#336. And the best lens is …

By pascaljappy | How-To

Mar 15

How many lenses to use was the question central to my previous post. One reader, Ken, rightly scolded me in the comments for rehashing an overworked subject. I guess I should have asked for more context and not just for a number of lenses.

So let’s see if I can make this one a little better. Instead of asking which is your favourite lens ?, let’s focus on why it is your favourite lens.

Below is a collection of possible whys. Which is more important to you, for what application / context / photography conditions … ?

A modern art sculpture of a killer bird with a knife. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Da Killer Lens ! Otus 85/1.4 & Sony A7r

Alternately, if you’re thinking about acquiring a lens yourself, you can use these lens attributes to help make a more informed decision by asking yourself which matters most to you. All too often, we are “instructed” by reviewers to buy certain types of gear because they measure better. There many other considerations for choosing a lens and this list can help you prioritize.



I’ll start with this attribute as it ranks highest in my personal value system.

My tech background has always made me see a form of poetry in MTF curves, but I soon realised just how misleading the purely analytical point of view can be. Two Zeiss lenses are a good example of this : the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM and the OTUS 85/1.4. Both have epic MTF curves. The sort you usually only expect from Rodenstock Digarons and Dumbledore’s telescope (header image). So I approached both as perfect equipment with no specific personality and fell on my arse when I first reviewed the photographs they produced.

(1) Both draw quite differently.

(2) Both are very expressive, even the ZM 35/1.4 which is not designed for the Sony A7r and suffers technically from the mismatch.

Bowler hat guide Inside Trinity College, Oxford - ony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Inside Trinity College, Oxford – ony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

The ZM 35/1.4 is more transparent and delicate than anything else I’ve used yet. And the OTUS draws with a glow that’s also unlike anything else I’ve seen. While neither may be your personal taste, for me, it seems impossible to make a bad photograph with either, largely because of their rendering.

The Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 is quite the opposite to the OTUS (in spite of its marketing “Mini-OTUS” moniker). Its very high contrast can seem dry in certain occasions but gives strength to a photograph, particularly in dull light or when you need to hold on to detail in highlights. That lens needs taming, as it can lead to soulless images, but in loving hands it is a stunning tool as well.

Nighthawks - Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 & Sony A7r

Nighthawks – Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 & Sony A7r

Given how difficult it is to test lenses before buying, these days, determining whether the drawing of one design will appeal to you is no easy task. And ranges or types of designs don’t help much: the abfab Zeiss ZM range has lenses with very different styles in it, for example. And the first two lenses above are both Distagons, yet also draw very differently (though both have lovely boken and great neutrality). I’ll try to find or create a resource for that one day. In the mean time, here are very basic guestimate rules :

  • Designs with plenty of aspheric lenses tend to be a little more nervous than others (the OTUS being an obvious counter-example)
  • The more blades in the diaphragm, the smoother the bokeh. If you can handle the lens, play with the apertures and note at what point the diaphragm is most circular. That’s likely to be a sweet-spot for bokeh.
  • Some eras in design favoured softer looking designs. My beloved Leica-R lenses from the Mandler period are a prime example. They are crazy sharp but, like the OTUS, they hide that behind a softening veil, where as the FE 55/1.8 (and many modern Leica lenses) flaunts all the apparent sharpness it can muster.

So, does rendering rank high in your priorities and what do your fave lenses do in that respect?


Optical quality

This covers a whole lot of ground. Sharpness is often the first item to come to mind when the word quality is mentioned but what I really mean by this is an absence of particularly strong optical defects.

That Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 again, is a good example. It looks very clean and free of aberrations. My Leica Elmarit-R 19/2.8 is probably sharper in that it reveals more details (at f/8) but it flares like crazy. The almost-perfect ZM 35/1.4 is handicapped in the corners at wide aperture and at infinity when used on the Sony A7r’s thick sensor filter. This happens in a configuration very rarely used but it is enough to deter a lot of people who will prefer the technically more reassuring Sony Zeiss version.

Fileds in the Cotswolds - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Fields in the Cotswolds – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

So, optical quality goes way beyond sharpness and includes such aspects as resistance to flare, transparency, low distortion, … For me, it’s hard to be excited about a lens just because it lacks optical defects. Unless photographing documents for an archive, absolute orthoscopy isn’t a requirement, whereas the ability to impart a strong personality to any scene is a simply tremendous asset.

Thee little Minis - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Thee little Minis – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Advise to beginners : before you spend money on an optically perfect lens, head straight to eBay and buy a 40-year-old design for less than 100 bucks. Use that for 3 weeks and you’ll be detoxed forever. That’s provided you don’t get a lemon. On thing manufacturers do much better today than 4 decades ago is quality control. If you do get a bad lens, sell it back and repeat the experiment. There’s so much an old Olympus OM or Minolta or Voigtlander can do that you may be shocked (in a bad way) when your $800 optical marvel turns up at your door and looks … frigid.

