Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Review

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Review
March 2012, Carl Garrard

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Review: In July of 2010 Sony released 3 lenses, two of which were from its newer budget line SAM (smooth auto focus) series. Of those two the Sony 85mm f/2.8 was introduced to give photographers on a budget an affordable budget medium telephoto portrait lens option in this focal range (which equates to roughly 128mm on APS-C sensor sized cameras). The 85mm f/2.8 retails for about $249.00 (Amazon price) in the US making it a budget lens indeed. The design is simple and lightweight, and comes equipped with a lens hood and front and rear caps. Typically lenses of this price range do not include a lens hood. More... Sony 85mm f/2.8 Best Price (Amazon) and Sony 85mm f/2.8 B & H Price

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Review: Features

The Sony 85mm SAM f/2.8 is a stand alone micro motor driven lens that features a 7 bladed curved aperture, af/mf switch, and a 1:5 magnification ratio (.20x). It is built mainly of all plastics including the lens mount, with distance scale markings on the the front focus ring. The focal length and max f/2.8 aperture dictates a pretty simple optical design, and thus is easy to manufacture and price lower. 

It is a very lightweight (roughly 6oz) and small proportioned lens making it an easy candidate for street and portraiture photography wherein holding a camera for longer lengths of time is nearly a mandate. Since this lens covers full frame sensors, it makes it an affordable (and most versatile SAM lens) option for those using full frame cameras in the Alpha mount. 

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM lens showing the plastic lens mount, af/mf switch and focus distance scale on the front ring.

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Review: Performance

All images in this review were made with the Sony Alpha A580 DSLR (see review here Sony Alpha A580 Review) and priced accordingly here:
Sony DSLRA580 DSLR Camera Body Only (Black). The studio shots were made using manual focus in focus check live view mode to ensure accurate and proper focusing on all images.

Chromatic Aberration and Bokeh Results: This series of shots (of my custom made lens test chart ) shows a series of images shot on a tripod in controlled artificial lighting conditions. But don't worry I included free hand shots in this review as well. This test will show both types of chromatic aberrations (if any)- Longitudinal and Fringing (purple fringing) aberrations, as well as give you a basic idea of how the Bokeh will look. Click on the images for a larger view.
Sony 85mm f/2.8 Best Price (Amazon) 
Sony 85mm f/2.8 B & H Price


Macro Area Results: These two images below account for the minimal focus area (max magnification) of the Sony 85mm SAM f/2.8 lens. The test chart is printed on 20x30" anti reflective sheet, and the test chart itself measures 18"x28".  I've included an image with a ruler to give a sense of scale.
Sony 85mm f/2.8 Best Price (Amazon) 
Sony 85mm f/2.8 B & H Price

Macro Area #1
Macro Area #2 (with standard/metric measure)

Vignetting, Sharpness, Barrel and Pincushion Results: I've simplified the testing procedure to include all these tests in one simple easy to understand series. You can clearly see any corner shading (vignetting), sharpness from corner to corner and center, or barrel/pincushion distortion all of the tested aperture values noted (I used the most common aperture settings for testing). Again, click the images for a full sized view.
Sony 85mm f/2.8 Best Price (Amazon) 
Sony 85mm f/2.8 B & H Price

Studio Testing Conclusion: If you are seeing what I see, which so far is based solely on the studio results- the Sony 85mm SAM f/2.8 is clearly a great performing lens on APS-C cameras. The lens exhibits no practical optical weaknesses especially for a lens of the price class which to me is the biggest shock of this lens. Historically speaking prime lenses in this focal length are fairly easy to manufacture and perform at high levels. However, it is very clear that modern technology is pushing the boundaries of a so called "budget prime" lens.

