When I started reviewing the Sony NEX-5N, my intention was to use it exclusively with manual lenses to return to a more deliberate mode of image making that had been lost in my previous years with Canon, Nikon and other full-auto plastic cameras.
It is compared below with the Sony NEX-7. On with the testing!
Please be warned that Chrome, as wonderful a browser as it is, does absolutely abysmal colour management. Google and art obviously don’t go along well. So if you’re using Chrome to view this post, you will see awful colours compared to what they should be. Firefox and IE are much better in that respect.
As promised, here is a summary of my findings with these lenses:
- Being unsure how well the sensor (and my wallet) would cope with Leica-M glass, I played it safe and bought cheaper and easier Leica-R lenses: the exquisite Elmarit-R 19mm/2.8 II and the very precise Summicron-R 50/2.
- On top of these, I took my chances with two M-mount lenses: the tricky symmetric design Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8 and the tiny cuty Voigtlander Colour-Skopar 35/2.5 PII.
- In the Contax/Yashica stable, the Zeiss Planar T* 50/1.7 and the unloved Sonnar T* 135/2.8.
- Finally, co-author Caroline was kind enough to lend me the legendary Summicron-M 28/2 and the maligned Summarit-M 75/2.5.
- Oh, and, just for fun, a 14/2.8 Panasonic micro 4/3 lens and an venerable Tamron 500/8 mirror lens.
Those are all the lenses tried so far on the Sony NEX-5N. My eyes are set on a few more but finances are stopping me, so if you want to send me a christmas present, please do 😉 My initial intention was not to review these lenses but to see whether the NEX-5N is a camera better suited to them than the Sony NEX-7 I originally wante to acquire and how these lenses render on the NEX-5N. Read on.
Leica Elmarit-R 19mm/2.8 IISafety warning! Do not click that picture, it is too sharp for human eyes 😉
I love that lens. I would love to find fault with it to be able to get rid of it and buy something cheaper and smaller, but I can’t. It’s fabulous in the hand,like a premium cinema lens and the pictures it produces are simply the most refined of any lens ever to come my way. It’s a huge beasty, at least as big as my Nikon 18-200 and twice as heavy and the lens shade makes it even bigger looking. But it falls perfectly in the hand and its ergonomics are flawless.
Optically, it’s very good, too. It’s not sharp, it’s detailed. It draws in a creamy, soft and refined way, holding the highlights very well and covering a very wide angle with no nasties anywhere in the frame. And in that smooth velvety picture are plenty of little details or the scenery in front of you. All this supported by realistic and subtle colours and nice micro contrast that holds well even in very tough lighting conditions. If it vignettes, it does so very quietly and I’ve more often spent time adding vignetting than removing any.
So what’s not to like with that Elmarit-R 19/2.8 ? It flares. Quite badly in fact. With the sun in the frame (as in the artificially enhanced image below), flare is quite concentrated and pretty easy to clone out. But with the sun just outside the frame, nasty fan lines appear and are picked up very strongly by the NEX. I use the lens-shade’s flat cap as a portable sunblock and that works perfectly for this, but it all requires a bit of effort and three hands would be a major bonus 😉
On the NEX-5N, it feels like you are carrying a lens with a unusually large rear lens cap and pictures require your best effort in focusing to appear perfectly sharp, even at f/8 !!! But when you get it right, you are in for a real treat. Even if you don’t, the image will be superb, only not sharp enough to print very large. This morning, I took 10 minutes off after driving my daughter to school, set the lens at infinity and f/6.3 , set the camera to +0.3 and just clicked away at the river (see above) without ever checking focus or histogram. No SLR in the world could have shot this quickly. All pictures are very nice, some not being 100% as sharp as if I’d taken my time to focus every time at 10x magnification. The picture of the river above is a hand-held panorama with only very minor LightRoom adjustments. Gorgeous highlights and shadows, perfect colours, just wonderful and impressive considering the 2 second effort involved and the harsh lighting).
