Earlier this year we had the chance to review 3 of Zeiss best portrait lenses. This is the first (and most comprehensive) review of the 3 – looking at the Otus 55mm f/1.4.
In late October 2014 we received a large package to our doorstep which included 3 of the top portrait lenses currently manufactured by Zeiss – the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 and the Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T*.
Over a period of a month we had a chance to test all three lenses in different shooting scenarios and we reached quite a few conclusions about what makes them special, how we feel they should be used and for what and who might be the right target audience for them.
The video review above (again, the first of 3) is long – here are is a table of content if you like to jump forward:
Design and build quality (3:47)
Challenges of manual focusing (9:15)
Manual focusing demo (15:15)
Lens performance (16:54)
The 3 Zeiss lenses we tested – the Otus 55mm f/1.4 on the right
Background, design, philosophy and specifications
The Otus 55mm f/1.4 was introduced about two years ago. A prototype of the lens was first shown during Photokina 2012 and we had a chance to play with it and talk to Zeiss about it (see video below).
What is so special about the Otus line? well, the way Zeiss explained it to us, this line was designed to produce the best possible image quality with little consideration for size/weight and cost. The result as you can see is a very large piece of glass (and metal) – much larger than any other 50mm~ lens so far (even larger than the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 which isn’t small at all).
Apart from the size, the first thing which you notice about the Otus is the unique design – unlike any other lens ever made. It is very slick – we would dare call it “space-age” design, which might sound a bit strange for a lens which has no AF system and no image stabilization or almost any other signs of a modern lens. The yellow writing on the lens complete this one of a kind look of the Otus line together with the hood which looks as if it was molded as part of the main lens body as one big piece of metal.
Official video – Dr. Hubert Nasse, Staff Scientist at Zeiss on the new Otus line
Here is a quick look at the specs of the Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens:
Mount Canon/Nikon (we used our Nikon D7100 and a Nikon D800 for this test).
Weight: 1030 grams~.
Construction: 12 elements / 10 groups (6 lens elements with anomalous partial dispersion and a double sided aspheric element).
Minimum focus distance: 50 cm.
Maximum magnification: 1:6.8.
Focus ring with 245 degrees of rotation.
DOF (Depth of Field) scale is provided – including wide aperture marks.
One of the things that we noticed right away (as it is stated clearly on the lens body) is that the Otus 55mm is made in Japan and not in Germany. However the build quality is really top-notch and present possibly the highest quality construction that we have ever used in a lens (and we have looked at pro lenses from all the major manufacturers).
Of course the fact that this is a manual focus only lens, help Zeiss achieve a level of tolerance that could not be achieved in a comparable AF lens (this was a clear massage in the interview we did with Mr. Honlinger).
The focus ring is very smooth but also very very sensitive. When comparing the ring to the focus ring of our Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro lens – a solid pro AF prime lens from Nikon, you feel the difference immediately. In fact the Nikon feels as if it moves in increments while the focus movement on the Zeiss is completely smooth and continuous.
When we first tried the Otus 55mm prototype in Photokina we had our debuts about the new rubber cover of the focus ring. Yes it is very attractive but it is smooth – how comfortable will it actually be in real life use? well, we are happy to report that it is very usable indeed and we had no issues with it during our month long use. Our only concern is it’s long term survival as it can wear down over long use however we believe that it can be replaced quite easily (it also seems to get a bit more dust and scratches than a normal metal/plastic lens but it isn’t too bad – and again it can probably be replaced).
The aperture ring is small and clicky with a small lock button. We never really used it as we changed the aperture from the camera itself.
Very high build quality
The entire lens is made out of metal and so is the hood which has a nice black fabric on the inside to prevent reflections. The hood is so strong that you can hold it as if you are holding the lens itself. Actually – this is something that we have done quite a few times as the focus ring is so big that even with our small hands we accidentally touch it from time to time (and being so sensitive, this can change the focus). It was not cold when we used it so it is hard for us to really tell, but it is possible that working with the lens outside in a very cold environment with no gloves, it can be a little bit uncomfortable.
The Otus 55mm 1.4 is not the first MF lens that we tested. It is not even the only fast MF lens the we tested (we had our fare share of Samyang fast lenses like the Samyang 16mm f/2.0 ED AS UMC CS we reviewed here early this year). However due to several reasons that we shall discuss – focusing with the Otus 55mm presented more of a challenge than any any lens we tested to date.
First, the Otus 55mm is a super sharp lens (as we will see in the next section), combine this with a D800 which has a 36MP resolution and you get a system that can resolve tremendous amount of detail but will also show any tiny focus misses very very clearly. Next you have ultra sensitive focus ring. Yes, this ring is great and it allows for maximum control and accuracy when shooing a stationery object from a tripod, however hand held with a moving subject (even a model in a controlled studio environment is moving and it can be enough to make you miss – more than once).
Large front element
If you already have experience shooting with fast manual normal/telephoto lenses on DSLRs everything that we just mentioned should sound very familiar to you. Actually, Zeiss has a number of very well written (and not surprisingly very balanced) articles on their website on this topic (here is a pretty good one). We can sum up what they are saying more or less like this:
Using MF lenses on DSLRs is challenging (duhh… but this is Zeiss saying not us).
The viewfinder of most (maybe even all) DSLRs isn’t good enough – use live view whenever possible.
Focus confirmation on DSLRs isn’t accurate enough to get 100% sharp focus with MF lenses – use Live view or special focusing screen.
