Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T*
Zeiss engineers were given a simple brief several years ago: design the best standard lens in the world. No restrictions on price or size. They were given access to new and exotic materials, and what came out of their design rooms was the best standard prime lens the world had seen – the Zeiss Otus APO Distagon T* 1.4/55mm.
The Otus 55 is not like any other 50mm lens you may have used. It is not small or compact and most certainly not inexpensive. It is big, heavy, and sharp like you cannot believe. That new optical design (Distagon style with 12 elements in 10 groups) has certainly achieved the principle purposes, as the Otus 55 exhibits no visible chromatic aberrations and has zero distortion. Part of this is achieved through the use of a floating element system along with Zeiss’ world famous optical glass and lens coatings. Take a look at this photo and the accompanying 100% crop at f/1.4:
Put the Otus up next to just about any other 50mm option (at least for the 35mm system) and it will come across as being large (it is 5.66”/143.8mm long), heavy (2.27lb/1030g), and expensive (just south of $4000). It will also be the best lens in the room. It is roughly the size of a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, although a bit larger and heavier.
Before going further, let me acknowledge that the Zeiss Otus lenses are not for everyone. Their high price tag, manual focus only design, and overall dimensions preclude them for being a “lens for everyman”. I ironically had the new Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM at the same time; you could buy 32 of those lenses for the price of one Otus. That may seem ridiculous, but in our world you can also buy a similar amount of Nissan Micras for the price of one Bentley Mulsanne. If a lens like the Otus 55 makes no sense to you, that’s okay. Just do yourself a favor and never try one…because the experience might be a bit addicting.
The Otus 55 is a manual focus only lens. In the Canon (ZE) mount, the aperture iris is electronically controlled and so aperture is handled in the same fashion as any other modern lens. The lens does have electronic coupling to the camera body, so not only is EXIF data shared normally but there is also a focus confirm chip that will beep and highlight the correct AF point when focus is achieved. The manual focus ring itself is wide and rubberized and incredibly smooth. It has the perfect damping that allows you to focus with a finger but without too much looseness that would make fine focus more challenging. If every manual focus lens focused like an Otus people might have a fresh appreciation for manual focus lenses.
Everything else in the Otus 55’s construction is glossy, metal curves. It has a very elegant design, with a semi-gloss finish and a blue “Zeiss” badge on either side of the barrel. Even the design of both lens caps is premium and unique to the Otus line. There is a distance scale along with a hyperfocal guide. As you might expect from a lens purposefully designed for manual focus, the focus throw is appropriately long with enough room to make fine adjustments at every distance. I primarily used a Canon EOS 6D body with an EG-S focus screen installed (for manual focus) and between the smooth focus ring, feedback from the focus confirm, and the easier visual focus confirmation from the EG-S I was able to get consistently focused results.
Finally, I really like the way that the lens hood is designed for the Otus line. It essentially an extension of the overall design, and actually completes one of the elegant curves of the lens. It creates a natural place to support the lens with your free hand.
The only optical shortcoming that I have found so far is a fairly heavy vignetting that I didn’t notice with the Otus 85. This may be due to the Otus 55 using a standard 77mm front element (not exceptionally large) compared to the larger (and somewhat unusual) 86mm front element on the Otus 85. I think that many would find this trade off acceptable in order to be able to use their standard collection of filters.
The vignette can be a desirable quality in certain applications, but I prefer to selectively add vignette in post where appropriate.
One critique that I would like to offer is that it is inexcusable to me that a lens that costs this much should come without a padded case for transport. Yes, the box for the Otus lenses is custom molded and does provide some protection, but few people are going to use it for transport, not to mention the fact that the box would soon get beaten up. Zeiss should take a look at the nice, functional padded cases that Sigma includes with all of their lenses. One shouldn’t have to spring for a padded lens case after spending $4000 on a lens.
Comparisons and Image Quality
I directly compared the Otus to the flagship 50mm lens from Canon, the EF 50mm f/1.2L. I praised that lens in many ways, and I do think it has more to offer than some have given it credit for. But at the same know that in every measurable head to head comparison (other than autofocus!) it was no contest. The Otus simply destroys it. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART series lens is somewhat better competition in terms of sharpness, and (to a lesser extent) contrast, but in overall image quality it falls short of Otus. The Sigma ART is a very nice lens, but, ironically, it isn’t nearly as “artful” as the Otus 55. The Otus has not only the biting sharpness and overall contrast but also adds a truly beautiful out of focus rendering that just seems to produce more “creaminess” than any of the lenses I stacked it up against.
The drawing from the Otus is a rarity, for many modern lenses that emphasize sharpness and highly controlled chromatic aberrations often cross a line where the image quality becomes a bit more clinical and less “artful. The Otus 55 allows you to have both, and that makes it extremely unique. The lens also has extreme contrast that blows other lenses out of the water. That micro-contrast, combined with the record setting resolution even at f/1.4 allows you to shoot very unique portrait shots that have an extreme three dimensional effect that makes images from the Otus instantly recognizable.
One other thing that I’ve noticed is that the Otus lenses don’t seem to have the limitation where the sharpness is inconsistent across the focus range. I have discovered that most prime lenses have a “sweet spot” where they are optimized to produce their best results at wide apertures, but are often far less impressive at other focus distances. Where this is really born out is when you focus towards infinity. Many wide aperture primes are simply not optimized for this type of shooting, and, as a result, texture resolution and contrast are lacking. The Otus lenses, by contrast, are sharp and “contrasty” at any focus distance.
Color rendition is always a strength for Zeiss lenses, and the Otus line just takes it to a new level. Images require very little post-processing because the colors are already great and the contrast is naturally exceptional. I should also note that I was almost unable to produce flare ghosting or artifacts even when the sun was placed directing in the frame.
Who is the Otus for?
Someone who wants the optical best. The new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART is quite good, but nothing compares to the Zeiss Otus series for wide open performance. If you need ultimate low light performance, the Otus offers perfect sharpness and contrast wide open. With a move towards high megapixel bodies (Canon 5DS, for example) the Otus is one of the few lenses that can take full advantage of the near medium format resolution that these new bodies produce. This is a lens that is built for a lifetime of shooting, and I’ve encouraged potential buyers in the past to consider an Otus purchase more of a long term investment than an impulse buy. As I noted with the Otus 85mm review, one should really price compare more with medium format lenses and systems, as the Otus line produces images that have a look more like MF systems.
Sample Image Gallery
The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55mm is unique lens. It is a study in extremes: size, resolution, and price are all uniquely large for a 50mm lens. Many photographers will immediately dismiss this lens due to those extremes, but some of you will feel drawn to the lens for those same reasons. No one is trying to pretend that the Otus lenses are for everyone, but don’t dismiss them as overpriced hype, either. The Otus lenses are the real deal. The Otus 55 represents the pinnacle of what is currently achievable in a wide aperture normal prime. It is a superlative instrument in every detail, and manages the rare feat of combining extraordinary resolution with beautifully artful drawing and rendering. I’ve reviewed ten modern 50mm lenses and an additional 6 or so legacy 50mm primes, and none of them compare to the standard set by the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55. It is unquestionably the best.
- Incredible resolution starting at f/1.4
- Incomparable contrast
- Beautiful, artful bokeh and drawing
- Robust, elegant, functional design using exceptional materials
- Very smooth and accurate focus ring
- Uses standard 77mm filters
- Complete lack of distortion and chromatic aberrations
- Sharpness is consistent across the frame and the focus range
- Weight and size
- No autofocus. No weathersealing. No case included
- In some rare situations some “onion bokeh” effect is seen
- Price (yes, it needs to be on the list twice!)