Compromise, I imagine, doesn’t sell well in the board room. No, Mr. Fancy-Suit-Man, our new product wont be better than the old one in every case, and Yes, Ms. Executive-Vice-President, I did consider that our customers might want products that are perfect have never been good selling points. Perfect products, products that do what they are supposed to do perfectly, are easy to sell. Need to slice an avacado? Use and avocado slicer. Want to stuff a burger? Use a burger stuffer. Need to pull out a hot oven rack? We’ve got just the tool for you.
However, products that tend to be perfect for one specific task tend to be equally terrible when pushed outside their comfort zone. That avocado slicer isn’t going to slice your steak and your burger stuffer isn’t very useful for, well, anything other than ruining a perfectly good hamburger. Yes, your kitchen is full of many things, but at this rate you’ll spend more time organizing these things than you’ll spend cooking. That’s because, long before you bought your avocado slicer, you should have just compromised and use your knife instead.
And in this world of absurd over specialization, camera lenses are the worst offenders. Portrait lenses don’t work for macros, standards aren’t wide enough for landscapes, and your wide angles are going to make you zoom with your feet until you are so tired you just cant foot-zoom any more. There are overlaps for sure, that fast telephoto you use for your kid’s soccer game will work reasonably well for a portrait, but generally the only choice for the discerning photographer is a bag full of many lenses.
This poses a problem for those that want to photograph hiking and backpacking. Hiking, you see, is very hard. Therefore, you don’t want to carry extra things while trying to do it. Further, you are hiking to get somewhere, and so your buddies won’t like standing around while you change lenses for the 800th time that day. What is needed, then, is a compromise. A compromise that does everything well, but is not necessarily perfect at anything. A single, acceptable, solution to a wide range of problems, whose’s raison d’etre is not narrow excellence, but rather competent versatility.
And after three years of use I’ve convinced I’ve found this lens: it’s the Zeiss 16-70 f4.
Before getting into the details, I ought to be clear about something for newbies. This site focuses on hiking, backpacking, adventure travel, and jokes about marmots. Yes, there are photographs here (lots of them!), but this is not a photography blog. This review is going to focus on the lens as a hiking/backpacking/adventure travel tool, without diving too deeply into pixel peeping across every single focal length and aperture combination. If that is what you are looking for there are many, many resources across the web. My favorite is PhotographyBlog.
WHAT IS IT? The Sony Zeiss 16-70 f4 Camera Lens
HOW LONG HAVE YOU OWNED IT? Three years
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? About $1000.
PROS? Durable, optically the best lens in the Sony APS-C line without going to a whole bag of primes.
CONS? Focus by wire, no zoom stop.
WHO SHOULD BUY IT? People with APS-C Sony bodies who want excellent image quality but can’t carry a ton of lenses.
WHO SHOULDN’T BUYT IT? People who demand the smallest, lightest gear would be better off with a point and shoot; People who must have the ultimate image quality still will be better off with a bag of primes; People with full frame Sony bodies.
DID SOMEONE GIVE IT TO YOU FOR FREE? No, I bought it with my own money. I do get a small portion of anything you buy through affiliate links in this article, though this does not raise the price for you.
How you feel about handling the 16-70 f4 is probably going to depend on what type of camera you are coming from. If you usually use a big DSLR, the 16-70 is going to be about the same size as your standard 18-55 kit lens, which is to say, delightfully small for a lens of such focal range and constant aperture. If, on the other hand, you are coming from a point and shoot or mirrorless with a pancake lens, this thing is going to feel big. Really big.
Further, the lens does not zoom internally.
And it does not have a focal length stop, which means the lens slowly works its way out to 70mm if you carry it with the lens pointed downward.
Last but not least, it is a focus by wire lens, meaning that the manual focus wheel is not directly attached to the internals. This isn’t a big deal for most people, but it does make it a little harder to just set the focus to infinity for astrophotography.
All that being said, the lens handles well. It has the zoom and focus rings where I like them (zoom closest to the camera body), zooms smoothly, and focuses quickly. The metal body of the lens can get quite cold for ungloved hands, but this undoubtedly makes the lens more durable. Coming from a DSLR I find the lens’ size quite tolerable, but it is completely un-pocketable when paired with a camera body.
For those of you that are new here, you should know that I am not kind to my gear. In the time I have owned it this lens has been drug through three summers in rural China, carried to the bottom of the Grand Canyon four times, dropped more times than I can count, rolled around in the back of my car, and forced to live with me on an island in the middle of a lake for a month. Worse (for the lens, anyways) I carry my camera exposed to the elements on a Peak Designs Capture. When it rains (hard), I just cover the camera with a large ziplock bag and keep on keeping on.
