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

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Inspecting an ‘In Spec’ Lens

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I’m going to open a can of worms today.  I’ve been getting more and more emails from people telling me the same story that goes like this:

I’ve got this lens. It’s awful. I’ve sent it in for adjustment and the service center tells me it’s ‘in spec’ and nothing is wrong with it. Am I crazy?


Second only to the dreaded ‘impact damage – warranty void‘ statement, the ‘lens is in spec’ statement seems to be some factory service center’s answer to far too many complaints. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there is impact damage and the warranty should be void. But I can’t think of any reason why this seems to happen only to certain brands and never to others. Similarly, lenses a customer thinks are bad can be ‘in spec’. The problem is, since the factory service center doesn’t have to tell us what ‘in spec’ means, it’s open to a lot of abuse. Continue reading

Nikon 58mm f/1.4 is (hopefully) Not About the Numbers

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The Silence

We have a routine when a new lens comes out at Lensrentals: the first new copies get sent to me for optical testing. I have about 4 or 5 hours with them because they’ll have to be packed up and shipped out to the customers that have been waiting for them and expect them tomorrow. So when Kenny brought me the first half-dozen Nikkor 58mm f/1.4 lenses he said the most unexpected thing. “We only have 1 preorder, you can keep 5 of them.”

We got another shipment the next day. Most of them are still on the shelf, too. For whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of mouth-watering excitement about this lens.

Today’s Comparison

Let me be fair. Nikon has said, very clearly and very plainly, that this lens is not about the numbers. It was designed to have a very smooth look, have excellent bokeh, minimize sagittal flare and coma for shooting lights at night, have limited vignetting, and be evenly sharp across the field of view. Those are great goals and in real photography are often more important than how well a lens resolves.

But they are largely things that will require field photographic evaluation, not lab evaluation, to determine. Which means you’ll have to wait for the real photography reviewers to tell you about that. I’m not one of those; I do optical lab testing.

But, I had some lenses, and I had some machines, testing lenses in the lab is what I do, so I tested them. Just take it for what it’s worth: a lab evaluation of a lens that isn’t designed for lab evaluation.

All of that being said, if I was deciding if I needed to buy the Nikkor 58mm f/1.4 or something else, the logical something else would be the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4. (The 58mm f/1.2 would be the other logical comparison, but I had to go one way or the other, so I went with dueling autofocus lenses.) So that’s what I’ll compare today.


The Nikkor 58mm and 50mm f/1.4 G lenses

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D610 Initial Dust Assessment

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Way back when, I wrote about the dust problems we were seeing in Nikon D600 cameras.  There was enough of a furor about it that when the Nikon D610 was released I assumed that the dust problem would be fixed. But I’m rather the paranoid type, and I never like assumptions, so as soon as the first D610s were delivered I thought it worthwhile to just double check that assumption. Continue reading

Photo Geek Awards Get No Respect

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When I came up with the idea for the Photogeek Geek Photo Contest, it was mostly for fun. I didn’t think too many people would actually enter. But at last count there are nearly 100 entries up on the contest page already. There are even a couple of people who managed to capture the bokeh of a bouquet of briquettes in a bucket. And those aren’t even the geekiest images.

I was so impressed by the sheer number of entries that I said to myself (since nobody around here listens to me, I usually say things to myself), “We really need some trophies or plaques, too. Sometimes prizes alone just aren’t enough.”

So I did some extensive design research and came up with what I thought would be a truly impressive trophy that any Geek would be proud to display. Something reflecting the serious and worldwide nature of this contest.

They were delivered today: A cleverly designed hollow orb cast from rare polyethylenes from mainland Asia, coated with solid gold colored paint from South America. Suspended in the center by a hook of tin mined in Africa is a hemisphere of purest optical glass, originating in Europe, but carefully cast by artisans in Japan and coated with fluorite from the American water supply. (No wait, that’s fluoride. I’m not sure where fluorite came from.) Just to make it even more appealing, the trophy was 85% recycled materials by weight, making it environmentally friendly.

