#782. The coming of Julia (an un-review). A brilliant new Zeiss with just a hint of Leica

#782. The coming of Julia (an un-review). A brilliant new Zeiss with just a hint of Leica

For all those of you familiar with  Faust and similar myths, whereby a man loses/sells his soul to the Devil, you know how hard it is to get it back, and it usually involves the love of a fair maiden. Like that is going to happen to a man of my age, girth, condition, vanity and meanness. Or maybe it will happen, because that is what myths are made of, rather than reality….

So, having sold my soul to MM. Zeiss of Oberkochen, I dabbled many times with the idea of clawing it back, but it just didn’t happen. Voigtländer came close, with lovely, highly desirable lenses for Sony, like their ultra-wides, macros, and ultra-fast lenses. Laowa has much to offer, especially if you are looking for the less-than-standard approach to focal length and shooting envelope. Sony themselves make really superior lenses, like my now lost Felix (85mm GM f:1.4). But when the time came, having played with it briefly on an exhibition booth, the Zeiss Loxia Distagon 25mm f:2.4 called my name, and what could I do, except capitulate and accept my (sweet) punishment?

 

It is not a super-fast lens,  because the Loxia range  is designed to a certain form factor (52mm diametre) rather than speed, and because speed is much less critical for wide angles than it is for short teles. Thus it is deligthfully small and light for a lens packing this much talent. For there is no point in beating about the bush (I don’t like reviews where you need to go through a whole bunch of “stuff” just to get to the meat of things), the Loxia, while not an überlens (it can’t reach that level, not with its specification and price range, or else it would re-write the whole book on higher-end lens competitiveness), has earned itself a name. Julia.

Readers familiar with DearSusan know that Pascal and I only give names (jointly) to the lenses we love. It doesn’t mean that they are perfect, though they need to be pretty d****d good, but that we also “connect” with them-and-the-results-they-deliver. And the “we” means the lens has to more-than-satisfy the two of us, even though we are quintessentially different ‘togs, he the Mozart (call him Moz’) and I the Salieri (call me Sal’).

I owned the first Loxia delivered in France, the 50 f:2.0. Lovely lens like its predecessor, the ZM 50 f2.0, which I also owned and really liked, but not enough to give it a name. Then the 21 f:2.8, which became Jaabaa. The best wide-angle prime lens for Sony, period, though it has more competition now. Then the 85mm f:2.4, a.k.a. George. Beautiful, easy, willing, highly pleasing George. Delightful in its composure, but a tad too elegant and too well-bred to be scrappy or scruffy when the need arose. So, what of the 25mm? And why buy  a 25 f:2.4 when I already own a superior 28 f:2.8, and Sony introduces a not-much-more-expensive-or-heavier 24 f:1.4 GM with autofocus? You might also ask: why would Zeiss release a Loxia 25 when they already have a superior 21, and other, important focal lengths are not covered by the Loxia line, like 28mm?

Simply put, this happened because Zeiss keep getting better at this game. The Loxia 25 is, in my opinion, a clearly better lens than the fabled Loxia 21 f:2.8, which in turn really awed the photo world when it outperformed the legendary full-frame Zeiss Distagon 21 for Canikon. When I say better, I am not talking about fewer issues (it has some CA wide open, more so than the 21), or performance in exotic shooting situations, like astro, or a wider shooting envelope (though it does offer that), no, I am talking about the sort of IQ you enjoy in every picture. Better. That is a big word.

How do I come to that conclusion? Pascal happens to love my Leica 28mm Elmarit R vII, to the point that he feels that, in some way the NEX7 it is mounted on may be better than his A7RII. Yet the Loxia spanks the Elmarit in every respect. Detail, colors, rendering, 3D… And of course haptics, ease-of-use, shooting envelope, etc… Basically, whereas we thought that the Leica lens outperformed the old Sony camera, the Loxia showed that the performance envelope of the NEX could be stretched even more…

Just one short story. Until I finally commit and get a new body, I am free to play with the idea of getting other cameras. Typically, as I am a gear hog (that is because my mother told me not to use words like s**t), larger sensors with higher resolution beckon. Hasselblad, like the lovesick Pascal, or Fuji with either a very compact mini-MF (GFX 50-R), or the forthcoming blockbuster GFX 100-S. Then I think “come on, get a life, you know you’ve got more gear than talent, more gear isn’t going to help that much is it?”, and, just to get a reality check, I look at some of the pics I’ve made with the Loxia just before I handed it over the Pascal. I was wowed by the IQ. And one shot just dropped my jaw. See below.

