Zeiss Otus 1.4/28 First Impressions

Today’s arrival of the Otus 1.4/28 completes the last large piece of the 5DS R induced lens kit revamping puzzle. And it’s large is several ways…

My new core kit consists of the following lenses: Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15, Otus 1.4/28, Otus 1.4/55, Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 and Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM as well as Canon’s 1.4x III extender.

But back to the 28mm. This may be one of the first production lenses available, which I bought for my own use. I mention this because I’m increasingly getting tired of photo equipment reviews where the reviewer gets a lens or camera from the manufacturer for a short period of time to form conclusions that should (in theory) drive sales. Sorry, but I don’t believe people who tell me to buy a lens that they haven’t purchased for themselves. It’s a bit stinky for me. Buying an expensive instrument is almost always a revelation: “I spent a lot on this item because I trust the manufacturer, the instrument is that good and it’s definitely worth it.”

So, the 28mm Otus is that good and it’s worth every (euro)cent I spent on it. If you know me, you know that these are from someone who’s picky to the extreme. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best wide angle lens I’ve ever used. That is, there’s no point in doing pixel peeping. If you are curious, I’d recommend to subscribe to Lloyd Chambers’ site for detailed aperture series and tons of sample images. I’m a long time subscriber and Lloyd’s site is one of the few I trust these days. Another review I’d recommend is a veteran Otus user Ming Thein’s.

Given my tight schedule, I only had a few hours today to do initial checks. Light was totally lousy, so no images made with the lens today. But here’s one of the lens, with which I’m going to jump right in the middle.

The Otus 28 with LEE's push-on filter holder

The Otus 28 with LEE’s push-on filter holder

And this is about using filters on the 28. I’ve switched to LEE’s 100mm square filter system a few years ago – and never looked back. The 28 has a 95mm filter thread, for which LEE has a normal adapter ring (no wide angle option is available). Unfortunately, my two-slot filter holder vignettes at the corners when rotated to 45 degrees using the normal ring. I was really disappointed by this, but for who knows what reason, I’ve tried to fit LEE’s 100mm push-on holder on the lens. To my greatest surprise, it was a perfect fit. My jaws literally dropped when I took a closer look on the front of the lens. There’s a small recess in front of the hood bayonet for the push-on holder. Absolutely marvelous. To the marketing guys at Zeiss: you should advertise this. It’s a huge plus.

You get a tiny bit of corner darkening even with the two-slot push-on holder, but you can either remove one of the slots or get rid of the vignetting in post.

Side view showing the holder's fit and how large the Otus 28 is

Side view showing the holder’s fit and how large the Otus 28 is

The 28mm is on the larger and heavier side of optics. Some would say that it’s extremely large and heavy, but to anyone accustomed to carrying and using super telephoto lenses, its manageable. But you need to watch out for the weight. There’s no tripod collar, so you’ll need to hang the lens off the camera’s mount. Which will put more than usual stress on both the lens mount and on the tripod screw. Since my 1D Mark II’s tripod screw socket suddenly separated from the L-plate, and the rig hit the ground with the 24-70 mounted, I’m giving suspicious looks to mounting screws. Fortunately the 5DS R has a strengthened base place, and I’m using a Kirk L-plate that is secured to the camera in two places (with the tripod screw and fastened to the strap lug). Ball head sag could also be a problem (but it’s not with the geared heads like the Arca-Swiss d4 I’m using).

Focusing experience is great, images pop to sharp when using Kuuvik Capture‘s live view. A word of caution though (this is omnipresent with all high performance lenses and the huge 50 megapixel resolution of the 5DS R). You can’t focus 100% perfectly using the minified live view image. Not even in 6x magnification (16x is just 6x blown up in software, so forget about that). It may show that you nailed focus perfectly, which could fall rather unfortunate planes on the final image. Even at f/5.6. So it is advisable to check images at 100% magnification after they were taken. I’m doing this in Kuuvik Capture after each capture, and for shots I think would be final, I also do a check in Capture One. Yes, you need a notebook for this, but heck, the 11″ MacBook Air weighs about 2/3 of the Otus and fits in the pocket of my trusty Domke photo vest…

Speaking of f/5.6. It seems that I will definitely need focus stacking if I need front-to-back sharpness. It would be a cardinal sin to kill the lens’ resolution and wonderful micro-contrast with diffraction, and at f/5.6 depth of field is definitely not enough for making everything sharp on the image. Or look for another composition where there’s no front-to-back sharpness needed. This isn’t new with the 5DS R, just be prepared to do some extra work to extract every last ounce of quality from this beast.

