#493. Zeiss OTUS 1.4/28. A formal review of a universal lens

By pascaljappy | Review

Jul 01

This is the last picture I took with this Zeiss OTUS 1.4/28. After this, it was returned to its white and blue box and to the post office to meet its new owner.

A patient daughter - Sony A7rII & Zeiss OTUS 1.4/28

A patient daughter – Sony A7rII & Zeiss OTUS 1.4/28

Lucky man πŸ˜‰

But I can’t complain, having myself enjoyed, for 3 weeks, the presence on my camera of what Zeiss call, with reason, The World’s Best Wide-Angle lens. It isn’t by accident that my final photograph, and the first in this review, is a portrait. Despite what the focal length might lead you to believe, this is a portrait lens. Or rather, as we will see below, it is an absolutely universal lens, but it opens up a new style of portrait photography and I cannot wait to see great stuff come from the hands of the world’s best portrait photographers, with this lens.

After publishing many walks and giving our (Philippe and I) opinion, it’s now time to take the lens through a few rounds of our typically hands-on testing to see what it is that makes it the superlative performer many will soon grow to love.

 

Sharpness

Let’s start with that and just move on quickly. You can find the tremendous MTF curves for this lens in the technical brochure. I’ll just say this: think about any full-frame lens that comes to mind. This is probably sharper.

Marseilles panorama - Sony A7rII & Zeiss OTUS 1.4/28

Marseilles panorama – Sony A7rII & Zeiss OTUS 1.4/28

At peak performance, it vastly out-resolves the sensor on my A7rII and, in that respect, is a very future proof investment. As Sony and followers continue to equate progress with more megapixels, we will soon be carrying 70MPx, then 100+Mpx, cameras in our pockets and out cherished lenses will, one after the other begin to appear to be very crappy performers at the all unimportant 100% on-screen evaluation game.

Not this one. At least not at f/4.

I’ve no formal information to back this up but, if the theoretical limit to pixel useful smallness is around 2 microns, this should take you all the way to that irrelevant limit. You computer will conk out way before your lens does.

Roof moire from Otus 1.4/28 photograph

Roof moire from above panorama

Roof-moire-2

More psychedelic roofs, at f/2 !!!

However irrelevant future sensor resolutions are, the tremendous resolving power of this Otus 28 provides many real-life benefits today. The spectacular 3D, the medium-format look that bests some medium format gear (in my subjective opinion), the wonderful colour fidelity, the texture and dimensionality of objects … all of this is thanks to the super acuity of the lens. Brilliant!

And now, for the Aperture Series

Because why not?

However, this is DearSusan. We do not shoot paper targets or dried flowers in the attic. Our test scene weighs several million tons and uses gigawatts of lighting. Plus it is close to infinity, a distance for which the lens wasn’t optimized. With that said, on with the show. Here it is, proof that nothing is too grand for our readers πŸ˜‰

The test scene

The test scene

What I’m seeing doesn’t quite mirror the published MTF curves. On screen, at 100%, the corners, wide open are a significant step down from the center (itself sharper than I’d have expected from the f/1.4 MTF). The bottom corners appear slightly sharper than the upper, leading me to guess that, on this very 3-D test target, the upper corners are simply out of focus more than the bottom (very slight inward field curvature near the edges ???). Vignetting is quite strong giving the corner a slightly muddy feel which evaporates with an application of the lens profile (“corrected” label, below).

f/1.4 center - Otus 28

f/1.4 center – Otus 28

f/1.4 edge / corner - Otus 28

f/1.4 edge / corner – Otus 28

f/1.4 - edge / corner corrected - Otus 28

f/1.4 – edge / corner corrected – Otus 28

F/2 narrows the difference significantly (while raising the center to stratospheric) and there are improvements all the way up to f/5.6, but you’d need to be printing a billboard to require anything beyond f/2 for image quality reasons.

