Review: the Zeiss 1.4/28 Otus APO-Distagon

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28, 55, 85. A pretty versatile core set for pretty much any purposes. And now fully filled out by the latest in the Otus series, the recently-announced 1.4/28 APO-Distagon. Advance warning: this is not a general purpose lens, nor is it the kind of thing you can deploy casually. That is merely the nature of steeply diminishing returns; there are no gains without significant incremental effort. And we’re really talking about pushing the last 1% here. If you’ve not felt anything lacking in your images, then I suggest you stop reading here and save yourself a lot of money, because chasing perfection isn’t cheap…

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One place available: Cinematic Masterclass with Zeiss: Hanoi, Jul 21-26

_7017983 copy Due to one of the participant’s work commitments, I now have one place open for the Cinematic Photography Masterclass with Carl Zeiss in Hanoi, from 21-26 July – click here to book and for more details! MT After the jump, a few snippets of thought from previous Masterclass participants… [Read more…]

Second session open for the Cinematic Masterclass with Zeiss: Hanoi, Jul 28-Aug 2 2015

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Due to popular demand, I’m taking bookings for the second session of the Cinematic Photography Masterclass with Carl Zeiss in Hanoi (click here to book and for more details) It will run from 28 July to 2 August and follow the same format as the first one – hope to see you there! MT

After the jump, a few snippets of thought from previous Masterclass participants…

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Announcing the Cinematic Masterclass in collaboration with Zeiss: Hanoi, Jul 21-26 and Jul 28-Aug 2, 2015

_7016973 copy The fifth Masterclass will also be the first specialised one, on a topic I’m frequently asked to teach: the cinematic style of photography. It will take place in Hanoi, Vietnam, from 21-26 of July 2015 inclusive. Better still, Zeiss has agreed to loan us with a suitcase of lenses*. As usual, the Masterclass is limited to just 8 participants, so please confirm early to avoid disappointment; read on to make a booking and for further information. For all of you who’ve been asking me for a Masterclass in Asia, here’s your opportunity 🙂

18/4 Updates: Taking standbys for the first session, second session (28/7-2/8) now open for booking. *More importantly, Zeiss have updated me on lenses – the really good news is we will get the 1.4/55 and 1.4/85 Otuses in Nikon and Canon mounts, along with the 2/135 APO and 2/28 Hollywood Distagon… 🙂 [Read more…]

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

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Continued from Part One

Clearly, no expense was spared in the making of this lens. Unfortunately, this is also reflected in the price and size: a rather steep US$4,000, and a kerb weight (it actually sometimes feels like you’re aiming a tracked weapon) of around a kilo. It’s the size of a 24-70/2.8 from any of the big brands, and somewhat fatter, too. What you get for that money – aside from the outstanding optics – is a smooth, curved, all-metal housing and hood that mates flush with the front of the lens; rock-solid build, and quite possibly the best focusing ring I’ve ever used. This is of course very important for a manual focus lens, but it really is something else in terms of feel, feedback and haptics. Throw distance it’s perfect; it has enough resistance to stay put, but turns smoothly and has zero backlash – you can adjust focus with a fingertip. It also has a pleasingly tactile and grippy rubber ring, which is duplicated for the aperture setting ring. The mechanical aperture ring is of course only present on Nikon mount versions, which means that it’s also back-compatible with other mounts via adaptors – though you’d need a pretty darn good adaptor not to interfere with the planarity of the optics. Both Canon and Nikon mount versions have full electronic communication with the camera.

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

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I’ve used a lot of 50mm and near-50mm lenses in my time*. I’ve had the privilege of owning or having on long term loan some of the legends – the Leica f0.95 Noctilux, for instance, the 50/2 APO-Summicron-ASPH; the Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor; the Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar. However, I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 APO Distagon is quite possibly the best of them all.

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Interviewed on the official Zeiss blog…

I was interviewed recently by some of the folks at Zeiss about food photography – you can find the excellent (and very comprehensive) feature article here. Enjoy! MT

Review: The Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T*

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One of the legendary wideangles for SLR users, the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T* (referred to simply as the ’21’ after this) is a fairly complex – by Zeiss standards, anyway – telecentric design with 16 elements in 13 groups and a floating rear group for close range correction. As with most of the modern Zeiss lenses, it’s based on a derivative of the older Contax/ Yashica 2.8/21 Distagon (however, that was a 15/13 design). It’s currently available in Canon (ZE, fully electronic) and Nikon (ZF and ZF.2, the latter of which is fully electronic) mounts.

