Otus is Scharf

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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 it's 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

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.

Zeiss 55mm Otus Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 G Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 G
Length (inches)
Width (inches)
Filter (mm)7777NA
Weight (lb)

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.

Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G Canon 50mm f/1.2 L
Aspheric Elements
1 21
Special Glass600
Min focus Dist (in)19.72318
Aperture blades9

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.

Center Average Corner Avg.
Nikon 58mm f/1.4700560480
Zeiss 55mm f/1.4965810690

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

Center Average Corner Avg.

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.

Center Average
Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 @ 2.812551090
Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 @ f/5.61105990
Zeiss 25mm f/2 @ f/412151015
Nikon 58mm f/1.4 @f/5.61160940
Nikon 24mm f/1.4G @ f/5.61185845
Nikon 50mm f/.14 G @ f/5.61075890

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. 


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."

Roger Cicala




November, 2013


74 Responses to “Otus is Scharf”

Michael said:

A couple of the pictures suggest substantial vignetting, particularly the leaves. Pretty easily fixed in processing, but surprising. Am I mistaken?

Dave (D&A) said:

Thanks ever so much for your write up of this fascinating lens. Although resolution numbers have many thinking "medium format", there is still something "image wise" to shooting a larger sensor camera.

Someone "above" posed a interesting question and that was how the Otis did with coma and point light sources. This is one of the strengths of the new Nikon 58mm lens and I have yet to see any comments how the Otis performs in this regard.

Dave (D&A)

Dave said:

The Sigma 1.4 / 35mm Art looks equally sharp @f1.4 as the Otus and lenstip.com confirms that if one compares the resolution charts. I found the colors from the Otus more natural though.

Could I respectfully ask for a feedback about these theoretical findings from somebody who owns both lenses? Thanks!


David said:

Great stuff. I made that berry shot a wallpaper, it's dreamy.

What I'm most interested in, though, isn't resolution. I don't put much stock in that with an f/1.4 lens unless I'm shooting star trails. What does matter, particularly where low-resolution computer screens are the final rendering medium, is bokeh, contrast, and color.

I'd love to see back-to-back shots of real subjects with cheaper lenses, ideally with raw images available. There's so much you can do with Photoshop. I want to find out just how close I can get in post, which will then tell me if I need to upgrade.

On resolving power again: it's also a point of amusement to me that of all the real-world test shots on another lens testing website, only about half were in focus. Nick that focus ring a tenth of an inch in the wrong direction and you've lose $3500 of resolution.

Anyway, it's always nice to a see a manufacturer reaching (and achieving) greatness in some sphere. Thanks for the writeup.

pieter kers said:

As this will be the reference lens, one of the things interesting is to see how the lens behaves at d11 and d16.
Correct me if i am wrong, but i think we would actually see the possible resolution at those apertures on the d800e 36MP.

AJ said:

Roger, just wondering if you're related to Pavlov or just adding to his work?
Can I give my bank manager your address as a reference?
Can you give Nikon Zeiss' address and contact details?
Thanks for the review!

Andy said:

I was expecting Vignetting to be as poor on this as it is on other Zeiss lenses, but how bad is it? I see quite a few posts about the strengths, but weekness seem to be brushed under the rug.

The pictures above appear to have severe vignetting, but exactly how much would be interesting to know.

LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Andy and others, it does clearly vignette at f/1.4, but that's not something I measure. I'm sure some reviews that measure vignetting will be out soon.

Shepherd said:

Second what David said above, I would love to compare raw images of some of the other midrange primes with my venerable old 50. I love the thing to death (a 4-ounce lens that's very sharp stopped down makes for a happy backpacker!) but I sometimes wonder what things would look like if I took the shot with another normal prime. Money is not the only concern for me - the weight is a real concern when walking up to 30 miles a day. It'd take a whole lot of better for me to carry a different midrange prime that adds almost two pounds to my pack. For that weight, I could keep the lightweight 50 and add / swap something else neat!

Carl said:

Robin, those are Leica M mount lenses and are not compatible with Nikon or Canon full frame cameras. The distance from the rear of the lens to the plane of the sensor (or film) is too small with M-mount lenses, but they work on micro 4/3 camera bodies (with an adapter). There is someone who saws the front of a 5D2 off and then mounts Leica lenses to it, google him. Also, for those wanting to compare this Zeiss to a medium format f/2.8, it seems to me it would be difficult to compare, since the image circle isn't remotely close to the same size. I could be wrong, maybe there's a way to somehow mount a 35mm lens on a MF camera, but it seems like it wouldn't work. If you're just discussing how the resolution of the final image done on a MF digital body with its f/2.8 lens, compares with this Zeiss on the D800e...that's more a comparison of apples and oranges, it seems to me. A larger image circle makes ultimate lens resolution less of a factor, unless the pixel diodes are the same size. But even then a larger image circle (and sensor) has advantages.

