Continued from Part One
Clearly, no expense was spared in the making of this lens. Unfortunately, this is also reflected in the price and size: a rather steep US$4,000, and a kerb weight (it actually sometimes feels like you’re aiming a tracked weapon) of around a kilo. It’s the size of a 24-70/2.8 from any of the big brands, and somewhat fatter, too. What you get for that money – aside from the outstanding optics – is a smooth, curved, all-metal housing and hood that mates flush with the front of the lens; rock-solid build, and quite possibly the best focusing ring I’ve ever used. This is of course very important for a manual focus lens, but it really is something else in terms of feel, feedback and haptics. Throw distance it’s perfect; it has enough resistance to stay put, but turns smoothly and has zero backlash – you can adjust focus with a fingertip. It also has a pleasingly tactile and grippy rubber ring, which is duplicated for the aperture setting ring. The mechanical aperture ring is of course only present on Nikon mount versions, which means that it’s also back-compatible with other mounts via adaptors – though you’d need a pretty darn good adaptor not to interfere with the planarity of the optics. Both Canon and Nikon mount versions have full electronic communication with the camera.
Truck geometry. Note lack of color bleeding, and resolving power that still stays at f16 – way past the D800E’s diffraction limits; there is some loss of microcontrast, but this is still an impressive performance. 100% crop here.
Just because I have waxed lyrical about everything thus far doesn’t mean the Otus is a perfect lens; there are a number of things I don’t like about it (aside from the size, weight and price). Number one is that it’s very, very difficult to nail focus accurately and consistently with today’s DSLR focusing screens; the lack of an appropriate focusing screen really holds this lens back – especially wide open; I’ve got a couple of replacement ones on order. A lack of resolution is almost certainly due to user error. On my F2 Titan and F6 (with Type A screen), focusing is significantly easier than the D800E, and it’s nearly impossible to do it precisely with the D600. The focusing dot is useless too – it stays lit for too much travel of the focusing ring. Zeiss should really think about making a decent focusing screen so people can make the most of their lenses; I bet they’d sell boatloads.
There are a couple of performance issues, but I think only one (noticeable wide open vignetting) is the fault of the lens. The other is that I’m seeing some red/purple fringing overruns of a pixel or so on very high contrast areas – specifically in focus and very overexposed hard edged highlights. I’m told that the focal plane is so thin that what we’re seeing is a bit of residual second order CA; in practice, it disappears if we meter for the highlights, or stop down a little. To put things into context: my Noct-Nikkor (and 2/50 Macro-Planar) both do the same thing at f2, but with several pixels worth. It’s effectively not very noticeable in practice.
However, it is worth taking some time to consider an accurate definition of what the ‘APO’ designation actually means from a lens design standpoint. I quote Dr. Nasse at Zeiss:
The word ‘apochromatic’ has been originally used for the first time by Prof. Ernst Abbe related to his new type of microscope lenses which were much improved with respect to chromatic correction and appeared on the market during the 1880’s. He defined that lenses should match two conditions to be called Apo:
- Have three identical focus positions for three colors within the visible spectrum, or in more mathematical terms, the longitudinal chromatic aberration curve should have three zero crossings in the visible spectrum. From this follows, that then between these special points the focus deviation can only be small, resulting in a very soft secondary spectrum, so just small fringing occurs.
- In addition the spherical correction should be corrected for two colors within the visible spectrum instead of one in ordinary lenses. This means that condition 1) is not sufficient (especially in high speed lenses like the microscope lens with f/0.5 and more); not only the focus position is important but also the focus quality. In ordinary lenses also in the best focus e.g. of blue light the image is less sharp than for green or yellow light.
This definition is in the literature and in the minds of many people. However, condition 1) is nearly never fulfilled in photographic lenses. The basic reason is that they have much larger field angles than microscope lenses. In most photographic Apo-lenses the LCA curve is much more flat, but has just two coincident focus positions in the visible spectrum. Thus when one moves into the IR-range the focus deviation will increase so that a focus correction is necessary with a fast lens. Low chromatic aberrations with visible light do not mean that focus is constant also for extremely distant ‘color’. Zero dispersion exists with mirrors only.
The finish is my other bugbear: though it looks fantastic, like the regular ZF.2 lenses, it’s far too easily dinged and scratched, and impossible to keep clean. The front of the lens and front of the hood really needs a rubber bumper to stop it from getting nicked. I’ve taped up these high-risk edges with electrical tape so I can put the camera down without fear. The rubber focusing and aperture rings concern me in the long term: though they feel great, I have no idea how durable they’re going to be. Mine already shows some scuff marks from where it rubbed against other things in my bag – the camera strap’s hardware, for instance. I suspect you’re going to be able to tell how much a second hand Otus was used by the state of its rubber rings (if you find a second hand one at all, that is). The fluorescent yellow markings (all engraved and filled, including the hood) are a personal preference – I like them, but I know many who do not. Visibility under all light conditions is excellent. I’d really like to see weather sealing, though; especially around the little cutout where the distance and depth of field scales show: I’m really quite afraid that water is going to get in through what appears to be an open hole. It seems a shame that the lens is so ridiculously overbuilt on one hand, but a little vulnerable on another. And I’d like to use it under the same conditions which my camera would survive, of course.