I did a quick comparison of the other wide lenses I have now: with the Canon 24/2.8 IS and 35/2 IS. The tiny 24 was known to blow even the TS-E 24mm away for center sharpness. Well, the Otus is better in the corners than the 24 in the center. Even at f/5.6. While the 35mm has more uniform image across the frame, it’s simply not in the same leagues with the Otus. I found that basically there’s no point in comparing the lens with anything except another Otus. Although I had no time (nor intention) to do side by side comparisons, the 28mm shows the same clean, transparent, airy images that the 55mm and the Apo Sonnar 135 are known for.

That’s all for now, after the first half day with the lens (this is a first impressions post after all). More when I will have chance to use it for actual work. But just like with every other lens in my current kit, it’s love at first use. I’m completely confident that they’ll bring home tons of great images during the coming decades (yes, decades).

First Outing with the Zeiss Distagon 2.8/15

Christmas arrived early this year for me – the sleigh disguised as a DHL truck… In the package there was a box containing a Canon-mount Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 lens. After the usual shots around the house, I decided to visit my favorite lens torture place.

I usually check basic lens functions here, look for centering errors and such. Just to get a feeling of how the lens will perform.

Today it was a foggy, damp evening, with a light drizzle. I had absolutely no intention to make an image. But the 15mm Distagon surprised me big time. This is my third Zeiss, and they have a common trait: the ability to render even the most mundane subjects in an interesting and pleasing way.

Case in point:

Foggy, Damp Evening

Foggy, Damp Evening

The 2.8/15 draws a true-to-life, well balanced image. No signs of the “tingling” behavior of Japanese designed glass (both Canon and Sigma are similar it this regard). It’s interesting that I experienced the same with hi-fi equipment in the past. Well, cultural differences and preferences at work.

I just prefer the Zeiss look.

15mm is the widest focal length I’ve ever used (17mm being the second widest). I like the interesting and dynamic perspective ultrawides can produce, and after a decade of working with them I find 15mm pretty easy to work with. Much easier than 17mm was.

I’ll spend some time shooting the lens during the holidays, and will share my further impressions. In January the lens will go back to Zeiss for a little surgery: to get rid of that useless lens hood and make it compatible with my LEE filters. More on this later.

Fall Stream Reflection

I’ve noticed this scene while walking along a stream in the woods of Zemplen. I was using the Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder to hunt for images, and even looking on the screen of my iPhone 6 Plus showed that the shot will be a tricky one.

Why? Because of leaves floating around in the water. And most of those leaves were downright ugly. So I had no choice but to grab the LEE Big Stopper and go for a very long exposure.

Fall Stream Reflection

Fall Stream Reflection

At 135mm, I had to stop down to f/22 for appropriate depth of field. While I wouldn’t do that normally because of the sharpness killing effect of diffraction, here it was only part of the overall softness. Moving water also reduced sharpness and the reflecting fall foliage was deliberately left slightly out of focus. Nevertheless, a healthy dose of deconvolution sharpening was applied to restore detail.

But back to the long exposure. It was 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Floating ugly leaves left no trace at all. As usual I shot tethered to Kuuvik Capture 2, so fine tuning bulb exposure length was a piece of cake.

Tern Landing

Sometimes Fortuna smiles at you. This image was shot with the very last rays of the setting July Sun illuminating the tern. Even the 7D Mark II’s autofocus was struggling, and I was able to shoot just one frame.

Whiskered Tern Landing

Whiskered Tern Landing

But this one frame turned out to be my favorite from the day. Shutter speed at 1/500s was slow enough to let the bird’s wings go blurred, but luckily its head is tack sharp. A few clouds caused the background water and sky to go muted pastel, while the bird is burning in the setting Sun. No flash, just available light.

Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZE First Impressions

It’s both hard and easy to write about the Otus. Hard, because there are qualities in this lens that one has to witness in person. And easy at the same time, since there are so many good things about it. So many, that one tends to forget about all the minor glitches and imperfections.

I didn’t want to join the “crap shot with an Otus” gang you may find on different forums, so went out to catch the last days of fall. I have the 55 for about a month now, but had only a few days to work with it since its arrival (partly because natural reasons, but mostly because it went back to Zeiss after the first days – more on this later).

Image Quality

It’s among the best I’ve ever seen. And I don’t just mean its high resolution. Take the following image for example. I’ve shot this scene from my favorite port on Lake Tisza more than a couple of times.

