The Sony Zeiss FE 35/2.8 is not as amazing as you thought.

After our first attempt, we came up with a better test setup and tried it again.  Turns out that the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 isn’t as amazing as we thought…

Contenders:
Sony Zeiss FE Distagon T* 35mm f/2.8
Leica-R Summicron 35mm f/2
Canon FD 35mm f/2 SSC (Thorium)
Canon FD 35mm f/2 non-SSC (Thorium)

We also added a classic zoom, a Angeneiux 35-70mm f/2.5-3.3.

f/2.0 center

Among the three, the Canon 35mm f/2.0 SSC offers the sharpest overall quality, followed by the Leica Summicron-R 35mm.  The classic non-SSC Canon 35mm isn’t quite as sharp but has less purple fringing than the Leica.  Pay attention to the horizontal lines to the left of the square and the #18.
Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/2.0 Canon SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2.0 Latest @ f/2.0 Leica Summicron-R

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/2.0 Canon non-SSC Thorium

 

f/2.8 center

At f/2.8, the classic primes sharpen up nicely.  The non-SSC Canon edges past the Leica.   The Sony Zeiss FE 35 triggers a different white balance when mounted on our A7R but holds its own in the center against these vintage superstars.  The Angenieux zoom is the worst of the group but it genuinely is a f/2.5 at this focal length.

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/2.8 Canon SSC Thorium

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections On @ f/2.8 Sony Zeiss FE 35, Autocorrect

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections Off @ f/2.8 Sony Zeiss FE 35,No corrections

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/2.8 Canon non-SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2.0 Latest @ f/2.8Leica Summicron-R

Angenieux 35-70mm f/2.5-33 @ f/2.5 Angenieux 35-70mm

 

f/4.0 center

Once you get to f/4.0, the Angenieux suddenly leap frogs to first place, beating these classic primes and even the latest Sony Zeiss FE 35 in the center.  We’re almost splitting hairs here.

Angenieux 35-70mm f/2.5-33 @ f/4.0Angenieux 35-70mm

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections Off @ f/4.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, No corrections

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections On @ f/4.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, Autocorrect

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/4.0Canon SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2.0 Latest @ f/4.0Leica Summicron-R

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/4.0 Canon non-SSC Thorium

 

f/5.6 center

Once you get to f/5.6, the difference get smaller and smaller, and to be frank, it’d be hard to complain about any of these lenses.

Angenieux 35-70mm f/2.5-33 @ f/5.6Angenieux 35-70
Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/5.6Canon SSC Thorium

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections Off @ f/5.6Sony Zeiss FE 35, No corrections

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections On @ f/5.6Sony Zeiss FE 35, Autocorrect

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/5.6Canon non-SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2.0 Latest @ f/5.6 Leica Summicron-R

f/8.0 center

Once you get to f/8.0, it’s hard to see differences.   You could shuffle the lenses around and it wouldn’t matter.

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/8.0Canon SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2.0 Latest @ f/8.0Leica Summicron-R

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections On @ f/8.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, Autocorrect

Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8, Auto Corrections Off @ f/8.0 Sony Zeiss FE 35, No corrections

Angenieux 35-70mm f/2.5-33 @ f/8.0Angenieux 35-70

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/8.0 Canon non-SSC Thorium

f/2.0 lower right

It’s pretty obvious why the Canon 35mm f/2.0 developed such a reputation. Compared to the Leica Summicron-R 35mm which was a legend of its own, the Canon Thoriums do great.

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/2.0Canon SSC Thorium

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/2.0Canon non-SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35 @ f/2.0Leica Summicron-R

 

f/2.8 lower right

Now it makes sense why the Angenieux 35-70 goes for $1500 in mint condition.  We’ll get to this later, but there’s no doubt that the French zoom lens is beating Sony’s latest and greatest 35mm prime lens in this portion of the frame.

Angenieux 35-70/2.5-3.3 @ f/2.5 Angenieux 35-70 (f/2.5)

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections off, @ f/2.8 Sony Zeiss FE 35, No corrections

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections on, @ f/2.8 Sony Zeiss FE 35, Autocorrect

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/2.8 Canon SSC Thorium

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/2.8 Canon non-SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35 @ f/2.8Leica Summicron-R

 

f/4.0 lower right

Now the Leica edges ahead of the non-SSC Canon 35mm f/2.8 Thorium lens.

