Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80mm F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ review

by , May 2007

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZOne of the most popular lenses to come from Minolta was the AF 24-105 F3.5-4.5 D introduced in the 2000. This wasn't a surprise, since at a very fair price (under 400USD retail) the lens provided a very flexible focal range while still producing excellent results. However, with the advent of digital SLR the lens lost its appeal since on APS-C format it became a 36-157mm, significantly limiting its usefulness at the wide angle end.

Both Konica-Minolta and Sony have provided "kit" lenses (Minolta AF DT 18-70 F3.5-5.6 D and Sony AF DT 18-70 F3.5-5.6 SAL-1870) )  suited for APS-C format, but as expected for low priced kit lenses build quality and performance weren’t up to expectation to many users.

It was quite a surprise when the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ was announced; the first AF Carl Zeiss lens designed for APS-C format has immediately attracted a lot of interest among A-mount users with many of us having high hopes for this lens as a common all-around lens (providing on APS-C format a coverage of 24-120mm, just about the same of the earlier 24-105mm lens).

There was a long gap between the announcement and the final product becoming available on the market. Initially planned to be released in the last quarter of 2006, availability status was postponed to April 2007 while changing production location from China to Japan (preproduction samples made in China didn't perform nearly as well as expected, at least judging from some rare sample images we had the chance to see and it's quite safe to suppose that Sony actually had some problems with the production process). Even now (May 2007) most major photo stores don't have the lens in stock which isn't something we had expected from Sony.

Before continuing reading this field report I suggest you read two excellent reviews of this lens published recently (I will try to avoid repeating aspects covered by Klaus and David)

Both approach this lens differently but their overall conclusion is that the lens is capable of providing excellent result, and both reviews have emphasised issues with build and production control quality. Especially useful are David's observations that leave a deal of suspicion  about an otherwise excellent lens. While I haven't encountered all the problems David had, I pretty much agree with his statements about the build quality.

 

Build and handling

Carl-zeiss-16-80-SAL
The lens barrel extends during zooming,
but the front element does not rotate.

Carl-zeiss-16-80-SAL compared to Konica Minolta 17-35D
Dust-friendly rubber ring.

Carl-zeiss-16-80-SAL compared to Konica Minolta 17-35D
CZ Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5
compared to Konica-Minolta 17-35D
I was very fortunate to have this lens at the same time as the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ (which is of excellent build quality well worthy of the Zeiss reputation). If I were judging on CZ 16-80 only, I would have big difficulties in believing that Carl Zeiss branding has brought any advantages to A-mount users. My expectations of the DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 were very high; after all, it was Sony which said that the announced collaborations with Carl Zeiss were an effort to bring us ultimate lens (optical and build) quality.

Right from the first time I handled the lens I was very disappointed. No signs of regarded Zeiss build quality here and the lens is no better than lenses that can be purchased for half the money. Sloppy feel when focusing or zooming makes this lens probably the worst lens with Carl Zeiss name on it. Does the price justify this or should the price bring higher level of build quality remains the topic on many forum discussions and each of us may have different opinion here. I did expected much better build quality but this may easily means only that I have too high expectations. *1

While the focus ring is evenly stiff, there is significant play which can easily spoil focus. AF disengage is also of issue, since it doesn't work every time on my two 7D bodies.

7D owners will most probably like to enable smooth focus mode on their 7D when manual focusing since this is one (rare) lens where this option really makes difference.

It's nice to see a distance scale on the lens.

Zoom and focus rubberized rings do attract a lot of dust and I'm not really a fan of the rubber styling Sony uses on their lenses. 

 

The zoomed-out barrel extends significantly but the whole zoom operation is quite pleasing with the zoom ring well damped and with even stiffness through the whole range. Whether or not this will change with use is hard to tell, but considering the whole build feel and the quite heavy front element, I wouldn't be surprised to see signs of zoom creep with time (ok, I may be too pessimistic here .. but can you blame me? :( ). 

Thanks to AF decoupling (auto clutch) the ring does not rotate during AF which is a great news for all of you used to many older Minolta lenses.

The front element does not rotate during focusing (internal focus) or zooming which allows the use of a flower shaped hood. The hood is quite adequate considering the 16mm wide end.

