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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Insert gratuitous lens p*** here.

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.

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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!

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Balances reasonably well on a D800E body, but still definitely front heavy. Similar to a 24-70, actually.

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.

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Only the clouds are truly free. Taipei. This image will be available in a limited edition print run to be announced in the next couple of days – stay tuned.

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.

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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.

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Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and moon, Taipei

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.

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A tribute to the late Saul Leiter.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Taipei 101: Verticality IV

The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is available in Nikon and Canon mounts here from B&H.


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  1. Found your site just recently. It’s a treasure trove of information. Top notch reviews. Thanks.

  2. Hi Ming, thanks for your reviews – a great source of information! I am wondering how the Otus compares to the Noct-Nikkor 58 mm 1.2 AIS lens? Obviously the Otus has much less field curvature and may be sharper too (at least in the image corners) but the sheer size of the Otus makes me feel a bit reluctant to use it, whereas the Noct-Nikkor is considerable smaller for street shooting and apparantly should deliver images with a great feel to them as well as possibly a narrower depth of field due to its max. aperture of 1.2? I can see you have shot both lenses and so how do you compare them to one another?

    • You get used to it after a while. Take the hood off and it’s not that bad. The Noct is a lens you use for its signature, or for portraits because it’s more flattering on human subjects. The Otus is a transparent lens that simply transmits whatever is in front of it. Personally, I prefer the Otus because I work stopped down most of the time, and you see little of the Noct signature at that point. DOF between 1.2 and 1.4 isn’t that different. The way a lens renders the OOF areas is more important – subjective transitions for the Otus are a lot better defined, so it appears to be just as ‘fast’ as the Noct.

  3. Hmm… another interesting comparison will be between Leica S with 70mm and Nikon D800e with Otus 🙂 But that’s just me 🙂

  4. Always love your casual writing style. Some day I’ll unload my Outline Methodology for you. But for now. THANKS for the review!
    As an old time Hassy user, Zeiss does rock in this niche! But on to the question at hand. If the Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is that good on a FF Nikon ( my brand) then it should be killer mounted on a DX/APS-C or even GH4 with a Speedbooster right? Just thinking of migrating away from FF due to a stronger predilection towards Video. I’d hate to drop 3Grand on a lens that sucks when adapted down- but I can see the opposite happening thanks to Crop factor.
    Your take?

    • I’ve actually tried it on a speedbooster and E-M1 – the results were disappointing. The naked lens is so good that there are small optical flaws of the speedbooster itself (or the combination) that become very obvious. Not recommended.

  5. Ming, as usual, your insight is the best. But in my examination of the bokeh shape of out of focus lights, I do not see perfect round circles. Instead, I see circles that are pulled into a leaf shape with a point at each end. Especially, the 135mm Zeiss APO. Do you know why Zeiss lens do this?

    • It’s a physical limitation of the lens where the edge shades the iris opening. All longer lenses will do this to some extent unless the aperture is very, very far forward in the optical design (which it will never be, because it will need to be too physically large to be practical).

  6. HUI WANG says:

    Nice review Ming as you always do so. Do you finally receive the screens of Focusingscreen.com? If so, how it fits? I’m asking because the main concern to me of buying a Otus is focusing. I know a split or micro prim screen will help, without which focus is dificult to nail as you mentioned, but then another question of focusing & composition come out. With a split/micro prism screen, you can only focus through the center, sure we can do recomposition buy moving the camera but no matter how little movement we do we shift the focal plane and the focus shift too, that sounds no worth buying a Otus at it’s price. Is there anyway we can do so we can get the focus right to fit the value (not only on terms of money but also the quality) of this lens? Thanks in advance for your response.

    • It is a challenging lens to extract the maximum potential from, this is for sure.

      I did get my focusing screens in the end. They are well made, installation is okay but the thickness isn’t perfect, so a lot of fiddling is required to get mirror alignment perfect; this is not simple or for the beginner as it involves some disassembly of the camera or a set of shims.

      • Zeiss put some advise on their site about the focusing with manual lens, they mentioned the importance of screen with focusing aid and the alignment too. What concerns me is: although getting the focusing aid screen and the perfect alignment, we still have to reframe the shot after focusing in most situation because the aid is only in the center, and the focus shift when we do so; if we don’t change the screen it’s dificult to achieve focus with modern DSLRs, dilemma right?. I think the image quality is all the lens means and lives, and there is no quality to talk about without a critical focus. Yes, it’s not a everyone’s lens, and not a every-situation’s lens. Let’s see how the new Sigma 50mm 1.4 will do.

        • You’re right; it’s more difficult than autofocus – in theory – except it seems most modern autofocus systems aren’t accurate enough to nail critical focus with a very fast lens on the D800E consistently anyway. My hit rate with AF on such lenses is no better than manual focus.

          • HUI WANG says:

            Yes, Ming, we know the AF is no better than manual lenses, except the convenience for the “lazy” side of us. But that’s the point, for this particular lens the focusing is a big problem to concern, why Zeiss has put a lot to make a lens that in most condiciones and by most of us couldn’t resolve it’s full potencial, maybe in a studio with extremly well controled conddition it would. I’ve been track this lens since there were rumor on it, even that I’ve bought the FocusingSreen’s product for my D800, but I think I should stop now and think more carefully before the waste of 4000$, even I’m doubting if it’s worth buying the 135/2.

            • plevyadophy says:

              Zeiss strike me as a company that listens.

              So maybe if enough of you who are considering this lens write a joint letter to Zeiss, they may make or commission someone to make a new type of focusing screen, one that perhaps has three split screens/mirco-prism running along the centre of the focusing screen allowing users to focus to the left, middle,or right of a scene without doing that old-fashioned and flawed focus-and-recompoase technique which leads to non-optimal focus.

              In fact it beats me why such a focus screen has never been made,well I have never seen one (and I have looked for it).


              • What strikes me is that camera manufacturers don’t innovate or spend anymore on the optics. The only innovations are in electronics such as focus peaking and EVFs. but I dislike composing and making an image looking at an lcd screen where the image is already processed and altered, you can tell me that EVFs have come a long way but I’ve tried almost everything on the maket these days and I still can’t stand looking at a EVF or any king of screen to capture a still image. Still, my old trusty F2 viewfinder is wayyyy better than the one on the new Nikon Df which is supposed to be the best in all DSLRs!! DSLR makers really have to make something about it now to address this flaw or they will disappear!

                • I agree, and when I said that, I got criticised by all the fanboys – very disappointingly, including some notable and supposedly knowledgeable ones who had shot with the earlier film cameras. I guess they get blinded by the marketing payments and corporate kool aid, or perhaps they’re going senile.

              • The early Leica Rs had a focusing screen that was entirely covered in micro prisms.

                There are parallax issues with focusing too far away from the centre; I suppose this could be corrected with offset micro prisms, but I doubt anybody is going to bother with the engineering work.

                That said, I have said to the Zeiss folks many times that they need to make focusing screens to increase adoption of their lenses – the reply has always been ‘we’re seriously looking into it’. But that first started a couple of years ago.

                • plevyadophy says:

                  Hi Ming,

                  That’t VERY interesting what you say about the focusing screen of a Leica R.

                  Do you know how it affected light transmission, did it give an irritating view that obscured the view ahead of you?

