Testing The New Sony / Zeiss 35mm f/1.4
and Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8
On The Streets of Havana
Fuji X-T1 with XF 16-55mm @ ISO 500
A Note to Readers
The images on this page are processed to my taste.
These are not test shots intended to illustrate
any particular lens performance trait.
There’s nothing like an actual location shoot for testing new gear. Test charts and back-yard bric-a-brac have their place, but the heat of battle (so to speak) is what’s needed to really put a new lens though its paces. That’s exactly what I did in mid-March, 2015 when Nick Devlin and I spent four days on Old Havana doing street shooting.
A Long Time Coming
I had long wanted to shoot in Havana. As a Canadian I could have gone there any time over the past fifty years or so. Canada has always maintained diplomatic relations with Castro’s Cuba. Air Canada even has daily flights from Toronto, where I live. But somehow I never found the time.
In December, 2014 when U.S. President Obama announced the easing of relations with Cuba, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before throngs of American’s would once again be visiting Cuba. The days of the time-encapsulated city of Havana would eventually be no more, and so I was eager to visit, see it and of course photograph it for myself.
Immediately following Obama’s announcement I called my friend Nick Devlin, who had also long expressed a desire to shoot in Havana, and said – “It’s time we booked our flights”. It took us a few months to find a common gap in our schedules, but by March, 2015 we were on our way.
Sony A7II with Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 @ ISO 125
I had planned to just use my Fuji X-T1 system on this trip. Documentary shooting is this camera system’s raison d’etre; light weight, small size, superb lenses, and importantly for discrete street shooting at night, a silent electronic shutter.
But literally the day before departure, Sony Canada was kind enough to drop off the brand-new Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA for my testing. I really had no choice but to ditch some of my Fuji lenses from the small bag I had packed and replace them with my Sony A7 MKII and the new 35mm Distagon.
My kit finally consisted of the Fuji X-T1 with 16-55mm f/2.8 and 50-140mm f/2.8, and the Sony A7II with 35mm f/1.4 ZA. I could have taken a larger shoulder bag or backpack, and more lenses, but the weather forecast for Havana for the coming week was for it to be hot and humid. I knew we’d be out shooting for many hours each day, walking the streets of La Habana Veija. Traveling light was more important for me than covering all the lens bases.
Fuji X-T1 with XF 16-55mm @ ISO 200
But, at the last minute I managed to squeeze in my Fuji 23mm f/1.4, which gives the same field of view on the X-T1 as the Sony 35mm Distagon does on the A7II. I did this because I anticipated doing some night shooting in Havana, and while the Sony lens has the speed I wanted at the focal length, the A7II has a noisy shutter compared to the X-T’s totally silent electronic shutter.
Nick was also using something special – at least for him – a new Leica Monochrome, which he had just acquired the week before. His lens kit includes a Leica 50mm f/2, 35mm f/2 and a 21mm CV. A typical street shooting triumvirate for a rangefinder user. He also will be carrying the new Fuji X100T camera as a backup and for colour work, as the Leica Monochrome is, of course, a B&W only camera.
Sony Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 ZA
When it comes to size Sony has pushed the envelope with its “7” series full-frame cameras. They are no bigger than most mirrorless APS-C cameras like the X-T1, and even most Micro Four Thirds camera bodies. But the laws of physics can’t be beaten, and when it comes to large aperture lenses even Sony has to be a law abiding citizen.
The 35mm FA Distagon is not a small lens. In fact it’s almost the same size as the Fuji 16-55mm f/2.8, which some people have complained about as being too large. But regardless of its relative size, the Distagon is also heavy; weighing in at 1.39 lb (630 g).
But all thought about the lens’ size and weight are put aside when one first handles it and puts it on a 7 series Sony camera. My god but this is a beautifully made lens. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is in my experience – physically – the highest quality Sony / Zeiss lens yet.
The fit and finish are first rate; the huge knurled focusing ring, though fly-by-wire, is smooth as butter, and the aperture ring is beautifully click-stopped. Aperture ring? Yes indeed. Just as in days of yore the 35mm Distagon has a click stopped aperture ring, with 1/3rd stop detents. The F stop markings are actually engraved, not just painted on.
