The Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm F1.8 ZA ($1,099.99) is an older lens, released when Sony was still calling its Alpha line of APS-C mirrorless cameras NEX. Despite its age, it’s a phenomenal performer, even on the latest 24MP camera bodies. It’s sharp from edge to edge at f/1.8, shows no distortion, and is capable of capturing images with a shallow depth of field thanks to a solid close-focus capability. It’s an expensive lens, but one that’s worthy of being named Editors’ Choice.
The Zeiss 24mm F1.8 is a large prime, measuring 2.6 by 2.5 inches, weighing 7.9 ounces, and supporting 49mm front filters. Its barrel is metal, and it ships with a matching black metal hood, which is reversible for storage. It’s free of adornment, save for the blue Zeiss badge. The only control is a knurled metal manual focus ring.
Manual focus is electronic, which is a downer for photographers who eschew autofocus. Turning the focus ring simply activates the internal focus motor to adjust focusing elements, rather than moving them mechanically. This method doesn’t provide solid tactile feedback. If you’re a manual focus fiend, consider the Zeiss Loxia 2.8/21, which doesn’t support autofocus, but delivers a true mechanical manual focus experience.
The Sonnar doesn’t feature optical image stabilization—wide-angle primes seldom do. Its wide aperture and field of view lessen the need for stabilization for stills; you should be able to hand hold a sharp shot at 1/30-second without too much difficulty. But if you’re looking at the the lens for handheld video work, be aware that you’ll end up with jittery footage. At press time, the Alpha 6500 is the only APS-C body with built-in stabilization.
The lens is designed for use with APS-C bodies, which have image sensors smaller than 35mm film. Because of that, its field of view is roughly equal to a 36mm lens mounted to a 135 system. You can use the Sonnar with full-frame models like the Alpha 7 II, but the camera will automatically crop images to match the smaller APS-C sensor size, reducing resolution. You can change settings to use the entirety of the sensor, but photos will have a dark black circle surrounding them.
The 24mm F1.8 focuses as close as 6.2 inches (16cm). At its closest working distance it projects images onto the image sensor at 1:4 life-size, giving it a decent macro capability. When working that close you’ll have quite a bit of control over depth of field, with f/1.8 images blurring backgrounds significantly.
The Sonnar was released before Sony started to seal its premium APS-C bodies from dust and moisture. If you plan on using it with an Alpha 6300 or 6500, be aware that you should avoid doing so in heavy precipitation. You’ll need to reach for an FE lens to completely protect sealed models.
I tested the 24mm F1.8 with the 24MP Alpha 6500. At f/1.8 it is exceptionally sharp, notching 2,749 lines per picture height on Imatest’s center-weighted sharpness test. Our test image is just as sharp at the edge of the frame as it is at the center. The score is well in excess of the 1,800 lines we want to see at a bare minimum.
Stopping down to f/2, f/2.8, and f/4 nets similar sharpness scores. There’s a modest improvement at f/5.6 (2,883 lines) and f/8 (2,916 lines), which is just about as much resolution as you can expect from a 24MP image sensor. Diffraction sets in at narrower apertures, cuting resolution at f/11 (2,683 lines), f/16 (2,149 lines), and f/22 (1,260 lines).
There’s no distortion of which to speak. The straight lines on our test chart appear just as straight in photographs. There is some dimness at the corners of the frame at f/1.8 and f/2—they’re about 2 stops (-2EV) dimmer than the center. It’s lessened at f/4, and the frame is evenly lit at f/5.6 and narrower. JPG shooters can rectify this automatically with in-camera correction, and Raw photographers can eliminate the vignette look using a lens profile correction in Lightroom CC.
Aside from its asking price, there’s not much to gripe about with the Sony Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* E 24mm F1.8 ZA. It’s an extremely sharp lens, even at the edges of the frame at f/1.8, and it focuses quite close. Image quality is just phenomenal, and when shooting at a wide aperture you get images with a blurred background to make your subject pop. It’s not perfect—a lack of weather sealing and optical stabilization keep it from getting a perfect score—but it should still be considered as the best wide-angle prime lens you can get for APS-C Sony cameras, and our Editors’ Choice.