Lens mount is made of metal, and as with most lenses released by Sony does support ADI (8 lens contacts).

Worth noticing is that the lens is correctly recognized by Dalifer as Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 f3.5-4.5 ZA

 

Performance

I made a stupid mistake when departing on a trip with this lens and didn't check for possible vignetting (I'm not used to APS-C lenses :( ). My stupidity showed right on a first frame I took with an old "standard" Tamron polarizer.

Unfortunately, the Cokin P holder that I carry by default didn't help either (a Cokin wide angle holder wasn't in my bag :( ) so I was left without adequate polarizer filter at the Plitvice lakes ... a place where a polarizer is almost a requirement.

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZAt 16mm, wide open, the lens exhibits severe vignetting even without any filter attached. Certainly not something I have expected considering the price tag. At other focal ranges vignetting is still present but is not as bad as at the widest angle.

Sure, vignetting is something that can be corrected in post-process, but still in my opinion the lens should perform better in this respect.

Stopping down the lens does improve this.

Many have complained that the KM 17-35D exhibits quite strong barrel distortions at 17mm. Sad to say this but the CZ 16-80 F3.5-4.5 is no better in this respect at 16mm (photozone's review suggests that the distortion is even worse :().  

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZAF performance is quite good for such a lens. It focuses reasonably fast (at least one advantage of the short focus turn) and isn't any noisier than the average Minolta/Sony lens. I would say the AF speed is about the same as with 28-75D (didn't measured this :( )

AF accuracy was reliable with the sample I had. The lens had a tendency for slight AF adjustments during AF process on my 7D, something I suppose is useful in avoiding any slight back/front focus (a curse with so many lenses on our bodies, especially lenses covering wide angles)

Update 20 May 2007

Today i used this lens for some indoor shooting and experienced problems with AF at 16mm. The lens didn't focused properly in dim light at the wide end. Fortunatelly I had the old 17-35D lens with me which has worked flawlessly in the same situation.

As reported earlier I didn't experienced AF problems before (I looked for them since David has reported this issue) but I didn't used the lens indoor too much.

 

Update 24 December 2007

After exchanging the lens (had some problems on the left side of the frame) and trying two other samples I experienced AF problems on wide angle. The lens is not focusing properly on < 14mm on neither 7D and a700.

Minimum focus distance is 0.35mm (the funny thing is that both Sony and Zeiss state minimum focus distance of 0.65m while the lens is focusing closer as stated on the lens itself .. go figure). This provides a maximum magnification ratio of 1:4 at a focal length of 70mm.. Not bad and very handy to have on a multi-purpose lens; an aspect that will bring a lot of pleasure to those used to photographing flowers, for example.

The lens is not the fastest: f3.5-4.5 (aperture drops from F3.5 to F4 at 20mm and toF4.5 at 40mm) isn't spectacular -- but what I was really interested in is how it performs wide open. I rarely shoot with the aperture wide open, even with my fast lenses that are known to be great performers without the need to stop them down. On the other hand, slower and cheaper lenses tend to be quite bad with the aperture fully open and very often one needs to stop down significantly to get satisfying results.

Well, if you wondered why the heck this lens costs so much and why I started ranting about many aspects of the lens… we finally came to where the "treasure" is. The lens is excellent optically.

Full frame 100% crop
Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ

7D; 1/750s; F4.5; 80mm; focus distance 0.40m

For a serious optical analysis of the lens performance please visit the photozone review. Klaus is far more capable at providing a technical lens review than me and his review is just great.

Saying that, from my own personal experience, the lens didn't disappointed where things really matter. From 16 to 80mm, from F3.5-F4.5 and up the lens performs really well. In many cases it outperformed the resolution of my aged 7D sensor. Edge sharpness can be better but we can't expect wonders from an APS-C lens. 

Colors and contrast are just right (can't say that for most new lens designs I had the chance to try) and that's certainly very encouraging. I very often ranted about how much i miss the quality of old Minolta lens designs and that special feel they draw from the captured light. I'm not saying Carl Zeiss  did that with 16-80 lens, but for my tastes and preferences color and contrast this lens is giving us, this is a step in the right direction (compared to so many "boring" lenses without "personality" that are sold today).

