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.
Lucky man 😉
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 😉
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/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.
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.
Now, let’s talk about something more interesting 😉
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.
What 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.
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.
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).
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.
Here is a series of overexposed out of focus tents that show some traces of green.
And, finally, still at 100%, a close-up f/1.4 shot showing very rapid focus ramping and some hint of colouring.
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 / 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 😉 ) Nothing to see here. Absolutely nothing, and this is f/1.4.
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.
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.
Let’s just say flare shouldn’t be a major consideration when setting up your shot …
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 😉
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):
Corrected with +5 in LightRoom, this is what you get.
Here’s another uncorrected shot:
And another (only upright perspective applied here): And another:Note 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:
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:
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 …
More interestingly, here’s the sort of otherworldly trick this lens can pull. 50 Noctilux ? Nope, much smoother bokeh and only 28mm. Unbelievable.
Even the nasty sunlight-through-tree-leaves ISO 9001 standard (for English readers, that’s foot-pounds per cubic inches 😀 ) test is passed with flying colours.
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.
Used 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).
And below, two shots at f/2.8
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.
Now, we’re really getting into seriously unscientific regions 😉 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.
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.
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.
Portrait ? Check.
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 …)
Fine art ? Check.
Product ? Check.
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.
“Think different, I have your back” it whispers in our ear!
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