                  I can recall only once ever seeing a Leica R up close and personal, and it had the DMR digital module on it too (I saw it at an invitation event for the launch of the Leica S2 and the R belonged to TVO). I can’t even recall if I got to look through the viewfinder.

                  As for Zeiss, they are obviously in tune with the digital age (at the forefront of optics for mobile phones, and now this Otus). So I guess it won’t be hard for them to realise that they really need to sell their lenses not only with a lens hood but with a focusing screen too; they need to think of the focusing screen as an essential part of the lens. Perhaps they hadn’t thought of things that way because they envisaged users using the lens tripod mounted and focusing with magnified live view.

                  • No idea, I’ve never had the chance to try one in person, unfortunately.

                    Tripod mounted and live view makes the most sense since that gives you ultimate image quality. It’s when you’re working on the move that things become tough.

  7. Frank Bosco says:

    Thanks for the excellent review. The images are crisp and Zeiss-like. I will obtain the OTUS (when I can get one!) for use on my F2 and F5. But I must say your Nocti samples are more impressive with those faces and incredible colors. They are thicker and more tactile. I use the Nocti on my M3 and I want something close to that quality for my F2 and F5. The OTUS is the one! My only issue is that I can’t seem to find out where it is made?

    • At web size, everything looks the same. The Otus is *significantly* better in the corners and doesn’t suffer from CA, lateral or longitudinal. Complicating thins is the fact that I’ve changed my style and processing between the noctilux review and this one. It’s also about a third of the price.

      The Otus is made in Japan.

      • Frank Bosco says:

        Ming….thanks for the quick reply. I am surprised about the location of manufacture. Just as Nikon makes their best lenses in Japan, I assumed that Zeiss would make their best lenses themselves in Germany. If it had to be a few hundred bucks more, it wouldn’t have mattered to me that much but all my Zeiss lenses (admittedly older MF types) and binoculars are made in Germany…..this is a bit of a monkey wrench….but thanks again for the answer.

        • Frank, I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s snobbery to think that a lens made by Zeiss in Germany would be better than the same design of lens made in Japan. I don’t think it should worry you that the Otus is made in Japan, as are all the ZF.2 and ZE SLR lenses made for Zeiss by Cosina. Zeiss has a German QC technician checking every lens made in the factory. Zeiss tests the mechanics and runs an MTF check on every lens to make sure its up to spec.

          I have several ZF.2 lenses. They are built like tanks. I would say they are mechanically superior to both AIs series Nikkors and Leica M series lenses. Optically my ZF.2 Zeiss lenses range from very good (35mm/2 and 28mm/2) to superb (100mm/2 Makro) to nearly faultless (25mm/2 and 135mm/2). However, this variation is more a function of lens design than of QC, the newer ZF.2 designs like the 25mm/2 Distagon and 135mm Apo Sonnar are just better corrected than their earlier ones. The Otus series is supposed to be designed and made to a higher standard than the previous Cosina built Zeiss lenses, and I’m sure Zeiss will make sure every Otus is held to that standard.

          Also, many of the current Zeiss binocular lines are not made in Germany now, but still receive good reviews.

          • Frank Bosco says:

            Steve, thanks for the info. Especially about the 100% MTF check..and I do not take your comment as being rude at all….I know it sounds like snobbery but I don’t mean it that way. I have nothing but respect for Japanese made lenses. I have 35 Pentax lenses and 16 Nikkors, all of which proudly display “made in Japan” and all of which I use and love. Conversely I have zero Pentax or Nikon lenses made anywhere else. So a picture of my psyche is perhaps beginning to emerge.
            So…eccentricity? oddness? maybe yes (all of my camera buds think so!). Snobbery? I hope not.
            I still intend to obtain a 55mm OTUS when they become available. A “normal” lens in a Distagon configuration is just too cool to pass up. 🙂

            • Hi Frank, I hope you enjoy it. I’m sure it will be beyond great. I probably won’t get the 55mm/1.4 Otus, because I tend not to use normal lenses much, and not enough to spend so much one one. I may go for the 50mm/2 Makro Planar or the 60mm/2G AFS Micro Nikkor at some point for photographing 2D artwork and my old color negative prints. The 100mm Makro Planar is a bit too long for this, sometimes requiring the camera to be all the way across the room from a big print to capture a whole image.

              Some of my best work from 2008 to recently was shot with a Pentax 645nII and their medium format lenses. The Pentax 645 55/2.8 and 150mm/2.8 are my favorites (and with an adapter, not too bad on the D800E either).

              • I think that’s the right choice for your needs – the macros are better optimized for near field work. That said, the Otus is pretty impressive considering it was never meant to be a macro lens…

                • Hi Ming, Have you by any chance compared the 60mm/2.8G Micro-Nikkor to the 50mm/2 Zeiss Makro Planar? I have read that the Zeiss isn’t a flat field lens (which is odd for a macro), but I wonder if it’s good for flat objects stopped down to say f/5.6, or is the 60mm Nikkor might be better for copy work?

                  • Not scientifically, but in my experience both are fine – by the time you stop down to f5.6+ field flatness isn’t at all an issue. The bigger deciding factors are a) whether 1:2 is sufficient b) how much working distance you need and c) if the very reflective front ring of the Zeiss is going to be an issue.

              • Frank Bosco says:

                Steve, I have always been attracted to the 645 and the 6×7 . But I have a complete set of the original pentax 35mm bayonet mount lenses from 1975 in single focal length with auto diaphragms. It took me 12 years and lots of searching to get them all. Some are so rare that I despaired of ever finding them but they all eventually showed up. http://www.pbase.com/boscodamus/image/122840511/large So with that investment in time, effort and money, I have to use them! I couldn’t justify the MF stuff….maybe someday! 🙂
                I’m sure your work with MF was great. Pentax optics have a super solid look about them even if they don’t score high on the charts.

                • Pentax MF gear is getting ever less expensive on the used market, with some exceptions, like the late long telephotos. Prices peaked after the 645D came out, but tanked when the Nikon D800E became available with comparable resolution to the 645D. Ricoh Pentax Co. would be well advised to come out with a higher resolution, larger sensor successor to the 645D, and some more new lens designs.

                  • Frank Bosco says:

                    Actually at slightly more than half the pixel density of the D800E, the D645 should handily trump the Nikon’s image quality all things being equal. Perhaps they are not so the Nikon is equal or better. My interest in digital is now about zero so I could care less what any of them do with their camera bodies and sensors. I haven’t seen any digital images yet including my own that equals what I get with film. When I do, I’ll switch…I’m not holding my breath… 🙂
                    But lenses are forever.

                    • Unfortunately, all things aren’t equal, and the smaller sensors benefit from more development dollars, which means the additional generation of tech often makes up the difference.

        • Not necessarily. European manufacture means significantly higher costs – look at how much Leica charges; their QC isn’t any better either; in fact, it’s worse…

          • Alan Gordon says:

            Ming, love the review and insights! Any thoughts on how the Otus may pair with the Sony A7R? Any compatability issues as long as I use a top quality adapter, or would you you stay with the native Zeiss Sonnar T FE 55mm F 1.8 ZA, that has auto focusing and at least on a technical basis has very similar great marks from DLO measurements? Just trying to decide if the Otus is worth the price difference. Love portrait work, travel landscapes and the ability to make large prints for gallery.

