Lens review: The Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar

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One 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 Otus APO-Planar. Announced unofficially on facebook several months back, the lens makes its official debut at Photokina. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with a final-pre-production prototype for the last two months; in fact, through pure coincidence, I got the email from my contact at Zeiss saying they had a surprise for me on my birthday…

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Gratuitous lens p***.

A huge thank you to the team at Zeiss for the opportunity. I should note in the interests of editorial independence that this review has not been restricted or censored in any way, and there were no usage limitations placed on the lens: in fact, if anything, I was encouraged to push it to the limits. And I did. Test images were made on a Nikon D800E and D810. I’ll be uploading more images to this set on flickr as time goes on. If you recognise some of the sample images in this review from the Zeiss website or stand at Photokina, that’s probably because I shot them…

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This is NOT a lens for the weak-armed.

I’m going to call it the 85 Otus from here on, because the full name is a mouthful, and we need to differentiate it from the earlier 1.4/85 Planar that was made in ZF (non-electronic), ZF.2 (electronic), ZE (Canon) and ZK (Pentax) mounts. It’s a derivative of a venerable old design that dates back to the Contax/Yashica days. On the D700 and D3, that lens was one of my favorites because of its extremely cinematic rendering style and flare resistance; it just begged to be shot against the light at every possible opportunity. On the relatively forgiving 12MP sensors, the 1.4/85 Planar was critically sharp in the center even wide open, and not too bad at the edges. Unfortunately, come D800E – we were in for a bit of a rude shock. I actually tried half a dozen samples of this lens before coming to the conclusion that it was simply not usable wide open on the 36MP cameras – softness, lateral CA, longitudinal CA, coma, mild astigmatism – you name it, it didn’t go away til f4. And that very much defeats the point of a fast f1.4 lens. The shooting envelope became very small indeed – and we haven’t even talked about focusing it accurately, yet.

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Queenstown at midnight.

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Enough resolution for you? This a 100% crop of the above image – remember, its a distant subject with some mild fog, minimal sharpening, and an f2.0 long exposure. Pixel level quality of this combination is not just superb by 35mm/ FF standards, it’s superb by ANY standards – the best of medium format included. It’s quite possibly the best I’ve ever seen, consistently.

I was sad, until the Otus line was announced. And then mildly horrified at the size of the 55 – if that was the normal lens, how big would the short fast ‘portrait’ telephoto be? Turns out the answer is quite enormous. The lens weighs in at well over a kilo, takes 86mm filters, and has a hood that’s about 110mm in diameter. It’s a good 20cm long with hood in place, and honestly, the closest thing in size (but not weight) is the Nikon 200/2 VR without it’s companion hood. This lens is a monster.

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Rush hour, Kowloon.

Design and construction are much the same as the Otus 55 (and to a lesser extent, the Touit family) – this is clearly the new design direction for Zeiss. It’s smooth, solid, and for an odd comparison, seriously intimidating in an ergonomic way, much the same as an injection-molded composite firearm such as the FN P90. Everything that appears to be metal is metal. Focusing and aperture rings are made of grippy rubber; my 55 Otus has become not so grippy after six months of heavy use; Zeiss is looking into the issue. There is no plastic on this lens, other than the lens cap.

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View from Coronet Peak, Queenstown, New Zealand

Unfortunately, the lens cap design is poor: the springs are too lose, and the plastic is too thin for its size. The two sprung tabs have a habit of coming loose on my lens, and sticking open – upon which the cap just doesn’t stay on. It could use a few more teeth, too. Given the amount of attention paid to every other part of the design, this is a little disappointing (more so, since it’s not exactly easy to find a replacement 86mm cap!). I’ve got one other gripe with the Otus design –it’s that the hole for the focusing scale can collect moisture, which if you’re shooting under adverse weather and very cold conditions can freeze and cause the focusing ring to bind. The water came out again, and I didn’t see any evidence of moisture inside the lens. In all fairness, Zeiss does not claim either Otus to be weather proof – a shame, in my opinion since the strongest images are usually to be made under the most foul conditions. Interestingly, after using the 85 Otus, the 55 feels positively svelte…

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Mount Alta before the storm, from lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Peer down the end and you wonder why some of the lens is empty; like the 55 Otus, the coatings on the elements are so good that there’s very little to no reflection, which renders the first few elements pretty much invisible so long as the front is clean. To an aficionado of optics, this is an incredibly sexy lens. Pretty impressive, considering the lens is a 11/9 design – that’s a lot of elements, but to be expected because of the extreme degree of optical correction. This of course means several things: firstly, you can shoot it into the sun without fear of flare (the edges of the elements are coated in the same way as the 55 Otus, too) or loss of contrast*; the T stop is extremely close to the numerical f stop, and color transmission across the entire spectrum is superb. As with the 55 Otus, I’d say the color siguature is moderately saturated but mostly accurate with a very slight cool bias.

