#484. The Zeiss Otus 28 mm f:1.4. First impressions: mighty, or almighty?

#484. The Zeiss Otus 28 mm f:1.4. First impressions: mighty, or almighty?

So, the Zeiss Otus 28 mm f:1.4 is here!

A bench photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Writing a (p)review of this lens is both easy and not easy. Easy, because, as you will see, it isn’t hard to read my mind on this huge piece of gear. Not easy because, once that is said and done, it needs to be put in context. Is a lens that weighs 1,4kg really useable everyday for street? Is it worth its 4750€ price tag? How can you justify the small increment in performance over a premium lens that costs two-thirds less and weighs half?

Lamp post photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

So, it seems I have my work cut out for me. First, the easy part. The Otus 28 is, in my mind, for my type of shooting, and after only a few days’ experience, not only the best 28mm lens I have ever used, not only the best of the 3 Otus lenses, but what I consider to be the best 35mm lens ever. Now let me explain that. By “best” Otus, I don’t mean that it has the best MTF or some such technical, numerical superiority. I don’t talk about its rendering, which can be a matter of taste. No, I mean that MM. Zeiss have oh-so-cleverly designed the Otus 28 with a set of virtues that let it deliver a greater number of fabulous pics from given scenes than any other FF lens I know.

La Défense photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Now, before you sentence me either to an eternity in hell or a lifetime in a straitjacket and padded cell, for daring to compare lenses that obviously can’t be, such as a tele lens and a wide-angle, let me tell you how I see it.

A street bollard photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

DearSusan has coined the term “überlens”. Those lenses that can not only deliver superlative IQ, exceeding camera capabilities and owner’s expectations, but that can do it over a broad spectrum of types of shots. Simply put, the Otus 28 sets new standards in both criteria. The performance exceeds my expectations, even though as the owner of a Otus 55 and one well versed in the Otus 85, I am no newbie to Otus performance. And it does it across such a wide variety of subjects that I am (almost) ready to declare that what I until now thought to be my favorite focal length, 50mm, is now superseded. If I had a desert island lens, it would be the Otus 28mm.

Shop door handles photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Let’s break this “performance” section in 2 parts.

Detail of contruction in La Défense photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

First part: where the 28mm is “typical Otus”. Colours, detail, sharpness are all in line with expectations. Huge amounts of detail, all of them beyond any question of sharpness, even though it is easier to see it in a tele lens than in a wide-angle. Basically, I just zoomed to 100% on camera to check my focus, and just had to laugh time and time again at how “good” the result was. Colours, shades, structure, materials, differentiation, subtle inflections are there in spades. This is an Otus without a doubt. You can almost get a sense of smell and temperature… well not really, but slowly getting there…:-). As (I hope) you can see from the pictures in this post, neutrality and transparency are of the highest order. You like it grungy, this lens can do grungy. You like it warm and fuzzy. Can do that too… and so on. Finally, how versatile is it? Up close? Exceptional. At infinity? Superlative. Wide open? Really sharp. Closed down? Impeccable.

Lock and shutters photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Also, in terms of looks and haptics, the 28mm is vintage Otus. in particular, its very long and oh-so-smooth focusing ring make precise focusing a breeze. A delight.

DSC09149

I have to stop this before you think that I’ve completely lost any sense of perspective. But let me tell you this. It is much more comfortable for a reviewer to find something that is wrong than the opposite. If you criticize, it demonstrates that you are thorough, honest, demanding, and watching out for the interests of your readers. If you find “all things beautiful”, you are suspect both technically, and morally, of pandering to interests other than those of your audience.

Hidden jewels photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

So, after this avalanche of superlatives, let me tell you how comfortable I am in deploring 3 aspects of the Otus 28mm. Yes, 3, and major ones. The cost, the weight, the bulk. That is what will keep many people who would have loved such a sublime lens from owning one.

