Ah, what is so rare as a perfect gentleman ? He is always appropriately dressed, but never calls attention upon himself, the way a dandy would. He always fits in, yet maintains a distinctive identity. He never puts a foot wrong, whatever the circumstances. And, as and when matters require it, he always comes through for others. Though there are things a perfect gentleman would never stoop to doing…
Readers of the older persuasion may remember Jules Vernes’ Phileas Fogg, the perfect gentleman who circumnavigated the world in 80 days without ever losing his poise. And no, the picture below is not that of Mr Fogg’s cat. Merely an example of the Loxia 85 wide open.
The Loxia 85 is one such lens and, indeed, Fogg would have loved it. It is fairly compact, for a 85mm full-metal prime that is, and shares a common filter thread with the 3 other Loxia lenses (52mm). That commonality dictates the single performance parameter of the Loxia 85 that stands out: its (relatively) slow maximum aperture of f:2,4. So, how does it all add up?
Testing a lens is both exciting and boring. Exciting, because it is a potential new toy, something that can bring fun to your photography, and maybe enhance your sense of achievement. Boring because you have to take the same shot with multiple apertures, multiple lenses of similar focal length, and any fun in that, believe me, soon wears off. You can imagine my glee at leaving that part to Pascal…:-)
So let’s start with the fun part. Put the lens on, take a shot of a subject you know well, and look at the rear LCD of the camera, then magnify at 100%. Not forgetting that you only get one chance to make a good first impression .:-) With some lenses, that is all it takes, and you know. You go “Wow!”, and you know this is the start of a beautiful relationship. Or you may go “Meh!” and you think: “do I really need to do any more, I know how this ends up?….”
No point in maintaining any suspense here, DearSusan is not a site where the meat of the review is behind a pay wall, and you only get the teaser for free. Take a shot with the Loxia 85, and -Wow!- you are right up there with some of the world’s best lenses. For reference, I used it in comparison to the Sony 85 f:1,4 GM and Leica M Elmarit 90 f:2,8. And I compared some pictures with those from an Otus 85 f:1,4, a ZE 85 f: 1,4, a Sony FE 90 G macro f:2,8. Lofty territory indeed, and it held its own like a perfect gentleman.
Now to facts. Designing this can’t have been easy, because MM. Zeiss had decided that Loxia would be a line of compact manual lenses designed for the Sony FE mount that (a) had a common 52mm filter size, (b) would appeal to both photographers and videographers, and (c) had a common look and feel.
The common, compact size excluded making a fast (meaning f:1,4) 85. It just couldn’t be done with that filter size. But 85/90mm lenses are supposed to be portrait lenses, and, for portrait, you want a fast aperture to get a maximum amount of separation between the face and the background . Zeiss themselves do a fast-ish 85 for the same Sony cameras. It isn’t overly large or heavy, and it costs pretty much the same as the Loxia, it is the autofocus Batis 85 f:1,8. Don’t think that, because they come from the same stable, that of Zeiss, Batis and Loxia are part of the same range, they aren’t. Batis are for people who want/need autofocus. Interestingly, they were released not long before Leica went autofocus in 35mm format with their SL camera. Not a coincidence, many pairs of eyes are getting older, and can’t MF that well any more. Loxia, on the other hand, are manual focus like the other Zeiss lenses.
But no way could a 85 f:1,8 fit the Loxia form factor. It would have to be a f:2,4 lens. So, before they even started the design, Zeiss had more or less conceded the single most obvious application for that lens, the thin-DOF portrait. It is like designing a family car that only seats 4. Did you say counterintuitive? There are precedents, though: the Contax G 90mm, a remarkable Zeiss design of years past, was f:2,8, and the Leica Elmarit 90 was also f:2,8. Also, don’t think either that this new lens doesn’t provide any separation. It does, and beautifully, too, as some of these pictures demonstrate. Just not as much, and not with a razor-thin DOF, the way a f:1,4 lens would. But a perfect gentleman shouldn’t judged on his ability to compete with Usain Bolt, should he?