*I actually don’t use the hood on this lens because it’s just too fat to pack easily into most of my bags. It’s a good thing it doesn’t need it other than for impact protection, as far as I can tell. I suspect the concave front element has something to do with the lens’ flare resistance, too.

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Shotover Gorge, Queenstown, New Zealand

Next up is the easy part: I have tried, but really cannot find any major issue with the optics. There were some instances of what appeared to be magenta/purple edges on very high contrast and overexposed detail, but I don’t know if this is a sensor or lens issue. It isn’t present with proper exposure. Other than that – there’s no visible chromatic aberration, longitudinal or lateral. Contrast is amazing at every aperture, as is microcontrast and ability to resolve high frequency and low contrast detail structures. Resolving power does not appear to improve with with stopping down; it might do, but even at f1.4 it appears to outresolve the D810.

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Can anybody identify this galaxy? I searched online for some time and drew a blank. 6 seconds at f1.4 – there’s no CA or coma to be seen anywhere in the frame, even the extreme corners.

I see a slight improvement in microcontrast to peak arounf f2-2.8, but even at f1.4 it’s delivering far more than my Nikon 70-200/4 VR or 85/1.8G does at any aperture. There is some vignetting wide open that disappears by f2.8 or thereabouts, but it’s easily fixable. I did not see any major distortion. All in all: this is seriously impressive performance, and just as good or very slightly better than the 55 Otus. The lens also appears to be fairly flat-field: you must compensate by back focusing slightly if you center focus and recompose for an edge subject.

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Between water and rock

On the subject of focusing, I think this is going to be the biggest hurdle for most users: even with my custom focusing screens, calibrated mirror and finder magnifier, it’s extremely challenging to consistently hit critical focus wide open. The viewfinder system is simply inadequate. The only optical finder-based method I’ve found that can nail focus involves racking it slowly while shooting a burst – disastrous for critical timing, but just fine for static subjects. Live view and a tripod is of course highly advisable.

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Just before sunset, Arrowtown, New Zealand

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100% crop of above.

Most of the time, I used it either on a tripod with live view or stopped down; this is partially because I just don’t shoot wide open that much, and partially because when I do, it’s because I want to use the lens’ ability to separate out distant subjects from the background without any penalty in resolving power. I find this very slight isolation helps immensely with creating a perception of depth in the image. It’s also worth noting that as for the 55 Otus, you won’t have to recompose after focusing: the 85 Otus does not appear to suffer from any visible focus breathing, which will also be of interest to cinematographers.

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Tree and mountain – shot wide open at f1.4, the stars are slightly blurred because the plane of focus is the tree. Fortunately a very still night; still enough that the tree blow in the wind at all, and individual leaves are clearly defined.

If the old 1.4/85 was a cinematic lens, the new one is, too: out of focus areas are rendered very smoothly and non-distractingly by the 9-bladed diaphragm, even with high-frequency complex subjects at distances relatively near to the subject. There’s a trace of spherochromatism and bright highlight edges under some very specific situations, but for the most part, it’s invisible. More tellingly, out of focus foreground areas are rendered in a delicate, veiling way: they’re clearly there, and contribute to the feel of the scene, but they never distract. There’s only one small fly in the ointment: for out of focus very distant point sources only, you see concentric ring texture in the big round highlights – this is an artefact of the polishing/grinding process of hybrid aspherical elements (moulded + bonded asphericals). It is only visible under those circumstances, and also present on the Otus 55 – though we seldom notice this because most out of focus sources we photograph aren’t sufficiently point-like. I was told that you either need to have spherical elements that do  not require this polishing process, or an extremely costly polishing process (as used on the Master Primes) to eliminate it entirely. Bottom line: not noticeable in 99.999% of normal use situations, but remember, we’re looking for perfection here…

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Even horses feel cold sometimes

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100% crop of above. Shot wide open at f1.4, very minimal sharpening applied. As usual, if you see haloes…it’s flickr’s downsizing engine.

