Sony 12-24mm f/4G Lens Review

bythom sony 12-24mmG

What is It?
The Sony 12-24mm f/4G is the latest in Sony's wide angle zooms, and a little bit of a surprise since they already had both a 16-35mm f/2.8 and 16-35mm f/4. 

The 12-24mm seems to be targeted towards travel, being only 20 ounces in weight (565g). It's also relatively small for such a full frame wide angle (3.5 x 4.6" [87 x 117mm]). You'll get 122° across the full frame diagonal with this lens, which is a lot. 

The maximum aperture is f/4, the minimum f/22. Only 7-rounded blades form the aperture diaphragm, but with f/4 as our starting point, it's not so difficult to form a circle with fewer blades, particularly given their location in this lens. It isn't a lens you're going to be going all bokehlicious over to start with.

17 lens elements line up in 13 groups, 4 aspherical and 4 variations on ED glass in the mix. Yes, that front element is bulbous, and yes that means the usual fixed-in-place petal hood and no filters. There's Nano AR coating to reduce back-flare.

Close focus is just about a foot (0.28m). This produces a 1:71 maximum reproduction ratio, which is actually a bit low for a wide angle lens. Still, it's rare I'd want to go closer at 12mm ;~). The focus ring is a narrow one at the front of the lens and fly-by-wire. The zoom ring is right behind that and rotates from 12-24mm in less than a quarter turn. On the side of the lens is an AF/MF switch and a lens function button.

The lens comes with a light protective case. The supplied lens cap is slide-on with a locking mechanism (good). 

The lens costs US$1700.

Source of the lens reviewed: purchased

Sony's Web site for the lens

How's it Handle?
Not much to write about. Focus-by-wire rings tend to be smooth by definition. It's only a matter of whether you like the hysteresis the manufacturer built-in. Sony does okay with that. The zoom ring on my sample is stiff but smooth, which is exactly how I like it.

The lens function button is, as usual for the Sony G/GM lenses, well positioned for you left thumb to reach if you're holding your hand under the lens for support. 

How's it Perform?
Focus: It's rare that you have to say anything about focus performance with wide angle zooms. They move the focus elements so little, they are almost by design fast. That's definitely the case here, even though Sony marketing likes to hype up the DDSSM system it uses (Direct Drive SSM). It's very quiet. Usable for video. 

Sharpness: Sony's published MTF numbers looked really, really good when I first saw them. I was very excited to do some testing. Curiously, the 12mm central area is incredibly sharp wide open, but there is a steep falloff into the deep corners. The corners improve at f/5.6 but the central region regresses slightly. I'd judge the extreme corners at 12mm to be into the very good range at f/5.6, but barely. The edges fair better, as usual, and thus for most uses I'd say that f/5.6 is going to give you very good to excellent performance.

bythom int guatamala December2017 A73 29766-1

I'm quite close to the corner of this Mayan ruin. You might just be able to see that the lower right corner (and other corners) has edges that aren't quite up to that of the center, but note that you can still see small detail clearly (I'm at f/8 here). It's not a smudge-fest like the 24-70mm f/4. 

This pattern repeats itself at every focal length except 24mm: exceptional center, corners need a stop to improve to best usability. At 24mm, the center is the weakest of the focal lengths, and stays weaker even stopped down. You really need to get to f/8 to pull the corners up as much as is possible. 

For landscape purposes, the lens is a little on the weak side if you need edges to be absolutely tack sharp. You'll be stopping down to f/5.6 or f/8 to control those edges, and still not get them as close to the central area as you'd like. But don't read that too negatively. There isn't a wide angle zoom that gets this perfect, and this one does quite well, all things considered.

Overall, I like this lens. It's not perfect out at the boundaries, and I'm learning to frame subjects with that in mind now. In a very wide central region, the lens is very good to excellent pretty much however you shoot with it.

