Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4: The Need for Perfection

 
Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4

Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4

Raj Lalwani dissects the hype around the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 to see if it is really the greatest piece of optic that has ever been made.

The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 has already become stuff of legend, barely a few months after its announcement. In fact, even when just a few pieces were out in the world, there was a clamour that only rose in volume and declared, with almost-fanboy enthusiasm… best lens ever.

So let me end this review before I begin it. After using it for three weeks and repeatedly having to lift back my jaw that kept dropping, I concur, hand on heart, with the initial hype… It is the best piece of optics we have tested, without any shred of doubt. Whether it is the best lens for you, that’s an entirely different story, and needs to be analysed carefully.

Features
In trying to achieve a near-perfect set of optics, the lens itself has become something that may ward off a lot of users. It is huge… much bigger than similar lenses and at Rs. 2,69,950/-, fantastically expensive.

The size is also largely due to the fact that the lens actually covers an image circle larger than ‘full frame’ and the optical construction is actually inspired by medium format lenses. According to the company, the Distagon design with its considerably longer construction makes it possible to get consistently excellent correction from corner to corner of the frame and extremely low image field curvature at f/1.4. The apochromatic nature of the lens means all wavelengths of visible light meet at the same point. This minimises smearing and vastly improves visible detail.

Acquiring perfect focus at f/1.4 is not easy without a focusing screen. But once you do so the detail and quality of bokeh is superb. Exposure: 1/320sec at f/1.4 (ISO 1000). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Acquiring perfect focus at f/1.4 is not easy without a focusing screen. But once you do so the detail and quality of bokeh is superb. Exposure: 1/320sec at f/1.4 (ISO 1000). Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Handling
The Otus is MF only. I personally see that as an advantage. When a lens aims at a quality benchmark as high as this, the rigour of manual focus is a constraint that is vital to get the best out of the lens.

The focusing ring is outstanding. Smooth operation with just enough resistance, the tactility and feel make this an experience that would make it difficult for you to use ‘lesser’ lenses in the future.

That said, the big constraint that comes through while using the Otus is the fact that modern-day DSLR viewfinders are not well tuned for using MF. When shooting at f/1.4, the focus confirmation light is not much help. It stays on for too long even when you turn the focusing ring past the optimal point. If you are a serious user, invest in a focusing screen. The finish of the Otus looks and feels beautiful, but it tends to get scratched and dirty very easily. The lack of weathersealing is a little bizarre, considering how enormous and overbuilt the lens otherwise is.

The development of the Otus lenses has been Zeiss’ response to the recent high megapixel sensors reaching new levels of excellence.

Performance
Aside from all its optical brilliance, the Otus just has a look that differentiates it from other lenses. While shooting with the Zeiss, I also had another 50mm lens with me. At low resolutions the superior sharpness of the Otus was not so noticeable, yet the Zeiss images had a distinct look that made them immediately recognisable.

Microcontrast—the ability of the lens to differentiate between increasingly tiny details of nearly similar tonal values— is visibly high, and admirably so. This gives images a distinctly three-dimensional look. Bokeh is beautifully smooth. I was very impressed by the subtle manner in which the lens renders out-of-focus areas in the foreground.

Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Photograph/Raj Lalwani

The lens outresolved the 20MP sensor of the Canon 6D that we tested if on quite easily. Forget the concept of sweet spot. This is a lens that gets as sharp as it does at f/1.4. The only real thing you gain by stopping down is a bit of microcontrast, besides of course, an increase in DOF.

This is a lens whose measured MTF is far superior to the theoretical MTF of other lenses. I actually suspect that the ‘Otii’ may be the only lenses of the current lot that may stay truly futureproof for a long time, even if the megapixel count in camera sensors continues to grow.

Flare, ghosting, coma, distortion are superbly controlled. There is a fair amount of vignetting though, at the widest aperture.

Conclusion
If you are someone who’s asking whether you need the Otus, you probably don’t. This is an incredibly specialised lens, probably the kind whose magic you’d continue to see even when sensors get into the 40–50MP and more territory.

If you don’t have a 36MP body, it can be argued that you don’t need the Otus as the detail advantage is relatively lesser on lower-megapixel bodies. There is also the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens which comes reasonably close to the quality (though not the look) of the Zeiss, adds autofocus and is one fourth the price!

But with products like these, it’s never really about the price tag anyway. There will always be a select few photographers who would not care about cost and value for money as long as they get the unique look they crave. And for them, the Otus is as good as it gets.

FINAL RATINGS
 Features: Apochromatic design, low image field curvature, Distagon design  18/20
 Performance: Optically almost perfect, very sharp, Zeiss-like micro contrast, visible vignetting  35/35
 Build Quality: Scruffy finish, no weathersealing  22/25
 Ergonomics: Intuitive focusing ring, extremely large lens  13/15
 Warranty & Support: Replaceable in case of manufacturing defect for 3 years  3/5
 OVERALL  91%

MRP: Rs. 2,48,000

Who should buy it? Those who demand the very best in quality and do not need convenience.

Why? The Otus is a difficult lens to use. You need excellent technique, patience and strong arms, but the rewards are infinite.

Tags: Raj Lalwani, Review, bokeh, Lens, Zeiss, distagon, weathersealed, Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, Apochromatic, MTF