Equipment

Comparing Sony’s Ultra Wides – the Sony 16-35mm f/4 ZA, 16-35mm f/2.8 GM & 12-24mm f/4 G

Picture this: you have a choice of three lenses with nearly the same specifications; how do you choose between them? This is probably the thought when considering Sony’s 16-35mm f4 ZA, the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM and the Sony 12-24mm f4 G. I’m here to tell you, in not so many words, that they are all excellent wide zoom lenses that each have their strengths and uses. Sorry if anyone wanted me to tell you which one to choose out the gate, but this is not that kind of comparison. That said, they are slightly different and still worth comparing in their own merit. So let’s start with how they feel (because, honestly, that’s the most important thing for us photographers).

Build Quality

Sony 16-35mm f/4 ZA Comparison

So first up is the oldest lens of the bunch: the 16-35mm f4 ZA. This guy is built like a tank and while it is the lightest of the group, due to the balance on camera it feels like the heaviest of the wide zooms. It may be heavy and it may be older but don’t let its rough exterior fool you. It has great, smooth focus and zoom action and in my experience, is pretty well sealed from dust. The only downside I’ve ever seen with this one is the metal zoom and focus rings which have an unpleasant texture when rubbed the wrong way.

Sony 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Comparison

Next up is the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM. If the Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA is a tank, this one is a luxury sedan. While not as durable or rugged as its older sibling, it has a substantial feel that was pretty welcome in my shooting experience. It’s a larger lens in profile but feels lighter. I was able to carry it around without feeling gravity’s cruel wrath on my wrists while lining up shots. That being said, it has the same semi-plastic feel that the Sony 24-70mm f2.8 GM also has, which makes it feel a little cheap in comparison to the f4 ZA. The most welcome addition is the rubber zoom rings which offset the cheaper feeling parts and add a nice bit of classic feel to the experience. Luckily this one is weather sealed and should prove to stand up to a bit of the elements but in my experience, the GM series lenses tend to get a bit dustier (although I may attribute that to the larger front elements and wider apertures).

Sony 12-24mm f/4 G Comparison

Lastly, the Sony 12-24mm f4 G. We’ve had a tank and a luxury sedan so far. Maybe I’ll call this one a moped. It’s a pretty average build. There’s not a lot that can be done when the front element is bulbous and the hood petals are attached. It has the generally plastic feel of the GM but feels a bit cheaper. Despite the front element, the lens feels pretty light and fragile. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’ll break very easily, nor do I think it’s built poorly but it is obviously not in the same league physically as the other two lenses. Not by a long shot. It has the rubberized zoom and focus rings but that’s about all it has going for it. I don’t hate it but it doesn’t feel right (and as I said previously, that’s the most important thing).”

Autofocus

It may surprise you to hear that all three of these lenses had nearly the same autofocus speed and accuracy. It’s worth noting that I was shooting on the Sony a9 for all of my testings, which is Sony’s latest and greatest for speed and accuracy. If I had to choose the lens that gave me the least trouble with autofocus, it would be the Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA, and that is probably due to the f4 aperture giving a slightly deeper depth of field. That’s not to say the others were in any way inferior. In fact, the Sony 12-24mm f4 G was surprisingly accurate especially given the field of view on the wide end. The Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM did disappoint me a bit as I expected it to easily outperform the others but I think that’s more about the difference in depth of field of the different lenses. I may sound a tad cynical in this section, but honestly, I feel like these lenses performed pretty well when it mattered, and I was able to take advantage of the Sony a9’s focusing ability with all three lenses with little to no hiccups.

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Handling & Usability

This section is where I’m going to be frank. I fell head over heels in love with carrying around the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM. It became my go to lens and was just a pleasure to use. When reviewing my shots, I realized I didn’t shoot anywhere near as much with the other two lenses. It really hits you with the Goldilocks zone. It’s just right. The Sony 12-24mm f4 G feels too light in comparison due to the balance and feels like a toy. The Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA feels too heavy with the weight closer to the front and throws off the balance of Sony’s smaller, mirrorless designs, even on the weighty Sony a9. If it were purely about handling, the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM would win hands down. No contest. I felt so much more confident with that lens

Image Quality

So, this is the main event. This is what separates the Leica from the Tamron. Spoiler: Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM is the winner. I had to spoil it for you. I couldn’t wait. You don’t even need to see images to know that the newest GM lens would outperform the others in this area. Not only is it the newest and fastest of the three, but it’s also the most expensive. It’s a no brainer, but I’ll do my best to quantify my observations.

