Meet George. Small, unassuming, George is (our codename for) the newly introduced Zeiss Loxia 2.4/85 lens.
It was sent to me in July, shortly before my departure for Western Australia, with the usual instructions of telling it like I feel it. Well, at the time, I admit to thinking the good wizards of Oberkochen were ever so slightly … off-course. Owning an Zeiss Otus 85 and a Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8, arguably two of the best lenses ever made in that focal range, and having being really quite smitten with the fantastic Milvus 85, I seemed hardly the right person to appreciate a compromise newcomer.
In fact, the marketer in me cringed at the very idea of such a middle-of-the road positioning. With a max aperture of “only 2.4”, it may have a hard time convincing the specification-oriented photographer of its merits and soon fall into a grey middle-ground of un-memorability.
Happily, none of my fears were vindicated and the 2.4/85mm not only completes the Loxia range in a very consistent manner, it also embodies in metal and glass Zeiss’ talent for segmenting and strategic thinking. The Loxia 85 is a lens with a mission, a mission it fulfills better than any other lens I know! It’s a truly brilliant achievement, yet another from House Carl.
To illustrate this point and prove we are not just sellouts to Zeiss we’ll present our findings, collected over a 5-week test period in Paris, Marseilles, La Ciotat, Doha, Perth, Kalgoorlie and more, in three sections:
As usual, I’ll mutter a bit to justify calling myself a reviewer, but will mostly let the photographs, plenty of photographs, do the talking, hopefully enabling the reader to find something to relate to visually. All photographs made with a Sony A7rII camera. Onwards!
To sum things up, this new Loxia is mostly a stellar performer, from a technical point of view.
Though the f/2.4 max aperture might not turn heads at the pub, it is at least a fully usable f/2.4 in which aperture is used purely as a means of light gathering and depth of field control, not to control aberrations. And the Sonnar design certainly lives up to its sweet-bokeh reputation.
The MTF curves below address this from a measured point of view:
As you can tell,aperture has very little impact on detail rendering in MTF measurements. And the aperture sequence should convince you how well these spectacular lab results are born out in real life:
Please note the images below are screen captures and the quality they show is lower than reality. The point is not to show the lens is sharp (it is) but to show it gains very little by closing down. Plus, life’s too short to crop all of these by hand and export 😉
f/2.4 (right, left, center)
f/4 (right, left, center)
f/5.6 (right, left, center)
f/8 (right, left, center)
f/11 (right, left, center)
At f/11, the early signs of diffraction become visible.
I’m not entirely sure of this, but it seems the left may have a slightly curved focal surface with edges focusing slightly closer than the center. Lab-equipped reviewers will be more accurate about this.
At this point in reviewing purgatory, let me now introduce the sort of nonsense metric that makes reading (and writing 😉 ) a tech report bearable: moire-quantification ! (patent not really pending, have a day). Here’s a photograph of a standard ISO-test-yacht made with the Loxia 85 at f/8.
You can see moire on the window louvres that easily scores 6/10. Is a similar shot made with my Otus 85, the moire here scores an 7/10. It exhibits more colour and contrast and is therefore more problematic. Which makes the Otus very slightly better. Oh wait … No
So , I don’t know how to interpret that exactly, but let’s just say that the Loxia 85 significantly outresolves my 42Mpix sensor and should be future-proofed for the next couple of generations of megapixel lunacy that manufacturers will inevitably inflict upon us in place of better handling 😉
And, to give you a better comparison with other lenses, here are 3 100% files from the Zeiss Loxia 2.4/85, the Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8 and the Zeiss Otus 1.4/85, all taken at f/4. As you will see, the Leica is stupidly sharp in the center and degrades in the edges (it is a 30 year-old design, after all). The Loxia and Otus are more homogeneous throughout the frame. That the Loxia is as good as these two legends should quiet all sharpness-related worries once and for all 😉
Distortion is also a very strong point for the lens. Again, the brochure graph illustrates this with an almost linear progression to just over 1%:
And this tricky and epically interesting shot gives you an idea of what a worst-case scenario looks like in real life:
Here are other uncorrected architectural photographs slightly more worthy of eyeball time :
Once again, lab results are superb, with just one stop lost in the very corners of the frame.
