I should have know better. The beast has a soul.
People lucky enough to indulge in the most exotic Hi Fi equipment money can buy soon come to a surprising realisation: perfection is very subjective. Choose a silver-wired 2W triode amp feeding ultra-high sensitivity wall-sized horns and your sound will light up a very different reality than ultra-fast silicon poking electrons into electrostatic ceramics.
Better components only serve to reveal the genius – or lack thereof – and tastes of the designers responsible for these costly devices. Why should it be any different with high-end optics?
And yet, I came to the Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4 expecting technical perfection revealing reality in the way an electron-beam microscope does : highly detailed and totally detached.
Silly, silly, silly me.
Without being the snob who likes to fault the best lens on offer, I’d like to point out a few aspects of the OTUS that don’t fall on the positive side of my reviewing fence. And, since the rest of my impressions are so overwhelmingly glowing, let’s get rid of these niggles as a preamble to the real fun part.
In no particular order, here are specific aspects of the lens that could be improved:
That’s it! The rest is as close to perfection as I’ve ever used or dreamed of.
Yes, here are 2 obvious nasties that I don’t find objectionable.
The price. Value for money is not how you should look at it. There’s nothing comparable on the market today. Nothing that can give your images a similar look. So the reality is: you can either afford it, or you can’t. The lens itself is worth every single penny.
Today, this lens is unparalleled and you can’t find it second-hand. If you want one, buy it now, knowing it will be providing equal pleasure and quality in 50 years. It is bound to become a timeless classic.
The weight. My first encounter left me with sore wrists after just 40 minutes of walking. Now, I simply cradle it on my left arm like a newborn and have walked long hours with in in town and country without a second thought. It all balances well and weight is no longer an issue at all.
But that’s just me. I love to walk around with a system that inspires me. It doesn’t bother me to be missing a lens, so I never carry many of them at any given moment. Since the OTUS 85 has been in my home, 90%+ of my photographs have been made with it, because I’m more attracted to a specific way of drawing than a specific focal length. If you’re someone who needs to haul around 5 lenses for your livelihood, your point of view will be very different.
Where do I begin?
The look created by this lens is what makes it so special to my eyes, but that look is a bit difficult to describe. So let’s split it into several sections.
First and foremost for me is the way this lens paints the world on a sensor. Never before have electrons been born from more elegant photons.
My long-suffering friend Philippe knows of my unhealthy infatuation for Mandler-era Leica lenses. Great resolution hidden under a romantic veil. I own 5 of them, one of which in both M and R mounts (the glorious Elmarit 90/2.8 which Ken Rockwell rightly names Leica’s best ever 90mm). All of these are now for sale because of the OTUS.
Compared to the OTUS 85/1.4, my (excellent) Mandler jewels somehow feel like they are taking too many liberties. The OTUS seems to construct a scene with the exactitude of an architecture blueprint then covers it in a thin coating of noble rot. Less Liebfraumilch and more Trockenbeerenauslese.
It has a strong signature than merely diminishes slightly at smaller apertures yet always feels as righteous as a 3D rendering from a computer. Negligence and sloppiness are never a part of its vocabulary but neither are harshness or dryness.
The gentlemen above and below a testament to this. Both are photographed at f/1.4 but in very different lighting conditions. The first is more or less SOOC (except for obvious B&W conversion and graduated filter on the sky). The second has received a *huge* boost in contrast and clarity. Yet both show the same photo DNA and the OTUS’s style is present in both in spite of the post processing differences. Just like a great guitar would shine through different amps, to continue with my recent analogy.
Ironically, this look couldn’t be further apart from the “Mini-OTUS” the Sony-Zeiss FE 55/1.8.
The OTUS fits the A7r like a glove. And the FE 55/1.8 seems far better suited to the Sony A7s. If you’ve seen photos from that pairing, you’ll know what I mean. Edges seems etched and contrasty, in all situations. That’s the sort of look that makes me run for cover but thousands of others have fallen in love with it and it works well on some types of photos. In contrast to this, the OTUS 85/A7r couple seem to be taking it easy, letting their gobs of detail paint the world in a more mellow, see if I care, manner. That suits me better and is very subjective.
So this OTUS is a gentle giant. Gentle and laid-back but never lazy.
Take this very pedestrian view of Oxford, by Merton college. Colours are natural and well differentiated. The photograph looks like a mild dose of polarizing filter was used or a slight haze diffused the highlights. So there is no harsh contrast to dilute hues and the general impression is one of restraint and delicacy rather than anything over the top. This look is ever-present and gorgeous to my eyes. Those after a grungier style will be happier with other designs.
Same story in this little village of Provence. Colours are true to life, with nothing spectacular to write about, no cast, no shift and no feeling of washing-out. Just honest accuracy.
Even in extreme lighting condition, colours seem true to life.
