Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon

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The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon is the first lens in the new ultra-high-grade Otus line for Nikon and Canon DSLRs. The bird naming started with the Touit line (see Mirrorless Cameras for On-The-Go Shooting) and this convention continues with Otus, the genus to which owls belong. Zeiss has dropped hints that the Otus line will consist of extreme-performance ƒ/1.4 lenses.

The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon is a true professional-grade lens in every respect, thinking not so much in DSLR terms as in traditional medium format terms, with the associated high expectations for optical performance and top-flight build quality. The lens is a daring move in price terms, in being a manual focus lens, and in offering the ultimate in image quality.

The image quality that the 55mm f/1.4 delivers, even wide open, sets a new standard by which other lenses will be compared.

The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 Distagon is so strong a performer that it undermines the rationale for a medium format camera. This is already true with the 36-megapixel Nikon D800E, but certainly so when 50+ megapixel DSLRs arrive on scene. And that statement is not just about resolution, but about total performance.

Mechanically, the 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon is the best Zeiss DSLR lens yet (which is already a high-set bar): the focusing mechanism uses bearings, as with cine lenses, along with a very generous focus throw for a satisfying feeling of precision and velvety smoothness.

Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon (ZF.2 Nikon mount)

Just How Good is it Wide Open?

The image of this black cat is difficult for a lens to pull off well at ƒ/1.4. To be persuasive, the yellow eye and its interior iris structures should be razor sharp—the lens has to deliver high contrast in the black fur (with small white specks in it), there should be no veiling haze or violet color haloes, and there should be smoothly uniform bokeh (background blur), and all of that at ƒ/1.4, which is what the 55mm f/1.4 does, making the crispness of detail and micro contrast look more like ƒ/5.6 than ƒ/1.4. Only the depth-of-field clues tell the story otherwise. No other lens could put all those elements together this well.

Zeiss has chosen the name of Otus, which is appropriate, but one might also say that the lens is like the eyes of a cat, which are adaptable to all brightness and contrast levels.

Printed at 380 dpi (19.5 X 13-inch print), the finest details are rendered crisply and even with reading glasses at close range, there is nothing to fault in the sharpness department. It’s plain that the image would print very well at three feet wide and even larger. And yet, this was shot at ƒ/1.4.

Shooting notes: At dusk, the cat was starting to become alert and active; no easy task to focus on the eye at this distance! I spent ten minutes trying to get the pose just right: I wanted that yellow eye razor sharp at ƒ/1.4 for the effect. This is the challenge and the reward of the 55mm f/1.4 Distagon: it is a technical challenge to nail the focus on a 36-megapixel DSLR at ƒ/1.4 to garner the full optical quality, but when this happens, the results are spectacular in effect. I got the shot, if not exactly the pose, I wanted.

Black Cat Contemplating a Gopher Dinner
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/1.4 (click to enlarge)

Shown below is an actual-pixels section from the 36-megapixel Nikon D800E image. Observe the fine details within the iris of the cat’s eyes as well as the small hairs which are shortchanged in smoothness only by the limits of the sensor resolution (and depth of field)!

ACTUAL PIXELS
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/1.4

Overall Image Quality

When I first shot with the 55mm f/1.4, I was startled in a certain way: the images showed a transparency and three-dimensional quality, a sense of "presence" and immediacy. It is a sense of almost being at or in the scene, as if viewing through a window, only without glass to degrade the view. That sense of presence is the most compelling aspect of the 55mm f/1.4.

The visual impact of an image depends on a harmonious blend of sharpness and blur qualities, that blend being a creative choice for the specific subject, via choice of aperture. It is a complex interaction governed by sharpness, optical aberrations, flare control, and other factors. The lens that is highly corrected in these areas is more versatile and thus represents a greater value in all respects. That is what the Otus 55mm/1.4 accomplishes, and it is what produces the sense of presence seen in the images it captures.

Traditionally, there has been minimal choice in which aperture to choose for peak quality; most lenses require stopping-down in order to deliver acceptable performance. But the 55mm f/1.4 Distagon offers such high performance at every aperture that the choice of aperture can be made strictly for creative reasons, including shallower or deeper depth of field, with no need to compromise on aperture to gain lens performance.

The 55mm f/1.4 is particularly well suited to contre-jour shooting (strict flare control), to architectural photography (low distortion and minimal field curvature), and to very high-resolution digital cameras in general. Its exceptional bokeh and sharpness also make it applicable for any application where one wishes to direct and control viewer attention to a particular subject and its context.

