This blog is devoted to the application of optical fibers in photography. I have several homemade (DIY) flash adapters channeling the light from the flash close to the lens. The technique can be used mainly for macro photography, but I will show examples for wide angle close focus techniques as well. The recent version is called fiberstrobe V3, hence the name of the blog is "fiberstrobe".

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of the Sony SEL30M35 30mm F3.5 macro lens for NEX (E) system (I)


Introduction




Sony’s only dedicated macro lens for the NEX system seems to be a strange choice. The short focal length for macro is quite unusual. Tokina and Pentax made a 35mm f2.8 macro and Nikon has a 40 mm F2.8 macro. Sony has a similar 30mm macro for the alpha mount and I guess the NEX version is based on the same optical formula. The Pentax and Tokina was most probably co-developed in a same way as the 10-17mm Fisheye zoom. Overall, the short focal length is not very popular among macro lenses. To reach real close-up or even 1:1 macro range these lenses should be really close to the subject, therefore these short lenses are not really up to photographing skittish animals. However, in case of static subjects it can be a cheap alternative. They are good to show a bit more about the environment.
After reading the reviews of the SEL30M35 I was not overall impressed and decided to wait for a longer focal length macro. I really hoped that tamron will release the 60mm f2.0 or the sigma will come up with the 70mm f2.8 macro lens. Not happened and not even rumoured so far. The only macro lens on the horizon is the Zeiss 50mm lens that will most probably be overpriced. In addition, I don’t consider Zeiss as an expert of macro photography. Reviews were also not that much impressed by the quality of the Leica DG Makro-Elmarit 2.8/45mm macro lens (MFT system) for the high price. The Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro is a better choice for MFT users in my opinion.
I kept my eyes on this lens but I was hesitating for a long while. Considering it’s low price compared to other macro options I recently took the plunge and purchased a SEL30M35 lens. I paid only 229 euro in the local Saturn shop. It’s most probably the cheapest macro lens currently on the market. The Sony SAL version for the alpha mount is similarly priced (or even cheaper) but it’s more or less the same lens for a different mount. Nikon’s 40mm macro comes close, it’s listed for 249 euro in the new Brenner catalogue.
After few days of using the lens I was pleasantly surprised and I like this small gem more and more. I also decided to do a more detailed test comparing its performance to other adapted macro lenses. The test material I produced is still growing so I decided to write this review as continuously updated one. Now, after the introduction I will show only few photos to give you an impression about the performance of this lens on a NEX-5 body. These are jpeg pictures with minimal post processing because I don’t like to spend too much time at the computer to process my photos. I like to shoot it right. I used the twin-flash adapter with the HVL-F20S flash, which proved to be a perfect company of this lens camera combo.
Below are some pictures that I recently  took before I start the more detailed analysis of the lens:

 






Except the last two photos, I used my DIY twin-flash adapter for the lighting. This adapter just fit perfectly to this lens:
That's it for today just to give some impression about the quality of this small lens. Not a dog at all.

Details

I was hesitating to refer to other tests and reviews or not. Finally, I decided to share also the conclusions of other test sites, because of their better test laboratories/systems, but also to show some conflicting results and maybe to show some usual errors. My biggest grippe of the previous reviews is the lack of tests in the macro range. It’s a dedicated macro lens and it should be tested in the close-up and macro range. This was a major motivation to carry out this review. Technical details and specifications you can find on the official Sony page: (http://www.sony.co.uk/product/ddl-fixed-focal-length-lenses/sel-30m35)

Build quality, ergonomics:

This lens has an excellent build quality using some light metal (brass is suggested by other reviewers) and good quality plastic. It has a similar simple but solid feeling as the SEL50F18 has but it’s lighter. Most probably it’s the lightest macro lens on the market (138g) and the whole camera (NEX-5) is well balanced with this lens and not front heavy. Just to compare, the Tokina 35mm macro is 340g and the Nikon 40mm macro is 235 g. The SAL version of this Sony lens is 150 g and both recent MFT macro lenses are heavier (Leica 45mm macro and the Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lenses are 225g and 185g, respectively). The lens and camera combo won’t fit to your pocket but I don’t require this from a macro set up. It will fit to a small bag and you won’t feel your shoulder after a photo trip. The lens has a strange hood that is small enough to leave on the lens also during transportation. Both the lens and the hood have a filter thread (plastic) with 49mm diameter that seems to be standard for the E mount. I like the stylish silver color but many photographers would prefer it in black. All other reviews agreed that the build quality is very good. It has an internal focusing system so the front elements won’t protrude or rotate during the focusing. It’s an advantage if you want to use a polarizer.

AF/MF:

The AF is fast and precise in the normal range but getting slower at very close distance. The major problem is that the lens is prone to try to focus on the background and miss the target most of the time. For macro I usually switch to manual focus with focus peeking. It allows a very precise manual focusing. AF is silent which can be good for video (I haven’t made any video with this lens yet). Manual focusing is “by wire control”, which was strange at the very beginning. You can rotate the focusing ring as you want but you won’t see how far you are from the closest distance. You can also use Direct Manual Focus (DMF) function to fine tune the AF.
 