A red bicycle photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Now to the second part: where the 28mm is different from its Otus brethren. The 55mm has a structured bokeh, meaning the out-of-focus part of the picture retains more structure and detail than other lenses, some of which go for “creamy” bokeh. This structured bokeh lets me use the out-of-focus background as part of the story-telling. Out-of-focus, yet still meaningful. The bokeh is where the 28mm is magical. Until now, I used a 28mm Leica R Elmarit V.II, often considered one of the finest lenses ever designed in this focal length. I did some comparison shots at f:4.0, an aperture at which both lenses ought to be at their best. To my surprise, the Otus blurs very significantly more than the Leica. Yes, there is structure in the bokeh, with shapes and colours, but the blur is greater. And this is where it gets, fascinating. With a wider lens, you have more elements in your picture than with a longer lens. Therefore, if anything is untoward in the background, the picture is not as clean as I’d (you’d) like. Not so with the Otus. As the background is more blurred, the background has a lesser ability to distract the eye. And that is where it makes total sense: the Otus is a f:1.4 lens, and many people can wonder: why such a large aperture, as 28mm is more landscape than portrait? So, closed down performance matters more than wide open. No longer, friends. Shooting at f:2.0 is just such a joy. Get close to your subject, which will become almost painfully crisp and sharp, and the wide lens blurs your background sooooo nicely. You can still see what is there, but silently, without drawing attention to itself. So easy.

DSC09127

This is why this Otus is giving me heartache: until now 50mm is my favorite focal ength because with it I can do everything and anything: from landscape to portrait to street to product to close-up (with a tube). Definitely my go-to focal-length. It is not for nothing that Henri Cartier-Bresson achieved greatness with just that sort of lens. But the Otus 28mm turns that on its head. You want wide, and it is wide. Then if you want to close up, just close in, with an MFD of just 30cm. You want the background out-of-the-way? Open up the aperture. You want to see it, close down. Yikes! This means that the 28mm can do it all? You bet! You can even pre-focus at f:5.6, and get a sharpness area that stretches from 3.6m. (12ft.) to infinity. No need to re-focus, just point, and shoot!

Les 4 temps in La Défense photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Now, before you tell me that I’ve talked about landscape performance without showing it, here is one such picture. That there aren’t more is just a reflection on the amount of rain that Paris has been receiving these last few days. The picture is a close-to-100% crop. No filters, no shenanigans. And look at the quality of the background foliage.

A ruin on La Seine photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Just to give you an idea of the full shot, here is its sibling, SOOC:

The river Seine photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Just one more thing before I sign off (Pascal has pried the lens out of my hands anyhow! ): ) the Otus 28mm has strong contrast au naturel (think: Loxia 21, 135 APO) and thus requires, to my taste, almost no PP other than standard sharpening.

Motorbike tail lights photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Conclusion: do I need to add anything? Ah, yes, to remind you that I hate heavy lenses, and even more so when they are expensive. So I would LOVE  to hate the Otus 28mm. But no can do. It is just too good.

Pascal Adds …

What is this lens, anyway ?

Cordiline flowers photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Zeiss OTUS 28/1.4

My first contact with it was in Salon de la Photo, in Paris a few months ago. Zeiss were kind enough to loan it to us for a few minutes and it impressed me by its weight and it’s ability to render 3D but also by some unheard of chromatic aberration and other niggles.

Perhaps more impressive were the stunning portraits displayed on the Zeiss booth and made with this lens. So stunning that it all made me wonder whether the OTUS 28 hadn’t been designed as a portrait lens. A first for a wide-angle lens?

A dandelion photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Today, with all of 4 hours of experience at home with the OTUS 28, it’s easy to realise how wrong I was. This is in fact a macro lens !

Closeup of a dandelion heart photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Butterfly feeding photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Grass cricket photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Details of rose petals photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

It seems to excel at every aperture at its minimum focusing distance of 30 cm. “Close up” takes on a new meaning when you are used to ZM lenses that max out at 90cm!

