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The Curious Case of the Wide-Normal Primes – Sony 28mm f/2 vs. Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 Distagon

The wide-normal prime is somewhat of an oddity. Nestled between the 17mm & 20mm ultra-wides and the 35mm & 40mm normals, the wide-normal primes sit comfortably, or awkwardly (depending on who you ask), in the 24mm to 28mm range.

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Shot handheld with a Sony 28mm f/2. The wide-normal prime is arguably the most versatile consumer prime lens.

In this lens shootout, we took two of the newest and most anticipated primes for the Sony FE mount to the Orange County County Fair. The County Fair is a public event that brings family and friends together for carnival games, petting zoos, and bacon. Lots and lots of bacon.

In typical iLHP lens review fashion, our tests will be broken down in several rounds as listed below:

  1. Sharpness and Distortion
  2. Vignetting and Flare
  3. Bokeh and 3D Pop
  4. Field of View
  5. Real World Handling

The Contenders & Their Specs

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(c) John vR @ photographicwanderings.com. Despite the Batis’ larger size, it doesn’t weigh that much more than the Sony, and it’s materials are beautiful.

On the left, weighing in at a welterweight of 335g with a $1,299 price tag, is the brand new OLED displayed Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 Distagon. On the right, weighing in at a featherweight 200g with an equally wallet-easy $448 price tag, is the Sony 28mm f/2.

Both have completely silent AF systems. Both come with pedal-shaped lens hoods. The Zeiss blows the Sony out of the water in terms of build quality, what with its high quality plastics that resemble metal and the world’s first OLED focus scale. But at almost 3x the price, the build quality is expected and, honestly, necessary. The Sony is minimal yet still built very well. No complaints for either lenses then.

Round 1: Sharpness and Distortion

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Wide open, the Batis is ever so slightly sharper in the center than the Sony.

A petting zoo reminded us of the county fair’s agrarian roots. Sheep, pigs, donkeys, and even cows, this petting zoo had a little bit of everything, including one extra friendly goat that liked to nibble on our t-shirts.

To the naked eye, sharpness is excellent for both lenses. This is really a testament to the less expensive Sony as SLRGear’s lab test on the Sony 28mm showed highly respectable performance across the entire frame.

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The Orange County Fair had the friendliest goats we’ve ever seen. That’s until they started gnawing on my t-shirt.

During my pixel-peeping, the Zeiss is ever so slightly sharper than the Sony 28mm. There is no sense in splitting hairs here either. But until I can link to a respectable lab test from the likes of PhotoZone.de, DPReview, or SLRGear (not DxOMark, of course), that’s the impression we got.

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Zeiss Batis 25mm corrected for distortion and vignetting in LightRoom. The profile used was for Zeiss Distagon 25mm f/2 ZF.2

It is notable that both lenses have some barrel distortion. According to third-party tests, the Sony 28mm has up to 1.875% barrel distortion whereas the Zeiss Batis 25mm has 1.5% (note comparable Canon and Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lenses have barrel distortion in the 1.4% range, so the Batis is par for the course) . I don’t want to blow this out of proportions as they are not Rokinon/Samyang bad by any means, as some of those lenses has up to 5% barrel distortion and they can still create beautiful images.

In sum, despite being wider and faster, the Zeiss Batis 25mm is sharper and has less barrel distortion than the Sony 28mm.

Round 2: Vignetting and Flare

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Strange flaring problem on the Sony 28mm f/2 shots.

As the sun fell from the sky, the lights flickered on at the carnival games. Haunted houses, mouse trap roller-coasters, and win-the-giant-teddy-bear games filled the air with laughter, excitement, and bells & whistles.

We noticed something odd when processing the Sony 28mm photos. There seemed to be a significant ghosting issue/flare with the lens (as you can see above). Points of light were blurry and dull, despite the lens having its usual multi-coating.

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Click to see a larger size

We compared side-by-side shots with the Batis and the difference was noticeable. Whereas the Batis had crisp sun-stars from the overhead halogen lights, Sony’s renderings were blurry. While surely this isn’t a deal breaker, it is something to take into account when making your purchase, especially if you plan on using the Sony mainly for night photography. Zeiss wins here again.

Round 3: Bokeh and 3D Pop

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The Zeiss Batis 25mm had a surprising amount of pop for its focal length.

Being rather wide lenses, I didn’t expect either to have great bokeh or pop. Depth-of-field, focal length, subject distance, and aperture are interrelated. The wider you go, the harder it is to throw the background out of focus. That’s just physics. A 20mm f/1.4 will have less background blur than a 200mm f/4.

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A tighter crop of the shot above. Shot on the Zeiss Batis 25mm, at f/1.8, and about 4 feet away from the models.

Both lenses pleasantly surprised us in terms of bokeh and pop. The Zeiss had beautiful out-of-focus separation. The areas in-focus and out-of-focus were abrupt and well controlled. While the amount of blur isn’t going to blow anybody away for sure, Zeiss lenses always seem to control the transition between the focused and the unfocused really well.