The Sony 12-24mm f4 G is the weakest of the three in this area. It’s such an odd focal range, and it shows. At 12mm, it is softer in the corners and is hyper distorted, but that goes without saying. At 16mm it’s about the same as the others, it’s reasonably sharp and has a bit of distortion but is overall pleasing. At 24mm, it sharpens up as much as the others but is still a bit more distorted. This is a landscape and architecture lens for sure, but it just doesn’t wow me in any particular way that would make me want to take it on an adventure. The optical quality is just boring and hard for me to get past. This was a sad reality for me, as I wanted to be blown away by the image quality especially with how cheap it feels. Contrast is fine and didn’t vignette terribly. It’s also about as wide as you can get on full frame, so there’s that. I think this can be a fun lens if you shoot at 12mm as an oddity but it’s not that good in the other areas, so I just don’t think I see myself using it again.

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @12mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @12mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @16mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @16mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @12mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @12mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Make no mistake; the Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA is a great lens. This lens was the standard next to its Sony 24-70mm f4 ZA sibling for quite a while, and it’s easy to see why. It has low distortion and hardly any vignette. It has enough depth of field at the wide end that you get a nice sharp landscape with good contrast. At 24mm it fares about the same. At 35mm though, this lens shines pretty brightly. I’d be willing to put this lens against any other 35mm any day of the week and feel confident with how it’d fare. I don’t even mind that it can only open up to f4. Most lenses are at their sharpest at around f4 anyway; this one just gets there sooner. Really, for most people, this is the standard for a great wide zoom and should set the standard for detail and contrast.

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @24mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @24mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Then there is the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM. What can I say? I can’t say anything…
Just kidding, I have to say something. Canon has the 16-35mm f2.8L III, and Sony has the 16-35mm f2.8 GM. That’s how great this lens is, and frankly, I was taken aback at how great this lens is. The Canon has been my go to since it came out, but I really believe that the Sony bests it. Sharpness? Check. Contrast? Check. Great color? Check. Check. Check. It checks all the boxes. It should go without saying at this point, but I expected greatness from this lens, and it delivered in spades in the images I got. That shallower depth of field and ability to shoot in lower light made the difference for me. I found myself getting closer to subjects to take advantage of the extra DOF, and it really made everything so much more dynamic when coupled with the excellent contrast and color reproduction. Throughout the range, I was noticing details and colors that I didn’t feel in the other lenses at the same focal lengths. I was shooting these lenses in sequence usually and found myself lingering on the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM because it was a feast for my eyes. I’m including some extra shots from the GM just because I love how well it performed in this testing. If there was doubt in your mind that this would outperform the Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA, I hope this disperses that doubt. Rest easy that Sony has a winner here.

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @24mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @24mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Final Thoughts

I cannot stress enough that we’re splitting hairs. These are all excellent lenses, and I would recommend them for different reasons to different people. However, all things considered, the Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM will outperform all of them. Does that make the other two unworthy? Of course not. But it is a great lens that proves that Sony understands what photographers want. The Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA is still a usable lens that I would recommend to anyone that wants a more rugged lens. The Sony 12-24mm f4 G, I picked on quite a bit, but really, it’s an impressive lens that has a funky look but only at 12mm. Beyond anything else, it’s a specialty lens and does it well, but can’t keep up to the day to day usability of the slightly longer focal ranges that the competition provides. The Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM is officially getting added to my go to lens list. I was extremely impressed (in case you couldn’t tell). The best way for you to feel the ecstasy of this lens is to take it out and shoot. You won’t be disappointed.

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @12mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @12mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @35mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @16mm

Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA @16mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

Sony 12-24mm f4 G @24mm

 

Author: Phillip Pettit

I’m a photo technician and video enthusiast. By day, I inspect lenses and cameras as well as assist with gear questions and recommendations and by night, I practice photography and videography for fun and professionally. I’m a tech guy by nature so I enjoy testing all the new gear and giving my impressions.

