The Sony SAL1650
Back in July when I traveled to Los Angeles for a Hybrid Heroes Workshop weekend, I had the opportunity to play with a couple of Sony lenses that I had seen but never used. There was a time when I wanted (desperately wanted and tried to sell a kidney to get it) the 140mm f/2.8 lens. I was shooting weddings at the time and the speed and sharpness made it a perfect lens.
These days, though, I’m not looking for that telephoto experience but rather the wide angle. I love the wide angle lens. So, when Rob from Sony told me to try it, I popped it on my A65 and took a few shots. But, as much fun as playing with a new lens is, you need to use it for a few weeks to get a feel for the lens’ characteristics – both its strengths and its quirks. After that LA weekend, I talked to Rob and he was more than happy to send me the lens for a few weeks to put it through its paces.
So, here’s my review. But, before I continue, I should probably make a few things clear:
- I am neither a technician nor a “spec jockey”. If you’re looking for precise measurements and a highly scientific technical review, this ain’t it. Do a Google search for technical reviews – there are some really good ones out there.
- There are also a lot of great reviews on the lens’ ability for shooting traditional images but I am a professional hybrid photographer, so I was (and am) looking at the lens’ capabilities in shooting video as well as stills.
- I’m on the HybridPhoto.PRO (formerly DiscoverMirrorless.com) talent team (one of their “Hybrid Heroes”) and I am one of two (currently) Sony shooters on the team, so that’s why I am happy to review and use a dSLR lens when the rest of my team are all on mirrorless.
- I (seem to) really enjoy the (plentiful) use of parentheses.
What Didn’t Work For Me…
As you probably guessed by the title of the review, there isn’t much I don’t like about the Sony SAL1650. But I’ll get to all the stuff I did like in a moment. For now, just a couple of observations. And, again, remember that these should be taken in the context that they are meant; I am a hybrid photographer and usually carry a lightweight kit and am looking for convenience so that I can just grab my bag and go.
This is a lens with heft. It weighs in at just over 20 ounces (about 1¼ pounds) according to my kitchen scale and, on the SLT line of Alphas, that causes the camera to be just a wee bit front heavy. And, yes, “wee bit” is a technical term we like to use in the biz. But I digress. It’s easy enough to carry around all day and not get tired, but I did find myself wishing that I had a battery grip for the A65. Sure, that would have added more weight to my kit but the resulting balance would have offset that. (Rob, any chance you can get Sony to manufacture a grip for my camera???).
Although the lens was tack-sharp throughout the majority of its zoom range, I found that it was soft at both ends of the range. The softness at 50mm was fairly pronounced when shooting wide open at f/2.8. But I, along with every photographer in the world, have a 50mm prime to call on when I need a sharp 50. Once I got the lens to f/5.6, it was more than sharp enough for my needs. At the wide end, though, I found the softness was surprisingly minimal when wide open. I could easily capture a sweeping vista and not have to worry about the softness.
Why I Want This Lens In My Bag…
I’ll toss this out right away – I loved this lens and it tore at the very fabric of my heart to send it back. I had a lot of fun with it and it easily handled everything I threw at it. Here’s why:
- It’s tack sharp. The softness at 50mm notwithstanding, this images I got from this lens were sharp; I had no fear shooting JPG in-camera because I didn’t have to worry about sharpening the image in post. As someone firmly in the “JPG over RAW” camp, this is a huge and critical factor for me.
- It’s fast. Having that constant f/2.8 throughout the entire range allowed me to shoot and not think about losing a stop or two as I zoomed in like I would with a cheaper lens. Having this lens wide open at f/2.8, trusting its sharpness, and using a camera with barely any noise at ISO 1600 meant I could shoot indoors without a flash or other additional light.
- It’s fast – part II. Auto-focus and video are usually two words that aren’t uttered in the same sentence. But the SAL1650 excelled here. Even in lower-light situations, I could use auto-focus while shooting video. Here’s the caveat, though: as long as your subject was relatively in focus before you started recording, the lens focused quickly. But when I shot a subject about 10 feet away and then started recording video of my subject just a few feet away, it took a couple of seconds to lock on. But all lenses do and that certainly wasn’t a killer to the SAL1650. Once locked on, though, it did a far better job of any other lens in my bag of staying locked on the subject.
- It’s accurate. I shoot with the A65 and there are only three things I don’t get that I would have if I bought the A75 – a battery grip, two extra frames per second in burst mode, and the ability to micro-adjust for each lens. The A65 can’t micro-adjust. At least I’ve never figured out how to do it. Yeah, I guess “can’t” and “I couldn’t figure out how” are two entirely different things. Anyway, with any new lens on a body that doesn’t allow for micro-adjusting, there’s some angst. When I got the lens, I did a focusing test anyway and it was incredibly accurate. Not perfect, but better than I was expecting. On a print smaller than 16×20, you’d have to do some serious pixel-peeping to catch it.
Here’s a little hybrid piece I put together to test it out. As you can see, a couple of times my camera work was a bit shaky in the video but the lens was able to re-capture my subject quickly. All the images are JPGs right out of the camera without any post-production.
And, of course, a huge thank-you to the great folks at Sony for the opportunity to have this lens for a few weeks to test and review.