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Like all Zeiss lenses, this is a piece of glass that is extremely solid, moderately heavy (~620g) and very well built all-round – it’s like an old-fashioned scientific instrument, in a good way. There is no plastic on this lens; except perhaps some of the baffling at the front and rear. The barrel is black-anodized aluminium, with chrome front bayonet for the hood, and chromed brass rear mount. My two minor complaints about build quality relate to the hood lining and mount – like all Zeiss lenses, the mount seems to wear very quickly, showing brassing after just a dozen or so lens changes. The hood is metal, solid, and locks into place on the front bayonet thread with a reassuring click – and doesn’t move thereafter. However, it also has very crisp edges that are prone to denting, and the felt lining can easily start peeling around the front edge if you get it caught on something. A thin rubber bumper lip around the front edge would solve both problems handily (and if I’m not mistaken, the hoods for some of the Sony Alpha Zeiss lenses have this).

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One curious design quirk is the front portion – it reminds me very much of a martini glass. Although the glass itself appears to be able to fit within a similarly-sized housing as the 2/28 Distagon, the front filter thread is a whopping 82mm. I presume this is so one can stack filters without worry for vignetting, but it could also be because some parts such as the hood and bayonet are shared with the similarly martini-like 4/18 Distagon. Unfortuantely, this makes the lens rather cumbersome to pack as it occupies virtually cube-like dimensions.

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Boats, stored. Le Sentier, Switzerland. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

This is, of course, a manual focus lens – apparently the tale goes that all of the autofocus patents are held by the Japanese, except for Hasselblad, who bought technology from Minolta. Needless to say, these patents are being kept very closely guarded; I honestly can’t think of a reason to buy a large portion of Nikon and Canon’s lenses if I could get autofocus with Zeiss. Industry politics aside, the manual focus ring is perfect – spinning freely enough to change focus distance quickly, but not so loose that you can’t set the distance precisely. The amount of damping is perfect. Why Zeiss can’t make all of its other lenses feel like this is beyond me – they’re mostly a bit too heavy in feel for my tastes, especially in a fast moving reportage scenario.

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Spiral. Sasana Kijang, Kuala Lumpur. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

The near focus limit is just 22cm, which makes for some very dramatic closeups indeed; however don’t be expecting fantastic magnification because it is, after all, a 21mm lens – which means you’re looking at 1:5 or so. More importantly, however, is that optical performance across the frame is maintained even at this focusing distance; undoubtedly thanks to the floating rear group that compensates for near aberrations. I personally can’t think why I’d use it at this range, though it might make an interesting lens for food photography on the OM-D – being a 42mm equivalent.

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Boutique interior. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Sharpness and resolving power are excellent; this is one of the few wides that really does the D800E sensor justice – even into the edges. The center is already extremely sharp from wide open, and the extreme corners catch up at around f5.6 or so. There are very mild traces of lateral CA wide open in the corners with high contrast subjects and the D800E; they’re not visible at all on the D700 and DX bodies. And there’s no odd color smearing, either – everything resolves in the same spatial location, which can’t always be said of wide angles (the Sigma and Voigtlander 20mms come to mind). Interestingly, this lens has an extremely impressive MTF chart* – almost flat by f5.6 – made even more impressive by the fact that Zeiss MTF charts are measured averages not theoretical maximums.

*The interpretation of which will be the subject of a future article.

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Dreaming of the high seas. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

What of the other optical properties? Well, there’s some vignetting; around 1-1.5 stops in the corners at f2.8, but it’s almost entirely gone by f4. There’s distortion, too; up to 2% taking an odd moustache or sombrero-shaped pattern that isn’t so easy to correct manually, but can be taken care of easily by ACR’s built in profile for the lens. Bokeh is neutral and pleasant, with no hard edges; that is, when you can get enough subject separation to see any bokeh in the first place. You’re pretty much going to be at hyperfocal from 2m if you set f5.6.

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Gallery. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Finally, a quick word on that famous Zeiss microcontrast – it’s present as expected. Microcontrast is the visible result of several optical properties: high resolution; even and high spectral transmission, and as little chromatic aberration as possible. The 21 has all of these things. Resolution and chromatic aberration are functions of the optical design; transmission dependant on the glass types and coatings used. As with all Zeiss lenses, the transmission of this lens is very high thanks to the excellent coatings – note how in the images above, the front few elements mostly disappear; this is due to the surface coatings not allowing reflected light. It’s especially important for maintaining contrast; good coatings manifest themselves in a deep, saturated look that I like to think of as ‘tonal richness’. But I digress: the T stop of the 21 is 2.9, which is just 0.1 stop down from the physical aperture of 2.8. It means that you’re pretty much going to get as much light as you can out of the optical design.