I’m not necessarily sure the new lens is more atmospheric than the old one, though; I always felt the old lens had a bit of character of its own, but the new one is a very transparent lens – much the same as the 55 Otus. Use them interchangeably at any aperture for a consistent look. Its signature is that it imposes no visual signature of its own (visual signature is usually a result of ‘endearing’ optical aberrations, such as swirly bokeh). This is not a lens whose look you can rely on to add personality to an image: it transmits what is there, nothing more, nothing less. Color transmission and accuracy of rendition is utterly brilliant – slightly better even than the 55 Otus. I was utterly blown away when examining the files from New Zealand on my calibrated monitor. Lloyd Chambers and I are in agreement that this is possibly the most highly corrected lens ever for a DSLR; his detailed evaluation of the 85 is here. There is something in the way the 85 Otus renders that goes beyond even the 55; it is the very definition of ‘clarity’. Subtle nuances are perfectly rendered and you get the feeling of being there. In my mind, this puts it in the very highest class of lenses – the kind that cede full creative control to the photographer, and serve solely to execute their vision. It is an optical achievement of the highest order.

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Tree and river

Through this review, you’ll note there are no direct comparisons. I simply don’t see the point. The 85 Otus does things in the corners that no other Nikon lens can do at any aperture; there is no comparison. Even with the Pentax 645Z’s 90/2.8 SR – one of the best medium format lenses I’ve used – there is no comparison. Curiously, the math due to the increased sensor size and extra pixels on the Pentax works out such that the 645Z/90SR and D810/85 Otus combination deliver almost the same pixel dimensions for a subject at a given fixed distance. This means we can almost compare the lens-sensor combination like to like. There’s no question the Pentax/Sony sensor is superior to the Nikon even at the pixel level, especially in dynamic range; however, the 85 Otus leaves the 90 SR trailing. It must be stopped down to f4-5.6 to match the Otus’ resolving power at f1.4 in the centre, and f11 in the corners; and microcontrast/transmission never quite catches up. It’s possible sample variation has something to do with it – I’ve only tested one 90SR, though – they’re rather rare birds here. Still, I think that’s extremely impressive.

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Evening.

However, note that it’s not a lens for everybody: dedication to technique and vision are required to extract the most from it. Then there’s the cost and size/weight issue: I’m sure many keystrokes will be wasted to explaining why alternative X at $1000 is better. If you have to even ask why, this is not the lens for you. It may well be comparable if you get a good sample and stop down a bit, or don’t print and only view online; but a big part of the reason why the Otuses (Otii?) are so expensive is because of Zeiss’ QC procedures. I have used half a dozen Otus 55s and two Otus 85s for various reasons and from various batches/ owners – they are all, as far as I can tell, identical in delivering the same extremely high performance. This is not a trivial achievement: any of you who can shoot to the level of maximising everything out of your equipment and have tested more than one sample of a lens will know that consistency is almost impossible to achieve. I have never personally seen any other brand with this level of consistency. If you cannot see the difference (and no web image is going to do it justice; full resolution on a high grade monitor as a minimum, a print ideally), then don’t bother – buy a cheaper AF alternative and not have to deal with manual focus. Extremely shallow depth of field wide open plus that beautifully crisp transition between in and out of focus areas makes achieving critical focus both necessary (missed focus is obvious) and challenging; beyond that, if you don’t have a camera that can make full use of the resolving power and color rendition of the lens, or the skill to deploy all of that potential, it’s somewhat wasted. I honestly feel that the lens still has more to give – but we don’t have the sensors for it yet. I suppose that’s future-proofing. My accountant is already making unhappy noises, but personally, I can’t wait for the next Otus…MT

Coda: I’ve solved the focusing issue with a Zacuto pro finder and live view – stability, magnification, real DOF – just makes the whole thing a bit bulkier, unfortunately.

The Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar is available here to pre order from B&H in Nikon and Canon mounts.

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Comments

  1. Reza Abdallah says:

    great review , Mr. Ming …

    Mr. Ming , what your opinion about new Milvus 100mm compared to old version of 2/100mm ?? … planning to purchase old 100mm for Macro work to pair with D810 but old 100mm is discontinued & nowhere to be found ..

    considering to purchase Milvus 100mm if old 100mm is nowhere to be found …

    regards.

    Reza

Trackbacks

  1. […] Zeiss Otus 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 […]

  2. […] shot mostly with a Olympus E-M5 II, Zeiss Otus 1.4/85, Zeiss ZM 1.4/35, and Canon 5DSR, post processed with the Cinematic workflow from Making […]

  3. […] can really only aim it in one direction before you start to see window edge or engine), the D810/ Zeiss Otus 85, the Canon 5DSR and 40/2.8 STM, the Pentax 645Z and 90 SR Macro, and the A7RII** and Zeiss FE […]

  4. […] size is tiny, weight negligible at 420g and grip comfortable even with very large lenses like the Otus 85 pictured above. Like all Nikons, it powers on and shoots instantly, and there is virtually no lag […]

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