Use a tripod whenever possible (live view is hard enough without you moving all the time).
These four points some up pretty nicely our own experience with the lens. Since we didn’t have a special focusing screen (we did try one during Photokina 2012 on a D800 with the Zeiss 135mm and it was very helpful – however unless you use mostly MF lenses – it is very hard to recommend as it can get in the way of working with AF and it is not something that can be put on/off quickly), we used mainly the live view. Using the focus confirmation on the camera was very unreliable (this was true for both the D800 and the D7100 we used). When shooting on a tripod with live view we had no trouble making super accurate shots of stationery objects. Moving ones (even subjects who were willing to stay in one place for the shot) were hard to get in sharp focus and required several tries. Shooting rapidly moving subjects at relatively close range was beyond our capabilities with this lens.
One thing that has nothing to do with Zeiss and everything to do with Nikon (and Canon) is the way live view works on DSLRs (in contrast to most mirrorless cameras). As you can see in our video and as you probably know already – when you zoom in during live view you immediately loose the composition – there is no split screen option or picture in picture or anything of that sort. This is not a deal breaker when you are shooting a stationery object on a tripod as you can always go back to the full image and recompose and fix the focus again, however with a moving subject this whole thing becomes a game of hit and miss.
No more Carl
Interestingly, stopping down to f/2.8 or even f/4 or f/5.6 didn’t make that much of a change when it comes to our ability to focus precisely (surly not as much as we expected). At the end of the day the word challenging is exactly how we would describe our experience when trying to focus with the Otus on the D800 – however, when you do finally nail it – the result is so detailed and so sharp that it is very hard to go back to almost any other AF lens.
Despite all the difficulties we were able to get a few sharp images even at a pretty unexpected place like a rock concert (we were very close and used a tripod with live view and missed a lot but a few came out pretty well).
As we have mentioned, we tested the lens over a period of a month. It’s performance (whenever we were able to get sharp focus) was truly exceptional.
We performed our regular series of tests (see below) but more than anything we were truly impressed with the sharpness, contrast and especially the amount of detail that this lens provides.
Vignetting – wide open you do see a little bit of vignetting (on the Nikon D800) but to our eyes at least, this look very minimal. Closing down eliminates the Vignette fairly quickly and when fully closed down there is no trace of it at all.
Barrel distortion – as you can see, the lens has no apparent barrel distortion.
Chromatic aberration – although we cannot say that this lens will never produce any CA, we didn’t see any and it seems that Zeiss did a very good job controlling CA on the lens.
Sharpness – on the following images you can see the sharpness in different apertures across the frame (shot with the D800 on a tripod with Live view). It was pretty hard to preform the test as even a very very small angle of the camera produced an out of focus in one of the sides of the frame wide open. Although at the it might seem like the image is not super sharp at the very extreme left side wide open – our feeling is that this is some sort of an artifact of our testing methodology rather than a real world result.
Here is a real world example of sharpness (shot with the D7100) – full image
Another thing which is very clear besides the sharpness is the contrast level of the lens which appears to be extremely high.
One of the best features of this lens seems to be the amazing handling of veiling flare – we shot almost right into the sun and the contrast of the image did not deteriorate significantly (like we see in almost any other lens).
Shooting into the sun
So does the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 live up to the hype? well, after testing it for a full month our answer is an astounding YES. This is indeed the sharpest and overall best performing lens that we have ever used. It has super solid build quality with a futuristic look unlike any other lens in existence.
So is the Otus the perfect lens? not really. Being a manual focus only lens restricts its use to mostly tripod/live view work (unless you are willing to switch your focusing screen – something we suspect not a lot of people will do these days), these type of restrictions will seem too much for a great number of photographers who will find it completely impractical. Combine this with a $3840 price tag (yes the price did went down a bit since we recorded the video) and you get a super lens for a super niche market.
Too big for the D7100?
So who is this niche market of photographers who will consider buying this lens? Well, first and foremost – these are photographers who look for the best of the best and are willing to pay for it. They are for the most part studio photographers – i.e. product photographers (who do not need it for macro shots) and/or portrait photographers. Vintage lovers who still shoot with analog cameras (with the right focusing screen) could also be a target audience (small as it is). We find this lens pretty hard to recommend for street photographers – it simply too large and bulky and working with the MF seems like a real hassle unless you have a good focusing screen and you have lots of MF experience.
At the end of the day we will say that if you are O.K. with the limitations of this lens, you know your way around a MF lens, need the best of the best and willing to pay for it – there is simply no beating this lens. For everybody else there are a range of other options on the market, including the very attractive – and much more affordable – new Sigma 50mm f/1.4).
Nice addition – the Otus 55mm f/1.4 in its box
What we liked
Super high image quality (best in class and the sharpest lens we ever tested along with the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4).
Unique design and very high build quality.
Metal hood with anti reflection fabric inside.
Comfortable rubber focus ring with huge 245° of rotation.
What we liked less
Large and heavy (for a 55mm lens).
No Weather-sealing (only found on the Sony Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 in this category).
Manual focus only.
The following is a gallery of images which we took using the Otus 55mm with both the Nikon D7100 and the Nikon D800. Images were not changed apart from cropping.
We would like to thank jugend for loaning us the Nikon D800 camera used in this review, as well as ABS who helped with lens loaning logistics. A big special thank you goes to Zeiss who were kind enough the loan us all 3 lenses for an extended period of time so that we can complete all of our tests.
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