A the Sun rose and woke Pô, Pô rose and woke the anitons.
One by one, the creatures crept tentatively closer to the strange, fleshy figure. Crimson and upright, it oozed a menacing, dominating force that belied its small stature and apparent lack of teeth.
Vastly outnumbered and seemingly frail, yet commanding respect with a distant gaze in its tiny eyes and thin fingers pointed towards the Heavens, it inspired caution to the more receptive pettons but only drew sniggers from the much larger and blunt-minded louttons.
My point here is merely to illustrate the amazing storytelling abilities of the Zeiss OTUS 55/1.4 (photos above) and compare its rendering on similar subjects to its younger bro (sis’ ?) the OTUS 85/1.4 (below), which has stolen my heart in the past months.
So, yesterday, Philippe and I met up in the paleontology gallery of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, each armed with a Sony A7r and an OTUS. Philippe had brought along his recently acquired 55/1.4, I had the 85/1.4 long-term loaner from Zeiss France.
Paris had kindly provided a gallery of evolution that was intended to support Darwinism but mostly sent both of us into fantasy or Star Wars reverie 😉
What this taught me is that these two superb lenses have a similar level of performance but signficantly different rendition. To me the OTUS 55/1.4 is more Yin and the OTUS 85/1.4 is more Yang. The 85 is more painterly and a little more “brutal”, while the 55 has a softer transition between sharp and unsharp, letting more structural detail into the bokeh.The very first photograph on this page shows this beautifully. Everything but the human statue is significantly out of focus, yet so much structure is carried into the bokeh that the depth of the museum room feels cavernous. At full aperture, the 85 would have isolated the statue in front of a creamy background. That’s why choosing the correct aperture for the style you want is THE secret in using the 85/1.4 to its best advantage.
The painter and the architect, then.
This will sound subjective and not a little crazy: too me, the 85/1.4 feels like a longer focal length. It has so much subject isolation power it feels more like a 135 on steroids. While the 55/1.4 feels distinctly shorter. Knowing the location we photographed, I can tell the angles of coverage in our 55/1.4 photographs are narrower than those of a 35mm lens. But otherwise, I’d often be fooled into thinking the lens actually is a 35 ! (85/1.5 above and below. Note how sharp the in-focus edges look. Compare that to softer – but every bit as detailed – edges in the first set of photographs, from the 55/1.4)
This was a moment to savour. Pascal and I, let loose in a space where photo opportunities were just soooo numerous. We spent around an hour there, using the same two lenses, which we swapped, Otus 55 and Otus 85. So far, what’s so special, right? 2 friends, together for a photo shoot, what could be more normal? (actually it is so enjoyable that I am amazed that more people don’t engage in it much, much more often)
The amazement happened when he and I sat down to a hearty meal of Italian food, and saw each other’s production. Not one picture in common! Not one! Not even by approximation. It is like we went to different places. Later, we traded shots over the Internet, and, no doubt, our inspiration had been poles apart. Pascal’s production, centered on animal heads, oozed and dripped fantasy and cartoon, almost manga-like. Mine reeked of Star Wars, and the Walking Dead. With him, your bones get crushed by the huge jaws of sinister, cringing creatures. With me, you get hunted down by a pack of charging, undead hyenas… Choose your fate, dear readers, but, whichever one it is, unless you have super-powers (but of course you do, don’t you, faithful readers of DearSusan?) your goose is cooked!
Now, I know that some of you have had enough -more than enough, even- of tech talk, and specifically Zeiss talk. That said, out swapping our lenses was very educational. In my case, I thought “no way, this 85 sucks!” Main reasons: low-ish keeper rate, because focusing needs to be much more accurate than with the lowly 55, very abrupt transition from in-focus to out-of-focus, robbing the 85 of the smoothness that is a hallmark of the 55, and, of course a couple of minor details, like a huge price tag and the weight of a boat anchor. Plus, simply put, it doesn’t fit in my take-it-everywhere Billingham camera bag.
So my first impression was: even if one thinks that OTUS lenses are near-perfect, and that 55mm and 85mm aren’t that far apart, believing that I could easily move from one to the other was a mistake. I would have needed much more time to make the transition, and get properly house-broken with the 85mm. But, as I have never really enjoyed that focal length, I am quite happy to stay away from a second boat anchor. On the other hand, the Zeiss Batis, much lighter, much less expensive, fitted with AF, and with very good MTF sounds increasingly attractive. I am under no illusion that it will prove to be a mini-OTUS, howver. Mini-OTUS is an oxymoron. OTUS needs to be painfully heavy and expensive, just like a Freudian analysis needs to be financially painful. It is just part of the experience.
The main reason is that we didn’t shoot side by side. So I didn’t look at what he was doing, and vice versa. That we would, when we shoot together, have many shots in common, and when not side by side, not a single one, really makes me think about how solid my photographic style is (or isn’t, in this case).
The other issue it raises is how much I could miss out, simply because, once my mind (or photographic eye, of you prefer to call it that) is going down one path, and a fruitlful one, how much I need to “refresh” it, so that I can look again and see something totally different. Hmmmm…. I’ll have to work on that…