One Hour Lens Test: Sony FE 28-70 3.5-5.6 OSS

INTRODUCTION
This is a little mini-series in which I undertake a one-two hour walk-about with a specific lens and present five images taken during this period to show off what the lens is capable of, or where it falls short. The exercise is really an excuse for me to take a break from videography and get some photography in and don’t claim it to be the most scientific lens test. Both the photographer and the subjects are on the move, the results are from just two hours of use, and I’m relying on whatever light was available at the time. I’ve provided links to further tests below which are more in-depth.

PROCESSING
Images are shot in raw with minimal adjustments made in post using Photoshop’s raw filter and the auto tone/contrast/colour settings. Horizons are allowed to be straightened but cropping avoided, and some sharpening might be applied, but I don’t clone anything out of the picture (or add anything in). No masking is allowed. Note that images have been optimised for the web so some quality is compromised, but you can click on each image to view a 1200px wide version, exported at 50% quality.

70mm
1/200
f/9
ISO800

THE LENS
The Sony FE 28-70 3.5-5.6 OSS was launched in 2013 and is about the cheapest zoom lens you can buy for Sony full-frame cameras. At $398 new (I bought mine second-hand for less than $200 in Malaysia) it’s not going to win any competitions, neither in design nor picture image quality, but as a general walk-about lens it shouldn’t be ignored. It is almost half the price of the Vario-Tessar 24-70 f/4, but more than half as good, so if you don’t want to splash out on the much more expensive Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM or Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 Art options, it’ll satisfy most amateur photographers. If you’re a pixel-peeper obsessed with edge-to-edge sharpness, look elsewhere.

28mm
1/100
f/11
ISO 100

WHY I BOUGHT IT
I bought this lens in anticipation of underwater photography and video since it will fit the new Ikelite A7C housing. I had no intention of using it on land. I prefer using primes, especially for street photography, but I’d recently been going through some of my old photos from India which were taken with the Canon 5Dii and the superb 24-70L lens. Admittedly this Canon lens is superior in every way to this budget Sony lens so the two can’t be compared, but it did remind me of the great range 28-70mm offers, especially for travel photography. It’s wide enough for my preferred street focal length, but can be zoomed in for perfect portrait focal lengths if needed.

Liz and I recently did a talking-heads to camera with this lens and for video shot in 4K it’s great. The set-up on the Sony is easier to use than the Olympus 12-40 Pro on the GH5 when fixed to a tripod.

53mm
1/200
f/8
ISO 320

GENERAL CONCLUSIONS
One of the reasons I moved from full-frame to mirrorless a decade ago was because I got fed up with lugging heavy gear around. Much as I loved my beloved Canon, paired with an L lens it weighed a ton, so when Sony brought out the A7C, the world’s smallest full-frame mirrorless camera, I was excited.

70mm
1/200
f/5.6
ISO 800

But there was another problem: the top-rated lenses for Sony are huge! Pairing a tiny camera with a massive lens specifically for travel is counter-intuitive. This is where the FE 28-70 comes in because it is very light at 295g (10.41 oz). Handling of the lens is straight-forward, although manual focus doesn’t feel natural because focus is all done electronically and there are no hard stops on the focus ring. The OSS (optical stead-shot, Sony’s built-in lens stabilisation) is useful for hand-held work but it can’t be switched off via the lens.

55mm
1/200
f/8
ISO 160

As I said earlier I tend to use primes because I know where I’m at with the focal length. This was the first time I’d used a zoom for a photography walk-about in over a decade and I’ll admit I found the experience confusing, although that says as much about me being out of practice with a zoom for photography than anything.

Auto-focus on this lens isn’t bad at all. There was no noticeable noise and when close enough the camera’s eye-tracking works well. I did have a couple of mis-fires though. The image above of the security guard was my second attempt as the camera wanted to focus on the guy behind him. This might be due to the backlight but I would suggest the lens is a little slower to focus than it could be. I’d need to do more portraits to call this one though.

Overall this lens is comfortable to use with the main benefit being its weight. This is off-set by its plasticy feel. Colour rendition is good with little changes noticed when applying auto tone/contrast/colour. It’s not perfect for manual focus but the zoom feels smooth. It’s sharp enough in the centre of the image but no comparison to a lens five times the price, obviously. I’ve not used the more expensive Vario-Tessar 24-70 f/4, the closest lens for comparison, but by all accounts there is not enough difference between the two to justify the price difference. That’s not to say the Tessar’s price is unjustified, it’s just that the Sony FE 28-70 3.5-5.6 OSS is so cheap! This is why I would recommend getting it if budget is tight. If you’re not a pixel-peeper, want to save money and just get out there and shoot, you could do a lot worse. I’ve always loved the 24-70 range for travel so if you need to avoid lugging heavy equipment but maintain a bit of flexibility, this lens fits the bill even if it’s 4mm shorter at the wide end.

In the tropics I find a two hour photo-walk is enough before my body starts complaining. In India I used to get severe back-ache with my Canon gear, but the A7C paired with this lens doesn’t even require a camera bag. It’s a true portable, walk-about set-up.

A NOTE ON AUTOFOCUS
When I shoot with primes I tend to manual focus but the Sony has excellent autofocus, which is only slowed down by the lens. However, I forgot one golden rule: take it off continual autofocus!

If using autofocus in anticipation of someone walking into the shot, it’s useful to switch to single-focus. Half-press the shutter on your preferred focusing distance, keep it locked and then re-compose before pressing fully for the shot. I forgot to do this, so I was pre-focusing a shot and then as I moved the camera to re-compose, the auto-focus changed. This is one reason why I like manual focus but this was clearly user-error in this instance.

A NOTE ON SHUTTER-SPEED
You’ll notice when looking at the EXIF data all shots were taken at 1/200 shutter speed. Although the camera was in Manual mode, this is my start-up shutter-speed when I turn on the camera. I guess I was being lazy because some of the photos I took yesterday afternoon should have been shot at 1/500, like the photograph below.

43mm
1/200
f/8
ISO 160

Mistakes happen, especially in busy siutations. The following photo should have been shot at f/11, for example.

36mm
1/200
f/8
ISO 320

SHOULD I BUY IT?
If you’re on a budget, want to go light-weight or need an acceptable video lens, yes.
If you require edge-to-edge tack-sharpness, no.

SPECS

Focal Length28 to 70mm
Maximum Aperturef/3.5 to 5.6
Minimum Aperturef/22 to 36
Lens MountSony E
FormatFull-Frame. Can be used on APS-C with equivalent 42-105mm focal length
Angle of View75° to 34°
Minimum Focus Distance11.81″ / 30 cm
Maximum Magnification0.19x
Optical Design9 Elements in 8 Groups
Diaphragm Blades7, Rounded
Image StabilizationYes
Filter Size55 mm
Dimensions (ø x L)2.85 x 3.27″ / 72.5 x 83 mm
Weight295 g / 10.41 oz

OTHER TESTS OF INTEREST
Ken Rockwell“For under $400, it works surprisingly well. If you’re an online expert who’d rather spend his time counting pixels than taking pictures, then shut up and go buy the Zeiss lenses for your Sony, but for general use, this plastic lens is easy to buy, easy to carry and easy to shoot.”
DPReview“This is the most underrated kit lens in history. Just check the DX0 charts and see for yourself. It is sharper -by a large margin- than the much more expensive Zeiss f4 zoom at all apertures and all focal distances.”
Photographyblog“In practice we found that the Sony FE 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 OSS reliably offered around 3-stops of compensation.”

* Specs for the featured image of the boy in the chair: 54mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO 1000

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