Lens review: The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon, part II

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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.

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Lens review: The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon, part I

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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.

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Lens review: The Olympus ZD 12/2

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Although this lens is not new – in fact, it was announced back in 2011 with the second-generation E-P3, E-PL3 and E-PM1 (full review here) – it still remains ostensibly the best fast wide option for Micro Four Thirds users. (It was also recently re-released as a limited edition all-black version, which now includes the lens hood as part of the kit.) In fact, there’s been remarkably little competition in this arena – just a manual focus offering or two from SLR Magic, and the upcoming (and stratospherically priced) Schneider 14/2.0. Panasonic has the 7-14/4, and the 14/2.5; the latter which is perhaps the 12/2’s closest competition.

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My initial experience with this lens and its optics on the E-P3 and E-PM1 were enough to convince me that Micro Four Thirds had come of age, and would make a worthwhile compact system without major compromises for the majority of situations in which I’d want to use a compact system camera. This impression held, wavered, and changed again – to be honest, until the last Tokyo workshop, I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to use the 12/2 on the OM-D (full review here) for a serious evaluation. The last time I used the lens on the OM-D was also the first time I’d taken out the camera for a serious bout of shooting, and definitely wasn’t a good way to benchmark performance of either camera or lens – simply too many variables and unknowns were in play here.

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Spiral. E-PM1, ZD 12/2

The lens is one of the Olympus Super High Grade line, impeccably built and finished with all-metal construction, and one unique feature (for a Micro Four Thirds Lens) – the focusing ring clutch. Sliding the focusing ring backwards a notch puts the lens in manual focus mode, and also reveals a focus distance scale: unlike every other lens in the system, the 12/2 has hard stops at each end of the range. Together with the depth of field scales, the lens should theoretically be the ideal tool for street photography – fast, wide, zone-focusable, and with more depth of field for a given aperture and field of view than its 35mm equivalent.

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In AF mode (left) and scale-focus MF mode (right)

Except, this isn’t quite the case. Sadly, the clutched focus system isn’t really mechanically linked to the position of the lens elements; it too is a fly-by-wire simulation – albeit a very good one, with the right amount of tactile feedback and everything. The problem is to do with the resolution of the distance scale/ mechanism: there aren’t enough divisions.

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Reflections, Tokyo. OM-D, ZD 12/2 from a moving train

It seems that there are perhaps five or six discrete distances to which the focusing group moves, instead of a continuum. The only thing that could cause this is if Olympus used a form of rheostat in the construction of the the focusing ring/ clutch. Although 12mm is a very wide actual focal length with plenty of depth of field for a given aperture, f2 is fast enough that more critical control over your focus point is required. Sadly, though the idea of the ring is a good one, the execution makes it of marginal utility for the photographer in the real world – unless you are willing to use a small aperture – f4-5.6 or smaller – to use depth of field to cover the lack of manual focus precision.

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Diagonals, Shibuya. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Curiously, this is most definitely not the case for either manual focus with the ring in the AF position (i.e. selecting manual focus on the camera body) or when using autofocus. Here, the lens is precise, moves in as many infinitesimally incremental steps as one could desire, and has no trouble finding critical focus. While on the subject of focusing, it’s probably a good time to talk about autofocus performance. Like all of Olympus’ other MSC designs, the 12/2 is an extremely snappy lens – even more so on any of the recent bodies. I haven’t experienced any gross focus misses, but it’s worth noting that some care is required at f2 – the plane of focus isn’t quite as deep as you’d think.

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Taxi rush, Shinjuku. OM-D, ZD 12/2

The lens is not weather sealed or gasketed, and once again, Olympus has decided not to include a hood – this is excusable for a $250 economy kit item, but not on a $800 premium lens. It just smells too much like penny pinching. Perhaps it’s just as well, because the optional hood is rather cumbersome; it increases the bulk and visual size of the lens hugely, requires a thumb screw to attach, can rotate freely and requires a different cap – why can’t they just use a bayonet hood? Zeiss lenses are a great example of how bayonet hood mounts should be constructed.

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Shadows, Otemachi. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Over a good year of use with this lens on the E-PM1 and OM-D, those are my only two complaints: the inaccuracy of the pseudo-manual focus clutch, and the continued minor farce of the lens hood. If you read this carefully, it means that I don’t have any major criticisms of the optics.