To me, lenses like the ûber-fantastic ZM 35/1.4 display even greater nuance and subtlety in their rendering of colour. Maybe the numerous optical elements take their toll, maybe that’s a design choice, but the OTUS 85 does seem to mute colours a tiny fraction compared to the best in class. Still, a solid 9.5/10 on this count.
Black & White
Nonetheless, to me, B&W is where the OTUS really sings. No amount of torture to the image will make it lose its charm. Frontlighting, backlighting, sidelighting, low contrast, high contrast,out of camera, crazy PP. It’s impossible to make a B&W photograph look bad. If the subject is interesting and you nail focus, the B&W output will be stunning.
This is as much due to the Sony A7r’s amazing sensor. But even on that dream machine, some lenses are not really suited to B&W. For instance, I enjoyed using the Sony/Zeiss FE55/1.8 in colour but never liked it for B&W. The OTUS suits my B&W tastes because of its restraint. You can push files as hard as you like and they never feel harsh.
It’s hard to explain why, but my guess is that the OTUS 85 serves a lot of shadow information and retains the highlights very well. Its naturally soft rendering and vast information transmission mean you can push up the sliders when you feel like it but it is also possible to remain on the low-end of the contrast range when that suits the picture better. Other lenses have that “always on” nature that can quickly get tiring.
And, for street photo (where B&W often rules), that constant sense of 3D realism is a marvelous asset. Street photography may actually be where the Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4’s copacetic-couple act is the most useful: the sensor’s dynamic range combined with the lens’ incredible realism let you create shots that are simply impossible with other combinations.
In the photograph below, the top part was almost pure white while the open-air shop (next to Notre Dame, by the Seine, in Paris) was in darkness. The result is stunning.
The all important figure-to-ground composition principle is particularly well served with that pairing.
Is this the ultimate portrait lens ? 85mm is a flattering focal length that slightly flattens facial features yet the OTUS maintains the sensation of volume rendering a model’s hair beautifully. Ask sweetie, she’s lovin’ it!
Even less professional models stand out and the cappuccino background and soft touch both help turn any amateur shooter into a semi-pro portraitist.
Macro is another discipline in which the lovely bokeh helps features stand out. I added a micro-nikkor extension ring to the OTUS to obtain a 20cm focusing distance and easy handheld flower shots.
F/1.4 (below) results in pretty extreme shallowness of field (f/5.6 used, above). But, in spite of MTF charts (pdf brochures) that indicate a sharp decline in optical quality at close range, the level of detail in these conditions is still ample enough to convey a sense of realism and volume, while the background simply becomes an abstract decor.
Interestingly, bokeh is most useful in less obvious conditions, with this lens.
Closing down the aperture doesn’t change the lens’ rendering or bokeh at all. More structure from the background finds its way to the sensor, but the lens always retains the same look.
Imagine starting off from a perfectly sharp image from your nose tip to infinity, then being able to add amounts of Gaussian blur directly proportional to distance from the focus plane. This is what the OTUS 85 feels like. It acts more like a mathematical model than a real object subject to laws of physics of build tolerances.
Actually, that’s not absolutely true. In this photograph of a black branch on a pure white snow background, I was able to find traces of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in the out of focus areas, at f/1.4. Shame on you, Zeiss 😉
My goal, during this extended review, was to find the recipe for using the lens to its best potential. What I’ve come up with is this. Exploiting the OTUS look to the full hinges on two imperatives:
(1) Nailing focus, to the nearest micron. I can’t overstate this. Areas in sharp focus serve as anchoring points for your composition. This is far more important with this lens than with any other I’ve used before.
(2) Choosing the correct aperture for the intended feeling of volume. Using f/1.4 all the time, because I can, is a big mistake. For every subject distant / background distance / intended volume scenario, there is one aperture that works best. The scene below was photographed at f/2.8 and may have been better at f/4. While very pretty, it has a slightly gooey feeling that could have been avoided. F/1.4 would not have worked at all, as I learned the hard way for many weeks…
In fact, it’s my opinion that this lens is a tremendous learning tool for young photographers. Since its price puts it out of their range, all photography schools and clubs should own an OTUS and have it on loan for all intermediate photographers to work on understanding the role of focus in composition.
Resolution is silly, at all apertures.
Here’s a handheld photo of the Moon, at f/5.6. I’ve seen worse results from expensive white 200mm glass.
These abilities are retained at full aperture into the corners. Not 100% as sharp, but still scary sharp.
Until the OTUS 85 came along, my dream setup was an Alpa camera with Rodenstock Digaron glass and a 60Mpix monochrome back by Phase One. The itch is still there, but it is just so easy to stitch two frames made with the OTUS and get the same results for 15% of the cost, that the OTUS 85 and Sony A7r seem like the medium format bargain of the decade. Plus you get the f/1.4 abilities.
