#352. A tale of two OTI (OTUS 55/1.4 compared to OTUS 85/1.4)

By pascaljappy | Opinion

May 10

A the Sun rose and woke Pô, Pô rose and woke the anitons.
DSC09058One 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.
Dinosaur skeleton in jadin des plantes, Paris, France. Sony A7r & Zeiss OTUS 55/1.4Vastly 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.

DSC09079Enough with the silly intro 😉

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.

DSC09135So, 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 😉

DSC09134What 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.

DSC09136-ModifierThis 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)DSC09132


Philippe adds:

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)

DSC02568 DSC02575The 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!

DSC02572_1Now, 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.

DSC02575_1So 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.

DSC02596_1But back to picture-taking, and that surprising question: how come Pascal and I did not come up with a single picture in common?

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).

DSC02599The 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…


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  • Paul Perton says:

    Wish I could have joined you.

  • Robert Stark says:

    I would love an update on these comparisons, this time using the new A7RII. Your thoughts? Thank you very much for your reviews. I admire and appreciate the professional and civil remarks one finds in this Dear Susan site.

    • philberphoto says:

      Robert, while A7RII is a bit different from A7R, and this may influence the rendering, the difference in not such that it would invalidate what we wrote then. A7RII is slightly milder, gentler, more focused on mid-tones and less micro-contrast, and this is what this imbues on its lenses. It goes without saying that both Otii have enough resolution to handles the 42 Mp of the new sensor. According to Zeiss, they can handle up to 80 Mp…
      In other words, the difference is not such that it would lead Pascal or I to change our lens selection from hat it was for the A7R. That said, its slightly different settings lead me to different PP from what I applied on A7R pics, and that affects the end result. Specifically, I sharpen more. When mated with Sony G lenses (70-200 f:4.0, or 90 macro f:2.8), which, on the A7R have lovely colours but not a lot of bite, the A7RII with greater sharpening has a bit more of that missing bite. But not enough to change the lens’ character.
      Hope this helps

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