Bokeh comparison: Sony RX1 vs Nikon 35mmm f/1.4G
Sony has been on fire recently with their new camera releases. The Sony RX100 is arguably the best point&shoot on the market right now. The full-frame Sony A99 DSLR has been getting great reports … and then there is the new Sony RX1 (B&H / Amazon) – full-frame goodness in a compact camera with a fixed 35mm f/2 lens.
And just in anyone has missed the crucial news – Sony cameras use Zeiss lenses. The word “legendary” is usually automatically associated with the word Zeiss.
A quick summary of what makes the Sony RX1 unique:
- full-frame sensor in a compact P&S style body
- fixed 35mm f/2 Zeiss Sonnar lens
- a hefty $2,800 price tag
The full-frame sensor promises excellent high-ISO noise performance, and the Zeiss optic promises stellar performance from the lens. With that, there’s been a lot of buzz about this camera … and I have one in my hands.
So far, I am hugely impressed with this camera. The build quality is solid. It has a certain heft for such a small camera. The lens is incredibly sharp. (More about that later.) The 1/3rd stop indents on the lens smoothly click into position. This camera just speaks “quality!” Even the lens cap that clips on solidly, is made of metal!
Instead of a breakdown of the specs though, I thought it might be more interesting to look at one specific aspect of this camera & lens – the bokeh of the lens.
Whenever there is a test report of a fast optic, the phrases “creamy bokeh” and “buttery bokeh” are thrown around. But a fast aperture does not necessarily mean that a lens has great bokeh. Though, with a price like that, and with a lens like that, one would expect this lens to indeed have bokeh like some dairy product.
I met up with Aleona in Manhattan to photograph her with the Sony RX1 (affiliate), and for comparison, the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G (affiliate) on the Nikon D4. I specifically chose this Nikon optic. Even though it is a favorite lens of mine, the bokeh is not that wonderful. The lens shows bokeh that can best be described as “jittery” or “busy”. Not smooth. Neither creamy, nor buttery.
For all the images shown, I used the Sony RX1 at f/2 … and I also used the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 at f/2 for all the other images. So everything you see was shot at f/2
The web images shown here are all 900px wide. Open them in a new browser tab to see them at that size. (They are posted as a smaller size on this webpage.)
With these images, don’t compare the color and contrast and saturation. I didn’t take particular care to make the images look exactly the same in that regard. Look at the bokeh.
However, before we continue, a few comments about bokeh:
- bokeh describes the quality of the background blur.
It’s generally the background blur that is described this way, not the foreground blur.
- good bokeh is NOT the same thing as shallow depth of field
- a lens with shallow depth of field does not necessarily have great bokeh
- bokeh is either good / smooth / pleasant or harsh / jittery / not good / poor
- there is no such thing as the “bokeh effect”. That’s a nonsensical phrase.
- similarly, “getting more bokeh” is meaningless nonsense.
How the bokeh of a lens is evaluated, is fairly subjective. However, when seen in comparison with another lens, it is often easy to decide which lens has the superior rendition of the background blur, ie, more pleasant bokeh.
An example of harsh bokeh
Before we get to Sony RX1, I do need to show what harsh bokeh looks like.
This photo is from a previous article – bokeh vs shallow DoF – was shot at f/1.4 with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4D … and just in case you think the Canon 50mm f/1.4 is superior, it’s not. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 optic looks as bad.
Looking at how intrusive the leaves of the trees are rendered here, it really goes to show that a wide aperture does not mean great bokeh.
I really want to emphasize this point – shallow depth of field is NOT the same as great bokeh, and definitely not the same as “having bokeh” (which is another meaningless phrase.)
Is great bokeh in a photograph something a client would even notice? I really doubt it. But I do believe that it adds to that subliminal appeal that a photo may have … or lack. In that way, great bokeh is important … but also not that important. I regularly rely on two lenses with poor bokeh because they are versatile lenses – the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR (affiliate) and the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS (affiliate). For me, versatility (and sharpness) trumps good bokeh. That said, the photograph above has a distracting background that I truly dislike.
Comparing the Sony RX1 with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G
Instead of a controlled test of this lens, I wanted to see how it looks with a real shoot. I met up with Aleona on this cold winter’s day in New York. (She should be familiar to regular followers of the Tangents blog.)
I took comparative photos with the Sony RX1 (affiliate), and the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G (affiliate) on the Nikon D4. I didn’t work with a tripod since it would slow us down on this cold and windy day, flipping between the two cameras. So the comparison shots are not as meticulous as they should ideally be. The framing is not exact between each photo. But I do believe they give a very good representation of what you could expect from these two lenses in a real world scenario.
For some reason which I can’t explain – while the Sony RX1 and Zeiss lens showed very smooth and pleasant bokeh, it somehow looked like the depth-of-field was slightly more than with the Nikon 35mm f/1.4 used at f/2
So for each setup, I show the Sony and the Nikon versions, and the (nearly) full-rez crop of an area that I think would show the differences between the bokeh of these two lenses. Now, I did down-size the Sony images from 24 megapixels to 16 megapixels so that the cropped images here would be visually directly comparable. With that then, the Sony images are not 100% crops. I had to do it this way to be able to compare the detail of the images.
The crop shows the chairs and tables.
The edge of the table is noticeably smoother with the Sony version.
The fence area looks more jarring with the Nikon lens.
Even with the difference in how the RAW files were adjusted, you can see the Sony looks smoother.
The Nikon version has that typical “double edge” to the hard lines of the chandelier’s support. Hence, the Sony looks smoother.
The out-of-focus highlights towards the edge of the frame, have an elliptical shape with the Sony. The Nikon’s rendition is more irregular. Ultimately, not a huge difference in how the photographs appear.
In summary: Comparing the bokeh of these two lenses
In comparison, the bokeh of the Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2 lens on the Sony RX1 (affiliate) is noticeably smoother than that of the Nikon 35mm f/1.4G (affiliate) … but with images seen in isolation, the Nikon lens’ bokeh isn’t such that it turns me off the lens. And it certainly isn’t as bad as that of the example shot with the Nikon 50mm lens. Still, the Sony RX1 is very sweet indeed.
Summary: A first experience using the Sony RX1 on a photo shoot
This wasn’t a static test on a tripod of an immobile object. So there are too many variables to give a definitive answer …. but I would conservatively say the Sony RX1 (B&H / Amazon) (with its Zeiss lens), is “at least as sharp as” the Nikon. I was really surprised by how crisp the Sony images looked at f/2
It blew my mind, because there is this feeling that yeah yeah, this camera is just a point & shoot camera. And then you look at the files and the reaction has to be, “holy macaroni!”
It could reasonably be argued that there really is no practical reason to buy this camera over, say a Nikon D610 (affiliate) or Canon 6D (affiliate) …. but if you have spare $$ and want to treat yourself to a sweet camera, the RX1 truly is spectacular in its performance.
Oh, and the shutter is whisper-quiet. The slightest “snick!” of a sound. Wonderful.
An amusing thing about shooting with two cameras that are so different – I would shoot with the RX1, holding the camera in front of me, and then I would do a duplicate series of shots with the D4 … holding it away from me like I was going to view the scene I was about to photograph. It was tough making that jump between “back of the camera”, and “look in the viewfinder”.