Posted in Equipment
  • rr98

    I stopped reading after this: “the Sony 16-35mm f4 ZA is a great lens. This lens was the standard next to its Sony 24-70mm f4 ZA sibling for quite a while, and it’s easy to see why.” While 16-35 f4 is a pretty solid lens, 24-70 f4 is one of the worst lens on FE mount. A quick google search will get you plenty of articles pointing out how terrible 24-70 is. SMH.

  • David Kilpatrick

    The weathersealing of the GM lenses is officially better than the ZA. I’ve sold my ZE 16-35mm, but not to buy a GM, instead I checked out the results from trying the GM (most impressive especially for A7RII focus accuracy wide open with spot focus), using my 16-35mm f/4 and a spell shooting last year with a set of Batis lenses. I bought my 16-35mm at very low cost (£799 less £100 cashback, a deal I flagged up on photoclubalpha July 2015 which resulted in UK Amazon sellout at that price within one day) and sold it to a new owner two years later for a similarly good price. My main gripe about the CZ lenses is their metal skin (it is not solid metal, it’s just a skin, exactly the same as Tamron or Sigma or Sony’s own E-mount originals). The black coating is very thin and despite my very careful and quite minimal use of several lenses, it wears off and shows bright metal much too quickly. Brush against some foliage… and your lens looks used even on day 1. The rubber grips on the GM are better in that respect, but every single Sony rubber grip lens I have had ends up with the white/grey degradation. In the end I’ve decided to go for zooms on the A6500 and primes on the A7RII, and bought a Batis 18mm. It’s not perfect, it’s a bit of a bucket to handle and the relatively small front element actually doesn’t need that Canon-standard 77mm thread, but the optical quality wins. I’d love the 12-24mm in theory, but not on the basis of tests. I tested the new Sigma 12-24mm f/4, used on a collimated adaptor (no parallelism error) on A7RII and the performance is so much ahead in every respect, from rectilinear distortion correction to holding sharpness wide open into the extreme corners at f/4. But it’s also massive, heavy and expensive. My solution is to use a Voigtlander 10mm Hyper Wide-Heliar and crop a bit if I want the more acceptable 12mm view (130° is too much for many subjects, 122° is OK).

  • IanHirst62

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, it’s a subjective review and by all means people should express their disagreement but the snarky tone of a few is disappointing and unnecessary.

  • Anadrol88

    @Notna Exactly… says a lot about the “quality” of this article.

  • Notna

    It still says “This guy is built like a tank and is the heaviest of the wide zooms” If you mean it feels the heaviest, despite actually being the lightest, then say so. As it is, the article contains a blatant and unambiguous falsehood.

  • Joseph B.

    I’m seeing the 12-24 f4 being noticeably sharper than the 16-35mm f4. I see that there is more distortion though. I’m talking about 16mm and 24mm. Is anyone else seeing this as well? I see it actually as being sharper than the GM.

  • Athanasius Kirchner

    I can perfectly understand that LR are trying to balance its massive geek factor with articles like this, but the truth is that I personally demand a much higher standard from this blog. Roger, Aaron and Brandon have gotten me used to very technical, no-nonsense, completely frank reviews. And so, comments like those regarding the ‘build quality’ of the zooms need to be grounded in fact, or completely removed.
    From what I can gather, build quality is *worse* on the ZA 16-35mm, as is consistency. The GMs saw some improvements, along with some other puzzling decisions, in this regard. Also, calling a 565 gram lens “a toy” vs. one that is barely 100g heavier seems ridiculous. If anything, I’d expect a nice little table with the weights and dimensions of the three, along with a comment like “if you want the smallest and lightest, go for the ZA; if you want the brightest and best-corrected, take the GM; and finally, if you want as wide as possible, go with the 12-24mm G”. To me, that’s a succint and effective means of describing the three.
    The sample pictures are very useful, though, so thank you for all the time taken to test the lenses.

  • Mike Jackson

    While I did see this as a little bit of an apples to oranges comparison in relation to the 12-24, I did enjoy it. Your review is the first mention the build quality being… well, a little behind what is considered great. In all honesty, that makes ton of sense. You have to assume this lens, and others with that type of front element, are gonna live a really coddled life. So it makes sense to take a little of the durability out of the build. Thanks for taking the time to include it. Now if we could only get the distortion-hate out of you, jk. Personally, I can’t stand fish eyes, but I love what the recent crop of uber wides add. They give a unique compositional tool to a photographer’s toolbox, especially those of us that might have become a little stagnant in style.