f/2 center

f/2 center

f/2 edge - Otus 28

f/2 edge – Otus 28

f/2 - edge / corner corrected - Otus 28

f/2 – edge / corner corrected – Otus 28

So, stellar performance from such a wide-aperture wide-angle. I can’ think of any shot during the 3 weeks for which aperture would have been a technical (as opposed to artistic) consideration. Is there anything sharper out there at that focal length? Maybe some specialty lenses, possibly Zeiss’s own cine-series, possibly top offerings from the medium and large format niche (with f/4 max aperture) but certainly nothing I’ve ever seen or used that’s even remotely so universal in its use.

f/5.6 edge / corner - Otus 28

f/5.6 edge / corner – Otus 28

f/5.6 corner - Otus 28

f/5.6 corner – Otus 28

Colour rendition

Now, let’s talk about something more interesting πŸ˜‰

Over the first few days, I was unable to produce a good B&W photograph with this lens. They all paled in comparison to the colour version. Since then, the uses of this lens in B&W have become far more obvious, but that has taken nothing away from the superb colour rendering.

Since gear and inclination fail me to describe colour accurately, here are a variety of photographs made either to show a great range of colours or, on the contrary, to highlight the great separation between similar hues. Also, some are straight out of camera while others have been processed quite significantly. All are clickable for a larger version.

DSC03371 DSC03318 DSC03305 DSC02977 DSC02975-2 DSC02962 DSC02940 DSC02934 DSC02928-2 DSC02911-2 DSC02908-Pano DSC02904-Pano DSC02901DSC03382DSC03668DSC03676 DSC03674DSC03134DSC03133DSC03111DSC03102DSC03656DSC03655What I’m seeing is an impression of great transparency and natural colours that make the lighting conditions quite obvious. Given that Canon and Nikon have better perfected the colour rendition than Sony, users of these two brands will enjoy even lovelier results. But we Sony nuts have nothing to complain about and, for some weird reason, colours from this lens seem far more natural than those produced by native lenses. Go figure.

 

Chromatic aberration

To all intents and purposes, the Otus 28 is apochromatic. At least in the strict “colour free in the in-focus zones” acceptation of the term.

Here is a 100% enlargement of a photograph below (the second in the Bokeh section), made at f/1.4.

OTUS28-CA

Click for 10%

There is a minute red-ish fringe along the black table on the label. Essentially perfect on this test.

The cookie crumbles very slightly in out of focus areas. In the black-to-sunlight out of focus reflection below, the red fringe becomes a tad more visible (again 100%, f/1.4).

OTUS28-CA-2

In the example below, the tiny red to green shift as you move from inside focus to outside focus is again detectable at 100%. Of course all of these clean up easily.

OTUS28-CA-3

Here is a series of overexposed out of focus tents that show some traces of green.

OTUS28-CA-4

And, finally, still at 100%, a close-up f/1.4 shot showing very rapid focus ramping and some hint of colouring.

DSC03373

In my quick evaluation of the Otus 28 in its French debut, some months ago, chromatic aberration had been more noticeable, leading me to believe this must have been a preproduction item. The final version Otus 28 is probably the worst offender of the Otus line, yet still really excellent. And just as the 55 and 85 brothers ware having a laugh, here comes the flare test, where baby 28 simply feels unshakable.

 

Flare

Flare / glare control is possible the most impressive technical ability of this Otus 28. As good as my Otus 85 is, the 28 is a far better performer. It just doesn’t flare.

In my experience, effects are usually at their worst with the sun just out of the frame, as below (apologies for the uninteresting shot, the sun has been in short supply in France, recently πŸ˜‰ ) Nothing to see here. Absolutely nothing, and this is f/1.4.

DSC03654

With the sun on the edge of the frame some glare is visible in the immediate vicinity but the rest of the image shows very little loss of contrast from glare. And the flare at bottom left is really weak.DSC03653

Here’s the worst I could do. Super bright light in a corner, super dark background. It doesn’t get more unfair (actually, it does, this is “only” f/2). Beyond the small green/blue flare at bottom right, there’s not a lot to talk about. DSC03662

Let’s just say flare shouldn’t be a major consideration when setting up your shot …

 

Distortion

Ah, at last, something to say.

