It's hard to believe that the original Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM was released 6 years ago; either time flies or I'm getting old! Nevertheless, it's great to see Sony updating all the old lens designs. The improvements they made to the 24-70mm and 70-200mm G Masters were impressive and both these lenses have made a big difference to my photography. Looking at the specs of the new 16-35mm, I could see it was going to be smaller and lighter, but would it offer anything else as an update to the original?
The 16-35mm f/2.8 GM II is indeed smaller and lighter than its predecessor, with the welcome inclusion of a manual aperture ring - something I'm increasingly using for video work. As you zoom, the barrel extends about 1cm, so this wouldn't cause any major issues if used on a gimbal. Weight-wise, it comes in at 547g (vs 680g for the original), which is around 25% lighter. Not a huge difference in real terms, but it got me thinking about the bigger picture.
The 'standard' trinity of lenses that many photographers use is the 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm – all at f/2.8. In the case of the Sony lenses, the earlier versions have a combined weight of over 3kg. The new Mk II versions come in at just under 2.3kg - a difference of 759g which, incidentally, is about the weight of my Alpha 7R V body! When you’re hiking around looking for locations, that weight saving can make a big difference.
Already impressed with the improvements to the lens, I was looking forward to going out and actually shooting with it. I live in the Netherlands there is no shortage of beautiful locations close to my home, and my first stop was a nearby windmill at sunrise.
Loving my wide-angle lenses, there are always a few things I want to try out first. Sharpness is (or used to be) a thing, but with the new G Master II lenses, I'm less concerned and the reason is simple: These lenses are always so sharp that you hardly see a difference on different apertures, even at the corners.
As I mentioned earlier, apart from the size and weight improvements, I didn't know what else I could get excited about - but I immediately found out as soon as I started shooting.
Focus breathing is the slight zoom that happens when you change your focus. This lens has almost NO focus breathing. For me that’s huge (and for video shooters it will be too). People that know my shooting style know that I like to use focus stacking on my wide-angle shots. For this, I go really close to my foreground and use the focus stacking technique to get everything in the image sharp, from front to back. If you're shooting with a lens that has a lot of breathing, you effectively lose a few mm from the focal length because the foreground and background angle of view will be slightly different, so I was delighted to see the negligible breathing in this lens.
I also waited a bit for the sun to come up to capture the sunstar - something I like to incorporate into my images.
Satisfied with my shoot and initial tests, I left for home, but on the way back I saw a field of flowers next to the road with some sunflowers and other wildflowers, probably left there for insects. I decided to put the lens to the test for some close ups here and discovered the next exciting feature...
What’s very cool about this lens is its minimum focus distance of only 22cm. That’s much closer than the original GM, which has a minimum focus distance of 28cm. This close focus means that the magnification is 0.32x, versus the 0.19x on the original. This opens up a huge possibility for interesting bokeh close up shots, and also for focus stacking very close to your lens.
So back to the flower field! The first thing I spotted were obviously the beautiful sunflowers that I mentioned earlier. Here’s a frontal detail of one of them shot at f/8.
There were also some bees on the sunflowers, and they didn't seem bothered by me photographing them so I went as close as I could. The results honestly blew me away. Using the insect autofocus on the Alpha 7R V I was able to perfectly focus on the bee and look how close I could get. Now I would normally never shoot these kinds of scenes with a wide angle, but the fact that this is possible is incredible.
Some little daisies growing nearby also caught my attention. I love the way the bokeh is so smooth and the point of focus is tack sharp.
Wide-angle lenses are not only great for landscapes, but also for cityscapes, and so I had the idea of photographing a rainy evening in my hometown Amersfoort.
For this shot I had to use a higher ISO to achieve the faster shutter speed to keep my friend sharp in the photo as he was walking. Despite shooting wide open in gloomy conditions, when I zoom in to 100%, I can see the sharpness across the frame is perfect.
Shooting the Stars
One of my favourite aspects of landscape photography is shooting starscapes. I usually use prime lenses for my astrophotography, as the extra stop or 2 is useful, but if I'm travelling light, then I felt a lens like the 16-35mm would work very well.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to try out real milky way photography as most of the time it was extremely cloudy and rainy during this part of the summer in the Netherlands. And when it wasn't raining and the skies were clear, we had an almost full moon! Still, I ventured out anyway and captured some nice images.
With the moon being almost full, the 8 second exposure actually lit the landscape very nicely, but if you zoom into the image (click to enlarge), you can see the stars have been rendered very sharply across the frame, despite shooting with the lens wide open.
The Wadden Sea
My final excursion for the lens test saw me head north to the Wadden Sea, to photograph the amazing mud flats that appear during low tide.
On arriving I was not disappointed. Even though I was greeted (and soaked) by a passing raincloud, I could tell I was in the right place. Mud textures as far as the eye could see, with the raincloud that just hit me pulling away, making for some beautiful cloud formations. For me, these mud textures are a playground. You can find endless compositions with leading lines everywhere.
By getting closer to the ground, you get a completely new perspective where you can really play with the lines leading you into the image. As the mud patterns aren’t huge, I used focus stacking here as well to get all the lines sharp from front to back.
In summary, this lens is not just better than the original 16-35mm in every way, it also adds more versatility. One question I have to ask myself is would I prefer to use this instead of my favourite 12-24mm f/2.8 GM? If weight is not an issue I’d probably take the 12-24mm, but on any travel trip where weight is important I’d go for the 16-35mm f/2.8 GM II. Also, the fact that one filter system can be used over the whole set of trinity lenses is useful.
But one thing is for sure: Sony did a very nice upgrade on the 6 year old 16-35mm GM that I’m sure many photographers (including me) are going to be very happy about!
"I am obsessed with getting the perfect shot"