The photograph below is an example of this process. An almost perfect 50mm equivalent lens in a square format 50Mpix frame. Is there a more fitting spiritual successor to the Hasselblad 500?
Until the OTUS 85 came along, I longed for Foveon sensors. Not any more. Pixel quality is so amazing with the OTUS that Bayer no longer feels like such a handicap (I still think the Foveon is a brilliant idea. Go Sigma).
The photograph above is a full-size 25Mb JPEG. You can click it to judge for yourself (keeping in mind the original is considerably smoother and sharper than this compressed jpeg output). It’s likely to send the moire brigade into orbit. Moiré is everywhere in the frame, particularly on balconies on the right hand side.
It’s hard to put images on this, but here’s a fun experiment: switch focus peaking on and play with the focusing ring at f/1.4. Watching the plane of focus materialize as a razor-thin red slice of the scene is so much fun.
The combination of an excellent EVF, excellent focus aids and excellent lens make focusing 100% failsafe. For really critical focusing, simply enlarge the image and enjoy. I have found that centering the focus zone then recomposing works really well 95% of the time, which avoids having to move the focus window across the frame.
Simple, efficient and brilliant.
The amazing realism of depth
Notice how often I used the word depth or volume in the text, rather than 3D ?
As with all good Zeiss lenses, the sensation of 3D is brilliant. But this doesn’t feel like a 3D lens in the same sense as the unparalleled ZM 35/1.4. The ZM draws you into a scene in a way that can create vertigo on the right image (not joking!). The OTUS feels more distant. Again, the best description I can come up with is the 3D model. The OTUS seems to reconstruct a scene in like a very advanced special effect computer program would.
With a different lens, even an excellent lens such as the Loxia 50 or an Apo-Summicron 90, the photograph above would look more like a collage. Here, the 3 layers are palpable. So much so that co-author Philippe feels this is too much and that the barge edge looks a little over etched.
In the scene below, from the fountain next to Beaubourg, in Paris, there is a sensation of 3D on the curvaceous statue. The background is flat and, again, feels like a distant layer.
Same story here, where the buses clearly stand out from the wall (also: notice how true the colours look, while not being very saturated ?)
On subjects with a greater range of depth, the feeling of depth is largely governed by the aperture setting. At f/1.4 subject isolation can be so strong that it kills the sensation off. Whereas even at small apertures where everything appears to be sharp, the sense of depth is very present.
Forget about optical quality for now.
You already know whether you can afford this lens. And you already know whether you like the aesthetics it imparts on the photographs you make.
If you need to carry many lenses with you, forget about the OTUS 85. All by itself, it eats up 80% of a reasonably large camera bag (ThinkTank Retrospective 7).
Chosing a lens of this price is necessarily a very personal decision. You will sell it back in an instant if you don’t get along. But my guess is that if you’re not dying to get one after seeing these photographs, you’re simply not drawn to the style it creates.
I’ve tried to include many photographs of varying subjects at varying apertures and light conditions. Colour and B&W. I’m happy to provide more if you want them.
This lens makes me happy. It is close to perfect in itself. But – more importantly – the Sony A7r and it are symbiots.
To me, Zeiss’s ZM 35/1.4 is as much a landmark lens, possibly even more. It’s the best 35 I’ve ever seen by a big margin, and I’ve seen a lot. It’s even more transparent than the OTUS, and has even better colours. But somewhere at Zeiss HQ, someone decided it was better to optimise it for a declining Leica range of cameras than for a booming Sony range. And, in some situations, it shows.
There is no such “yes, but” with the OTUS 85/1.4, on the Sony A7r. It may be an absolute pig to focus on a Canikon camera (the OTUS 55 certainly was on my D800e). But on the A7r, it’s simply perfect. Its permanent control on light, matched with the Sony’s fabulous sensor, means it’s almost impossible to blow highlights (I use my A7r between +1 and +2 EV all the time, occasionally +3EV). Focusing is just so easy and pleasurable (on static objects) it’s also impossible not to get it right 100% of the time.
Lab rats will probably be perplexed. While the OTUS measures unlike anything else before it, the otherworldly technical abilities are bottled up as ever-present potential and never really brag as you’d expect them to, in photographs at usual sizes. Intricate detail is present everywhere but serves the sense of realism more than it flatters the owner. It really is the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove.
I may have painted myself into a corner when assigning cars types to lenses in previous reviews. If the Loxia 50 is a Cayman S and the FE 55 a first-gen Nissan GTR, what’s left for the OTUS range ? It’s much too discreet and easy for a Ferrari, Pagani or Lambo. Too mature for an Ariel Atom. What do you think my attribution for the OTUS 85 should be ? McLaren MP4 or BAC Mono ? In both cases it a driver’s car and a formidable teaching tool. If you’ve ever considered lenses in that price range, you really owe it to yourself to try one. Just make sure to keep it long enough to really get used to it. You can thank me later 🙂
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