Anyone who has ever used any sort of Sony camera knows about the existence of the Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6.
It’s an iconic tiny lens that you’ve probably seen mounted on hundreds of Sony cameras, from both brand-new beginners to experienced photographers.
This lens is well over a decade old at this point, releasing in 2012 for the original NEX line-up, so why the heck are people still using it?
Is it still worth choosing over its more expensive competitors these days? I’ve owned this lens for years, using it for both photo and video purposes (on both my a6k and a7iii), so I think I can confidently answer that question.
Let’s dive in.
Looking for a quick summary before jumping in?
Size & Weight
Alright, to start out, let’s talk about the biggest reason most people would buy this lens: the sheer diminutive size and weight.
When retracted (camera turned off), the Sony 16-50mm measures literally only 1.2in (3cm).
When extended (camera turned on), the lens doubles to about twice it’s size. This is still INCREDIBLY small. Even smaller than most manual focus primes!
Although not my main lens by any means, I’ve used it a lot over the years, and the main appeal for me has always been the incredible flexibility (16-50!) that it offers while still maintaining a compact footprint.
It fits in my pocket with ease (much handier than you’d think when shooting out in cold winter weather), and it barely takes up any space in my camera sling.
Weight-wise, it runs about 4.13oz (117g) which is just… comically small. Part of that low weight does come, however, from its rather iffy build quality.
Is the lens well-built?
Speaking of build quality, there clearly had to be a few sacrifices made to keep this lens as tiny as it is, and build quality is one of those.
The lens barrel is, I think, made entirely out of plastic. It might be some sort of lightweight aluminum-type compound, but I really can’t tell.
It doesn’t feel incredibly cheap (I’ve felt a lot of cheap lenses in my time building this site, trust me), but it doesn’t feel premium either.
You won’t find any incredibly high-quality materials here. The build quality can’t compare to, say, a lens that’s 5x as expensive but for the price I’d say it’s adequete.
Moving on, you might think, “there’s no way a lens this cheap and small offers any sort of weather sealing, right?”.
Well, unfortunately, you’d be correct in that assumption.
There are no seals around the mount or anything, so don’t take this thing out into any conditions that are too extreme.
With that being said, I’ve subjected mine to some light rainfalls and snowstorms over the years, and it’s come out just fine.
Built to last?
So, is the Sony 16-50mm built to last?
Hot take: despite the low weight and flimsy sort of feel, I think yes.
I’ve had mine for quite a long time and, well, it still works perfectly.
It looks fine, with minimal scratches or imperfections. The cheap plastic-y (or aluminum?) barrel has held up fantastically over the years.
The lens came out in 2012 and, even over a decade later, there are still so many on the market.
I think that’s kind of a telling sign that these things are built well enough to survive the abuse of the average photographer.
In my lens reviews, I typically deep dive into ergonomics and try my best to describe how a lens “feels to use”.
The Sony 16-50mm is small but, to be honest, it feels nice. The silly little power zoom switch (more on that later) feels a bit like using a point-and-shoot, but it’s responsive enough.
Spinning the zoom/focus ring feels fairly accurate, and the lens barely weighs you down at all.
Seriously, you’ll never get hand fatigue when shooting with this thing. It’s always felt perfect on my a6k and, despite looking a bit silly, feels great to use on my new-ish a7iii as well (mostly for video).
Now, let’s talk aesthetics.
Beauty is often subjective, but I find the lens to actually look pretty nice. It doesn’t give off pro-vibes by any means, but I really like how cute it is on a small body like the a6000.
It also comes in two different colors, black and silver.
I used to think the silver was a bit gimmicky, but I’ve really come to like it over the years. It contrasts really nicely with the sleek black of my cameras.
Ok, so now that we’ve covered the superficial stuff like size, weight, and aesthetics, let’s look at what everyone cares most about: sharpness and image quality!
Quick warning: my sharpness tests aren’t very scientific, so don’t expect any sort of MTF graphs or anything like that. I typically just pixel peep.
Starting off at the widest end of the zoom range, we see rather iffy performance at 16mm F3.5.
Centers are quite sharp, but there is some SERIOUS fall-off towards the corners.
Stopping down a bit though, to be frank, allows the lens to rival even its more expensive competitors.
Shooting at F8 creates results that honestly look really damn good.
Sure, if you crop in 500%, you can probably find some imperfections, but I’ve always been more than satisfied with my stopped-down results.
Zooming in a bit, let’s look at performance at and around 35mm.
At this focal length, the widest aperture tightens up to F5.
Images at 35mm F5 end up looking pretty good.
Centers are nearly perfect and the corners aren’t that far behind.
Stopping down to F8 sharpens up the corners a bit more and creates results that are actually incredibly impressive.
Finally, performance at the tightest end of the zoom range is pretty solid.
The max aperture here is F5.6, so we see really respectable results even when shooting “wide” open.
Once again, stopping down boosts sharpness a little more, but it’s relatively hard to see the difference between, say, F5.6 and F11.
So yeah, the Sony 16-50mm offers much better sharpness than you’d expect out of a lens that literally looks and feels like a toy.
Optical Quirks & Flaws
Alright, so sharpness ain’t bad, but how does the lens handle optical anomalies such as distortion, vignette, CA, and flaring?
Spoiler: pretty well, actually!
First off, we do see a little bit of vignetting when shooting wide open, but it’s minor enough to be easily fixed in post-processing.
