The Sony FE PZ 16-35mm F4 G is the sixth consumer power zoom for the E-mount system and the second of them to cover the full-frame format. At first glance it’s a pretty compact, semi-bright, constant-aperture wide angle zoom, but there’s more to it the closer you look.
And it’s worth putting emphasis on the word ‘consumer’ in that last paragraph, since Sony has also makes a $5,500 power zoom for the pro/cinema market, coincidentally also a 16-35mm but with a T3.1 (which is likely to equate to F2.8). And, while the two aren’t directly comparable, they’re both clearly designed to cover a focal length range that’s especially valuable to videographers.
This isn’t a video-only lens, by any means, but a lot of what makes it interesting is likely to be of particular appeal to video shooters.
The headline feature of the 16-35mm F4 PZ is its extensive use of linear motors. Linear motors offer the benefits of being fast, smooth and silent, making them ideal for focus in video, as well as photo applications.
The 16-35mm uses a pair of these motors, which Sony calls XD (eXtreme Dynamic) linear motors, to drive focus. This is in keeping with most of Sony’s more recent lens designs.
However, what’s new on the 16-35mm PZ is the use of a quartet of linear motors to drive its zoom function. There are numerous ways to operate the zoom, and a high degree of control over how it responds, but the zoom is extremely smooth.
The lens doesn’t offer any stabilization, which makes sense for certain applications.
Size & weight
The other notable thing about the 16-35mm is that it’s relatively small and extremely light. At 81mm (3.17″) wide and 88mm (3.5″) long, it’s around 10% shorter than the Sony ZA 16-35mm and over 20% shorter than Canon’s comparable EF lens. But it’s the weight difference that feels most significant. Extensive use of plastic in the body keeps the weight down to just 353g (12.5oz) this is around 2/3rds of the weight of the Sony ZA and over 40% lighter than the Canon. The importance of this will become apparent.
Control rings: Aperture
The lens has three rings on its barrel, the one closest to the camera being a dedicated aperture ring. Both photographers and videographers can rejoice in this decision, since it can act as a clicking ring if you’d like it to, or a freely-rotating clickless ring if you’d prefer. Sony hasn’t said how fine the steps of aperture control are but in clickless mode they appear to be significantly finer than 1/3rd EV increments, with no obvious stepping as you close or open the iris.
There’s also an ‘A’ position on the dial, if you’d prefer to pass control over the aperture to the camera body. This is handy if you want to get a consistent experience between the 16-35mm and any lenses you have without aperture rings, but also has a further importance that too, should become clear later.
An ‘Iris Lock’ switch keeps the lens locked into (or out of) the ‘A’ position, so it can’t be engaged or disengaged accidentally.
There are four ways of controlling the 16-35mm’s zoom: with its dedicated zoom ring, with a zoom rocker on the side of the lens, or with a sprung zoom rocker on your camera’s body, if it has one. This ability to control from the body also means the zoom can be controlled using custom buttons, or operated remotely over Wi-Fi.
The zoom rocker on the lens drives the zoom in proportion to how far you push it from its neutral position. Meanwhile, the zoom ring always drives the lens in proportion to how far you turn it. But it’s worth noting that, while this means you can zoom the lens very slowly, if you want to, there’s a maximum limit to how fast it can move, so if you’re a stills photographer wanting to leap straight from wide to tele, you’ll find there’s a slight disconnect between your input and the lens’ response, as it very smoothly zooms in at its own pace.
Depending on which camera body you attach it to, you may also be able to define how quickly the zoom is driven, with separate settings for setting up a shot in Standby mode and for speed of zoom while actually recording.
Focus ring and buttons
The final of the three rings is a manual focus ring. Its control is by-wire, as is pretty standard on lenses for mirrorless systems. The response is linear, rather than speed sensitive, so you can pull focus in a predictable manner.
Beyond this there’s a customizable Lens Fn button on the left-hand side of the lens, and an AF/MF switch below it.
The PZ 16-35mm G’s optical design is made up of 13 elements arranged in 12 groups. These include two ‘advanced’ aspherical elements (with a dramatically thinner center than edge), one regular aspheric and one ED aspheric, in combination with one ED element and one Super ED element.
The computer-modeled MTF plots for this design show very high levels of sharpness, right to the edge of the image, particularly at 16mm but with 35mm sharpening up nicely as you stop down. The lens we’ve used so far behaves consistently with these idealized plots, and we were also struck by the well-controlled longitudinal chromatic aberrations. Our initial impressions are that bokeh can be a little busy at times but is generally attractive, making it well-behaved for video work where you want a little foreground separation.
Axial creep and breathing
The 16-35mm’s design means there’s no noticeable axial shift as you zoom in: meaning you can zoom-in on a subject without it moving within the frame as you do so. Focus breathing is also well controlled, so that the angle-of-view doesn’t change as you pull focus. It’s not completely absent, but will only be noticeable if you look at details at the edge of the frame when big focus transitions are being made.
Cameras with Sony’s ‘Breathing Compensation’ function (which crops and continually adjusts that crop, to maintain the same angle-of-view as you zoom, then rescales the footage to your standard resolution) can eliminate breathing entirely.
The lens appears to be parfocal, meaning that it remains in focus is you zoom. On an everything-by-wire lens like this, this is likely to be achieved by adjusting focus as the lens is zoomed, but the effect is much the same.
At a couple of points in this article I’ve telegraphed the idea that there’s a wider context to some of Sony’s design decisions, and that context is gimbal and drone work.
The lens’ low weight and the minimal change in center of gravity mean that a gimbal doesn’t have to work hard to keep the lens balanced and its calibration shouldn’t be thrown off as you zoom. The option to override and lock the aperture ring becomes easier to understand when you recognize that it means that both the zoom and the aperture can be fully controlled remotely.
In turn, I believe this explains why Sony hasn’t added an IS mechanism to the lens: because that would detract from its suitability for use on gimbals (both hand-held and drone-attached).
The PZ 16-35mm F4 G is a usefully small, light and optically impressive zoom. With a list price of $1200, it costs around the same level as Canon’s EF and Nikon’s F-mount equivalents were priced, back in 2014 and 2010, respectively, and below the launch prices of Panasonic’s L-mount version or Sony’s own 16-35mm F4 ZA.
The optical performance and lightweight convenience give it some appeal to photographers, whether as a wide-angle zoom on full-frame or a 24-52mm F6 equivalent on APS-C. But the more you look at the lens, how it’s designed and the features it offers, the more it appeals as a do-everything lens for videography. Or, at least, for those of us who aren’t looking at $5,500 cine zooms.