The 12/2 uses a rather exotic optical design with 11 elements in 8 groups; one of these is aspherical, one is made of ED glass, and another two of exotic Super HR and DSA glasses. It’s a non-symmetric, telecentric design whose optical formula honestly doesn’t look familiar to me – the closest thing I can think of are the Zeiss Distagons, insofar as they use several extremely dome convex front elements and a rear telephoto group. The lens also employs Olympus’ ZERO coating to minimize flare and maximize contrast and transmission.

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The overhang. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Let’s get the most popular question out of the way first: yes, it’s sharp. Bitingly so, at all apertures, across the entire frame in all but the most extreme corners. There appears to be a small amount of field curvature, but nothing overly serious; enough that for optimal sharpness you’ll want to move the focus point over your subject rather than using center-focus-and-recompose, though. The lens has a slightly odd MTF chart that is indicative of a significant dropoff in microcontrast about halfway to the edges; I don’t see this in practical use, which suggests that the field curvature is probably responsible – and more complex than a merely spherical surface. In the real world: sharpness will not be an issue.

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Fuji TV building, Odaiba. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Though some of you might think that a little nice bokeh might be obtainable from the 12/2, you’d be mistaken; you have to be very close indeed to throw anything significantly out of focus. Fortunately, the lens focuses down to 0.2m, so this is actually possible. If you have enough distance between subject and background, then bokeh is actually fairly pleasant; however, if there isn’t a lot of distance, and the subject is a bit farther away from the camera, nothing really gets out of focus enough to begin with – in fact, you have to be a bit careful of double images in the out of focus areas. There’s a bit of spherochromatism, too.

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Star. OM-D, ZD 12/2

Although the lens in general well corrected, you do get the feeling that it’s on the extreme edges of what was possible with the design constraints put upon the optical designers: there’s visible CA against high contrast subjects, especially in the corners where you can get up to 2 pixels’ worth; there’s also very noticeable distortion. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple in nature – barrel with no sombrero/ moustache – and is easily correctable in ACR. Flare exists but the ZERO coating does a good job of keeping it to a minimum – even without the hood. Stopping down to f4 on the OM-D makes everything but the distortion go away, leaving you with an excellent optic. It doesn’t quite have the transparency of the 75/1.8 or 60/2.8 Macro, but it’s fairly close if used stopped down. It is definitely the best wide option for M4/3 users at the moment. One interesting use of the lens is for handheld long exposure photography – due to the short focal length and excellent stabilizer in the OM-D, shutter speeds of anywhere down to 1/2s (consistently) or 1s (occasionally) with critically sharp results are possible, making for some interesting photographic opportunities.

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Commuters. OM-D, 12/2

As always, I suppose the litmus test for a lens is if you’d buy it a second time – I think the answer for me would be a qualified yes. I have since had the chance to shoot with the Panasonic 14/2.5; thought I prefer the 28mm field of view over 24mm, and believe that M4/3 lenses should be a compact as possible to play to the other strengths of the system, I would still pick the 12/2 as the optics are better – they simply render in a more three-dimensional way due to better microcontrast, as well as better edge sharpness. Interestingly, the Panasonic 12-35/2.8 runs it very close at f2.8; however, the T stop of that lens is about 1/3-1/2 stop slower too, for a given physical aperture. What qualifies my opinion is the upcoming Schneider 14/2; it remains to be seen if it performs as well as its price suggests it should. In the meantime, the best way to judge the 12/2 is on its pictorial results – construction, expensive accessories and the imprecise focus clutch are just distractions. And on that basis alone, I think the lens deserves a place in a serious M4/3 shooter’s bag. MT

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 12/2 is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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Lens review: The Voigtlander Color-Skopar 28/2.8 AI-P SLII

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The small, light Nikon D600 got me thinking about full frame as a viable alternative for a lightweight travel kit again – the D700 and f1.4 primes was smaller than a D3 and pro zooms, but certainly nowhere near as convenient as Micro Four Thirds. Of course, M4/3 doesn’t give you anywhere near the same control over depth of field, and you lose out at least a stop or more in high ISO performance. The OM-D might give you back a couple of stops of hand-holdability thanks to its excellent stabilizer, but there’s nothing you can do about depth of field control short of using the manual focus Voigtlander f0.95 lenses – they certainly fit the bill, but they’re also large, heavy and somewhat defeat the point of a small, light body.

