Lenses and Optics

Otus is Scharf

Published November 17, 2013

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


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • A little bit off-topic. Question about your dog Zeiss. He looks a lot like my two dogs, Bailey and Buster, who are both beautiful Giant Schnoodles (mom’s a Giant Schnauser, dad’s a Standard Poodle, both brothers from the same litter). They’re both jet black, about 90-100 lbs. each and one of the highlights of my life. I know a lot of other dog breeds kind of look a bit like my GS’s, but I thought I’d ask as there aren’t a heck of a lot of Giants around. Happy Holidays!

    As to the lens, well, for those who can afford it, wow. I’d love to have one, but I’m a working photographer budget slave who will accept slightly less resolution for the chance to have more “arrows in my quill” However, who but Zeiss would finally make such a lens? Leica probably comes close, but to use one, well, you need to have only a Leica camera. Score one for Zeiss team, the worlds most obsessive compulsive manufacturer of commercial level optics. Maybe when I retire and just carry one camera and one lens. Sigh.

  • Glad to see the Zeiss 25mm f/2 held up so well…

  • Roger Cicala

    Lars, I’m afraid not – the lenses are all gone. It was pretty cloudy this weekend and light was weak.

  • ginsbu

    @CarVac — Roger didn’t note which sensor or at what aperture his 1600lw/ph was based on, but I’d say 60+MP sensors assure medium format an advantage in sheer resolution. The advantages of medium format go beyond that, though: slower, f/2.8 normal lenses can offer superior correction of aberrations and more balanced performance across the frame. I think Zeiss is aiming to offer similar characteristics at an equivalent aperture of f/1.4 (or thereabouts) on 135 format. It’s also worth bearing in mind that many applications may not need the full resolution offered by high-resolution MF backs — 30-40MP may be enough, so long as the lenses can keep up. Similarly, some of the claimed disadvantages of the Otus (size, manual focus, cost) don’t look so problematic for someone comparing against medium format. And bodies like the D800e offer many advantages over medium format of their own: higher ISOs, smaller size, much lower cost, etc.

    Anyway I’m curious how close a D800e + Otus gets to, say, a 40MP MF-back with f/2.8 normal. Does D800e + Otus get close enough at equivalent apertures to temp someone who otherwise would have felt medium format was her only option?

  • Lars

    If you only had tested it on lower ISO. The 100% JPGs are noisy as hell. Can you shot more images with a lower ISO please?

  • That glass looks fantastic. I would be happy to see it with an autofocus. Is it so diffcult?

  • richard

    @BArry…I agree that the lens is worth it, it’s just that I’m always amazed by how much it costs to raise quality by a certain percentage. I’m sure that the Nikon engineers are very proud they were able to put so much visual magic into the lens at the price they did, but I bet the Zeiss engineers were thinking the same thing. It’s all a matter of expectations. Imagine the lens you could get if you were willing to spend $10,000 for a 50mm 1.4….

  • Roger Cicala

    Billy, we did in our ‘great 50mm shootout’ a couple of years ago, but there were some adapters used in that test, something I wouldn’t do today and therefore don’t recommend. But in testing just with Leica glass on Leica cameras the 50mm Summilux, from a pure resolution standpoint, was a tiny bit better than the Noct.

  • Roger Cicala

    I have results up for the 50mm f/2 Makro Planar on the d800 posted somewhere. It’s very very good. It’s not nearly as good as the Otus.

  • Carl

    It will be even more interesting to see how this lens resolves on next year’s high MP Canon body. Also I agree with James Sinks’ suggestion, to do a comparative coma test of these lenses. A lens with little or no coma in the outer 50% of the image, would be something interesting indeed…especially on an f/1.4 lens.

  • KimH

    No worries – you used “scharf” perfectly! No Exi Tria here,,, you can trust Bernhard 🙂

  • BArry

    —-Spending four times more for the 58mm only gets you a 7 percent gain in center resolution (at f/5.6). To get a 24 percent increase over the 50, you have to spend $4,000 or about 10 times as much.–

    @Richard — I think the point is not so much the “center”. Almost all 50mm lenses will produce sharp results at the very center of the frame. However, most 50’s…even amongst the very best, have significant issues not just in the corners, but in the majority of the frame outside the very center (20%) of the lens. It’s primarily an issue of design, and Zeiss has tackled the problem by treating this lens as if it was a wide angle. The numbers are “exceptional” in this type of lens, and…. from a price point of view (in that it can provide near MF resolution and can practically be used as a true cinema lens — minus the gear the focus markings)…it’s really not that out of whack.

