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.

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