In other words, I found these little trophies at the shop across the street that were on sale really cheap, and they were the perfect size to suspend some of the dozens of used Canon 24-70 f/2.8 Mk II front elements we have sitting around here (because those suckers get scratched ALL the time and we have to replace a lot of them). It actually looks pretty good, too:



But, like Rodney Dangerfield would say, we Geeks get no respect. The engravers at the trophy shop apparently used their iPhone spell-checker on “Photo Geek” and decided “Photo Greek” was the proper way to go.

My first thought was to make up something about loving Greek photography and give a trophy to everyone from Greece who entered. But no one from Greece has entered so that idea isn’t working well.

My second thought was that this is symbolic. It’s symbolic of the way we geeks are misunderstood, even ridiculed, by those who don’t realize the importance of our contributions. It’s also symbolic of the fellowship of Photogeeks. I remember in college all of the popular people (I didn’t really know any of them, but I met some when I took easy courses to pad my GPA) used the term ‘Greek’ to signify a member of one of the numerous fraternities that I wasn’t invited to join. So this becomes symbolic of our fraternity, the fraternity of Pixel Peeping PhotoGeeks. I guess we’d be Phi Phi Gamma.

Not to mention, leaving the award as it is saves me about $3 a trophy for re-engraving them. That’s the difference between a nice lunch out on Friday and bringing a sandwich from home.

So there you have it. The Photo Greek Trophy for Photo Geeks will be given to selected participants in the Photogeek Geek Photo Contest. (They only had 6 trophies at this price. The full-price ones are wayyyy more expensive.)

Oh, yeah. This is also a reminder that you have two (2) more weeks to enter the contest by sending your entry to contests@lensrentals.com. And be sure to drop by the contest page  and look at the entries - the competition is fierce, and the comments are fiercely funny and worth a read.


Roger Cicala


November, 2013

The Most Honored Photograph

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Photograph in public domain, this copy from Naval Aviation Museum


Doesn’t look like much, does it? But, depending upon your definition, this photograph, a team effort by 9 men, is the most honored picture in U. S. History. If you want to find out about it, read on. It’s an interesting tale about how people sometimes rise beyond all expectations. It takes place in the early days of World War II, in the South Pacific, and if you’re a World War II history buff, you may already know about it. Continue reading

The First Annual Photogeek Geek Photo Contest

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I’ve been writing a lot of geeky testing stuff for the last couple of weeks, most of which can be summed up as ‘take some pictures; if they look good everything is fine.’ So last weekend, I went out and took some pictures. It was pretty fun. So much fun that I thought maybe I could have a photo contest just to entice some of my fellow geeky types to go out while there is still some sunshine to take a few pictures.

Don’t worry, my pixel-peeping photogeek friends, I know that your usual images of ISO 12233 charts, backfocus targets, dog and cat fur don’t lend themselves well to the various photo competitions out there. I know that a beautiful picture of a cloudy sunset doesn’t give you the opportunity to evaluate corner resolution, and that it’s impossible to assess for spherical aberration in an artfully shadowed nude. Yes, we could enter an superbly sharp brick wall in the architectural category of a normal photo contest, or a 100% crop of our cat’s whiskers in the wildlife section, but we know those ‘artsy’ photo judges never have proper appreciation for that kind of work. Continue reading

Bad Times with Bad Filters

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A long time ago I wrote a blog post called Good Times with Bad Filters about how cheap UV protective filters are different from good ones. It was mostly in fun.

Today I’ve got a post about how cheap UV filters may hurt your lens. It’s not in fun.

Here at Lensrentals we see lenses come back with scratched front elements every so often. Not a big deal, it happens. But since the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 Mk II lens came out we’ve seen a whole lot of them come back with scratched front elements. The weird thing was it was always in the center of the lens and often circular in pattern like the one below. (Ignore the dust, this front element had been taken out for replacement and sat on my desk for an hour before we took the picture.)

 At first I thought maybe there was a problem with the new coating Canon was using, but it seemed a coating issue wouldn’t occur just in the center.