So that’s settled, Zeiss have produced the first f/1.4 macro lens.

Oh but wait! It seems to excel at medium distances as well!

Old flowers in B&W photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28 Wilted flowers photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

So maybe it is a great portrait lens after all!

Oh, but what’s this? A cream machine?

Distorted close-up of a cat photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Small orchids photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

You have to admit such deep and creamy bokeh is unexpected on a 28mm lens, even an f/1.4 version!!!!!!!

And, as Philippe’s photographs of the Seine, and the one below, prove in spades, it is equally at ease at infinity, in landscape mode. The sense of depth is fantastic, colours are spot on, handling of highlights superb (a controlled global contrast with a fairly high micro-contrast) … everything falls into place.

Swimming pool in Provence photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

Sharp? You bet. Here’s a 200% enlargement (yeah, that’s a 4m wide photograph, on most screens) of the tiny window above the lower roof of the house, 70m away. The lens is ridiculously sharp.

200% enlargement of a house photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28If the inordinately inclement weather allows, I’ll test the lens for astrophotography at some point, and fully expect it to be a stunner too.

So, we’re back to square one: what on Earth is that lens ???

All I know is that it adds a real WOW factor to the most mundane shot, see below …

Valeriane photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Fake curry photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28… and it produces the best colours I have seen on any of my cameras to date …Multi-coloured rose buds photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28Even my reference Audrey (Distagon 1.4/35 ZM) doesn’t seem to perform any better.   Bright-red rose photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28 Wild broom photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28 Also, to conclude these first impressions, let me just say that it took me a long time to make anything worth showing with the OTUS 85 (which I went on to buy) whereas this 28mm version appears to be incredibly easy to use. Just point it at anything and the results are lovely.Interiro decoration photographed with a Sony A7rII and Zeiss Otus 28

So here’s the plan. Onver the coming weeks, I’ll be :

  • looking at bokeh at various distances and apertures.
  • comparing the lens to my current wide angle heart-throb the Distagon 2/25 ZE.2 and to my reference Distagon 1.4/35 ZM (and Philippe has his lovely Elmarit-R 2.8/28 too)
  • walking the hills just to take photographs.
  • attempting to photograph the heavens with long exposures.
  • reviewing the lens formally (flare, aberrations, sharpness …)
  • looking for ways to justify keeping a second expensive monster at home.

Drat!


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15 Comments

  1. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron June 03, 2016

    You’re a pair of Zeiss junkies and I’m as jealous as hell, because I can’t afford one! Curses ! – it would be a nice fit with the other Zeiss lenses on my D810!!

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy June 03, 2016

      Pete, if it makes you feel better, I can’t afford this one either. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ll tell Zeiss it got abducted by aliens or stolen by Philippe.

      • Avatar
        philberphoto June 04, 2016

        “abducted by aliens or stolen by Philippe”. Isn’t that one and the same?

  2. Avatar
    Leonard June 04, 2016

    It continues to amaze me that these Otii lenses perform as well as they do on cameras they were not designed for. I may have missed it, so [remind me] tell me what cameras are in play here and what adaptors, if any?

    • Avatar
      philberphoto June 04, 2016

      Leonard, both Pascal and I use Sony A7RII. I use a Novoflex F to FE adapter, and Pascal a Voigtländer

  3. Avatar
    Vladimir June 04, 2016

    I do and I do not understand the need for fast f 1.4 wide-angle lenses. Years ago whilst carting heavy Nikon F100 (excellent film camera) and fast lenses in the hills of Tasmania on my back was my turning point. First come a Bessa R2A, and then Zeiss Ikon ZM (regretting selling it to this day) followed by Leica M9 and now Leica M (240). That brings me to my 2.8/28 ASPH. Elmarit-M. At just under 200g and if needed closer focus ring or two of Novoflex Visoflex adapter gets me as close to subject as I want. No doubt the Zeiss Otus 1.4/28 is a very fine lens, but that extra 1200g on my back would be noticeable on a long hike. Just saying.

