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Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* 1.4/50

 
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Lab Test Results

  • Blur
  • Chromatic Aberration
  • Vignetting
  • Geometric Distortion
  • Blur
  • Chromatic Aberration
  • Vignetting
  • Geometric Distortion
50mm $670
average price
image of Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* 1.4/50

(From Carl Zeiss lens literature) The Planar T* 1.4/50 is an extremely fast standard lens for challenging 35 mm photography with SLR cameras. Professional photographers also consider it the best SLR standard lens in the world.

SLRgear Review
August 12, 2008
by Andrew Alexander

January 2006: Carl Zeiss announced they are producing a new line of lenses aimed at the 35mm SLR market. Its ''Z'' series starts with four lenses, one of which is the 50mm ƒ/1.4. Carl Zeiss now produces two 50mm lenses in its ZF series: the 50mm ƒ/2 Makro, and the 50mm ƒ/1.4, the subject of this review.

The 50mm ƒ/1.4 is available in the Nikon F-mount, the Pentax/Samsung K-mount and the M42 screw mount. The 50mm ƒ/1.4 is designed to cover a 35mm frame, built to ''old-school'' specifications that guarantee compatibility with older camera bodies. On a sub-frame digital sensor body, the lens will have an effective field of view of 75mm. The lens takes 58mm filters, comes with a bowl-style metal lens hood, and is available for around $500.

Sharpness
Looking at the blur graph for the 50mm ƒ/1.4, and it quickly becomes obvious that there's a lot going on ''under the hood'' of this lens. Carl Zeiss markets this lens as providing "high-performance wide open, which only improves as the lens is stopped down." I'm not sure how they define high performance, but we can agree the lens' performance certain improves as it is stopped down.

CZ 50mm @ ƒ/1.4, on Nikon D3

Sharpness at ƒ/1.4 is the only truly weak point of this lens. Our test images shot at ƒ/1.4 show between 3 and 5 blur units across the frame, and the overall profile is not smooth. However, stopping down to just ƒ/2 improves sharpness dramatically, and restores some order to the otherwise ''lumpy'' image profile. The profile looks more like a portrait lens, with a sharp central region (~1 blur unit) and gradually softening corners (5-6 blur units). Stop down again to ƒ/2.8, and the image becomes almost tack-sharp across the frame (just over 1 blur unit). According to our testing, optimal sharpness is achieved at ƒ/4, but it's a fine distinction between apertures in the range of ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/11. At ƒ/16 the lens shows a bit of diffraction limiting, but it's hardly noticeable at just 1.5 blur units across the frame.

On our full-frame D3, the 50mm ƒ/1.4 is really taken to task by the larger, higher-resolution sensor. Image sharpness results at ƒ/1.4 are even worse than on the D200: between 4 and 7 blur units, with the same ''lumpy'' image characteristics. There's definite improvement at ƒ/2, with the same portrait-lens style character, but the sharpness ''sweet spot'' is a very small region in the center of the frame: the overall size of the FX sensor has dwarfed it. At ƒ/2.8 the lens begins to give very sharp results, but it isn't until ƒ/5.6 that we note optimal results for sharpness (although again, the differences between ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/11, even ƒ/16, are very small).

Overall, image results for sharpness are very interesting. At ƒ/2 you get portrait-lens style shots (more on the D200 than the D3), and by ƒ/4 it's as sharp as sharp gets. However, sharpness performance at ƒ/1.4 is strictly mediocre.

Chromatic Aberration
The 50mm ƒ/1.4 shows a fair amount of chromatic aberration, fairly evenly between all apertures, but weighted more to larger apertures. Wide open at ƒ/1.4, images produced by the lens showed just over 7/100ths of a percent of frame height CA in the corners, and 4/100ths generally. This reduced slightly as the lens was stopped down.

On the D3, the body automatically removes chromatic aberration, to significant effect - CA is almost non-existent after the D3 has performed this function. We processed some RAW frames through Bibble to remove the CA reduction feature, and give an idea of how much CA results when using the lens on a full-frame body. In this case overall CA is slightly higher (around 5/100ths of a percent of frame height) but maximum CA is slightly lower (around 6/100ths of a percent of frame height).