But your mileage will probably vary, so what’s your take on this?



Will Paul Perton please come forward? 😉 On a DearSusan field trip in Paris last year, Paul, Philippe, Caroline and I took pictures of the exact same spots. When I reviewed Paul’s photographs on the rear screen of his camera, my jaw dropped. It was like elaborate post-processing had been applied to the photographs where mine felt a little sterile. Drat!

Gloucester baptismal font - Sony A7r & Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF2

Gloucester baptismal font – Sony A7r & Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF2

Paul was using an older variation of Leica’s lovely Summilux-M 50/1.4. Unlike more recent versions, this is a relatively affordable lens and about as neutral as Nigel Farage. Grunge may not be the appropriate word, but you get what I mean. Strong personality.

Now, because I’m much more mature than Paul, I don’t own hooligan lenses, but here’s a comparison to illustrate the idea.

Above is a photograph inside stunning Gloucester Cathedral (on location article soon on DS) made with the Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF2. The photo has been seriously massaged to obtain this result and remains squeaky clean. The amazing sensor has a lot to do with that but the very pure lens is also to be lauded/blamed. Below is a much less neutral image of a far easier scene.

To me, this goes beyond drawing to include coloration and, possibly, aberrations that contribute to the look.

DSC_6437-ModifierA grungy lens is a mixed blessing. It can do things that post-processing can’t but it also adds a filter to your source file, so neutrality is no longer an option. One or two in your arsenal can be fabulous. To a lesser extent than Paul’s brilliant Summilux, I feel my Leica-R collection adds that dimension to my pics. Since these lenses rarely see any use, that’s apparently no longer a strong selling point for me, though.

Best non-muggle lens: Professor Dumbledore's telescope - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Best non-muggle lens: Professor Dumbledore’s telescope – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

What about you? Do you have strong personality lenses in your bag? Do they get aired or stay at home?



The old cliché stating that the best camera is that camera you have with you extends to lens as well.

As reader Andreas rightly pointed out in the previous post, some photographers face harsh environments in which opting for the practical lens is not laziness but your only option.

Blue elevator shafts in Marseilles Les Portes de la Mer - Sony A7r & Zeiss Loxia 50/2

Blue shafts – Sony A7r & Zeiss Loxia 50/2

Before using an OTUS, I’d have placed size and weight high on the convenience priority list. Today, less so. Size matters (now, now …) because a huge lens makes you very conspicuous. But weight is not as much of an issue to me. I’d rather leave home with only one heavy lens I love than with 2 lightweight but bland alternatives. That’s just me.

Semi transparent window veil in Marseille's museum of modern art - Sony A7r & Zeiss Loxia 50/2

Behind the veil – Sony A7r & Zeiss Loxia 50/2

Other factors in convenience:

  • variable focal length, which avoids lens changes in humid/dusty/fast changing environments.
  • ergonomics: some prefer to control everything (focus / aperture) from the lens while others like that better on the camera.
  • Filter size. A marketing argument for Leica’s glorious M-range is the common front diameter of many lenses that require much fewer filters. Since I don’t own a single filter these days, that doesn’t speak very loud to me. But it seems like a strong selling argument for others

Do any matter to you ?



I’d love to say that price is of little concern to me, but it ain’t so. That OTUS 85/1.4 I’m loving with all my soul is a loaner. That ZM 35/1.4 has now gone back to Zeiss. And my list of exotic glass is much shorter than I’d like and rightfully deserve 😉


The Portal – Sony A7r & Leica Apo-Telyt-M 135/3.4 (I think)

There are many partial solutions to this problem that may help you place price lower down your consideration list.

You can buy used lenses. For famous and reliable brands, the battered old troopers can be the best performers. My Summicron-R 35/2 is an example of this. It has seen so much use it’s as pale as an old Karate grand master’s black belt. If fresher looks matter, you can buy from reputable dealers such as Marco Schouten.

You can have only one lens. If that lens is a constant source of pleasure, you can live with it for years without feeling frustrated.

You can consider the less glamorous brands. Pentax and Olympus, for instance, make excellent lenses that don’t come close to a Leica’s asking price but will deliver great results with their own specific look.

But sometimes, you’re after that rare Hexanon. Or maybe you’re in love with that modern Leica look. And money matters. What do you do then ? Wait until you can afford one or settle for a second best you like less? Is the best lens the lens you can afford today or the lens you’re willing to wait years for?


Confused ?