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Shadows

This is where the pancake primes and full frame come in: a D600 body and two primes make for a very light but also very competent travel kit. And if you shoot film, it makes even more sense. (And naturally, being a 28mm lens, I was curious to try it out.) The 28/2.8 has ridden shotgun in my waist pouch when I go out with the F2T and 58/1.2 Noct; sometimes you just need something wider, and it’s a handy option to have without paying too high a weight/ size penalty.

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Untitled

The lens is just 24.5mm long (in Nikon F guise; it’s also available in EF mount, which is slightly larger as it has to accommodate the electronic diaphragm components) and weighs a scant 180g; it actually feels reasonably hefty as the entire lens is metal – probably anodized aluminium – and is very well constructed. It’s actually so short that it’s tricky to mount without turning the focusing or aperture rings, as the only portion of the lens that doesn’t rotate is the tiny 3mm wide section in the middle that holds the depth of field scale and index mark. It would have been great to have a locking button on the aperture ring like the ZF.2 lenses, but I suppose Cosina reserves that function for its more expensive siblings.

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Urban monk

Being an AI-P spec lens, the 28/2.8 has a chip to communicate aperture and distance information to the camera; you set the lens to f22 on a Nikon body and control the aperture using the command dials as normal. It will mount and provide full metering and electronic compatibility on any Nikon body. Focusing is manual, of course; would have been nice if there was a way to AF couple the lens – a built-in motor would probably have been impossible, but screwdriver focus might have been within feasible limits. That said, you always have the built-in rangefinder and in-focus confirmation dot (or beep on Canons) to help with determining focus, and the manual focus action is nicely damped and perfectly weighted – they certainly got the feel right with this lens. Since the lens is relatively slow and wide, it isn’t always easy to judge focus by the viewfinder alone – and Nikon’s modern focusing screens don’t help much, either. Most of the time, I could get achieve focus with the viewfinder alone, but on the edges it helps to use the dot: the lens suffers from moderate field curvature.

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Shifty

The 28/2.8 is a 6-group, 7-element design; Voigtlander does not provide a block diagram or any details about the optical design, but from the way it performs and the fact that it can focus as close as 22cm from the sensor plane – yielding surprisingly high magnification – I suspect that the lens is a retrofocal but non-telecentric design to achieve this. As mentioned earlier, it displays moderate field curvature, some coma at the edges and chromatic aberration until f8 or so. (I tested the lens on the Nikon D600.) There’s also a tiny bit of purple bleeding at high contrast edges.

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Through the looking glass

Sharpness is not a problem: the center is excellent at all apertures, with the border and edges lagging until about f5.6 or so; this is partially due to field curvature, and partially due to coma. Note that if you’re going to use wide apertures with this lens, you will need to use focus assist over the subject – not center focus and recompose. Edge sharpness is not too bad, but the corners never get critically sharp due to radial coma/ smearing; you always feel that things have been ‘stretched out’ a little. No problem; just make sure your subjects are within the central portion of the image circle.

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Umbrellas

Not having a huge number of elements, color rendition and contrast are excellent; images are rendered with a slightly warm hue, high saturation and macrocontrast. Microcontrast still isn’t as fine as the Zeiss lenses, but it’s certainly on par with Nikon’s regular AF offerings. This would be a good lens for low contrast scenes, but care must be taken if you’re shooting around noon in the tropics – you’re going to get things blocking up to black or overexposing if you don’t pay attention to your blinking highlights warning. It makes a rather good lens for black and white work, too.

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The morning after the night before

I consider myself a bit of a 28mm aficionado; perhaps fetishist is a better word. I find that it’s the widest I can go and still maintain a relatively natural look to the images without the usual wideangle geometric distortion; I feel that the focal length also matches my instinctive field of view quite well. This means that in my time I’ve owned and shot with a huge number of 28mm lenses and 28mm equivalents; the two I currently own – the Nikon AFS 28/1.8G and Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon are reviewed on their respective links, too. Aside from that, I’ve also got the Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon for my Leica M9-P, the 28/1.8 equivalent on the RX100, the iPhone 4, and an Olympus 15/8 body cap.

