Reviewing the Sony ‘Holy Trinity’ of Prime Lenses

Mark Heath photoBack in the days that I used a Canon full-frame DSLR camera, many fellow photography enthusiasts who used prime lenses had (or wanted) the so-called ‘Holy Trinity’ of lenses. These were much-sought-after prime lenses that, between them, covered the vast majority of typical photography assignments, including weddings. Most considered that a combination of fast 35mm, 85mm and 135mm lenses provided huge flexibility, superb image quality and outstanding bokeh. I still fondly remember my Canon 85mm f1.2 II L lens (photo above) and its wafer-thin, almost surreal, depth of field. Selling it brought a tear to my eye as I remember the unique images that I had created with the lens, recording my children growing up.

While I made the transition to Sony full-frame cameras a while ago for a number of reasons (including better support for video, Eye-AF, image stabilisation and reduced size and weight), it has taken some time to try out and purchase the equivalent ‘Holy Trinity’ of lenses for Sony full-frame cameras. In this article, I want to discuss the lenses that now are part of my Sony ‘Holy Trinity’. These lenses are what I would term ‘lenses for life’. They are so good that, once you have acquired them, you will never need to upgrade. Even if coronavirus makes me destitute, I would sell a kidney or do without food for days before ever considering selling one of these lenses. Most people take photographs with a mobile phone and many people would not care about what makes these lenses so special. However, if you do what everyone around you is doing, you will inevitably produce average results. These lenses provide the opportunity to produce truly outstanding results and stand out from the crowd.

 

Why use fixed prime lenses?

Before diving into the details on the three lenses, it’s worth considering why you would use prime lenses anyway. It can be a hassle having to carry around multiple prime lenses to a photoshoot rather than have a single zoom lens, for example. In an age where the vast majority of people take photos using a mobile phone and, worse, view all their photos on a tiny limited-resolution mobile screen too, the idea of using prime lenses over more convenient zoom lenses may seem overkill. Following the same line of argument, maybe even using a DSLR or mirrorless camera is overkill too.

That’s missing the point. By 1930, about a billion photos were taken year. This had increased three-fold by 1960. By the year 2000, about 85 billion photos were taken. Thanks to smartphones, the annual number of photos taken worldwide exceeded one trillion in 2015, according to Info Trends, and the growth shows no sign of abating. In the midst of this deluge of visual content that is competing for our eye balls (fuelled by the growth in social media platforms), a key question becomes, “how do you make your images stand out”?

There are three main reasons for using a prime lens over a zoom lens:

  • better image sharpness
  • narrower depth of field to isolate your subject
  • improved ability to photograph in low light.

It’s not really surprising that a lens designed for one specific focal length is probably going to be sharper than one designed for a range of focal lengths. Of the three reasons, this is possibly the weakest as some zoom lenses are capable of superb sharpness but some people just want to use the best. You know who you are!

Now we come to one of the biggies – using a lens to isolate the subject. I do enjoy watching photography YouTube channels, and they can provide an immense amount of useful information for free. I particularly enjoy watching material by Jared Polin, who has amassed 1.2 million subscribers. Jared regularly provides critiques of photographs sent it or the websites of professional (and amateur) photographers.

Jared Polin

I really admire Jared’s patience in doing this as, while the photographs are different each time, the same messages keep on coming back time and time again like a broken record. The biggest of these is to isolate your subject away from a distracting background. How many photographs have you seen where a subject is competing with a distracting background that appears in focus? Prime lenses generally offer larger apertures than equivalent zoom lenses allowing the depth of field to be reduced and allowing you to isolate your subject and blur out the background. Jared’s recommendation to many professionals looking for a step-change in the quality of their photographs is to invest in lenses to achieve subject isolation. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing shouts ‘professional’ more than beautifully-smooth background blur, and we’re not talking about the horrible artificial attempts at this by mobile phones.

The final reason for using a prime lens is that larger apertures let in more light. That means you won’t need to use high ISOs on your camera and, therefore, you won’t get so much noise. Using prime lenses, I am often able to take interior shots in relatively poor light at 100 ISO. Noise is simply not a consideration. Another major benefit from this is that you are freed from needing to increase light levels, often using artificial means (for example, turning on the lights or using flash). Ask any decent photographer and they will tell you that lighting is the most important aspect of photography. By not needing to achieve relatively high light levels, prime lenses potentially allow you to use more subtle, and more attractive, light sources, including natural light coming in from a window, for example, in preference to artificial light coming from above. This can have a huge impact.

So, let’s introduce the three lenses.

 

Lens 1: Sony FE 85mm f1.4 GM – the definitive portrait lens

For many, 85mm is deemed to be the best focal length for portraits. I believe that portrait photography should be about flattering the subject to make them look the best that they can be. A quick look on Facebook at the huge number of images that are taken on mobile phones using wide-angle lenses in less-than-perfect, dingy lighting makes me weep. When people see posted images of themselves with distorted facial features (due to the wide angle lens), how many are really happy with that version of themselves? It’s not surprising that the use of photo manipulation and filters is so widespread. If you want to take amazing portraits without the need for artificial filters or manipulation, then invest in a proper camera and decent 85mm lens.

