Monday, September 17, 2012

Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review

Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review
September 2012, Carl Garrard

Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: Sony's Alpha camera division has shown some interesting cards in the DSLR game of late. They've shown that they are listening more intently to enthusiasts needs than ever, both in the product types and how the products are being designed. It's a refreshing change of events that I'll be honest has taken me quite a bit by surprise. Ever a fan of a good bang for the buck lens, Sony introduced the 18-135mm SAM lens earlier this year when the announced the Alpha A37 SLT model. Yet its just now, that I'm getting around to actually testing this lens on one of Sony's better camera models ever- the Sony A57.  Join me for a review adventure of galactical proportions (space helmet, on!).

Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price
Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review:
Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

Ok so I fibbed. Bar a space ship flight around the galaxy... (perhaps one day on a Richard Branson owned flight perhaps) ...

So far I've been impressed with the last couple of announcements in Sony's Alpha lenses as well. The 16-50mm f/2.8 SSM and 18-135mm SAM seem to offer better build, features, and overall performance for the price especially when pitted against competitors similar models. What is refreshing about both of these lenses too, is that they are not re-badged models from Konica Minolta, Tamron, or any other make. They were designed in house from scratch at Sony and in my eyes at least, were excellent design decisions to bring to the A-Mount.

62mm filter, rear focusing, big zoom ring with focal length marker- good fit and finish too

Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: HANDLING
Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

The 18-135mm is just as I had hoped. It's large enough where it never feels cramped, balances well on multiple sized bodies and different weight cameras. The focus ring is prominent, easy to find, and adjusts easily with the fingers without taking your eye off the finder. The zoom action is tight in that it never creeped when I angled towards space or the earth, but not so tight as to cause any discomfort when zooming. Goldilocks would approve, it's just right.

The action is very smooth and well dampened which gives an impression of a much higher cost lens. Play is nil or very minimal at best for both the zoom and focus ring- again a sign of quality that curls the end of my lips up to a smile when shooting. The dual cam design does not wobble in the least, its tight and secure (but silky smooth).

The zoom and focus ring are ribbed and gather dust, apparently a styling accent that Sony is just not willing to depart with. So I hope you've invested into a good goat hair brush for your camera and lenses, you'll need to use it if you don't like specs of dust etc showing up on your equipment like myself. I'm a clean fanatic with my equipment, its always cleaned before I got out to shoot- just a habit I got into long ago that I'll never break. It's part of my mental preparation for a shoot- equipment must be clean and 'ready' to go.

So suffice it to say that I find it a bit of an annoyance that Sony chooses to use this type of ribbing with a rubber that seems to attract dust. Its no deal breaker though since the lens feels so nice in the hand during operation- it surely makes up for that annoyance in spades.

Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: FIT AND FINISH
Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

As I've hinted at previously this lens is well built and the fit is tight and smooth. No rattling, no sticky zoom, no play in the zoom or focus ring, and sits nice and snug in the lens mount. That's how all zooms should be made if you ask me. The finish is a sort of textured blotted black finish that resists finger prints and scratches equally.
The front lens element is surrounded by plastic, but the main body of the lens has a thick front metal ring that surrounds the front element housing when at the 18mm position. A nice touch both practically- it can take a good thump and protect the front element- and visually (its just purty...). The lens hood is decent (not special) and clicks easily and securely in place. The lens hood does not have a removable window for adjusting polarizers etc.

Rounding up the rear of the lens is a machined aluminum rear metal lens mount (stronger than plastic, but not as strong as chromium steel).

Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: OPTICAL PERFORMANCE
Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price
  • Sharpness and Distortions- Sharpness on the 18mm wide end is quite good in the center to 70% radius from center but the corners and extreme corners need a bit of help. F/5.6 and beyond is what I recommend if you want sharper corners with f/9 topping out before diffraction kicks in. At 135mm this lens is sharp at its max aperture all the way through the corners. 
18mm f/3.5 soft corners, barrel dist, and vignetting
18mm f/5.6 almost no vignetting, barrel dist, sharper corners
18mm f8, barrel distortion, vignetting negligible, sharp corners
135mm f/5.6, only slight pincushion, barely visible vignetting
135mm f/8, slight pincushion, no vignetting, sharp
Here's a real world sharpness sample showing what this lens is capable of at 135mm and f/8. Tack sharp of this rooftop and trees. I didn't get much chance to do some birding but I'm 100% sure I'm going this lens will more than adequately capture birds in flight accurately and sharply. This rooftop scene caught my eye while riding out and I doubled back to grab it. Just liked how this looked all tucked away in the trees.