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Boats, in use. Lac de Joux, Switzerland. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

All of these technical qualities are useless if the lens doesn’t produce great images; it does. The 21 somehow manages to be an excellent balance of technical competence and personality; it’s not entirely a transparent lens, but its personality definitely lends a positive influence to any images shot with it. And despite the distortion, you can use it for architectural work uncorrected if you don’t put any straight edges too close to the frame border – in practice, it’s not that noticeable; far more obvious will be whether your camera is level or not. For critical applications, correct the distortion with ACR/ Photoshop. The drawing style of the 21 falls somewhere between the 2/28 Distagon and the 2/50 Makro-Planar; both resolve at very high levels, have excellent microcontrast and transmission, but the difference in ‘personality’ here seems to be related to the amount of field curvature and distortion; the 21 is not perfectly flat field, but it’s pretty close – which is a surprise for an ultrawide.

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MRI machine. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon with flash

One of the things I like very much about the way this lens renders – and perhaps more generally about the 21mm field of view – is that it’s about as wide as one can go without the perspective starting to render subjects unnaturally, so long as you carefully place the foreground in your images. It’s wide enough to convey space – especially in tight interior quarters – but not so wide as to appear unnatural, which is a problem I’ve always found with ultrawides. It’s simply impossible to achieve anything approaching a natural-looking perspective with anything wider because of the configuration of our own eyes: 21mm is roughly equivalent to your peripheral vision. Psychologically, our brains just aren’t conditioned to interpreting anything wider on a regular basis.

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Solidity and transparency. Sometimes perspective distortion is actually useful to add a bit of abstraction to an image. Sasana Kijang. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon.

I want to add a quick note on compatibility: thanks to it being a telecentric design, the lens actually works very well on smaller formats – Micro Four Thirds, for instance. Carrying say a Nikon FX body, a M4/3 body and the 21 and 100mm lenses gives you an optically excellent and reasonably light landscape kit covering 21, 42, 100 and 200mm – a nice spacing of perspectives. I did this for several early-morning walks in Switzerland whilst on my last assignment, except I had the 1.4/85 Planar instead of the 2/100 Makro-Planar.

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One of those falling trees in the forest that nobody ever hears about. Olympus OM-D, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Up until fairly recently, I’d done my wide architectural work with either a Voigtlander 20/3.5, whose low contrast and lack of bite I didn’t like very much; or the Nikon AFS 24/1.4G, which didn’t have the same microcontrast as the Zeiss. All I can say is that I have no idea why I didn’t get the 21 sooner; it’s another one of those truly outstanding lenses that is a must if you’re a wideangle shooter. It isn’t the most discreet lens for documentary work, but the pictorial results are excellent; but it is an absolute no-brainer if you’re an architectural or landscape photographer. Highly recommended! MT

Get your Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon is available here from B&H and Amazon


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Old factory reflections. Olympus OM-D, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Announcing the Carl Zeiss Food Photography Masterclasses 2012!

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I’m pleased to announce my latest workshop – I’ve been invited by the Carl Zeiss representatives in Kuala Lumpur to host a series of workshops. We decided to do something different:

  • Gourmet food: check. Tasting menus and private spaces at some of the best restaurants in Kuala Lumpur; for the foodies alone, this is worth most of the price of entry.
  • Photography: check. I’ll be running a food photography masterclass at each of these; we’ve adapted the menu to cater for both gourmets and photographers, and photographer-gourmets. Food is one of my passions; I take it almost as seriously as photography. 😉
  • Gear: check. In addition to there being Carl Zeiss lenses for all mounts for the participants to demo, we’ve also got Profoto to take care of the lighting, and Gitzo to take care of the tripods.
  • Buy a lens and get RM350 off the workshop fee! If you own a lens, bring it along and get RM200 off.
  • There will be three sessions in Kuala Lumpur, on 8 September, 6 October and 11 November.
  • Limited to just 10 places per session. Call 03 7874 9872 ext 293 to book, or send me an email.
  • In a nutshell, each participant gets their own multi-course tasting menu; a Profoto light setup (either individual or shared, depending on the size of the room), a choice of Zeiss glass and a tripod (if you want it). All you have to do is bring your camera and stomach…MT

Edit: A lot of people have asked if you get to eat the food: of course! That’s half the experience – each person gets a multicourse tasting menu prepared for the occasion, which is meant to be photographed and eaten. (Or eaten and photographed, if you’re too hungry.)


Enter our August 2012 competition – Compact Challenge – here!

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