On the other hand, the new Loxia had to be what owners of the other Loxias expected it to be. Not only physically (format) and mechanically (haptics), but also optically. Including the recent and more-than-excellent 21mm f:2,8. Which means high micro-contrast, and a very clean, clear rendering, free of the distortions that weaken other designs, and with the “pop” and 3D that owners equate with owning a Zeiss lens. For reference, the picture below is straight-out-of-camera, and the one under it a 100% crop. Did I say lots of detail?
So, is there a life for slow-ish 85s?
The long and the short of it is: you bet there is! And it is fun, too! That is where MM. Zeiss show that they are not only competent, they are actually clever. Because the Loxia 85 is “only” f:2,4, the battle for the hearts and souls of the bokeh-freaks is lost. Or is it? Because bokeh can be creamy, wiping out any detail in the out-of-focus parts of the picture. Or it can be structured, and contain much graphical detail, though out of focus. And Zeiss decided, if we can’t get super-creamy bokeh, we will design a lens that will appeal to the structured bokeh crowd. Those who want the out-of-focus part of the picture to participate in the storytelling. That is not unusual for Zeiss, whose lenses have always been more on the structured side than overly creamy, but, with the Loxia 85, they outdid themselves. This lens has (a) very beautiful, structured bokeh indeed, and (b) great depth of field and (c) gradual transition from in-focus to out-of-focus. The result: a storyteller’s dream. This is where I believe that Zeiss have actually made significant progress recently. They now know how to design every aspect of a lens’ performance exactly to specification. I first noticed it with the Otus 28, and its telephoto-esque amount of blur, and here the opposite with the Loxia 85.
Now to results: what does the Loxia do for its owner? Simply, straight from wide open, which admittedly isn’t the widest, it delivers superbly clear shots, with massive detail and beautiful colors, abundant 3D and a drawing style which I can only describe as “on the gentlemanly side of absolutely neutral”. The pictures never raise questions as to whether they are sharp enough, ‘cause they are plenty sharp, but not “in-your-face-sharp”. Seeing the lovely colors and the painterly rendering, you might be tempted to think “low micro-contrast”. That would be a mistake, because the micro-contrast is actually quite high, definitely higher than the mild Sony FE 85GM, and in keeping with the recent –and great- Loxia 21. Again, Zeiss manage to improve in one area without losing out on another. You get colors and detail and contrast and neutrality, all in one. Wow! Very, very wow!
Basically, a direct comparison with shots from the Sony (2x the price), the Leica (also 2x the price in its time) and the Otus 85 (4x) shows that the Loxia pictures look to be of an equivalent quality level…. Wow! This lens in a way reminds me of my beloved ZE 85 f:1,4 Planar. In the ZE/ZF days (now replaced by Milvus), Zeiss offered 2 pairs of lenses. The 50 and 85 f:1,4, and the 50 and 100 f:2,0 Makro Planar. The Makro Planar pair offered immaculate performance at close range, and tremendous take-no-prisoners sharpness. The f:1,4 duo offered warmer, more romantic colors, and a gentle, graceful rendering. That, alas, they also came with all manners of aberrations, and shooting close up and wide open was just not a practical option. The Loxia seems to have much of the 85 Planar in its DNA. The beautiful colors, the gentleness, the overall loveliness that it imbues its pictures with. Fortunately, the aberrations are gone, and the Loxia is strikingly “clean” in this respect. But the very wide and fast aperture couldn’t make it, at least in a Loxia…
But you shouldn’t take this as meaning that the Loxia is an Otus, only much smaller, lighter and cheaper. It isn’t, primarily because (a) it is much slower, and (b) while there is little CA, it isn’t quite an APO lens. And the Otus has “something” special…
What Zeiss have done IMHO is made a clear choice. Rather than a lens that does many things “as well as possible”, they have chosen a lens that does everything it can superlatively, but there are things it can’t do. Rather than compromise each shot as the price to pay for broadening the lens’ capability (the sort of approach that leads to designing AF zooms), they have made the opposite choice: superb, but only for certain applications.