Color correction is at a level that is equal to or superior to the best lenses designated as "APO." The exceptional correction for color errors contributes to image quality in multiple ways, including an unusual transparency to the look of the image but also to greater actual depth of field, as well as the absence of any strong out-of-focus color blurs or harsh transitions on blur shapes.

Every optical characteristic is tightly “nailed down” by the 55mm f/1.4: sharpness and contrast, bokeh, color rendition, vignetting, distortion, freedom from color errors, exceptional flare control. It is a sum total effect. One might call it a cine-grade lens for still photography, but in a manageable form factor.

A real strength of the 55mm f/1.4 Distagon is in delivering total image quality across the entire frame. For example, the very high-performing Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro-Planar performs nearly as well over the central areas of the frame, but it cannot deliver the same quality to the edges and corners and it doesn’t have quite the same level of flare control. Compared to other ƒ/1.4 lenses at ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/2, the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 Distagon is in its own class of one.

The 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon is so well corrected that even pushed beyond its design range into macro territory (using an extension tube), the same beautiful qualities remain intact, including its superb color balance and correction for color errors.

Macro range shooting at 1:3.3
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/5.6 (click to enlarge)

Vignetting and Contrast Wide Open

Vignetting is quite low wide open, but is still useful and can be put to good effect. And while depth of field is very shallow at ƒ/1.4, the net impression is one of very high sharpness—because it is! Even to the extreme corners.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine (thousands of years old)
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/1.4 (click to enlarge)

Contrast

Preservation of contrast ranges sets the 55mm f/1.4 apart, even from the very best competing DSLR or rangefinder lenses: dark areas do not suffer from any veiling glare, a fact that allows exposing for bright highlights and then raising shadow values in brightness in raw conversion or post processing. Ordinary lenses add a haze to the shadows that results in a dull image, lacking that lifelike sparkle.

In this image of the Kuna Peaks in Yosemite, the greens near the river were nearly black in the original and have been brightened in conversion, with the highlights also brought down.

The 55mm f/1.4 Distagon is the ideal lens for a camera having a sensor with a very wide dynamic range, such as the Nikon D800/D800E.

Kuna Peaks
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/11 (click to enlarge)

Flare Control

With ordinary lenses, veiling haze and lens “ghosts” can present troublesome issues in the field. Not so with the 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon. Images like this 30-second exposure of the rising moon, along with its bright reflection on the water, were handled with ease. The Otus 55mm f/1.4 Distagon is not troubled by such applications, and as seen here, the Otus 55mm f/1.4 holds deep black shadows under the mountain so well that the inky-black areas had to be brightened to show the details by the maximum of +100 in Adobe Camera Raw!

Moonrise over Tuolumne River 
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/5.6, 30 second exposure Shadows +100
(click to enlarge)

Portraits

The Otus 55mm f/1.4 is an excellent lens for portraits, but because it is so bitingly sharp wide open, a slight “miss” on focus is visible as a razor-sharp slice through the wrong area, such as one razor-sharp eye and another slightly soft eye (at ƒ/1.4). Ordinary lenses mask focusing error by virtue of not being particularly sharp at ƒ/1.4. The Otus 55mm f/1.4 does not fake it for the photographer who “missed.” As a challenge for all manual focus lenses, the focusing screens in current DSLR cameras are generally unfavorable for manual focus.

For both those reasons, stopping down to ƒ/2.8 is advisable, with ƒ/4, ƒ/5.8, and ƒ/8 offering more margin for focusing errors and/or slight shifts in subject or photographer position. But on high-resolution digital cameras, subjects might see more detail than they really wanted, portraiture being one place where not every client appreciates seeing all the details. Call it a “portrait lens for perfect skin.” It is this reason that makes the razor-sharp eyes at wider apertures so appealing; one can allow a “fadeaway” in other areas while delivering the impression of incredible sharpness.

Printed at 42 inches wide (42 X 28 inches at full size), this image is strikingly sharp and would easily print to two meters wide.

Portraits demand precision focus
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/2.8 (click to enlarge)

Conclusions

Photographers looking for the very best in imaging quality need look no further. When everything is considered, the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon is without a doubt the finest lens ever produced for a 35mm SLR or DSLR (or rangefinder). It sets a new benchmark.

The Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon on a high-resolution DSLR makes a strong challenge to medium format on total imaging quality (not just resolution). Moreover, in resolution terms, the 55mm f/1.4 has ample reserves for a future 60/70/80-megapixel DSLR.

Watch a B&H Exclusive First Look Video  

 

The Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon is available for both Canon EF and Nikon F mount types.

An extensive in-depth review of the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon can be found in Guide to Zeiss at diglloyd.com.

