In this review, guest contributor and fellow astrophotographer Jordan Watke shares some beautiful images and takes an in-depth look at Sony’s high quality wide-angle zoom for full-frame E-mount Sony mirrorless cameras.
This pro-level autofocus zoom lens is one of the most well regarded full-frame zooms available for Sony E-mount. Let’s put it to the test for astrophotography.
At Lonely Speck, our most often recommended lenses for astrophotography tend to be wide-angle lenses, typically with a field of view around 35mm or wider. We’ve reviewed many prime lenses in the past, but not too many zooms. In May 2017, Sony finally released a lens that many consider one third of a classic zoom ‘Holy Trinity’ (e.g. 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm), in this case, a 16-35mm f/2.8. In this review I traveled to the American Southwest to put this versatile zoom to the test for astrophotography.
About the Lens
The Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM lens is a high-quality and wide aperture zoom lens that was originally released in May 2017. It bears the ‘G Master’ moniker, which Sony reserves for its best pro-style lenses. ‘GM’ lenses are marketed to have stunning resolution, desirable and attractive bokeh, and high-quality manufacturing. This lens is comparable in both quality and specs to other high-quality fast zooms, such as the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 AF-S, or Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2.
This lens is not the widest wide-angle zoom currently available in Sony’s lineup (that crown belongs to the Sony 12-24mm f/4), but it is certainly the brightest at f/2.8. This should be sufficient for single-exposure Milky Way photography, at least in the 16-24mm range. As with other GM lenses, with high quality optics comes eye-watering prices, and the SEL1635GM is no different. At around two grand at the time of its release (check current price at B&H), this lens sits at the high end of Sony’s lens pricing, at least for non-telephoto options. Is it worth the steep cost? Let’s find out.
The Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM is a solidly built lens, there’s no doubt about it. You won’t find any plastic here. The entire barrel is metal, with the exception of the high-quality rubberized zoom and focus rings. The Sony GM line has quickly become known for high-quality manufacturing and this lens is no different.
The Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM offers a field of view from 107° (16mm) to 63° (35mm), and features 16 lens elements in 13 groups (3 aspherical, 3 low-dispersion, 2 XA extreme aspherical). These XA Extreme Aspherical lens elements are a newer technology from Sony, being featured in eight of their GM lenses. These pieces of glass are different in that they reduce onion-ring bokeh by removing glass surface imperfections that are normally imprinted onto the lens element surface during molding. This is relevant to wide-angle lenses in that XA lens elements also reduce sagittal flare, otherwise known as coma.
Other features of this lens also include a minimum focusing distance of 0.92 ft and an 82mm filter thread, thereby making it possible to attach circular filters. There’s also a focus hold button on the barrel of the lens, as well as a switch for AF/MF. This can come in handy for Milky Way photography, as we use manual focus to find critical focus on stars.
In terms of handling, the GM feels well-balanced on Sony A7 cameras despite being fairly large. While heavy, the lens feels less dense than the Sony 16-35 f/4 or the Laowa 15 f/2. This, combined with the use of high quality materials makes for an enjoyable shooting experience, on-tripod or off. When manual focusing, the rubberized focus ring feels well-dampened. Since this is not a mechanical focus ring, the lens groups are moved by the AF motor using a fly-by-wire system. Luckily, Sony changed the focusing system of this lens to be linear, and the result feels much more like a manual focus lens, something that is beneficial when focusing at night.
Image Quality and Aberrations
The Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM provides excellent image quality across most of the frame wide open at f/2.8 which is where most will use this lens for astrophotography.
When shooting astrophotography, we like to judge a lens less specifically for its overall sharpness and more for its corner aberration and coma performance. Certain types of optical defects or lens aberrations like coma and astigmatism can make for distracting-looking stars in the corners of an astrophoto. Coma can be a common problem on fast wide-angle lenses. To learn more about aberration, check out our guide to lens aberrations.
Upon inspecting some images taken with the 16-35mm wide open, we see extremely minimal coma at f/2.8 (see sample images below). It only appears in the corners and only with the largest, brightest stars. These results remind me of Samyang/Rokinon lens performances, which often do an excellent job at suppressing coma.
Distortion is minimal, though not quite at the levels of the Laowa 15mm f/2. When shooting on a high-resolution sensor between 16mm and 20mm, extreme corners are more subject to star trailing from rectilinear projection. For example, the below shots were all taken at f/2.8 on a Sony A7RII.
Using the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM for Astrophotography
I used the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM as my nightscape workhorse lens on a recent trip to Joshua Tree NP, the Very Large Array, and White Sands National Monument in the American Southwest. Here are some images taken with the lens.