There is, of course, an A position for when working in Aperture priority mode. Also, there is a switch on the lower left/rear of the lens that changes the aperture ring from click-stopped to continuous, which will be appreciated hugely by the video crowd.
Note as well that when in the A position one can still use one of the two camera control wheels to change the aperture manually. In this regard the lens integrates beautifully into Sony’s control system, doing exactly what you think it should regardless of settings.
The lens is rated as “weather sealed” by Sony, though curiously there is no rubber gasket on the mount. The aperture itself has nine rounded blades, which is de-rigueur these days for optimum bokeh.
I’ll just mention that at USD $1,598 this is quite a pricy lens, though as we’ll see, the value is really there for anyone that can afford it and who doesn’t mind the bulk and weight.
At The Bar. Cuba, March, 2015
Sony A7II with Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 @ ISO 160
This is a lens that any Sony FE mount camera owner would be more than pleased to have in their kit. Images are crisp, physical construction is first rate, and any minor technical anomalies are quickly forgotten during use and even when reviewing and printing images.
If you can afford it, and don’t mind the bulk and weight, the 35mm f/1.4 FA Distagon is a delicious lens to own and use.
Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR
Fuji has moved from strength to strength in the new mirrorless compact system camera marketplace for several reasons. Creating innovative cameras with unique and excellent non-Bayer sensor designs is one, lovely retro-styled cameras with lots of manual controls is another, but their lenses present an equally compelling reason.
Fuji X-T1 with XF 16-55mm @ ISO 2500
Fuji really knows how to design and make lenses. It’s as simple as that. Even their consumer-grade lenses are usually of very good quality, while their premium lenses give up nothing to even the best from other makers.
The new XF 16-55mm f/2.8 is a premium lens in every respect. In a week of heavy use in Havana, and in subsequent shooting, I have nothing buy praise for both the handling and optical quality of this lens.
This lens is in the current Fuji XF idiom. It is weather sealed (when used with a weather sealed camera, such as the X-T1), and has a physical aperture ring with third stop clicks, as well as an A position. This has long been my favoured lens interface, since it lends itself to both manual aperture setting, ease of visually noting the aperture selected, and simple switch-over to automatic mode when desired.
Sadly, there is no built-in Image Stabilization. The argument is that this would have made an already hefty lens even more so, but it still missed and would have added to the lens’ versatility.
Life and Art
Fuji X-T1 with XF 16-55mm @ ISO 200
When it comes to speed of autofocus in combination with the X-T1, I found performance to be excellent. For example, the shot above titled “Riding By” was taken while I was sitting in a pedicab, moving past the boy on his bike. We were traveling in opposite directions at a good clip. While the focus wasn’t absolutely perfect, I am astonished at how good it actually is.
Finally, when used on an X-T1 body, along with the optional battery grip, the 16-55mm f/2.8 forms a package that is by no means small and extra light. But, if a fast aperture mid-range zooms is what you want, that’s the way it has to be, so this is more of an observation than a complaint.
All-in-all the XF 15-55mm f/2.8 is a winner, and if I had to head out shooting right now with just one lens on my X-T1, this would be the one.
Come and Enjoy The Show
Nick Devlin and I will be having a gallery show of our Havana photographs at Pikto gallery in Toronto, in September, 2015. Here’s the blurb. Please come and visit us for the opening reception, or any time that month.
Nick Devlin and Michael Reichmann
September 17th to October 19th, 2015
Opening reception: September 17th 6-9 pm.
Havana- Changing light presents a dual vision of this city on the cusp; as it transitions from the more than half-century-long economic and cultural embargo by the U.S. The image in this show are displayed in vibrant colour and classic black and white. Utilizing both image types helps to illuminate the contrasts between the frozen past and an unknown future. Prints will be available for sale, as well as a limited edition book based on the exhibition.
A Personal, Political and Social Commentary
People visit this site for commentary and insights about photographic topics. Yet I know that whenever we cross that indistinct boundary and write about matters social or political, we get push-back. Stick to what you know – we are told.
Well, I disagree, and I know that Kevin does as well. We all exist in a complex world where art, craft, professions, hobbies and our day-to-day lives are intertwined. To act as if we are compartmentalized is to avoid being a true human being, and abrogates our social responsibilities.