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Texture

So the natural question would be where does the Voigtlander 28/2.8 fit in – both in the grand hierarchy of 28mm lenses, as well as as a tool; I actually think it has a pretty well-defined niche. The Nikon 28/1.8 G is large but light, has autofocus and pretty good optics; the Zeiss 2/28 Distagon has stellar optics and a unique pictorial rendering, but is manual focus and surprisingly heavy for its size. Both have roughly the same maximum aperture and T stop. The Voigtlander is a tiny slip of a lens that’s capable of excellent results in the center, and decent results at the edges – these optical characteristics suggest it would serve as a good documentary lens (there is some distortion of straight lines which rules it out for architecture), but moreover an option where you a) need something light and small, and b) are unlikely to run out of light – though relatively low light work is still possible thanks to the high-ISO abilities of the current batch of full frame cameras. In short: this is a great lightweight travel lens, especially if paired with something a bit longer – perhaps the 40/2 or 45/2.8P. Now, if only somebody would make a decent focusing screen for the D600…MT

A big thank you to Eric Goh at Fotoman Marketing, the Malaysian distributor for Voigtlander lenses for the extended loan of the review sample.

The lens is available here from B&H in Canon and Nikon mounts.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Lens review: The Nikon AF-S 85/1.4 G

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Untitled still life. Nikon D700, AF 85/1.4 D with extension tubes.

Let me start by giving you a bit of my fast 85mm history. I never saw the big deal about this focal length until I went full frame; and even then, not til I got a D700 and the f1.4 D version in late 2009. Up til that point, it was just another forlorn intermediate marking on the barrel of my 70-200 or 70-300mm lenses.

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Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands. Nikon D700, AF 85/1.4 D

After The First Leica Period, I had to find a lens to satisfy my bokeh addiction – it would spiritually replace the Leica 50/1.4 ASPH and Voigtlander 50/1.1; since all of the Nikon mount fast 50s were frankly pretty weak, and after the M8′s 1.3x crop factor, 50mm becomes 75mm, 85mm was the natural choice. I went for the Nikon AF-D 85/1.4 – the screwdriver focus version – and had a love/ hate relationship with it. On one hand, it delivered amazing bokeh, and great sharpness and separation of planes; use it at f2 and smaller apertures for optimal performance.

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Ticketed. Nikon D90, AF 85/1.4 D

But what I didn’t like was that it missed focus frequently owing to the backlash in the focusing system, and often wouldn’t be able to move the elements enough to take care of small changes in distance. And then there was the edge softness, and CA…which was perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in a modern lens design. Wide open, on a high contrast edge, you’d get a good 2-3 pixels PLUS some sort of interesting ‘bloom’ that would span anywhere up to a further 5 pixels – on a 12MP FX body, which is already fairly forgiving of lenses.

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On set. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

Enter the Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar. Not only did it have minimal CA, and somehow deliver 2/3rds of a stop more shutter speed for a given aperture setting (no doubt the T* coating had something to do with the hugely increased T stop) – it also delivered micro contrast and color transmission that was absolutely out of this world. In fact, the ability to reproduce fine structures went far beyond anything that I’d seen from Nikon glass – and I was pleasingly reminded of the 2/28 Distagon I also owned.

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Construction, Putrajaya. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar

There is, of course, one catch: it wasn’t easy to focus. There was definitely some focus shift on stopping down; I solved that problem by shooting it wide open all the time – and with bokeh like that, I can’t think why anybody would want to stop it down in the first place. But more than that, depth of field – as expected – was about the thickness of two sheets of paper. Maybe two and a half, if you had a more distant subject.

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Arches. Perbadanan Putrajaya. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF 1.4/85 Planar


The Nikon AF-S 85mm f1.4 G ED IF N SWM (full name). Image from Nikon USA.

When Nikon released the updated AF-S 85/1.4 G in late 2010, I jumped. I didn’t intend to, but a brief test drive at my dealer purveyor of addictive substances confirmed my worst fears: it was not only on par optically with the Zeiss (at least on the D700), it also focused by itself, and was able to do so with precision, thanks to the AFS motor.