135mm f/8 full size (not a crop) quite a distance from this rooftop

And yet one more sharpness sample at the 45mm (35mm equivalent) focal length . I love shooting full frame with a 40mm or 50mm lens attached, its such a great all around focal length either way. The 18-135mm shines at this focal length, it very well could be its sharpest focal length in it's range with no distortions showing at all at f/8. Tack sharp corner to corner, no vignetting, no barrel distortion.

45mm f/8, sharp, no bad habits. Looks fantastic (30mm mark on the lens barrel)

    • Macro/Maximum Magnification- The 18-135mm reaches its best magnification at 135mm, which is where I like lenses of this type to have their greatest magnification. Closest distance to subject is about 10" from the end of the lens barrel fully extended at 135mm, nearly perfect (not to close, not too far). This gives the user distance from nervous critters and the best focal length for subject isolation and bokeh. Here is one of the strong points of this lens, out of focus areas look great for a lens of this type even though its max aperture is 135mm and it only has 7 aperture blades (they are curved remember).

      •  Real world Wide and Telephoto Samples- Charts are one thing but its always best to see what a test translates in real world images. On one hand you may think the chart tests might not look that great, but in real world shots things might look quite different to you. I leave it to you to decide. First shot is a landscape at the usual desired f/8 aperture to cover the entire depth of field a user would normally choose (whole photo sharp).

      f8 at 18mm, notice very extreme corners show just a tad of vignetting, a great overall performance for such a lens at its weakest focal length- say's I.

      Showing off its range, 135mm f/8 (sorry slightly hazy morning)
      •  Bokeh Sample- Here's another real world shot (which I prefer for bokeh testing) showing what 135mm f/5.6 yields with very distant (housing tract) angular subjects. It's capable of focusing closer thus blurring out the background even more, but this is a bokeh test. Circular distractions are pretty smooth without bright edges which gives the photographer room to work with when deciding on distance to subject vs. out of focus background options. The second shot below shows what you can do if you work a bit closer to your subject. Quite a nice performance and the lens gives you choice which is important.
      135mm f/5.6 yields very decent backgrounds even without a maximum magnification shot.
      135mm f/5.6 a bit closer this time, subject isolation is very possible with smooth foregrounds and backgrounds

          Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: SAMPLE VIDEO
          Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

          I'm no videographer but I thought I'd share what its like using this lens for video and this video just so happened to work out to my favor. Sorry for all the bumpiness here, I'm mostly shooting the footage one handed on a bike while pedaling. I shot the video in A mode so the AF wasn't engaged. Don't forget to watch it to the end, this is from a recent mountain bike outing of mine.

          A57 and 18-135mm SAM Video 
          Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

          Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: PERFORMANCE IN HAND
          Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

          Again I'll say that the 18-135mm and the Alpha 57 seem to be made for one another. The pairing helps matters in that this lens is quick to focus,  I mean very quick (surprisingly) and I'd not hesitate to use it for action photography on the A57 at all (in fact I did for this review). I can't say that any consumer zoom I've used from any manufacturer focuses as quick as the 18-135mm and it does so with minimal hunting, and its the first consumer wide angle zoom that I'd actively seek out action sequences to shoot in (with the aforementioned combination). Here's a shot with a 50% crop of a scene at f/8 and 135mm. I was about 50 yards from this action, maybe further.

          f/8 at ISO200, 135mm 50% crop, raw conversion- fast focusing and nailed the subject perfectly, look at the ball

          Even when it did occasionally hunt the focus speed was so quick from end to end I never got frustrated with it, nor did it continue to hunt either. In other words the 18-135mm acts like a nice prime in terms of speed of focus but with the convenience of a zoom. It's very impressive in this respect.

          I also used the 18-135mm on my classic Alpha 7 Digital camera as well. A camera in which is a traditional DSLR by all respects, and has a much slower AF system. What this test showed me is how fast the lens focuses without the aid of a fast focusing body. It gave me real perspective on the speed of the SAM II motor, and how far the throw really is on this lens. It also made my Alpha 7 Digital feel like it was hot rodded out a bit, and handled very well on that camera as well.

          It was nice to use an optical and electronic finder for the testing of this lens. In the end the A57 wins even in low light using the finder against the optical one. It didn't get noisy or slow at all in low light, and neither did the lens- which aided in the testing of this lens process and made it quite fun.

          Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: POWER MANAGEMENT
          Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

          Electronic motors in lenses use battery power, and some are more hungry than others. Since I've used the A57 extensively enough with all kinds of lenses (both screw mount and internal motor driven) I have a good feeling of how efficient the screw mount motor is in the camera vs. how efficient SSM or SAM lens motors are in comparison. The 18-135's SAM motor actually drew less battery power than the in-body motor of the A57 which in turn gave me more battery life when using the combo together.

          That's another plus in the direction of the 18-135mm that I hadn't expected. It's not going to make a huge impact on your battery life but it was noticeable enough to me that I thought I'd mention it. Without any scientific style testing parameters (just field use) I'd say the SAM II motor gives you about 50 to perhaps maybe 100 more shots on a single charge than the in camera motor or some other Sony SSM motors would give you. SSM in my experience is the worst type motor for battery consumption, with the in body motor being in the middle of the two three types here.

          Sony 18-135mm SAM f/3.5-5.6 Review: Conclusion

          Before I had it in hand I wasn't sure I wanted to test or that I'd even like this lens. Sony has made some mediocre  lenses with SAM focusing in the past and to date I've not been impressed with any of them at least on build quality (optically is a different story). I thought it'd end up in the same category as Sony's 28-75mm f/2.8 SAM lens- which is overpriced and under engineered, but this new type SAM lens is in a different league than the "early" iterations of SAM in terms of build quality and features.Sony has done some impressive refining of both their bodies and lenses of late. They are turning my opinion back to the positive side of things with both the latest announcement of bodies and execution of lens design. The 18-135mm SAM II is indeed my favorite consumer level zoom lens that I've used from at least 4 different manufacturers (and that list is quite long indeed), even without dust or moisture resistance of any kind.

          Not only is the AF motor fast, its very fast, and its also very quiet and precise in sound. I'd never even consider purchasing the older SAM designs now that I've had a shot with this one. Hopefully Sony updates some of the earlier SAM models with this new iteration design. It's a whole new show here. My advice would be to check one out and not to let the older SAM lenses keep you from doing so.

          It's close focusing, good magnification, good telephoto end, and high resolving power make it an excellent choice for small subjects and portraiture alike (easy to get out of focus backgrounds that are above average bokeh material). On the wide end of things, it's got some barrel (mustache type) but its not that bad at all, and doesn't show in real world images much. The lens can be tight and sharp at f/8 which is where I usually set my aperture for landscapes on the wide end anyhow.  This lens is supported with Sony's latest bodies for correction too, which is very helpful for Jpeg shooters. Use it confidently at all focal lengths, either way and don't obsess.

          In terms of distortion the 18-135mm shows some vignetting in the extreme corners up to f/6.3 on the wide end which I consider to be its biggest weak point. Barrel distortion is near average on the wide end but gone at 24mm. Both of these are a good showing for a consumer zoom, above average performance overall. Flare is controlled well, even without a lens hood (I never needed or desired to use one with this lens. Wide open at f/3.5 at the wide end this lens is a bit soft in the corner regions extending into the extreme corners, it sharpens up tremendously by f/5.6 but f/8 is where you'll want to set it for landscapes when you want the most out of the corner regions.

          One area that this lens bucks the trend of consumer zoom lenses I've used is how strong it performs on the long end. Typically zooms start to break down considerably but not the Sony 18-135mm, in fact, I enjoy shooting it at 135mm just as much at the wider focal lengths and because of this characteristic I find I tend to look for reasons to use the longer end. That's telling. I really like using this lens on the long end, for close up or far away subjects. Versatile much? Yep.

          Don't be fooled by the cons below, none of them are deal breakers at all for me. Generally the cons are similar with most consumer wide angle zoom lenses I've used in the past, and the large extensive pro list is larger in comparison to other makers similar lenses. Without a doubt I've enjoyed using this wide angle consumer level zoom more than any other in the past, and the results it can produce (and did produce) were very pleasing overall. It's features, size, and price are all *just* about right making it my favorite wide angle zoom lens to date from any manufacturer.

          As always- be safe and happy shooting.

