Apo Distagon, Apo Planar, Apo Sonnar
Coincidence is part of what one may call “spice of life”. A bit more than one year ago I asked a friend to lend me his Zeiss 35mm f2 Distagon z.f2. He was so kind to agree. After a month I returned the lens to him. I had compared it to my 35mm Fujinon XF lens – and liked the Zeiss better than the Fuji. Oh well. It took me a while of considering this and that (and saving the money) and then I asked him if he would sell the lens to me. And he did sell.
Half a year later I wanted to sell a good lens and another friend wanted to trade a 50mm f2 z.f Makro-Planar for that. I agreed – so the second “Zeiss for Nikon” came to me. Then I started looking for good deals on Zeiss lenses. And after failing in several ebay auctions (how do people manage to bid in the very last second?) I finally managed to lay my hands on a 25mm f2 Distagon z.f2. I was so excited that I wanted to review that lens and so I posted something here.
Tobias at Zeiss liked the posting, so some emails were exchanged and in the first week of August Zeiss sent me 3 lenses to review… but I had asked for just one of them. 😉
With the help of Mehrdad I had asked for the 135mm f2 Apo-Sonnar z.f2 to review since I think that is one of the very best telephoto lenses for 35mm format. I was thinking of buying one myself (after some time of saving the necessary money). Zeiss agreed to send that lens but also sent me two more lenses for a newer review of the two Otus lenses they are offering – the 85mm f1.4 Apo-Planar and the 55mm f1.4 Apo-Distagon. I couldn’t believe it at first but so I tested these lenses, too. Hey, who wouldn’t?!
So coincidence led me into new interesting terrain.
Sure, I was a bit excited about the opportunity, but I was seeing some grain of salt in all that.
- Zeiss would send me some of the best photography lenses to review – so I have to, er, live up to that and try to get some pictures that will really show some of the qualities of these lenses.
- After having used their best lenses for a month, how will you go back to your “normal” lenses?
- What will I write about 3 super-cool out-of-space apochromatic lenses?
Somehow I didn’t like the thought of getting spoiled by these Apo-lenses. But then UPS knocked at the door…
First impression and thoughts on lens design
Zeiss wants you to know that you bought high quality lenses from the very first moment. While you open the lid of the box your Otus lens is stored in, even the design of the box will guide your thoughts to “high standard” and the likes. I tried to be professional about it and just took out lens and lens hood, mounted hood on lens and both on the camera. Then I had a look at the combination and, sorry to say, was underwhelmed a bit.
Now Zeiss sports several design lines in their lenses:
There is the “older” design of the Z.F2 and ZE lines. Metal everything with metal focus rings with a strongly structured surface so your hands know where to grip and turn. I like that design very much. It combines classic look and feel with modern lines and colours.
There is also the “newer” design of the latest Milvus, Touit, Batis and Otus line. (I leave out the Loxia and ZA because these are designed differently again and do not play a role in this review.) This newer design brings rubber focus rings and a nearly polished brown-to-anthracite surface to the lenses. The Otus line is a bit brownish or “bronze” – I like the colour. The lens hoods are all conical full rings, no tulip shapes around. The lens hoods are made of metal and also polished.
The polished surface and the huge rubber rings look “off” on my Nikon Df. The surfaces don’t harmonize. Also you see a lot of your fingerprints on the lens body. Because of having used the Touit lenses before my hands easily found the rubber focus ring, still I am no fan of that. With gloves in winter you will have a hard time. Sure- usually a photographer knows his equipment, so you will get used to that. I still don’t like that rubber and the dust and dirt that settles between rubber and metal.
Also, the Otus lenses are just big and fat. Really. They are lighter than they seem, but they are huge!
And don’t get me started on the yellow lettering… It is okay in combination with the bronzeish colour. But it looks “off”. And it doesn’t help much with zone focussing in the dark. The white lettering of the older Z.F2 design was just right. White on glossy black. I think the Batis way of doing that is the best (not for the battery, but for the user).
But I can see why Zeiss changed the design in that direction. It is more modern. It is (sorry again!) more “apple”. No other brand uses that design. So pros, amateurs and enthusiasts will notice from afar: Oh, a new Zeiss lens! And I can imagine that the surface will look rugged after a year or two. The pro will buy the Zeiss not for their looks.
Anyway: Who cares? I don’t look at my lenses, I look through my lenses.