The Otus 28 has distortion. Barrels of it too ! Well, tiny barrels, but give me a break, I need to show Zeiss I really tested and found something to report πŸ˜‰

OK, so 1% barrel distortion gives you this (in case you’re wondering “what am I looking for?”, note the concave curvature on the bottom pavement):

DSC03286

Corrected with +5 in LightRoom, this is what you get.DSC03286-2

Here’s another uncorrected shot:

DSC03283

And another (only upright perspective applied here):DSC03563  And another:DSC03277-2Note that correcting this with the distortion slider in LightRoom isn’t perfect as it introduces pincushion distortion on the small axis once the long has been corrected. See below: DSC03195 DSC03195-2

The best way to deal with is to use the lens profile in whatever software you are using (since Lightroom is no longer being updated for non subscribers, I use the OTUS 55 profile, which appears to work fine). Before and after samples, below:

DSC03566 DSC03566-2

 

Subjective Bokeh evaluation

First of all, lets shine a light on the great Zeiss mystification !

We’ve all been told depth of field depends on aperture and subject magnification (or focal length & distance). Not so. Pound for pound (or aperture for aperture) some lenses produce more blur than others. This is one of those wizzard lenses that create blur out of thin air.

And it looks good, too …

Here’s a slightly out of focus shot that gives you an idea (and yes, in public, I’ll pretend I did that on purpose).DSC03130

More interestingly, here’s the sort of otherworldly trick this lens can pull. 50 Noctilux ? Nope, much smoother bokeh and only 28mm. Unbelievable.

DSC02974

Even the nasty sunlight-through-tree-leaves ISO 9001 standard (for English readers, that’s foot-pounds per cubic inches πŸ˜€ ) test is passed with flying colours.

DSC02929

At medium distance (roughly full body portrait distances) here’s what f/1.4 gives you. The out-of-focus bulbs on the left show no traces of unwanted doughnut or onion-rings effects.

DSC03103Used at close range, this Otus is a real cream-machine (dreamy machine ?) and really allows you to create interesting imagery with none of the unlikable bokeh effects of some other fast lenses (read, no ugly swirls).

DSC03652

The progression from in-focus to out-of-focus is smoother than on the Otus 85, a desirable feature it shares with the 55.DSC03360DSC09119

(c) Philippe

Here are a few other shots, all at f/1.4. Smaller apertures simply create a lesser blur but, as far as my experience goes, create no unwanted nasties.DSC02716-Modifier DSC02733 DSC02742-ModifierDSC02804

And below, two shots at f/2.8

Rose-OTUS28-100 DSC02833 In this 100% enlargement from an f/5.6 shot (by Philippe) you can see that the trees are slightly out of focus whereas the small building is perfectly in-focus. This in spite of both being very close to infinity relative to a 28mm focal length. Note also how lovely the rendering of the trees is.

DSC09104_1

Subjective Black & White evaluation

Now, we’re really getting into seriously unscientific regions πŸ˜‰ I’ll try to convey what appeals to me in a monochrome setting, but your mileage may certainly vary.

One of my favourite lenses for B&W is the C-Sonnar 1.5/50. This gives a sharp but grungy look to images that few digital filters can recreate adequately. The Otus 28 is also a top performer in B&W but its strengths lie elsewhere. Transparency and tone refinement rule the day here.

DSC03171

That’s not to say images produced with the Otus 28 can’t be made to look different. It’s always possible to add your own digital recipe to the file in post-processing.
DSC03703

But the underlying touch of class is always present, if you don’t push the sliders so far as to completely lose the original look of the optics (and in that case, why buy top class glass?). Again, I feel the combination of great tonal subtlety and the wide-angle geometry “distortion” makes for really amazing portrait possibilities and really hope some daring pros soon adopt this Otus to introduce a new “perspective” in their work.DSC03701 DSC03669 DSC03665-2DSC03527 DSC03048-3 DSC03004DSC03135 DSC02960

 

Who is it for?