Shading (''Vignetting'')
Corner shading isn't a significant problem with the 50mm ƒ/1.4 mounted on the sub-frame D200; when used at ƒ/1.4, the corners show up as 1/3 EV darker than the center. At all other apertures, it's less than a quarter-stop.

On the full-frame D3, corner shading is more significant. At ƒ/1.4, the corners are a full stop darker than the center; at ƒ/2, corner darkness is less significant, at 2/3 EV. At ƒ/2.8 we see a quarter-stop difference between corner and center, and at other apertures it's less than that.

Distortion
The Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 shows some slight barrel distortion. On the D200 the effect is less significant: 0.25% distortion in the corners. On the D3 it's double that, at 0.5% corner distortion. Fortunately, it isn't a complex distortion and is easily correctable with post-processing software.

Autofocus Operation
The Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 is a manual focus lens.

Macro
The 50mm ƒ/1.4 isn't rated as a macro lens; it doesn't need to be, as CZ produces a 50mm ƒ/2 macro. With a minimum close-focus distance of 45cm and a magnification rating of just 0.15x, the other 50mm is the way to go for macro work.

Build Quality and Handling
Carl Zeiss has taken a retro approach with its line of ZF lenses, in that instead of adopting a new design approach they are solidly capitalizing on a proven concept of an old design. The sample we tested is built with the old Nikon ''rabbit-ears'' AI indexer, to ensure compatibility with some of the oldest Nikon bodies produced.

The lens design consists of 7 elements in 6 groups, with a nine-bladed diaphragm making up the aperture. The production quality of the lens is superb; the entire construction is metal, from lens mount to filter rings. Accordingly, this makes it comparatively heavy at 255g (over half a pound). Unless your newer camera body supports AI- or AIS-style lenses, you can forget about ''advanced'' modes such as aperture priority; it will be manual mode all the way. And you can forget about metering, as well. With its $500 price tag though, my sense is that the average purchaser of this lens will not have such problems.

Those issues aside, the lens is wonderfully presented, with a distance and magnification scale etched into the focus ring. A depth-of-field scale (complete with infrared index) is adjacent to the aperture ring. The aperture ring itself clicks between ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/16 in half-stop intervals. A short, 3/4 inch-deep metal bowl-shaped metal lens hood completes the ensemble. The lens hood can be reversed for storage on the lens.

The focus ring is the main operating feature of the lens. It's 1/2-inch wide, with a ribbed metal texture. There is plenty of travel on the smoothly-cammed ring - turning about 300 degrees brings you from closest focus to infinity.

Alternatives

Nikon 50mm ƒ/1.4D AF Nikkor ~$300
I think many people will have scrolled down directly to this point. According to our tests, the Nikon 50mm ƒ/1.4 beats the Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 hands-down; it's sharper at all apertures (though it becomes hard to tell the difference between ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/16), CA performs much better, and it distorts less. The Zeiss shows slightly less corner darkening. However factor in that with a lower price tag, the Nikon has autofocus capability, and I think the decision to go with the one or the other comes down to liking the ''look'' produced by the Zeiss over the Nikon.

Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 EX DG HSM ~$500
We haven't yet reviewed this lens, but early reviews are quite good. It's the only 50mm lens available for Nikon or Pentax that offers silent-wave motor style focusing (though Pentax bodies must support SDM focusing).

Pentax 50mm ƒ/1.4 SMC P-FA ~$200
If you're a Pentax user, this is your brand-loyal competition. We haven't reviewed it, but it's a similar story to the Nikon solution: lower price point, with the added advantage of autofocus.