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Left out. Nikon D5100, AFS 85/1.4 G

On the D700, 12MP and 16MP FX bodies, I still think it’s an amazing piece of glass. You get all of the good properties of the Zeiss – high transmission, smooth bokeh, great micro contrast, broad spectral transmission, that 3D look, almost no CA – lateral or longitudinal – but with precise, fast autofocus. It’s also slightly sharper in the edges and corners than the Zeiss was.

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Pipe man, Nikon D5100, AFS 85/1.4 G

There really isn’t a lot to say beyond that it’s a) almost perfect on these bodies and b) eye-wateringly expensive. It was, and still is, my favorite lens for the D700 – fully 7% of all the images on my flickr stream were shot with it (which is amazing when you consider the number of cameras I use, and the number of lenses I’ve got.)

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Rickshaw man, Kathmandu. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

Which is why my subsequent experience with it on the D800 is very, very confusing indeed. It doesn’t focus accurately or quickly; in fact, it tends to hunt more than a little, and doesn’t snap to focus with the certainty of the D700. (Although this could be my body, with it’s AF sensor misalignment and other peculiarities – I’ll report back again once I’ve had a chance to do extensive testing with the replacement D800E). It also isn’t that sharp, even on center. Before you ask, it isn’t an AF fine tune issue – even focusing in live view yields similar ‘best case’ optical results. It gets better – or perhaps worse – there’s also now very visible longitudinal chromatic aberration, something I’ve never seen with this lens on the D700; this color shifting also causes reduction in contrast and visible degradation of sharpness.

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Failure to launch. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

To top everything off, I find that if I calibrate the lens for close distances, then it’s off at infinity. And vice versa. Again – not behavior I’ve ever seen with any other body I’ve used this lens on. To be sure, I tested three samples, and several D800 bodies – they were all the same. I think it’s one of those unfortunate cases where the optical design doesn’t play nice with the new low pass filter or whatever other optical elements happen to be sitting in front of the new sensor.

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No trekking today. Kathmandu. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

If you stop down to f2, most of the oddness goes away. By f2.8, the lens becomes its perfect self again – but we didn’t pay for the extra stop to use it at f2.8; perplexingly, the (optically) much simpler AF-S 85/1.8G (no nano coating, no aspherical elements, no ED glass, no RF or IF even) is perfect at f1.8, and stays that way – the f1.4G needs to stop down to f2.8 to match it. Of course, you do loose about 2/3 stop of transmission between the two lenses, so something has to be said for the value of the fancy coatings and optics in the f1.4G.

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A great lens for ‘sniping cinematic moments’. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

Still. Surprising, no?

It’s a pity, because I really, really wanted to use this lens on the D800 – the sensor’s ability to reproduce very fine tonal gradations and subtle color nuances goes beyond anything else I’ve used; that combined with the 85/1.4 G’s resolving power and optical qualities (seen on the D700 at any rate) would have made a formidable combination for cinematic photography. Alas, it looks like I’m going to either have to buy the 85/1.8G to use on the D800, or stick with the D700/85/1.4G combo for now.

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Stall chefs. Nikon D800, AFS 85/1.4 G

Can I recommend the lens? For D800 users, honestly, no. You’re better served by the 85/1.8G; use the balance of funds for other glass, or buy one of my prints with some of the money you’ve saved (shameless plug). It simply lacks the crispness I’ve seen with other bodies. For D700, D3, D3s and DX users: absolutely yes, it’s a stunning piece of glass, and has become my go-to lens together with the 24/1.4. I don’t know why it isn’t the case on the D800 since it has similar pixel density to the D7000, with which the lens does an excellent job – but it just isn’t. Now, what might be an interesting combination is D800 + Zeiss 1.4/85 Planar; I’d rather not find out in case I have to buy something. Having three 85mm lenses would be utterly ridiculous, wouldn’t it? :) MT

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Kathmandu. Not just a portrait lens; it’s great for reproducing the fine detail in landscapes, too. Nikon D700, AFS 85/1.4 G

The Nikon AFS 85/1.4 G is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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