Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus 1.4/55
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April 8, 2014
by William Brawley
Hot on the heels of our Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art lens review comes its intended competition, the $4,000 Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus Distagon T*. This stupendously large, all-metal, normal focal length prime lens is aimed squarely at professional photographers who demand the utmost in sharpness, resolution and contrast for portrait shooting.
The manual-focus Zeiss Otus 55mm is far from your average lens, not only in terms of price, but also in size and weight. At over two pounds of metal and glass, the Zeiss has total of 12 elements in 10 groups, including 1 aspherical element, as well as 6 elements made of a special glass with anomalous partial dispersion, which are designed to significantly reduce any chromatic aberrations. Furthermore, the 9-bladed rounded aperture helps ensure pleasingly smooth background blur.
At 55mm, the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus is slightly longer than your classic 50mm focal length for the full-frame shooter, but still gives you a nice, fairly standard field of view. The competition for a fast 50mm lens is a crowded space, not only from the new Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art, but also from Zeiss's own 50mm ƒ/1.4 Planar T* lens, and not mention the handful of other manufacturers. The alternatives from Canon and Nikon include relatively average 50/1.4s on the low end, with Nikon offering the slightly longer, more portrait-specific 58mm ƒ/1.4 Nikkor on the high end, and Canon the brighter 50mm ƒ/1.2 L.
However, this Zeiss 55mm lens is in a category all its own. The Otus line is intended to be Zeiss's premiere, high performance series of optics, of which this 55mm lens is the first. Designed "without compromise," Zeiss is calling the 55mm ƒ/1.4 "the absolute best lens in the world today." Let's see if that's true…
Note: We'd like to thank Roger from LensRentals.com for providing us with a sample of this lens to test!
You want sharp? You got it. Given the price tag and their history of high quality lenses, we were expecting the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus to display truly impressive results, and we weren't disappointed. At ƒ/1.4 on a full-frame camera, the Zeiss 55mm blows away the competition. The Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art is just as sharp right in the center, but the Zeiss shows significantly better sharpness over the rest of the frame, particularly in the corners.
The name of the game with the Zeiss is consistency: at all apertures; the Zeiss 55mm's blur characteristic is almost perfectly flat, and very sharp everywhere. When you stop down to ƒ/2.8, the Zeiss 55mm and Sigma 50mm show very similar, very sharp and very flat blur characteristics. Looking at our graphs, you may think the Sigma appears slightly sharper, but the difference is so slight, it's practically negligible.
On a sub-frame camera, the Zeiss 55mm shows equally impressive results -- very sharp results, even wide-open and in the corners, which is to be expected given that the sub-frame body is simply cropping from what we saw with our full-frame camera. The Sigma, on the other hand, still shows just a bit of corner softness at ƒ/1.4, but that clears right up at ƒ/2.
Micro-contrast: It's also worth mentioning the effect that micro-contrast has on perceived sharpness, especially since Sigma president Kazuto Yamaki told IR/SLRgear founder Dave Etchells that they deliberately traded off just a little sharpness, in order to achieve better local contrast with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens. We've put together a side-by-side comparison between the Zeiss 55mm Otus and the Sigma 50mm over on the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens review. Check it out, you may find the results surprising.
With an apochromatic design that uses 6 optical elements made of a special glass with anomalous partial dispersion, the Zeiss 55mm Otus lens, not surprisingly, shows very well-controlled CA properties; with consistently low CA across the entire aperture range -- on both full- and sub-frame cameras. In our test images, we saw practically zero CA in both the center of the frame and up in the corners -- at ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/8. Compared to the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art, which showed minor CA in the corners at ƒ/1.4 as a very faint purplish tint on high contrast areas. Like our graphs for sharpness, the Sigma shows slightly lower numbers, but in our test chart photos, we saw excellent CA performance from both the Sigma and the Zeiss 55mm; the small amount of CA we saw in the Sigma wouldn't deter us from buying it.
As is common with wide-aperture lenses used wide open, the Zeiss 55mm Otus falters a bit when it comes to shading. The Zeiss displays fairly strong corner shading at ƒ/1.4 on a full-frame camera, with just under 1.25EVs of light falloff. Interestingly, the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art lens displays less vignetting wide open, with under 1EV. Vignetting with the Zeiss lens is, in fact, a bit stronger at the wider apertures compared to the Sigma, which drops to below 0.25EVs of corner shading at ƒ/2.8, whereas the Zeiss doesn't drop to that level of vignetting until around ƒ/4. However, from ƒ/4 onwards, the Zeiss is very consistent with low vignetting on a full-frame camera.