Don’t want to fix it in post (for some reason)?
Just stop down a bit and it’s gone.
Distortion is where the lens does present some issues, however.
When shooting wide open, we see some pretty heavy barrel distortion, especially when shooting at an angle (upwards at a building, for example).
I’ve found that, typically, when shooting RAW, I’ll have to fiddle with the correction a little bit manually in order to achieve straight lines (when shooting architecture, for example).
Uncorrected vs corrected sample photos are below.
For those who like to shoot directly into bright sunlight (definitely not calling myself out here…), you’ll be happy to know that this thing handles flare very well.
Shooting into the sun will trip up any lens, of course, but there’s fairly minimal ghosting and flaring.
Finally, as for chromatic aberrations, I never noticed any that made me think, “damn, this lens struggles with CA!”.
When shooting certain things, such as bright cars, for example, you might notice some purple fringing, but it was never anything extreme.
One of my favorite tests for CA is shooting branches against a bright sky.
Below, I’ve included two photos: one with in-focus branches and the other with out-of-focus branches.
Overall Optical Performance
So yeah, to say I’m fairly impressed with the optical performance of the Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 would be an understatement.
Will it produce the most amazing images you’ve ever seen? No, of course not.
Will it produce respectable images while still maintaining a compact and convenient size? Heck yeah!
At any focal length (when stopped down a bit, of course), the lens produces images that I would totally consider, “adequate”.
If I’m going out to capture the best photo of my career, I’d probably take a sharp prime.
However, if I’m going out with friends or just adventuring aimlessly, this lens goes on my camera.
Really, really impressed. Anywho, now that I’m done singing its praises, let’s move on to the next section.
Yep, next up, we’re going to focus on focusing (see what I did there?).
First, I’m going to clear up some misassumptions right away.
The Sony 16-50mm will not focus faster or more accurately than a newer lens. It’s over a decade old and, even at that point, was squarely in the “budget” category of lenses.
However, I’ve found performance to be good enough.
It hunts a bit in low light, for certain, but typically it can grab focus fairly accurately and is usually quick enough for my needs.
Video AF is pretty good as well, but we’ll cover that in a bit…
For those who enjoy dabbling in manual focus, you probably won’t like the MF experience on this lens.
There’s actually not even a dedicated manual focus ring. When you switch your camera’s focus mode, the zoom ring automatically switches to a focus ring.
It’s not particularly well dampened and I typically found that manual focusing with this thing just wasn’t a good time.
But hey, you’re probably going to keep it on AF 99% of the time anyway.
Awesome for Video
Now, finally, I want to touch on what I think this lens excels at: budget video.
First off, video AF is quite fast and reliable.
Not incredible, given that it’s an old lens, but it is quick and the performance is what I’d deem “good enough”.
My only qualm is that the autofocus motor can be pretty noisy. It SOUNDS cheap. The on-board mic on your camera will definitely pick up the noise.
This, however, isn’t an issue if you use a dedicated microphone.
I’ve shot with a dedicated mic many times with this lens, and haven’t had any problems.
Next, we’ve got image stabilization!
How the heck Sony managed to cram image stabilization into a lens this tiny is beyond me, but they did it.
It works great and acts as a fantastic substitute if you own a body without IBIS (like my a6000).
Lastly, the lens features a weird feature called power zoom.
If you’ve ever used a point-and-shoot style camera (does anyone even buy those anymore?), it’ll feel familiar.
There’s a small lever on the barrel, and pushing it in a direction will slowly zoom the lens either in or out.
I rarely use it, but I have found it to be useful when you want to do slow, controlled zoom movements for video.
I’m not a professional videographer by any means, but I have used this lens a lot to shoot my own stuff. Here’s a video where I shot everything with this lens (skip to timestamp 3:55 for a b-roll montage).
My Final Thoughts
So yeah, this lens punches well above its weight, but it’s still a cheap lens when it comes down to it.
Before we round out the article, I’ll offer a few alternatives. These will be more expensive, however, so if you’re working with a low budget, just skip to the end.
Sigma 18-50mm F2.8
The first major alternative would be the incredible Sigma 18-50mm F2.8.
This thing is an absolute monster. Razor sharp, built like a tank, and you get that delicious F2.8 constant aperture.
With the Sigma zoom, however, you lose image stabilization and, of course, it is substantially bigger.
It’s personally one of my favorite lenses ever for APS-C and, if I had a body with IBIS, I’d choose it over this Sony for both photo and video. Feel free to read my full review on it.
Sigma 30mm F1.4
Next, I’d like to offer up the Sigma 30mm F1.4 (yes, another Sigma).
The 30mm isn’t a zoom lens, so you lose a lot of flexibility, but you gain epic image quality, blazing fast AF, great build quality, and an amazing F1.4 aperture.
So, if you don’t need or want the versatile zoom range, and are more interested in getting the absolute best image quality for your dollar, roll with the Sigma 30mm.
It’s a lens that I’ve also owned since I bought my first Sony, and I’ve absolutely loved it over the years (yes, I have an addiction to Sigma lenses).
Anyways, if you’re on a low budget and just want a versatile lens that works well, then the Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 is still an incredible option.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another lens that can provide such a fantastic mix of features/versatility and performance for the price.
Seriously, it’s pocketable, sharp enough, has autofocus AND image stabilization, and is still dirt cheap! What more could you ask for?
If you’re looking to pick one up for yourself, I’ll drop a purchase link below. Thanks for reading!
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