And through all of that, these fine scratches are the only meaningful wear on the lens itself:
The outer shell of the lens is made up of a light weight alloy while the inside uses a variety of plastics. As you can see, the alloy has held up well to my stupidity. I haven’t noticed any problems with the interior plastic pieces to speak of. (UPDATE 27 December 2017: Since writing this lens has survived substantial additional abuse, including a drop onto a hard floor while mounted onto the camera body and dozens of uses with wet hands. Following the drop the focus ring was no longer as smooth to turn with a small hiccup near 24 mm and there are some additional scratches similar to that shown above. However, the optics and electronics still appear in tip top shape. I continue to be quite impressed by the durability of the lens).
However, there is an elephant in the room: weather sealing. The Zeiss 16-70 f4 is not weather sealed. On one hand this isn’t a big deal, as none of Sony’s APS-C sized bodies available at the time of it’s release (e.g., NEX-6) were not weather sealed either. On the other hand, some of the more modern Sony APS-C bodies are weather sealed. Thus if you are making a purchasing decision today you might want to take the lack of weather sealing into consideration depending on your specific model.
Despite this, my copy has held up well to inclment weather. As I said above, I carry my camera on a Peak Designs Capture, and as such it has been exposed to quite a bit more rain than I would admit if I were talking to the Sony warranty department. So far it has taken all the rain like a champ, but of course your mileage may vary. I have not had the opportunity to extensively test the lens in extremely cold weather. The only time I had the lens below zero (F) the auto focus motor did act up occasionally, though this was remedied by power cycling the camera. I have only made a few trips between zero and freezing, but I have not had any problems at these temperatures.
Overall I have been quite pleased with the optical quality of this lens. Is it mind bogglingly, blisteringly sharp? No. But very, very few zooms that cover this much focal range are. The only way to get a lens sharper than this is to cary a bag full of primes.
I’ve found that colors while using the lens to be slightly on the cool side, though it is hard to determine whether this is the lens or the camera body. That being said, colors are well saturated and rarely need much pushing in post processing.
However, the question isn’t, is the optical quality of this lens good? It’s is this lens enough better than the much much smaller 16-50 PZ to justify carrying it?
To me this is an easy yes. My wife owns a 16-50 PZ, so I do have some experience with it. While the 16-50 PZ is much (much, much, much) smaller and lighter, I find that I spend much (much, much, much) more time having to work with photos taken with it to get them up to snuff. If you are interested in comparing the 16-50 PZ to the 16-70, the images in THIS POST were taken with the 16-50 PZ on the same NEX-6.
Further, if size and weight matter so much that you are willing to give up significant optical quality, then you probably should question whether an interchangeable lens camera is really for you. For example, Hendrik Morkel, of Hiking in Finland fame, pulls consistently excellent photos with his Sony RX-100v4 (read his review HERE). High end point and shoots, while certainly not cheap, easily nip at the heels of kit-lensed interchangables, all while being smaller, lighter, and much easier to use.
I remember taking the first picture I really liked.
It was my first summer on the Tibetan Plateau. I carried a DSLR the size of a small Volkswagon, and constantly, constantly used to wrong lens. I did not know what any of the dials on my camera actually did, I did not know the rule of thirds, and I still hadn’t figured out that leaving the flash on all the time is a terrible idea. Looking at it today, it’s clear that shot isn’t exactly going to win any awards. More important though, was the way taking that picture made me feel. And at that moment, in the middle of a very bad summer that would only get worse, I looked down at the little LCD on the back of my camera and felt uniquely proud.
Years later, I am still taking pictures. It’s a different camera now, and a different lens, but the process is still the same: point, shoot, hope. Only one thing has really changed: since I bought my Zeiss 16-70 f4, there has been less hoping and a lot more knowing. No, it isn’t the sharpest lens, or the fastest lens, or the smallest lightest lens, but it does what it is supposed to do, and it does it every time with great grace. There is nothing sexy in compromise, but sometimes compromise is just what we need.
SEE IT IRL
Nearly every image on this site was taken with the Zeiss 16-70 f4. Here are some of my favorites from oldest to newest.
CORRECTION, 27 DECEMBER 2017: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Sony APS-C bodies were not weather sealed. It has since come to our attention that some subsequent models are weather sealed. The text has been updated to reflect this fact.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.