Biography

Lloyd Chambers publishes the popular diglloyd blog at his eponymous diglloyd.com and a wide variety of articles and guides geared toward professional and advanced photographers, including Guide to ZeissGuide to LeicaGuide to Mirrorless CamerasMaking Sharp Imagesdiglloyd's Advanced PhotographyGuide to Digital Infrared Photography, as well as various print articles.

A longtime photographer, over the years he has used a wide variety of film formats and lenses including 35mm, 4X5, 6X7, 645, 617, and numerous digital cameras. 

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Precise focus is a must to utilize high resolution camera sensor.
Not every photographer is able to precisely focus a manual lens.

I agree with the second part of your comment. But... this is where the ART comes in. And art is not a must. :) Awesome review B&H. And fabulous piece of glass! Carl Zeiss would be really proud indeed.

... all the way to the bank.

Precise focus with autofocus is not always possible.
Live view with magnification is the only way to really get the best out of this lens and all good DSLRs now have this feature!

Note that you still get in-focus indication in the camera

Focus confirmation is of limited value. From Zeiss website:

However, these electronic focusing aids only actually provide a relatively imprecise means of achieving high-precision manual focusing. The region shown as "in focus" when rotating the focus ring is generally quite large and is also dependent on the direction from which the subject is being brought into focus (i.e. whether you are coming from infinity or from the closest focus distance). We therefore recommend comprehensively testing the camera in combination with a manual lens in order to get a photographer's feel for the situations in which you can rely on the AF indicator. Especially when using fast lenses, it is advisable to take a bracketing series with a wide-open aperture and short shooting distances in order to achieve optimum results.

Focus confirmation is useful to get you close (and in-camera calibration/manual adjust helps somewhat as MF lenses are usually pretty far off) but as another poster said you can't rely on the blinky lights alone, you need a focusing screen with some "snap" or split prisms/microprisms in order to be sure.

Like the Katz Eye in my 40D.

Shocking audio from a company that sells Pro Audio? I couldn't understand a work they were saying in the video.

By "work" I assume you mean word. The audio was superb while I watched this video. I can only assume you had a bad connection or the device you were using to watch the video was shockingly subpar.

The absence of AF system makes the use of this lens very limited. No way to use in a wedding.

Because not a single wedding was shot before auto-focus was invented. Not a single sport event. Nor musician at work. Bless you auto-focus, bless you.

Canon does not allow manual focus screens anymore so the OP is correct.

Saying that modern stills cameras don't have 'manual focus' viewfinders is simply not true. The old split prism viewfinders were designed to compensate for the amount of light that was lost coming through the old lenses and viewfinders and the lack of sharpness in the lenses. Today you have ultra bright viewfinders and lenses with stunning clarity and sharpness.

I have worked for more than 30 years as a cinematographer and photographer and not one cine camera I have ever used had an auto focus function. They have focus distance markers and your eye. Learning to pull or follow focus is part of the deal. I currently shoot Canon stills gear and find them to be simply brilliant for focusing manually and that is what I do almost all of the time.

On the rare occasions I resort to auto focus it is because of ultra low light or because I am just doing snapshots. Focus is a photography skill and tool just like the aperture you choose and the composition of the shot.

Steve, I sure wish I could trust my eyes using my 1DX or 5DIII and the viewfinder but can't. I use the viewfinder 95% of the time so need the viewfinder.

Canon does allow manual focusing screens. It depends on the model. For example, the 6D does, while the 5D3 doesn't.

I'm not really sure what you're talking about:

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/Focusing-Screens/ci/4662/N/4232860695

The highest-end bodies like the 7D and 5DIII have an LCD overlay in the viewfinder so changing the focusing screen is discouraged, but the blanket statement "Canon does not allow manual focus screens" is incorrect.

The screens in these higher-end cameras *can* be changed http://www.focusingscreen.com/work/5d3en.htm but it's a potentially warranty-voiding exercise.

Expectations have gone up significantly. An old boss of mine used to bang on about how we should all still be manual focusing (including him) but then we took a look at an set of his old negs and very few of them were sharp enough by todays standards!!

There is a big difference in shooting MF when AF is not available and choosing to shoot a wedding with MF when AF is available.
Certainly parts of the wedding can be shot with MF - but an entire wedding? Not a good idea. A lot of shoots will be missed or not even attempted.

Very curious to see how the Otus will compare to the CP.2 50/T1.5 in image quality for HDLSR use, besides the ergonomics...

Carl Zeiss products, be it binos, camera lenses, microsopes - whatever - are absolute top class. But please Carl, start producing a/f camera lenses for Canon/Nikon. Manual to tricky and difficult to obtain the results what these lenses are capable of.