In real life, this level of vignetting is barely detectable, which – combined with the low distortion – also means the lens is almost perfect for creating panoramas in simple software that cannot correct for aberrations. Yippeeee !
Again, a picture is better than a thousand words. Below is a typical summer scene in sea-side resorts such as La Ciotat. These swimming costumes are photographed at f/2.4. To my eyes, this looks like a scene out of a modern movie. Videographers will likely be all over that lens (I forgot to test for focus breathing, sorry guys).
Below are more photographs with the sun in or just outside of the frame. Flare is very well controlled. A small amount of veiling glare is visible around the sun and reflections, but nothing really objectionable.
And finally, here is a 100% enlargement of an extreme situation, closed down.
Let’s use the photo above to illustrate the performance of this lens in terms of chromatic aberration as well. Slight purple halos are clearly visible, but are easily cleaned up in PP. So this isn’t a strict APO lens (not that any claims are made about this) but it handles itself well.
For a worst-case scenario, turn to the photograph below, and following enlargements:
Of all the technical performance envelope variables available to them, it feels like Zeiss have let chroma drift the furthest from theoretical ideal. A wise idea since I’ve not found a single picture ruined by that aberration and relaxing tolerances here probably made it easier to correct more problematic bugaboos within the budget and size constraints available to them.
You could worry that a lens that focuses on detail might end up looking clinical. And nothing could be further from the truth.
The best way I can put words on what this lens inspires me is this: the Loxia 85 has been designed following a process of elimination. It reduces vignetting, it reduces glare, it reduces distortion, it reduces colour casts. It eliminates unwanted filters to let through the natural essence of the subject in all its purity and simplicity. No added salsa.
Soulless ? Nope, quite the contrary. Illumination comes from removing egotic gunge from your perception of the world. In this sense, this is one enlightened lens!
In a recent article, I discussed how phone manufacturers are slowly but surely eating the marketshare lunch of camera manufacturers. My guess is that the algorithmic witchcraft that enables this inevitable conquest will come with a visual signature. Much like DSPs messed up the purity of sound. In acceptable measures for most but too much so for the audiophile raised on Lynn and Boenicke milk. In this respect, the only possible countermeasure for traditional digital photography (yes, it makes me feel old to type these words) is to produce something so pure and elated that it leaves the willing photographer fully in control. The Loxia 85 is one such product. And I love it to bits for that.
In initial use, I found this lack of bravado a little disconcerting and (to be frank) quite disappointing. The lack of pungent hues hinted at hours of post-processing and most attempts at boosting saturation ended up looking really uninspiring and visibly forced. This was until I realized a simple little boost of overall contrast (the Sony A7rII does have quite a large dynamic range) instantly brought out tints and tonal separation in a most natural way. In more extreme cases, larger boost of the contrast resulted in dark shadows and burned highlights but local work on the corresponding sliders soon brought those back to life and produced a very colourful image without ever resorting to the saturation slider. With this simple process the original atmosphere is superbly preserved.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is how well the little Loxia renders varying ambiences, from the gloomy to the joyful to the dull. The much-loved Sony-Zeiss FE 55 will etch the finest details in a remote pine cone with super convincing sharpness. The Loxia 85 will let you feel the thin pollen moving in the breeze around the cone at sunset. It is all about atmosphere, like the very best transducers from Boenicke or Soudkaos recreate the air around members of an orchestra and the ambiance of a recording hall.
The Zeiss Loxia 2.4/85 excels at letting visual cues through, at letting the season, location, heat, time of day and ambient humidity all create a very different mood from photograph to photograph. Some will look gentle and pastel, others brooding and stark. This is definitely no single-trick pony.
Predictably, this great transparency and elegance make it an exquisite lens for classy black and white photography, where great tonal subtlety is available at all times.
This image pretty much sums it up.
Bokeh, in a f/2.4 85mm lens, is never going to get very intense. Nonetheless, what much is there is very Gaussian and clean. The bokeh from the Loxia 85 also has quite a bit of contrast to it, letting the background play an active role in the composition. This unlike the cappuccino machines that dip everything into a strong haze (both approaches have their merits, you just need to know what you prefer).