Morning on the Lake

Morning on the Lake

None of the other images have this airy, three dimensional feeling that draws the viewer into the image. Some manufacturers refer to the residual aberrations in their products as the lens’ character. The character of the Otus is that it has no character. It was shocking when I noticed it with the Apo Sonnar 2/135, but the Otus 55 is the same. Even mundane subjects look good when photographed with these lenses. They render the scene almost as I see it.

I was in constant awe during the first morning with the Otus. I hadn’t had this feeling since the early days of digital photography. With the D60, 5D and 1D Mark II, L lenses were better than the cameras. But since the 5D Mark II and III arrived (not to mention the 5DS R), lens problems became more and more visible and partly ruined the game for me. It’s pretty devastating to shoot a great scene only to realize later that your lens is not up to the task. My recent move to an all-prime setup alleviated this problem to some degree, but only the Otus was able to evoke that feeling again. Even at 100%, all I see are gorgeous pixels.

No, it’s not completely, 100% free of all optical aberrations, but being an apochromat, the most annoying color errors are corrected to a very high degree. What remains is strong vignetting wide open, and barrel distortion. Neither of those is very hard to correct during post processing, it you want to correct them at all. Vignetting really helps the following image.

Late Fall Colors

Late Fall Colors

This was shot at f/1.4 and the quick transition from sharp to unsharp helps to attain three dimensionality. The lens is completely usable at f/1.4 without any restrictions. You don’t have to stop down for better image quality – this is huge creative freedom.

The only aberration that could be problematic is distortion. It’s clearly visible in some situations (think architecture), but I would strongly recommend leaving it uncorrected if possible, as distortion correction may kill the lovely micro-contrast of the Otus. Try to work around the distortion with your composition instead.

Speaking of contrast, the high contrast really insists black and white conversion, as you can see in my previous post.

Handling

I won’t talk about build quality, since it’s as good as one can wish for, so let’s move on to handling.

This is a large lens. I won’t say huge – huge is the word for the first generation Canon 600mm and 400mm IS lenses in my book. Its weight really helps to stabilize the camera if you must shoot handheld. In other words, it’s like a 24-70 zoom.

Small focusing ring rotation is a recipe to endless frustration when it comes to manual focus – and the Otus’ 245 degree rotation makes it easy and a joy to focus the lens. As you might already noticed, there’s no autofocus. But I would nevertheless recommend to calibrate your AF microadjustment value, because the AF sensor still works for focus confirmation – and precise focusing is crucial to extract the maximum attainable performance.

A sturdy tripod and a stable head is the real home of the Otus (especially on the 5DS R). I also prefer to shoot tethered to Kuuvik Capture for all the benefits the larger screen can bring.

The Glitch

otus-lintAt the end of the very first morning I touched the rear lens element. And when I started to clean it, I noticed a long lint (thread? hair?) inside the lens. It was visible on the very first shots I made of the lens for the insurance company.

So it went back to Zeiss immediately (actually to the dealer and they sent it to Zeiss). I received the lens earlier today, lint removed and focal flange distance readjusted. Because it was “out of spec”. I’m talking about a brand new, premium lens here.

I don’t know, but there’s something terribly wrong with quality control these days. I received the first 5DS R completely dead, had to send back several iPads because of screen uniformity and color cast issues… It’s not only Zeiss, it’s the industry in general.

The question is not whether you’ll get a lemon, the question is when will you get a lemon. And how the dealer and/or the manufacturer handles the situation. Fortunately for me, all these problems were quickly and successfully solved by the dealer and/or the manufacturer. Free of charge. But I cannot stress enough the importance of buying from a reputable dealer… And the importance of inspecting/testing new gear.

Also note that even a lint this large rarely shows up on real world images. The two pictures above (and the black and white if you followed the link) were taken with the lint present – and you don’t see it. It reduces contrast and actually became visible on homogenous backgrounds only at some focusing distances.

Oh, and you can see on this image how hard is to keep the rear element clear. It’s not Canon’s fluorine coating. The rubber focusing ring is also a dust magnet. But a little extra cleaning work is acceptable in exchange for the lens’ superlative imaging qualities. I just hope that the large opening for the distance scale will not suck dust and dirt into the barrel.

Compared to the Sigma 50mm Art

Ok, but how it compares to the Sigma? This is a question you surely will ask when thinking about a high-grade normal lens. I bought a Sigma last year (my first impressions review is here) for the 5D Mark III. The 5DS R stirred the pot quite a bit, to a degree where I decided to spend the $4000 on the Otus and part with the Sigma.

