Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4: The Manual Workhorse


Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4

Zeiss’ optical quality is usually the tale of legend. Shridhar Kunte checks ifthe Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 is a better buy than proprietary options.

The 85mm f/1.4 is an important piece of glass for absolutely every lens manufacturer. After all, both Canon and Nikon have fast 85mm lenses that are known as one of the sharpest in their lineups. But if you are a dedicated portraitist, you also have another option you can use—the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4. This lens was first built for the Sony mount and is now available for other mounts like Nikon, Pentax and Canon. We tested the Canon-mount version on an EOS 5D Mark II.

It might be interesting to note that this is the first lens that Carl Zeiss has built specially for the Canon EOS mount. The earlier versions of Zeiss lenses needed a special adapter in order to be compatible with Canon bodies. This would be a financial burden, as it would add to the cost of the lens.
Do remember that unlike lenses made by Canon or Nikon, this Zeiss lens is a manual focus lens only. This automatically restricts the audience that may enjoy the lens as it needs the use of excellent technique and control. The closest focusing distance of this lens is 1m, which is not feasible for shooting tight face close-ups. There is no IS.

The overall feel gives you an idea of the excellent construction quality of the lens. I really cannot wish for anything better in terms of manufacturing excellence. Just like the manual focus lenses of yore, the focusing ring is thick and offers just the right amount of resistance for a fine user experience. To focus from the closest focusing distance to infinity, the rotation required is approximately 250°. This is quite a lot, but it gives excellent control over precise manual focusing. The distance markings that are engraved on the focusing ring are accurate and line up perfectly with the DOF markings. Since the front element does not rotate while focusing, one can attach a Circular Polarising Filter and portrait photographers can easily use a ring flash.
Until I used this lens, I considered myself quite good at using manual focus. But with a lens that has such a fast maximum aperture, one really needs utmost of precision. Old manual cameras were optimised for manual focusing since they had a splitscreen viewfinder that would tell you when the subject is perfectly in focus.
Since modern DSLRs do not have such viewfinders, we would recommend you to buy a special focusing screen—both Canon as well as third-party manufacturers produce these. Alternatively, if you are shooting at a leisurely pace, you can use the zoomed Live View to confirm focus.

With the reputation of Zeiss and the specifications attached to it, one would expect to get top notch performance with this beautifully crafted lens. But after going through the results, I had mixed feelings. The lens exhibits good contrast and colour balance, and no distortion. It also has really pleasant and excellent, smooth bokeh.
The sharpness is excellent between f/2.8 and f/5.6, but it suffers at aperture settings that are faster or slower. While chromatic aberration is hard to detect when the lens is stopped down, it is disturbing at the wider apertures. In some extreme light situations, I observed small amount of flare, even with the hood attached to the lens.

Unlike the common perception associated with most Zeiss lenses, this lens is actually quite attractively priced. At Rs. 90,450, it is cheaper than the Nikkor AF-S 85mm f/1.4G, but much more expensive than the AF-D version. The proprietary lenses offer the obvious advantage of autofocus. If you photograph fashion or action portraits where you would need the convenience of autofocus, it is quite obvious that you must steer clear of this lens.
In terms of optics, one must realise that both Canon and Nikon have superb lenses as well. In fact, there are alternatives in the market that can match the performance of the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4. So the benefits of buying it in terms of pure image quality, are not too many.
It is the build quality of the lens that really makes it stand out. Just ask yourself how many years you would want to use the lens as your main workhorse. If the answer is more than three years, you will be best served by this Zeiss armour.

Final Ratings
Manual focus only, optically fast, no IS

Excellent bokeh, good sharpness.

Build Quality
Built like a military armour, metal lens hood

Excellent focusing experience, DOF scale

Warranty & Support
Replaceable in case of manufacturing defectfor three years, no service centre in India

Value For Money: 3/5 stars

Tags: Shridhar Kunte, manual focus, Prime lens, December 2011, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4, Portraitist dream lens, Lens test