I’ve used a lot of 50mm and near-50mm lenses in my time*. I’ve had the privilege of owning or having on long term loan some of the legends – the Leica f0.95 Noctilux, for instance, the 50/2 APO-Summicron-ASPH; the Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor; the Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar. However, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is quite possibly the best of them all.
Note: there are others who have done a good job of far more comprehensive formal and technical tests, such as Lloyd Chambers, DXOMark etc. – this will not be that kind of review; I’m going to approach it from the point of view of what this lens was designed for: making pictures. I won’t be posting full size samples because I do not want to lose control of any images; and images that have no real merit shouldn’t be posted at all in any form. In any case, a large print is really required to see what this lens can do; no screen can do it justice. All images were shot with a Nikon D800E.
*Not even counting the equivalents on other formats: Nikon AFS 50/1.4 G; AFS 50/1.8 G; AF 50/1.4; AF 50/1.8 D; AI 55/2.8 Micro; AIS 58/1.2 Noct; AF 60/2.8 D Micro; AFS 60/2.8 Micro; AI 45/2.8 P; pre-AI 55/1.2 SC; Leica 50/2.5 Summarit-M; 50/2 Summicron-M; 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH; 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH; 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH; Sigma 50/1.4; Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/50 Planar; ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar; ZM 2/50 Planar; ZM 1.5/50 Sonnar; Otus ZF.2 1.4/55 APO-Distagon; CF 4/50 Distagon FLE. I’m sure there are others, but I honestly can’t remember them right now.
This is not a small lens. That’s an AFS 85/1.8 G in the background, and the image was shot with a 120mm equivalent – no perspective tricks!
You could probably stop reading at this point, but I think such a bold statement deserves some explanation, and the lens itself is worthy of much more serious consideration. Firstly, this is not a lens that will make sense or appeal to everybody; size, weight, manual focus and price will see to that. It is not any one property of the Otus that makes it outstanding over the others, at the expense of something else – an f0.95 maximum aperture, for instance, traded off against some serious lateral CA, moderate corner softness and a 1m minimum focusing distance; or a focusing helicoid that covers the last 2m to infinity in ten degrees – it is the fact that it not only holds its own but thoroughly embarrasses the competition at every single measurement; in fact, the lens’ measured MTF outperforms the theoretical maximum MTFs of most lenses. That’s quite some achievement.
Of course, charts and numbers are not everything. There are lenses that test very poorly – Zeiss’ own 2/28 Distagon is one of those – due to aberrations such as severe field curvature; however, in practice, the way the lens renders is extremely three-dimensional and very, very pleasing. It therefore matters greatly how the lens renders in actual use; there are no numbers to describe quality of bokeh, for instance. Other qualities, such as microcontrast, are very easy to see but not so easy to measure. Some lenses have high resolution but harsh rendering – the Nikon AFS 50mms when stopped down, for instance – others are relatively low in fine structure/ microcontrast, such as the 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor and late generation 50/1 Noctilux-M, but have very pleasing artistic qualities and ‘sufficient’ gross resolution.
100% crop here: note how the lens renders specular highlights in the water. Impressive.
It is very difficult to accurately describe the ‘Otus look’, but it’s definitely there, and quite distinct. I’ll do my best. I think it takes the best qualities of the modern Karbe-era Leica ASPH lenses (when their QC is on form), smoothes them out a little, and then adds the Zeiss three-dimensionality. Specifically, it splits an image very nicely into planes – at nearly any distance; there is a very fast transition between in- and out-of-focus areas. (I’ve always thought of that as a Leica ASPH signature.) The bokeh, however, is much smoother; it has the character of the ZF.2 1.4/85 Planar and ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar, but without the spherochromatism, longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberration. There are tiny trace hints of longitudinal CA, but you have to look very hard to find them and shoot bright sources to provoke it. Microcontrast at every aperture is stunningly good – very distinctly Zeiss – and this ability to differentiate between the most subtle of real tonal gradations means that subjects have a very three-dimensional quality, but with accurately rendered ‘bite’ and texture.
What this means is that even the most ham-fisted and photographically untalented reviewer on the internet can instantly see that they’re holding something very, very special. In the hands of a master, this lens is a lethal weapon: it is both utterly transparent and emphatically revealing. What the lens lacks in aberrations and flaws manifests as this clarity and transparency that’s very unique because so few other lenses can do this – the only few that instantly come to mind are the Olympus 75/1.8, Contax 2/45 Planar, Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE, Nikon PCE 85/2.8 Micro and Nikon 200/2 VR, but even the latter is somewhat overshadowed by its extreme bokeh. If there’s any coloration added by the Otus at all, it’s that it adds a tiny bit of pop and sparkle through the way it handles contrast and tonal transitions.
You’ll notice I haven’t said too much about the optical properties of the lens: that’s because there’s nothing much to say. Wide open at f1.4, the lens matches the resolution of the D800E’s sensor, even in the corners. Beyond that, you gain a little more microcontrast and of course depth of field; I think things plateau from around f4-f8, beyond which we start to see the effects of diffraction kicking in on the D800E’s sensor. The lens however delivers as close to theoretically perfect DOF as I’ve seen. I suspect that if we used a larger pixel-pitch camera such as a D4, we’d see consistent results to f16.
Highway overhead. 100% crop here.
The way this remarkable resolution is achieved is through a two-pronged strategy: firstly, making a truly apochromatic design means that all wavelengths of visible light focus on the same point. The lack of smearing means that very fine detail structures can be resolved, which in turn creates the impression of clarity. On top of that, the lens’ focal plane is nearly flat – no eccentric field curvature like the 2/28 Distagon, but a more realistic rendering, too. The optical formula is a 12/10 design with a rear telephoto group to ensure telecentricity of the outgoing ray bundle. The Distagon design is one that’s typically used for wide angle lenses to allow sufficient clearance for the mirror; ‘normal’ 50mm-e lenses use more symmetric double-Gauss (‘Planar’) style designs for simplicity. It’s also one of the reasons good wides cost so much more, and reasonably good fast 50/1.8 lenses can be had for very little money. I was told by the people at Zeiss that the Otus is in fact derived from a medium format lens design – the already excellent 4/50 CF FLE, which has a 9/8 formula – with additional corrective elements. Its image circle is in fact much larger than 35mm, hence the behemoth 77mm front thread.
Moon and clouds, shot handheld at f2. 100% crop here: this is a normal FOV lens that’s resolving craters on the moon.
The Otus’ bokeh puts it amongst the best lenses I’ve seen, of any focal length, period. There is simply nothing offensive about it other than the occasional polygonal diffusion of sources if the lens is used stopped down (it has a 9-bladed diaphragm, but for some odd reason it isn’t perfectly round when stopped down), and with very bright lights. It’s generally a smooth wall with no bright edges, and a gradual transition between zones.
Flare performance is pretty impressive, too: point light sources leave no ghosts, there’s no resultant veiling flare, and I can’t see any coma, either. Even with a source hitting the front element obliquely and slightly out of frame, there’s almost no visible lowering of contrast. I have to take the hood off and position the light source very deliberately before seeing even the smallest hints of flare. I’m told this is because of the way the sides and edges of the lens elements are coated: not only is the T* coating applied to the main incident surfaces, but over 100 different types of lacquer are applied to the edges of the glass to absorb any stray light.
To be continued shortly in part II.
The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is available in Nikon and Canon mounts here from B&H.
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