Lens Review: Zeiss Otus 1.4/55

by Stan Sholik

April 18, 2014

Because the resolution of DSLR sensors is on a slow but steady rise, and manufacturers are eliminating anti-aliasing filters to improve sharpness, optics firms are designing lenses that exceed the resolution of current and future image sensors while minimizing lens aberrations.

To meet this need, Carl Zeiss has attempted to produce the finest lens, both optically and mechanically, that current technology and a century of experience would permit. The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 is the result, and with an MSRP of $3,990, it becomes evident that the price of perfection is high.

Just as the Zeiss Touit lens line for mirrorless cameras is named after a genus of small parrot-like birds, the Otus lens is named for a genus of owls renowned for their night vision. From the looks of the Zeiss website, other lenses will likely join the 55mm f/1.4 to form an Otus lens line of fast, high-performance optics.

Heavy Design

Whereas other f/1.4 50mm lenses are generally based on the Planar lens design, the Otus is based on the retrofocus (reverse telephoto) Distagon design. While this choice certainly seems to be the right one for optimum optical performance, it also is responsible for the 2.27-pound weight, 3.64-inch front diameter, and 5.66-inch length of the lens. 

I noticed this heftiness immediately as I mounted the lens onto my Nikon D800E, which, with its MB-D12 accessory battery pack, weighs a little less than the lens. While the D800E body and Otus lens are reasonably well-balanced for hand holding, the system definitely deserves to be tripod-mounted with the mirror locked up to maximize the performance.

Mechanically, the lens exceeds the already-high standards of the Zeiss lens line. The focusing mechanism of the Otus 1.4/55 uses ball bearings like the best cinematography lenses for a silky-smooth feel, free of play or backlash. Only manual focusing is possible. The large, grippy focusing ring rotates through 248 degrees from the minimum 19.7-inch focusing distance to infinity, ensuring precise focus but requiring time turning through the entire range. The focusing ring stops rotating at each end of the range. And the focus ring on the Canon and Nikon versions rotates in the same direction as lenses made by Canon and Nikon.

The all-metal lens is finished to a satin sheen. Distance scales in feet and meters are shown in bright yellow. Depth of field markings are provided below the distance scales for every aperture. There is even a mark for infrared focusing correction.

Impressive Performance

While Zeiss’ attention to mechanical details is impressive, the optical performance of the Otus 1.4/55 is even more so. Images captured with this lens seem almost three-dimensional, especially at wide apertures with a high-resolution camera. There is about one EV of vignetting at f/1.4 that diminishes until it disappears by f/5.6. Other than that and the almost imperceptibly thin lines of color fringing at f/1.4, optical aberrations are nonexistent at all apertures and from the center of the frame to the edges. 

Where other lenses have an optimum aperture, the Otus delivers superb images at every aperture. This allows selection of an aperture to control depth of field rather than to maximize image quality.

The lens also offers advantages for photographers in nearly every discipline other than action sports. Landscape photographers can shoot with the sun at the edge of the frame and even in the frame without flare or ghosts appearing in the image. Shadow areas are free of veiling glare, and you can open the shadow areas without them becoming dull. HDR photographers, whose images often require additional post-processing to remove a gray haze in the shadows, will also appreciate it.

Above: Accurate focusing is critical at f/1.4, and when you get it right, you can draw the viewer’s eyes right to where you want them.
The natural vignetting at f/1.4 helps, too.

Gorgeous Results for Wedding Photography

While it probably isn’t the lens of choice for fast-paced photojournalistic wedding coverage, it is ideal for those shooting carefully composed portraits. The ability to accurately capture an extremely wide dynamic range will hold details in the bride’s dress as well as the groom’s tuxedo. And the freedom from distortion ensures that members of the wedding party at the ends of group shots aren’t any wider than they are in real life.

If the 55mm focal length is appropriate to the assignment, architectural, product and still-life photographers will not find a lens that delivers better sharpness throughout the frame, lower distortion, more accurate color and greater freedom from flare. My studio shot of crystal glassware on a backlit Plexiglas table was sharp with crisp edges, despite the background exposure being just overexposed.

While the Otus is more appropriate for head-and-shoulder portraits with an APS-C format sensor body (becoming the equivalent of approximately an 85mm f/1.4 lens), with a high-resolution full-frame body, you can crop in later. But when pulled back from the subject, especially in low light, achieving precise focus at f/1.4 can be a challenge. Camera (if hand-held) and subject movement, combined with the inherent difficulty of using a DSLR focusing screen to focus manually, can all lead to lost focus on the eyes. Working closer to the subject may make it easier to focus, but with the face at an angle to the camera, it is impossible to hold focus on both eyes at f/1.4.

Shooting portraits with the lens stopped down to apertures of f/4 or smaller yield a higher percentage of in-focus captures. But be warned: this is a lens for subjects with perfect skin or professional makeup. Otherwise, you may be in for some serious post-processing to please the client.

End Frame

Both mechanically and optically, this is the finest lens ever produced for a 35mm camera, film or digital. For photographers looking for a lens with ultimate image quality in a “normal” focal length for current Canon and Nikon DSLRs and for future cameras with higher resolution sensors, the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 is that lens. 

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