Zeiss will never make AF lenses for Canon/Nikon, because Canon/Nikon will never open up their AF systems to 3rd parties.

Zeiss do not reverse engineer AF systems, as there is inherent problems in doing so.

Personally, I don't understand why people are so adverse to MF lenses. Yes, they suck for fast moving subjects, but there's plenty of fantastic AF lenses for that. For what you will shoot with a 55/1.4 OTUS you will want the precision of AF. I love my MF Zeiss lenses because I don't need to focus/recompose or hope my AF nails it.

...and live view zooming then MF gets studio/tripod shoots in focus everytime.

What a lens, they should have used it to "focus" on the guest speaker, unless he wanted to be out of focus.

Not a single word about the cost or value of this lens?
No negatives whatsoever? Even the lack of AF is considered a postive by the writer
Whats with the overly effusive language?

I think the lens looks amazing, but come on....

DSLRs don't have appropriate focusing screens - or LCDs - or firmware (unless you are using Magic Lantern) - for manual focus. And it looks like the lens has a ridiculously short focus throw, so it would be difficult to get your focus correct even if you could see it.

The spec sheet says a 270 degree focus throw - that is not ridiculously short at all compared to most and the focus has real feedback unlike the fly by wire or infinite turn systems in AF lenses.

John Kantor:

Some DSLRs have swappable focus screens (eg the Nikon D4), then in some cases you'll have to send then body off to a service center for the screen swap.

So not really a problem as long as you're using a decent DSLR.

Without autofocus this is a non-starter for me. Yes, I can manually focus. And yes, I prefer to have the camera do it.

4000 for a 50mm lens
Expensive .... Dumb whoever accept these high not real prices ,

I'm not in the market for a lens at this price either, but come on — do you complain that a Bentley or a Ferrari costs $250,000? Just don't buy it.

Relative to the price, if you believe a modicum of what is suggested in the article, that this lens, plus a high-res '35mm style' dSLR encroaches on medium format territory, then the total package price is still far less than you would pay for the medium format solution. So, is it "dumb?" Dumb is the inability to see more than one perspective.

Your comment is right on. As a retired portrait photograher who used Zeiss optics all I can say is that it is definitly worth the "investment". When I first opened my studio I needed to borrow money for the equipment I needed and my business advisor asked me what would be the camera and lenses I would like to end up with. He suggested that I buy the Hasselblad cameras and Zeiss optics that I wanted now rather than to keep on upgrading. That $30,000 investment was the best money I've spent.Yes Zeiss cost a lot of money but don't complain simply because you can't afford it's quality. Being 70 years old and still working I personally don't buy any equipment that will not pay for itself in four to five years so this lens unfortunetly is out of the question since I don't work as much and is too expensive for a toy.

Thank You Zeiss!
But ***please*** make a 18mm or 20mm f2 in the same class. There is no competition and many photograpers need this for night photography.
Claus from Germany - thanks to the friendly B&H staff and Lloyd for this early review.

Very nice and glowing review about the PERFECT LENS. I wonder how much Zeiss had do pay for it. Or maybe just giving him the lens was enough ;)

Excellent review Lloyd. Thanks to B&H for sponsoring it, I'd love to see more of this.

And best of all, now the Internet has a *reference* cat picture :-)

QUOTE "....the images showed a transparency and three-dimensional quality, a sense of "presence" and immediacy. It is a sense of almost being at or in the scene, as if viewing through a window, only without glass to degrade the view." QUOTE

HUH? Whatever. This is the silliest comment ever on describing image quality.........way to justify that $4000 price tag! LOL!

There are some comments that you let go.
...This is not one of those.
lol

That is 'cos you have never gone beyond viewing images on your screen shot with a kit lens or a cheap (thus highly compromised) lens.

That quote is exactly the way I would describe prints from my finer lenses (eg: Zeiss 50MP, Leica 100APO, Noct), even though my lenses are still not up the excellent rendering characteristics of this Otus (funny name!) lens.
Of course you could never ever relate to that; jut like a person who always eats fast food cannot know what it means to experience great (even home-made) cuisine.

It's a given that Digiloyd will rave about anything marked Zeiss. But since it's pretty easy to make very fine 50mm lenses, I wouldn't be surprised if this one is remarkable and priced appropriately for a lens made in Germany.