  8. Other properties aside – in terms of pure resolution, a Sigma DP2M or SD1 with a 35 f1.4 (properly calibrated) will achieve the same comparative sharpness for a much smaller investment.

    • No, it won’t. Not at f1.4 in the corners with zero CA, that level of spectral transmission and clarity. I’ve used the 35/1.4 and it isn’t remotely close. The Otus isn’t for everybody; I wouldn’t suggest wasting your time and money if you can’t see the difference – it certainly is NOT apparent from web size samples, but it’s very obvious in the extensive print testing I’ve been doing.

  9. Nikon 50mm 1.4 D shoots in challenging conditions of only available light because it is fast enough for nearly any sort of light. Its the hero for low light photography with its wide aperture and the desired 50mm look. i just love it.
    Making good photographs is the job of the person behind the camera-lens system and not the responsibility of the equipment, which are merely the means to the cause.But having a good equipment at your disposal is a blessing .

    Reference : http://pixelarge.com/nikon-af-nikkor-50mm-f1-4d/

  10. Although now it has been replaced with the newer Nikon AF 50 mm f/1.4 G AF-S but one must know that this lens held its top position for over a decade and is still a more desired and cheaper alternative to the newer model which is just marginally ahead in terms of performance. If the price for even the second hand version of this lens feels like a budget spoiler to you then i would recommend the cheapest yet one of the sharpest and well performing Nikon 50mm f/1.8 D for you. And trust me it not more than a feet behind in the race for image quality.

    Making good photographs is the job of the person behind the camera-lens system and not the responsibility of the equipment, which are merely the means to the cause.But having a good equipment at your disposal is a blessing .

    more more info do check out http://pixelarge.com/nikon-af-nikkor-50mm-f1-4d/

    • I was not impressed by the 50/1.4G. The 1.8G is better, and neither is close to the Otus.

      Making good photographs is the job of the person behind the camera-lens system and not the responsibility of the equipment, which are merely the means to the cause.But having a good equipment at your disposal is a blessing .

      Um, if you read any of my non-review articles (and that’s most of them) you’ll find that’s what I always say. And I have the results to prove it.

  11. Ricardo Rullán says:

    Bokeh of summilux compared to otus. …

  12. Ricardo Rullán says:

    Hi Ming! What’s about of this lens specifically compared with summilux 50 1.4?.. thanks you!

    • The Zeiss is better in every way. The Summilux has some noticeable lateral CA wide open, and sharpness falls off away from the center until f2-2.8 and beyond. In addition, it only focuses to 0.7m and we have no idea how it performs on a 36MP body with offset microlenses (the A7R does not count because it lacks this). The Otus is sharp everywhere, even into the corners, at f1.4, on 36MP. In any case, it’s not really a relevant comparison because there’s no common native mount for both.

  13. I’m having a hard time at loading the pictures on your blog. They appear half loaded, very strange..I can send you a screenshot if you like. It’s really a pity since from the little I have seen you do wonderful pictures!

    • Odd…it might well be a local flickr problem in your area since that’s where all the images are hosted. They work fine here (and I haven’t had any other complaints…)

  14. Ming, I love your site. Thanks for all you do. But I did want to point out what I would technically consider an error in the statement: “firstly, making a truly apochromatic design means that all wavelengths of light focus on the same point.” What an apochromatic design actually means is that three (not “all”) wavelengths focus at the same plane. The amount of focus error at other wavelengths is typically smaller, but not non-existent.

    • The three wavelengths are at the extremes and center of the visible spectrum – which means that for all intents and purposes, the intermediate ones should also focus on the same point. I’ve amended that sentence to include ‘visible’.

    • Not all Apo designs are the same in practice, from what I’ve read. Different manufactures set different standards for what Apochromatic means, so what you state is the simplest, most general definition only. In the real world some Apo designs result highly corrected lateral chromatic aberration only (Leica seems to use this standard for most of their Apo lenses in the M line), others also highly correct longitudinal chromatic aberration (The Otus 55mm, the Zeiss 135mm/2 Apo Sonnar and the old 100mm/2.8 Leica R mount Makro are examples), and a very few Apo designs correct chromatic aberrations into the UV and IR as well as visible light (the Coastal Optics 60mm/4 macro made in Jena, Germany).

  15. Hi Ming,

    Thanks for the professional review. Based on your opinion, may I say that it’s also wasted for Otus on
    Canon 5DIII? Or it’s fine with 5DIII? Pease advise.

    • I wouldn’t say it’s wasted, but I would say that none of the current Canon bodies have enough resolution to really make use of the Otus’ potential.

      • Ming,

        Thanks a lot for quick reply and your advice is very valuable.

      • Canon really needs to start making some 24MP and 36MP or higher resolution cameras. I’m surprised they haven’t already released something that fits in that range. However, 22MP is not as far off in linear resolution from 24MP as it sounds, and the 5D Mark III has 78% of the D800 series resolution, which would be hard to see in typical print sizes. I suppose to really get the most out of the Otus 55mm, you would want a 72MP or 96MP camera, but those will probably be a few years in coming to market.

        • You’re not going to see the difference on 24MP, either. 36MP is just beginning to show differences, especially in the corners; anything more and you’re going to have consistency of focusing and stability issues unless you’re on a heavy tripod using live view. We’re already long past the point of sufficiency for most – how many people can comfortably handle 36MP raw files, or get perfect pixel sharpness on their subject all the time? I can tell you after looking at files from hundreds of students: very few.

          • Yes, my D800E is very demanding, even with less perfect lenses than the new 55mm/1.4, such as the 135mm/2 Apo Sonnar ZF.2 or the 28mm/1.8 AFS-G Nikkor. I often use a monopod, and sometimes a tripod when doing serous work with the camera to minimize camera shake. So far I have not printed bigger than 13×19,” but I probably will have larger prints done some time and it’s wonderful how detailed the files can be. (I’m working on a series of diptychs and triptychs of old rock quarries and mines of New England now. If you are curious about them see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/steven_keirstead/sets/72157636807551285/).

  16. Allegedly without the usual constraints in designing a photographic lens, in both physical and cost departments, this piece of hefty glass should be deemed a failure were it anything other than the best normal lens for 135 format there is. Having handled the lens in person, I am for one disappointed that it does not have that WANT factor written all over it in the same way as a Noctilux or Apo-Summicron. Although made of metal, it takes after more a Hasselblad H series lens in a darker livery with too fewer marking etched into the barrel rather than a V series or Contax Zeiss lens. It even looks less desirable than the Cosina Zeiss in appearance. Of course, this look thing is highly personal and subjective.

  17. To be fair, if Leica designed a lens with those physical size specifications it would meet or exceed the performance of this lens (though perhaps not at this price point!). This has to be the biggest standard focal length 35mm lens I’ve ever seen…
    Not to take anything away from what Zeiss has achieved here, but obviously with that size, weight, and number of objective, one would expect state of the art performance…

    • That’s a rather strong assumption. Leica designed the S system lenses to this kind of spec – basically, no-holds-barred-performance-first – and look at the size of those things. They’re quite a bit more expensive, too. Until now, I thought they were perhaps the finest lenses ever produced. Yet the Otus still performs better at nearly two stops faster, on a much higher density sensor. I’d offer to do a comparison between say the 50mm-e 70/2.5 S against the D800E and Otus – the Leica should have an advantage since it is much slower – but firstly Leica would never agree to lend me a camera for this, and secondly, if the D800E was already matching the S2’s performance with worse glass – I think it would be a very bad showing indeed for Leica…

      • It’s not big of an assumption at all. I’m just extrapolating what they achieved in less than a third the size/weight/volume.