First up is a relatively simple frame from Joshua Tree National Park, California. We had some subtle green and pink airglow on this night, and some residual light was hitting the rocks as the moon was still setting.
Notice that the combination of my 42-megapixel sensor with a 16mm focal length resulted in some star trailing due to rectilinear projection.
Crop, 100%, upper right frame. You can see the rectilinear projection stretching the stars in the corners of the frame, typical for an ultra wide angle. Overall coma/aberration performance looks excellent.
Note that even with a shutter time shorter than that suggested by the 500 Rule for a 15mm lens (which gives 33 seconds), this shot shows some star trails in the very corners due to the rectilinear projection, since the field of view is so large. I’m fine with the trade off of more star trails for more light. Visit our advanced exposure calculator tool to understand how to combat star trails.
Next up, we found the perfect isolated joshua tree for this shot, I felt very fortunate to have stumbled upon it. This image was also taken at 16mm, and better shows the levels of vignetting you could expect from this lens – I turned off the lens corrections and did not add/reduce the vignetting level. Personally, I don’t mind some vignetting on my super wide-angle lenses because I don’t tend to use them for Milky Way Panorama Stitching.
Below is a center crop of the photograph. The center sharpness at f/2.8 is fantastic, especially when taken with a 42-megapixel sensor, and the lens even yielded a slight sunstar on Jupiter at f/2.8.
Our final shot from Joshua Tree National Park shot turned out exactly as I had planned it, and so I’m quite proud of the result. There was quite a lot of post-processing done here. The sky was produced from a 10 images and processed in SLS for noise reduction. Similarly, the foreground is a 7 image stack processed in the same way, but I stopped down and refocused for maximum sharpness. The two noise-reduced images were then blended in Photoshop and final touches were added in Lightroom. We were entering pre-dawn at this point, so the final images have less contrast and turned out more blue, so I decided on a ‘spacey’ edit for the final image.
My next photos are from time in New Mexico. The first was taken at the VLA (Very Large Array) of radio telescopes in New Mexico. These telescopes were absolutely colossal, but they’re still dwarfed by the Milky Way. Here’s a slightly tighter frame, taken at 28mm. The resulting image is slightly more noisy as I have not stacked it for noise reduction, and the moon was washing out the stars a bit. Still a nice frame, and I’m happy with the result.
Our final night of shooting in New Mexico was a memorable one. After skirting a massive thunderstorm, we thought there would be no chance for clear skies. I was delighted to be proven wrong when I poked my head out of my tent. There was a lot of residual moisture in the air, and combined with the heat of the previous day, it resulted in some low level fog, making the stars (and especially Jupiter) glow more brightly due to the haze.
Conclusions and Verdict
I bought this lens in response to changes in how I shoot landscapes and nightscapes. I noticed that I had begun shooting in a ‘run-n-gun’ style for daytime shots, relying on Sony’s excellent IBIS to help me get fantastically sharp landscape images while off of a tripod and moving quickly. At the time, I had my beloved Laowa 15mm f/2 wide-angle prime, the excellent Sony 16-35mm f/4, and the diminutive Sony 35mm f/2.8. All three of these lenses are incredible in their own right, and all are very capable of producing very sharp landscapes. However, I realized that I could reduce my kit of 3 lenses into something smaller and lighter as a whole, while retaining the fields of view that I was used to. I wanted to retain the versatility of the AF-enabled 16-35mm option, while expanding my fast nightscape kit into a larger focal range as well. I begrudgingly sold all three of the above lenses in order to fund the do-it-all GM, and I’m quite happy with the results.
The GM is sharper than all of the lenses that I sold, but only just. It has helped to condense my gear into a high image quality, travel-friendly kit that can do just about everything that I ask it to. The AF is fast and accurate, and has resulted in some really great portraits (both environmental and intimate). The sharpness (even into the corners) speaks for itself. The build quality is second to none. The utility and quality of the GM cannot be understated.
Many ask if the high asking price is justified by its performance. For me, it was a bit of a no-brainer, considering what I came from. However, my needs may be very different from yours. I value a high image quality, bright, minimalist travel kit. There are obviously situations where an even brighter prime lens may suit your astrophotography better. The GM is a nearly no-compromise workhorse that works well for astrophotography, but even better as a jack of all trades.
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Pros:
- Extremely versatile zoom range
- Accurate autofocus and linear manual focus ring
- High build quality
- Class-leading sharpness from f/2.8
- Very low coma
- Circular 82mm filter thread
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Cons:
- Larger & heavier than most primes
- Very expensive
- Slight vignetting
- Focus-by-wire not as enjoyable as on actual manual focus lens
Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Verdict: 4/5
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-Ian and Diana