Linear distortion: As usual, Sony is counting on in-camera (or post processing) correction. There's almost 4% barrel distortion at 24mm and 2% pincushion distortion at 24mm, and the crossover is somewhere around 16mm. With corrections, 12mm still has about 1% barrel distortion, which is clearly visible to most. The other focal lengths get to what I'd tend to call near invisibility with the corrections, and I tend to ignore doing anything further. But at 24mm, you may be having to do more work to get lines to look right.

Vignetting: As with the 24-105mm f/4, Sony has opted to be really tight on the image circle, which is producing incredibly high levels of vignetting. About 3.5 stops at 12mm f/4, and even 24mm still is at about one and two-thirds stop, which is still fairly high. Sadly, these numbers don't go down much as you stop down. Indeed, there's almost no reason to stop down just to avoid vignetting, as it will still be visible. 

Unfortunately, the in-camera (or post processing) correction supplied by Sony still leaves us with very visible vignetting (almost 2 stops at 12mm, about two-thirds of a stop at 24mm). Again, stopping down doesn't really help you here.

For a wide angle zoom, the 12-24mm is at the high end of the vignetting curve. Particularly considering that stopping down doesn't gain us a lot of improvement. All wide angle zooms are going to have this issue to some degree, but the 12-24mm is pushing into new territory for me. That said, I haven't found a shot I can't correct or deal with in post. The problem is that with this much correction required you have to watch that you don't pull up a lot of noise in your corners. 

Chromatic aberration: For a wide angle zoom, lateral chromatic aberration is very well controlled. On the 42mp cameras, yes, I can just edge it into visibility on high contrast edges—pretty much at any focal length or aperture—but it's low overall and easily correctable. Almost no longitudinal chromatic aberration worth noting.

Flare: This lens has a tendency to produce an unusual circle flare with the sun in certain positions. This mostly green artifact is obvious and obnoxious when it occurs, but because it is obvious, you'll find yourself naturally reframing or repositioning slightly to avoid it. This is not a lens I'd want to use in a remote fixed position where a bright light source might sneak into the frame without verifying that this won't produce this dreaded Green Ring of Flare.

Final Words
Overall, the 12-24mm is a keeper, and it's one of three lenses I keep in my Sony bag now. I'd rather have more sharper corners and less vignetting, but I've slowly come to frame and post process in ways that I can live with what the lens is providing me. I prefer my Nikkor 14-24mm overall despite its heavier field curvature, but I don't like using adapted lenses, particularly on the high resolution cameras. 

Your only other real choice is the Sony 16-35mm f/2.8GM, which is a bigger and heavier lens. Yes, it's better than the 12-24mm f/4 at the equivalent focal lengths. But it's also bulkier. So for travel and portable purposes, the 12-24mm f/4 is my new "small kit" lens. Many of you will have trouble with the 12mm end of this lens. The wider angle a lens is the more you need to really understand perspective and how to build depth (not width) into your shots. The difference between 12mm and 14mm (or 16mm as with the other Sony wide angle offerings) is considerable. The bar is raised quite a bit in getting great images at 12mm compared to 14mm or 16mm. 

But I like that kind of challenge, and frankly, done well gives you a leg up on someone using a wide angle lens poorly: your images just pull the viewer into the wall better if you get everything right.

The worst parameter of this lens is not the corner sharpness, which I suspect most people reading this review will gravitate towards thinking. Not at all. The worst parameter, by far, is the massive vignetting. In particular, you have to think about clear blue skies.

Pulling a sky up by three or more stops is like using a much higher ISO value. You're shooting at ISO 100, but those corners are being shot at the equivalent of something like ISO 1000. Worse still, skies tend to have very little red channel information. A nice blue sky can have the red channel two stops under the blue channel information (we're now at something like ISO 4800 equivalent in that channel). 

Simply put, you have to think about how those corners are going to render once you pull them to where you want them in post processing. The good news is that the Sony A7/A9 cameras can withstand a fair amount of post processing change. The bad news is that, if you're shooting at higher ISO values to start with, you could be headed for noisy or dark corners. 

Still, I'm really happy with this lens. Knowing its weaknesses allows me to shoot to its strengths, of which is has many. As I noted, it currently has a permanent place in my Sony bag.

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