I will also start this brief commentary by observing that the online world frequently mentions how various writers are “biased“. This is usually the case when the opinion being stated is at odds with the reader’s.
So – here is the bitter truth pill. We are all biased. If you don’t have a bias you don’t have an opinion, and if you don’t have an opinion you’re either brain dead or just don’t give a shit.
Which leads me to my observations about Havana, its people and Cuba in general.
On The Streets
As Nick has mentioned in his recent essay on these pages, “I have never travelled to any place where wealthy, voyeuristic tourists are met with such openness of spirit and friendliness“. I can echo this sentiment. During more than half a century of travel I have explored and photographed on all seven continents and more than 40 countries; first world, second world and third world. The Cuban people are undoubtedly among the most open and friendly anywhere.
I’ll also note that both in Havana and the countryside I have rarely felt safer or less concerned anywhere for personal safety. Yet, there is hardly any police or military presence visible (though there is some), and certainly less than one sees these days on the streets of major cities in the U.S. or Western Europe.
This appears to be a relatively stable society, yet it is achingly poor. Half the buildings in downtown Havana appear derelict. People are living in buildings which appears to be bombed out and abandoned, yet at night one sees lights on in the upper stories.
A visit to a supermarket shows mostly bare shelves, and what packages goods there are consists of 100 cans of the same product in each category. A sure sign of a “planned” economy.
Just to be clear, there does not appear to be a shortage of food – just not a lot of variety. This is seen in both tourist restaurants as well as eateries for locals, as well as street market stalls. Food is available, and not terribly expensive (for locals). Just limited in diversity and quality. This is likely a results of the U.S. embargo along with a shortage of foreign exchange, making imports of all types expensive.
I know from what I’ve read, as well as seeing first-hand the general state of people’s lives on the streets of Havana and the nearby countryside, that the standard and quality of education of high, and health care is very good as well. Better than in some more so-called developed countries.
But, it saddens me to report that on my five days in Havana in March, 2015 I was approached by street prostitutes more times than in any other city, ever, anywhere in the world. In one case, a young man on the street asked me if I wanted a girl. I relied “No”, and he then asked without any obvious guile, if I preferred boys, because if so he himself was available.
This simply says to me that economic opportunities are very limited. To sell ones body is a sure sign of financial desperation.
This was further brought home to me on a day when we hired a car and driver and went out into the countryside. We wanted to see rural as well as small town life. As we went through villages I was struck by the almost complete lack of commercial activity.
My point of comparison is Mexico, where I have spent part of many years recently. There, a small town is always teaming with life; people selling produce, repairing small motors, selling various household and farm products. In other words – making, buying and selling.
In the parts of rural Cuba that we saw there was almost none of this. Few shops, and hardly anyone was engaged in any sort of commerce. This brought home that Cuba is still very much a Communist (Marxist-Leninist) state. Indeed the only other country remaining in the world with a similar economic regime is North Korea.
Not to compare the two though. North Korea is a harsh paranoid dictatorship while Cuba has a much more enlightened government, and its people are much better off in almost every respect. But, the reality is that Cuba remains a single party state running under the principals of Marxism-Leninism. ( Parenthetically, China hasn’t been communist for years. It’s now simply a totalitarian regime run by capitalists educated at Cal Tech and The London School of Economics).
Once, Cuba was run by home-grown dictators answerable to the U.S. government. Then the U.S. Mob held sway for a while, and gambling, drugs and prostitution were rampant. Then Castro’s regime imposed communism, and eventually, until its fall, Russia had a turn with Cuba as a vassal state of sorts. The poor Cuban people. A history of domination.
Now Cuba lies at a crossroads. The Castro regime is nearing the end-game. The U.S. is moving toward rapprochement and American companies see vast economic opportunities; gaining landing rights for the airlines, and building new Marriotts and Hiltons. Can McDonalds and Kmart be far behind?
Today, beneath the nostalgic facade of shiny 1950’s Chevy Belairs, and a healthy and educated population, lies a capital city that looks in parts like Dresden after the fire bombings of WWII. Rebuilding Havana and the Cuban economy will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And when that kind of money is spent (if its spent) what will those who pick up the tab want, and what type of society will the Cuban people be left with?
I know no answers. But my heart is with the Cuban people.