Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* 1.4/85
July 5, 2010
by Andrew Alexander
Carl Zeiss has been offering prime lenses in the ZF format for some time now, offering a high-quality alternative, but with only manual focus. The 85mm ƒ/1.4 Planar is among these options, available for the Canon EF-Mount (ZE), Nikon F-Mount (ZF, ZF.2) and Pentax K-Mount (ZK).
The 85mm ƒ/2 ships with a circular lens hood, takes 72mm filters, and is compatible with full-frame and APS-C digital SLR camera bodies. It is available now for around $1,000.
The Carl Zeiss 85mm ƒ/1.4 Planar is a sharp lens, but for maximum sharpness it must be used stopped-down to at least ƒ/4. Wide open at ƒ/1.4, the lens is not tack-sharp, producing images on the full-frame D3x where the center is in the range of 2 blur units, and there is some corner softness, around 3 blur units. As the lens is stopped down, its performance improves: at ƒ/2, the corners stay at 3 blur units, but the center sweet spot has improved to about 1.5 blur units. At ƒ/2.8, the corners come under control and reduce to just under 2 blur units, while the center is just over 1 blur unit. At ƒ/4 the lens is essentially tack-sharp across the frame (1 blur unit) and stays this way until ƒ/8. At ƒ/11, diffraction limiting has started to set in, and we note results of just under 1.5 blur units across the frame; fully stopped-down at ƒ/16, we note 1.5 blur units across the frame.
It's pretty much the same story on the D200, though the corners are slightly better at the wider apertures given the reduced capture size of the APS-C image sensor. In summary, excellent results for sharpness when stopped down, but don't expect tack-sharp results when used wide open.
Chromatic aberration is extremely well-controlled. On the D200, which does not automatically correct for CA, our test results show very little; however, when used wide open, the inherent softness (if you can call 2-3 blur units soft) of the lens is enough to aggravate color fringing in areas of high contrast. Check the sample images for real-world performance in this regard. On the D3x, CA is very hard to detect; stopped down significantly, sample images show no fringing at all.
Mounted on the D200, the Zeiss 85mm ƒ/1.4 produces almost no corner shading. The only shading to speak of is when the lens is used wide open at ƒ/1.4, where the extreme corners are a third-of-a-stop darker than the center.
On the D3x, it's slightly more prominent, but not much. At ƒ/1.4, the corners are a half-stop darker than the center; at ƒ/2, the corners are a third-of-a-stop darker. At ƒ/2.8 and smaller, corner shading is non-existent.
The Zeiss 85mm ƒ/1.4 produces negligible distortion, on either the D200 or D3x.
The Zeiss 85mm ƒ/1.4 is a manual-focus-only lens.
The 85mm ƒ/1.4 isn't a macro lens. The minimum close-focusing distance is good for close subjects, at just over three feet (1 meter); however, at this range, its magnification is only 0.10x.
Build Quality and Handling
The Carl Zeiss 85mm ƒ/1.4 is built with an old-school appreciation to quality. The lens is fairly heavy, using a construction of both plastic and metal, weighing in at 21-23 ounces (600-670 grams, depending on mount). Both the body mount and filter threads are metal. There are no buttons on the lens, and you'll have to ensure that the version you have is compatible with the camera you intend to use it on; in some cases, this may be in manual mode only (though in the Nikon version, Zeiss has released a ZF.2 version which includes CPU contacts that address this issue). The lens features an aperture ring, a distance scale marked in feet and meters, and a depth-of-field scale (ƒ/4-ƒ/16) with an infrared index mark.
The focusing ring is the manual control surface on the lens. It's a ribbed polycarbonate ring, 5/8'' wide. It has excellent manual focus response (as you'd expect) with a very smooth turning action, and offers an absolutely huge amount of play - about 250 degrees of turning action from minimum close-focus to infinity. The lens won't focus past infinity however, with hard stops at the close and infinity ends. There is a slight amount of lens extension as the lens is focused - about 1/2''. The front element of the lens won't turn during focusing, making life that much easier for polarizer users. The lens takes 72mm filters.
The lens ships with a circular lens hood, which can be reversed and stored on the lens via the bayonet mount. The interior of the lens is flocked to reduce stray light, and when mounted, the lens hood adds 1 1/4 inches to the overall length.
When considering other options, it's worth stating the obvious: the Canon, Nikon and Pentax primes all have autofocus motors, while the Zeiss lens does not.
Canon EF 85mm ƒ/1.2L II USM ~$1,900
The Canon 85mm ƒ/1.2 is an excellent lens, producing results very similar to the Carl Zeiss, but offering an extra third-stop of speed (ƒ/1.2 instead of ƒ/1.4 as a maximum aperture). The lenses are very close in terms of their potential sharpness, and both produce very low levels of chromatic aberration. Corner shading is just slightly more prominent in the Canon lens, as is some slight distortion when used full-frame.
Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.4D AF Nikkor ~$1,100
An almost legendary portrait lens, our testing showed that on a full-frame body the corners are extremely soft, but in the case of portrait photography, this can actually be an advantage. In terms of overall sharpness, the Carl Zeiss achieves across-the-frame sharpness at ƒ/4, while one must stop down to at least ƒ/8 for the same performance from the Nikon. Distortion and chromatic aberration results are similar, perhaps a hair better on the Carl Zeiss, and the Nikon exhibits more corner shading.
Pentax 55mm ƒ/1.4 SDM SMC DA* ~$800
Pentax's offering in the 85mm category has been discontinued, but as Pentax doesn't produce a full-frame digital camera body, the closest digital equivalent (taking into account the 1.5x crop factor) would be this lens. The 55mm ƒ/1.4 SDM is very sharp, quite similar to the Zeiss 85mm in fact, and perhaps even a hair sharper at ƒ/2.8 than the Zeiss. Corner shading is similar, though the Pentax distorts slightly and there is a tad more chromatic aberration to speak of.
