Sony NEX-5N with rangefinder lenses – part 3 – 50mm – Zeiss vs. Sony

The next installment of my NEX-5N test compares the Zeiss ZM 50 Planar (B&H link black silver) against the Sony SEL 50mm f/1.8 lens for the NEX system (B&H link)

I’ll give my analysis upfront – The Zeiss is smaller in diameter, feels more solid, has much better manual focus feel and considerably less vignetting and better sharpness into the corners at wider apertures. But then, it’s optimized for full frame whereas the Sony lens is designed for an APS-C sensor. The Zeiss appears to have better micro contrast or acutance wide open and is therefore easier to focus using the magnified manual focusing assist option.

In my opinion, the difference between f/1.8 and f/2.0 is negligible. If you want AF and auto aperture, the Sony lens is obviously the default consideration, and at less than half the price of the 50 Planar, difficult to ignore. Any other differences…? Yes – the camera automatically switches to magnified manual focus assist when you turn the focusing ring on the Sony lens. But the ‘fly by wire’ manual focus has a disconnected feel and you have to turn the ring a lot to see any focus adjustment, at least at nearer distances. While I didn’t do any photos of brick walls or buildings with the two lenses on the NEX, it appears that the Sony lens might have somewhat less distortion (I think I had auto distortion correction turned off), whereas the Planar does have some barrel distortion (I usually use +4 in Lightroom to compensate).

One relatively big image quality difference is that the Sony has a gentler background blur than the 50 Plannar, which some may prefer. The Planar renders out of focus specular highlights with more strongly edged circles compared to the Sony. Maybe the Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 C Sonnar (B&H link black silver) would be closer to the Sony, but I don’t own one, so wasn’t able to include it. And at nearly 4 times the price of the Sony… even more difficult to justify. Actually, the only reasons I can think of to opt for a 50mm rangefinder lens would be if the NEX is used in conjunction with a rangefinder camera, or if one wants a certain kind of rendering, such as from vintage RF glass. Otherwise, just stick with the Sony 50mm f/1.8. It’s actually, from what I can tell, a very nice lens for the money. Maybe the Zeiss has a bit better contrast, but I’m not sure… Oh, and the Sony also incorporates optical image stabilization – handy in situations where you’re working at slower shutter speeds without much concern for subject movement.

So lets start the shootout!

The usual disclaimer: all images are straight from camera with the default Sony Standard setting. White balance was set to about 5500 degree Kelvin for consistency. These images might be a bit on the flat side and can certainly be amped up in post… but I wanted to keep things pretty simple and ‘as shot’ for these comparisons. Also, all Sony lens images have full EXIF info.

Near infinity focus, with out of focus foreground objects:

Zeiss 50 Planar up first, click on the image for the full-rez f/2 sample, or on the links for the rest, in one stop increments. The first image at f/2.0 is about 2/3 stop over exposed compared to the rest of the series because f/2 at 1/4000 was a bit too hot in full sunlight, but should still give you an idea of near infinity performance of the lens wide open:

f/2.0

f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8, f/11.

Sony 50mm f/1.8. First image is at f/2.2 because it was a touch too bright for f/1.8 without a neutral density filter:

f/2.2

f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8, f/11.

I think I see a bit of fringing around the out of focus foreground branches in the Sony images at wider apertures…

Next up a near focus scene to show off the background blur of specular highlights.

Zeiss, in 1/3 stop increments, click on the image for the f/2 sample, the links for the rest:

f/2.0

f/2.2, f/2.5, f/2.8, f/3.2, f/3.5, f/4.0, f/4.5, f/5.0, f/5.6, f/6.7, f/7.1, f/8.0, f/9, f/10, f/11.

Sony, also in 1/3 stop increments:

f/1.8

f/2.0, f/2.2, f/2.5, f/2.8, f/3.2, f/3.5, f/4.0, f/4.5, f/5.0, f/5.6, f/6.7, f/7.1, f/8.0, f/9, f/10, f/11.

Medium distance scene. Focus was on the tree at right.

Zeiss, 1/3 stop increments. Click on the image for the f/2 full-rez version, otherwise the links below:

f/2.0

f/2.2, f/2.5, f/2.8, f/3.2, f/3.5, f/4.0, f/4.5, f/5.0, f/5.6, f/6.7, f/7.1, f/8.0, f/9, f/10, f/11.

Sony, 1/3 stop increments – You can see here how much more vignetting it exhibits until stopped down about 1.5 stops (of course, in-camera vignetting correction was disabled). Click on the image for the f/1.8 version, otherwise the links below:

f/1.8

f/2.0, f/2.2, f/2.5, f/2.8, f/3.2, f/3.5, f/4.0, f/4.5, f/5.0, f/5.6, f/6.7, f/7.1, f/8.0, f/9, f/10, f/11.

Nearish focus, very distant background, both sets in one stop increments:

Zeiss:

f/2.0

f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, f/11.

Sony:

f/1.8

f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6, f/8.0, f/11.

Another near focus scene with specular highlights in the background, this time just a few images. One from the Zeiss at f/2, two from the Sony at f/1.8 and f/2. Here you can see just how much more defined the Zeiss renders the blur disks compared to the Sony. Zeiss first, then the two from Sony:

f/2.0
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f/1.8
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f/2.0

The last set of comparisons is a close up scene. This is one limitation of rangefinder lenses with most focusing down to only 70cm or 1m. The 50 Planar focuses to 70cm. The Sony to 39cm, like a typical SLR lens, but here was kept at the same distance as the Zeiss. I think for this one the Zeiss was at very close to minimum 70cm focusing distance. And for some reason, I didn’t shoot this at f/2 with the Zeiss, rather, starting at f/5.6

Zeiss, click on the photo for the f/5.6 version:

f/5.6

f/8.0, f/11.

Sony, click on the photo for the f/1.8 version:

f/1.8

f/5.6, f/8.0, f/11.

Some random images with the Zeiss, I think all were hand held. By this point, having already shot over 500 frames in a couple hours, I was getting tired of working from a tripod…

Not sure about the f/stop here, but would have been close to wide open:

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Probably at f/2:

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Stopped down about 1.5 stops:

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Probably at f/2 and focused with focus peaking:

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Another close up scene. Not sure the aperture used, perhaps f/2.8:

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Also probably around f/2.8:

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Same here, though at ISO 1600. High ISO noise reduction was set to low.

If you’re looking to buy any of this equipment, please consider using the following links to help support this site:

For all Zeiss lenses (ZM, ZE, ZF, etc.), please contact Rob Skeoch at Big Camera Workshops or his sister site the Rangefinder Store. Rob has been my source for most of my Zeiss ZM purchases and is a great guy to deal with. Free shipping within Canada is included, as is a B+W UV filter with each Zeiss lens purchase. Rob will also ship outside Canada, please give him a call or send him an email for availability and make sure you mention this site as a referral.

Otherwise, please consider using this B&H link for any purchase or the specific ones below:

Novoflex NEX-Leica M adapter
Sony NEX-5N camera only (black only) or kit with 18-55 in black or silver
Electronic viewfinder (EVF) for NEX-5N

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