      • You can’t easily compare the MF and 35mm formats like that, especially for speed. It would be interesting if a Leica decides to up the sensor resolution on a future S. But I agree, as it stands now all the digital MF formats have tough times ahead…

        • In general I agree: size of image circle and all that. However, in this particular case, I can: the Otus image circle covers the S2’s sensor 😉

          Problem with MF digital now is the sensor tech is several generations behind 35mm; simple economies of scale. Even if Leica ups the resolution, there’s nothing stopping Canikon from doing the same – I’ve been hearing many noises about the D4x being somewhere north of 48MP…

          • plevyadophy says:

            And there are noises too about Canon also doing a high pixel count sensor (although the cynic in me says that’s probably a rumour put about by Canon themselves to prevent a mutiny by their envious-of-Nikon-shooters fickle customers).

            And 48Mp seems fairly reasonable …………….. if one starts from the postion that the image quality of microFourThids (mFT) is adequate for high quality output. The reason I say that is because, it’s my understanding, please correct me if I am wrong, that the sensor pixel count of the Olympus OM-D E-M1, if scaled up, is equivalent to about 55Mp on a 135 format sensor (some 7Mp short of what the rumours say for the new Nikon high res sensor).

            As for your comments re medium format sensor technology, therein is the problem for medium format; medium format in the digital age is about POTENTIAL because the results we should see we simply aren’t seeing due to outdated tech and in the mean time even little mFT cams have sensors that can now take enlargements that were once thought the preserve of medium format. And, given that we are discussing rumours, there is a rumour going around that Hasselblad are soon to announce a new sensor which they developed in collaboration with ……………………….. wait for it!!! …………….. go on guess…………………….Sony!!!! Well well well, if this last rumour turns out to be true then maybe, just maybe, digital Medium Format has come of age and is not likely to go the way of the Dodo (on a side note, I have now, as of three weeks ago, a vested interest in wanting Medium Format to survive as I was gifted a new V series cam)

            • It would make sense, though. There’s a gap left by the 1Ds3, and it isn’t really filled by the 1Dx; even the 6D has more pixels. Not a lot more, mind you.

              48MP would be two D7100 sensors side-by-side. And that’s definitely reasonable, and a noticeable step up above 36MP. However, I just don’t see how most people would work it: you’d need very high shutter speeds for handholding, diffraction kicks in around f5.6-f8, and that basically means tilt shifts for extended DOF and superior primes for everything else. Except those superior primes tend to be manual focus, and we all know what modern viewfinders are like…

              I have it on good authority that the Hassy-Sony rumour is not a rumour, but the reason behind the recent repimping of Sony products. Those D800E photosites on a 645 sensor would be very interesting indeed – ~3x the area means around 108MP, with usable high ISOs. As much as I’d like to see one too, I highly doubt we’ll see a new CFV digital back given that Hasselblad recently killed the V series.

    • Leica should give some serious consideration to producing high quality native Canon and Nikon mount lenses for 35mm format DSLRs. I’m sure competition between Zeiss and Leica in this area would be great for photographers. Most Leica AG watchers seem to think this will never happen though. They are too invested in selling lenses for their own cameras exclusively, and Leica might undercut M and S sales by providing such an alternative.

      • Or they would price themselves out of the market. Plenty are making noises at the cost of the Otus, yet you can be sure if Leica produced it, it’d easily be twice the price.

        • Yes, Leica AG is not very good at controlling product cost anymore, not that they have done a good job of that in my lifetime. Even the Summarit M “budget” 35mm and 50mm lenses are much more expensive than faster Zeiss ZM lenses of the same focal lengths (I do like the my Summarit 35mm/2.5 a lot though). I think Leica could only compete with ZF/ZE/Otus lenses if they moved the production completely out of Germany, which would in turn make many Leica snobs refuse to buy such products because they would not be “real Leicas.” I do wonder what products will come out of the big new campus Leica is building in Wetzlar. They have to keep making new products people will want.

  18. The other no compromise 50mm lens is the Leica APO f2 ASPH. It has the attraction of being much smaller than the Otus, if even more expensive. Is the additional bulk of the Otus “worth it”?

    • Not a fair comparison. The Otus is one stop faster and a telecentric design, both of which are significantly harder to achieve. The Leica is symmetric double gauss and relies on the offset microlenses to correct the last bit of telecentricity. Its optics also don’t have to clear an SLR mirror, for all mounts. On top of that, the Leica has a known flare issue; the Otus doesn’t.

  19. Very nice writeup! I got my Otus 55 about a month ago and it’s never come off the D800E (on which in my opinion it balances perfectly). This particular pairing reeks of medium format goodness, and the manual focus is just sheer joy to use. The only thing I’m not enamored with is the lens cap. While vastly improved over the regular Zeiss caps, it’s no match to the new Canon center-pinch style, which I use on my Zeiss lenses. So I have a Nikon body, with a Zeiss lens and a Canon cap. Lovely.

  20. I very much enjoyed your novel review of this breakthrough lens. Looking at your images, and other’s I’ve seen, I’m very impressed by the smoothness of the lens. It seems to handle highlights without getting flustered the way more ordinary lenses do. Colors have a natural, complex, understated quality (though they are bright where they should be bright) that I find so appealing and yes there is also an undeniable conveyance of solidity – what painters of the past called “plastic realization”- in many of the images I’ve seen. I find these aspects of a lens fascinating.

    • I should clarify that the majority of Otus images on the internet are not particularly revelatory, nor are they good photographs, but there is a growing body of evidence, though fragmented, that this lens is really special.

      • I think that’s partially because few reviewers are actually photographers in the true sense of the word, and partially because nobody prints much anymore 😉

        • Oh so true. The fact is full frame and med format are for those who print, low light work and art directors that want to crop and crop. These days even M43 has good noise control at ISO 640 but after saying that I have only recently lost the habit of using a tripod once over ISO 400. I think that’s one of the reasons why I feel most comfortable with TLR’s…

          • “…art directors that want to crop and crop. “

            Sigh, so true. Agreed: M4/3 for almost all uses is frankly fine up to 1600, and in some cases, beyond. But if you’re doing large prints, then you need all the resolution you can get. Tripods for me are more about precision and repeatability of framing (e.g. for macro work or stitching) than long exposures; I honestly don’t do much of that kind of work.

    • Thanks. I suspect highlight handling has much to do with both the dynamic range of the camera as well as the way the lens handles flare and high contrast – the Otus doesn’t seem to flare easily, if at all. Color purity/ transmission are definitely a lens quality: the camera can only record what it’s given.

  21. Hey Ming, Have you tried the 55/1.4 on extension tubes yet? I’m curious how it might do for closeups, though I suspect the 50mm Makro Planar or 60mm Micro Nikkor AFS G are more practical to use via their ergonomic properties.