Distortion

Nothing to worry about the distortion in field conditions. Maybe for taking photos of your stamp collection SEL30F35 is not the most appropriate lens due to a slight barrel distortion reported by other review sites. Checking my test photo below I really have to search for it. For nature photos it’s hardly an issue. (See my test photos as examples):
 

Bokeh (Out of focus area)

I’m not completely happy with the out of focus area. Sometimes it can be busy, but depending on the applied apertures it can be quite OK. The description of the lens claims rounded blades but actually at higher f stops you can see the heptagonal shape of the iris.

 iso200, f18
iso200, f18
iso400 f11
Click on the photos to enlarge them. I'm happy with the bokeh of the first two photos, but in the 3rd photo the highlights are harsh a bit in my opinion.

Vignetting (Light fall-off)

It’s not an issue in my opinion for macro. Photozone reported that “light fall-off is hefty at f/3.5 (~1.6 f-stops) - this will be noticeable in most field images” while Andrew Alexander from slrgear commented that “there's just a hint of it at ƒ/3.5, but the corners are just barely more than a quarter-stop darker than the center, so I think you'll be hard-pressed to notice it.” There is a bit of corner shading fully opened but at F8 it’s not visible. Most of my macro photos taken at even higher f stops. I guess that bad vignetting reported earlier is due to the lens hood left during the test. I will take photos soon to test this hypothesis.


Sharpness/resolution

I’ve found most of the contradiction in previous reviews in the description of the sharpness/resolution of the lens. My major problem with their result is that sharpness was never tested in close-up or macro distance. Imatests are usually done at a distance of few meters (10-30 feet). Hardly the working distance of my intended usage of this lens

Photozone was quite strong:
“The center quality is, undoubtedly, excellent if not outstanding but the border and corner quality falls totally apart especially at large aperture settings.” “Unfortunately the general performance can be regarded as inadequate for a macro lens.” Really? Not one macro or close-up photo was taken during this test. Check the ridiculous interesting sample images. Any macro photo? Not a single one. Not surprisingly the verdict is very bad, 1.5 star out of 5.

The LensRentals.com also performed a detailed Imatest (again, not at macro distance) and their results are slightly different. The numbers can’t directly compared between the two test sites due to the different methodology. However, LensRentals compared many lens on NEX7 and checking their resolution table the SEL30F35 performed quite well. Fully opened it’s not much behind Sigma 30mm and Sony-Zeiss 24mm (at f/2.8) regarding the center sharpness. Average sharpness (measured at 13 points including the center, 4 corners, 4 sides, and 4 mid points) is also quite acceptable.

Let’s see some own results first at close-up range. I built few test columns from Lego and stuck the same tranfer pictures to the middle part and to the corners. There was more light on the left due to the window arrangement in the room:

Below the crops from varios parts of the test panel: top, upper left corner; middle, center; bottom, bottom right corner)



  iso200, f6.3




iso200, f16

I think the results are not so bad. Either fully opened or stopped down the resolution looks good even in the corners. As expected though the center is always the sharpest part.
Just for comparison I took some test photos with my sigma 50mm f2.8 macro lens just for comparison and surprisingly the results were much worse.

Only the center was sharp while the corners were smeary, especially the left side and even stopping down hasn’t improved the corners. First I thought it is due to wrong alignment and the right side is just not in the plane of focus, but the left side is also not really sharp. Now, I think it’s more due to the bad quality of my cheap adapter. LensRentals explain this phenomenon in details with more examples: 

http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2013/09/there-is-no-free-lunch-episode-763-lens-adapters

Other optical errors:

Not much to write here. The color rendition of this lens is very good if not excellent. There is a bit of chromatic aberration, but I had hard time to find examples among my photos (you can see some CA in the crops of test photos above). Taking photos into the direction of the sun is challenging for most of the lenses, but not much flare I observed in my photos with the nex macro lens. SEL30F35 is not worse than my other lenses. See an example below:


Underexposing the photo helps sometimes. The same subject without any traces of flare:

Verdict


This is a wonderful small lens fitting perfectly to the NEX-5. It’s highly recommended especially considering the current price. It’s not for all purpose and not for everybody. I would say it’s a speciality lens. Below I collected some potential applications.

Nature macro photos:
Perfect for non-moving or not skittish subjects. Tripod or good lighting system is recommended. My twin-flash adapter is perfect for lighting. 
 

Food photography:
Almost perfect. It could be a faster lens or stabilization would help. Otherwise it’s really good:


Portrait:
Not recommended for typical portraits but if you want to include the environment in the photos this lens is a good choice:




Landscape:
Not really a landscape lens.

Street photography:
It has a natural field of view. However, it could have either a better “faster aperture” or optical stabilization to be a perfect lens for street photos. Considering the good low-light capabilities of recent sensor technology, this lens handles most of the situations well. I’m not really a street photographer, hence no samples here.

Conclusion
Putting all this together it’s a highly recommended lens. I would say it’s a must have lens for the Sony E system. The only thing could be a shop stopper is the upcoming Zeiss 50mm macro lens but be prepared for a higher price tag (I would assume a 4 times higher one).

More sample photos

Visit my Flickr pages for more sample photos:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/fiberstrobe/sets/72157635762731334/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/fiberstrobe/sets/72157636006351404/

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