The ZEISS 55mm f/1.4 Otus, a Very ‘Scharf’ Lens Indeed


I’m probably setting myself up for a replay of the Exo Tria Arxidia scene, but my friend Bernhard introduced me to the German term scharf the other day. It can mean both sharp and hot (as in spicy, or as in, you know, hot). After testing our first copies of the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus lens I felt the term scharf was just perfect to describe this lens.

As you know, I usually like to have a half-dozen or more copies of a lens before testing, but in this case getting a half-dozen copies all at once doesn’t seem likely. We received two of the 20 something Tyler ordered and don’t know when more will show up. Both of these appeared well-centered, as expected, and Zeiss primes usually have small sample variation, so I thought testing the two before the went out for their first rentals was still worthwhile.


I always enjoy reading online where people trash a pre-release lens even though they’ve never held it. In this case, 7,364 people had told me how huge this lens was and that they wouldn’t have one as a gift because of its gigantic size. It is definitely bigger than most standard-range primes, as you can see in the comparison below with a Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro Planar and a Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G, neither of which is considered a small lens.

Left to right: Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G, Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus, Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro Planar

Left to right: Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G, Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus, Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro Planar

Bigger, yes, but certainly not huge. My first thought was it was about the size of a 24-70 f/2.8 lens and most people don’t seem to need a heavy-duty tripod and gimbal head to shoot with one of those. So here’s a size reality check.


I guess that was pretty close. The Otus is large for a prime lens, but not significantly larger than the everyday zooms we use.

I can’t say what you’ll think of the appearance, but I love it. Very sleek and minimalist. The focus ring has the typical smooth Zeiss throw with a cinema-like 248-degree rotation. I found it extremely accurate. The D800 doesn’t have the very best live view LCD, but I had absolutely no trouble determining good focus in live view. Even using the viewfinder I was fairly accurate, and I’m quite viewfinder-manual-focus challenged.

Let’s compare what’s inside with some similar lenses


Optical Comparison

This lens is supposed to be one of the best optics ever made. To see just how good the resolution might be we tested it on a Nikon D800e.

For comparison purposes, we used the new Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G, which we’d previously tested on D3x cameras (our standard Nikon test camera). Here are the test results for both lenses at f/1.4 on a D800e. Results are MTF50 in line pairs / image height at the center, averaged across the entire lens, and averaged in the 4 corners.


Those are pretty spectacular numbers for the Zeiss, particularly off-center. Stopped down things get even better.


It’s worth noting how smoothly the resolution goes up with decreasing aperture, basically maximizing by f/4. Not that f/4 is necessary to get great resolution. By f/2.8 this lens is already sharper than most excellent lenses will get at any aperture. Here are some comparisons of the Zeiss at f/2.8 with other lenses at f/4 or f/5.6.


By f/2.8 the Otus has higher resolution than any of the other lenses we’ve tested, even when those lenses are stopped down to their best resolution. (Those are D800 results, not D800e, so they would all be slightly higher on the ‘e’, but the illustration is still pretty clear.)

Finally, I’ll note that the Otus has a very low 0.8% distortion.

There’s a lot more to a lens than just resolution, of course, and reviewers and photographers are already making a lot of images to show you how the Otus does with those other things. But looking at the build and resolution, it’s most definitely scharf.

A Few Pictures

I got about 60 minutes this weekend when there was daylight without rain and took a few pictures. Jpgs compressed to web-viewing size are fairly worthless for this kind of thing, so I’ve also posted the 100% jpgs online HERE. Feel free to download if you want to pixel peep. They’re all just out-of-camera jpgs; you’d get even better results with some processed raw images.

These were done quickly, mostly manual focus through the viewfinder. Failure to focus properly is entirely the responsibility of the focuser, not the camera or lens. I really did find it quite easy to manually focus.



My dog, named Zeiss. A really nice 3-D effect from about 10 feet.

My dog, named Zeiss. A really nice 3-D effect from about 10 feet.


I won’t try to say whether the Otus is worth $4,000 to you. But I can certainly say that Zeiss did what they said they had done: gave it exceptional performance even in the corners at widest aperture. From a resolution standpoint, it is, as Zeiss said it would be, “the absolute best SLR lens in the world today.”

About the author: Roger Cicala is the founder of LensRentals. This article was originally published here.

  • Vlad Dusil

    A lens that pixel peepers’ wet dreams are made of. I am sure it will find enough satisfied fans, though I am hesitant to believe that it makes sense for most real life applications at the price & size, outside of the controlled studio environment.

  • InTheMist

    Oh, if it only had autofocus!


    It can be the best lens in the world but Zeiss needs to break out of an old fart century and start producing modern autofocus lenses.

