If you shoot one of the Sony full frame mirrorless cameras, then adding one of these two lenses can give you the ultimate portrait shooting machine. Which one is for you?  If you’ve asked yourself that very question and still can’t decide; don’t feel bad… they are both so good that it’s not an easy choice to make.  I’ve shot with both of these guys several times now in real world situations, and I’m going to try and help you make the right choice.

In many ways, 85mm is the ultimate portrait focal length.  It sits between 135mm which can give you great compression and low distortion, but can leave you bumping into things desperately trying to back up far enough to get proper subject framing; and 50mm which can make it harder to isolate your subject, and have you right on top of them in order to get your desired composition.  An 85mm can give you the best of both worlds; low distortion and great compression.  It also puts you at a good distance to engage with your model; not right in their face and not shouting at them from a distance.

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Let’s get the obvious and indisputable facts out of the way:

Batis / G-Master

MSRP:  $1,200 / $1,800
Weight:  1.05 lbs / 1.80 lbs
Max Aperture:  f/1.8  /  f/1.4
Min Aperture:  f/22  /  f/16
Filter Size:  67mm / 77mm
Stabilized:
  Yes / No
Focus Method:  Wire / Wire
Dust & Moisture resistant:  Yes / Yes

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Now for some personal observations based on real world shooting as well as just simple test shooting.
Autofocus:  I found, perhaps not surprisingly, that the Batis had slightly faster AF on the A7R2.  Given that the GM is considerably heavier and that much of that weight difference is due to the very large and heavy lens elements its not surprising at all that the Batis is a bit snappier when it comes to AF.  If AF speed is important to you then that’s one point for the Batis.  If you are, for example a primarily studio shooter and deal with mostly static subjects the AF may not be as much of a concern.
Though I intend to keep this a review based mainly on experience and observation; I did want to include a simple test on autofocus speed simply because we are talking about fractions of a second.  I recorded the shutter sounds of the camera locking onto targets of near and far focus, and used the peaks in combination with a time stamp to get a very accurate reading of the time it took each lens to lock on focus and take a shot.  I set the camera to  AF priority which simply means the camera will try to completely lock on to the subject before releasing the shutter.
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The top track in blue is the GM, which achieved 12 shots in 13.11 seconds for an average of 1.09 seconds per shot.  The bottom track in red is the Batis, which achieved 12 shots in 12.62 seconds for an average of 0.95 seconds per shot.  I did this test 3 times and got similar results each time.
In addition to autofocus speed, I also found that the Batis was a little bit better at locking onto subjects in darker situations.  This includes near pitch black.  I found this to be a bit surprising, since the GM has the advantage of being able to let more light in to help with AF simply because it is a f/1.4 lens with a huge front element.
One final point on Autofocus is that I also found the Batis had a slightly better time locking on with an extremely backlit subject.  This includes when shooting a model in conjunction with the face / eye detect.
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Sharpness:  When I first shot both of these lenses, I would have given the nod to sharpness to the GM.  Now having shot with each numerous times, I’m not so sure.  Believe me, I’ve done my share of pixel peeping too.  It is just amazing how sharp are both of the lenses.
Were I forced to make a call on this one, I would say that at similar apertures the GM does have slightly sharper center to edge sharpness.  When the focal point falls dead center; however, it’s too close to call.  With either lens, if you nail the focus in good light you will be seeing the capillaries in the whites of your models eyes.  Keeping in mind once again, that I’ve done the bulk of my shooting with these lenses using the 42 megapixels of the A7R2.
In short, to see any minute difference in sharpness between these two lenses would first require you to first “nail” the shot.  If there is even the slightest motion blur or the focus was off even the slightest bit such small details will become indistinguishable.  So once again, if you’re in studio or shooting a static subject, have time to get precise focus, and even a chance to take several exposures to get the perfect shot; then the sharpness of the GM can be put to full use. Anything short of a perfect shot and the microscopic sharpness advantage of the GM becomes a moot point.
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Color:  This is probably a category best covered by someone else… but since I’m the only one writing I guess I’ll step up.  The reason I say this is because I don’t have a single lens or camera with which I’m not happy with its color rendition.  Part of this is because I place very little currency on getting the shot “Straight out of the Camera”(SootC).  I will always give my shots a little tweak at the very least.  That said, I started to go back to review past portrait session with both lenses SootC, and I think they are both quite good. Not much help there I know.
I guess I could simply stick a color chart in front of each lens right now, but seeing as how I’m actually reviewing them with regard to being the ultimate portrait lens that doesn’t seem so relevant.  Skin tones would seem much more important, but no one else is here as I write this and I’m definitely not sticking my mug in front of the camera.  I did come across this shot (below) taken with the GM that really caught my eye with regard to skin tone.  It was taken wide open with 100% natural light and is 100% untouched SootC.
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The color does look much better on Flickr even as I sit here viewing them side by side in separate windows on the same monitor so for a true representation view it on Flicker here.
Overall under various lighting conditions, I would say that the GM is slightly more vibrant where as the Batis displays slightly more muted color.  As I stated right off the bat, however color would not influence me to lean toward either lens.  I like the color of each and more importantly the skin tones of each just fine.
