Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Review – Best Value for Money Sony Portrait Lens
85mm is my absolute favorite focal length when it comes to portraits: it perfectly preserves the subject’s physiognomy, it has great separation and it’s very versatile, allowing you to shoot both headshots, half-body and full-body portraits.
There was a time when Sony E-Mount shooters could only get two native solutions: the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM [Amazon | B&H] or the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 [Amazon | B&H]. They’re both amazing lenses, but would you be willing to spend over a thousand bucks if you’re just starting out or portraiture isn’t your main field?
If the answer is no, I’ve got a great news for you: Sony has just released an 85mm at just $598, and I love it.
You can get this lens at the following links: Amazon | B&H | eBay
Now, let’s see why with my Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 Review!
Dimensions & Weight
The lens measures 3.07 x 3.23″ (78 x 82 mm) and it weights just 13.09 oz (371 g).
From the picture below you can see in fact that it looks pretty small, and it perfectly goes along with the mirrorless body of the Sony a7RII [Amazon | B&H].
Being light and compact, this lens is easy to carry around and it’s very pleasant to handle.
For additional grip and comfort, especially when shooting in portrait mode, I highly suggest you get a battery grip; it will make your life much easier (both in terms of handling and battery life) making your camera will look even cooler. I use the original one from Sony, the VGC2EM [Amazon | B&H]; if you wish to save some money though, you can check out some third-party solutions like these ones on [Amazon | B&H]
We definitely can’t expect the same build quality of the G Master version (also because the GM costs 3 times more), still, this lens is nicely built. It is entirely made of plastic although the material has been treated to look like aluminum, so it will still look slick on your camera.
At first, I actually thought it was made in aluminum, but when I touched the lens I could feel that it was warmer than my aluminum Sony/Zeiss lenses.
Sony declares this lens to be dust and moisture-resistant, although a tiny note on their website says “Not guaranteed to be 100% dust and moisture-proof.”; let’s just say I wouldn’t use it under a tropical storm, but everything should be fine with a few raindrops.
Being a prime lens it doesn’t need many features, but there are a couple of useful ones.
The focus ring takes a good portion of the lens; it is very wide and smooth, making it comfortable to manual focus.
AF/MF Switch & Focus Hold Button
The left side of the lens has the AF/MF switch, which will save you some precious time when shooting on location.
On top of that, we can find a customizable button; it is normally set to hold the focus as it’s something very useful when shooting portraits, but if you wish you can assign whatever function to it.
The lens also comes with a plastic lens hood; make sure to put it on to avoid unwanted flare and maintain contrast, but feel free to remove it and experiment with some creative effect.
I have recently done a shooting in Turkey, where I tested the lens extensively: let’s see how it performs!
NOTE: All the following images have been taken using the Sony a7RII [Amazon | B&H] and processed with Lightroom & Photoshop CC (get the 1-year plan on [Amazon | B&H]), in order to give you an idea of the final result that you can achieve with this lens.
Don’t worry though, if you’re into the geeky stuff you will find RAW files & 100% crops in the followings paragraphs.
As you can see from the pictures above the lens is really versatile, and it can be used for a different kind of portraiture!
I’ve been extremely pleased by the image quality produced by the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 [Amazon | B&H] mounted on the a7RII; this means that the lens is of a pretty high level, as you do need a quality “glass” to take advantage of the monstrous 42.2MP sensor that camera has.
Let’s continue with more technical details.
One of the reasons (if not THE reason) why you want prime lenses in your bag is because they are fast, producing a very shallow depth of field when used wide open.
Seriously, how satisfying is it to look at that big glass opened at f/1.8?
As shown in the “sample images” paragraph, the Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 has a very pleasant and soft bokeh, making it fun and interesting to experiment with.
It has a circular 9-blade aperture which renders the out-of-focus area very softly and evenly.
Ok then, the bokeh is great, but can this lens be used wide open?
Yes, it can!
This 85mm is surprisingly sharp even at its widest aperture!
At f/1.8 the center is very sharp, while the midframe and corners are slightly less sharp (but still more than acceptable). Sharpness increases at the next f-stops, hitting the sweet spot at f/4 where the lens achieves the maximum sharpness throughout the whole frame.
This means that you can confidently shoot wide open and get the best of both worlds: bokeh & sharpness.
Just to let facts speak for themselves, take a look at the following unedited 100% crop (click to enlarge) of a portrait I’ve shot for a friend:
That’s sharp, isn’t it?
Still, be careful when shooting wide open with very fast lenses, as it’s extremely easy to miss the critical focus, because the depth of field is really, really shallow. Just to give you an idea, if you closely look at the picture above you can see how the left eye of the subject is perfectly in focus, while the eyebrow is already out of focus; just a few millimeters can make a difference.
Autofocus is a must-have feature if you want to easily use such lens in the real world and not just in a studio. Gladly Sony has packed its FE 85mm f/1.8 with a double linear motor actuator system, which delivers solid (and silent) performances, making the lens interesting also for videographers.
The AF appears to be pretty fast (although not blazing-fast) and reliable; I just had a couple of missed shots in the whole shooting session.
Minimum Focus Distance
The lens has a minimum focus distance of 2.63 feet (0.8 m), achieving a maximum magnification ratio of 0.13.
Basically, you cannot get too close to the subject.
This can be a bit of a bummer if you were thinking to use this lens also for a few macro shots or details; the picture below was taken at the minimum focus distance:
Not bad, but I would have liked to be able to get a bit closer.
If you also own the a7RII though, you can crop a good portion of the picture to achieve a decent magnification ratio without loosing too many pixels.
Each lens comes with its own characteristic distortions; let’s see how the 85mm f/1.8 performs.
The lens appears to have a very slight pincushion distortion, which doesn’t affect the image much.
Chromatic aberration is nicely handled especially at the center of the frame, while at the edge it’s noticeable but easily fixable in post, taking about 0.8 pixels at f/1.8, 1.5 pixels at f/4 and almost 2 pixels from f/8 to f/22 (I don’t see why you should use this lens stopped down).
Let’s use the following shot (taken at f/1.8) as a reference, where the subject is in the lower portion of the frame:
The CA is visible as expected (check the borders of the petals), but with a click in Lightroom, it’s gone!
Vignetting is noticeable especially when wide open, removing 1.3 EV in the corners. Still, I find it to be very pleasant, as it provides a nice atmosphere that helps to isolate the subject; if you don’t like it, you can of course easily correct it in post-production.
Lens Profile Correction
All the distortions described above can be easily corrected with two clicks in Lightroom, ticking the “Enable Profile Corrections” and “Remove Chromatic Aberration” in the “Lens Corrections” module.
Make sure to update the software as the 85mm f/1.8 profile has just been recently added.
Here’s a before & after to show you the effects of the automatic lens corrections:
I personally always use this option, although I normally decrease the amount of compensation for the vignetting from 100 to 20, as I enjoy some proper vignetting for this kind of lenses.
The Sony FE 85mm f/1.8 [Amazon | B&H] delivers surprisingly good performances, ticking all the must-have requirements for a portrait lens: beautiful bokeh, consistent sharpness & reduced distortions. Sony has finally given us a budget-friendly 85mm lens, with just little compromises.
If you are looking to step up your portraiture with a prime lens, without having the budget for the G Master version, this is definitely the one that you should be getting.
If you wish to support my work, feel free to purchase the lens (or other gear) using the following links; it won’t cost you anything extra and it will help me create new content.
Amazon | B&H | eBay