Conclusion
On its own merits, the Carl Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 is a good lens: sharpness is excellent at ƒ/2.8 and greater, even at ƒ/2 in a portrait application on a sub-frame sensor digital SLR. Chromatic aberration and distortion performance are tolerable, and corner shading isn't problematic. The problem in recommending this lens is that there wasn't anything wrong with existing solutions for Pentax and Nikon, which means the Zeiss would have to be something really special to justify the higher price point and lack of autofocus. I'm not convinced the Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 quite reaches ''that'' level of lens; certain aspects of it are very nice, such as its smooth manual focus control and performance after ƒ/2.8. But to my mind a lens marketed as a fast ƒ/1.4 lens has to perform well at that aperture, rather than showing its best performance at smaller apertures. And at its widest aperture, the 50mm ƒ/1.4 just doesn't perform.

Sample Photos

The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.

As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.

Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar T* 1.4/50 User Reviews

10.0/10 average of 8 reviews Build Quality 10.0/10 Image Quality 9.8/10
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  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (14 reviews)
    ALL-METAL build, focus ring is a JOY to use, takes 58 mm filter, surprisingly compact and lightweight
    It's manual focus only, soft at f1.4, crappy lens cap

    It is a MANUAL FOCUS ONLY lens, so this lens is not for everyone. I'd recommend using this lens with a FF body due to its brighter viewfinder. Personally I don't prefer shooting with live view mode (it's just counterintuitive and less enjoyable).

    Once you hold this lens, you will feel the quality. The focus ring is a joy to use and it makes you think more about your subject and composition compared to autofocus lenses.

    It's very compact and lightweight... just throw it in your bag and off you go...

    At f1.4, images were rather soft (sometimes I had difficulty differentiating whether the softness were caused by missed focus or the lens' behavior).

    In the end, I sold this lens because MY EYES cannot provide good focus judgment (I'm short-sighted and astigmat). Still, the pleasure of using this lens left in my memories...
    HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for those who LOVE manual focus...

    reviewed December 13th, 2013 (purchased for $800)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (5 reviews)
    Color rendition Very sharp. Constructionquality. Good hood.
    Expensiv

    I purchased the newer version, without the rabbitears, and chipped for Nikon. This lens are really a jewel. The picturequality in RAW (NEF) are outstanding from f 2,8. The lack of AF is not an issue for me. I do what I have been doing for a long time. Just turn the ring until the green light coming in the corner of my field.
    A beautiful build lens with a real feeling of quality. Sits most of the time on one of my Nikon D 700.

    reviewed May 6th, 2013 (purchased for $460)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (1 reviews)
    Great color rendition, Punchy images out of the box, Good resistance to flare, Precise focusing mechanism, All metal construction
    Spherical aberration (but not an absolute Con, see below)

    Using this lens always brings me to photographic ecstasy!
    Lacking AF made me care more about key elements in taking photos especially framing, I shoot more cautiously and mindfully.

    Back to the lens, this and presumably other ZF and ZE lenses (not Sony ZA, oops!) built to last and focusing is so precise and very smooth. Damped focus ring can help to stop focusing very accurately.
    Image quality is superb, colors are rich and punchy but tonal gradation is also smooth even at widest aperture.
    Resolution is the greatest among 50mm primes when stopped down just to F2.8 .

    There is one thing I can't miss to mention, the optical designs of 50mm primes are still suffered from spherical aberrations esp. for brighter lens without asph elements.
    Wide open, spherical aberration makes things looked hazy, and dreamy (in portrait photography terms).
    Stopped down, the aberration contributes to Focus Shift phenomenon.

    The aberration still makes some profit, hazy images at widest aperture can be used in creative ways esp. in portraiture. And this is the easiest way to the "pleasing" out-focus elements.

    I think CZ made right decision not to correct the spherical aberations, if so, this would be sold at $1200 or more!

    reviewed June 3rd, 2012 (purchased for $799)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (1 reviews)
    Smooth focus, build quality, good for different purposes
    Focus shift

    Many will compare this lens to the manufacturer's equivalent, and reading the reviews it seems to come down to not offering anything more. I personally owned the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM lens prior to this similar Zeiss. While it is true that the Zeiss can be soft wide open, I find it is little different than the Canon at f/1.4 in that regard. The Zeiss is outstanding for detail when stopped down a bit and outperforms my Canon L zooms at similar focal lengths and apertures.