    • I just did briefly, both out of curiosity and since you suggested it. Results are mixed – at lower magnifications things are fine, but once you put a big extension on – say 36mm and around 1:1.5 magnification – you’re definitely better off using a macro lens. That’s what the 2/50 Makro-Planar is for…the Otus simply isn’t optimized for this range.

      • I suspected as much, on an extension tube the floating elements on a lens won’t be in the right positions to correct aberrations properly. Thanks for answering.

        • I suppose a photographer who did want to do close-ups with this lens might be better off using a Canon 500D diopter on the front of the Otus 55mm/1.4, though the 500D doesn’t always give good results on shorter lenses. But still, that’s not that convenient, and it would be quicker to mount a real macro lens on a camera.

        • That would make sense.

  22. Thanks for the review! Looks great! Seems to me it’s more useful as a lens for a pro photographer who is going to be trekking with some gear. As a tourist taking snaps, a 1 kilo lens is likely to be both heavy and a distraction. Or at least, that’s what I’ll keep telling myself 😉

    I guess I’m wondering if a lens like this can be made smaller. The leica 50mm APO is only f/2, but is much smaller. Do you think it compares in image quality?

    • Depends on your objective.

      As for size: the Leica is a symmetric double-Gauss based design which is non telecentric; there are offset microlenses on the M sensors to correct for this. DSLRs do not have offset microlenses, so the Distagon is a telecentric design with a rear floating element group to straighten out the rays from the exit pupil. That is the main contributor to its size, as is the requirement to build fast and high resolution. The Leica 50 APO flares like crazy with the slightest bit of light on its front element, and it’s a stop slower. Resolution-wise, at f2 they are comparable – but it’s the fact that the Zeiss delivers almost the same at f1.4 and in the corners that’s really impressive. Like all T* coated Zeisses, it also has almost zero flare. It’s also half the price of the Leica…

      • Though the Leica is half the size, which is also impressive in itself when comparing…

        • Again: it is one stop slower…

          • I’m guessing the Zeiss is also even larger than it needed to be if it was to produce a 35mm image circle.

            Cool thanks for your thoughts.

          • I guess I should have mentioned the Summilux ASPH re that comparison. The Otus at this size (superior in many ways if that “nth” degree if it is required/desired) vs. 50 lux ASPH is interesting. One more a documentary type 50mm and the other more inclined towards studio and other specializations…purely based on size and getting the most out of it wide open.

            • The Summilux ASPH is perhaps the best all round Leica 50mm – IF you get a good copy. I’ve been through too many of these to believe that they can make them consistently and accurately to spec – six lenses! Of course, it’s possible that the ‘acceptable’ one was a freak and the others were ‘normal’, but that seems unlikely since the others suffered from decentering or downright mechanical failure. A good copy is not far off the APO Summicron and Otus, but it has visible LCA and LoCA wide open, plus some edge softness. Still, all is well by f2. Interestingly, we have no idea how either the APO Summicron or Summilux ASPH would do on a higher resolution native body – the A7R has no offset microlenses, which seem to be part of Leica’s optical formula these days – it might well be the case that the Otus pulls ahead further. Also worth bearing in mind that the Otus is no more expensive than the Summilux ASPH.

              • Correct but my point is around ergonomics over absolute performance. Much easier to walk for a day, a week or a month photographing in a documentary, travel or street style with the Lux. It is a more practical lens for those purposes.

                • That I cannot argue with. Except a Lux won’t mount on anything >24MP. But it’s also why I’ve asked Zeiss for an outstanding slow normal Otus – perhaps a redesign of the small f2.8 pancake tessars that would serve as a decent walk around lens…

              • plevyadophy says:


                Re: Sony A7r offset mircrolenses

                It is my understanding that the Sony A7r does indeed have offset microlenses along the sensor outer regions; it’s the plain vanilla (and to my mind, the better all-round camera) A7 that does not.


                • You might be right. I know one has them and one doesn’t, just as one has PDAF photosites and the other doesn’t, and one has no AA filter but the other does. Logic would suggest the PDAF one has conventional microlenses, either could do without the AA filter.

                  • plevyadophy says:


                    A7 = on-sensor PDAF, 24Mpix, faster flash sync
                    A7r = offset microlenses, 36Mpix, slow flash sync

                    As for the AA filter, I can’t recall.

                    As for your review, and I have only read this Part I, absolutely wonderful; I think all folks interested/curious about this lens need only read your review and that of Lloyd Chambers (his review,as always, being a LOT more technical/anal, thorough and geeky) and they will learn everything they need to know about tthe lens (and if they really really must, they can go over to DXOMark to read the “numbers”)

                    It’s not a lens I am likely to buy any time soon, if ever, but it is just wonderful to see such beauty exists; it’s a bit like watching National Geographic Channel to see the wonders of the Amazon Jungle even though one’s day-to-day experience of majestic greenery consists of nothing more than a walk in the local park. 🙂


  23. Holy poop, just when I thought I had given up my DSLR habit this and the Nikon Df come along. Please dear Zeiss for gawd’s sake make a 10 or 12mm wide for M43. Come to think about it wasn’t Schneider Kreuznach supposed to have a few M43 lenses out this year? 
    This 55mm looks so good! If it wasn’t for the fact I’m waiting for an M and I have a lot of travel and a move next year I would jump at these new Zeiss lenses. I have always liked Zeiss lenses even to day almost a hundred years on that Tessar lens is still lovely…

    • The Otus is wasted on the Df; 16MP isn’t enough to show what this lens can really do. I honestly think even the D800E pairing is only really beginning to push the envelope; and honestly, the Otus will open up far more possibility than an M 240, so if you like the Zeiss rendering style, you may want to reconsider…

      Yes, Schneider was supposed to have a 14/2 for M4/3 – I was personally very excited about that one as I’m a huge 28mm fan – but they’ve been all silent.

      • The Df dynamic range is impressive did I read greater than the D800e? Then there that Sony supposedly the top sensor at the moment but then there is the M’s simplicity and I already have the lenses. Hmm… I need to get out more, to much vacillation! An excellent appraisal BTW.

  24. Hi Ming
    many thanks for the review, I have been trying to find out more about this lens since it was announced.
    I use two Zeiss lenses at the moment the 15mm and the 135 f2 both are excellent and very impressive.
    The 135 replaced a 100 f2 this year and I have not looked back – when everything comes together the results are stunning.
    Just wondering if you have tried a 135 f2 and how it compares to the Otus in terms of image quality.
    Also can you share any info on the new focussing screen – I have a D800E and would really like to improve this aspect of the camera..
    Keep up the good work, much appreciated, as was the DVD I bought from you.

    • Funny you should ask. I happen to have a 2/135 APO here…I think it is probably the closest of all the current ZF.2 lenses to the Otus in terms of resolution and microcontrast; however, I still think the Otus has something on it in rendering quality. I cannot define it precisely, but it’s something along the lines of how the 2/135’s style is hard/sharp/precise, but the 1.4/55 is refined/smooth/rich/crisp. I know that isn’t very specific, but hope it helps!

      New focusing screen still hasn’t arrived yet unfortunately.

