Sony 16-50mm Retractable Zoom Lens

The Sony 16-50mm Retractable Zoom Lens is the smallest zoom that you can get for your NEX camera, but it’s far from the best.

The Sony 16-50mm Retractable Zoom Lens ($349.99 direct) is the smallest zoom lens you can get for a NEX camera, but its optical quality shows the compromises that are required to pull off its design. It covers a 24-75mm field of view in terms of full-frame photography, with the standard f/3.5-5.6 aperture range you expect in a entry-level zoom lens. The lens is the standard kit lens for the , and is slated to be available for sale on its own and bundled with the in early 2013—in both cases it adds $150 to the body-only price, representing a $200 savings versus buying the lens and camera separately.

The lens itself only protrudes about 1.2 inches from the front of your camera when collapsed. Combine this with the small size of most NEX bodies and you’ve got an interchangeable lens camera with a D-SLR-sized sensor that you can slide into your pocket—a rara avis indeed. The standard 18-55mm NEX kit zoom increases the camera’s depth by about 2.4 inches. It’s a power zoom design, so you need to use a lever to zoom in or out—the selected focal length shows up on the camera’s display.

The compact design leads to some design compromises. I used Imatest to check on the sharpness and distortion evident when the lens is paired with the NEX-6. At its widest aperture and the midpoint of its zoom, 33mm, it just barely hits the 1,800 lines per picture height that we used to mark a sharp photo—at 16mm it scores 1,666 lines and it drops back down to 1,663 lines at 50mm. Closing the aperture down to f/8 improves the score—that gets you 1,802 lines at 16mm, 1,885 lines at 33mm, and 1,777 lines at 50mm. Shooting at a smaller aperture won’t be a problem in decent light, although it will limit your ability to create a shallow depth of field. The lens is optically stabilized, but if the light gets dim you will likely be shooting at its maximum aperture.

If you shoot JPG, distortion is a nonissue—the NEX-6 automatically corrects for it. But if you are shooting in Raw, or with an older NEX camera that doesn’t have a correction profile for the lens, you’ll notice that shots at 16mm have a distinct fisheye look to them. At that setting the lens shows a ridiculous amount of barrel distortion—9 percent. This can largely be corrected by adjusting a development slider in Lightroom, but in doing so you lose some picture information around the edges of the frame, effectively reducing the field of view.

If you’re willing to trade some image quality for size, the Sony 16-50mm Retractable Zoom Lens will make you happy. Even with the tradeoffs, it’s almost as sharp as the larger 18-55mm lens that has previously been bundled with NEX cameras—an optic that also displays a significant amount of barrel distortion at its widest setting. Still, the $350 price point is a bit high when you consider that it’s essentially available for $200 when purchased alongside an NEX camera. If you are currently using the NEX system and are considering a lens to replace or supplement the standard 18-55mm kit zoom there are other options—you could go with a prime lens, which allows you to blur the background behind your subject and shoot in low light, or add the  for a longer telephoto reach. Unless you really need to slide your NEX into your pocket, there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons to choose this over the 18-55mm zoom. However, if you’re buying your first NEX and have the option to get this 18-55mm or the 16-50mm, the latter is worth the roughly $50 price difference—especially if you take advantage of your camera’s distortion correction when shooting JPGs.

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