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Review: Field Usage and Image Samples
Sony 85mm f/2.8 Best Price (Amazon) 
Sony 85mm f/2.8 B & H Price

In the field (practical use and testing) the Sony 85mm f/2.8 is lightweight and generally unobtrusive to use, unless you are measuring noise from the focus motor in circumstances that require low volume levels. The SAM micro motor quite frankly makes too much noise for such a design, and it's of my opinion that the built in focus motor of some Alpha DSLRS (like the A580 tested) would be of quieter operation and a better choice than including the micro motor. Cost would also be reduced with this type of design, which could theoretically allow for better build quality for the same manufactured price.

Flare Field Test: Only a small reflection in the most extreme lighting

Speaking of build quality, there is nothing impressive with the Sony SAM 85mm f/2.8 in this department. Of course my expectations aren't high of a lens in this price class-  however, one look at the competition and you can see that the 85mm SAM is completely outclassed in this respect for the price. Sony would have chosen more wisely to at least include an alloy lens mount and better quality plastics (such as thicker/fiber reinforced) giving the end user a much higher impression of build quality with very little sacrifice in manufacturing costs. Bottom line, the 85mm SAM f/2.8 feels very cheap, and sounds cheap.

Aberration Field Test: Almost ZERO CA's (see aperture blades though)

That being said, that's really the only bad news of this lens. When using manual focus the focus ring has almost zero play and is quite smooth to adjust with just the right focus throw. It's a fun lens to manual focus with, and even more fun I'd imagine using Sony's newest DSLRS with the focus peaking option enabled, and a slightly larger focus ring- but it's adequate enough. I do like the choice Sony made to not include the dust gathering ribbed style focus ring seen on higher priced Sony lenses.

Bokeh Field Test: Smooth and Buttery for $250 bucks!

Build quality aside, when reviewing my images I was highly impressed with the outcome. In particular I like this focal length on APS-C cameras- it makes for both an excellent portraiture prime lens and for those that like isolated Landscape compositions (I need to do more of those), as seen below.

Landscape Field Test: Even at f/2.8 the 85mm SAM is super sharp and high in contrast

Contrast and color reproduction were also very impressive for this lens. I felt like I was out shooting with the Sony 70-400 (or 70-300) G lens at 85mm when reviewing the images. The color is a tad warmer than the Sony Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens which I prefer, and the contrast isn't as high - yet remains at a very high level.

Color and Contrast Field Test: f/9, perfect blues and greens- high contrast
Color and Contrast Field Test: f/2.8, still perfect blues and greens and high contrast!

Zeiss images tend to have a sharp and cold practical sort of feel to them, which is nice for most circumstances- but I prefer the way the G series lenses perform in this respect more- just a personal preference of mine. The 85mm SAM f/2.8 indeed feels very much "G" like -optically speaking of course. The images above for example- perfect rendition of blues and greens with very high contrast that doesn't change very much across the aperture range- just yummy!

Sharpness Field Test: Using the A580 and center AF point

Last but not least, sharpness looks great in the field. The lens focused very accurately on the Alpha A580 test body, and I never shied away from using the lens wide open when auto focusing. To demonstrate the accuracy I've included a sharpness sample above. See what I see? Yep I see tack sharp...

Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Review: Final Conclusion

You probably won't fall in love with its looks or build, or even it's max aperture which is "average" for a prime lens in this focal length. Instead, you'll probably like it's optical performance which is above the expectations I had set for this lens. Contrast is excellent wide open, one of the better lenses I've seen of late, and sharpness is very high too. Color is neutral and accurate, very much like how Sony G lenses have an effect on color.

Aberrations are exceptionally well controlled, this includes flare, ghosting, coma, and CA's. Bokeh is also very much nicer than I had expected, but could have been even better with a 9 blade aperture instead of it's 7 blade model which shows outlines in the out of focus areas (even though Sony claim its a circular design I see straighter than said curved blades). It's only weakness with CA's seems to be at f/2.8, but even then they are very minimal (view the f/2.8 chart sample in the center section for testimony).

Distortion is next to nothing (neither any barrel or pincushion distortion) and isn't relevant in field conditions at all- a good lens for making stitched panoramas for example. Vignetting, ditto on the test results- which is also a consideration for those who stitch images.