This is a glorious lens for landscapes. It holds contrast well but without ever being mushy or soft. The picture below is an example of a situation where 95% of lenses would have rendered a flat and milky picture. It’s perfect here. I would love to try the Zeiss ZM Distagon 18/4 and Leica’s Super-Elmar-M 18mm f/3.8 ASPH, but these are one stop slower and probably not much better.
Love rating on the NEX-5N: Only a smaller better lens could make me sell this.
Now here’s the real good news. I never doubted the lens itself since Steve Huff and Sean Reid gave it glowing reviews. But after seeing pictures taken by the NEX-7 with that lens (see link to flickr stream, for full size images, in first comment. Corners are hideous.), I forgot all about the NEX-7 and regretted that I couldn’t cancel the BiogonI had ordered. But it works tremendously well on the Sony NEX-5N. The first picture in this post (Yellow on Green) was taken with this lens and it is incredibly detailed and rich. That picture was heavily processed and didn’t show any signs of breaking up a tribute to how well lens and sensor go along. Vigneting was added manually, by the way.
The picture above (Misty Forest) was taken at f/2.8. It is tack sharp for the front trees and gets progressively out of focus at the rear, giving the wonderful foggy atmosphere (it was avery clear day with no humidity). This lens draws sooo well! If I had to keep only one, that woudl be the one.
On the NEX-5N it looks at home. The size is perfect. Ergonomics are perfect, build quality is fantastic (although some have been said to loosen in time). It’s small but quite heavy and ever so handsome 🙂 It is tested below against the legendary Leica Summicron-M 28/2. For now, let me just get rid of pixel peepers. The lens is not perfect. The rightmost pixels are soft at f/2.8 and there is a distinct colour shift between f/2.8 and f/8. See below (f/2.8 on the left, f/8 on the right).
And now for those outrageously soft pixels (seen only in the right corners):
In real life situations, I have never seen an unsharp picture from this lens (contrarily to he two Leica-R lenses). In fact it is staggeringly sharp and high-contrast, though with lovely moodiy drawing.I find it slightly less saturated than Leica lenses and would use Vivid instead of Neutral if shooting jpegs. For B&W it can be more difficult to use than the Voigtlander Colour Skopar or the Leicas because the contrast seems stronger. It excels in making low-contrast scenes lively, but in other situations it would be easier to blow highlights than with some of the other lenses tested. See below, put to good use 🙂
In full sun, fantastic contrast and almost no flare.
Love rating on the NEX-5N: I wanna be buried with it, unless Caroline gives me her Summicron for Christmas 😉
This lens is perfection. It combines the refinement and naturalness of my Elmarit-R 19 with the sharpness of the Biogon 25. Everything seems life like and so elegant. I would love to own it but I don’t. So thank you Caroline for lending it to me.
Below are comparison shots with the Biogon 25, both at f/4(ISO1600 unfortunately). The point of view was changed slightly so that angles of view would match.In terms of resolution, I see absolutely no difference (meaning they both outresolve the sensor), except in the last few pixels at top right where the Zeiss Biogon goes slightly soft. Colour appears identical as well, but there is just a micro-hint more naturalness in the Summicron (maybe it’s just in my mind). Biogon on the left, Summicron on the right. Top rowis a center frame and the bottom row shows a crop closer to the edge. The complete scene is above. Not as pixel-peeping as a brick wall, but almost 😉
Distortion ? What distortion ? (Note that the camera did pretty well here as well. The only lighting is from street lamps and noise is kept at bay at ISO1600)
In my brief period of testing I saw no colour shift, no cyan in the corners, no blurry corners. Only perfection. Well, actually, just a hint of flare, here:
Love rating on the NEX-5N: That could be my only lens. Ever.
A pleasant surprise, to be sure! I sought this little gem for its tiny lens, carried by the general plea for “more pancakes, more pancakes” by Sony fans. 135Street had given it a good review and Richard Frances at La Petite Boutique Photo assured me it was such a simple lens, the chances of getting a lemon (a real threat with any complex lens maker today!) were negligeable. And what a lens it turns out to be.