Let’s set aside price considerations for now. It’s a sad fact that its current price point puts the Otus 28 out of most photographers’ reach and you already know whether you can/want to afford this lens or not. It lets you do things other lenses can’t achieve, which answers the “is it worth it ?” question by lack of alternatives.

Since Canon and Nikon have fine-tuned their colour output better than Sony, users of these platforms will find the lens even more spectacular than A7x owners. Plus, the use of adapters apparently introduces very slight additional vignetting. Now that live-view implementations have improved, the whole Otus range comes highly-recommended.

Sony offers excellent focusing aids and it’s hard to imagine a more pleasant lens to use for a camera such as my current A7rII.

Given the close focus ability, the range of imaging aesthetics, and a range of apertures that introduce no technical limits, this really feels like a universal lens.

It’s big and heavy so hikers will choose it as an either-or  proposition rather than as part of larger range in their bag. But there isn’t much you can’t do with it.

Landscape ? Check.

DSC03588

Architecture ? Check.DSC03504Nature ? Check.

DSC02757-2DSC02759

Hiking ? Check.DSC02796 DSC02778-4

Portrait ? Check.

DSC03700Street / urban ? Check.DSC03601 DSC03658DSC03445 DSC03449

Concert ? Check. (the crummy image quality has nothing to do with the lens and all to do with a certain manufacturer’s RAW file management …)DSC03679-3

Fine art ? Check.

DSC03489Product ? Check.

DSC02928-2

Of course, this doesn’t mean much. Any kit lens could make photographs in these situations. But the results would be variable: excellent in some cases and poor in others. Whereas the Otus 28’s use case seems far more universal.

In every shooting scenario I have been able to tackle, its blend of no-comprise focus-depth control and stubborn transparency always yielded a very high keeper rate and lower-than-usual post-processing efforts (for pros, that alone makes it worth the price of admission, and some). In that respect, and given the very useful focal length, I feel the lens is both universal and slightly disruptive. I hope it fosters innovative thinking in the hands of many creative pros and enthusiasts in the world.  DSC03491

“Think different, I have your back” it whispers in our ear!

 


Email: subscribed: 4
  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Thanks for these two postings, Pascal. Now that you’ve provided me with all the reasons why I should get one, all that remains is for me to find the money πŸ™‚ (Poverty is not merely the curse of the drinking classes, it’s also the scourge of the photographer. BTW, was the rosΓ© to your taste? – there’s a restaurant here, in Melbourne, and another in Queensland, where you can enjoy it on this side of the world)

    There’s competition of course. The Milvus 21mm is less than half the price, and a slightly wider angle. The Sigma ART @24mm is a handy length and a good performer. And 28mm is slightly longer than I’d wish for.

    Longer? – so is the Otus 55mm – but to be perfectly frank about it, I have always been more comfortable with 55mm than 50mm for a standard lens.

    If my Otus 55mm is any guide, I think I will be deliriously happy with the 28mm version – if & when. I am “interested” in Hasselblad’s latest offering, but I am not considering acquiring one. I’m sticking with FF for serious photography, and my two smaller cams for less demanding shots.

    Otus has this effect on me – the 55mm is easy to focus, for my purposes – the clarity of the images is sensational – and the colours & tones of colour are extraordinary. I took a shot with it on Sunday evening, for the proprietor of the shop next door, and by Tuesday morning they had sent a copy of it to over a thousand customers. That’s not an outcome I expect from my other lenses – however nice the photos are.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Pete, can I make matters worse for you ? πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ Philippe has made flower photographs with the 55 and the 28 and the two look so alike it’s uncanny. The perspective on the 28 is more pronounced but the drawing feels identical. So if your 55 is the love of your photo life, I strongly advise against trying the 28 πŸ˜‰

  • philberphoto says:

    Pascal, great review of a tremendous lens! That said, did you really have to shoot an aperture series? To talk only in technical terms? Where has the magic gone? The fun, the pleasure, the profanity? πŸ™‚

    Pete, I feel for you. You, like me, love your Otus 55. That, alas, is not a cure for (or against) other Otuses, but an invitation. Resistance is futile…:-(

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Perhaps I should put a cat in amongst the pigeons by sending you an article extolling the virtues of the Sony A7R?

