Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM first thoughts

Gary Hart Photography: Starlight Reflection, Wizard's Hat, Bandon, Oregon

Starlight Reflection, Wizard’s Hat, Bandon, Oregon
Sony a7SIII
Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM
ISO 12800
f/1.8
15 seconds

Last week I got to preview the brand new, and top secret (at the time) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens. I really didn’t have time for this, but this was the lens I’ve been praying for pretty much my entire photography life and I just couldn’t say no. This isn’t so much a review as it is a summary of my experience using it, and my first impressions.

It was a Monday morning (April 12) and Don Smith, his wife Beri, and I were on the road to Bandon, Oregon when the call from Sony came in.  It went something like this:

Sony: Would you be willing to try out the new Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens.

Don and Gary: Duh—uh, sure!

Sony: We’d need 10 images each, including 2 night images apiece, by Sunday.

Don and Gary: We have a workshop starting tomorrow, but we’ll figure it out.

Sony: Oh, this lens is a secret, so nobody can see you using it.

Don and Gary: Oh, wow—okay, we’ll be careful.

Sony: And one more thing. There’s only one lens, so you guys will need to share.

Don and Gary: (Eyeing each other suspiciously) Uh, sure…

The lens was overnighted arrived the next day, just as the workshop started. By then Don and I had agreed to a sharing plan that would give each of us equal opportunity to use the lens without affecting the workshop, and had even come up with an answer in the (we hoped) unlikely event that anyone asked what lens we were using. (I only had to lie once.)

I checked the moon schedule and determined that the only two nights that week suitable for night photography were our first two with the lens, which were our only two remaining nights in Bandon. Fortunately, with late sunsets and early sunrises, we had no group night shoots planned), so the only cost was sleep.

Don got it the first night, but I went out with him to scout for potential compositions and get up to speed on my as yet unused (thank-you-very-much, COVID) Sony a7SIII. The next night was my night—I went out solo and I had the entire beach to myself.

First impressions

The first thing to strike me about this lens was its compactness, which just blew me away. How can a lens so wide, and so fast, be so small and light? But it also felt quite solid in my hand, which I took as a good sign. It has an aperture control ring on the lens (with a toggle to choose between click or “unclick”), but I especially appreciated the aperture ring’s “A” position, which allows me to set my aperture with the camera’s aperture control dial as I do with all my other lenses. (Since I will use this lens a lot at night and need to do everything by memory and feel, the more I can control my settings without doing something different, the better.)

I have loved, loved, loved night photography with the first two Sony a7Sx series bodies, but, despite having the a7SIII since last summer, this was the first time I’ve been able to use it. All I can say is that it only took a couple of minutes to know that the a7SIII and 14mm GM are a match made in heaven. Not only does the a7SIII give me clean files at 12800 ISO, when paired with a fast lens like the 14mm GM, even with nothing but starlight, I can compose and focus (without guessing) in seconds. But the thing that excited me most this night was the amount of sky I could capture at 14mm—until now my night lenses have always been the (wonderful) Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM and Sony 20mm f/1.8 G, but

In action

Turns out I’d underestimated the breadth of the 14mm lens’s field of view and my ability to deal with the thin, 6% crescent moon hovering near the western horizon. The amount of light necessary to bring out the stars and beach detail also rendered the much brighter moon a large white blob, meaning that many of the compositions I’d planned were simply not doable without being photobombed by the moon. So I spent most of my time on the south end of the beach, concentrating my compositions on Wizard’s Hat. Bandon’s other iconic sea stacks would need to wait for a future visit.

The tide was out, which allowed me to get pretty close to Wizard’s Hat and its neighbors. That was a good thing, because with a 14mm lens, close is essential, the closer the better. It was also a bad thing, because at the beach, the closer the wetter. Fortunately, the long, nearly flat beach meant no rogue waves crashing atop me without warn, it just meant that when a big wave did crash a couple of hundred feet out, it washed up and over my quickly saturated boots and socks. It wasn’t long before I just resigned myself to wet feet if I wanted to include Wizard’s Hat and the spectacular reflection in the sheen left by receding waves.