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Bokeh:  This is where the GM85 and it’s two GM brothers live.  Because of the GM 85’s 11 aperture blades, 2 more than the standard 9 that the Batis has, it is able to form nearly perfectly circular bokeh especially when shot wide open.  This allows for incredibly soft and creamy out of focus areas.  It also allows for circular highlight or Hollywood bokeh when points of light are in the defocused areas.  As for just plain creamy bokeh not involving points of light it would be interesting to see a comparison between the GM85 and the Smooth Trans Focus (STF) lenses out there.  You would most likely lose some resolution, but the bokeh may be even smoother?  Below are a few samples from each lens of the bokeh they can produce wide open.
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GM @ f/1.4
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GM @ f/1.4
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Note the football shaped bokeh at the edges of the frame in the previous image.  This is where the GM separates itself from the Batis.  To some this may not necessarily be a positive.  Bokeh highlights that are increasingly more football shaped as you get toward the edges can give the background a “swirled” effect that some photographers actually seek.  It can serve to frame the subject.  It can, in a sense, direct your attention back toward the model much like a vignette.  Notice below how the non uniform bokeh sort of forms a pattern behind Hana.  This same image taken with a more circular 11 bladed aperture lens would render a much more uniform bokeh and not give you that framing effect.
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Batis “Swirl” bokeh sample 1.
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Batis “Swirl” bokeh sample 2.
I love to shoot golden hour portraits with the sun setting directly behind my model.  Speckled light through tree leaves can however be one of the most difficult situations for a lens.  See the following image.
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Batis @ f/1.8
Though I love the portrait overall, I find the bokeh produced by the Batis, seen just to the right of Katie’s head to be somewhat distracting.  The GM handles this very difficult situation as well as any lens I’ve ever shot with.  Note below how well the GM manages to smooth out the bokeh even in this toughest of situations.  One caveat to this is that if you do not shoot wide open (where the aperture of the GM is almost perfectly circular) then you would be seeing more overlapping football shaped bokeh and you wold be back to having that distracting, uneven pattern even with the GM.
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GM @ f/1.4
One last example of how the Batis a slightly less pleasing bokeh pattern when faced with speckled light.
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Bokeh verdict?  Not personally being a fan of the “swirly” bokeh I’d give this one to the GM hands down.
One final point that can be linked to bokeh,  now it goes without saying that being able to shoot at f/1.4 at a given distance to your subject will render a more shallow depth of field (DOF) than shooting at f/1.8.  Just how much of a difference is there?  Let’s take a typical portrait situation with a single subject at a distance of 6 feet.  This will give you a typical head and shoulders shot.  At f/1.4 with an 85mm lens on a full frame body this will give you a total DOF of 0.12 feet or 1.44 inches (feel free to check my math on that.)  Versus f/1.8 all other conditions renaming the same will give you a 0.15 feet DOF or 1.80 inches for a grand total difference of 1/3 of an inch.  I’ll leave you to decide if that is something to consider.  I will say this, however personally I find often myself shooting at f/2.0 or 2.2 when I’m using an 85mm at this distance.  This gives me a better chance of good focus on more than just a portion of one eye… particularly if the model is not directly facing me.
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Lens Flare:  Much like bokeh, lens flare can become a matter of taste.  A nice lens flare is just part of photography as ubiquitous the selfie.  Some photographers will go out of their way to add flare.  Some lenses even have a pleasant repeatable flare Patten.  I personally like the flare patter of the Batis.  There is, however, one repeatable and annoying trait I have come across.  In extreme back lit situations I have gotten green colored dots of flare.  Observer just to the right and south of the no parking sign.
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Batis @ f/1.8
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One more sample here with the green flare finding its way right onto Jessica’s face.  I was able to find a solution to this green flare; it seems to be a problem caused by refraction between the UV filter and the front lens element.  Simply remove the filter and the flare disappears.  I put only the highest quality filters on my portrait glass so I would not characterize it as a flaw with the filter.
The GM has my award for controlling direct sun lens flare better than any lens I’ve ever shot with.  Not surprisingly it also maintains great contrast on the subject even when used in extreme back lit conditions.  Again, if you’re a fan of interesting flare this might be a downside for you.  I don’t yet have a great sample of a person with the sun directly behind as I did with the Batis but here is one of Linda directly in front of the high beams of my car as well as a speed light behind her hair for good measure.  Note how well color and contrast are maintained even directly adjacent to the passing light.
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GM @ f/2.0
Flare Verdict?  Again, this can come down to personal choice, but unless I specifically wanted flare in my shot I would reach for the GM in severely back lit situations where flare is likely to occur.
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Focus Breathing:  Both lenses do exhibit focus breathing, which you might expect given that neither lens is full intended for high end video work.  That said, the GM does a much better job in my last test at controlling the focus breathing.  Does it matter that much in terms of still shooting?  I’ll leave that up to you to decide.  What it boils down to is that the Batis has a noticeably more narrow field of view at close focus than it does focused at and beyond infinity.  The GM much less so.  In the following sets of images direct your attention to the upper left corner and at how much of the chimneys disappear when pulling in from infinity to near focus.
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GM at infinity.

