A few days ago Carl Zeiss announced the second lens in its Otus series, the 85mm f/1.4 companion to the 2013 1.4/55 Otus. The first Otus got raving reviews, including on this site. The company introduced the Otus line with the aim to build lenses without compromise, in quality, construction, size, weight and cost.
The 85mm follows the same pattern. It's large (10 cm wide), it's heavy (1000+ grams), it's solid and it's costly ($4,500).
The question is if that combo once again delivers pure goodness.
Here's the quick summary:
You see the lens, and you go: 'man, that's huge!'
Then you see the results and you go: 'sweet!'
This leaves you with the eternal question how something that colossal can make something that delicious.
Noelle | Sony A7r with Zeiss 1/4/85 Otus - f/4, 1/250, ISO 200
That's it. Colors pop. Abberations are practically non-existant. What's in focus is brilliantly in focus and razor sharp. It stands out, but not in a harsh way, like with so many other lenses. The out-of-focus area has a nice creamy touch to it. The bokeh is smooth as a baby's bum.
It's actually a bit hard to explain it. I used it on a model shoot alongside a Contax G 90mm f/2.8 and a Canon 135mm f/2 L, both excellent lenses with pleasing tones and bokeh. The Otus beats them hands down and shows what's possible if you make no compromises.
From now on, I will want more. Good thing I can't be too tempted as I can't afford the Otus.
The lens comes nicely packaged in a large box and with a signed test card, where all the key criteria of good lens behavior are ticked off. It's a monster of a lens, especially considering it's made for full frame and not for medium format cameras. It's solid, weighs more than a kilo and is basically all glass and metal. It's based on a Planar design, with eleven elements in nine groups. It looks pretty sleek for such a large object, though. There's no wastage, just pure functionality.
I used the Otus on my Canon 5D Mark III and on my Sony A7r, with the Metabones III adapter. On the Sony, it's enormous and you really carry the lens instead of the camera. Luckily the Metabones has a tripod mount, so the weight of the lens isn't hanging from the camera mount itself. I wouldn't carry this lens on my Sony with a camera strap. I think the Canon, on the other hand, was designed to deal with weighty lenses, so I didn't worry too much about that combo.
I did have to worry about rain, though, as the lens is not weather resistant. Considering there are only a few gaps where the focus ring meets the rest of the barrel, you would expect that waterproofing wouldn't be that hard.
On Sony A7r with Zeiss 1/4/85 Otus - f/8, 1/160, ISO 500
I shot hundreds of frames with the Otus, covering family portraits, landscape, night shots and a model shoot. Between the Canon and the Sony, I could use the Canon's live view or focus confirmation and the Sony's focus peaking and magnification. I've tried it all to get a sense of how easy it is to focus this manual focus lens, especially with the lens wide open.
First of all the good part. The focus ring has such a long throw that critical focusing is easy. Focusing is smooth as butter and unlike with many other lenses, you can really fine tune your focus at all distances.
Because the lens is heavy, critical focusing is best done using a tripod. I did try to shoot handheld, using Canon's focus confirmation, but at wide-open apertures there are some misses as focus confirmation is not as reliable as using a magnified live view. The moment you use magnification while handholding this setup, it's hard to hold still to really focus critically.
When using a tripod, working with the Otus becomes a breeze. Using live view with magnification or Sony's focus peaking or magnification, it's easy to attain perfect focus. After a while, I consistently used a tripod and magnification in the Sony's viewfinder or Canon's live view with a Zacuto (correction: it's a Hoodman) magnifying finder I picked up several years ago.
I should add that I love shooting with little depth of field, so I challenged the system. If you shoot at smaller apertures and the light is good enough to allow for fast shutter speeds, you have some more leeway in obtaining critical focus.
Kai | Sony A7r with Zeiss 1/4/85 Otus - f/1.4, 1/500, ISO 800
In one word, brilliant. In two words, absolutely brilliant.
I'm not an experienced lens tester, didn't study physics, don't know anything about lab tests and don't want to, either. I have, however, practiced photography for a long time and have used many of the top Canon, Nikon, Zeiss and Leica lenses. So, I do speak with some experience. I'm sure once the lab tests come in, they will confirm what my old eyes see.
The Otus has all the usual Zeiss attributes: nice contrast, sharpness, good bokeh, a lack of aberrations, etc. And then some. The areas in focus really stand out, but without harshness and with a smooth transition into the out-of-focus areas.
I did try to push the boundaries of the lens, but could find no troublesome areas. The only negative I did encounter was chromatic aberration at f/1.4 when I shot against the sunny sky through some thin branches. It disappeared at f/2.8 and can be easily fixed in Lightroom anyway. It didn't appear in other shots where the sky was behind the trees, only when I directly aimed at the light.
Bokeh, that quality so many pay extra for, is as Zeiss calls it 'neutral.' I actually didn't know what neutral bokeh was, because over time you get kind of used to every lens putting its own rendition of the out-of-focus areas and then we judge that lens' bokeh by that rendition.
It's different with this Otus. It's really just smooth, a word I'm now in danger of using too much in the review. I like it. You can judge it for yourself in the various images posted here (and later today on Flickr).
Noelle | Canon 5D Mark III with Zeiss 1/4/85 Otus - f/1.4, 1/200, ISO 100
So, the camera and lens were mounted on my tripod as I climbed down some stairs. The bottom of the stairs was on a ledge, so I gently put down the whole outfit and climbed down the ledge with my hands free. As I picked up the tripod, the quick release plate detached itself from the tripod head and my camera and the loaner Otus tumbled down. Ouch!
Upon close inspection, the only damage I could find was a dent on the lens hood. Both lens and camera worked fine afterward, but the lens will go back to Zeiss for a full inspection.
All images posted on this page and on Flickr were taken before the Otus took this fall, except for the nighttime pictures. I took the images at night to see how the lens would deal with various light sources at various apertures and I can see no aberrations. I have not judged these images on other criteria, considering the lens elements might have become misaligned during the fall. Please keep that in mind when viewing the nighttime images.
Tappan Zee Bridge | Canon 5D Mark III with Zeiss 1/4/85 Otus - f/11, 20s, ISO 400
This is a special lens, a lens to perform at the peak of what lens design is currently capable of. The price paid for this is size, weight and cost.
It delivers on the promise in bundles. There's no question about that.
It does require a shooting discipline that's more common in medium format photography than in 35mm shooting, including the use of a tripod and critical focusing. That should come as a given with this lens and you shouldn't consider it if you're not willing to adapt your shooting style.
Some people complain about the price and point out that there are already good 85mm lenses out there. The latter is true, but none are as good as this one. What this lens does, like its brother, the 1.4/55 Otus, is take your full-frame 35mm digital up a notch to the point where it's indistinguishable from medium format.
If you think about that, then suddenly the overall size and weight are minimal and the cost comparison makes the Zeiss look like a bargain.
Noelle | Sony A7r with Zeiss 1/4/85 Otus - f/1.4, 1/2000, ISO 200
Full-size images are posted on my Flickr account. The images posted there are straight out of the camera, except for the ones that were also posted on this site. Those may have been cropped and slightly manipulated in white balance and tonality. The model images are unretouched. The images are shown to highlight depth of field, bokeh and overall image quality. They are posted at 72 ppi.
By John van Rosendaal
Two more images, for fun:
Focus Shift | both with Sony A7r and Zeiss 1/4/85 Otus - f/1.4, 1/640, ISO 100