could also get this adapter and turn your FE28 into a 16-21-28-42mm.
The Sony 21mm Ultra-wide conversion lens:
Otherwise known as the Sony SEL075UWC, this adapter screws on to the front of the Sony FE 28mm and turns the lens into a 21mm f/2.8 lens. There are no caveats here. It works just like it would if you had a 21mm f/2.8 lens. Full AF, IBIS automatically recognizes the new focal length, EXIF data gets recorded etc..
The conversion lens is made of plastic, with 4 elements. Despite being plastic, it’s still got a bit of heft to it, and it will make the lens front heavy. But it’s not too bad. It adds about 2.5 inches to the front of the FE28mm. This is still one of the most compact ways to get a 21mm AF equivalent on a full frame camera.
The combo focuses just as fast as the FE28mm only and from what I’ve seen, image quality is pretty much the same as the FE28mm by itself. No, it won’t beat having the 16-35mm, or some other UWA, but like I said above, I’m willing to make certain sacrifices in the name of convenience and size/weight.
Here’s a Flickr Group with lots of real world samples: Sony SEL-075UWC 21mm Flickr Group.
The biggest downside, for my purposes, is that the conversion lens does not have a front filter thread. But still, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. Serious landscapers won’t be interested in this combo (or the FE28mm) anyway, and if you’re filming S-LOG in daylight (ISO 1600), you likely won’t need the DOF of an f/2.8 on a 21mm lens anyway, so you can just up your aperture as needed.
To me, getting this conversion lens is almost a no-brainer. It’s fairly cheap, takes up very little space in a bag, and provides a useful focal length for just a bit more size and weight.
It’s not the best set-up for serious landscape shooters, but for street photographers, documentary shooters, or just those of use whose priority is size and weight, it’s a compelling option.
So, now that we’ve worked out how to turn the FE28mm into a 21mm, how do we get to 42mm?
The Sony crop mode
Yep, really. Yes, it’s no different from cropping in post, and is also sort of, kind of like using the FE28mm on a crop-sensor camera like the Sony a6500 or Sony a6700 or a7000 or whatever is coming next.
If you weren’t aware, Sony full-frame bodies have a crop mode or a super35 mode (in video) which basically gives you a 1.5x crop of the full frame sensor. So it’s basically APS-C.
No, this will NOT turn the FE28mm into a 42mm lens, it simply gives you the field of view of a 42mm lens, with the depth of field characteristics of a 28mm f/2 lens. Again, it’s sort of similar to attaching the FE28mm on a crop-sensor body like the a6500 or a6300.
What is the image size or resolution in crop mode?
The downside of this is that you lose resolution. On the 24 megapixel bodies like the Sony a9, Sony a7ii or Sony a7iii, crop mode effectively leaves you with 10 megapixels. On the higher resolution 42 megapixel bodies like the A7Rii and A7Riii, crop mode leaves you with just under 20 megapixels.
You don’t buy a full frame camera to shoot in crop mode, you heathen! Yes, I can already hear a lot of people yelling that at me. 😉
The loss of resolution is a deal breaker for a lot of people, but I personally find it to be a nice option. If you’ve got the time to switch lenses, sure, do so. If you really like shooting in the 40-60mm range, then you’re definitely much better off getting a dedicated lens in that range – maybe the FE50mm f/1.8, Sony Zeiss Sonnar 55mm f/1.8 or perhaps the intriguing Voigtlander 40mm f/1.2 instead.
Crop mode is simply there to give you options.
For those of us who just want the occasional extra reach without needing to carry an extra lens that won’t get used a lot, having a 21-28-42mm equivalent lens in one compact and lightweight package is pretty appealing. Pair the FE28mm with the relatively inexpensive Sony FE85mm f/1.8 and you’ve got yourself a killer combo. Fast, lightweight and compact. A relatively inexpensive budget kit that isn’t that much larger or heavier than crop sensor equivalents.
Now, it’s important to note that using the in-camera crop mode is really no different from cropping in post. So why not just crop in Lightroom or your favorite editing software? Sure, this might actually be a better option, because you will likely end up with more resolution than the in-camera crop mode. But the big advantage of using crop mode in-camera is that you get to frame your shot as-is while shooting, instead of deciding your frame while post-processing. To me, this makes all the difference.
In video, this is significantly more useful. For video, crop mode is basically Super 35 mode (it’s a film format that is very close to APS-C) and on the 42 megapixel bodies that shoot 4K video, such as the Sony A7R2 and the A7R3, shooting in Super 35 actually results in higher quality video vs shooting in full frame. It remains to be seen whether this is true on the upcoming A73, but some early reviews indicate that full frame video is much improved on the A73.
For some of you, using crop mode on a full frame body might be taking it a step too far, and you’d rather just buy that 55mm lens or that lovely Voigtlander 40mm. But like I said, this is simply an option out there for those wanting some extra flexibility, without the hassle of changing lenses or without needing to carry an extra lens or without buying another lens.
The other poor man’s Tri-Elmar:
Another lens that I’ve become quite curious about is for the Fujifilm X system – specifically, one of their “kit lenses”. The Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-f/4 kit lens. Fuji made quite a splash when they released this kit lens, featuring an f/2.8 aperture at the wide end (27mm-equivelant field of vies) and a very respectable f/4 at the telephoto end (that’s a full stop faster than pretty much any other kit lens in this range). This kit lens is quite unlike the typical kit lens you get from other brands, and in my opinion is one of the lenses that any X-mount user should own.
It’s a relatively small lens, it has image stabilization, it has an aperture ring, it’s built better than almost any kit lens and is sharp across its range, even when shooting wide-open. It’s really quite a beauty.
The f/2.8 at the wide end is only half-a stop faster than most kit lenses, but it’s the f/4 at the telephoto end which adds to its versatility. Most kit lenses are at f/5.6, so f/4 is a full stop faster. That could mean the difference between using ISO 6400 vs ISO 12800. That could be the difference between a useable image and a throw-away.
Fuji 18-55mm aperture range:
The f/2.8 aperture is only at the 18mm end though (28mm-equivalent FOV). Here’s how the Fuji 18-55mm kit lens
18mm (27mm-equivalent FOV): f/2.8
23mm (35mm-equivalent FOV): f/3.2
30mm (45mm-equivalent FOV:) f/3.6
42mm (63mm-equivalent FOV:) f/4
It’s then able to maintain f/4 for the rest of the range, up to 55mm (82.5mm-equivalent FOV). Now maybe you see why it’s also a possible Tri-Elmar.
I can hear you thinking – ‘yeah right, any zoom can be a “Tri-Elmar” then. I can even get a constant f/2.8 zoom and have a faster Tri-Elmar!’ I say you’re missing the point. What makes this lens unique is the combination of the relatively wider apertures, the relatively compact size, and the image quality when used wide-open.
Sure, a constant f/2.8 zoom or a 24-105mm f/4 lens for full frame will likely be “better” than this lens – but that will come at the expense of size and portability.
Factor in the in-lens optical image stabilization, and it just gets more versatile. This is especially important since most Fuji bodies don’t have sensor-based stabilization. At this time, there is only one Fuji camera with in-body image stabilization (IBIS): the Fuji X-H1, and it’s the largest body they currently make. The relative faster aperture + ability to hand hold at lower shutter speeds will open up more possibilities compared to a typical slower zoom lens. It won’t help you when shooting moving subjects – since you want to be shooting at faster shutter speeds – but for static scenes in lower light, image stabilization just might give you that extra help to allow you to get the shot.
Because I value size and portability, I mostly gravitate towards prime lenses. I ignore most zooms, since the good ones are large and heavy, and the small ones are typically crappy kit lenses, made with a lot of compromises that, to me, are not worth the convenience of being able to zoom. I don’t dislike zooms, they have their place. But I generally prefer shooting primes – they are fast, they are small. As you can tell by the name of this site, I prefer smaller cameras and lenses, whenever possible. The Fuji 18-55 f/2.8-f/4 is a rare exception. It’s a fantastic walk-around and travel zoom lens. Pair this with a fast prime of your preferred focal length (e.g. the excellent Fuji 23mm f/1.4 or the Fuji 35mm f/1.4) and you’ve got yourself a high quality, light weight kit that won’t weigh you down while traveling.
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