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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)
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)!
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/1.4
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 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)
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.
Nikon D800E + Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO-Distagon @ ƒ/11 (click to enlarge)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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 Zeiss, Guide to Leica, Guide to Mirrorless Cameras, Making Sharp Images, diglloyd's Advanced Photography, Guide 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.