So, enough love, down to specifics: what does a Loxia 25 deliver? The closest lens to the 25 in terms of rendering is the eponymous 85. Lovely colours, detail, spatiality, and a bokeh so pleasant that it begs you to make use of it. The 25 has all of that. Whereas the 21, good though it is (it is excellent!), has trouble delivering bokeh images, the 25 does that in spades, if you want it. It appears to have a thinner depth-of-field than its focal length suggests (and that the Leica 28). This could be just an impression rather than fact, but the impression is there. It feels like it just offers so much more precision in its gradual transition from in-focus to out-of focus that its shots take on a different look than the 21. Less all-sharp (the 21 verges on the macro in its sharpness down to every detail), less in-your-face, but quite a bit more storytelling. What people more learned than I call “character”.

This bokeh “thing” and over-beautiful colors are not what Zeiss were/are best known for. Historically, this was more Leica territory. Leica lenses tended to be a bit painterly, especially when designed by the great Walter Mandler. Even the present Summilux 50 f:1.4  still has some of that DNA. Zeiss on the other hand leaned more towards the übersharp, übercontrasty. Both now seem to be converging somewhat. Recent APO lenses from Leica are no longer painterly, and neither are Julia or George übersharp or übercontrasty.

There is this theory, which Pascal subscribes to, that modern lenses get technically better and better corrected, but at the expense of any form of character. That they all acquire some form of detached, sterile look as the price for lack of any weaknesses. Well, not the Loxia 25. It is the cross between a storytelling wide and a walk-about street lens. Add that it focuses quite close and delivers lovely shots in that zone, and you have a very wide shooting envelope.

Add again the light weight, small size and lovely haptics, and you have a recipe for a very, very pleasant lens indeed. Does it have weaknesses? Yes, a couple. As mentioned, some CA wide open, which can be cleaned up easily and goes away as you stop down. And, like its stablemate George, though to a lesser degree, the 25’s character is a tad more elegant than strictly neutral, and it can’t quite roar and bark with the most savage of them. You could also add that it isn’t as fast as, say, the brand-new Sony 24 f1.4, its obvious competitor.

But time to conclude, knowing that Pascal is the real reviewer of this lens. Why Julia? Pascal’s favorite lens, and mine when I had it, is the ZM 35 f:1.4, a.k.a. Audrey. The charm, the carefree elegance, the glowing, impish smile that was Audrey Hepburn. So, what of the Loxia 25? It is wider than Audrey, and its pictures bring a smile on my face like… Julia Roberts! An actress who also happens to be just too nice to play the role of the villainness….:-)

Now some of you may begin to worry. A post with only one bike, a motorcycle, but no flowers close up??? Relax, good people of DS, the Loxia 25 is very, very nice indeed up close and personal. While it does not prioritize detail over painterliness, the way a 21 would, detail is superlative, as the following 2 100% crops show, the bottom one being SOOC. And its ability to differentiate colors, shapes and materials is truly of the highest order. This, to me, really matters, and it is where so many modern lenses that purport to be perfectly corrected and sport awesome MTF curves, begin to stutter and stammer.

So why is it not an überlens? To reach that hallowed status, a lens needs to hit 4 milestones. Performance of the highest order, a wide shooting envelope, a high degree of neutrality, and an endearing character. That what is Otus offer, or Audrey, and very few others that we have tried, although I have reasons to believe that Leica have some lenses of that caliber, as do Sony and maybe others like Sigma. Pascal believes the Hasselblad XCD 30mm to be an überlens as well.

So, where does Julia stand? Or sit, rather, as it is neither polite nor courteous to leave a woman standing. On endearing character, the Loxia scores as high as can be hoped for a well-corrected wide-angle lens, full stop. Maximum marks. On performance envelope, the same: from infinity to close up, you can’t hope for more. On performance, it almost gets there. Yes, detail is top-notch, as are colours, contrast, rendering, spatial placement. It does, though have some CA wide open, which in itself is a non-issue. But it is also my feeling that an Otus does extract just a bit more from a scene. The number of times when Julia wowed me is high, just not as high as when I looked at results from my Otus. People who shout “mini-Otus” or “Otus quality without the price” aren’t on the same page as me. Otus quality is really, really hard to achieve if you take all other parameters into account. Lastly: neutrality. There again, Julia is, in my opinion, just a tad more beautiful than neutral. Otus shots can be less than beautiful, less than spectacular, less than impressive – if that reflects the subject material. Other lenses have almost an “always beautiful” character. They are sometimes called painterly. I wouldn’t call Julia painterly, but it does have the slightest tendency to beautify shots rather than produce them in their original nakedness.