  25. You liked it, then? 🙂 Lovely photos. Maybe it’s all in the mind, but I think your appreciation of the lens comes across in the set; looks like you were enjoying yourself.

    As a prime fan it’s nice to see someone release a no-expenses-spared normal lens, though I wonder how many people will be interested at that price, however good it is–hope the business case stacks up. Be interesting to see what you make of the Nikon 58mm f/1.4 by comparison, if you get a chance to try it…

    Another vote for a Verticality IV print here, too, though I’m sadly not in a position to buy one at the moment; it really jumps out at you from the page (or from the cheap work monitor, in this case :)).

    P.S. Moar workshop videos plz! 😉

    • Perhaps just a little bit. 🙂

      No chance to properly evaluate the 58 unless I buy one; Nikon Malaysia is good at making all sorts of promises and then all sorts of excuses about why they can’t follow through – I’ve given up asking. No intention of buying one since the demos I tried in Japan a couple of weeks ago were pretty soft and ‘glowy’ at f1.4…in fact, they rendered quite similarly to the 50/1.4 AFS, not much like the original 58/1.2 Noct, and nothing at all like the Otus. Not my kind of lens.

      I will think about Verticality IV 🙂

      Workshop videos: coming soon. How To See Ep.2: Tokyo is turning out to be a bit of a monster to cut/ edit/ proof; nearly 3h long!

      • Consensus on the 58mm f/1.4 seems to be that it’s “characterful”; I have a suspicion that means “I’ve dropped $1700 on a lens that is technically little better than the 50mm f/1.8, but I need to find some way of justifying my purchase…” Still, might try one sometime if if I get a chance (the Zeiss would be out of my price range even if I saved up for the Nikon, sadly!).

        3h video: yay for us, not so much for you… 😀

        • That’s pretty much it, I think. The 50/1.8 AFS is actually technically very good; better than the 50/1.4 AFS in my book – especially the edges. I think it’s the aspherical element that does it.

          • Yeah, I had a chance to compare a friend’s 50/1.8 to another friend’s 50/1.4; not a fan of the latter at all. The 50/1.8 was a no-brainer at less than £150. Lacks the wow factor though.

  26. Glad you are enjoying this lens, I knew uou would. I just rented it for a week and shot in on my D800E, in the streets of San Francisco.
    I was amazed by its controlled handling of harsh light next to shadows and its flare control. Its contrast, lack of aberrations, and clarity wide open is awesome and unique. I now have to buy this lens. I took some nice lens porn shots of it with a Swaroski crystal owl hovering over it.Two owl glass works of art! Since it is such a sharp lens even wide open, I was able to manual focus acurrately most of the time.
    I like the Verticality shot, is that going to be available as a limited print?
    I like your F22 analogy. I was worried before shooting this about capturing shots which do this lens justice, but I came away with a few I really like.
    Web size still does not show how much resolution is rendered wide open with this lens on a D800E.
    Looking forward to part2

    • Thanks. Verticality: I might put it into a future series, but no plans as yet. If you’d like a print, it can always be arranged – let me know what size and I’ll figure out a price.

  27. Was in the market to buy a 50mm lens but this is beyond my enthusiast budget. Probably will have to sell all my glass to afford this puppy. The photos are very nice especially the verticality IV.

    Would you rate the zeiss 50mm glass above the offering from Nikon ? I want something using which I can also do freelensing as I like the soft output of freelensing (photos dont look clinical)

    Between Thom Hogan for some reason is calling this lens Optus !!! 🙂

    • Short answer: yes. Big difference to the Nikon offerings, until you hit f8 🙂

      Optus? That’s a telco in Australia.

      • Son of a gun – just checked your review of the 100 Makro (was hoping you have reviewed the 50). The photos are incredible. The pop, 3d and all the shamozle is all there. Sekrit Santa is telling me to pi$$ off for this year but may have to run a ponzi scheme to get this one..

  28. You mentioned the Ziess 50mm 2.0 makro, this is a lens I own in addition to other Zeiss lenses such as the 135mm f/2.0, 21mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/1.4… Also, I am more of a lens aficionado than quality photographer lol

    I go for the 21 when i need to encompass a large scene… the 35 when I want something wide but not as dramatic as the 21mm and the 135mm when I want some compression and distinct look. So, I don’t end up using the 50mm 2.0 as much as i do my other lenses.

    However, when I do use it I am reminded of its minimal focus distance, sharpness at 2.0 and its distinct bokeh. I have thought about purchasing the Opus, but am just not sure about that focal length.

    I do see the character of this lens in the images you have shown, that much is not lost on me. But i would be worried that I would end up trying to shoot everything at f/1.4 and then starting to have similar feeling images lacking in diversity. I mean, of coarse i could stop down… but then would I still get a notable difference from my 50mm 2.0?

    This lens is VERY intriguing… can’t wait for part II.

    • Actually, very few of these images were shot at f1.4 – partially because that wasn’t the right depth of field for the scene/ composition, and partially because it’s very difficult to focus it critically with the current focusing screen I’ve got (replacements are on the way). So I think the character of the lens stays very much intact even if you stop down.

  29. dikaiosune01 says:

    In lieu of the Nikon DF and the Sony A7r, I hope you will continue to do reviews of cameras and equipment that ‘you’ want. Because of this integrity and high standard, we are ‘blessed’ (awkard; but I’m struggling to think of a better word) with a well-worded indepth review of the 55mm otus. I don’t think there are too many reviewers out there who could begin to explain the qualitative attributes associated with this lens. I learned a few things: (1) I don’t need this lens (2) I wouldn’t be able to get the best out of this lens.

    • And that was just from the first half! 😛

      I think the bigger challenge reviewers are going to face with something like the Otus is not only can they not describe it, but most aren’t good enough to be able to use it and produce results in which they can see it in the first place. It’s like asking a commercial pilot how the performance of the F-22 Raptor could be improved.

      I may still ‘review’ the Df and A7r. In my own way.

      Perhaps gear like this is self-selecting: if you can see it, you don’t really need my review to tell you that you need it. For everybody else, it’s the fun of living vicariously 🙂

  30. The fact that that lens was on the camera at the time you clicked the shutter on”Clouds” and “Verticality II” is recommendation enough. “Clouds” is revelationary for reasons that I cannot figure out. It looks very different to previous work but I don’t know why. All I know is that it is exquisite (even small on computer monitor). Fortunately for me, 55mm is not a focal length I am interested in…24 and 85 on the other hand….oh heck!

    • Thanks Ian. I presume you mean ‘Verticality IV’? I’m pretty sure it’s a combination of quality of light and the drawing style of the lens; it’s the way metal looks like hard/shiny/reflective metal (without flare from reflections ‘eating in’ to the adjacent areas) and clouds look soft and puffy like clouds. It might also have something to do with my personal shift towards this kind of subject matter?

  31. Nice review so far, Ming, but there is an error. You mention “gratuitous lens p***” – when in fact there ain’t nothing gratuitous about it. It’s entirely appropriate 😉

  32. Can you think of where I might find one of these in Tokyo? I’ve started using a Zeiss ZF2 85mm and 28mm, and I have the option of getting the 50mm Makro-Planar. I don’t mind putting off the purchase until I’ve had the chance to use the Otus, if someone knows where I might at least test one. I’m in Japan right now, but I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting my hands on one of these back in Canada.

