It’s finally here! The highly anticipated Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM! Many people have been waiting for this lens and Sony finally brought it to us. With the newly released Sony 16-35 f/2.8 I’ve been getting many questions from people if they should buy the f/2.8 or keep using their f/4 (or buy the f/4 if they don’t have it yet). I’ve already seen some reviews out there so I am not just going to review this new lens. I’ve had the chance to use it for a couple of weeks (brought it to Iceland and Scotland and did some shots in my home country with it) now so I think I am able to give some general advice to the landscape photographers out there looking to buy this lens or the f/4.
Now people who know me know I am always critical with gear. I do not just use the latest & the greatest. I like to travel light and I have certain needs in landscape photography. Therefore I do not bring all the newest and heaviest lenses around with me. My kit generally consists of a rather small kit of zooms & primes that I can fit in hand luggage to bring in an airplane for travel. This is also important for hiking. The lighter your gear, the more pleasant it is. I often prefer slower lighter lenses to heavier faster lenses. Simply because I often do not need f/2.8 for landscapes (except night-landscapes). In general, 90% of my shots are shot with a 16-35 lens, in my case the Sony Zeiss 16-35 f/4. Because Sony didn’t have a f/2.8 lens before this was an easy choice. This gets interesting with the release of the new 2.8 GM. It kind of opens up a new world. I used to bring my 16-35 f4 along with a fast wide angle prime if I needed it. Sony is now giving us a choice, but what should we get? This is different for people’s needs. The choice is not easy, even for my own needs. In this article I hope to give you some insights to help you with your own.
16-35 f/2.8 GM on the left, Sony Zeiss 16-35 f/4 on the right
f/4 on the left, f/2.8 on the right (I know, confusing!)
Let’s take a quick look at the specs of these 2 lenses first. As I mentioned, weight & size is important for people like me. The f/4 is obviously much smaller with a length of about 10 cm compared to 12 cm on the f/2.8. When we look at the 2 lenses from the top we see that die diameter from the f/2.8 is much larger, which is of course normal as there is more glass. The filter diameter of the f/2.8 is 82mm compared to the 72mm on the f/4. This means you can still use your 100x100 square filters that used on your f/4 on the f/2.8 without any problems. The weight difference is 520 gram vs 680 gram. That’s a 160 gram weight increase which in my case is acceptable if the performance and need makes up for it.
There are a couple of things that I find important as a landscape photographer. For example, I do not care too much about auto focus. I mainly shoot wide landscapes and I tend to use manual focus anyway. Therefore it’s nice to see that the f/2.8 GM has a dedicated AF/MF switch right on the lens. The F/4 doesn’t have that. When shooting landscapes I obviously find sharpness on both the centre and edges important. Having a f/2.8 aperture is only useful when it’s actually sharp on f/2.8. This lets me shoot milky way & stars at night at a fast aperture. Another thing I find important is the characteristic sunstar from a lens at closed down apertures around f/22. I love to use sunstars as an artistic element in landscape photos, so a good looking characteristic sunstar is always a pre.
Now I’m not a pixel peeper but I do like my shots to be tack sharp at certain apertures so that I can be confident printing them in bigger sizes. The Sony Zeiss f/4 gave me that confidence. It’s really sharp and often ‘pops’. There is just something about that lens that makes your shots look very good in terms of sharpness. It’s certainly not an easy one to beat for the new f/2.8 GM.
However, the sharpness of the 16-35 f/2.8 GM wide open is simply great. I was shooting some puffins in Iceland and having fun with this lens wide open and it was tack sharp with a nice bokeh. Now I normally don’t use a landscape lens like this, but it’s still interesting to see how sharp the GM is wide open. This is definitely promising for shooting the stars at night.
getting up close to a puffin in Iceland with the 16-35 GM at 35mm wide open at f/2.8
Another puffin shot at 35mm wide open at f/2.8. 100% crop with focus on puffin’s eyes below:
at lower apertures the sharpness is simply great. Here are some examples:
Now let’s see how the f/4 and f/2.8 stack up to each other in a similar scene (note that these are boring shots just to check sharpness). Shots are completely unedited RAW files, available for download HERE:
I uploaded some raw files from the Zeiss f/4 and the GM f/2.8 shooting the same scenes at different apertures on both 16mm and 35mm.
When we look at similar shots at similar apertures I don’t see that much difference. Around f/8 both lenses perform quite similar. The f/4 might even pop a little bit more here. When we look at f/4 (wide open for the Zeiss) the GM obviously defeats the Zeiss here. No real surprises.
As mentioned before, I find sunstars an important property of a lens. Sunstars are created by using your lens at a very slow aperture (I often use it at f/22) when the sun touches an edge of something in the frame (tree, tree line, mountain or something). Sunstars can be used as an artistic element in a photo. The Sony Zeiss f/4 has a very characteristic sunstar. Some people don’t like it, but many people -including me- love it.
Here’s an example of a sunstar created by the 16-35 f/4:
Now here’s a sunstar created with the 16-35 f/2.8 GM:
The f/2.8 sunstar is a bit more ‘normal’ or generic. I personally prefer the sunstar of the f/4 with less spikes, but it’s a matter of personal preference in the end.
So which to get?
Both the f/4 Sony Zeiss and the f/2.8 Sony GM are great lenses. You can’t go wrong with either of them. People have been asking me if it’s worth to upgrade from the f/4 Zeiss to the f/2.8 GM. It depends on your shooting style. The f/2.8 GM is very sharp wide open. Because of weather conditions I haven’t been able to test it for astrophotography yet, but I reckon it will perform well. I’ll upgrade this review if I have done so. If you’re a night shooter and you use an aperture of f/2.8 a lot, the GM is a good upgrade. If you barely use a low f-stop number, there is no need to upgrade to the GM. The f/4 Zeiss is an amazing lens and I didn’t see a lot of difference in the 2 regarding sharpness at ‘normal’ apertures.
Now if you’re new to the Sony system or do not have a wide angle lens yet (and have the funds to spend) I’d get the 16-35 f/2.8 GM if you’re looking for a wide angle zoom. There are really no shortcomings. Sony does make things harder by having released the 12-24 f/4 (which I have tested also), but this is an entirely different story for another time!
- both the 16-35 f/2.8 and the f/4 are great lenses with great sharpness.
- the 16-35 f/2.8 is very sharp wide open.
- the 16-35 f/4 has a more characteristic sunstar (see above), matter of personal preference.
- the 16-35 f/2.8 has a dedicated AF/MF switch on the lens, the f/4 doesn't have it.
- the 16-35 f/2.8 is almost twice as expensive as the f/4.
- If you own the f/4 and are not using low f-stops, you don't really need to upgrade to the f/2.8
- If you are looking for arguably the best wide angle zoom for the Sony E-mount system currently and if you have the money to spend, get the 16-35 f/2.8 GM.
- If you already have the f/4 with a 100x100 filter system, you can use this without any issues on the f/2.8.
Gear used in this article:
For any questions, don't hesitate to ask :)
Some more shots with the 16-35 f/2.8 GM:
Shots with the 16-35 f/4