    • Avatar
      philberphoto June 04, 2016

      Vladimir, if hiking was a major part of my photography, I have no doubt that I would select lighter lenses, like Loxia or Batis for example.
      Whether the “extra performance” over fine premium lenses is worth so much money and weight is a personal decision for each of us.
      That said, te decision to go with f:1.4 is amply justified, in my opinion, with the new performance envelope that the wide open apertures enable. But that does not mean that “slower lenses” don’t have a place in the market. I loved my very slow Elmar 24mm f:3.8 for landscape. The day of a “perfect offering for everyone” has not yet come…:-)

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy June 04, 2016

      Hi Vladimir,

      the Otus 28 could concievably be my only lens on a hike. Considering that many bring along quite a bit of extra gear or, simply, zooms that aren’t exactly light or small, a Sony + Otus package makes a convenient walking package. Not for climbing Mt Everest, neither the lens or camera are robust enough for that. But I wouldn’t shy away from it, even for physical stuff. Cheers. Pascal

    • Avatar
      jean pierre (pete) guaron June 06, 2016

      While I had a 35m w/angle for decades, on my Zeiss Contarex, I never really made much use of it. However, with the Nikon D810, I am well pleased with my 24mm f/1.4 w/angle. On my first shoot after I bought the lens, I found myself using it as “the lens of choice” far more than I expected – and 24mm is far wider than 35mm.

      As for choosing a “fast f/1.4” w/angle, that was a major reason for acquiring the lens. For interior shots, where I was not allowed to use flash or a tripod, the extra stops made a huge contribution. The alternative of opening up the ISO had far less appeal, as it brings with it an increase in noise levels – which start becoming really noticeable above 3200 ISO – and the f/1.4 setting enabled me to avoid that on any number of shots.

      That said, this outcome is personal – if you don’t use the w/angle for interiors, my comment may have no relevance to your photography, Vladimir.

      To answer Leonard’s question, they were designed with either a Canon or a Nikon mount, I believe – but as Philippe has pointed out, adapters exist for using them on other cameras. The Nikon mount is also compatible with a Kodak camera and several Fujis.

  4. Avatar
    Gaël NICOLIN June 07, 2016

    Pascal,

    Ravis de voir que l’Otus 28mm te laisses une bonne impression.
    Je suis impatient de découvrir tes prochaines photos.

    Amicalement,

  5. Avatar
    loganross June 08, 2016

    Hi,
    What a wonderful article! I am a person who loves 21-28mm. I am struggling with which lens to select: Batis, Loxia, or Otis. I am not asking for analytics, but I would love for you to compare and contrast your subject experience with these lenses. Thank you!

  6. Avatar
    loganross June 08, 2016

    Sorry, my last post should have said “subjective” rather than “subject”

  7. Avatar
    Bryan S June 17, 2016

    Hi Susan, really enjoyed your article! I wanted to comment about your statement saying that the Otus 28mm is a macro lens… I think most of the Zeiss lenses are like macro lenses in their reach but also in their croppability. I bought the Milvus 50mm 1.4 about a month ago, I was shooting macros with the Nikon 105mm 2.8vr which I really enjoyed but i will say that the Milvus 50 out resolves the 105mm and has the Zeiss look as well. I can crop in like crazy and the image holds up, with tons of clarity and detail, talk about little to no imperfections as well! Love the new line and I definitely want to get more in the future:) my favorite shot here is the black and white roses (?) in the case on the table, looks like the flower heads are coming out of the frame.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy June 17, 2016

      Hi Bryan, you’re a lucky man. That Milvus 50 is a truly fabulous lens. Smooth as silk, lovely colours and superbly sharp. Until you’ve actually used a lens like that, size and price simply make no sense. After you have, well, you realize there is so much they can do, including stuff outside of their design zone, such as macro. Have fun with your 50 🙂

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