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Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 APO Planar T* Lens: Believe the Hype

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Last year Zeiss released the original Otus, the 55mm f/1.4 that set a new benchmark to which other SLR lenses would be compared for quite some time. The Otus quickly attained an almost mythic status and as this optic, with its owl-inspired name, began to make its way into the wild its reputation was sealed by consistently stellar reviews. Fast-forward nearly a year later, and Zeiss has just introduced the second lens in this high-performance lineup: the Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T*, available in a Nikon F-mount and Canon EF-mount.

Top photo: 1/32 sec.; f/9; ISO 200

All Photos by John Harris, 2014

1/400 sec.; f/1.4; ISO 200 1/320 sec.; f/1.4; ISO 200

To hear Zeiss tell it, they have just introduced the greatest lens… ever. And truth be told, they might be right. I have had the pleasure of working with this lens on a Nikon D810 for the past week and, in terms of sharpness, low-light capability, tonal reproduction, absence of color fringing, and bokeh, it is the finest DSLR lens I have ever used. Of course, like everything in life, there is a flip side. And the simple flip side to this lens is that it is a beast, a gorgeous beast, but a heavy, manual focus lens. And those two characteristics make it what it is, so there is no getting around it, they are not “fails” for the lens, they are part and parcel of its being and anyone who considers this lens needs to understand this and be very sure of their applications.

 
1/250 sec.; f/1.4; ISO 100 1/80 sec.; f/1.4; ISO 800

The 85mm telephoto focal length is commonly referred to as “portrait length,” as it is slightly longer than normal and slightly shorter than long, giving a natural appearance to imagery with the ability to isolate subject matter, and it’s flattering to the human face, just slightly compressing depth. Coupled with the f/1.4 maximum aperture, this lens provides tremendous control over focusing placement and is also ideal for working in low-light conditions. And without doubt, I found this to be true. In dark fields with just a pool of illumination on the subject, I could handhold at f/1.4 and get sharp facial features from 50' away. Zeiss, however, is touting the Otus 85 as more than just a portrait lens, pointing to the fact that the lens is so sharp throughout the frame and at any f-stop that landscapes and cityscapes can be confidently composed using the corners and edges of the frame. This indeed was the case. I also used the lens for street photography, medium-distance shots of people and activity among the urban masses. The ability to isolate a subject with the blurred background of the crowd made for wonderful street portraiture. On days of bright sun, the vibrant colors of New York streets were made ambrosial.

1/200 sec.; f/7.1; ISO 400 1/200 sec.; f/7.1; ISO 100

Of course, the obvious drawback of this lens for news or documentary shooting is its size and manual focusing, but its large rotation angle of 261° and floating-elements design enabled reaching a precise manual focus much more easily than with any other telephoto lens I have used. A ”grippy” rubber focus ring provided fluid control that often seemed to just land on the proper focus, whether at infinity or its minimum focus distance of 2.62'. Zeiss has been making comparisons to “medium-format quality” regarding this lens and, with its sharpness, color tones, and smooth manual control, it certainly is not out of bounds making such claims. It’s fair to say that this lens is designed for studio work and/or mounted on a tripod. For portraiture and product shooting it is ideal; however, if you are willing to take it out around your neck, the results will justify the effort.

1/25 sec.; f/1.6; ISO 800

Where this lens truly shines is in how it can perform at any aperture setting or any focusing position. For handheld portraiture it was a joy to use; just to see how focus could be placed exactly on one eye or a sweep of hair or just on the sun freckles of a cute nose was wonderful. And the blurred backgrounds of light spots or lush flowers were beautiful in their own right.

1/60 sec.; f/1.4; ISO 400

Based on the classic Planar concept, and featuring an apochromatic design with a wealth of low dispersion elements, this lens stands to virtually eliminate chromatic and spherical aberrations in order to reduce color fringing both in front of and behind the plane of focus. This sophisticated optical layout, which includes one aspherical element and six elements made from anomalous partial dispersion glass, is also apt at correcting for color artifacts that can appear when photographing scenes of high contrast and vivid bright-to-dark gradations. Cityscapes at night were particularly gorgeous, illuminated office towers became cubed diamonds of light and reflections from water held the saturated colors of the lights from which they came.

1/400 sec.; f/10; ISO 100

Physically, the lens is formidable, its shape and all-metal design offer a cine lens aesthetic and its bright yellow distance scales echo that concept. The lens's beautiful glossy black finish, large rubber focus ring, and yellow labeling are simply nice to look at as it is to operate. The build quality and durability of the lens is apparent immediately, and this is obviously important when deciding to invest in such a quality piece of gear. In terms of weight, it weighs less than a 70-200mm f/2.8 but is heavier than its Nikon and Canon 85mm counterparts, especially the Nikon.

1/100 sec.; f/2.0; ISO 800

An 86mm filter thread features a 1mm pitch and its internal focus mechanism maintains the overall lens length, which benefits the use of circular polarizers and graduated neutral density filters, since the front filter thread does not rotate during use. Zeiss T* anti-reflective coatings have been applied to each lens surface to help minimize reflections and provide greater clarity, contrast, and color accuracy, and the 9-blade rounded aperture lends itself to nicely shaped background blurs of light.

1/50 sec.; f/2.5; ISO 400

The ZF.2 (F-mount) model supports a manual aperture ring at the base of the lens and a locking position at the smallest aperture (f/16) permits camera-based control over aperture values. Both mounts support their DSLRs' electronic interface for camera-based control of exposure settings and in-camera focus confirmation.

Using the Otus 85mm on a Nikon D810 allowed me to test Zeiss’s claim regarding the lens’s ability “to match the ultra-high resolving power of contemporary digital sensors,” as well as its ability to handle challenging low-light and high-contrast situations, and I certainly emerged a believer. Its handling of color in both bright and night situations was impeccable and the sharpness it displayed at close distances and wide apertures made clear what a lens “with no optical compromise” can really do.

Lens Mount Canon EF (ZE) or Nikon F (ZF.2)
Focal Length (35mm Equivalent) 85mm
Maximum Aperture f/1.4
Minimum Aperture f/16
Angle of View (Diag/Horiz/Vert) 28.24° / 23.71° / 15.97°
Minimum Focusing Distance 31.5" (80 cm)
Lens Construction 11 elements / 9 groups 
Diaphragm Blades 9
Filter Ring Diameter 86mm
Dimensions Canon EF: 4.0 x 4.9" (101 x 124mm)
Nikon F: 4.0 x 4.8" (101 x 122mm)
Weight Canon EF: 2.65 lb (1200 g)
Nikon F: 2.5 lb (1140 g)