On a sub-frame camera, as you would expect, vignetting is significantly less noticeable with under 0.5EV of light loss at ƒ/1.4 (though still a bit more than the Sigma). At ƒ/2.8 and onwards, vignetting is extremely low and bordering on unnoticeable.
Distortion is pretty well-controlled on the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus lens, which is good to see from a lens that's designed primarily for portraiture. On a full-frame camera, the Zeiss shows a bit of barrel distortion on average, albeit with a slightly more noticeable effect out toward the corners and edges of the frame. The sub-frame performance is excellent -- average distortion is basically just a hair above zero. Interestingly, the Sigma 50mm lens shows essentially zero distortion on a full-frame camera, and, in fact, the Zeiss's sub-frame result closely resembles the full-frame results of the Sigma. Nevertheless, regardless of frame size, the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus has excellent distortion control; it's just not quite up to the phenomenal performance we saw from the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art.
Characteristic of Zeiss's SLR lenses, the 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus is manual focus only, and thankfully the manual focusing on this lens is spectacular. Not only does the large, softly-rubberized focus ring feel nice in the hand and rotate with the silky precision one would expect from a mechanical Zeiss lens, but focus throw is equally impressive. With approximately 270-degrees of rotation, the Zeiss 55mm lens allows for very easy, yet very precise focus adjustments; not only good for still photography but also for those shooting video, who want to attach follow-focus gearing.
Manually focusing with this lens can take some getting used to, especially given its very large focus throw. It can be a bit awkward if you're shooting handheld and need to adjust focus from a very close to distant subject. You'll need to rack the focus ring quite a long way, which can take multiple quick turns of the ring to get your subject in focus. The focus throw is a bit much for a single rotation with a thumb and forefinger.
Another consideration when using this lens, especially on a full-frame camera, is depth of field. At ƒ/1.4, the depth of field is razor thin! Even on our relatively flat still life test scene, we quickly noticed that even the slightest adjustment of the focus ring put parts of the scene out of focus.
This lens isn't specifically designed for macro photography, with a maximum magnification ratio of 0.15x (1:6.8) and a minimum close-focusing distance of around 50cm (19.7 in.).
Build Quality and Handling
It's a Zeiss -- this lens is built like a tank! The Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus is especially noteworthy not only for its sheer massive size, but also its weight at an astonishing 2.2lbs (without the hood)! Like the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art lens, this Zeiss 55mm Otus is not your everyday walkaround nifty fifty. (The Sigma does weigh in somewhat lighter, at 1.8 lbs, though.)
Like Zeiss's other SLR lenses, the 55mm lens is built by Cosina in Japan to Zeiss specs. As one has come to expect from Zeiss optics, this Otus-series lens feels extremely well made and solid, with an all-metal barrel and lens hood. The design itself is very sleek and modern with a smooth, matte black finish, a large, soft rubber-coated focus ring and laser-engraved lettering and markings highlighted with neon-yellow paint. Following the softly widening contour of the barrel, the lens hood blends into the shape nicely, making it all look like one solid piece. Apart from the small Zeiss logo badge, branding and focus distance window (with an oddly imprecise depth of field scale), the Zeiss 55mm is devoid of any buttons or switches -- no electronic bells and whistles here, such as IS or AF/MF switches.
As we mentioned above, the lens features 12 elements in 10 groups, including 1 aspherical element and 6 special elements with anomalous partial dispersion to eliminate chromatic aberration. The aperture diaphragm is a 9-bladed, rounded design for silky smooth background blur. The large diameter barrel and front element accepts common 77mm filters.
In a stark departure from the typical small and compact 50/1.4 lenses from many manufacturers (including Zeiss themselves), the Zeiss 55mm lens is more akin to the length and girth of the Canon 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L Mk. I, although the Zeiss still manages to weigh more. Nevertheless, while the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus lens is a serious lens with serious weight, it feels quite comfortable and balanced on both large DSLRs, such as our Canon 1Ds Mark III full-frame body, and medium-sized ones like the 7D. Despite the large amount of glass, the lens doesn't feel front-heavy either, at least on these larger camera bodies.