Phil said:

can you make a MTF50 in line pairs / image comparision to Nikkor 200mm F2? Should be sharpest lens made by Nikon.

L.P.O. said:

For those interested, LensTip has their review up at http://www.lenstip.com/index.php?test=obiektywu&test_ob=390

They seem to like the lens a lot, only complaining about vignetting (which is, though, roughly on the same level as with other similar instruments if you look at the numbers).

And, just to add my own Exo Tria Arxidia: did you know that "otus" is Finnish and means "creature"? My guess is that Zeiss didn't have that in mind when naming the lens.

Andrew Burday said:

This is absolutely, totally irrelevant to any real issue, but every time I look at the title of this post I have the same thought: the people at Zeiss really need to work on their English language marketing. "Otus" just does not work in English. It makes me think of odious and otiose and an awful odor. It's Mr. PItiful, sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time.

Ok, brief rant over. Of course if it weren't so far out of my tax bracket I'd buy one, even if they had called it "Steaming Dog Turd". Just... "Otus"... No. Just no.

Carl said:

Andrew, good point. "Otis" was the town drunk in Mayberry, for those of us who might have seen a certain tv show from back in the day. He was harmless though, because the only reason he stayed drunk is so he could sleep it off in the jail and not have to go home to his wife. I don't have so much problem with the name "Otus" though. There are worse names...much worse.

LPO, the lenstip review is interesting, but it's a shame they don't use a D800E, rather than the D3x.

However, I'm pleased to see that their test clearly shows my Cosina Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Nokton, is in second place behind the Otus, for maximum resolution at optimized aperture (slightly ahead of the Zeiss Macro Planar), and in third place from f/1.4-f/2.0 (ahead of both Nikkor lenses). It's also the best value of all of these lenses at around $445, in my opinion. It's more than enough resolution on my 6D. The bokeh may not be quite as smooth as the Canon 50 f/1.2, but it's more than good enough considering price.

Robin said:

Yes, agree it's a stupid name. Why not call it "Bob"? I didn't realize lenses had to have names? Will there be more Otuses (Otae?). Sounds like a collection of country hicks.

Agree the Leica-M lenses are not "SLR lenses", but you can now use them on such cameras as the Leica M240 and Sony FF A7 with EVFs, so the mount is rather irrelevant these days, hence my question about th'Otus' performance relative to the Leica M 50s.

Stephen Scharf said:

"Scharf" also happens to be my last name! We're relatively far and few as last names go...

When I was doing a lot of pro motorcycle racing photography, a coupla of the pro roadracers nicknamed me "Sharpshooter" because my last name meant sharp in German.

Stephen "Sharp" Scharf

Richard said:

I love the look of this lens, but am disappointed its manual focus, as I have been considering D4 or DF with the standard and 35mm. But I need auto. I see many references to it being the sharpest - but I can't see any reviews of this against the Leica Apo Asph FLE 50mm Summicron. I saved for a year for this and bought it and it substantially out performs anything else I've ever had. It would be very significant to see a comparative test between the 2 lenses.

michael boyle said:


LensRentals Employee

Roger Cicala said:

Michael, we do rent them. I'll retest them one of these days (we did it on older cameras so not a direct comparison).

ferrif said:

Mr Cicala,

Just out of curiosity, did you shoot any picture stopped down to f/4 or f/5,6, and if yes, would you care to upload them as an addendum?
The DOF is very shallow at f/1,4 on a full frame camera, hence it probably does not really do this lens justice.
Again, I'm just curious, this lens is practically worth my cam and my three most used primes... Highly unlikely I'll ever cough up $4000 for a 50mm.

Michael Watt said:

Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus lens is no doubt an elitists optic that floats in the clouds beyond the consideration of us mere mortals. I don’t doubt the optical qualities of this lens but I question the practical application that for most output is destined for magazine print or screen monitors. Even many camera senors would be hard pressed to capture the pixels this lens would throw at it. An analogy is that it would be nice to drive a Lamborghini to the corner shop to buy a loaf of bread but the same job can be done riding a bicycle. In low light work this lens may have a distinct advantage but you would have to be earning pro mega-bucks and specializing in low light work to justify purchasing this lens. I consider this is a wonderful plaything for millionaires and an optic that is waiting for the rest of the photographic industry and recording media to catch up.

Will said:

And I thought scharf was short for sharp as f#(%...

Lynn Allan said:

Any chance you and OLAF would participate in a discussion thread on DPReview regarding the resolution of a full-frame sensor that would be a suitable match for the Zeis Otus 50mm f1.4 ?

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