If you’ve ever been into HiFi, you’ll know what a single ended mono triode sounds like. It’s the purest, warmest – though not technically most accurate – soud around. Voices playedd through a well designed amp and well tuned horn speakers are simply unforgettable moments. Clarity and tone are like nothing else can match at any price. Character and emotion dominates measurement. Well this lens is the same, end of review.
Ergonomically, it’s simply too small. Wearing gloves, it would be quite a feat to focus properly, as the focus ring is tiny and very firm. The aperture ring clicks positively and little ears help you grab it like flappy paddles gear changes on sports cars. It’s also a lot better made than what others have described on the web and certainly a lot better than the aperture ring on my Summicron-R 50, Leica brand or not.
In daylight, it’s a street shooter’s dream come true. Tiny, unobstrusive and unassuming. Just set it to f/8 and zone focus for silent ultra fast shooting. In the dark, you’ll have to stick to f/2.8 even on the highly efficient NEX-5N but the brooding results will be well worth the effort.
While the Biogon etches out a bit of your eyes with every ultra sharp shot, this cuddles you with a warm moody rendition. It’s extremely crisp though and, of ALL the lenses tested thus far, this is the one that requires least sharpening, if any at all! It will go vaguely soft in the corners at full aperture (it was probably designed that way) but in any other condition, it’s as sharp as the best of them. Off all the lenses testes thus far, it’s also the most ptone to flare. Which is it’s main (only?) drawback.
You can find many more pictures all made with this little marvel on my previous post: Sony NEX-5N in black and white.
Love rating on the NEX-5N: Get one for a taste of freedom and character, you will never look back. If you don’t like it, you can wear it as a ring.
Leica Summicron-R 50mm/2
Dare I say this is my least loved lens so far? The all mighty Summicron-R 50 (bought at the remarkable Schouten Select), declared by Erwin Putts in person to be the equal of its legendary M-mount brother, just doesn’t do it for me. It’s sharp a plenty, has good colour and reasonably nice bokeh, but nothing in the pictures produced moves me. Integration with the NEX-5N is flawless, not colour shits, no hazy corners, pure quality.
Build is to Leica standards, except for the aperture ring that feels a bit plastic and cheap. Used with the adapter, it’s about the size of the 18-55 kit zoom, another reason for the lack of inspiration. The M-mount equivalent on its adapter would use half the volume.
This is a very cheap lens though. So by all means get one if you need something in that focal length. It will never disappoint technically, it just lacks personality. Also, it’s difficult to explain, but at pixel peeping levels, all photographs seem to have been made through (high quality) glass whereas those made using previously mentioned lenses have that (very thin) veil removed.This should display a rich palet of greens and bright red. If you are using Chrome it will look like vomit. Sorry.
All being considered, I will keep this a bit longer, if only as a portrait lens, but any opportunity to upgrade to a Voigtlander or Zeiss ZM (ooh the insult) will be seized.
Love rating on the NEX-5N: Cannot wait to try (and afford) the Zeiss ZM C-Sonnar T* 1.5/50.
Zeiss Contax Planar T* 50/1.7
This and the Sonnar 135/2.8 were tested without an appropriate adaptor. Hardly scientific, I know 😉 I simply pressed them against the Leica-R adaptor for close shots and with no adaptor at all for infinity shots. Let’s not mention the keeper rate 😉 Oh, the things I do for you 😉
Here are two comparison shots with the Summicron-R 502, all at f/8. The Planar is at least as good, probably a tad better. I’m just too lazy to repeat the test at full aperture, but pictures look excellent. Summicron is at left. Left edge of frame on top and center crop at bottom (different picture).
The Planar is also smaller and far cheaper. It is a real bargain on eBay, going for 120€ !! Grab one now. It’s not as well built as the best part of the summicron and better build than the worst part of the summicron, if you get what I mean 😉 It works perfectly on the NEX-5N. No edge problems or colour shifts.