Please note that we’re splitting hairs here – both lenses are vastly superior to what Canon or Nikon has to offer. The Sigma is a great lens, just not on the level of the Otus. It’s quite close, and if you don’t want to spend $4000 on a normal lens, the Sigma is an excellent choice. But the Otus is better…

The Otus has higher resolution in the corners. In the image center the Sigma is pretty close (on the 5DS R), but the corners are a different story – even at f/5.6. Color correction is much better in the Otus. I prefer the overall “look” from the Otus. It’s more natural, while the Sigma tends to be a little clinical. Distortion is visibly less on the Sigma – this may be a serious point if you are doing lots of architecture work. Haven’t compared vignetting, as neither bothered me too much.

Focusing is by far superior on the Otus. Although the Sigma is an AF lens, it’s implementation is quite inconsistent and I was unable to arrive at a working AF tuning setup that works both at infinity and close distances. So I consider the Sigma a manual focus lens. With live view focusing it’s bearable, but it’s way faster to focus the Otus.

Conclusion

As my better half says: “we love the Zeisses”. And as she continues: “there must be a significant difference if even I can notice it immediately”.

This is a kind of equipment that will actually make your images better. Partly because of the wonderful rendering, partly because it slows you down, and finally because you’ll find much more joy in making images with this lens.

Yes, a good photographer can make good images with crappy cameras, but a good photographer can make images that sing with the Otus.

If manual focusing and the normal lens fits your working style, working from a tripod or even tethered doesn’t scare you away, and actually print your images large – do yourself a favor. Rent an Otus. And if you have the funds – buy one. This may be the best investment in photo gear you ever made.

Viewfinder 4.4 with 3D Touch and iPad Pro Support

Version 4.4 of the Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder is now available on the App Store.

Besides the usual bunch of new wide converter profiles and cameras (detailed in the release notes), the two main new features are 3D Touch and iPad Pro support.

I already wrote about 3D Touch home screen Quick Actions in a sneak peek.

On the iPad Pro front, the app now takes advantage of the entire, huge screen. User interface elements remain the same size as on all full-sized iPads. This is to let the content occupy the majority of the screen real estate.

vf-ipad-pro

We also checked all the wide converters we have on the Pro, and were able to mount the Moment wide lens (both the iPad Air 2 and iPhone 5s clips fit). So this version adds support for the Moment wide lens/iPad Pro combination. More wide converters will be supported as their manufacturers come out with iPad Pro compatible versions.

Speaking of wide converters. Schneider is lagging behind again with iPhone 6s/6s+ support. We were able to use the 6 case on the 6s, so that’s in this release. But there’s no 6s Plus case yet.

Version 4.4 is a free update for existing Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder owners. Users of former Viewfinder Basic/Pro/Cine editions can upgrade for a reduced price.

ShutterCount for Windows Price Increase

ShutterCount_Icon-2Effective immediately, we have increased the price of the Windows version of ShutterCount from $2.99 (+taxes) to $3.99 (+taxes). Pricing of the Mac version is unaffected.

Why?

Let me begin with the hard facts. Developing the Windows version costed 3x more than the Mac version. Fixed yearly operational costs  (certificates and such) are 4x more. Support costs of this single, simple app are almost 10x more than all of our Mac and iOS apps combined.

On the income front, despite that theoretically there are 8x more Windows installations than OS X, the Windows version only produces less than 12% of the Mac version’s income.

The Windows version is on the market for 15 months now, and hadn’t turned profitable. In fact, it’s bleeding money. So at this point we have two choices: kill the project completely, or increase the price to a point where it at least breaks even.

We chose to keep the product at an elevated price, and will see how it works out. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Accessories to Get the Most Out of Your 5DS R

The Canon EOS 5DS R is indeed a great camera, rivaling or even surpassing medium format digital offerings. But to extract its capabilities to the last ounce, you’ll need the appropriate lenses, accessories and technique.

Let’s get the lens question out of the way first, before I move onto the accessories and gadgets – the real topic of this post. This camera ignited a complete revamp of my lens set. I’ve already replaced the 500mm with the Mark II because of the 7D Mark II, but the 5DS R made changes also necessary in the shorter focal lengths range. The first lens that got replaced was the 135mm – with the Zeiss Apo Sonnar 2/135 ZE replacing the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM. The Canon was no slouch, but the Zeiss is in a completely different league. Next came the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art replaced with the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZE (actually this change is in progress, as the first copy went back to Zeiss – more on it after the issue settles). On the wide end I’m about to acquire a Zeiss Otus 1.4/28 ZE (when it comes out next year) and a Zeiss 2.8/15 ZE.

