It's not often that a humble - ahum - journalist like myself gets to enjoy the top gear. Yet, it's like I've been driving a Ferrari for the past few weeks with the photographic equivalent - the Zeiss Otus 55m f/1.4 in Canon mount - sitting in my camera bag or lying around on my desk. Oh, and mounted on a camera.
The Otus is in an interesting position in the world of gear. It's not a Leica. It's not part of a medium format setup, where stratospheric prices and top quality are almost a given. It's not a specialty lens, such as a 500mm tele at the price of a small - a very small - car. No, it's a luxury version of a household normal lens for a pretty pedestrian series of cameras. Good cameras, but not rarified in any way. Just the Canon and Nikon workhorses that get sold by the tens of thousands to people like you and me.
It's also a sign of things to come.
With ever-increasing sensor resolution and quality, lenses have to keep up. Nikon and Canon are moving slow enough in that regard to allow others to move in and fill the gap. Zeiss and Sigma are the frontrunners, Sigma with its ART lenses and Zeiss previously with it ZE and ZF(.2) lenses and, another notch up, with the Otus series. There's only one Otus now, but an 85mm is next and we can assume more will follow.
I've used the Otus on my Canon 5D Mark III and on my Sony A7r with the Metabones III adapter. At the same time, I've also used the Canon 50mm f/1.4, the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 ZE and the Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 on these cameras. During the last few days of the Otus loan, I used it side-by-side with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART that just came out. At the moment, I'm using the Sigma alongside the Canon 50mm f/1.2, a rental.
We already know the winner of a contest like this: it's the Otus. Other than its $4,000 price tag and lack of autofocus, this lens beats them all. That's been shown in lab tests and on multiple reviews. The problem for Zeiss seems to be that everybody is saying that the Sigma is getting extremely close to the Otus at a quarter of the cost, and with autofocus.
You know what, I'm not going to go there. First of all, I appreciate lab tests, but other than telling me that a lens is pretty good, I can't do much with the information. I never shoot in circumstances like that anyways. Do you?
It's like giving me a Ferrari on a race track. I'm not a bad driver, but there's no way I will use that Ferrari up to the limits of its abilities. So it is with lenses. At some point, my technique is the limiting factor. My shooting habits are not so disciplined that they come even close to a lab test. Neither do they have to.
I'm more curious how it was to actually use these lenses on these two cameras for different shooting conditions. Today, I'll focus on the Otus mostly. In future installments I talk more about the other lenses as well.
So, how is it for a mere mortal to use that Otus?
A joy. Mostly.
Let me rephrase that: a joy when you are dedicated to using it.
With that I mean that it's not a lens you quickly grab to go out and shoot some snaps. The thing is enormous. It's nothing like any 50 or 55mm lens you've ever seen or held. It's like Zeiss started from scratch and completely ignored every normal lens made in the history of photography. It's as thick as a f/2.8 tele and at least twice as long as any previous 50mm lens (the Sigma, which came later, is also quite bulky and long).
So, you take it along when you've got some serious shooting to do. And when you do, it's a joy to use.
Focus on Quality
Everything about it just feels right. It oozes quality. It's sleek, big and sleek. The focus ring works like a charm. The Sigma might come close in image quality, its focus ring ain't doing it for me. It's clunky compared to the smooth turn of the Zeiss.
In short, even though I'm generally a fast shooter who appreciates fast autofocus and a no-nonsense approach to photograpy, I liked how the Zeiss gave that special feeling that makes you slow down and take in a scene before you press the shutter. It's a bit like trading up to medium format.
It's also nice to use top quality, quality without any apparent compromises. Admit it, in our day-to-day photoworld almost everything we use, no matter how much we paid for it, is suffering from flaws. Lenses need to be calibrated right out of the box. Cameras have light leaks, oil on the shutter, shutter shock, an inane interface, modes that no sane person knows how to access and what have you. With the Otus you get the feeling it's alright and was so from the get-go.
But there's always a but. In this case, it's the lack of autofocus. Granted, you don't really need it for the situations you typically would use this lens for. Still, the Sigma offers AF and great image quality.
If I were only to use the Otus on the Sony for relatively steady subjects, I wouldn't mind the lack of AF so much. It's pretty easy to focus the Otus on the Sony, with focus peaking and EVF magnification. I did a lot of shooting at f/1.4 and got it right most of the time with the Sony.
That wasn't the case with the Canon. The focus screen on the Canon doesn't lend itself for precise manual focusing and the focus confirmation setup isn't reliable enough to always be sure that you're in focus at f/1.4.
Of course, you could use live view and zoom in, but personally I'm not a fan of live view. If the Otus were mine, I'd use it with the Sony and forget about the Canon. For the same reason, I have regularly rented manual Zeiss lenses to compare them with Canon glass and always concluded that I prefer autofocus over manual focus on a DSLR, even though I like the look of Zeiss glass. I honestly don't understand why high-end DSLRs hardly ever have interchangeable focus screens, unless it's a ploy to make prevent people like me from buying non-native glass.
All in all, I really liked the Otus. I liked using it. I loved the image quality. I didn't mind the size and weight, at least not when I was prepared for serious shooting.
I also think the lens would be overkill for me. I don't need the utmost image quality, not at a cost of $4,000. I do think, though, that with correct usage of this lens on a Sony A7r or a Nikon D800(e) you could get images that rival, if not surpass, those taken with medium format digital and lesser glass. Thinking about it that way, this is a bargain.
By John van Rosendaal
Some more samples: