PetaPixel

Review: Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus, Beauty and a Beast

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The Zeiss Otus is easily the biggest DSLR 55mm currently available. I say currently, because I’m sure in some lab in the depths of upper Siberia a technician made a 50mm the size of a small child, just because. But the Otus shouldn’t surprise us, Zeiss will never shy away from the pursuit of image quality at the expensive of “convenience.”

The name “Otus” comes from a genus of owls and priced at four thousand dollars you’d expect an owl to come with it. One which will scout the lands miles ahead looking for brilliant photo opportunities. One which, upon request, will use its wings to swat inattentive family members in the back of the head to keep their wandering eyes locked on you during wedding pictures.

But there is no owl. All there is is this animal of a lens. A preying mantis of 55mm ultra fast glass waiting to make a picture in any and all circumstances. It cares not whether it’s mid-afternoon on a sunny day or approaching 3am on a moonless night. The Otus sits back waiting for its chance to strike. Looking for an opportunity to make the sharpest and most spectacular photo your camera’s sensor will ever bear witness to.

It’s the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4. It’s big, it’s black and it’s the sharpest damn lens you’ll ever see.

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Zeiss has a high standard of production, arguably the highest. This Otus raises that bar. As we slowly creep DSLRs down the road of 36 megapixels and beyond, mounting a late 90′s fifty mil on your D800 shows you just how far 35mm sensors have come in the past 10 years. You’ll also notice just how bad that 50mm is and why you need a new one, from this century.

Those previously unnoticeable imperfections may trouble some to a point of angered frustration.

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Frustration that I have never before been so troubled by. It pains me to think that after using the Zeiss Otus I’m going to have to go back and use my inferior Nikon equivalent fifties. It’s really, really frustrating — to the degree where I’m actually angry. Zeiss has set the bar so high for what is to be considered perfection that going forward I may find it hard to use some of my other glass.

OK, not really, but if the price wasn’t such a prohibitive factor I’d buy this behemoth in a heartbeat.

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It’s a manual focus beauty and the focusing action is positively sublime. The throw is long and luxurious. Precise enough that even on a Nikon that lacks any proper manual focusing screen, hitting tack sharp focus quickly and accurately even wide open wasn’t an issue. Zeiss has perfectly positioned the focusing ring, which combined with the griped rubber allows for effortless focusing with just the left index finger while still allowing for left hand camera support.

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Thankfully, the distance scale includes a depth of field guide and look here, an actual aperture adjustment ring (with a lock, huzzah!). This is important. On the last Zeiss I tested that featured this same gripped rubber on the aperture and focus rings — the Zeiss 12mm for the Fuji X-Mount — the aperture had no lock and was quite prone to many an accidental adjustment.

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The stamped yellow markings are clear even in a rather dim environments.

I’d put the Otus’ weight in the “Not Bad” category but a nifty-fifty it is not. With the majority of the weight seemingly near the rear of the lens once it’s mounted, it’s so well-balanced you almost forget it’s not a cheapo nifty. For comparison sake, it’s similar to any 70-200 stabilized f/2.8 lens once it’s mounted.

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Banana for scale

This less is not without its flaws. I know, I know… For four G’s it should be absolutely perfect but it isn’t. For one there is light fall off in the corners and quite a bit at that. The corner darkness begins to subside around f/2.8 but can still be noticed under certain conditions till f/4.

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This is f/2.8 — Left: SOOC Right: Slightly corrected for the light fall off.

The Otus makes up for its lack of corner to corner exposure consistency by being ridiculously tack sharp top to bottom and side to side when wide open. How sharp? I’ll bet there will be people complaining that it’s actually too sharp.

The Toby test. 1/640 f/1.4 ISO200.

The Toby test. 1/640 f/1.4 ISO200.

At 1:1 it's impressively sharp.

At 1:1 it’s impressively sharp.

And contrasty? Wowzers!

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The dark areas of any frame I shot were gifted with detail that on many other lenses would have been cloudy spots of black noise. If you’re shooting a D800E or A7r, then you need this lens. This is the kind of lens these cameras were made for.

My only other gripe is that the hood is without a locking mechanism and for $4000 that’s kind of a pain. The hood will from time to time decide to free itself from the gentle grip it has on the lens. A locking mechanism or a deep threaded screw on hood would have been nice. In 10 years I can foresee many a 55mm Otus without a hood or sporting gaffer tape for sale on the used markets.

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Aside from this nitpicking the hood is a beauty. All metal, rock solid and lined with black felt to keep down on those pesky reflections and lens flare. It will never be removed from the body of your lens and it should have just been permanently attached. The only people who will ever want to remove the hood are those using drop in filters and I’m sure there’s a way around that.

Conclusion

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Yes it’s massive and likely to be the largest standard prime in your bag… but it’s worth it. Insofar as the idea that “a good lens is an investment” consider this: It’s one of the few lenses that will actually prove that old adage true.

Long after we’ve crossed the 50, 60 and 70 megapixel threshold for DSLRs the Zeiss Otus 55mm will still be producing incredibly sharp photographs and I can’t say that right now for any other lens I own. Assuming you own it for 10 years or more, $4,000 is a small price to pay for the quality of image you’ll have over that time period.

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If I had to rate this out of 10, I’d give it a 9.3. When considering that a 50-60mm will generally walk the line of convenience and image quality the Otus loses points for size and weight. It would lose more if it were not balanced so well and the image quality wasn’t so superb, making the trade off worth it for many.

The falloff also factors into its imperfect score. While subtle darkness in the corners can compliment an image and serve a purpose, I’d prefer to have a clean photo from scratch — I can always add that effect in post. The lack of a lock on the hood is a minor factor but it does affect the score. If it were a sub $2000 lens this could be overlooked but again, for this much money on a manual focus 55mm you expect no element to be overlooked.

The only other knock against the Otus is the price, it isn’t cheap. Once I’ve resigned myself to drop four large on a lens, there’s going to be others that tempt me. More so when you remember Nikon’s own top dog, the 58mm is less than half as expensive as the Otus and I’ll still have money left over to begin saving for the Zeiss Otus 85mm.


 
  • http://liminaleye.com/kxabout kodiak xyza

    not surprised at the results, and yes, a lens for the high MP cameras. lusting? for sure. it is great to know that the technology is here: 36MP in FF with a lens to resolve it. how much would a full system cost? (36MP + 24/35/50/85mm) yikes. but definitely cheaper than a Leica S2 system, or digital MF.

    the math is not going to work for the masses… how many photos require this kind of resolution/sharpness? not many, as most photos will do nicely in the 24MP FF, or 16MP APS-C world.

    of course, equipment in never an investment, so I find that claim to be odd. it is capital equipment, for those with a business expense, and it will lose value with time in one way or another.

  • Brian Todd

    “Frustration that I have never before been so troubled by. It pains me to think that after using the Zeiss Otus I’m going to have to go back and use my inferior Nikon equivalent fifties. It’s really, really frustrating — to the degree where I’m actually angry…” LOL!!!!!!!!

  • Steven

    It’s truth. I used it for an afternoon. Tears ensued when parting.

  • http://www.gannonburgett.com Gannon Burgett

    Banana for scale. How you know you’re a Redditor.

  • TSY87

    If zeiss ever decides to make one in native FE mount for the A7 crowd I will do almost everything I can to get one.. I have the leica 50lux and its a great lens, but definitely not mind blowingly awesome as the price would suggest… which is why im selling it to pick up the 55 1.8 and 35 2.8, then saving some for whatever may be coming out in the future lol.

  • TSY87

    or imgurian..

  • http://www.gannonburgett.com Gannon Burgett

    They tend to go hand-in-hand.

  • Terrance Hounsell

    For my first 10+ years of photography I only had a 50mm lens so out of necessity I learned to use it in every possible circumstance, this was a great learning experience. I think one is better off learning one great lens rather than a hockey sock full of mediocre lenses. Often times we carry too much equipment because we are searching for that magic bullet and we are convinced that having more means we are better prepared. However, less is more when it forces us to better prepare our brain and skill set. Having said all of that there is a case to be made for putting several eggs in one basket and making this your only (or one of your few) lenses. Hmmmm…. anyone want to buy some gently used gear? :{D

  • Chris Hirst

    It sure puts the inflated cost of Leica offerings into some sort of perspective

  • http://armannd.com/ Titus-Armand

    “of course, equipment in never an investment”

    Can you elaborate?

  • Pentax Man

    If only they made it for Pentax APSC!

  • Michal Rosa

    Why is anyone surprised that a lens that costs 40 times as much as a nifty-fifty is say, 10 times better? Anyway, 99.999% photographers in the world don’t need or require this lens. When printing normal sized pictures you would not see any difference between pics taken with this lens and the aforementioned nifty-fifty.

  • http://liminaleye.com/kxabout kodiak xyza

    in the simple sense that the item does not have a positive return on investment. at best, the depreciation will be better than similar equipment, but with time it will be negative.

    these days, it is a word of comfort to disengage on spending money. there is nothing wrong with calling it “a worthwhile expenditure”… but there is no need to put it as investment.

    a gray area is a wider sense of investment. somehow, the photos possible with this lens, and only this lens over other lenses, will have a positive return on investment. this is a very hard case to show.

    for me, skip the word investment, and just say “I want this equipment for my enjoyment” and avoid any consideration of return on investment in the pursuit of an art/craft. leave investments to the people that buy Picasso, Andreas Gursky, Van Gogh, Cindy Sherman to speculate on the market with the art as currency.

    [ ps ] a bad thing in photography is the “worth”. as in, “my talents are not worth such a pricey camera” — which is a load of crap. there is no such thing, but yet, money and talent are impressed on people. oh well.

  • http://liminaleye.com/kxabout kodiak xyza

    such is the nature of achieving higher performance: it is not a linear relationship. kind of like when cleaning up an apartment, the last 3.14159% of the cleaning takes 83.71% of the time.

    same with performance… you can see it in many engineered items. perhaps this is another reason why all code is buggy: to test it for zero-bugs is unrealistic.

    I do not think this lens was designed for 98.7654% of the photographers, but as a statement of achievement and for those that find Medium Format too expensive: a Sony-sensor camera with this lens will give a resolution that may be critical for 1.2346% of the photographer in 0.000317% of the photos they must take.

    a much cheaper lens by someone else may be coming in the future at half the price… we see that a lot with technology too.

  • http://liminaleye.com/kxabout kodiak xyza

    the claim is more along the lines of resolution of MF cameras with 36MP sensors. while not making it any cheaper, it has a better mitigation of sticker shock and price/performance comparison. the Leica does not offer this level of performance (however often that may be needed).

  • Joe Gunawan

    I was able to shoot the OTUS on the a7R and it was brilliantly sharp wide open!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotosiamo/11081431055/

  • Sir Stewart Wallace

    They did…

  • Frank O’Leary

    I agree with you here. The math most definitely will NOT work for the masses.

  • TSY87

    oh really? care to point me in the right direction? the 55 1.8 is not an Otus in FE mount BTW.

  • Gav

    Currently shooting with this lens ( & D800E) on a job. It’s sharpness is similar to a Zeiss ZF in the centre. But keeps sharps edge to edge better. The ZF has a slightly more stark sharpness. While the Otus has a beautiful creamy quality. This is the best 35mm format lens every made in terms of images quality. No question. Is it worth the money? If you have the money go for it. If not buy the ZFs. Still great lenses especially if you are back light. They keep contrast waaay better than nikon or canon glass.

  • Landa

    for that money you can feed Africa

  • Facepalm

    Sharpest you’ll ever see perhaps, but not the sharpest I’ll ever hold. I definitely factor in costs when acquiring lenses.

  • Irene

    Feed people around you first.

    Those hungry kids in Africa are the results of uncontrolled sex and rape of their own people among themselves.

    They know they don’t have enough food and yet they have sex.

    And show off their hungry kids to the world without being responsible with them.

  • Broseph of Arimathea

    You are an idiot.

  • Gavin Lister

    Problem with Bananas is they come in different sizes so its hard to draw a comparison. Anyway, we all know that we shouldn’t judge things by size, rather what we do with them ;-)

  • Jonathan

    It looks like a beautiful lens to use in a controlled environment. I think its way too big and heavy to use like I would nearly any other 50 1.4 . I think I will wait for the 50mm art lenses to arrive. I bet they are somewhat close to as good as the Otus (which by the way is a stupid name and only accentuates the bloated look of this lens). I do think this is an excellent lens for cinematography or amateurs needing to compensate…

  • Vin Weathermon

    My aren’t you the life of the party.

  • Gavin Lister

    one of the sickest and most uneducated comments I think I have ever heard!

  • Lemon

    Is that St John’s NEwfoundland in the sample images?

  • http://www.bradtrent.com Brad Trent

    Putting aside the $4K price tag for a moment, there is one nagging detail about this lens that prevents me from even considering the thing…the lack of autofocus. The focusing screens available for most current cameras are really not favorable when you slap a manual focus on the things. And I don’t know about the rest of you, but autofocus has truly changed the way I do things and when I hafta go back to manual, I’m screwed. Part of it is my eyes are older and don’t work as well as they used to, but the larger thing is after a couple of decades relying on autofocus, you change the way you shoot. It’s not like you just flip that switch and instantly revert to a way of shooting you did in the early 90′s! I looked long and hard at this lens when it was released and saw all the samples that were laid out in front of me. It was all very impressive…in the same was a Ferrari dealer will convince you that you MUST have a 458 Italia or your life will not be complete…but then reality kicked in and that whole focusing problem made me keep my wallet in my pocket.

    But back to that price…Four Thousand Dollars…is it really ‘worth’ that kinda money? It’s not like I don’t have a lot of spend glass taking up space in my camera bags…Hell, every one of my Hasselblad lenses costs as much…but in my world, with my workflow, doing what I do, throwing $4000 after a ‘normal’ lens for a DSLR would be just silly…

  • 645 on a laser beam

    thanks for the obvious words. yes this is a MF lens, and MF in live view mode is better than anything in any viewfinder new or old. no surprise you can’t afford $4K small format lenses. your “damn ugly” style is so passé, I’m certain your busiest days are behind you. develop a style rather than perfecting a fad as you have done. one look kills adapt or die out.

  • Irene

    Well, if you actually read about the situations there, they even rape babies.

  • NancyP

    This lens is likely to show up in a video version soon. The real innovation is using a retrofocus design (as seen in the Distagon series of WAs) instead of the standard double-Gauss Planar design as seen for the last 50+ years. The next manufacturers to use the new approach will be likely to give us 90% of the quality at a third or a fourth of the price.

  • http://www.bradtrent.com Brad Trent

    Gee…somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed…but thanks for your kind words & constructive criticism. Back in the day when getting into a flame war with anonymous little twats like you would provide a bit of fun on an otherwise boring day, I might actually get into a back-n-forth to pass the time, but instead I’m gonna take your advice and go work on my passé style, cuz what I’ve been doing all this time obviously ain’t working out too well…..

  • hurd300403

    shocker, yet another troll.

  • http://www.winslowpicturecompany.com/ Graham Marley

    Isn’t the internet fun? Get berated by strangers who don’t back up a word of their vitriol with work of their own!

  • http://www.bradtrent.com Brad Trent

    Yeah…imagine my naiveté thinking I could drop a comment…admittedly from my own self-centered point of view…on this lens, without having it turned into a poop-throwing contest about how much my work sucks. I’m so silly sometimes…

  • oh well

    I’ve never heard of you before, but looking at your site I am shocked to see so many famous folks. that said I must admit, your overall look is outdated and faddish. as said above, I doubt you work today as much as you once did.

  • think boy

    don’t be too impressed. celebrities don’t pay for photos, Einstein. that shot above of Seth Myers is all Mr Trent got paid that day. I guess everyone knows this except for n00bs like you. Mr Trent does have one look and it is older BUT SO WHAT that’s HIS LOOK. he has a look and an aging empire (in decline?) but all you have is your flickr stream.

  • http://steamcommunity.com/profiles/76561198051596340/ Traingineer

    Well Zeiss could of easily implemented an AF system into the lens if Canon/Nikon allowed them in the first place. So you should be angry at them than Zeiss.