The clearest alternative, if you haven't guessed already, is the new Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art lens, which we just recently reviewed. Despite the dramatic difference in price, the Sigma competes handily with the $4,000 Zeiss 55mm Otus lens. (As of this writing, we don't know how Sigma will price the 50/1.4 Art, but it's safe to assume it'll be way, way less than the Otus. Stay tuned, we'll update this once we learn the price.) With extremely sharp images, even wide open, the Sigma also has fantastic vignetting and CA control, and a phenomenally low level of distortion. While the Zeiss does show better performance in the corners at ƒ/1.4 on a full-frame camera, the other optical performance characteristics are pretty evenly matched.
As we outlined over on the Sigma 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art review, the other manufacturers' competing alternative lenses don't really meet the performance of either the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus or the Sigma 50/1.4 Art - they're really in a class by themselves.
On the Nikon side, you have basically three options:
The affordable 50mm models in ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/1.8 versions, available for around $450 and $220, respectively, which are by far drastically less expensive than the Zeiss. While the image quality of these models aren't terrible, at least when stopped down, the Zeiss is all about performance, at all apertures -- even wide open. But you pay a pretty penny for that.
The slightly longer 58mm ƒ/1.4 Nikkor, available for $1,700, is a more apt alternative as a niche market portrait lens. Even though this Nikon gives you a little more focal length, IQ results are only marginally improved from the $450 50mm ƒ/1.4 mentioned above.
On the Canon side, your options are similar:
Like Nikon, Canon offers lower-cost 50mm options in ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/1.8 variants, for about $400 and $100, respectively. These lenses both struggle wide open, but perform well when stopped down, though you'll again need to get to ƒ/2.8 and ƒ/4.0 before things become tack sharp.
On the high end, Canon offers an ultra-fast ƒ/1.2 L-series alternative: the $1,700 50mm ƒ/1.2 L. While you gain a half-stop advantage, this lens is quite soft in the corners, even at ƒ/1.4. Furthermore, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are both issues.
Lastly, there's Zeiss's own 50mm ƒ/1.4 Plannar T* lens, which, like these others, struggles with sharpness wide-open. Unlike the Otus, this 50mm lens also displayed more CA, vignetting and distortion, but nevertheless, is a much more affordable option for the fans of manual-focus lenses, at around $725.
All of these lenses, however, have major advantages over the Zeiss lens, the first of which is price. At $4,000, the Zeiss is major investment squarely aimed at serious professional photographers with plenty of budget. The second advantage of the lower-cost alternatives is weight. The Zeiss is absolutely massive, and while very well built, this 2+ pound lens is certainly not the most convenient to carry around. Lastly, there are many photographers who prefer or need autofocus. If that's the case, then the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus is not the lens for you. (But here, particularly, the Sigma 50/1.4 Art might be.)
This lens is a beast. A beast not only in price and weight, but also in performance and build quality. As you would expect with a $4,000 lens, the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus displays fantastic results. Supremely sharp images, on both full- and sub-frame cameras, even at ƒ/1.4 and even in the corners, as well as very low CA and distortion make this Zeiss lens a clear winner, at least based solely on its performance. While there is some noticeable vignetting at the wider apertures, this was to be expected for a wide-aperture lens, and is relatively easy to correct in post.
This extremely well-built lens was the target that Sigma set their sights on when designing their new 50mm ƒ/1.4 Art lens, and in practically every category, the Sigma meets or exceeds them…except on price -- the Sigma is a bargain!
It's difficult to recommend the Zeiss 55mm lens, however, as it's such an expensive piece of equipment, especially when the new Sigma 50mm shows such extraordinarily similar performance -- and the ability to autofocus -- all for much less size and weight, and, of course, at a fraction of the cost. On the other hand, if you are a serious portrait photographer who demands the utmost in build quality and the critical precision of a mechanical manual focus lens, then the Zeiss 55mm ƒ/1.4 Otus might be just what you're looking for.
Note: We'd like to thank Roger from LensRentals.com for providing the Zeiss 50/1.4 Otus sample of this lens we tested!
Check out some sample photos shot by our senior lens technician Rob Murray. You can view more sample photos, plus download the full-resolution files, over at our Flickr page.
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.
Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus 1.4/55 User Reviews
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Mikael Risedal (1 reviews)
Best lens I have used on a d800. Better than Sigma 35/1,4, Nikon 200/2,0reviewed January 11th, 2014
A joy to use, and the sharpness, contrast at 1,4 is incredible. Price in Sweden 30000SEK