  • Przemysław Cioch

    i have sigma 50mm f1.4 and results are almost the same so why i should buy so expensive lens :/ i have no idea ;p

  • Kieran Grasby

    Like hell do they. Manual focus or die trying.

  • Шурон

    “A really nice 3-D effect from about 10 feet.”
    is that the description of the reason we should buy it?

  • fsjal

    They do. Sony pay them for that.

  • Vlad Dusil

    I believe the lack of AF for Canikon is a licensing issue.

  • drishtipat

    ‘A prime lens almost a big as “everyday” zoom lenses.’ Is that supposed to be a compelling argument?

  • David Aragon

    Do they have that for medium format? Seems like a waste to me for such high resolution on a small format, unless it’s over 25 MP, it’s not even worth looking at. Just be happy with that 50mm f1.7. Even on a 16×20 you can’t tell the difference.

  • Stan B.

    I have a 40mm Ultron pancake- not exactly the same focal length, but similar. It is also sharper than anything Nikon or Canon offers in 35 or 50mm equivalents.

    The disparity in price with the Otus approximately mirrors the disparity in size.

  • Damir Čolak

    My Helios 44m-4 does the same thing, for 50USD that it cost me. At first glance I thought it was made with Helios :-)

  • Mr Alive

    Not true.

  • Pete Ferling

    Definitely for studio. Edge to edge sharpness (esp. small product) does matter when handing images off to designers for masking/edits. First thing they do is “peep”, and then “yell” if the corners are soft, etc. It’s the sole reason I use full frame glass on crop sensor to stay within the sharpest center of the lens for small stuff. Even then I use 100mm or longer to compress the shots.

    That said, the perceived value/return of any additional sharpness a lens like this offers requires careful handling if one is to realize a benefit. A little pricey for run and gun, etc.

  • Kynikos

    The autofocus on a $4,000 prime lens must be pretty awesome, huh?


  • Karen

    They do not, Sony pays for license to use Zeiss badge, lenses are actually made by Sony.
    Also Otus 55mm 1.4 is actually made in Japan by Cosina, although to exact Zeiss spec.

  • FerSch

    Without doubt it is an exceptional lens, but still is 8 times more expensive than Nikon/Sigma counterpart, It is big, heavy and manual lens (this is not an issue, but it counts for fast action).

    Is not for fast action, is very hard to nail focus in manual focus with little DoF… and of course, huge pixel count normally shows you the little focus failures.

    Is between 8 and 12 times more expensive than old/new Ai/Ais 55mm f 1.2.

    If you want it for how sharp it is and not for make portrait… is 10/12 times more expensive than marvelous Micro-Nikkor 60 Af-D which is super sharp wide open at f2.8.

    If you want to do portraits 85mm f1.8 is probably 8 times cheaper.

    Even 85mm f1.4, 105mm f2.8 Micro and the extremely good Nikkor DC lenses are 4 5 times cheaper than this lens.

    It is no sense at all because for FF hi-resolution at this price point it would be better expend in medium format.

    Yes, is true… typical “Made in Germany” state-of-art lens… but let me be honest, at this price of jewelry is no worth the pain at less you are a rich.

  • Cinekpol

    Lenstip tested this lens too – – it’s a sharpest glass they ever got. Wide open much better than even Leica 50 f/1.4.
    Outstanding work Zeiss. Shame that the price is also outstanding (this time in negative direction).

  • Cinekpol

    Made – yes. But designed by Zeiss and Zeiss oversees production to keep their standards (legacy to that might be a quality of ZA-series lenses which in all cases are sharper than their direct equivalents in ZE/ZF lines (if such direct equivalents exist) ).

    Besides – ZF and ZE lenses are made by Cosina in Japan too. Zeiss makes very few lenses on their own in germany.

  • Cinekpol

    Optical design of that Helios is actually Zeiss Biotar. So… yea… you got yourself russian-made Zeiss for 50 bucks. ;)

  • Videre Licet

    Just like auto transmission on a NASCAR rig, huh?

    No, wait…

  • Videre Licet

    You just made a perfect list of people and uses that this lens was not made for.

    But I don’t think it was made with “price-pointers” in mind at all.

  • Damir Čolak

    Cool :-)

  • Elvir Redzepovic

    No AF in year 2013 that only makes it a joke. Not to mention it is HUGE, and very heavy. Sorry Ziess, get back when you actually are ready to take a step into 21th century. This lens will find it’s buyers though, you know that same geriatric crowd that swears by their vinyl players.

  • Kynikos

    Completely baseless comparison. NASCAR cars are built to be as fast as possible within the rules. Camera lenses are built to get the shot. AF actually helps to get the shot. Auto transmission doesn’t get Billy Bob to the finish line to meet his mom, sister, wife and cousin (who might collectively be only two or three people) any faster.

  • [email protected]

    > It’s the sole reason I use full frame glass on crop sensor to stay within the sharpest center of the lens for small stuff.

