I bought the Sony Vario-Tessar T* E 16–70mm f/4 ZA OSS Lens for a few reasons. I knew it was a very expensive lens for what was on offer, but it does have a few unique traits that other E-Mount APS-C lenses just don’t have.
For one thing: it’s really compact. It also looks very much at home on my Sony A6000 and it’s balanced very well for smaller cameras.
I enjoyed the flexibility of having the initial 16–50mm kit zoom that came with my camera, but I didn’t like the power zoom switch. Power zoom makes for some very smooth zooming in video, but it tends to feel very slippery if you want to select a specific focal length. You’ll have to do a lot of slipping and sliding before you actually end up at exactly 24mm. I also hated the way the kit lens would reset to 16mm every single time I turned the camera off. The ribbed, metal zoom ring on the higher-end 16–70mm is smooth and precise, and although it can suffer from lens creep when held glass-side-down, it stays reliably in place while I use it.
What worried me most before purchasing this was the f/4 aperture throughout the zoom range. I was excited to have a zoom that would stay consistent no matter what focal length I used, but f/4 isn’t very fast or very shallow in terms of depth-of-field (DOF). I planned to overcome the speed limitations with frequent use of OSS (Optical Steady Shot, Sony’s branded version of image stabilization), which usually lets me shoot at 1/20 of a second and still get reasonably sharp shots. I was also hoping that the 70mm focal length and f/4 would provide me with a shallow enough DOF to pull off some portrait shots.
Since the 16–70mm is sized for APS-C sensors, the crop factor is set at 1.5. That means you multiply the focal length by that crop factor to arrive at a full-frame 35mm equivalent.
So although it says 16–70mm on the barrel, we’re really looking at an effective 24–105mm range with this little lens. That covers quite a number of common full-frame focal ranges from prime lenses, like 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.
Given the way I shoot, I spent most of my time at 16mm (24mm) , 24mm (35mm), and 70mm (105mm). Here are some of my favourite shots at each of those focal lengths.
This shot of the Gardiner Museum was handheld at 1/6 second shutter speed, and I think it worked out thanks to the very forgiving wide angle, and the excellent OSS in this lens. I’ve taken a lot of shots at extremely low shutter speeds to help make up for the maximum f/4 aperture.
What the lens isn’t great at is focusing quickly in low light. This probably also has to do with the camera body I was using (the A6000), but the Sony can hunt for focus in the dark.
This shot near Tokyo Station shows off some of the lovely color that this Sony-Zeiss lens can render. I did shoot this one in RAW and brought out more of the shadows, but I love the punchy colors this lens can bring to the table.
The first lens I bought for the A6000 was the 35mm f/1.8, which is a 50mm equivalent focal length. I’ve gotten a lot of great shots with that prime lens, but 50mm always felt a little constricting for me.
I prefer the 24mm (35mm equivalent) focal length as a nice balance between capturing the rooms I’m in, while still letting me frame a scene with a sense of intimacy.
This shot of a subway train in Tokyo is one such example. It’s actually shot at 22mm, but I’ve filed it with my 24mm shots because, well, it’s close enough.
My second 24mm example was from the monorail en route to Odaiba in Tokyo. I was sitting right beside my girlfriend, so 16mm would have distorted her face a little too much. 24mm felt just right and captured the scene with such clarity at f/4.
I read other reviews of the Sony 16–70mm before purchasing, and one thing they were fairly consistent about was that the lens could lose some sharpness on the long end.
I’m not equipped with any lens charts, nor am I really interested in that kind of testing. All I know is that I’ve been quite happy with the results of the Vario-Tessar at 70mm. I do a bit of pixel-peeping now and then in Lightroom, and I’ve always been really happy with the sharpness of my subjects, regardless of where they were situated in the frame. There isn’t an incredible amount of subject separation when you’re over seven feet away from your subject, but there’s still enough to capture a dramatic backlit silhouette.
This lens is also very sharp when you stop it down to f/5.6. This shot of our family cat sunbathing by the window is so sharp you could practically count the hairs on her face. So although the portraits taken with this lens won’t be bokeh-licious, you can rest assured they’ll be deliciously sharp.
Design & Build Quality
The Sony 16–70 is made mostly out of metal, and weighs a little over a pound. I’d classify this as feeling reassuring, rather than outright heavy. I’m also still amazed at how compact this design is, now that I’ve seen what zooms look like on larger full-frame systems. You don’t need a dedicated camera bag to carry an A6000 with this lens attached — any bag that can accommodate the height of an A6000 will also hold this lens.
I touched on the ribbed zoom ring earlier, so there’s not too much more to say about it. It’s grippy and dampened enough to feel smooth, but accurate. I usually wear the A6000 with the lens facing down, and I haven’t noticed any significant lens drift while walking around. If I put the camera down at 24mm, it’s usually still 24mm when I bring it to my eye for the next shot.
The focus ring is right in front of the zoom ring and it’s actually pretty easy to find once you get used to feeling for the width. However, you really won’t be using this ring very much. The fly-by-wire experience on this lens just wasn’t well designed. There are no hard-stops for focus, and focusing never stops feeling slippery even with focus peaking to assist.
The last bit of the design I’d like to cover is the petal-shaped plastic lens hood. Some people might read the word “plastic” and think “cheap”, but this one feels quite solid in the hand. It isn’t too large, but it’s got enough depth to protect the front element from scratches or accidental fingerprints. I never had major issues with flaring, so I’ve really only used the hood as an extra measure of protection. It has managed to provide more security without adding any noticeable weight, or detracting much from the premium styling.
There’s no question that this Sony 16–70 is expensive for what it is, but there really aren’t many constant aperture zooms on the E-Mount system, so that tends to simplify this purchase decision a lot. The Sony 16–70 f/4 costs $1000, and the next step up is the Sony G-Master 24–70mm f/2.8 at $2200, which is faster, but also much larger, prices, and heavier.
The cheaper alternative to the Sony 16–70 is the Sony 18–105mm f/4 OSS, which comes in at about $600. There are two things I didn’t like about that lens, though. The 18–105mm absolutely dwarfs the 16–70mm in the size department and no longer makes the A6000 feel like a small camera kit. That was a deal breaker for me. The other factor was that the 18–105mm is a power zoom lens, which means you use an electronic switch to manipulate the lens zoom. This means that the lens will reset to 18mm each time you turn it on, and power zooming doesn’t feel as accurate as a physical zoom ring.
When seen in this light, the Sony 16–70mm is really the only choice for shooters looking for a compact regular zoom with a constant aperture for an APS-C E-Mount camera like the Sony a6000 or a6300. You won’t be able to capture friends in a dimly-lit pub, but you can pull off a number of impressively sharp night shots thanks to the excellent stabilization at super-low shutter speeds.
The biggest draw of this lens is really the compact form factor. Knowing you can have a 24–105mm equivalent lens attached to your camera at all times is a very freeing sensation. You just grab the camera and lens, throw it in basically any bag, and you’re ready for 90% of what the day might throw at you.