  • CarVac

    I was reading the archives, and Roger said in a comment that a Hasseblad with a normal lens achieved 1600 LP/PH. I guess it’s still another world out there in medium format.

  • I only own one Zeiss, the 18mm f/3.5 in Canon mount. All my Canon wide angles went on eBay. It is wonderful to see a company ship the quality they promised with no spin. It is more common today to ship the product too soon and work out the bugs later.

  • Joe

    I wonder what one of these Otus lenses with the Alpa FPS and an IQ280 look like. The image may or may not be big enough, but the image itself would push the lens as far as possible.

  • CE

    How does the Otus compare with the 50mm Zeiss Makro-Planar?

  • Richard

    It is amazing how much more one has to pay for each step up the goodness scale from the plain old 50mm f/1.4G. Spending four times more for the 58mm only gets you a 7 percent gain in center resolution (at f/5.6). To get a 24 percent increase over the 50, you have to spend $4,000 or about 10 times as much.
    I know that there are a lot of other factors that go into lens goodness and I’m sure these lenses are worth every penny, but thank heavens everything in life doesn’t require such huge expenditure jumps for just a little more quality.

  • Stephen Lathrop

    Thank you very much. Pretty obviously a lens for someone shooting for large prints to consider carefully, especially if you like blurred backgrounds. On my monitor your sample images suggest that top-notch color and contrast have not been left out of the mix either.

    A comparison with the performance of the Zeiss 50 MP at various apertures seems like it would be very much on point—especially for shooters who often stop down for max resolution. I have previously thought of that lens as the best 50mm available for 35mm format, and the price advantage is notable, even if it has now become the almost-best.

  • Have you guys tested the Leica Noctilux 0.95 current version?
    According to Popular Photography a few years ago, that lens was their highest tested lens up to that time.

  • Roger Cicala

    Andreas, we would never forget that 🙂

  • Also, while I could not justify the cost for a 50mm for my uses, I’m sure some can, and if Zeiss designs wide angles to this level of performance, who knows, someday it could be worth it – and certainly worth a rental for specific tasks!

  • Very impressive test results. I think ginsbu’s comment is interesting…I don’t know if Zeiss or Nikon are aiming at the medium format market, but certain types of work have gradually migrated to smaller formats throughout the history of photography. I wonder whether, right now, the total frame detail possible with the 36MP D800e and Zeiss Otus is roughly comparable with that of a 40-60MP medium format camera with a top grade lens.

  • Bring on the big prints! I bet you’ll be able to enlarge these shots many times over for massive prints. I hope the rumored 24mm and 85mm are every bit as good as this first Otus lens. Roger, thanks again for your great tests…

  • Bernhardas

    That Zeiss is totally cute. (The dog)
    I hope he is only photographed with lenses that bear his name.


  • Archer1960

    I was going to ask the same thing as CarVac: how does this lens compare to the Coastal Optics macro?

  • Not to forget, “scharf” isn’t only “hot” as applied to spices – the same equivalency holds for girls as well 😉

  • Ben

    Amazing lens!

  • ginsbu

    It seems to me Zeiss is really aiming at the medium format market with this lens, so the relevant comparison should be a f/2.8 normal on medium format vs Otus on a D800e. If the Otus measures up, it starts looking like a bargain by comparison. Do you still have any of the Hassy stuff around, Roger?

  • CarVac

    I remember you tested the Coastal Optics 60/4 as achieving 1300 [whatever units] on a D800…have you retested that on the D800e?

    Of course, it’s not really a “cheaper option” than the Otus, but it’s certainly in the same league for image quality (unless you’re trying to shoot in the dark).

  • Please, please, please, please do a quick coma test with this one. None of the Zeiss samples were suitable for spotting coma.

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