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GM at near.

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Batis at infinity.

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Batis at near.

Note that with the GM half if not more than half of the chimneys remain in the 2nd shot.  With the Batis almost exactly 100% of the chimneys are gone.  This may not bother you for still, and in fact you might like that when you’re focusing on something closer that your field of view narrows slightly.  However, if you’re using these lenses for video when you do a focus pull; you most likely don’t want your composition to change at all or much less than it does with the Batis.

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A few more factors you might want to consider: 

The GM has some nice on lens features that the Batis does not.  A manual AF/MF switch, that I personally love to have on a lens.  A focus hold button that can be programmed to other features.  I love to program this button to activate the Eye-AF feature found in most Sony bodies.  Lastly, the GM has the aperture ring on the lens.  The ring itself can be “de-clicked” so that the motion is smooth.  Just about every comparison you’ll find will talk about how great this feature is for video shooters.  I feel important to note, however that this does not translate to a perfectly smooth opening and closing of the aperture blades.  So if you’re shooting video and expect a seemliness exposure transitions with your change in aperture you mostly likely will not get what you want.

As for the Batis, which lacks all the features I mentioned above, it does have an LED readout that gives you focus distance and depth of field.  It is only activated when in MF mode.  You can set it to come on when in AF, but you have to set that up yourself.  For me personally, I don’t find much use in this feature.  I actually wish you could customize it to give you encouraging messages.  “Wow!  Great shot.”  “Now that’s a keeper!”  “Amazing!”  Or perhaps you the can strike a deal with the makers of the Magic 8 Ball.  “Outlook not so good.”  But I digress…

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Let me end with some quick pro’s and con’s for each lens.

Sony GM:

♦ Virtually unmatched optical quality.
♦ 77mm filter thread.  (very common but perhaps less so moving forward)
♦ Function button on lens (only one so not easily reached when shooting vertical)
♦ Aperture ring on lens.  (de-clickable)
♦ Very solid construction.
♦ Though heavy has a great feel in the hand.
♦ Nice feeling, robust focus ring.
♦ Color fringing due to chromatic aberration extremely well controlled.

♦ Less than stellar AF speed.
♦ Nearly twice the weight of the Batis.
♦ Audible rotation noise during AF.
♦ The hood has a lock on it.  (Why?  I’ve never had a lens hood fall off on me.)

Zeiss Batis:

♦ Outstanding optical quality.
♦ Light weight.
♦ Sold construction but slightly less so than the GM.
♦ Comfortable in the hand.
♦ Fast and accurate AF even in low light.
♦ Very snug fitting lens mount.  (You actually need to use some force to get it on)
♦ OLED screen.  (Not much of a factor personally though some may find it helpful.)
♦ Very modern, stylish design with sculpted hood.

♦ Less common 67mm filter thread.  (but cheaper than the 77mm)
♦ Soft rubber focus ring.  (seems like it may fade & tends to attract dust)
♦ Fairly prominent color fringing due to CA when shot wide open.

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Conclusion:  Both of these lenses are simply amazing.  If a few of the points, I’ve made resonate with you then lean toward that lens.  Otherwise, perhaps go with the Batis because it’s lighter and cheaper.  If you really want to feel like you’re getting the more technologically advanced lens then go with the GM.

The honest truth of the matter is that over the past year of shooting with each of these lenses I have gone back and forth a couple times as to which one is “better”.  Right now if you told me I was being launched to the moon and could only take one I’d probably grab the GM.  Ask me again in a couple months, I may change my mind.

In simplest terms, I would tell you if you make your bread and butter doing event shooting then I’d say get the Batis.  It’s lighter, cheaper and tends to find focus a little faster when shooting a moving subject.  If you’re mostly a studio shooter or at least not trying to capture moments of action then spring for the GM.  It’s more convenient due to it’s function button and aperture ring… and it lets in a little bit more light.

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*Adapted and updated from my previous blog on the same topic in June of 2016.
** Title shot model Bianca Kristine

© All images are property of Blackriver Photography and Lightsmith Studios.

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