I am going to make 2 WAGs here (wild-a***d guesses). One is that many more ‘togs will like Julia better as it is rather than purely neutral. The other is that it is this brand of neutrality that contributes in no small measure to Otus size, weight and cost. Something to do with a larger size and more exotic glass.

So, overall, Julia gets a name, a lot of love, a place in my bag, but not a “überlens” tag. Hardly a surprise, even less a  criticism, as no lens in that price class got one either (yet).

As to competition, as I wrote, the Loxia spanks the stars of yore. So let’s keep with current lenses. The Batis 25. Well, I’ve seen a seriously made comparison, and it didn’t make me doubt my choice one second, though of course YMMV. The brand-new Sony 24mm f:1.4. Some call it a great lens. Not large, not heavy, not (really) expensive, yet lots of performance. Just as the Loxia 25 reminds one of the Loxia 85 (a very good sign), the Sony 24 GM reminds me of the 85 GM (also a very good sign). Again, I’ve seen a detailed comparison made by a professional photographer I trust, and, while the Sony would probably easily be good enough to earn a place in my bag if there were no Loxia, there is a Loxia, and no place for the Sony. Though it does AF and f:1.4, and that could sway shooters the other way if it fits their style/taste better than MF and f:2.4.

But, as always, the proof of the pudding…. so just a short illustration of how good that lens is. 2 people I am close to went on holiday to Japan for some 10 days ( a complete coincidence). One very experienced and talented shooter, DS’ own Pascal, with my Julia, and another, also very talented, but just recovering from a photography break of some 10 years. Pascal took 3 lenses with him (Julia, Audrey, Cesar) and his A7RII. 100% of his shots were made with the Loxia. He just never took it off. The other photographer took his A7 III and 6 lenses (12mm CV, Batis 18mm, Julia, 40mm CV f:1.2, Sony 85 f:1.8, Sony 24-105 f:4.0). Only 70% of his shots were made with his Julia. It is just that good.

Now, Pascal please be a nice man and let Julia come home to Daddy! Please, pretty please!

PS: now that Nikon and Canon have released full-frame mirrorless cameras with short registers and new mounts, it will be interesting to see if Zeiss adapt Loxias and Batis to the Nikon Z and Canon EOS-R. Though, unlike Sony, who have made the E-mount open to all, Canon and Nikon keep their mounts proprietary, forcing lens makers to reverse-engineer. Not a good move if you ask me. They should be happy, at this stage when their mirrorless have so few native mount lenses, to invite Zeiss Loxia and Batis on board.

 


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5 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Georg November 06, 2018

    Hi. The Loxia 21 and 25 are superb lenses for landscapes.Wonderful micro contrast with neutral color (but yellows and reds which are excellent). I do a lot of hiking and carry the full Loxia set, plus Voigtlander 180/4, with a few filters and tripod. Plus I do a lot of night photography. The amazing thing is how robust the files are on the A7RM3. The colors separation is superb.
    I don’t feel the Loxia lenses are lacking in “character”. They are not as highly corrected as the Otus line or some of the better Nikon lenses I have used. These are old tried and true formulas that have been tweaked for the Sony A7 line. Their greatest strength is that they match well with the Sony sensors and thus can be used with great confidence in the field.

    • Avatar
      philberphoto November 06, 2018

      Hi, Georg! If my post gave the impression that the Loxia lacks character, I wish to correct that! On the contrary, I think it brings to an end the times when we had to choose: either character -and flaws-, or a well-corrected, but often too characterless lens. The Loxia is, to my mind, the best of both worlds, within its specification of size and cost.

  2. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron November 06, 2018

    You should be grateful this time, Philippe – I know nothing about the Loxia lenses, I’ve never used one. So the only two comments I can make are:
    1 – two of those photos blew me away and
    2 – as I scrolled down past scooters to find a motorcycle I began to wonder – but fortunately the mandatory bicycles at last made an appearance
    PS my adoration of my beloved Otus lenses stems from what – to me – is near perfect reproduction of what I see in front of me, in real life. Not “painterly” – no “distortion” – simply photography in its purest form. If I want something different, there’s always PhotoShop or a zillion other computer programs for manipulation of data.

    • Avatar
      philberphoto November 06, 2018

      Thanks for the kind words, Pete! Mind sharing with us which 2 pictures you had in mind?
      As to Otus, no argument from me!

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron November 06, 2018

        Too easy, Philippe – the one above ‘This “bokeh” thing’ and the last one**. Actually I love the one with the blue flowers, and I also loved the one of the leaf – but I guess some people would think the leaf was just something that should have been swept up and put in the bin.

        **[That should please him – he is extremely fond of those flowers! 🙂 )

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