Sony branded Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnnar T* 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA lens, first released in late 2008, is marketed as a premium UWA zoom that can be used in most demanding and challenging situations. To many, this sounds like a 'high-price', and the lens certainly meets this expectation - as of early 2012, the lens is priced at $1,899, although the price is posed to go up by another $100 sometime in mid-year, based on the Internet rumors flying around. This puts the Vario-Sonnar 16-35/2.8 ZA into higher end of the price bucket for the comparable lenses from Sony's main competitors - Canon's 12-35/2.8L Mk2 is currently priced at ~$1,600, while Nikon's older 17-35/2.8D also goes for $1,600.
The optical contraction of the lens consists of 17 elements in 13 groups, including 3 aspherical surfaces. The build quality of the lens is superb, with all metal barrel and rubberized focusing and zoom rings. The lens measures 82x114mm (3.35x4.5in) and weighs 860g (1.14lb). The lens has a fully electronic aperture control, set from the camera. Minimum aperture is f/22. Sony used its high-end SSM AF motor in this premium lens, which promises silent and fast auto-focus. Manual focus is also possible, assuming you switch the lens into MF mode. The front element of the lens does not rotate during focusing/zooming and so you can use a circular and linear polarizers without any problems. The filter thread is 77mm. The minimum focusing distance is 30cm (12in).
The lens was designed for full frame cameras, but can be used on any Sony APS-C as well as NEX camera (using an Alpha->NEX adapter offered by Sony). On APS-C bodies the lens would produce EFOV of 24-48mm. The manufacturer's box includes the lens, front and rear caps, petal-shaped metal lens hood, soft lens pouch, manual and registration cards. Within the scope of this review the lens was tested on a 24Mp full frame Sony a850.
|Lens Composition||17 elements in 13 groups|
|Angular Field||107-63 degrees|
|f-stop Scale||f/2.8-f/22, electronic|
|Lens Hood||Metal (included)|
|Lens Case||Soft lens pouch (included)|
|Retail Price||$1,899 (2012), $1,899 (2009)|
Very early in the development cycle, Sony made a strategic decision to partner with Carl Zeiss and release several premium quality lenses for the Sony Alpha mount. This decision can be partially attributed to the fact that Sony was a newcomer in the DSLR world and needed to differentiate itself from the other two behemoths in the market - Canon and Nikon. While this partnership has generated a lot of excitement among users and caused quite a few to switch platforms, the roll-out of Zeiss designed lenses has been slow and limited so far. Lately, it seems that Sony is using Carl Zeiss like a precision instrument - boosting Sony's reputation and excitement about the platform, rather than as a mainstream strategy. This is becoming all too clear with the roll-out of Sony's own DT 16-50/2.8 SSM lens, which now directly competes with the Carl Zeiss designed DT Vario-Sonnar 18-80/3.5-4.5 and even to some degree with the Vario-Sonnar 16-35/2.8. There is certainly more money left for Sony when it sells its own lens since I bet that Carl Zeiss licensing fees are probably quite hefty.
As far as I can tell, the the direct predecessor of the Vario-Sonnar 16-35/2.8 ZA is the Contax N version of the lens - the Vario-Sonnar 17-35/2.8. A fine lens in its own time, Contax N 17-35/2.8 was in turn a new design for Zeiss and the only f/2.8 zoom lens up until the introduction of the new Sony lineup, but discontinued abruptly when Kyocera, licensor of the Contax brand name, discontinued its camera operations.
But enough with theories. Like its sibling, the Vario-Sonnar 24-70/2.8, Vario-Sonnar 16-35/2.8 is a fairly large and heavy lens. Same high quality metal barrel, very well damped rubberized focusing and zoom rings. The main difference in constraction though is the inner focusing/zoom design employed in 16-35/2.8, which keeps the length of the lens constant at all settings. The center of weight is shifted towards the tip of the lens, which would put more strain on your wrist if you try holding the camera/lens combo with one hand for too long. The same metal barrel that we admire, adds quite a bit of weight here. But at least the lens can withstand some heavy abuse and would not crack when you accidentally bang it on something hard, like many of the more consumer-oriented lenses.
The lens offers all the standard features that one would expect from a modern zoom. There is an AF/MF switch on the side of the barrel, and a focus lock button, which can be re-programmed from the camera's menu.The focusing ring is decoupled from the AF motor and does not rotate during focusing, however, you can use the ring to adjust focusing when the camera is in DMF mode. The focusing ring does not have an infinity or MFD stop and so rotates past the marks, but with no affect on the focusing itself. The AF itself is reasonably fast and is certainly better that the older style, pin-driven focusing mechanism, present in Planar 85/1.4 and Sonnar 135/1.8 lenses. However, the lens does hunt extensively at close distances and in low contrast conditions - limitations of the contrast detection focusing mechanism more than the lens itself. Manual focusing is also possible, but does not offer much precision - the ring rotates for ~80 degrees when going from the infinity to the MFD.