Here’s a simple test: do your photographs look the way you like without post-processing ? Mine do with some lenses and don’t with others. I tend to post-process anyway, but that’s only to bring out some qualities already latent in the file. It’s a lot harder to force something completely artificial onto a photograph without resorting to an Instagram-like cookie-cutter filter that will bore you to tears in a few days.

Inside Marseille's Par Chanot, the Palais Phoceen - Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Palais Phoceen – Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4

Whenever you find a lens that does this for you (pop without PP) forget about the rest. Forget sharpness issues mentioned in lab-rats reviews. Forget the price (sell all your other gear if you need to). Forget the size, weight (carry just that lens). Forget the age. Just like many musicians will only play on one instrument, you might just make you best work with just one lens if it suits your style perfectly. You’d be surprised.

So, what’s your favourite lens, and why?


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  • LB says:

    Thank you! I recently discovered DEARSUSAN and enjoy reading your thought provoking posts and viewing your images because I walk away entertained and smarter. Full disclosure, my A7r is admittedly much more camera than my current skill. I own FE lenses: 35f2.8, 50f1.8, 16-35f4, 24-70f4, and the 70-200f4. Why do I own these lenses? Because this is what Sony offers for this camera. Other than what I read and the MTF charts I study, I have no idea what an image from a great lens looks like because I assume the photographer made the great image. On the other hand, if I follow the common theme in most forums FASTER is better no matter what! Hopefully with time and more experience I’ll learn to judge a lens properly and may just try out your 40-year-old lens experiment. In the meantime, I am curious to know what others think about my list of ZONY lenses ( which I have read repeatedly are not really Carl Zeiss glass). So, to you and anyone else that might care to comment, do any of my Zony’s stand out in character and pop than the others on the A7r?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks a lot, that’s very kinf of you.

      Don’t belittle yourself. If you chose the A7r, it’s that the camera must speak to you in some way, so you will be making great pics with it. That’s a great aray of lenses too. The FE 35/2.8 is a personal favourite. Really lovely, compact and engaging. The FE55/1.8 I find a little more difficult to work with because it can feel harsh. But in some lights it’s fantastic and makes a dull scene come alive. Apart from a brief spell with the zoom in a exhibition, I don’t know the zooms. But the promotional photos published by Sony for the 70-200 were out of this world. A lovely zoom, full of subtelty.

      So you’re beautifully set up there. Just make sure you use one lens for a couple of dozen-hundred pics until the way it frames the scene is second nature. When that happens, you’ll become much more intuitive and a lot more of yourself will become visible in your photographs.

      Happy shooting !

  • Jens says:

    Confused? You bet!
    What I’m confused about is how the cognoscenti manage to distinguish between the rendition of various lenses (even on the minuscule display of a camera!): the Leica look, the Zeiss look, the Nikon look …
    I can clearly see a difference when comparing, say, my Nikkor AF-S 70-200 to my Elmarit-R 180mm: the Elmarit is razor-sharp right into the corners whereas the Nikkor zoom is perfect in the centre but pretty “weak” towards the edges (which has never really bothered me in the real world before).
    This afternoon I did a test series to compare an ancient Nikkor Ai-S 50mm to the new Zeiss Loxia 50mm – identical conditions, identical WB, identical exposure. I literally cannot detect any differences between the two, much as I try. Rendition? Bokeh? Detail? Color – well yes, an ever so tiny shift between the two is visible.
    How/where does one learn about these things? All in all, I am guessing that this debate is similar to a bunch of wine buffs getting together to discuss the finer points of wine-tasting (“I can taste a hint of asparagus here …”).
    BTW: great photography on DS again – and a very well written and thought-provoking article by pascal!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks for the kind comment Jens.

      The wine tasting analogy is a very good one. Two of my friends do that for a living. They taste 50-80 windes in a row to train their palate because it is so important for them to be able to recognise wines and it’s quite impressive to watch them work. But is that useful for the amateur wine lover ? Definitely not. I think for the rest of us is hte ability to understand and explain what it is we like in a particular wine. And I feel it’s the same for lenses. Understanding a being able to formulate what you like in a specific lens means you can buy more like it rather than rely on the judgement of others, trends, lab tests …


  • Philberphoto says:

    I can’t believe it! He’s done it! He (meaning Pascal, of course) devotes a whole article to “and the best lens is…” without mentioning focal length, and how each of use has his/her favorite focal length, and whether we should choose focal length over lens quality of the opposite.
    That said, a totally inspiring article, with even-more-brilliant-than-usual photography! A more structured answer to follow later.

  • Darrell says:

    Wonderful article paired with excellent companion pictures.

    I like the idea of using the filter of which lenses require little/no post processing to deliver consistently pleasing images to guide decisions of what to buy/keep.

    While I don’t own and have never shot with the Otus 85/1.4, almost every picture I’ve seen from the lens has some kind of magic.

