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).

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.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II First Impressions

When I first picked up the 7D Mark II at this year’s Photokina show, it struck me how similar it feels to the 5D Mark III. I thought that if image quality is there, I would definitely buy one. Due to this similarity with the 5D Mark III, I instantly knew that ergonomics and handling will be great. The only haunting question was image quality, but lacking any useful reviews, I had to place my order without knowing anything about it. My primary goal was to certify the camera for my ShutterCount app – and actually using it for photographing birds came as second. Purchasing blindly wasn’t that big risk, because if it somehow turns out to be something I don’t like, I would be able to easily sell it given the high demand.

And as you may guess, I really like the 7D Mark II. But being a perfectionist, I don’t think everything is as glorious as marketing materials may suggest. Some of my observations may look strange, or don’t even important to you and your style of photography, but this is what I think of the camera.

Handling

As I mentioned, handling is virtually identical to the 5D Mark III. I can switch between them effortlessly. The 7D is a tad smaller, and is on the edge of being comfortable in my large hands. Buttons and dials are almost the same on the two cameras, with two notable differences.

First is the lever around the joystick. This can be assigned to a few different functions. In my setup, it is used to switch AF point selection modes. This is a huge time and frustration saver, as I’m still unable to switch them with the M-Fn button without concentrating on what I’m doing. The problem on the 5D Mark III is that I have to press the AF point selection button, then use the M-Fn to switch the selection mode. There’s no way to toggle between those modes with M-Fn directly. But on the 7D Mark II the lever can be programmed to switch between these modes directly. This is a huge addition to the already great Canon user interface.

The other difference is not so great. On the 7D Mark II only the outer edge of the rear dial rotates, while on the 5D Mark III the whole dial (well, except the SET button) rotates. I find it way easier to handle the 5D Mark III style dial.

The use of LP-E6N (and LP-E6) batteries is a big plus. I have a total of four of those, and their small size as well as the small charger makes life much easier than with those giant 1-series batteries and chargers.

Firmware

While a well though out control layout is absolutely required to provide a good user experience, the software behind these controls is equally important. I generally like Canon’s modus operandi and menu structures, but find their cameras lacking in customization options. As a developer, I don’t get why they limit the set of assignable functions for some buttons…

The 7D Mark II is a combination of a step forward here and marketing bullshit there.

What is a step forward in my book is that you can program two buttons on the back of the camera to initiate AF. For example I generally use the AF-ON button in single point selection mode (or whatever seems appropriate at the moment), and the * button to initiate AF in automatic AF point selection mode with AI SERVO focusing. This is something I used extensively on the 1D Mark II a decade ago, and is a very welcome addition to the 7D Mark II. But here you can do even more: set AF customization parameters differently for the two buttons. This is a level of customization that I would expect in 2014. I wish that this feature will make its way to the 5D Mark III firmware in the future.

The other one is what seems to be designed by the marketing department. I’m talking about the intervalometer and the bulb timer. Nikons have built-in intervalometers for ages, and it’s great that Canon finally made a step in this direction, just the bad implementation renders it useless. You can’t use the bulb timer together with the intervalometer, and also can’t use mirror lock-up with the intervalometer. But I would only use the intervalometer in these modes… For example intervalometer and bulb timer together is required for executing astrophoto sequences. And I would love to use mirror lock-up and intervalometer together for taking all sort of exposure sequences. That is, the camera’s intervalometer implementation is totally unusable for me. It seems that I’ll have to use Kuuvik Capture‘s exposure sequencing features for the foreseeable future (well, as soon as Kuuvik Capture gets 7D Mark II support).

Image Quality

Let me begin with saying that I completely hate what the original 7D produces. Its images are soft, with a veil over the whole image. I had to massage 7D raws way too much to get results up to my standards. I have two other contemporary APS-C Canons, a 100D and a 650D, plus an older 50D. None of them is great in the image quality department. So I was very curious to see what the 7D Mark II can produce.

What delayed this first impressions post a few weeks is that I needed a version of Capture One 8 with 7D Mark II support. I downloaded Canon’s DPP, but I could cry from what I saw with that. Lifeless, flat, soft images. Even with 5D3 files. Lightroom was marginally better. Then Capture One 8.0.2 arrived and the smile returned to my face.

As a side note, if image quality is important to you, I would strongly recommend to check out Capture One.

I made a little test. Mounted my Sigma 50/1.4 DG HSM Art lens on both cameras, and shot an image at f/5 (to avoid diffraction effects on the 7D Mark II). I didn’t want to equalize angle of view and depth of field between the images, just pixel peep a bit. You can see crops of these below. Images are straight out of Capture One, with no tweaking of any kind.

5D3_1445_2822_crop

100% crop of the 5D Mark III image. Click the image for 100% view on non-retina displays.

Conditions were less than favorable. Flat light due to the thick cloud layer and strong backlighting above the road. Both cameras performed admirably. What surprised me are the rich and deep yellows from the 7D Mark II.

7D2_1445_0165_crop

100% crop of the 7D Mark II image. Click the image for 100% view on non-retina displays.