Once again, Zeiss has produced an excellent prime lens, comparable with any of those offered by the manufacturers it can be used with. If you don't need or want autofocus, this is an excellent manual focus alternative; its 250 degrees of manual focus action are really quite lovely to work with, allowing you great fidelity when finding the correct focus point (and when working with the ƒ/1.4 aperture, you'll need it).
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 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* 1.4/85 User Reviews
10 out of 10 points and recommended by mustha (2 reviews)excelent sharpness, beautiful color rendition, extremely acurate focuslens cap
This is a special lens for special purposes, as said before by other reviewers, is not meant to chase around fast moving subjects or close range work. It will take long to move from close focus to infinity. It's a manual focus with all the compromises of tele: f/1.4 at close range is unforgiving of focus error.reviewed September 18th, 2012 (purchased for $900)
Used on the proper subject it shines. Bokeh and color are just amazing. There is no distortion to speak of and very little vignetting.
Here are some images taken with either Nikon D700 or Nikon FM2:
Construction wise is very sturdy, a bit heavy with a smooth focus ring and a precise aperture ring.
The lens cap is a bit tricky to use, specially when you have filters. It may easily jump off in your bag our out of your hands.
6 out of 10 points and recommended by 3systemuser (19 reviews)almost no CA , no distortion , very precise MF ring , compact and light, tack sharp from f2.8technically not the sharpest lens , the metal hood can damage other lenses.
Technically as I wrote before here it is not one of these best 85mm primes but it has some very very special quality that is very hard to discribe clearly.reviewed March 18th, 2011 (purchased for $900)
Some say it is Zeiss look or 3D but I dont think it is quite right , I mean no other lens even a Zeiss prime of this price range share it , maybe the 50f1.4ZE being a super exception.
I dont know how to discribe it well but there is really something very special there with this Planar 85f1.4.
This lens is not very sharp wide open , actually till f2.5 like this very site says here it is not that sharp at least does not shock me or blow me a way.
But once you get f2.8 , you better be prepared to be shocked how sharp it can be , it must be as sharp as any kind of lab test can record , it is tack sharp across the FF (I tested this one on 5D2 and D3X).
Technically the Sigma is sharper wide oepn and Canon 85Lmk2 is a bit sharper at f1.4 and till f4 but they do not have the Planar look and the Canon has more distortion and more pronounced vignetting and much more obvious CA.
I also prefer the colder color of this Zeiss, just incredibly nice , if I have to keep only one lens , I 'd keep this one or the Zeiss 50MP.
Also important to note : this lens has pretty good flare resistance as for a bright super fast prime of this class.
The Zeiss 85 , 50MP , 100 MP are really outstanding lenses and once you get any of them you will never go back to any of these Canon, Nikon plastic AF lenses.
MF is better and much mroe precise to nail the pinpoint focus on some very very particular part of your shooting subject and most importantly (at least to me) shooting MF is much more exciting than shooting AF.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Hankslat (1 reviews)Great Lens for use on my Canon 5DMarkllLens Caps Small, hard to work and easy to lose(From Experience). I replaced them with Nikon Caps which work well.
Zeiss 85mm ZEreviewed January 10th, 2010 (purchased for $1,300)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by titi_elsass (7 reviews)Sharpness from f2, colors, bokehPrice
My opinion is based on the lens I prefer on my Canon 5D: Carl Zeiss Contax Planar T* 1.4/85 (adapted with contax-eos af confirm ring). Mine is the old brother of the ZE (or ZF) lens which is sold actually on EOS/Nikon mount. The optically formulas seems to be the same (and closest focus distance...) so I think I'm allowed to give my opinion here.reviewed December 23rd, 2009 (purchased for $400)
Image : excellent at every aperture value. Usable at f1.4 (but be careful of the very small depth of field), this lens really shines at f2.0 for portraits : images seems incredible with a "3d effect"). I compared its sharpness with a Canon 100mm macro : the Zeiss 85mm is the winner.
Construction : perfect and lightweight (about 600g, not the 300g specified in technical data here).
For me a good alternative to Canon L 85mm (more than 1500 Euros here, 1kg) for manual focus users.
I recommend it particulary on full frame sensor.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Cliff Beard (12 reviews)Seriously fast aperture, Sublime build quality, manual focus handling, Contrast rendition, distortion freeManaul focus only, weaker performance close up and min focus distance of 1 metre
A classic portrait length on full frame and crop frame cameras and the distortion free images flatter subjects.reviewed September 28th, 2009
This is a niche lens that has to be used appropriately...forget shooting moving subjects and trying very close up shots....even Zeiss market the lens as being optimized for mid to longer distance work and if used within its optimum settings and on appropriate subjects it can give awesome results. Manual focus and manual setting of aperture on a ring...will only work properly on Nikon pro-level bodies...D300, D700, D3 etc as these can meter fully.
The rendition is typically Zeiss, with natural yet saturated colour and bitingly sharp contrast at F2 and smaller apertures. The effect can be almost 3D. Wide open its a bit soft and fuzzy, with a small sweet spot in the centre, which you can use to advantage for dreamy portraits. If you want more reach or to fill the frame with a portrait close to the min focus distance, you can use a crop frame camera to get a free 1.5x magnification.
The quality and feel of the lens, including its focus ring, is awesome.
This is a lens you buy in addition to more general purpose lenses and you will know if you need it, in which case it comes highly recommended.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by tomTom (2 reviews)no distortion, best colour rendition availiable for lenses with f.mountlens cap
In my opinion the best portriat 85mm lens availiable for f-mountreviewed January 7th, 2009 (purchased for $1,300)