Sony FE 85mm F1.8 Review

Ahh, the 85mm lens. Every camera manufacturer has a wealth of options for this iconic portraiture focal length, and Sony is certainly no exception. You can get ’em cheap (with the Viltrox 85mm, for example) or aim high and pay thousands for a GM lens.

Why You Can Trust Me

Chance (that’s me) has been practicing photography for 10 years and has been a paid professional for most of it. I bought my first Sony in 2018 so this website is the culmination of about 5 years of Sony experience (full site history). For this lens, I rented it for about two weeks with my own money (read how I review/test gear).

In any case, I was looking for something a little bit more mid-range, so I decided to rent out the Sony 85mm F1.8 to test out for a few weeks. So, in this review, I’ll be sharing my impressions plus plenty of sample photos. Let’s dive in!

  • Sharp centers wide open
  • Nice bokeh rendering
  • Autofocus is reliable & fast
  • Solid build quality
  • Soft corners at all apertures
  • 3rd party has cheaper options

Verdict: Although some 3rd party manufacturers (Viltrox) offer cheaper deals, the Sony 85mm is feature packed and takes amazing portraits. Keep reading for my impressions or check out what other’s have to say (affiliate link).

lighthouse in milwaukee
Here’s a pano stitch of a cute lighthouse I captured.

Size & Weight

Alright, let’s start off this review by talking about size and weight. In terms of dimensions, the 85mm is pretty standard for the focal length, measuring about 3.2in (8.2cm) long and weighing 13.1oz (370g) at least according to my scale & measuring tape.

While the Sony is certainly not the smallest lens out there, it’s still relatively compact given the specs and performance, especially compared to some competitors. Seriously, when I took the Viltrox 85mm out of the box initially, I was shocked at how much of an absolute beast it was. That lens made this Sony look tiny!

Build Quality

As for build quality… the Sony 85mm F1.8, while it is fairly well-built with decent materials, just doesn’t give me the feeling that I’d expect from a lens of its price range. The barrel is primarily made out of aluminum with a rather large and ribbed focus ring. It doesn’t feel the most premium, but I certainly won’t say the build quality is poor by any means.

With that being said, the included lens hood does actually feel pretty good. It’s large, heavy-duty, and does its job at protecting the front element from bumps and flaring. Additionally, it’s reversible for easy storage, allowing the lens to fit easily into pretty much any camera bag. As for caps, the Sony comes with two typical standard plastic pinch caps. They’re not glamorous, of course, but the do the job.

As for weather sealing, we do actually get a rubber gasket around the lens mount! Some mid-tier lenses forego any sort of sealing, so it’s good to see Sony didn’t cut corners here. I haven’t taken the lens out in any sort of heavy weather, but it did survive a light rainfall just fine.

Ergonomically, the lens balanced well on my a7iii. The massive focusing ring makes for a nice gripping point, and I found the overall weight distribution of the lens/body made for solid long-term comfort when out shooting. No hand cramping here!

While some may think the aesthetics of a lens is a rather minor point, I do think they matter to a degree. This lens offers quite a minimalist appearance thanks in part to the sleek black material that contrasts well with the rather sparse white engraved text.

A large focus ring adorns the front of the lens barrel, while a nice customizable button (focus hold by default) and an AF/MF switch break up the sleek design. It’s not the most beautiful lens in the world, but I’ve always liked the look of Sony’s full-frame lineup.

purple flowers
Next up, let’s talk sharpness!

Image Quality

When considering a portrait lens, especially on a full-frame body, you want sharpness (and bokeh, of course), and the Sony FE 85mm F1.8 certainly delivers.

Even wide open at F1.8, the lens is razor-sharp in the centers. Unsurprisingly, the image tends to get moderately softer as you move towards the corners. It’s worth noting that this type of corner sharpness rarely matters when wide open, considering the edges will be a blurry mess of bokeh anyways.