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The Sony also performed very well, with very pleasing and clean bokeh, without a hint of swirling. It’s quite hard to tell the difference between the two from the comparison shot above. We could give credit to Zeiss for the excellent bokeh at such a wide focal length. Or we could give credit to Sony for excellent bokeh at such a reasonable price. For this category, we’re going to call it a tie.

Round 4: Field of View

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We suggest bacon wrapped pickles. They are delicious.

Brightly typographed signs for bacon-wrapped foods reminded us of why county fairs were so fun. It’s not that we should, but we could, that makes this concept so beautiful.

The 24mm focal length itself is really nothing special. Most photographers owning a 24-70mm f/2.8 or a 24-105mm f/4 zoom is already familiar with the limitations of the 24. For really tight indoor work or certain landscape photographies, a 24mm is not going to cut it. You’ll need ultra-wides from 20mm down.

But there is a good reason to own a fast 24mm or 25mm prime lens. If you want a large aperture wide-angle lens, the 24mm is most likely where you’l stop, because anything wider is going to start with a f/2.8 (the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art notwithstanding of course).

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The Sony 28mm has a 75 degree angle of view, whereas the Zeiss Batis has a 82 degree angle of view. However, the 3mm and 7 degree of difference is very noticeable, especially in a tight spot.

Three millimeters makes a huge difference down low in the focal range. As you can see above, the 25mm has significantly wider field of view than the 28mm.

Arguably, the 28mm has always been a bit of the poor man’s 35mm. The 35mm is the standard street photographer’s lens revered by photojournalists, fashion photographers, and Leica-philes everywhere. There’s the Summilux, the Summicron, and the EF 35mm 1.4L. Almost every brand has a budget-friendly 28mm prime. It’s not wide enough to pass off as a wide angle and it’s not normal enough to be free of distortions. It is the jack-of-all-trades and a master-of-none.

So depending what you want, this could go either way here right? Well, there’s really no reason to specifically own a 28mm prime other than the fact that they’re more affordable (but there’s nothing wrong with that). You don’t seek out a 28mm for it’s unique optical qualities. The Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 has the advantage here because not only is it wider and just as fast as the Sony 28mm, but it gives photographers something that no other lens has, and that is, a large aperture on a wide-angle lens.

Round 5: Real World Handling

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There’s really nothing to complain about in this category for either lenses. They both focus very quickly and very silently. Although the Zeiss Batis has a lot thicker girth than the Sony, the weigh about the same and we didn’t feel burdened by either one.

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American decadence at its best/worst. Bacon wrapped turkey legs. These babies were about $20 a pop.

The Zeiss Batis has a slight edge in terms of focusing accuracy. There is less hunting in low-light than the Sony, but really, the difference was minimal. Both lenses performed brilliantly and we’d be happy to mount either one for a long day of shooting.

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Fair foods are one of the biggest attractions at any county fair. They even had bacon flavored cotton candy.

Built quality wise, the Sony is utilitarian and gets the job done. The Zeiss is luxurious but has the price to match. The Zeiss has the added OLED distance scale display. But honestly, how often does any of us use the distance scale?

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We’re calling another tie here, just because both lenses handle great and we honestly have very little complaints for either one.

Conclusions

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Zeiss Batis comes in first but the Sony is a close second.

So the $1,299 question on all of your minds is which lens is better when taking price into account. Although the $448 Sony 28mm f/2 is bested in three categories, it came in a close second and is only a third of the price of the Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2. On paper, the Sony makes the most sense for being the better bang for its buck. However, prosumer photography has really changed so much over the last few years in that the low-end market has really bottomed out. Holiday shoppers and amateur consumers have pretty much stopped buying DSLRs and interchangeable lens cameras. But those still in the game, like you and I, value quality and longevity in our investments more than anything else.

Despite the fact that the Sony 28mm f/2 is a great bang for buck, I don’t see professionals relying on this lens as a working tool. While it’s great as a single-lens to take on a family vacation, it’s too distorted for commercial portrait work and it’s not wide enough to be the single wide-angle lens to rely on. The Sony/Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar is smaller, has much better distortion control, and is at the perfect focal length for portrait and street photography work. Hovering around the $540 mark for excellent condition used copies, we would choose the Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 over the 28mm.

The Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2 is beautifully made with excellent optics but it’s just a bit too expensive. The faster Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 prime is only slightly more costly at $1,449 (although the economies of scale really makes a Canon vs. Zeiss price comparison unfair). The Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art is even less expensive at only $849. However, professionals and prosumers looking for the best native FE-mount lens in the category really wouldn’t have to look any further than the Batis. You’ll be happy with every click of the shutter.

If you are looking at and can afford the Batis 25mm f/2, know that settling for the Sony 28mm is most definitely a downgrade. If you can’t afford the Batis 25mm and looking for ammunition for discussion forums on why the Sony is a better lens, you won’t find it here.


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