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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.

Description

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)5.55.25.2
Width (inches)3.63.33.8
Filter (mm)7777NA
Weight (lb)2.12.02.1

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
Elements/Groups12/109/68/6
Aspheric Elements
1 21
Special Glass600
Min focus Dist (in)19.72318
Aperture blades9
98

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.
f/1.4965810690
21010895740
2.812551090870
4132011901000
5.6133512101030
8126511801000

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

 

Lensrentals.com

 

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
  • Carl

    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.

  • 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!

  • Roger Cicala

    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.

  • Andy

    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.

  • AJ

    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!

  • 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.

  • David

    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.

  • Dave

    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!

    DK

  • Dave (D&A)

    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)

  • Michael

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

  • Thanks, Roger! Your write-ups are always refreshing to read because you back your claims up with reasons and/or evidence 🙂

    It would be very cool and informative if you could show some side by side 100% crops of how things look when shot with the Otus versus other good lenses at max, largest common, best and diffraction limit f-numbers.

    Thanks and keep up the great work.

    G

  • Jilm

    Just bought this amazing lens to mount on my d800e.
    Amazing quality all around. I look forward to see what else Zeiss is planning.

  • Robin

    Is it better than the Summicron APO 50? You confidently state it is the best, but have you compared it to this? How does it compare to the 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH? Just wondering. Not sure who needs this lens to be honest, but it does keep you optical testers alive and kicking.

  • RVB

    @
    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?

    Medium format has the huge viewfinder and leaf shutters for super fast cash sync and these are not available in canon or nikon…

    This lens does look amazing though and the shots on the flickr pool are very impressive..

  • derek

    outstanding , no doubt about that , but I just wish it were smaller. I do not mind the weight of the Zeiss Otus but it is just too huge… for me 4k price is fine as a lens is this good but the size alone makes it impractical for me.

    the Nikon 58mm f1.4G looks really lousy and I do not get that even if it costs 800US.
    Nikon should be embarrassed about it.

  • I sure do hear you on the NDA thing. As a journalist, I certainly respect “off-the-record” for now, but I have a serious conflict of interest signing anyone’s non disclosure agreements. Probably a good reason nobody tells me much of anything ;=)

    And for the factual record, the leaves decaying in the yard are good natural fertilizer .

  • Roger Cicala

    Thank you, Chuck. That’s a nice interview.
    I haven’t heard anything other than rumors – but if I had I’d probably have had to sign a nondisclosure so I couldn’t say anyway.

  • Roger Cicala

    I’m very brave online. My wife never, ever reads this stuff.
    One of the best things about doing this is being able to say “No, honey, it’s not a hobby. It’s my job! I have to go take pictures now, the leaves will just have to wait.”

    Actually, now that I think about it, I think the right answer is, “Honey, I need those leaves on the ground for testing purposes.”

  • Great writeup Roger, thanks as always for taking the time to do it. Good friend Michael Prince received his new OTUS probably about the same time you got your two, and had very similar things to say. I posed an interview and some of his test shots here, for anyone interested: http://thecameraforum.com/zeiss-otus-reality/

    Roger, have you heard anything for certain about what the next focal lengths in the OTUS line will be, or when we will hear more details? Zeiss is being quite mute with me on the subject.

  • Alex

    Have you considered doing a shootout between this on the D800 and a 40mp Medium format setup?

  • “If I wait long enough my wife will do it.”

    I believe Roger has won the internets…at the expense of sleeping at the couch for a whole year when his wife reads this.

  • Roger Cicala

    If I wait long enough my wife will do it.
    Roger

  • Press Correspondent

    You should rake your leaves, Roger.

  • Waiting for the Canon version. From the test video shots (links below), it should also be a superb 2K and 4K video lens. I wonder if it will undermine Zeiss own Cinema Prime sales – Otus is quite a bit cheaper

    Video test shots:

    http://vimeo.com/79534108

    Interview in Japan FF to 3′ 50″

    http://vimeo.com/79456702#

  • Carl

    Rick, the very inexpensive Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 gets very close in resolution to the Zeiss 15mm (from the tests and samples I have seen online, anyway…google the comparison between the Nikon 14-24, the Zeiss 15mm, and the Rokinon 14mm). The color and contrast (and “microcontrast”) are not close. But given what you can do in post, I would opt for the cheaper lens ($300 vs $3000…maybe that’s just me? Spend the rest on the future 40+MP Canon body…). That said, I feel the best Zeiss value out there is the 18mm f/3.5. I might buy one someday. The color and contrast look stunning, even if the resolution is not very high. As for what the Otus version of a wide angle lens would be…no doubt it would exceed that of the current Zeiss wide angles, but at what cost? Given the current 15mm one is $3000, would an Otus version be $13,000? At least for a wide lens, autofocus is even less necessary. Perhaps there won’t be an Otus lens wider than 24mm or so?

  • Bill Guinn

    Roger, thanks for this and all the wonderful reviews. It seems that this lens may have about reached the point of diminishing returns from a cost/performance perspective. Having designed a few lenses and paying for FPL53 blanks I know its getting pretty close. Regardless do you know what the maximum resolution of the 800e sensor is? It would be nice to know just how close this lens is to the limit (knowing of course glass can’t get there).

  • Rick Knepper

    The real test for Zeiss will be producing corners as sharp as these on a 15mm or even 21mm lens and keeping prices reasonable. There’s several reasons why the 35mm format became so popular, one of them being price. I see this as an extreme divergence from 35mm history. The “regular” 15mm ZE/ZF.2 got a rave review over at CR. Does one buy the “best full frame ultrawide lens available for Canon DSLRs” or wait for whatever Otus has to offer in UWA?

  • And how does it compare to the Leica ASPH 50’s both the 1.4 and f2.

  • Roger Cicala

    David, mine are Portuguese Water Dogs, which if I remember the pedigree correctly are cousins to Schnauser’s and related to Poodles. Everyone thinks they are LabraDoodles, but Labradoodles, if I understand correctly, are well behaved so they definitely aren’t those. PWDs are either getting petted, or doing something they aren’t supposed to be doing.

  • Randy

    Carl would be proud. This lens has all the qualities you expect from Leica, hand assembly, German made, very high price. But this seems to be a case where you can really see where the money went. It’s not marginally better; it’s distinctly better.

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