Angenieux 35-70/2.5-3.3 @ f/4.0 Angenieux 35-70

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections off, @ f/4.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections on, @ f/4.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/4.0 Canon SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35 @ f/4.0Leica Summicron-R

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/4.0Canon non-SSC Thorium

 

f/5.6 lower right

Angenieux 35-70/2.5-3.3 @ f/5.6Angenieux 35-70

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections off, @ f/5.6Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/5.6Canon SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35 @ f/5.6Leica Summicron-R

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections on, @ f/5.6Sony Zeiss FE 35, Autocorrect

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/5.6Canon non-SSC Thorium

f/8.0 lower right

Angenieux 35-70/2.5-3.3 @ f/8.0Angenieux 35-70

Canon 35 f/2.0 SSC Thorium @ f/8.0Canon SSC Thorium

Leica Summicron-R 35 @ f/8.0Leica Summicron-R

Canon 35 f/2.0 non-SSC Thorium @ f/8.0Canon non-SSC Thorium

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections off, @ f/8.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections

Sony Zeiss FE 35, corrections on, @ f/8.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect

f/2.0 upper right

Since the Leica is also sharper than the Canon 35 FD lenses in this location of the frame, I suspect that our FD to NEX adapter is a bit off-center.

Leica Summicron-R 2.0Leica Summicron-R 2.0

Canon SSC Thorium 2.0Canon SSC Thorium 2.0

Canon non-SSC Thorium 2.0Canon non-SSC Thorium 2.0

f/2.8 upper right

The horrible performance of the Angenieux zoom along with the diminished performance of Canon 35mm FD lenses really suggests that our FD to NEX adapter isn’t as well designed as it feels.  According to Roger Cicala and Lloyd Chambers, even differences of 5 to 10 microns can be enough to affect picture quality.

Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 2.8Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 2.8

Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 2.8Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 2.8

Leica Summicron-R 2.8Leica Summicron-R 2.8

Canon SSC Thorium 2.8Canon SSC Thorium 2.8

Canon non-SSC Thorium 2.8Canon non-SSC Thorium 2.8

Angenieux 35-70 2.5Angenieux 35-70 2.5

f/4.0 upper right

 

Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 4.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 4.0

Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 4.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 4.0

Leica Summicron-R 4.0Leica Summicron-R 4.0

Canon non-SSC Thorium 4.0Canon non-SSC Thorium 4.0

Canon SSC Thorium 4.0Canon SSC Thorium 4.0

Angenieux 35-70 4.0Angenieux 35-70 4.0

f/5.6 upper right

Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 5.6Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 5.6

Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 5.6Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 5.6

Leica Summicron-R 5.6Leica Summicron-R 5.6

Canon non-SSC Thorium 5.6Canon non-SSC Thorium 5.6

Canon SSC Thorium 5.6Canon SSC Thorium 5.6

Angenieux 35-70 5.6Angenieux 35-70 5.6

f/8.0 upper right

True to our analysis above, as your stop down the classic lenses like the Leica Summicron-R, it continues to get sharper and shaper whereas the Sony FE 35mm hits a ceiling in sharpness early on.

Leica Summicron-R 8.0Leica Summicron-R 8.0

Canon non-SSC Thorium 8.0Canon non-SSC Thorium 8.0

Canon SSC Thorium 8.0Canon SSC Thorium 8.0

Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 8.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, no corrections 8.0

Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 8.0Sony Zeiss FE 35, autocorrect 8.0

Angenieux 35-70 8.0Angenieux 35-70 8.0

 

Conclusions

The Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 is still a great lens.   It’s lightweight, sharp wide-open, and has all of the convenience of autofocus.  For general photography, it’s still a good choice if you ignore the $800 price tag.  That said, while center sharpness and wide-open sharpness is good at f/2.8, but landscapes you may be better off with vintage lenses.  Sure, you have to deal with manual focus, but for landscapes, you’re live-view focusing anyway and taking the time to compose your shot.

Looking at three legendary classics, the Canon 35mm f/2.8 Thorium SSC, the Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2.0 and the Angenieux 35-70mm f/2.5-3.3, it’s clear that these three lenses deserve their reputation.  Even with a high-resolution 36 megapixel sensor, these three lenses are able to “hold their own” against one of the best contemporary computer designed lenses.

Price
Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8
$800 (new)

Angenieux 35-70mm f/2.5-3.3
$975 (good) to $1800 (collector’s grade)

Canon FD 35mm f/2.0 Thorium 
$250 (fair) to $500 (collector’s grade)
+$50 for SSC version

Only the lenses going up to f/16  (as opposed to f/22) are Thorium.

Leica Summicron-R 35mm f/2.0 (E55)
$975 (good) to $2500 (new-old-stock)
Keep in mind that there are multiple versions of the Leica 35mm f/2.0 lens.  The last optical formula was in continuous production from 1977 to 2009.  The collector’s grade ones from 2009 can be $2500 but the older lenses can still be just as good.  The Serial # should be higher than 2791417.  Lenses built prior to that serial number use a different optical formula.