    What I love about this lens is that it demands a different pace than my autofocus lenses. The focus confirm light on my 7D works nicely with the lens, and once focused I find I pay more attention to framing, rather than paying attention to locking focus again for each shot. The smooth autofocus is great for video or tripod work, the Canon equivalent AF lens gives up a lot in manual focus to make AF work quickly. The bottom line is that this lens will give you are very different experience than the Canon plastic AF lenses. It is worth it to me for that reason.

    Finally, the lens serves two different roles very well. At wider apertures, the edges are softer, and the in focus to out of focus transition is very appealing. On the other hand, stopped down this is a very sharp lens capable of great results if sharpness is your goal. Personally, I don't shoot landscapes at f/1.4, nor do I except ultimate sharpness for a portrait photo a wide apertures. Corner blurring is a nice feature for that. The bottom line is that this lens can adapt to different uses - portrait, video, and landscapes. All in a very nicely built metal package. What more do you want in a specialty lens? My most positive remark about this lens is that I like the images I make with it !

    reviewed April 26th, 2011 (purchased for $750)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (12 reviews)
    Excellent sharpness from f/2.8
    A bit hazy wide open but the resolution is there

    This is an excellent lens by all accounts. Wide open there is strong haze which can be used to good effect for portraits but can be problematic for other uses such as shooting landscapes at f/1.4 ;)

    reviewed August 20th, 2010 (purchased for $750)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (2 reviews)
    high quality build, fast prime
    lens cap

    This lens is an excellent alternative to comparable AF lenses.
    The built quality, the IQ, and especially the colour-rendition is superior to af-lenses out of this class.
    the boke is sometimes a bit flattering, compared to the zeiss makro plan 50/2, but the makro planar is just another type of lens.
    This lens is no Apochromat, so here is a tnedency for purple fringing at wide open shots, but this can be avoided by stopping a bit down.

    reviewed January 7th, 2009 (purchased for $749)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (2 reviews)
    Exc Image Quality and Sharpness, Smooth and Accurate Focus

    I bought this lens to replace my Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AI. I use it with an Nikon Fm2 camera, I also have a Nikon 50mm f/ 1.4D AF Nikkor, so my opinions are always drawn in comparison with my experience with the two Nikon lenses.

    I admit that electronics might be useful though I don't miss it.
    The focus ring is extremely smooth and accurate, more than the Nikon lenses, and the lens is excellently built.

    Overall image quality exceeds both Nikons, notably in sharpness and colour accurateness.

    I noted a slight barrel distortion on f/2.8 but less than the Nikon lenses.
    I haven't tested it in digital cameras.

    The following links will take you to some of the images produced with the combination "Nikon FM2+Carl Zeiss Planar T* 1,4/50 ZF + Fuji PRO 160C":

    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/2078852888/"> image1</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/2056106978/"> image2</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/2055320597/"> image3</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/2056099588/"> image4</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/2056097992/"> image5</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/2050790118/"> image6</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/2044698944/"> image7</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/1923295104/"> image8</a>
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mustha/1923281040/"> image9</a>

    reviewed November 28th, 2007 (purchased for $550)
  • 10 out of 10 points and recommended by (3 reviews)
    Fast lens, great bokeh, colors are amazing, out resolves my 20D
    No auto focus, no image stabilization, unable to sync to Canon cameras

    I'm extremely pleased with this lens. Picking up the lens gives a feeling of reliability because the construction is rock solid. The f/1.4 is wonderful but usually leaves too much out of focus! I usually stop down to f/2.8 when I use this lens. In any case, the bokeh is great, as are colors. It makes for some nice portraits.

    Unfortunately, the lens has no autofocus system and no image stabilization, so if you've gotten too hooked on those, it may be difficult to transition here. Plus, the lens only mounts via adapter to Canon bodies, and the camera won't recognize aperture size in the picture info.

    Even so, I love this lens and recommend it. Unless autofocus is a necessity. This is my second lens, with my first being the EF-S 17-85 f/4.0-5.6

    reviewed October 28th, 2007 (purchased for $500)