Stopping down doesn’t make a huge difference, causing virtually no change in the center sharpness, and allowing the corners to only catch up slightly. Again, it’s worth remembering that this is a portrait lens, thus corner sharpness isn’t as big of a deal as it would be on say, a wide-angle. Center sharpness is exceptional and that’s really what matters.

Alright, so sharpness is fabulous, but how does the lens deal with optical anomalies such as vignette, distortion, CA, or flaring? Spoiler alert: quite well.

First off, the only noticeable fault is vignette. When shooting wide open, there’s noticeable darkening around the corners. But you know what? That’s totally fine. Oftentimes, a subtle natural vignette can go a long way to enhance a portrait photo. Plus, if you’re shooting anything where you don’t want vignette, you can just stop down.

Besides the vignette, the lens handles everything else beautifully. There is literally zero distortion, chromatic aberration are a complete non-issue, and I never had any major problems with flaring.

Bokeh & Subject Isolation

When we’re looking at a full-frame portrait lens, we obviously want spectacular bokeh. The Sony FE 85mm F1.8 renders out-of-focus highlights in a fairly pleasant manner, but it’s not always perfect.

When wide open, bokeh near the centers looks fine, but they turn into more of a cat’s-eye shape near the corners of the frame. Stopping down evens it out a bit, providing mostly bubbly and circular bokeh, but it’s still not perfect.

But hey, the beauty of bokeh is always super subjective (I like the cats-eye look myself), so I’ll just leave a small gallery of bokehlicious shots below for you to judge for yourself.

Autofocus

Next up, let’s talk about autofocus. There’s not a lot to say, if I’m honest. It’s quick, reliable, and rarely had any issues with hunting, even in low light.

EyeAF performed exceptionally well, really sealing in this len’s position as being an incredible piece of glass for portraiture. Additionally, subject tracking (AF-C) worked quite reliably (I like having my models move around and whatnot so I can capture movement).

The lens, as I mentioned earlier, offers a “focus hold” button. This allows you to hold focus as you re-compose the frame. This button, however, is entirely reprogrammable, which is a feature I really liked.

The autofocus motor is silent, allowing for quiet and clean video work. That being said, the lens doesn’t offer OSS, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most videographers since the vast majority of Sony full frame bodies now offer IBIS.

Manual Focus

Although manual focus usually disappoints on modern autofocus lenses, I actually found it to be quite pleasant on the Sony FE 85mm F1.8. The lens is still focus-by-wire, but turning the large, ribbed focusing ring provides decent and realistic feedback.

The ring is well dampened and weighted, allowing for decently accurate and quick focus, especially when combined with features such as focus peaking. It’s not a dedicated manual lens, of course, but it does the job well enough.

Final Thoughts

Alright, so here is where we get into the nitty-gritty: comparisons. I could link you a bunch of uber-expensive F1.4 lenses, but if you’re looking at this particular lens, you’re probably not interested in dropping $1500+ on a piece of glass.

So, I will offer you this one alternative: the Viltrox 85mm F1.8. This lens is an absolute monster, ya’ll. The Viltrox offers similar image quality, an arguably better build (it’s just a bit “beefier”), and similar autofocus performance. It’s also about 30% cheaper than the Sony.

However, the Viltrox lacks: a customizable focus hold button, AF/MF switch, and weather sealing. If those features sound useless to you, purchase the Viltorx instead and save a few hundred dollars. Read my huge review if you want to learn about all the pros and cons.

milwaukee skyline
Another 85mm panorama stitch from the Sony.

Alright, so now that I’ve finished absolutely singing the praises of the Viltrox, let’s circle back to the Sony. While the Viltrox is a great value, the simple truth of the matter is that the Sony 85mm F1.8 just offers more.

You’re getting basic weather sealing, a fully customizable lens button, an AF/MF switch, and smaller dimensions. If that’s worth the price difference for you, then buy the Sony. Anyways, if you’re interested in picking it up for yourself, I’ll leave a purchase link below. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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