It turns out that the combination of the slightly bulging front element of this lens and a ‘less than best quality’ thin or ultra-thin filter is the culprit. Let me make this point first, though: The vast majority of filters do NOT touch the front element of this lens. I went through a number of filters before I found one that did. But it can happen and that’s worth knowing.

This 24-70 had a front element that was about to be replaced because of some scratches near one edge (which is why I didn’t mind putting filter after filter on it to see if any caused a problem), but the center was absolutely clear.

 I went through 8 filters with absolutely no issues. The 9th filter, though, seemed to come in contact with the front element. It’s hard to be certain about that by just looking and feeling. So I dusted on the back side of the filter with a little carbon black. Notice I covered a fairly large area of the filter with it.


Then I put the filter on the lens, took it back off the lens, and took a picture of the front of the lens. Notice the circular pattern of the carbon,which is fairly clingy. Other than a few specs, it doesn’t come off the filter except where there was glass-to-glass contact. This is a much smaller area than the large smear of carbon I put on the filter.

And when we blew the carbon off the lens, there were a couple of scratches that hadn’t been there before.


This is a good demonstration about what MIGHT happen. I will add that I’ve put another dozen brand name filters (Heliopan, B&W, etc.) on this lens with absolutely no problem and no sign of glass-to-glass contact. It seems that you need the proper combination of a thin-line filter with glass close to the back of the filter, and a lens with a slightly bulging front element (this lens has one, but so do lots of others) to even worry about it. I would also think that wider front elements (this is 82mm) might allow more play or sag in the center making this more likely.

For those of you who can’t wait to go post something about how the Canon 24-70 f/2.8 II has a problem, let me assure you that’s not the case. I had to try a number of filters and the one that I used in the demonstration is a ‘discount’ filter that someone sent back to us in place of the name-brand filter we sent them. The other name-brand filters I tried were all fine.

I’ve also seen this ‘center circular’ scratch pattern on a few other lenses and we’ll start watching for it now that we know what it is. But I don’t have enough records to go back and figure out which of the numerous front element scratches we’ve seen were of this type.

My suggestion, though, is that you stay away from ultra-thin filters on these lenses, especially discount ultra-thin filters. If you look across the front of your lens from the side, you can get an idea how far up the center of the lens bulges. Then look at the back side of your filter and see how far the glass is from the bottom of the threads. If those two distances seem similar – well, be careful!

Roger Cicala


October, 2013

There Is No Perfect Lens Test, Either

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In my last article, I wrote about the fact that every copy of a given lens has some bit of sample variation. This affects lens reviews, whether lab-based or photography-based, because the copy they tested will be just a bit different from the copy you buy. I suggested, that if you want to get a feel for what the lens you purchase is likely to be like, you had best compare several different reviews. That should give you an idea of the variation that exists.

Photographs are really the best way to evaluate a lens’ performance, but you have to look at a few dozen, minimum to do it. That takes a lot of time and a fair amount of bandwidth. Looking at online size jpgs is worthless unless all you do with your images is post online-size jpgs. You need to download at least full-size jpgs (preferably RAW files) and look at them at 50% magnification to get a good idea about a lens’ performance.

Lab testing, with its numbers, gives us nice, quick overviews of lens performance. It’s useful for lens reviews so that you can compare one lens to another. It’s useful for people like me who have to test lenses to make sure the optics are OK, since it eliminates some of the human variability that comes with looking at images of a test chart.

But each type of lab test has its own strengths and weaknesses that nobody ever talks about. This is important if we’re going to compare several different reviews of a lens, because we should have some idea of what the reviewers are actually analyzing. Like every scientific test, if you don’t have a grasp of the testing methods being used, you can’t possibly understand the results. Continue reading

There Is No Free Lunch, Episode 763: Lens Adapters

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Lens adapters can be useful things sometimes, letting you mount one brand of lens on another brand of camera.

One thing that has always bothered me, though, is the idea of doubling the number of lens-mount interfaces. When you look at the thick metal pieces on the front of the camera and the back of the lens, and then consider that they have to be lined up exactly parallel to the image sensor, it’s kind of amazing it works. Continue reading