    I’ve got a bunch of equipment and I’d say that the RX1 comes closest – it has delivered a hugely disproprortionate number of favorites. Even mundane pictures have at least some magic in them. I contrast that with something like the Olympus 14-150 superzoom on my m4/3 camera that I sold – the lens added nothing and always subtracted something. Unfortunately I feel the Sony FE 24-70, while much better than the superzoom, is in the same league. Images live on artistic merit only, the glass seems to add nothing.

    I also like the Panasonic 25/1.4 m4/3 lens, it has some magic. While I haven’t shot much with it, I really like the Loxia 35 at f/3.2-4 or so. Very pleasing combination of color, sharpness, OOF rendering, etc.

    Another surprise has been the Voigtlander Nokton 40/1.4… while the bokeh can be horrible, in some cases, it delivers beautifully blurred backgrounds at wide apertures (with fairly uniform backgrounds without specular highlights or lots of discrete objects).

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks. That’s exactly it. When a lens gives a magic feel to the mundane scene, that’s a keeper, whatever the technical quality. The RX1 seems really great. What you describe about the FE24-70 is why I don’t like zooms. They can be sharp but are rearely expressive. And they have so many lenses that they lack the transparency and subtelty of the best primes.

  • lech says:

    On the nex series I had my best lens. If I had to choose only one this would be the zeiss 24/1.8. On apsc it’s a great field of view, it’s quite light and small for a quality it offers, it’s f1,8 so has nice DOF and can be used for lowlight, focuses from 16cm (reproduction ratio 1:4), gives great bokeh, has great optic quality… You can use it to photograph almost everyting. Landscapes, close-ups, street, and it’s still not so big so you can have it always with you.
    Sadly, for A7 I couldn’t find anything such versatile with this field of view, the closest lens is… Zeiss 35/2 from RX1:D FE35/1.4 is biiig, not something that I would like to take every time, FE35/2.8 is slower (and even on FF camera gives worse DOF) and doesn’t have so great 1:4 reproduction, loxia 35/2 is quite close but is manual (I like manual focusing but ometimes AF is useful). Now I have FE28/2, it’s not exactly the same field of view and he is not as versatile as e24 but he really tries;)
    But I’m still waiting for 35/2 with small MFD (and AF) for A7…

  • richard warren says:

    Sigh – I am a Zeiss addict, Pascal and I would love to be able to afford the Otus 55mm – but I have been forced by abject poverty to settle for the cheaper Sigma 50mm ART lens. I’ve owned Zeiss most of my life, including – at the start – several Super Ikontas (they were fun!), a Contaflex, a Contarex (it was superb!) with w/angle, the Planar standard and the 135mm Sonnar – but now I have only been able to afford the Zeiss 100mm Makro, if I am still to have a w/angle and a standard lens.

    I had a passing flirtation with zooms – I still have one, in fact, on my half frame – but for quality photos on full frame, I prefer primes. And I’m happy with my two Sigma ARTs (the W/angle and the standard), with the Zeiss Makro for fun times. When I finally parted with the Contarex and sat down to think “where next”, I looked at countless alternatives. In the end, the Contarex sold me on a straightforward solution. Much as I loved that camera, in all the years I owned it the VAST majority of the photos I took were with the 50mm Planar. So I have elected to go into the future relying primarily on my new Sigma 50mm ART prime lens.

    And already I’m achieving what I wanted – great shots, first up – full frame, in the bag, with remarkably little need for post processing.

    Landing in Paris in 12 days, en route to Toulouse & Carcassonne – with a side trip to Reims on the way home. I have enough cards to make sure I can photograph whatever I like, starting at first light and ending over a bowl of cassoulet, with a glass or two of local wine to complete the meal. Heaven! By the time they want to shovel me into the plane at Charles de Gaulle, to send me home, I shall feel as if I am being amputated – leaving France is one of the hardest things I do, in life, these days!

    Tell me – in you latest posting, where did you take the last photo title ‘Farewell’?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Aaah Richard, can’t we all relate to your plight. The sad fact is that we all (well, almost all of us) have an upper limit to our budget. It took me months of selling to finance the OTUS (no regrets) but there is no way I’m getting my dream Noctilux. That said, your Sigma ART has a tremendous reputation, I’m sure you’re not missing much. But I understand we share a common passion for Zeiss lenses …

      Thanks for the kind comments on France. I now live in the South East (near Aix en Provence) but was raised closer to the region you describe, in Perpignan and studied in Montpellier. Not far from Narbonne / Carcassonne. It takes guts to arrive in France via Charles de Gaulle and still want to stay. That airport has been improved in recent years but still feels so drab when you land tired from your flight … All that dirty concrete, shades of 1970s France. YUK.

      Farewell: what post is that ? I cannot find the potograph.

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