It may look pricey at first, but these lenses are not comparable even to the Sigma Arts. With the Sigma 50, 5DS R images just look like regular 35mm DSLR images, albeit with slightly higher resolution. But they are still limited to 40×60 cm print sizes according to my standards. There’s a lot of empty magnification in those images. With the Otus 55, 60×90 cm is easily reachable. The images remind me of those I saw from Hasselblads. The Otus 55 costs around $4000, which is in line with medium format normal lens offerings priced between $3000 (Schneider) – $6000 (Leica). And the 5DS R is more than affordable compared to medium format cameras/backs.

With this said, it’s not surprising that you’ll need tripod stability and shooting discipline used with medium format gear. The setup I describe in the following sections was built slowly during the last couple of years to satisfy my landscape photography requirements. Removing “field frustrations” one by one.

As a quick overview, you can see my rig on the following picture.

Ready to shoot

Ready to shoot

Tripod and Head

I’m using a Gitzo 3532LS tripod for more than three years now. These legs proved to be versatile, have great torsional rigidity and dampen vibrations rather quickly. I prefer three legs sections for increased stability, and myself being 172 cm, this tripod gives me just the right height to work comfortably even on slopes.

On the head front, the Arca-Swiss d4 is my choice. I had been struggling with ballheads for a decade, and they became unbearable when I started to shoot tethered most of the time. I had to wait three months for the d4 to be delivered, but it well worth the wait. Now I can adjust the camera position with just one hand, while holding the MacBook Air in the other. Not to mention that sagging omnipresent even with the best ballheads is a thing of the past. I prefer the d4 compared to the Cube, because of the quick adjustment feature.

The third piece of the the support puzzle is the camera plate. I’ve relocated my Kirk plate from the 5D Mark III – it is 100% compatible. As I wrote in my Kirk plate first impressions piece, I really like its two attachment point fixing method. Together with the 5DS R’s reinforced base plate, it provides very stiff support. Note that no battery grips are used here – they just introduce another attachment point with possible flex and sag.

Filters and Lens Shading

I moved to the LEE filter system when I started shooting with primes only. Four different filter sizes were unmanageable – even with the two types of filters (ND and polarizer) that I use. Still don’t like graduated filters and the dark mountain tops you see so many times on photographs made with them, and my LEE filter set consists of just a 100x100mm polarizer, a 3 stop ND, plus the Little and the Big Stopper.

They beautifully solve the filter thread problem, but forget about stock lens shades. So I had to find a solution. Sometimes I used my hat to shade the lens front element, and that gave me the idea: get a piece of black paper/plastic, and figure out how can I hold it in place (remember, one hand for adjusting the head/camera/lens, another for the MacBook – there’s no third one for holding the shade). I ended up using a Wimberley Plamp as a third hand. Originally I had a piece of black cardboard in my bag as a shade, but recently switched to a piece of matte plastic named Shadepirate. You can’t see on the above picture, but I put a piece of Velcro under the clip of the Plamp to protect the tripod leg.

Tethering

Tethering became integral part of my workflow years ago. At the beginning I had been dragging a 15″ MacBook Pro around, but that turned out to be a bit heavy and problematic. For more than a year now, a 11″ MacBook Air serves as a field computer. It fits into the pocket of my Domke vest, weights as little as five or six 4×5″ film holders… Yes it’s a bit more than 1kg, but my backpack and tripod weighs around 20kg together, so that’s not a huge increase.

Of course I use my own software – Kuuvik Capture – on the MacBook for controlling the camera. But usually also keep a copy of Capture One open so that I can make critical decisions on the filed.

With the arrival of USB 3, cable quality became increasingly important. You need to have good signal integrity for a reliable connection. For this reason, I settled down with TetherTools’ TetherPro cables – currently the 15 feet (4.57m) orange one. As an interesting side note, we had a handful of Kuuvik Capture support incidents where changing the cheap cabling to a good one solved the issue.

Conclusion

For me, the 5DS R marks the end of the casual 35mm shooting era, but in exchange delivers image quality previously available only with much more expensive medium format systems. Even with expensive Zeiss glass, the complete system price/performance ratio remains on a uniquely high level.

Not to mention that the same camera can be used for birding with stellar results – a domain no medium format camera dare to enter.