After my first few frames I magnified the image in my viewfinder and scrutinized the stars and sea stacks. I checked the sea stacks for focus softness and found none—wow, is focus easy with the a7SIII and a fast lens! I also checked for noise all the way up to ISO 12800 and saw nothing that I knew wouldn’t be cleaned up easily by Topaz DeNoise AI. In the stars I looked for distortion, especially in the corners. I did the entire shoot at f/1.8 to really put it to the test and was blown away by the complete lack of distortion throughout the frame. With each close look confirming what I’d seen in the previous checks, I soon stopped checking and just concentrated on taking pictures.

Initial conclusion

I love the night sky, and am thrilled that recent technology has allowed me to photograph it so easily. But I always found myself longing for a wider field of view to get as many stars as possible, especially in New Zealand where the Milky Way is so high in the June sky, or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where I find myself always wanting to include more sky and foreground. I know the Sony 12-24 f/2.8 lens will give me the breadth I long for, but f/2.8, while fast enough in a pinch, isn’t as fast as I’d like (especially in the near total darkness at the bottom of the Grand Canyon). And a fast lens that requires me to stop down a stop or two to maximize image quality doesn’t really provide much of an advantage. Until now I’ve had to work around these compromises. There are other lenses as fast as, or even a little faster, but the Sony 14mm GM’s combination of breadth, speed, and compactness sets it apart. Factor in the the distortionless corner-to-corner sharpness I saw, and I think I’m ready to declare the Sony 14mm f/1.4 GM my perfect night lens.

One Week in Oregon with the Sony 14mm f/1.4 GM Lens

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

 

23 Comments on “Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM first thoughts

  1. Beautiful shot, but I’m guessing a bit rich for most amateur photographers. The big question is : how did you get to breach the Secret Sony Oath ??

    • Thanks. I’m a Sony Artisan, which is a mutually beneficial relationship that (among other things) sometimes allows me to preview equipment in return for Sony using my images for their advertising and promotion.

  2. In the text, you refer to this as a 14mm f/1.8 lens. I assume you meant f/1.4. Cheers!

  3. Thanks this detailed review of the new 14mm lens. I’m curious about the added value of the Sony a7SIII camera over the a7rIV that I have. I do far more wildlife than night photography, but I need fast shutterspeed and often high ISO to handle lower light conditions. I wonder if the a7SIII camera would be advantageous for wildlife?

    I’m happy that you and Don are getting back to some workshops. We are vaccinated and are looking forward to traveling again. We are headed to San Diego on 5/3 to meet our month old granddaughter, and have planned 6 days in Jackson in September.

    Your photos with the new Sony lens are wonderful. You found some super compositions.

    Take care, Cathy Kelly

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Your new lens and camera sure rendered beautiful night photos and of course you chose great compositions! I was just curious, did you light paint the sea stacks? The lighting is so perfect. Also, did you stack photos to get the nice sharp stars or was the new lens fast enough to keep you exposure times down? I’m still working on learning to do night photography: It’s such a beautiful photographic genre.
    Good luck with your next workshops, stay well, and thanks for sharing.

  5. How did you get nearby rocks and8 stars in focus with f 1.8?
    Stacked?

      • I’m still a bit confused. 🙄
        I thought “traditional wisdom” was to shoot 1 -2 stops stopped down from max aperture, where lenses are sharpest. Why shoot this photo at f 1.4 if you didn’t want background bokeh/blown out? Just showin’ off the lens for Sony?

      • 😄 Nope, when I’m shooting on the beach on a moonless night, I need as much light as I can get—stopping down a stop or two defeats the whole purpose of a fast lens. Normally this is a pick your poison choice between less noise and sharp corners. It didn’t take too long to figure out that I could shoot wide open with this lens and have both. (And there’s no bokeh when you’re focused at infinity.)

  6. Incredible shots from the beach at Bandon. I so loved the Oregon coast when I went the length of the state a few years ago. Bandon Beach was my goal. Incredible place and so exciting to photograph there.

  7. Cool story and great images. I thought the A7S cameras were designed/intended more video than stills. Why not the A7RIV or A7III? Hope to be able to attend one of your trips soon.

    Jeff
    Rocklin, CA

  8. Beautiful shot with reflections like I’ve never seen before. I can’t wait to see more work with this combo.

  9. Fantastic night photo, one of the best I’ve seen. The star filled sky and reflection in the water are breathtaking. I really enjoyed attending the photo trip in Oregon this year.

  10. Pingback: Sleep is Overrated | Eloquent Images by Gary Hart

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