The NEX-7 Needed a Friend
Sony kind of soiled the bed with its early lens lineup for the NEX system. Producing the NEX-7 with only one lens at the pro/enthusiast level was much like making a Ferrari and providing bicycle wheels. That’s where the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 EX DN comes in. Consider it a nice set of All-Season tires for your NEX body. Not racing wheels, but not bicycle wheels.
At $199 – the Sigma 19mm f/2.9 sits right between the truly awful 16mm f/2.8 pancake and the pricey Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 offerings from Sony in terms of focal length and was clearly designed to provide a steady performance at a great price.
I’ll skip ahead… this is a no-brainer purchase for NEX users. Given early reviews with the 30mm as having slightly higher image quality, I’d say buy the set.
Size: Without the supplied lens hood, the Sigma 19mm lens is a very reasonable size at 2.5″ long. When you put it into context (see photo with keys), it becomes clear how compact the NEX system is. Any smaller and it’d be a nuisance.
Quality, Fit, Finish: The lens is made of plastic. Plastic isn’t a four letter word anymore although it doesn’t provide that refined and reassuring feel that a Leica or Zeiss lens can give you. While the materials are pretty spartan (no soft touch or textured ring, etc.) the Sigma 19mm 2.8 doesn’t give you a distinctly cheap going-to-fall-apart feel. The focus ring is smooth and fairly well damped. It mounts snugly. The lens hood is actually pretty nice and fits securely as well. If you mount the hood backwards to keep it out of the way… the focus ring will be obscured.
Filters: The lens accepts 46mm filters. Can’t use your old M mount filters, can’t use your SLR ones. At $199.00 the replacement cost isn’t incredibly high and a very high quality Skylight or UV filter for this lens will cost you around $40. Do you need one? That’s up to you, but you may want to read this. I’m going filter-free on this lens. On another note, a 77mm circular polarizer would look goofy with a step-down ring.
Focus: The AF motor is actually nice and quiet. I’d say it’s deliberate – not lighting fast, but not slow like my 85/1.2L Mark I. It nailed the focus in the limited tests I was able to do. This isn’t a sports and birding focal length really, so the standard it’s being held to isn’t like a 135mm or the like. Manual focus by wire was fine, didn’t strike me as different than the other E-Mount lenses.
Corner Sharpness: The NEX-7 is packed with tiny pixels. Sony engineers must have decided that nothing of importance or value goes into the corners of photos, so every lens made by the hands of man gets a little ”funny” in the far corners of the NEX-7 image. I was very pleased with the corners of this Sigma 19mm – even at f/2.8. Is it sharp as a razor? No. But it’s solid and inoffensive. I could imagine it being very nice on the NEX 5n. With this lens, you’ll never want to look at the spongey muuuuush from the 16/2.8 again. And why should you?
The old “brick wall” test: As you know, 80% of my photos are of brick walls, just like most camera lens reviewers and bloggers. Here’s how you do this test: you leave the camera store and then you photograph the camera store. In any event, given the NEX-7′s leaning towards funny corners, I squared up to the brick wall, used the direct manual focus feature and scored critical focus in the FAR RIGHT corner of the image.
- RAW processed in Adobe Lightroom 4
- The images were all at ISO 200
- The shutter speeds didn’t fall slower than 1/400
- The same input sharpening (radius 0.5, 20% strength, 10 detail, 0 masking)
The results are acceptable at f/2.8 and make me happy at f/4 and beyond. Best corners at f/8 – diffraction sets in soon afterwards. You can start to see a little bit of chromatic aberration in the corner, but it’s really nothing awful. You want to see awful? Here’s a corner crop from the Sony 16mm f/2.8… shot a f/5.6
Flare: At a 28mm-ish full-frame field of view, your light source is likely to end up in the frame. Less expensive lenses usually fall apart in these situations. The following images show me trying to make the image fall apart… shooting directly into the sun. You will see that the image holds contrast and detail at f/2.8 right into the sun… and you’ll see the only photo I was able to get a flare in which was taken at f/6.3 with the sun just out of the frame and without the lens hood.
Notes on image quality:
- Shocked at how good the sharpness is, particularly at f/4 – f/8
- Corners are soft but not bad enough to destroy an image wide open at f/2.8 – very pleased with the result. Stopping down even 1/3 stop starts improving sharpness
- Wide open, the lens does have a slightly lower contrast image, but there is good detail and texture… it’s actually particularly easy to bring the detail out with some judicious input sharpening in RAW development
- The colors are pretty neutral but not muted. It’s solid in this regard
- Overall the contrast is good – was expecting a harsh/hard look but it’s very well-behaved
- There is a little bit of a moustache-like distortion (see the photo of the white building)
- The Blurbutter / bokeh, out of focus highlights are pleasing and do not get overly nervous and distracting when stopping down. The 7-blade aperture stays relatively round and the result is that at f/4-f/8 you can still have smooth out of focus areas. This is important with a wider lens because with such a broad depth of field, there is a lot of transitional zone that many lenses really foul up and make into a distracting mess. This is pleasing… It’s not a Summilux 50/1.4 – but is a solid performer.
Conclusion / Initial Impression: Sigma accomplished what Sony couldn’t. At this time, with the new NEX body soon to launch, Sony will ahve 6 bodies and 7 lenses in the system. That’s a pretty bad ratio. And in terms of everyday prime lenses… the lineup is woefully lacking. You have a slow macro lens, a $1000+ 35mm equivalent and a terribad wide pancake. NOW, Sigma has provided two solid lenses that are relatively fast, provide nice quality and in useful focal lengths (29mm and 45mm).
The Sigma 19mm f/2.8 EX DN is truly remarkable in that it’s a perfectly unassuming lens. Middle of the road color, middle of the road contrast, nice bokeh, okay build quality. The sharpness and resolution is surprisingly good and really starts to take advantage of the NEX-7′s 24 megapixel sensor. If you are a manual lens shooter… definitely consider one of the Sigmas as a “walkaround.” If you are into the NEX system, this lens is in many ways a no-brainer.
CLICK HERE to see a gallery of samples at 2500px size.