I like Zeiss lenses because of the so-called “3D-pop” they can give to your images. The change from “in-focus” to “out-of-focus” comes in a way that lets the subject in focus really stand out to the rest of the picture. Usually you have to open the aperture really wide for that. And with your usual lenses, shooting them wide open will get you more or less chromatic aberations in your pictures. Some lenses are prone to that, some have it less. But here comes the best about the 3 lenses I present here: they are apochromatic. They are optically corrected for axial chromatic aberations. This gives you a very sharp, contrasty and clean image even when shooting harsh light-dark differences.
So, as long as your camera can cope with fast shutter speeds and you don’t need huge depth-of-field, just shoot the apo-triple wide open. They are as sharp as you are able to focus them. Film or digital, the Otus lenses and the 135mm Apo-Sonnar will deliver outstanding results.
Using the Apo-triple
I used both Otus and the 135 Apo-Sonnar on 4 different cameras: Nikon Df, Nikon F3, Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and Fujifilm X-M1.
The combination that was easiest to use: Nikon F3 with the Otus 55.
My F3 sports the standard prism screen and with the f1.4 of the Otus and the HP viewfinder you get a nice bright view. Quite easy to focus as far as split screen goes.
The combination that was most horrible: Fujifilm X-M1 and 135 Apo-Sonnar. The lens is so heavy that it nearly pulled the lens mount off the camera. I had the camera on a tripod and wanted to give the combination a try… Oh well. It is fun but not recommended. 😉 In normal life you would mount the lens on the tripod and attach the camera, but the lens has no tripod mount, unfortunately!
Most used combination was the 85 with the Df: The 85 has a very good microcontrast. As long as your diopter adjustment for the viewfinder is not off, you won’t really need any focus confirmation. You simply see when it is focussed correctly. Still sometimes, when I wasn’t sure about focus I used Nikons “green dot” as reference and in some very seldom cases I used the live view of the camera – fortunately the live view of the Df is quite good and fast.
Focussing was hardest with the 55mm. I guess the transition into out-of-focus is just too smooth, so I sometimes had a hard time to find correct focus. The 135 and 85 are easier to focus, I think, because of the even thinner depth of field when wide open. Since Nikon stops down the lenses in the moment of exposure you focus while looking through the lens wide open (“typical for DSLR”). With the 85 and 135 you really notice an off-focus instantly.
Focus throw is quite long and leaves nothing to be desired – “excellent” comes to mind.
Also, I think, because of contrast and “sharpness” it is also quite easy to manual focus these lenses in a fast manner. Give it a try!
One thing in handling I didn’t care for is the lens hoods of the Otus lenses. Since they both have a large diameter it happened to me quite often that I didn’t mount them correctly. Why take them off anyway, you might ask: The lenses are so huge with hood that they don’t really fit in your standard bag. So changing lenses for me meant mounting lens hoods. Sometimes I fumbled too long and packed the hood back in to be in time for the shot. The 135 is a bit better in that regard. The bayonett is simple: For storing away you revert the hood and put it on the lens. Then, taking it out of the bag you just turn the hood in one direction, revert it to correct orientiation and mount the hood by still turning in the same direction. Perfect! Otus on the other hand…not so perfect.
Sometimes it is the little things that annoy you. Like the partner in your flat that never closes the toilet lid or similar things. With the Otus it is the rubber rings and the lens hoods. Also the aperture rings could be a bit larger or simply somewhere not so near to the mount. But, as it goes with Zeiss lenses, this is complaining on a high level. Since these lenses are built to be the best you can get as a professional photographer, I think looking for the little things can help to refine a product.
Well, what can you say? No text, just use the pictures in this review to judge for yourself. All the little nitpicks you could have with these lenses will be forgotten when you go to the lab and get your film back, er, I mean when you import your files into your workspace of choice. I am not overwhelmed since my expectations were high from the beginning. But these high expectations were met. Yes, there is some vignetting when shooting wide open. But as I stated elsewhere this is part of the Zeiss look. Shooting these lenses wide open or just one stop down gives you totally different images. Bokeh, sharpness, contrast – everything is where it should be. 🙂
I hate the fact that I had to return the lenses.
I hate the fact that I am spoiled by these lenses.
I hate the fact that my shoulders and back started hurting from hauling these lenses (and I have a well trained back).
I hate the fact that my camera bag was overfull with camera and lenses.
I hate the fact that portrait subjects shied away a bit when the 85 came out of the bag.
But I love the images I was able to produce with these lenses. So chose your priorities well!
These are just my personal thoughts, I am not writing this with a Zeiss official standing behind me putting a gun into my neck or a suitcase full of cash just at arms length. Please note that I also shot film with the Apo-lenses – some of the pictures in here come from that – don’t look for ultimate sharpness in them.
So, feel free to comment and share your thoughts!
Just one more thing: Er, Zeiss, when will you…, er, hmm, 35mm f2 Apo?