  • almeich

    Have you tested how accurate the nominal focal lengths of these ultra wide zooms are, especially at the short end?

    My 16-35 4.0 @ 35mm does not cover the same area as my 35mm 2.8 ceteris paribus. No big deal, but a mm or two at the short end would certainly matter.

  • thorthefifth

    Definitely the solid feel. Obviously, with the relatively new lens, it’s hard for me to say how often it will fail but I don’t often see the 16-35 fail physically. Roger has more experience in this regard than I do but I do think that as far as how it feels in action, it is a smooth, solid lens.

  • thorthefifth

    In my lab testing I generally find accuracy with super wides to be lacking because the AF system has too much information interfering whereas the depth of field comes into play with the other two lenses since they are nearly identical otherwise.

  • thorthefifth

    I do apologize. I’m going to correct the wording here. The balance is what I’m referring to rather than the physical weight.

  • AK83

    I have to ask the obvious question here; how does a 16-35/4 have deeper DOF than a 12-24/4 lens.
    This is in response to this quote from the author ..

    “If I had to choose the lens that gave me the least trouble with autofocus”

    if were focusing better due to DOF, then the obvious winner would the 12-24/4 lens.
    It would make sense if the AF performance comments were restricted to both the 16-35 lenses, but the author doesn’t make that distinction.
    The author then continues on with this quote..

    “In fact, the Sony 12-24mm f4 G was surprisingly accurate especially given the field of view on the wide end”

    Did it not occur to the author that the reason that the 12-24 may have seemed surprisingly accurate is because it’s probably been shot so wide(taking into consideration the comment re: FOV) that the DOF is very deep!

  • Phillip Reeve

    When you say “is built like a tank” about the ZA 4/16-35 do you mean it feels really solid or does it actually fail less often than comparable lenses? When Roger posted the 4/24-70 Teardown: https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2015/04/tearing-down-the-sony-24-70-f4-za-oss-vario-tessar/ he did not seem too impressed and I would expect similar build quality from the 4/16-35.
    I also wonder how you can say that the GM is “not as durable or rugged as its older sibling” when it was released just a few days ago.

  • Viramati David Sampson

    My experience so far is that the GM is performing very well at 35mm with more even sharpness across the frame than the ZA and sharpness on centre that I find hard to fault. It also has surprisingly smooth bokeh at 35mm and at f2.8. I haven’t done side by side tests with the 24-70GM at this focal length but I think that the 24-70 might have a slight edge here but probably not enough to be noticed in real world use

  • I do not have 10 copies tested yet. From what I have done, it looks superb at 16mm, fading in performance towards 35mm as most of the 16-35 zooms do. It’s different than the Canon – not as sharp in the center for certain, but at 16mm it’s more even across the entire field. Some will prefer it to the Canon, no question. But it won’t numerically outperform it, I’m afraid, so no fanboy fodder.

  • David Bo Hansen Cartagena

    Would have nice to see a comparison to the A-mount 16-35 f/2.8 ZA lens.

  • Sid

    The 1635ZA does feel solid and the build quality is excellent, but I found that the black paint tends to wear away very easily exposing the silver metal below. You can see it has happened already in the first and second photos of this page, on the zoom ring just to the right of the ’35’ marker…

    I much prefer the firm plastic of the GM lenses personally.

  • obican

    There are things that 12-24 can do that other two lenses can’t even come close to! It’s not about the clinical performance, it’s about that field of view!

  • Justin

    MTFs please? The 16-35 GM and just repost the others side by side?

  • Fun Damian

    You know, trying to compare a 12-24mm to a couple 16-35mms isn’t meaningful. While there’s overlap in the zoom ranges the characteristics, uses and target market are going to be very different. You’d be better off comparing that lens to other lenses in its class.

  • Tianhang

    the 16-35mm ZA performs pretty bad at 35mm (compared to 16mm itself and other 16-35mm lenses).

    I would be appreciate if you can show any evidence (like MTF comparisons) to prove 16-35 GM outperforms Canon 16-35mm III.

  • Tianhang

    16-35mm ZA should be the lightest rather than heaviest.

    16-35mm ZA: 518g
    16-35mm GM: 680g
    12-24mm G: 565g

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