    This useless meme should stop. The only advantage you can get this way are less distortion and less vignetting. Sharpness-wise there is no benefits whatsoever. Full frame lenses on crop bodies often show worse corners and much more CA due to higher pixel density.

  • Videre Licet

    Baseless? Really? I’m sure housewives and teenagers would find automatic transmission absolutely necessary. NASCAR cars, on the other hand, are built for a specific application, just like the lens in question. And they both come with a very specific price.

    We were all doing just fine with MF until the 90’s. Never felt like I needed that kind of help. It is nice to have, but it helps only as much as does continuous shooting – more for some uses, less for the others and none whatsoever for the rest.

    I can think of at least a few situations where AF does absolutely nothing, or at least does very little, to help get the shot. Think macro, landscape or architectural, for example. Coincidentally, all three benefit greatly from even a small increase in sharpness, especially on the edges.

    Horses for courses, as they say. Not to mention horse manure, which is where your snide little snipe about Billy Bob really belongs.

  • No-one

    Pancake lenses are low contrast and ghost prone which is why these are slow. The small size has less-than-stellar performance as a trade off for compact size.

    Just physics.

  • Andy

    Somewhere amidst the three parties, deals for Zeiss to licence the AF tech from Canon and Nikon has yet to be struck.

    Zeiss won’t want to offer AF in one and not the other. Presumably Nikon and Canon want to maximize their profits from licensing but Zeiss doesn’t want to have different pricing for the two mounts.

    We’re dealing with people who are used to thinking in terms of lots of zeros so don’t expect them to jump because you or I want something.

  • Stan B.

    I don’t think anyone considers f2… slow. As for less than stellar, you obviously haven’t read anything about this particular lens, let alone used one.

    I suggest you start by reading Ken Rockwell’s review, where he compares it to a Summicron.

    Just sayin’.

  • Swade

    Interesting analogy as vinyl still holds truer sounds than CDs. The two brands that are known for the highest quality lenses both make manual focus lenses. Maybe Canon and Nikon should focus on the quality of their glass on not AF. Some people know how to focus quickly with MF and want the highest quality glass they can find.

  • Swade

    It’s designed to be shot on high resolution sensors. So of course if you don’t have something like a D800, this isn’t for you.

  • Swade

    And no one has ever used a 24-70

  • madmax

    I´m sure nobody here can find any difference in a very large print (and pretty sure nobody here print such large sizes too). But it´s the same for all quality lenses. I don´t see the point in buying so bulky, heavy and expensive gear only for pixel peeping. Maybe some size-related problems?

  • madmax

    You are right, but some people still don´t know autofocus lenses can also be used in manual mode.

  • Pete Ferling

    WTF? LOL!

  • Stan B.

    f2 is not exactly… slow. I suggest you at least read up on this lens regarding its “less than stellar performance.” You can start with Ken Rockwell’s review where he favorably compares it to a… Summicron.
    Then you may even try using one- so that you actually know what this particular lens is really like.

    Just sayin’.

  • madmax

    I have a tiny Summicron f/2.0 collapsible lens in my Leica M3 and some excellent Pentax Limited Series pancakes. Your comment is plain stupid. You don´t know what are you speaking about.

  • Itsme

    Interesting compariso. But why do you compare images @ ISO 800 on a D800? That cant be sharp…. The Dog @ ISO200 is…

  • Elvir Redzepovic

    You do realise that 24-70 is a ZOOM lens with AF right ? Now how does that compare to a fixed prime with no AF ?

  • Pete Ferling

    Adding a motor, circuits boards and the room for clearance and routing ribbon cables would surely double it’s size.

  • nvb

    sigma 35mm 1.4 way better than the dumb looking zeiss lens

  • No-One

    I’m an optical engineer.

  • Neopulse

    Making it to the size of a 24-70mm? I could live with that.

  • Neopulse

    Ummmm yeah? Do you even shoot with medium format to say such a thing? Contax users would beat you to death with their Zeiss lenses.

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    the images here suck…BADLY….they are really pathetic snap shots from someone who is obviously not a photographer…and i will put my canon 85 1.2 up against this thing any day

  • Pete Ferling

    That’s fine for some. However, I’m sure a 135mm of the same series would match the size and weight of a 100-400, etc. I just don’t see them going that route.

  • Guest

    I just reviewed your past comments, you’re an angry nut job for certain. Does the nursing staff know you stole the keys to the office computer?

  • madmax

    And I´m Einstein, Uh! You have to prove your ridiculous comment: “just physics”.

  • Karen

    All really high end stuff IS made in Germany from Schott glass rather than Hoya. Current Zeiss PL mount cine line up consists of 54 lenses + the lenses they make for Arri.
    I would not call that exactly few.