I like to read Lloyds articles and most are clear cut explainations of the equipment he uses in his field of photography, Landscapes !!!

but saying this 50 mm is an excellent lens for portraits and clearly his example shows he aint got the slightest idea about portrait photography, which he proved with another poor example recently on his blog criticizing Martin Schoeller´s work citing the catchlights.

and by the way, 35 mm is 35 mm, no matter how many Mpx or how sharp or costly a lens is, it aint gonna give you the MF quality ,let alone the MF look ;-)))
nice try though Lloyd ( and Zeiss);-).
cheers ,
Ken

...MF to 35mm "look":

Normally I would agree with you, but that difference gap is diff innately tightening up - a lot. I've been testing the Sigma 35mm 1.4 on a D800E against a IQ180 on a RZ Pro ll (75mm lens). I am impressed by the underdog 35mm system. I think when comparing apples to oranges, the 35mm tasts like an apple that has been sitting in an orange crate. Prints of 16bit, 100% full res files are definitely in the ball park.

Honestly, I think this lens is about 10 times overpriced. I wouldn't pay much more than 300 Dollar for it.

And that's okay, you don't have to buy this Zeiss and you don't have to care about really good colour+light and sharpness either--a basic kit zoom will capture an image of the cat for posting to FaceBook.

Also a good Nikon 50mm F1.4 is going to set you back more than $300.

10x overpriced,really,just because you don't understand high end engineering doesn't mean it has no value,this is a very special lens and the price reflects the R&D and the precision engineering that is required to bring it to the market,it is half the price of a noctilux and a fair bt cheaper than a Summicron APO 50mm.

The perfect lens is more than just a collection of great optical parameters. Speed and accuracy in acquiring focus should count heavily for the perfect lens. Reviewer spent 10 minutes getting the focus right of one image. I am sure when you practice you can get it down substantially but still. Also unimpressed with the nervous bokeh,so still not the perfect lens sorry.

May I suggest that if you want a fabulous near normal manual focus Nikon lens that is much more versatile, you may wish to consider the Nikkor 45mm tilt/shift lens? It's about half the cost, but two stops slower.

But why would one want a slower lens?

And what about Schneider tilt-shift lenses for Nikon? Those lenses are likely optically better than the Nikon tilt-shifts?

so no AF is good, and taking forever to get a cat in focus is okay. i don't believe that time will come down with practice. so lloyd has no exp manual focusing? really...? just a thought, if no AF is good, then i suppose the resale value of AF lenses with broken AF function just went up? and that is a good portrait? 55mm. really? not all AF lenses, in fact nearly all of them don't have any sort of fly by wire manual focusing system. only a few special case SLR lenses. sure, loads of mirrorless stuff but who cares about that. also like the guy below stated, modern expectations are much higher than they were a short while back. now brides want their shots perfect and they don't care that the venue is very dark and you aren't allowed to use a flash. that's across photography as a whole. just flip through some mags from the 80's 90's or early 2000's. now days almost all of it would be considered out of focus with boring lighting. compared to the current level it's very shabby. just looking in my latest issue of "real simple" i can see interesting lighting work and perfect focus on just about every silly thing in the mag. personally if you are going to fool around with something like this, you might be better off getting into MF (as in medium format, not manual focus) or LF film. i mean if you are going to take 10 minutes to take a photograph, why not go bonkers and use a man camera? or, wait, if squeezing out every drop of resolution is your goal why not use a sigma 35mm f1.4, and fire off two shots, then composite them together for something like that 55mm FOV and get perhaps 50% more resolution in a matter of seconds?(you can manually focus the sigma if it makes you feel better) yeah, i'm something...

so for some reason this morning i realized i had say something silly on here about stitching two 35mm shots together to get a 55mm lens FOV. yeah, forget that part. my wife always says i stink at multitasking, and that is just what i was doing while typing that up. actually, we could just pretend i said to use one of the very good AF 85mm or 100mm lenses that exist for one tenth the price of this zeiss.

The good Nikon and Canon 84mm f/1.4 lenses (AF) retail for a good bit more than $400. And they don't have this level of optical quality.

Then it's not like one can pick up an AF $400 100mm f/2.0 lens for Nikon or Canon either.

Are there other 50 (okay 55mm) 1.4 lenses for purchase yes? Do any likely match the optical quality of this Zeiss? Likely yes, but only one: The Leica M 50mm f/1.4--retails for $4000 last I checked. And you can't mount that Leica M lens on a Nikon SLR body. (The new Leica M f/2.0 50 retails for $7000.)

Looks like an incredible piece of optical engineering that anyone with the money and the ability to maximize it's usefulness would love to own. Having just purchased the new Sigma 35 1.4 and also using the Canon 50 1.4 extensively, I know with my ageing eyes that I would need to have AF to be able to use this amazing lens wide open. The focus point is just so small it's nearly impossible to hit it without excellent AF capabilities, especially when working close up. Still it is great to see Zeiss push the limits of what's possible and hopefully Canon will take up the challenge. Or Sigma!

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