No other surprises here though. The 20 megapixel resolution of the 7D Mark II is well above what top-of-the-line glass can resolve. You can see lots of empty magnification in the 7D image. The camera requires the very best glass available. I’m fortunate enough to carry some gems in my bag, but even with those lenses I would prefer a 15-16 megapixel resolution. Physics is physics, no matter how marketing folks want to bend reality. I would expect disappointing results with lower end glass.

This is a specialty camera. I plan to use it for birds and astrophotography. Both these genres need a wide open lens, so the very low diffraction limit (f/6.7 or so) is not an issue for me. It produces 1.6x more depth of field than the 5D Mark III at the same aperture, so I don’t have to waste light by stopping down for more DoF for birds up close. Not to mention that I can leave light-sapping teleconverters out of the equation most of the time.

Another thing I don’t understand is raving reviews about the camera’s high ISO capabilities. It’s a stop worse than the 5D Mark III, so ISO 1600 is the absolute maximum I would ever use. If I need ISO 3200, then the 5D3 comes out from the bag. The 7D2 shares the low ISO characteristics with other APS-C Canons, that is, ISO 200 has more dynamic range and bit depth than ISO 100. Speaking of dynamic range, it is a tad better on the 7D2 (11.2 stops @ ISO 200) than on the 5D3 (10.9 stops @ ISO 100). That is, you still have to watch your shadows.

In subjective evaluation, images from the 7D Mark II look markedly better to my eye than those from the 7D. They are also better than other APS-C Canons. But still, APS-C is APS-C, so A2 sized fine art prints are out of reach for this camera.

Closing Words

I haven’t touched AF performance and actual action use, because we are before the winter birding season. I’ll cover those as soon as I will have experience on the topic.

So, to summarize things: this is a very competent image making machine for action and bird photographers, where telephoto reach is at utmost importance. But forget it for landscapes, though. There are no surprises here that defy physics. The camera combines stunning handling with pretty usable image quality. While I would give an A to it as a camera (handling, AF and such), image quality only receives a B (because of the needlessly high resolution and its side effects).

Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM Art First Impressions

I’m constantly looking for better lenses at my favorite focal lengths, and when Zeiss had announced that they are making an über 55mm lens, it immediately appeared on my shopping list. Its $4000 price while not prohibitive, I have very high expectations at that price point. And the Otus fails at two of them. I don’t think that the open distance scale is a good thing to have when I’m out in the field (except for generating trips to the service), and for $4000 I would expect 11-12 rounded aperture blades and perfectly circular aperture all the way down – like on cine lenses in this price class.

So I became very excited when Sigma’s new Otus competitor was recently announced. I read every possible review on the net (just to realize how shallow these became during the last years), and actually ordered the lens without having a solid idea how will it perform.

My copy finally arrived yesterday. I spent an afternoon on comparing it with my former 50mm lens of choice, Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. Well, I can attest that most of the hype about the Sigma 50 Art is true.

Sigma50-5D3

Simga 50mm F1.4 DG HSM Art on the Canon 5D Mark III

I’m going to use this lens for landscapes as well as for astrophotography. While f/1.4 isn’t necessary for traditional landscapes, it definitely opens up new creative possibilities. And for astro, wider usable apertures are a must. The Canon 50/1.4 isn’t really usable until f/2.8. It’s a pretty solid performer at f/4 and up, but forget about making high quality images wide open.

The Sigma is in a different league wide open. At f/1.4 it’s a bit better than the Canon at f/2.8 – and while the difference becomes smaller, there’s an edge to the Sigma at every aperture. The Sigma is a pretty damn sharp lens. And this was one of the things I was looking for.

Its high contrast also increases apparent sharpness. But high contrast is not necessarily a good thing. It’s easy to increase contrast during post-processing, but plugged shadows and burnt highlights are not that easy to deal with. I read somewhere that the engineers sacrificed a little sharpness for increased contrast – personally I would be happier with a sharper and less contrasty optic. Given the shadow-challenged nature of Canon’s current sensors, I will need to keep an eye on the shadows constantly.

Color rendering is brutally different. Reds and especially greens come alive with the Sigma, where I needed substantial amount of work with the Canon during post. Shadows are also clean, no yellowish-brown tone to them. Overall colors are on the colder side – not something that can’t be corrected in post easily.

Except for the colder color, the 50mm Art reminds me to the magical Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM. That is, they are of similar size, similar weight, similar materials and build quality and produce similar superbly clean and detailed files. Yes, this isn’t your small and light 50mm – but are perfectly in line with other high quality primes in my bag (the 135 and the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II). It’s not something I would bring to a vacation, however. The Canon 50/1.4 is a much better option for that.

I haven’t checked autofocus yet, as I plan to use Sigma in manual focus for 95% of the time. For manual focus, I would prefer a longer than 92 degree focus throw. I suspect that AF would be slowed down too much with longer throw.

What else could be improved on the 50 Art? Well, I would be happy to spend a few hundred more and get weather sealing. Rubber materials are a dust magnet on this lens, so a less dust attracting material would be great…

I’m very impressed with this lens. Something I didn’t feel since I got the Canon 135mm f/2L. At $950 it’s a steal (again, like the 135mm). If 50mm is something that makes your world go around, I highly recommend to give the Sigma 50mm Art a try.