    For the time being I’m going to try to do a “Lazarus” act on my Sigma ART 24mm – getting their USB hub tomorrow so that I can try to fix the AF. It’s a rather extreme solution to spend all that cash on an Otus 28mm, when I use a standard lens around 80-90% of the time. Sadly, Philippe, I think I will accept Pascal’s advice.

    Have any of you guys come across a chap called Viktor Pavlovic – a photographer from Prague? I’ve just been reading his comments on Otus and Milvus lenses – a great sense of humour and some very interesting observations. Oh – and to my delight, some portrait shots which suggest that it’s possible to take a far better photo with ambient light than with studio flash – which should be good for generating a great deal of controversy!! πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete, by all means, send that article along πŸ™‚ Good luck with the Sigma 24 ART. Using AF is bad enough for me. Having to fix it would lead me to jump off a bridge πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰
      http://www.verybiglobo.com is very interesting and has a hands on approach that so many lack.

      Yes, you can take great photos in ambient light but a lighting wizard is often going to be able to add something of his/her own. It’s really a dedicated field of study in itself, though … One day, maybe πŸ˜‰

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Nostalgia day – well Pascal, as you already know, I chucked in the Sigma ART f/1.4 24mm and used the trade in as a deposit on my Otus 28mm. Which – unlike the Sigma – is “satisfactory”. ?? “Brilliant !!” There is simply no comparison. Sorry Sigma, your 50mm ART scores but I didn’t like the 24mm.

        This discussion launched on 1 July – I did well – I held out until 15 August before I drove across to the other side of the city and came home with the Sigma’s replacement. Which takes incredible photos. πŸ™‚

        Not being mad on action shots, auto focus doesn’t play a big part in my photography – so it won’t be sadly missed.

        I could do with a lighting wizard. Hang on – Ming’s a lighting wizard – I’ve taken a hint from him, I’ve unearthed some articles on lighting that he wrote a couple of years ago, and I am about to give myself a crash course in lighting. It can only improve my skill set, no matter what damage it does to what’s left of the bank account.

  • Yeahhh says:

    I came here to complain about a blog dedicated to travel photography promoting a 2kg behemoth that costs the same amount like a whole world trip to places worth photographing, and in general, 28mm is a smartphone FOV and therefore totally lame …

    … but you proved me wrong, Pascal! And I really liked the idea of the new review format with several upfront previews and one final review. Still though, out of scope for me.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Actually, you make a very good point. We’re always excited to get a great lens through the post but we don’t want to be all about gear. So the “walking about with the new lens format” seemed like a nice balance for readers who might not be interested in distortion figures πŸ˜‰

      Out of scope for me too. It’s a fantastic lens, but there’s only room for one biggie in my lazy bag and my bank account approves too. We’ll see what the future holds, though. I have been known to crack … ouch.

  • Scott Edwards says:

    Fantastic information and photos. Thanks, as always! Still really enjoying my Zeiss/Sony 35 1.4 Distagon, need to invest in lighting, but this post furthers the dream! Ah, beautiful lady in those portraits. How much are you paying her? πŸ˜‰ I will sometimes shoot my daughter and she’ll wonder why l “took better photos of that girl (and not her).” My response is consistent: Because she did what I asked! Haha… well, thanks again as always.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Scott! The competition between the Otus and Distagon is really interesting, the latter being more than a consolation for not affording the former. It really is a tradeoff between ultimate technnical abilities and compact size. The 35mm is more natural to me, but the Otus really has that special clarity … Ugh, tough πŸ˜‰ Pizza and cinema are a good negotiation points for daughter models πŸ˜‰ The hardest part for mine was keeping a straight face. I asked her to look stern and she was laughing her head off most of the time.

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