The Sony 85mm f1.4 GM lens is an amazing lens that is capable of producing beautiful portraits that people will just love. With its 85mm focal length, this lens provides a flattering perspective for most subjects and doesn’t emphasise facial features. It’s not just about focal length though. What separates most professional images from amateur ones is the use of a narrow depth of field, which is only possible with lenses with a wide aperture, such as f1.4 as with the Sony 85mm f1.4 lens. This allows you to blur out any background so that the subject just ‘pops out’. While photographs are two-dimensional in nature and do not, therefore, match our three-dimensional eyesight, photographers add the perception of depth to an image by using a narrow depth of field. In the example, above, the blurry background essentially appears in the distance with the subject popping off the page in the foreground, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional image.

As can be seen with the image, the Sony lens provides a lovely, smooth dreamy effect in the out-of-focus background – i.e. the bokeh – without distracting effects. It achieves this while being super sharp on the major subject (in particular, the eyes), even when the lens is fully open. This is where inferior lenses can fall down. Using the widest aperture, to achieve a narrow depth of field, can often severely hamper sharpness (causing you to stop the lens down) but this is absolutely not the case with the Sony.

As well as the attractive bokeh, the other key reason I like to shoot with a fast 85mm prime lens is that I can use natural light indoors rather than having to light a subject artificially (turning indoor lights on or using flash). With this lens, the subject was illuminated by light coming through the window and yet an ISO of 100 could easily be used so the image was noise free. Compared with lenses with smaller apertures (e.g. f2.8 or f4), an f1.4 lens lets much more light in so you can use much lower ISO settings. An image with 100 or 200 ISO will look distinctly less noisy than one taken at 1600 ISO or above.

 

Lens 2: Sony FE 135mm f1.8 – longer reach portrait lens

Sometimes, subjects are just too far away to be effectively captured by an 85mm lens. The Sony 135mm F1.8 lens is another outstanding lens from Sony, which shares much of the characteristics that make Sony’s 85mm lens so desirable. The 135mm makes a superb longer-reach portrait lens and is even sharper fully open. Some reviewers have described the lens as essentially optically ‘perfect’.

To view or download sample images from this lens in full resolution, please visit:

Sony 135mm f1.8 GM samples photo gallery

 

Comparing the 135mm with the 85mm lens shows that the 135mm has a smaller maximum aperture (f1.8 compared with f1.4). However, do not assume this means that the 135mm lens is not as impressive at separating subjects from their backgrounds. This is not the case because depth of field is also determined by the focal length. In reality, at its maximum aperture settings, the 135mm lens delivers a delightful out-of-focus effect. The ability of the 135mm lens to isolate subjects is truly remarkable.

As with the 85mm lens, the 135mm lens is capable of delivering a smooth, creamy bokeh while delivering an extraordinary degree of subject sharpness. According to Lens Rentals in the USA, resolution tests showed that the 135mm lens was the sharpest lens they have ever tested.

To some, the aperture benefits of the 85mm f1.4 and 135mm f1.8 lenses over f2.8 or f4 lenses in terms of light handling may be more significant. Stage photography is a personal passion and the 85mm f1.4 and 135mm f1.8 lenses make superlative low-light lenses. They are capable of capturing low-noise images of extreme clarity in low-light conditions. Stage photographs can be a joy to behold and a clear step-up from images produced by f2.8 or f4 zoom lenses.

The value of lenses such as the 135mm f1.8 depend on the type of photography you do. For example, if you often photograph subjects in good lighting conditions, the difference between this and something like the 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens may not be hugely noticeable. However, I have used a 70-200 mm f2.8 lens for stage photography and I always noticed how much I had to increase the ISO to capture certain scenes, making the noise much more evident than I would have liked (and causing me to apply time-consuming noise reduction). To me, the difference in the noise levels between prime and zoom lenses meant that I quickly formed a strong preference towards prime lenses. I would never take wedding photos in a church without a fast prime lens either.

 

Lens 3: Sigma 35mm f1.2 Dg Dn Art – wide-angle lens

Speaker

If you think 35mm lenses do not do bokeh and subject isolation, think again! While the 35mm focal length is perhaps the most used out of all focal lengths available, I’ve often found this focal length to be the most problematic too. It’s the focal length where it can be more challenging to stand out as 35mm lenses do not provide the same subject isolation properties as longer focal length lenses and the quality of bokeh (as limited as it is) is often much poorer too. There are so many typical and important scenarios (for example, group shots, full-body environmental portraits and architectural shots) where 85mm and 135mm focal lengths are just too close. While there are some that would argue that, sometimes, 35mm is not wide enough for some shooting scenarios (and that 24mm can be better), 35mm is still extremely useful and so should form part of the ‘Holy Trinity’.

The Sigma 35mm f1.2 lens is groundbreaking in that it is the first full-frame 35mm lens with an f1.2 aperture. Sony currently does not make an equivalent lens. While there is a price to pay in terms of size and weight to benefit from this aperture, this lens brings a number of benefits to the 35mm party in terms of:

  • image sharpness
  • depth of field and bokeh
  • low-light capabilities.