Sorry to "disappoint" those of you who expected serious color aberrations and purple fringing issues with this lens. I have tried getting some awful results but didn't succeed :) The lens controls aberration very well, which is quite an accomplishment in my opinion. Of course don't expect a lens totally free of this anomaly.

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
7D; 1/250s; F8; 16mm; CA and PF isn't an issue with the lens.

Flare is under control as well and only highly demanding situations will produce it.

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
7D; 1/1000s; F5.6; 16mm; flare can be seen in the left lower corner, but the scene is quite demanding.

For those of you "bokeh-freaks": this isn't STF lens, but taking in mind the big compromises the designers used in this lens I would say that the lens isn't bad bokeh-wise. It's certainly better than many zoom lenses sold today.

80mm@F4.5 80mm@F5.6
Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ

Overexposing an image with a harsh background will easily show blade curvatures of the lens. Converting images to B&W helps even further in detecting the lens character when comes to bokeh.

On this one, the lens did pretty good job in my opinion.

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
7D; 1/200s; F4.5; 80mm; Overexposed intentionally by about 3EV.

I wouldn't go so far to say that the lens is equally good as the excellent Minolta primes, but in my opinion this is certainly a lens that can cope against any zoom lens. Since I don't have the patience needed for shooting many comparisons shoots I do rely mostly on my subjective judgements here (to be honest I did some side to side comparisons, but  judging from a few frames can be very misleading, and I won't take them as an argument to prove anything).

I was especially interested to see how this lens compares to very popular Minolta 17-35D F2.8-4 and 28-75D  F2.8 lenses since these are what I'm using to cover this range. Aside from the fact that these are full frame and faster lenses, the 16-80 performs quite well against them.

16-80@16mm center 17-35D@17mm center 16-80@16mm border 17-35D@17mm border
Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
Comparisons images with KM 17-35D at F5.6 (show full frame)

 

16-80@50mm center 28-75D@50mm center 16-80@50mm border 28-75D@50mm border
Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
Comparisons images with KM 28-75D at F5.6 (show full frame)

I have stated many times that both the KM 17-35D and 28-75D lenses are extraordinary value for the money; they offer a lot (just the fact that are full frame lenses with F2.8 is a strong attraction)  for very affordable prices. The two may still be found in some stores and you will pay for both, new, just 40-60$ more than for 16-80! The Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 compares very well against them, even outperforming the 17-35 in some cases. The sample images provided here are about your average comparison shots, but take them cautiously since comparing lens performance requires more than just few test shots.

Just for fun, I throw in-here comparisons between the Vario-Sonnar 16-80, the legendary beercan (70-210/4) and the Minolta 80-200 HS. Its worth mentioning is that the 16-80 acts more like a 74mm lens when compared to other two. Images provided are 100% crops taken with 7D.

16-80@F5.6 70-210@F5.6- 75mm 80-200@F5.6
Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ

With the 80mm@F4.5 at the tele end the lens is capable to act as a very good portrait lens. The fact that with the aperture wide open the lens is providing very good resolution keeps your background smooth and pleasant.

  crop 1 crop 2 crop 3
Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
7D; 1/2000s; F4.5; 80mm; portrait lens? Yes ! (100% crop)

Without any doubt main key of interest for many possible owners of this lens is the flexibility this lens is providing. 16-80mm (24-120mm 35mm eqv.) is something can't be emphasised enough. For the first time since I've been usign a digital SLR, I was in the position to bring on my vacation one lens only without the fear that I will miss something.

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
7D; 1/200s; F5.6; 16mm

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
7D; 1/2000s; F5.6; 80mm.

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ
7D; 1/200s; F5.6; 80mm.

I'm sure many of you are familiar images like these and more than a few of us usually bring our point and shoot cameras because we found lens changing too cumbersome at times. This lens is just the right one for these situations and unlike (too) many cheap "super-zooms" it will provide excellent optical performance.

 

Final words

Even before I received this lens (once again, thanks to Ivica Bujas for lending me this sample) and after reading other reviews and user reports, I knew I will have problems making my final judgement about this lens.