The price and specifications of the Otus draw natural comparisons to its nearest rivals: the new Nikon AFS 58/1.4 G, and perhaps also the classic AI-S 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor. The Leica 2/50 APO-Summicron-M ASPH is also mentioned, but it’s a stop slower, only available in a different mount, and nearly twice the price. I’ve shot extensively with the latter two lenses, and tested several samples of the 58/1.4; the Otus is still the best of the bunch. It doesn’t have the flare problem of the APO-Summicron, and focuses closer. I’m sure somebody will have tested both the APO-Summicron and Otus on a Sony A7r body and come to the wrong conclusion due to irregular adaptors; they’re designed for very different uses, which I feel makes it an unfair comparison.
The 58/1.4 G is not very sharp wide open – it suffers from some coma and flare – and never really gets perfect in the corners; I think the AFS 50/1.8 is actually slightly sharper. Both lenses lack the microcontrast and bite of the Otus; they also suffer from both lateral and longitudinal CA until stopped down. The Noct-Nikkor is spectacular past f2.8, excellent at f2, and merely good in the center at f1.2 (and a disaster in the corners). It was a remarkable achievement for the day, and still has a very pleasing painterly rendering quality, but it is no match for the Otus, even at its optimum aperture it never quite delivers the same level of microcontrast. I believe the new 58/1.4 G was designed to deliver similar pictorial qualities to the Noct-Nikkor; and in that it succeeds. Both 58s would make excellent portrait lenses, but I’d be very, very careful whom I turn the Otus on. I don’t have enough experience to say for certain, but the look and rendering style of the Otus is as close as you’re going to get to the look of the Zeiss Master Primes used in cinema – right down to the lack of any visible focus breathing. This is not a coincidence: the same team who designed those Master Primes also designed the Otus.
This has turned into the longest lens review I’ve ever written; so long I had to break it up into two parts to make it readable. It wasn’t by design; there’s simply been a lot to say. The Otus is a benchmark lens in many ways: it is really the first lens designed from scratch to make the most of the D800E’s sensor at any aperture and thus extend the creative envelope; the next lens in the line will be a 1.4/85, with a wide and possibly macro to follow soon after. I am personally hoping for a 21mm tilt shift or 1.4/28, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen. At any rate, the current ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon is an excellent performer on the D800E, if not quite up to the standards of the Otus. It is a lens that is currently without peer for many reasons, and in many ways. I can only hope that a substantial portion of the price goes towards quality control; other brands are capable of outstanding designs, but sample variation kills resolution in practice. However, the consistency of responses amongst those who have tested and seriously put the Otus through its paces makes me think that this is not the case with Zeiss, and my personal experience with 20+ lenses in different mounts and of different vintages further supports this.
Did you know this building has a fine tile facade? Neither did I, until I examined the file at 100% – see here. Yes, it has such high resolving power that it will induce moire. This is about as bad as it gets, actually; I haven’t done anything to correct it.
I think it’s pretty obvious that I really, really love this lens; not just because its resolving power enables me to step up a level in my fine art printmaking, but because of the transparency in the way it renders. It really is quite possibly the best lens I have ever used, for any format. Comparing the three days of intensive shooting in Taipei to excursions with previous equipment, I’ve never quite produced as many images that I’ve felt really captured what I saw; I don’t know if it’s the lens closing that gap or something else, but I feel that level of clarity over other lenses is definitely noticeable on-screen, and really jumps out at you in a large print.
If you have the means and opportunity to own one, do it. Learning the shot discipline to extract its full potential can come later. Yes, it’s not a cheap lens, but then again, when you compare it to its nearest competition performance-wise – the Leica 50/2 APO ($7,350) and to a lesser extent, the Leica 50/1.4 ASPH ($4,000) – it’s actually not that bad. No other brand has anything that comes close, especially on the 36MP+ cameras; that said, you really do need to have outstanding shot discipline, good eyesight and a D800E or better to appreciate the full difference. But if you do, I think you’ll find it’s so outstandingly good that you too will feel a small pang of disappointment when you have to use anything else. I am fairly confident that it will be remembered as being a modern legend. Who’d have thought I’d fall in love with a normal-angle lens? MT
The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is available in Nikon and Canon mounts here from B&H.
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