The Sony Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 Lens
After noticing that by far most visitors to my website don’t come for my technical/scientific content (sad!) but for my Auto Revuenon review, I figured I may expand my portfolio of lens reviews, and present more of my not-so-rare knowledge and probably-wrong opinions publicly.
Thus: This review of Sony’s Z 16-70 mm f/4 E lens, or fully Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70 mm F4 ZA OSS, or technically just SEL1670Z.
The technical aspects you can find on Sony’s site, and I won’t repeat them here. Instead I’ll provide my subjective impression so far (no shots of diagrams or walls either). You can click the images to obtain a full-size (camera-resolution) JPEG.
What are we talking about? A versatile, 2013 zoom lens with allegedly Zeiss-designed optics for the E-mount system, covering the APS-C format sensor. I bought it used for around €450 on rebuy.de.
The zoom range of 16-70 mm covers what most kit lenses would provide (e.g., 16-50mm pancake lens; 28-70mm full frame lens). It already tells us who is the intended buyer: those (like me, in anxious moments) who are afraid of not having the right focal length at the right time, and not necessarily needing a super large aperture. In short: tourists. Yes, overall, this lens feels like a tourist lens – which, you have to believe me, is not in any way a negative judgment on the lens itself.
This also means that the photos I will be giving as examples all originated from me being a tourist in some place. It kind of makes sense to review the lens under this premise, as this is what it excels at. As pretentiously mentioned, I really like prime lenses for their optical and artistic qualities; this means that the good things I have to say about this lens really are good, because I intuitively compare results with my (admittedly cheap-ish) prime lenses.
Los Angeles: Easy Sun, Easy Sharpness
Prime tourist occasion: the LA pride. The wide zoom range is great to not miss any shots, and the lacking depth of field doesn’t matter as much here. However, the main weakness of a zoom rears its head: lazy photos from moving the zoom ring instead of one’s position mean that a lot of the pictures kind of lack a certain “bite” making them more interesting.
Technically, I don’t find any real weakness though. The f/4 aperture is plenty enough in the bright light, even with lot of motion in the frame. At the same time, a hint of depth-of-field makes the photos stand out compared to phone photos.
The background blur is very smooth and pleasant for a zoom lens. Naturally it comes out best at 70 mm, with a close subject.
By the way, you can see some more SEL1670Z photos in my Hollywood Hills article.
Switzerland: Outdoors All Day
Landscape photography is often boring, but not in a spectacular setting as Glarus’ alpine foothills. Here, every bit of sharpness counts. Again, we have plenty of light, and closing the aperture beyong f/4 provides us with that sharpness.
Compared to a prime lens (e.g. my Sigma 30mm or Sony FE 50mm), we do see a slight blur which seems to be inherent to all the (cheap) zoom lenses I’ve used so far. However, compared to kit lenses or smaller cameras, the SEL1670Z does a great job here. Edges with sharp contrasts have a light color fringe, and the corners soften up a bit (but who looks at corners anyway!?). However, in many cases I would have trouble trying to distinguish it from a prime lens – for example trying to judge by the sharpness of blades of grass or some details on rocks.
The secondary strength here is the lens’ weight and form factor. While not as minimal as the FE 50mm, which is probably the lightest a lens can be while useful, it is far from being uncomfortable to carry on my Alpha 6500, and that was on a comparatively grueling hike.
On a Stroll: Eifel
Near the Kalltal dam, hiking in the early morning hours. You can judge the wide angle setting in the picture of the red trailer (taken at 16 mm) – in my mind, it shows the great flexibility and performing not any worse than at the more usual focal lengths (then again, I took and selected the photo…).
While 16mm is not the most interesting wide angle – I do love my Samyang 12mm lens – it is more than good enough for a walk-around lens.
Sunset Country: Cinque Terre, Italy
After a day in Riomaggiore, the lens could show what it can do in less bright light than in the other settings. With built-in optical stabilization, the f/4 aperture is rather forgiving even without bright sun, although sharp photos do become increasingly difficult. I solve this by simply not using it much after dusk, and instead switching to a brighter lens.
Noticeably, the harsh light from the sun – and this photo is lightly edited at most – is not a great problem for our candidate. I suppose that’s what a T* coating gives you (…a topic for another physics article?). Even with the bright sun right in the center, the tree’s details are not washed out, and the delicate color gradients of the clouds persist through the sunshine as well.
And what could be a higher achievement for a tourist lens than to cleanly capture the sunset at the end of the day?
If you’ve read up to here, you will probably have noticed a lack of harsh criticism. And that’s no accident, as I’m quite fond of this lens. Now, there’s always the possibility of getting a bad sample if you buy it – but as long as you regularly take photos, and are looking for a lens covering about 95% of your tourist photo requirements, I can confidently say that you can’t go wrong with his model. Especially having been on the market for almost a decade, you will likely also find many used ones for a good price.
Are there any downsides? Yes. My biggest gripe is that the zoom ring is a little too loose. While it is a joy using it, this also means that the inner part is prone to slowly falling out when worn aperture-down (like on a camera strap). That’s not a big downside, but it can be annoying at times. However – the lens is light enough to be worn well aperture-front using the left and right camera strap fixtures. At that point it’s mostly a matter of your personal preference.