The lens isn't cheap. There are some alternatives that are very appealing; Tamron AF 17-50/2.8 Di, Sigma 17-70/2.8-4.5; Sigma 18-50/2.8 macro .. to mention just a few, are a lot cheaper than Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ and are even faster. Certainly worth mentioning again are Minolta 17-35D F2.8-4 and 28-75D  F2.8 that can still be purchased at about the same price while bringing full frame coverage and a bit more light at F2.8.

My final judgement would be a LOT easier if I could base it on optical performance only; honesty, I doubt that if a good sample of the lens is concerned any of you would have serious complains about image quality (having in mind we are talking about a zoom lens that brings some compromises of course). The lens in my case was quite limited by my 7D sensor and you can expect much higher resolution on a100 or incoming Sony DSLR.

Even at the price the lens is selling I would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a walk-around lens if not for that build quality (and just to be clear on this, when talking about build quality I'm not comparing it against the kit lens, but rather against lenses like CZ 85/1.4 since this is what I'm expecting from the lens with Carl Zeiss name on the barrel to be.).

Unexpectedly for a Sony lens with Carl Zeiss name on it, and unlike with Minolta lenses in the past I would strongly recommend to consider this lens only if you have a good exchange policy when purchasing. Despite too few owners feedbacks we already have too many complaints about quality of the lens provided. True, I didn't experienced any serious problems with the sample I had (except that build quality leaves a lot to be desired), but once again, neither Klaus or David are newbie's  in this field and you should take their reports seriously.

I hope I'm wrong here, but somehow I do have the feeling that the lens isn't built to last for years or even decades(as we are used with minolta lenses). This isn't unique for this lens only, many lenses currently on the market do have quality control and build issues but most of them are at least cheaper. It's all about compromises, and Sony did put the money on the performance side here which is certainly something that, personally I agree with. But if additional 100$ would results in better build and control quality then Sony should done that !

A word to Sony

Please try to be more community friendly in the future. Take 10, 20 samples of each of your lens and give them to people that are active all over the net on various forums and websites.

Even here, on a small dyxum area you have photographers like Aarif, Sanjuro, Omerbey and many others. Contact them, give them your lenses and use their talent to "advertise" your lenses and other products. That's the best way for marketing your products and you will even save a lot of money wasted in useless advertising where no one cares !

If I were in position of some Sony executive I would consider making a MKII version of this lens. Keep the optical performance while improving build (and quality control) quality to match otherwise excellent product.

I hope that the fact that the lens isn't easy available means that Sony is improving production lines reliability and that those who do sign lens certificates (the lens is coming with hand signed lens certificate about quality) will do their job better and that this certificate will not be just plain marketing. Hopefully we will not read too many complains about faulty samples in the future.

Barrel distortion and vignetting are the only shortcomings when comes to lens performance but these aren't hard to correct when needed. Aside this, image quality of the lens is great and it's even better than the AF 24-105 F3.5-4.5 D was on film in my opinion (and personally I highly regard 24-105 on full frame as a one-lens only solution).

I'm not saying that this is a better lens than any of the alternatives mentioned above, and I'm well aware that many of you may have expected more comparison shots here. But as already stated a few test shots can't tell the whole story about the lens. It's more about that highly subjective perception when glass is concerned and that's the only way I can judge any lens.

If I really need to make my finally statement about this lens here it is: if in my possession (I don't have the money currently for it since I need to save something for the next Sony DSLR :)), this lens would be attached to one of my 7D bodies most of the time. It's a wonderful piece of optics with a character missed from so many lenses now.

I liked it very much ! but as with photographic equipment in general we all have different tastes and needs and the usual "try before buy" recommendation fits well here :).

Update 11 June 2007

After just two weeks since I have returned the lens I have decided to purchase one. On APS-C cameras, 16-80mm and a very good performance with the aperture wide open makes this lens just hard to resist :) Unfortunately the sample I reviewed had some issues (uneven performance across the frame and evident problems on left side of the image). I exchanged the lens and while this issue was sorted AF performance on wide end is unreliable. Sony has some serious issues with quality control on this lens !)

 

Rating 5

 

You can find discussions about this article in our forum

My special gratitude goes to Ivica Bujas (cro-yachts) for giving me the lens for several weeks.

Thanks to brettania and CTYankee for helping me with this review

Sample RAW files (8.5MB) !!

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Images by mladen sever

Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZCarl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZCarl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ

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