It's excellent max focus distance of two feet and decent magnification aids in what is normally considered a slower aperture for a lens of this focal length (bar price remember), resulting in surprisingly good looking images with pleasing out of focus areas. You should have a lot of fun making above average looking portraits with this lens- but it's not perfect.

Out of focus aperture halos will show on some aperture settings in the right kind of lighting circumstance- thankfully not in a majority of the photographs.

Focusing speed is average, typical of the latest batch of SAM lenses from Sony, but slightly quieter than other SAM lenses I've used or reviewed of late (18-55mm f3.5-5.6, 50mm f/1.8,  and 30mm f/2.8 SAM) which isn't really saying much but worth noting I suppose. Overall it's not what I'd consider a "quiet" focusing lens at all. If you need to remain quiet when shooting you'll be obligated to use only manual focus.

It's eye sores are a pretty wobbly front element, lack of a rear metal mount, and generally average plastics (yes some plastics are better than others). If judging on build quality and price you'd think this lens would perform very poorly, but the opposite is true.

It's strengths are it's price, optical performance, included lens hood, a front element that does not rotate (good for filter usage), and very decent maximum magnification (beating the much higher priced Sony Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 for example). It's front focusing ring operates smoothly albeit with a tiny bit of lateral play (less than 1/16th of an inch) that is almost unnoticeable.

Make no mistake about it, this is a bare bones affordable prime lens.

As much as I've talked about the build quality do keep in mind that this lens will likely stand up to normal wear and tear just fine, it just doesn't feel or look like anything special- it's not going to excite you at all in that respect- which is kind of a bummer. Had it been built better (even just slightly), this lens (and the entire SAM lens line) might have been taken a bit more serious than they are by potential buyers- this includes yours truly.

Sony are a hypnotic pendulum when it comes to manufacture and design- they can swing a full high quality direction one way (A900/Zeiss lens build quality) and the opposite low quality direction (SAM lens line) the other. Better build quality means better resale value and overall perception of value from buyers- which remains important enough to consider when making a lens purchase. Had the 85mm been built just a tad better... sigh.

That being said this is my favorite SAM lens from Sony so far optically, but the build quality and noisier auto focus is enough to give me pause on purchasing one for the long haul (sigh). If pride of ownership (good to excellent build) and resale value aren't a concern of yours- then I'd highly recommend this lens for its optical performance alone. Certainly the images/test results make a great argument and speak for themselves.

If you wanna throw me a bone, please use one of my affiliate partners- which I highly recommend:

Sony 85mm f/2.8 Best Price (Amazon) 
Sony 85mm f/2.8 B & H Price

As always- be safe, and happy shooting.


Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM Specifications
  • Lens Type : Standard & Medium Telephoto
  • Lens Mount Type : Sony A-mount
  • Aperture : f/2.8
  • Aperture (Max.) : f/2.8
  • Aperture (Min.) : f/22
  • Filter Diameter : 55 mm
  • Lens Groups-Elements : 4 groups, 5 elements
  • Minimum Focus Distance : 24" (0..6m)
  • Distance Encoder : Yes
  • Distance Scale : Yes
  • Angle of View : 29° (35mm), 19° (APS-C)
  • Aperture Blade : 7 blades (Circular aperture)
  • Focal Length (35mm equivalent) : 127.5 mm
  • Internal Motor : Yes (SAM)
  • Lens Weight : 6.1 oz (175g)
  • Maximum Magnification : x 0.2


  1. Nice review! Agree with your summary. Almost bought one now I'm still in the same scenario though. Might try one out if I can find it on sale or used, hard to say. Great test images too btw, I like your custom test chart!

    Bert V.

  2. Great review. I was thinking of getting the 70-200mm G lens (I have been saving for that for some time). Now I am thinking of getting this lens for portraits and may be think about the 70-200 G later.


  3. Nice! Will it work with my old Dynax/Maxxum 7 SLR?