    • Honestly…nope! I wanted to try one in Tokyo the last time I was there – it was before mine was delivered – but they appear to be in such short supply now that there aren’t even demo/display models. If you send me an email offline I can try to put you in touch with somebody who might be able to help.

  33. Trully amazing lens and great review. Zeiss is making a very smart move matching high-res cameras and leave room for further improments. I’m curious as other family members of Otus come out such as 85 and 24, matching the successors of D800E, we could be expecting a meaningful improments in the image quality of truly outstanding photographers. Maybe it will revive quality printer markets as we’ll.

    • The sad thing is that I suspect it will be lost on most people. You really must have impeccable shot discipline and be printing very large to see the difference; then the lens truly shines. I don’t know about revival of print markets; it’s not something that’s easy to pick up, and requires some considerable skill.

      • shot discipline 🙂 ? you’ve shot the moon HANDHELD and were able to find AMAZING details on it’s craters… maybe you’ll find new forms of life when you’ll get to test the future 85mm!
        thank you, excellent review!

        • Haha. Well, down to technique and adequate shutter speed. Even if you’re shaking the camera like it’s in an earthquake, 1/8000s will probably look perfectly steady.

  34. Ron Scubadiver says:

    This lens perplexes me. After all, a 50-ish f/1.4 with MF for $4k at almost a kilo is expensive and heavy. Just think if this was scaled up or down as a 50 is usually the least expensive and most compact f/1.4 lens in any lineup. I have seen an opinion that the color is “flat dull and devoid of sparkle”. That isn’t my observation but that of Bjorn Rorslett. OK, he has to put his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. Anyway, I don’t know what to make of this product. Just saying. I don’t have to worry, my own internal compass would never let me buy something like this, but that is just me.

  35. Thanks for writing what looks to be an extensive review — I know it takes a lot of time, and some people were not too courteous in asking for one when you said you got an Otus, so it’s really appreciated.

    I really like your solution to the small-moon problem in the Chiang Kai Shek memorial picture — I’ve always wondered how to put the moon in context when it’s tiny and high up in the sky. How would you compare the Otus to the 75/1.8? I recently got the Oly, and I can’t put it down! The 12-40 and 25/1.4 are both gathering dust because of that lens.

    Also every time you put out a print, my GR fund gets depleted. Just sayin’ … 😉

    • I honestly didn’t want to review it; I just wanted to put some thoughts down. But frankly…it would be doing the lens an injustice given that I’ve spent far more effort on other things that were frankly not worth it.

      The Otus is a cut above everything else I’ve used. The 75/1.8 is an outstanding lens – in my personal pantheon of greats – but it has neither the microcontrast nor absence of LCA and LoCA that the Otus has.

      Your GR is about to get delayed a bit more. The clouds are going to be freed soon in another print 🙂

      • Sounds like a spectacularly impressive lens, not that I have the money or skill (or the right camera body) to justify one! It almost seems like a bit of a paradox: the only way you can show most of us how good it is is on screen, yet if you’re right a real demonstration of its power can only be really appreciated in a huge print.

        Here’s a question though. I’m perfectly willing to believe that this Otus is a cut above the Olympus 75 1.8, as you say (and I love the Olympus 75. I had one for the EM5 and now that I have the EM1 I intend to get it again). The question is: is it five times better? The Olympus seems to go for about 8-900 dollars, and the Otus for four thousand. I know that you were very enthusiastic about the 75, and having used it I fully understand why.

        Given the price of both, i.e. from a cost-performance point of view, would you still call the Otus a superior lens overall?

        • The irony, right? Most users/ buyers will not be able to draw the most out of this lens. In fact, good technique and shot discipline will probably mean that a skilled user with a 2/50 MP will get better results than an average one with the Otus. But…as somebody who is used to wringing every last pixel of information out of a camera/lens system, I can confidently say that the Otus is really another notch up.

          As for 5x better: I think it’s a misleading comparison. The 75/1.8 is really a 150/1.8; you should compare it to the 2/135 APO, which is more like 2.5x the cost ($2,100). Even so, there are a lot of other factors to consider. The 75/1.8 makes my pantheon of great lenses – compared to everything else, it excels – but the Otus is another cut above again. At this point though, diminishing returns take over very quickly. I’m sure somebody could make an even better lens, but it might cost 10x the Otus.

      • Thanks. I’m glad I don’t have a way to scratch the Otus itch!


  1. […] Click here to read his lens review  related to the photo […]

  2. […] Focus breathing This is when the apparent magnification of a lens changes as you change focus distance; frequently, lenses will shorten their effective focal length in order to focus closer – this is so they require less helicoid extension and therefore can be made more compact. Although a consumer superzoom may reach its labelled maximum focal length at infinity, you will find that at minimum focus distance, your 18-300 might well be giving you magnification equivalent to 150mm. Let’s just say there’s a reason those 300mm supertelephotos require long barrels, but can only reach around 1.5m minimum focus distance: they do not shorten in focal length. The very best lenses do not exhibit focus breathing at all – cine lenses come to mind; they are designed this way to enable changes in focus plane (‘pulling focus’) to not change the composition of the scene. Few stills lenses are designed to compensate for this, partially due to size, partially because you can always recompose between shots – something that isn’t always possible in a video sequence. In fact, the only stills lens that immediately comes to mind that does not exhibit focus breathing is the Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus Distagon. […]

  3. […] series** – in particular, the 1.4/85 APO Planar (review B&H) and 1.4/55 APO Distagon (review B&H Amazon). I can’t think of anything else that reaches this level of performance […]

  4. […] series was shot with a mix of the Canon 5DSR and 40/2.8 STM Nikon D5500 and Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, and post processed with Intro to Photoshop Workflow (not Workflow II: reason being above average […]

  5. […] series was shot with a Nikon D5500, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Leica Q, and post processed with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow. You can also look over […]

  6. […] Otus (B&H Amazon) 1.4/28 APO Distagon, 1.4/55 APO Distagon, 1.4/85 APO Planar. No picks here; you can’t better any of them in that focal length […]

  7. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus, and Ricoh GR. Postprocessing was completed using the Monochrome Masterclass […]

  8. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 80-400/4.5-5.6 VR, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, and Ricoh GR. Postprocessing was completed using the Monochrome Masterclass […]

  9. […] readers will know that I have reviewed the 1.4/55 and 1.4/85 Otii in the past, and have been impressed to the point they now serve as reference […]

  10. […] set was shot with a Nikon D810, Nikon 20/1.8G, 24-120/4 VR, Zeiss 1.4/55 and 1.4/85 Otuses and a Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar. Images were processed with Photoshop […]

  11. […] hand-polished aspherical element to mitigate this. Modern designs for maximum performance like the Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon, Leica 50/2 Summicron APO-ASPH and Leica 50/0.95 Noctilux ASPH are much more complex. The two […]

  12. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, 24-120/4 VR, Ricoh GR and Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 and processed with Photoshop Workflow […]

  13. […] I’d much rather have a 28/50 pair, which is what I usually do: GR in one pocket at 28mm, and D810/Otus 55 around my neck. The GR has its share of ‘if onlys’, too: mainly centered around the relatively […]