Love rating on the NEX-5N: Pretty convincing (read excellent) and so cheap. I might sell the Summicron and get an adapter for this. Time will tell.
Leica Summarit-M 75mm/2.5
Hey, so here’s another little stunner. Even anti Summarit Ken Rockwell has great things to say about it. Another fine lens lent by Caroline. Summarits have a bad reputation because of their cheaper build and inferior engravings. So they may not last a lifetime as other Leica lenses do. But since every author mentioning this argument tends to collect the latest, sharpest lens available, I think the argument is mute. Anyway, if this sample is anything to judge by, Leicaphiles have nothing to worry about. Image quality is just as high as the rest and build, well, just feels more modern.
I really liked that lens! My only criticism would be the polygonal bokeh. More expensive lenses would probably have more blades in their diaphragm to produce rounder out-of-focus highlights. Apart from that, it is had to fault. Max aperture is perfect so you select aperture purely based on the focus depth you want.
Love rating on the NEX-5N: I only used it at night for one hour, but it made me want a longer lens. A 90mm Elmarit-M or this would be mighty fine.
Zeiss Contax T* Sonnar 135/2.8
Reviews in forums have said that this lens is not sharp. Maybe sample variation can account for that, but my experience simply doesn’t validate this. On the NEX-5N, it is simply killer sharp. And the bokeh is fabulous. Better than anything else in my stable. It was just too difficult to try an shot at infinity without an adaptor, so all you will get for today are close-ups (10-20 feet). Look at the one below. This is a tiny fraction of the image and is so sharp it becomes unflattering.
The only real trouble with this lens is that it weighs a ton! Laaarge and heaaavy. There is no way this can be carried out in the wild for long periods. I am sorely tempted by an Elmarit-M 90 available at Schouten Select (an excellent source for high quality used lenses), but it would cost so much more and probably not produce better results. Life is tough 😉
And now for something totally ridiculous 🙂 A micro 4/3 lens on a NEX camera 😉
But but but, it’s actually a pretty neat macro lens!
Right! Enough testing. What’s the best NEX camera ?
So! NEX-7 or NEX-5N?
That is the question, Willy!
First bear in mind that I have never come close to a NEX-7 let alone made photographs with one. My observations are based on the pictures found in numerous reviews with pre-production and with final firmwares. Several come to mind: an astonishingly clear picture of a carved elephant on the dpreview sample gallery taken with the mighty Zeiss 24/1.8. Others, ranging from so-so to downright terrible, made with various manual lenses on ThePictureDesk (to which I have linked before). It was expected that wide angle M-mount lenses could perform badly on the NEX-7, but in those photographs, even shots taken with easy and long lenses were pretty abysmal.
I contrast this with my own experience with the NEX-5N and 7 non Sony lenses in which the very worst misbehaviour noted was a colour cast using the Zeiss ZM Biogon 25 wide open. Given how well the custom white balance works on this camera, this is hardly a serious issue. The general overdone warmth in most Sony jpegs is much more bothering to me.
I am tempted to compare the NEX-7 to a very tightly tuned sports car. Given the best conditions of lighting, shooting technique and lens compatibility, it is able to perform to a level unseen outside the medium format world (maybe the Nikon D3x and Sony A900 ?). But in every day conditions of mushy light, it suffers very rapidly. On the other hand, the NEX-5N is more of a Sports Range Rover. It will handle anything you throw at it with nonchalant ease and consistently put out outstanding results. If buying a NEX-7, I would definitely stick to Sony lenses. The NEX-5N lets you taste more exotic flavours and build a collection of full frame lenses that will outlast the camera. For that alone, it is a much better camera to my eyes.
I agree with commentors who suggest that the NEX-5N sensor in the NEX-7 body would be a magical combination indeed.
FujiFilm seem to be working on very promising sensor development and it will be very interesting indeed to test these. Until then, my next post will compare the Sony NEX-5N to the venerable Leica M8.2. Stay tuned 🙂