How does it integrate in the Loxia lineup? The star, to my mind, is the 21mm. Simply, the reference in that focal length. I would say that, within its relative speed limit, the 85 is as good. Maybe even, if, like me, you like a gentleman more than an athlete, you might find even a little bit better. It is, in a way everything I like best about the Loxia 50, the lovely colors, and the rendering, but made more modern with an infusion of the 21’s clarity and detail, yet without any of the countervailing loss one would expect. Very wow indeed!
So who is this sort-of-specialist lens for? The first category that comes to mind is the storyteller. Whether you are doing street, where you want to highlight your subject, yet show the context (thanks for the structured bokeh!), or landscape, when you stop down to where the slowness of the lens doesn’t matter at all. Or outdoor, where you have lots of available light, and where low weight matters for hiking. Or video, where you need a manual focus lens that has the same look as its brethren. So, while many bloggers may post snide knee-jerk comments about the worst speed-to-cost ratio, and thus the Loxia won’t win the specification game, there are oh-so-many photo-and-videographers that will love it to death. They also know how good “slow” lenses can be, like the Leica Elmar 24mm f:3,8 and the Super Elmar 21mm f:3,4, both of which are considered better for landscape than their larger, heavier, more expensive Summilux stablemates. Or the Leica R APO Telyt 180 f:3,4.
A quick word about using the Loxia. Just as the Sony A7 line has grown in size and weight (and performance) in its V2 iteration, the Loxia 85 is no small and light lens. Yes, it feels full-metal and very solidly built, and it balances well on my A7RII, but the I-have-given-up-my-DSLR-in-favor-of-mirrorless-because-of-lower-weight crowd are not going to get as light a lens as they’d want. Think more Leica R than Leica M. And, like other Loxia, it is a delight to use from a haptics point of view. Precise and smooth, well-damped focusing, automatic switch to magnify when you focus, a nice aperture ring, full EXIF. I wouldn’t have minded slightly shorter MFD, though, at 80cm, it can’t be criticized, but a shorter one would have been even nicer for flower shots and the likes.
So, 2 questions before I conclude: is the Loxia 85 an überlens? And am I going to buy one?
No, the Loxia is not an überlens. To achieve that hallowed status, a lens needs to produce superlative IQ. And the Loxia does that in spades. But it also needs to do it across a broad spectrum of situations, and there, the Loxia doesn’t measure up. So what does that make it? A lens that produces überlens-level pics, but “only” in many –but not all- situations? Because Zeiss have so brilliantly designed its performance envelope, I choose to call it a designer lens. Like a designer dress…
And the last question: will I buy one? As I already own a larger, heavier, costlier Sony FE 85 GM f:1,4, an überlens in its own right, though the Loxia can deliver even better results in some cases, I won’t. I chose the Sony to have at least one AF lens, so my choice is clear. But, as and when my age catches up with the weight of my lenses, and I go for a lighter system, I can’t imagine a better choice for a lighter 85 than the Loxia…
Habitual readers of DearSusan know of our strange custom to give lenses a name. But only those lenses that we, Pascal and I, love. Hence, the Otus 85 is Hubert (French version of Über). The Milvus 85 is Max. Well, the Loxia 85 earned itself a name. George. A royal name in its own right, as befits a perfect gentleman. But, for us, a different breed of George. George Smiley, the spy master from the John Le Carré spy novels. Why? Because Zeiss lent us this lens under strict secrecy guidelines. And also because George Smiley tried to bring/maintain some sort of propriety in this sorry world that was the Cold War espionage. A gentleman in a world of double agents, liars, thugs and hookers.
PS: a brief (and sad) afterword. Dr Hubert Nasse, über-scientist at Zeiss, passed away in late August. I cannot help but think that every picture I take with my Otus incorporates a tiny bit of Dr Nasse’s soul, which would indicate he had a very, very beautiful soul. R.i.p. Dr Hubert Nasse
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