But contrasty doesn’t mean intrusive or harsh. As a true Sonnar, the Loxia 85 has very high quality bokeh, simply in small measures. More Rhabarbergrütze than Austrian Strudel.
Given this lens’ stitch-friendly aberration control and its close-up focusing abilities, you can easily emulate the shallow-depth of field found on vastly more expensive wider-angle lenses (see bleeding tree, below). That’s really cool.
Below are a few more samples of Loxia 85 bokeh at various apertures.
Almost perfect. The lens cap isn’t the best. The lens shade has to be mounted upside down for transport. The rest of the lens is essentially perfect. Focusing is firm enough to feel tight but buttery smooth. The aperture ring is such a delight that it makes you wonder why these things are becoming extinct. The build is modern and snazzy yet reassuringly robust. A truly lovely lens to own.
Those who have used other Loxia lenses before will feel right at home. The build and size is the same, and the focusing similarly damped. All very very good here. The aperture ring has a longer than usual rotation and feels perfect. The sunshade mechanism is the usual: inserted over the lens during transport, and clipped onto the front when in use. Not the most elegant system (which still goes to the retracting shades on some of Leica’s M & R series lenses) but convenient enough (and probably far cheaper for the customer).
Equally noteworthy, though not a flaw of the lens itself : as all Loxias do, this 2.4/85mm automatically gets the Sony A7 cameras to x5 focus mode when you rotate the focusing ring, which is nice. But my experience is that the best focusing accuracy really requires you to switch to x12.5 mode. x5 is often not enough to extract best results from the lens. On this lens, a tiny difference in focusing is visible in the final image, which is good, but requires a little attention on close-up subjects.
Remember, this is subjective. But, to me, this lens sits somewhere in between the 21 and the 50.
As mentioned above, aperture has almost no bearing on performance (in this, it compares favourably to most f/1.8 lenses that need to get to f/2.8 before they start delivering their best). But aperture does have a very slight effect on the impression of micro-contrast of this lens: wide open, it feels like the Loxia 50. Closed down to f/8, it’s a lot closer to the Loxia 21. Of the 3, I feel the 85 is, by a tiny margin, the most free-breathing and natural. A 21 – 85 duo is a very desirable setup indeed. Two world-class lenses in a small and affordable package, that will handle the megapixel race for years to come.
The 35 sits a little bit off-center from this trio, with a contrast that can easily push into harsh territory. In the right hands, under the right conditions, it’s also an excellent lens. But the 85 needs no such qualification. It tells it as it is, with great elegance whatever the conditions, and lets you handle PP however you want.
In closing, let me just say that great lenses come in two categories:
The Loxia 85 is a stunning example of the second category of lenses and has provided me with hour upon hour of photographic joy. My photographs tend to be made at the infantile end of the aperture range (f/1.4 all day long) but this was a lens I really loved using at f/8, where it’s naturalness and elegance are most evident.
Who is It for ? Picture yourself on a small piazza in Vicensa. The friendly waiter lays in front of you a simple dish of home-made pasta with small mushrooms and truffle, peppered with crumbly Parmigiano cheese. He pours you a glass of carefully aged Nebbiolo or Arneis and hands you a napkin full of warm, swirly grissini. If you’re already reaching for the ketchup, this lens is not for you. If, on the other hand, you are weeping before your very first taste, well, are you in for a treat!
Some photographers will be happier with an AF kit zoom. This lens does nothing spectacular and costs a healthy amount of money. You’ll love it if you appreciate the white flower in the bouquet of Viré-Clessé, the crackling of an exhaust on upshift or the subtleties of Fischer’s best endgames. It’s definitely more Tea Ceremony than rodeo. For atmospheric landscapes, it’s a really lovely lens.
So, after all this emotional mumbo-jumbo, let me end with a slightly more Manichaean conclusion.
Of the negatives, only the lens cap really counts for me. It’s a minor item but can mess with your nerves. This aside, the Zeiss Loxia 2.4/85 comes with my highest recommendation. And that might be its greatest negative for some 😀 😀 😀
I’ll now leave you in a capable hands of Philippe, who will add his take on the Loxia 85 and its raison d’être. Before you move on, please leave a comment to tell me what you think about the lens and the pics it produced in my custody !
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