          -Carl Garrard

          Want to help all parties involved and buy this lens?
          Sony 18-135mm F3.5-5.6 SAM Best Price

          • A bit of vignetting (DT lens) on wide open apertures, on wide end of focal, and soft corners (f3.5)
          • Filter threads are plastic
          • Just a tad overpriced (but not when in a kit)
          • No weather or dust seals 
          • No distance scale
          • Included lens hood does not have a removable window for adjusting polarizers etc
          • Just a ... tad bigger than it could/should be
          • Ribbed rubber attracts dust like a black hole (see pros*)
          • Max aperture would be better if it were f/3.5-4.5, or f/2.8-f/4 throughout zoom range
          • Autofocusing *barely* audible in video, only in completely silent scenes (using onboard speakers only)
          • Zoom ring action a bit jerky for video on wide angle focal lengths only

          • Great focal range
          • Very good close focusing at 135mm (8" from end of front element when extended to 135mm)
          • Max magnification is very good for such a focal range
          • Very sharp at 135mm, even wide open, sharp at 18mm beyond f/5.6
          • Fast focusing, low hunting, good for action
          • Overall low distortions, average barrel distortion only on wide end
          • Only very light pincushion distortion at 135mm 
          • Decent overall bokeh, for such a lens it's excellent (curved aperture blades help)
          • Zoom and Focus rings exhibit no play
          • Focus ring (in manual focus mode) has perfect tension for accurate micro adjustments
          • Quiet focusing for stills and video (almost all applications) alike
          • Great lens choice for video makers
          • Very well built with metal mount, nothing is loose or rattles
          • Made in Japan
          • Full time Direct Manual Focus (DMF) should not be underestimated for stills or video
          • Lightweight, not too large at all
          • Reasonably normal filter size
          • Included lens lock that you'll probably never need
          • Good Bang for the buck (especially at kit prices)
          • Comfortable Rubber on zoom and focus rings*
          • Comes with a hood


          1. Thank you so very much for expediently conducting this review, which is extremely helpful for folks like me who are struggling with purchasing decision ... harry.

          2. Glad to help out Harry. Share what you end up with if you get time and/or feel like sharing. :)


          3. This new Sony 18-135 vs. Minolta 28-135. Which is better in your opinion? Especially in regards to the sharpness.

          4. Well the two lenses are entirely different in many respects. Comparing the same focal length for sharpness It's a tough call from what I recall with my days with that lens, I'd say they were pretty similar in sharpness in the range but thats only from memory. I'd personally pick the 18-135 to use on a daily basis about 99/100 times for all the other reasons I mentioned in the review.


          5. Just wondering how this lens compares to the Sony kit 18-55 lens in the 18-55 range? Are they identical?



          6. D I have used both the 18-135mm and the 18-55mm SAM kit lens. No comparison on this one the 18-135mm is surprisingly sharp (super sharp in most cases) v the Kit which is "ok" but doesn't really have that "bite" that this lens has.

            The kit is quite good for close up work though (it's strong point), but across the range the 18-135mm thumps it, and is vastly superior. Carl's review is spot on, this new lens has some drawbacks, but it's extremely sharp

          7. Thanks for your usual high standard review. Your review's convinced me to buy this lens along with my A580 earlier.

          8. I have a question about Sony SAM second generation or internal focusing system. I'm talking about Sony DT 18-135mm F/3.5-5.6 SAM lens in particular.

            I'm not a big expert and I'm relevantly new to photography. I've had a couple of old Minolta lenses for Sony A-mount before and that's it. So to my experience all previous lenses were built in the same way, but this Sony seems to be different. I'll try to explain my concerns.

            So normally when using MANUAL focus the focus ring should have its "limits" (or whatever it's called) where you can no longer turn the ring anymore. Basicaly when turning the focus ring it will just hit/bump at some point and that will be the end. And when you set your lens to AUTO focus then focus ring cannot be turned at all. Of course you can do it by force, but it will be quite difficult to turn it and even if you do so, then you will break it.

            But this lens I've just bought is different. Toggling AF/MF switch will only change the way my camera works - it will go to AF or MF mode. But the focus ring is always in the same state and I can be turning it at all times with exactly same strength/efforts. And even more - it does not have these limits. I mean when I reach to the point where it should stop from turning, it won't hit any boundary and won't be deadly stopped, as it can still be turned endlessly, but just becomes a little damp.

            Hope you'll get a chance to explain me this. My question/concern is whether this is normal and it should be like that due to the technology or is it broken?

          9. In some forum I found: the focus ring seems to have a friction clutch ...
            Best wishes

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