Sony 35mm f/1.4 G on Sony A99 ii review
The release of the high megapixel Sony A99 II last year gives us the opportunity to use lots of interesting Sony and Minolta A-mount lenses. First, in this series, I’ll be looking at the Sony 35mm f/1.4 G (SAL35F14G), a Minolta-era designed lens that was rebranded by Sony when they bought the company. A good reason to go for this version and not the original Minolta AF 35mm f/1.5 G RS is that the SALF14G can access all autofocus points on the A99 II, including Hybrid Phase detection 4D focus, face detection, and even Eye AF. Pretty cool for a 30-year-old lens, and Kudos to Sony for not only continuing to support A-mount but also actually adding features from mirrorless like these. Have a look at this page if you’re interested in 4D focus compatible lenses including Eye-AF.
Now let’s see how the Sony 35mm f/1.4 G performs on a 42 MP camera.
Sharpness, vignetting, and chromatic aberrations
Center sharpness, vignetting and CA
At f/1.4, the SAL35F14G is very soft. This softness could be used in a creative way, like a soft glow effect, but then you’ll need to be able to live with the massive amount of CA even in the center of the image. At f/2, sharpness and CA look a lot better.
If you’re using the 35mm 1.4 G as a tool to separate subject and background, I would advise you to see f/2 as the maximum aperture. Maximum sharpness in the center is reached by f/4 (and indeed it’s very sharp at that aperture) and continues to be very sharp up to f/16 in the center.
There is very little sign of reduced sharpness due to diffraction, what we normally see by f/11, is only visible by f/22 in this lens.
Corner Sharpness, vignetting and CA
As expected, the corners look even softer than the center at f/1.4. CA is also quite prominent in the corners at maximum aperture, and you’ll also see it around the bokeh balls in case you’re wondering. There is also slight vignetting visible but nothing to worry about in that regard really. By f/2.8, you’ll get a nice and sharp image across the frame with zero vignetting. There is a slight increase in sharpness up to f/8, remaining steady up to f/16 in line with what we’ve seen in the center. There is also minimal barrel distortion visible, but it the none complex kind, and nothing that really shows up in real-world images.
Bokeh and color rendering
The two features that most photographers like about Minolta lenses are the color rendering and bokeh (or the rendering of the out of focus areas). Minolta was the only lens maker in the 80’s that had their own glass molding factory, and this enabled them the actually pick, mix and match specific elements according to what they wanted to achieve as an end result. In contrast, other manufacturers designed a lens on paper, and then found someone to produce this according to their specifications.
Off course, a lot has changed in the design and production of optics in the last 30 years, and modern era lenses are for the most part definitely sharper. But I would advise any A99 II owner to at least have one great Minolta lens in their bag.
But back to the review. At f/1.4, the out of focus areas looks beautiful and creamy. Images can look stunning and unique in the right circumstances. These include a suitable background and enough separation in distance between a subject and said background. It’s also important that there is not too much contrast in the background or you’ll get lots of ugly color fringing.
At f/2, as I mentioned before, CA is much more under control, though you’ll lose some separation of course. If you’re a set-it-to-max-aperture-and-shoot kind of photographer, I’d suggest not going for f/1.4 but f/2 instead. Remember that you can always add some sharpness in Lightroom, but adding blur to the background and doing this convincingly is nearly impossible.
If you can’t really take advantage of these specific shooting conditions (nice background, close focus and enough distance between subject and background) you might well be disappointed in this lens. Due to the lack of micro-contrast (that we’re used to in modern day lenses), images can often look dull and lifeless, despite the nice Minolta colors.
Sony 35mm f/1.4 G Autofocus on the A99 II
As I mentioned earlier, most Sony A-mount lenses, even screw-driven like this one, do have access to Sony’s 4D Focus AF system. The hybrid autofocus system pairs a 79-point dedicated phase-detection autofocus sensor with 399 on-chip phase detection AF points. This also includes advanced functionality like Face Recognition and Eye AF. The latter is indispensable is really indispensable if you’re working at large apertures and need to work fast in a professional capacity.
And indeed this functionality also works with the SAL-F14G. Unfortunately, this is a first generation screw driven motor, so you’ll either need to be very careful when using it or a lot of light. The motor is (obviously) not as fast as an SSM motor, so it also takes some time acquire focus, and actually tracking the eye is nearly impossible.
The Sony 35mm f/1.4 G is still available for purchase and actually still retailing for around $1500 dollars. Already considered overpriced at release back in the nillies, age certainly has not made this lens more appealing at that price point.
But all is not bad, this lens can actually resolve the Sony A99 ii 42 MP sensor at f/2.8 and it’s already very usable at f/2. Performance at the f/1.4 maximum aperture is a big disappointment though unless you like very soft, almost ‘soft glow’ straight out of camera images. And you’ll need to live with the very visible chromatic aberration in both center and corner, that also affects bokeh balls. Take note that CA is much better controlled at f/2.
The out-of-focus parts of images do look very smooth and appealing, of the sort that you rarely see in modern era lenses, even with a 10 bladed rounded aperture. But you’ll need to focus up close and have an eye-pleasing background the get the maximum effect. Colour rendition is unmistakeably Minolta, I personally like them, but tastes do differ.
Finally, even though the SAL35F14G can use the 4D Focus AF system of the ILCE-A99M2, the older screw driven motor of the lens does hold back performance. Unlike with the Sony 135mm f/1.8 (also a screw driven lens), that actually does a great job at tracking eyes and recognizing faces when coupled with the A99 II, performance with the 35mm f/1.4 is quite disappointing. You’ll need lots of time and good light in order for it to work reliably, and that sort of negates the advantages of actually using these functions.
All in all, this would be a nice lens to add to your photographers’ bag if you can find it cheap. A price around $600 dollars would be worth it, as this lens performs very well from f/2 onwards and gives you access to Minolta colors and creamy bokeh.