What is so remarkable about the Sigma 35mm f1.2 lens is that it is able to provide a groundbreaking f1.2 aperture without compromising on image quality. Sharpness when the lens is fully open is truly outstanding giving you complete confidence that you’ll never need to stop the lens down to prevent images from looking blurry. This lens feels like it’s designed to be left on f1.2 most of the time.

Sigma 35mm f1.2 lens

Generally, due to their focal length, 35mm lenses do not provide the same subject isolation properties as longer focal length lenses and the quality of bokeh is often much poorer too. In these regard, the Sigma f1.2 is a revelation. For a 35mm lens, the Sigma f1.2 can provide images with an amazingly narrow depth of field and the quality of the bokeh is superb for a wide-angle lens. This gives so much flexibility with environmental portraits and full-body shots. The bokeh is very clean and smooth.

With an aperture of f1.2, this lens truly sees in the dark and is capable of extracting clear images where the human eye would not be able to do so. This lens provides huge flexibility to capture extremely low-light scenes without the tell-tale noise levels that you would experience with smaller aperture lenses.

Obviously, there is a price to pay in terms of size and weight to achieve this aperture, but the payback is huge in terms of image quality. In reviews, this lens has been universally praised and is considered, in terms of image quality, to be the finest 35mm lens available.

You have probably gathered that I like lenses that allow you to take photographs that are different from the mass of photographs available. For a 35mm lens, the Sigma 35mm f1.2 is potentially capable of game-changing results, either by isolating the background like no other 35mm lens or by providing noise-free images in extremely challenging lighting conditions.

 

What a powerful combination

These three lenses provide immense confidence for many photography assignments, particularly when combined with the outstanding performance of Sony’s latest cameras using Eye-AF. When I arrive at a venue, I know that there is simply nothing better commercially available in terms of performance. They really are as good as it gets. Given that lenses do not significantly depreciate in value and given that manufacturers do not replace lenses very often, any investment is safer than virtually any other equipment investment (such as cameras). The earlier you invest in lenses like this, the more photographs in your lifetime will benefit from the performance characteristics of these lenses.

Prime lenses like these can dramatically improve your photographs over a lifetime for relatively little real cost. If you don’t believe me, just work out the numbers. Often, you can source brand-new lenses at a great price and sell them later for very little difference from what you paid. Bargain hunters can often buy used lenses for less than go on to sell them for.

 

Alternatives to this Sony ‘Holy Trinity’

While I have focused on three very special lenses that fit together so well, it is important to point out that there are a number of extremely good alternatives that you may wish to consider. They can come in very handy (for example, when low weight is a critical requirement).

The most obvious alternative to both the Sony 85mm f1.4 and Sony 135mm f1.8 lenses is the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens. Having used this lens for several months, this is an outstanding lens that is capable of delivering very pleasing separation of subjects and backgrounds particularly at the 200mm focal length, as shown in the image below. However, you do have to stand a long way back from your subject at 200mm, particularly compared with an 85mm lens. I’ve always preferred taking photographs at the longest focal length as the background blur is best at this setting. I’ve always felt disappointed in this lens, however, for stage photography because I generally have to set the ISO at much higher levels than I would with f1.8, f1.4 or f1.2 prime lenses. When editing my photos, I am always aware of which images were taken with which lenses. Images taken with the 70-200mm f2.8 lens have always been noticeably noisier.

If you spend a lot of time taking portraits and had to choose just one focal length, it would probably be 85mm. Sony offers an extremely good 85mm f1.8 lens, which is much lighter and smaller than its 85mm f1.4 lens. It’s capable of excellent results even fully open and, in many situations, most people would probably not immediately notice significant differences in image quality. I use the 85mm f1.8 lens regularly on holiday, but would always opt for the f1.4 lens if size and weight were not major issues. I find that the large aperture lens is noticeably better for stage photography as I can use lower ISO settings.

On the wide-angle front, it can be useful to have a smaller focal length than 35mm, for example, allowing you to take photos closer to certain subjects (for example, buildings). You can crop an image taken with a 24mm focal length whereas there is not much you can do to recover the situation where you have had to miss out part of a subject because you were too close with a 35mm lens. The Sony 24mm f1.4 GM lens is an outstanding lens in terms of sharpness and bokeh. It is also much lighter and smaller than the Sigma 35mm f1.2 lens. The Sony 24mm f1.4 GM represents an incredible holiday lens and I would never be without this lens either. It is just that, sometimes, you can really benefit from the low-light capabilities and amazing narrow depth of field offered by the Sigma 35mm f1.2 lens. We are so lucky to have such amazing lenses available for Sony’s full-frame cameras.

While I’ve obviously focused on the use of these lenses for photography, they are also amazing for videography too. They provide the means for videographers to stand out from the crowd, and achieve incredibly high-end results with relatively modest investment. For 4k video in low-light situations (for example, indoors), results from a mobile phone and a Sony A7 III with these lenses are just chalk and cheese. Don’t underestimate the importance of glass.

 

Other pages you may be interested in:

How Many Megapixels are Enough on a Camera?  |  Photography to Stand Out Online |  Photo Gallery