  14. […] series was shot with a Nikon D810, Zeiss 1.4/55 and 1.4/85 Otuses, the 45 PCE, and mostly the AFS 24-120/4 VR. It was processed with PS Workflow […]

  15. […] resolving power. I find myself using it with the PCEs (24, 45, 85) or apochromatics such as the Zeiss 55 or 85 Otuses, 2/135 APO Planar and Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar. Some of the Nikon zooms aren’t […]

  16. […] middle choice alternates between a 45PCE, 45P, or 55 Otus depending on a) whether I anticipate needing movements; b) plan on walking a very long distance, or […]

  17. […] with everything mostly in focus (or lenses that have sharp depth of field transitions such as the Zeiss Otuses), there’s still a difference, especially at larger sizes. It’s of course very important to […]

  18. […] series was shot with a Nikon D800E, 70-200/4 VR, Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 and Ricoh […]

  19. […] This series was shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E, 70-200/4 VR and Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus. […]

  20. […] art is reaching new and lofty heights. Take the recent crop of 50mm lenses for instance – the Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon; Leica’s 50/2 APO; and the amazing bang for the buck Sigma 50/1.4 Art – I am pretty sure the […]

  21. […] deploy it and c) afford it are having to think multiple times to justify purchases: is the Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus really worth 4x the ticket price of the Sigma 50/1.4 Art? For most, the answer is a definite no. I […]

  22. […] and sometimes not: the net upshot is that a lot of lenses simply do not work very well. The Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, for instance, is a reference lens on any DSLR, but it performs poorly on M4/3 because of the […]

  23. […] This series was shot with a mixture of equipment over the last few months – everything from an old Olympus E-1, to the Ricoh GR, D800E and Zeiss Otus…MT […]

  24. […] ever used in many ways; I didn’t want to leave it at home. I didn’t bring the companion 1.4/55 Otus because I’ve got that focal length roughly covered already by the 45 PCE and the […]

  25. […] year after the 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon, Zeiss is back as promised with the second installment in the new line of super-lenses: the 1.4/85 […]

  26. […] there’s a little bit of something for everybody here. Enjoy! MT Shot with a Nikon D800E, D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar and a Ricoh […]

  27. […] when I do this kind of work; usually in the form of the Ricoh GR. 45 (Hassy V/80mm) and 55 (D800E/Otus) combinations have also been tried recently. But only since Havana have I used anything much longer […]

  28. […] set was shot with a Nikon D800E, Nikon 70-200/4 VR, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Ricoh GR. […]

  29. […] This set was shot with a Nikon D800E, the 70-200/4 VR and Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon. […]

  30. […] at maximum image quality: this meant all Zeiss primes (2/21 Distagon for interiors, 2/28 Distagon, 1.4/55 Otus APO Distagon, 2/135 APO Sonnar) and Nikon PCE lenses. My subjects don’t move and I have the luxury of […]

  31. […] There’s a method behind the seemingly random selection of images I’ve used to illustrate this article. Firstly, there are three film and three digital images in this set; they represent a wide range of shooting situations that a photographer might conceivably encounter, all the way from uncontrolled to fully controlled and repeatable. Aside from the obvious that the colour ones are digital – since I don’t shoot color with film to any degree of seriousness or consistency. What all of the digital images have in common is that they are of ‘risky’ subjects: in every case, there is a high chance of failure for various reasons. The soldiers were moving quickly during their parade routine, and light was sufficiently low and background sufficiently distracting that I had to shoot wide open, and the lens I had at the time was one which is particularly brutal at the transition point between in and out of focus – the Zeiss Otus. […]

  32. […] the Hasselblads were not an option. I went with a pair of D800Es2, one Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, the 1.4/55 Otus and a 24-120/4 VR – I needed as much light as possible because it was very dark in places […]

  33. […] series was shot with a Nikon D800E, Nikon D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar. Enjoy! […]

  34. […] set was shot with a D800E, D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar. Enjoy! […]

  35. […] – right up there with the best of them – but still falls slightly short of the mighty Zeiss Otus**. Bokeh is always subjective, but in this case, not at all objectionable or busy. There’s a […]

  36. […] This set was shot with a Ricoh GR, Nikon D800E and Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon. […]

  37. […] enough to make a 13×19″ Ultraprint. Needless to say, I find myself carrying the D800E/ Otus combination quite a lot these […]

  38. […] workhorses: a pair of D800Es. However, this time I used the Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon and 1.4/55 Otus – they were a challenge to focus in the darker environments, but the image quality more than […]

  39. […] Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon I found the focal length to be somewhat in no-mans’-land for the trip – which is definitely not a mark against the lens, but which certainly reduced its utility. The few times I did carry it, it of course produced the usual stellar images. However, the more I use it, the more the hood annoys me: it’s too easy to ding/ dent the edges, and really needs a rubber bumper on the end. […]

  40. […] maintain quality even when used wide open. Just look at the difference in the glass size between a Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 and the 2/50 Makro-Planar – the 2/50′s front element is about 27mm across; the 1.4/55 […]

  41. […] but I tested eight units, all of which displayed the problem. Similarly, I tried two copies of the Zeiss Otus (at the time, a full 1% of the total production, and all I could get my hands on) and checked my […]

  42. […] capabilities of the sensor, focusing issues with MF glass – now that we have lenses like the Otus and 2/135 APO, and its use as a scanning device for film – amongst other things. It’s […]

  43. […] En attendant les premiers tests du ZEIS Otus 55mm f/1.4 ZF2, je vous renvoie vers le site de Ming Thein pour une petite review sympa: Ming Thein  […]

  44. […] Focus breathing This is when the apparent magnification of a lens changes as you change focus distance; frequently, lenses will shorten their effective focal length in order to focus closer – this is so they require less helicoid extension and therefore can be made more compact. Although a consumer superzoom may reach its labelled maximum focal length at infinity, you will find that at minimum focus distance, your 18-300 might well be giving you magnification equivalent to 150mm. Let’s just say there’s a reason those 300mm supertelephotos require long barrels, but can only reach around 1.5m minimum focus distance: they do not shorten in focal length. The very best lenses do not exhibit focus breathing at all – cine lenses come to mind; they are designed this way to enable changes in focus plane (‘pulling focus’) to not change the composition of the scene. Few stills lenses are designed to compensate for this, partially due to size, partially because you can always recompose between shots – something that isn’t always possible in a video sequence. In fact, the only stills lens that immediately comes to mind that does not exhibit focus breathing is the Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus Distagon. […]

  45. […] just how much transparency/ realism/ clarity/ resolution/ x-factor/ whatever I could out of the Otus, that I landed up making a boring image. Of course it required some hindsight to realise that the […]

  46. […] 50/2s or 50/2.8s that perform excellently wide open, but few 50/1.4s and faster that do – the Zeiss Otus is one of the exceptional few. It’s also why lenses with higher resolving power – take […]

  47. […] the designed-from-scratch lenses are for the M4/3 system, or Leica S tend to be. Or even the new Zeiss Otus. On top of that, you really have to ask yourself if it makes ergonomic sense to put an enormous SLR […]

  48. […] the clouds are truly free was shot at the top of Taipei 101 with a D800E and Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon; to paraphrase Nick Brandt it’s a subtle reminder that man does not have dominion over […]

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