How I became a Zeiss fan
by Toni Ahvenainen
This article is closely related to my personal photography project called ‘Year of the Alpha – 52 Weeks of Sony Alpha Photography – http://www.yearofthealpha.com.
I have written about it here at Steve Huff’s website before, so I’m not going to repeat all the things I’ve written earlier. Instead I give you the short version: at 1st of January I started a year-long and Sony Alpha related photography project which focuses on creative photography taken with Sony Alpha cameras. Because the positive attention my project has gathered in social media circles I found out that the Zeiss was willing to support my project. They offered me two lenses from their Touit line up, Touit 2.8/12 & Touit 2.8/50M, if I would share my experiences about the lenses through my project. I have never shot with any Zeiss lens before, so I seized for it and the story I’m sharing today is based on my first Zeiss experience. To learn more about my project and its background, I recommend you to check these two articles which I have published here earlier:
Be sure also to check my website at: www.yearofthealpha.com
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/12, ISO1250, 1/60sec, f2.8, Raw
After making an agreement with Zeiss, the lenses finally arrived one Friday afternoon with UPS delivery and I was of course very excited about it. I had read about Zeiss’s legendary reputation from many photography sites likes this, but never believed I would get opportunity to actually shoot with them. To me, like for many others, the most exciting lenses have always been something I can only see through a store display window.
For my photography this was a very unique opportunity and something of which I consider myself to be very lucky. If you haven’t yet become acquainted with the Touit line up before, it is the new family of Zeiss lenses which are targeted to mirrorless system cameras (Sony E-mount & Fuji X-mount). All the lenses have full autofocus capabilities and they represent a modern Zeiss design with black matte finish and more contemporary look – but most importantly they convoy the famous Zeiss optical quality for mirrorless system cameras.
The Touit 2.8/12 is an ultra wide-angle lens with a focal length of 12mm (equivalent of 18mm on a full frame system) and has a relatively large maximum aperture of f/2.8. Then the Touit 2.8/50M, being a macro lens, is kind of opposite with a focal length of 50mm (equivalent of 75mm on a full frame system) and 1:1 reproduction scale.
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO100, 1/400sec, f5.6, Raw (focus stacked)
My first impression was really good regarding both construction and image quality. Right from the first photo walk with Touit lenses I could see a difference in images I took, but it was really hard to put in words. To be honest, I felt certain cognitive dissonance for the first four weeks, because I didn’t have right terms to conceptualize this difference in images to myself. Sometimes I even thought it was just a placebo and that I was just seeing what I was expecting to see, because of the almost mythical reputation that Zeiss has in many photography forums in the net.
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/12, ISO100, 3,2sec, f7.1, Raw
Now that I’ve used these lenses for longer period of time, I think I have finally gain better understanding of how good optics will affect the image quality and what one can expect of them in general. In terms of sharpness, both of these lenses do very well indeed. The Touit 2.8/12 is very sharp right from the start and the Touit 2.8/50M is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, also quite sharp wide open and gets very good after that. I could go on and describe how changing aperture size affects the overall sharpness, but truth to be told, I find most of the lens reviews putting too much emphasize on sharpness alone. Let’s just say that both are very much sharp enough. When it comes to high quality lenses, I would much more prefer to emphasize the contrast and colors, because it’s where the quality shows.
To understand where I’m coming from, you need to know that before these Zeiss lenses I was shooting with 18-55mm and 50mm Sony E-mount lenses (SEL1855 & SEL50F18). While the 50mm Sony is a pretty good lens, I was only rarely fully satisfied with my colors (very close but something was missing). While I couldn’t exactly put my finger on my definition of ‘good colors’, all the same I knew when I saw them and especially when I didn’t. Having shot over 30 000 shots with these Sony native E-mount lenses and worked with over 5000 raw-files, I can say for a fact that the Zeiss lenses deliver more contrast and better colors. Because I’m not an optical engineer I really can’t conceptualize my experiences with objective scientific language, but in my experience the better contrast shows with greater clarity while colors stand out better and have certain fidelity in them which makes, for example, the primaries look very pure and good. Together they form pictures that often have a deep colors, but retain their subtle nuances and natural look in overall image.
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO100, 1/2000sec, f5.6, Raw
Before my Zeiss experience I had a preconception that minor color & contrast differences between lenses is insignificant and something that can be ‘fixed’ and ‘made better’ with computer and post processing. I guess this is still a pretty common conception and while images can and surely are made better with post processing, it is still just the perception of things what we are editing and the actual light signal digitized by the camera isn’t going to get any better (meaning more accurate colors for example). It is in my experience that the Zeiss lenses deliver better contrast than my Sony E-mount lenses. Now, I can try to adjust ‘contrast’, ‘clarity’, ‘curves’ or do some fancy tonal contrast thing with software x for the pictures taken with my Sony lenses and hope to make them as good as Zeiss. In practice I’ve seen that, while this might work for some pictures, most of the time pictures just get congested and stuffy before they reach same overall clarity. And it’s the same with colors. While in theory the usual HSL tab (hue, saturation, lightness) should open the entire color space for editing, in practice it’s often too cumbersome to touch the subtle textures and grading of natural colors. As I said, I’m no optical engineer, and the only way I can explain this experience to myself is to think that with the Zeiss lenses the contrast and colors are captured more accurately and that this accuracy transfers into final pictures as well.
This altered perception of clarity, contrast and colors was really an eye-opening experience for me. With these lenses I suddenly felt, for the first time, that I was actually pretty satisfied with the colors I was achieving. Not with every shot of course, but more and more I was amazed how good colors I could achieve with these lenses and some post processing. When looking some of my pictures taken with the Zeiss lenses I sometimes felt my old Sony Nex-5N had transformed into some other camera. In fact, I’m willing to say that this experience is the single most important thing which justifies the Zeiss’s legendary reputation in my eyes. However, I don’t want to claim that there is magic ‘Zeiss color’ or something similar. As much as I liked the colors, claiming something along those lines would just be essentialism and I think there is already enough mythical stories build around Zeiss (and other gear as well). To put it in plain words, I think Zeiss builds high quality lenses and when it comes to colors and contrast they certainly get it right.
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO800, 1/15sec, f14, Raw
Through this experience I also came to appreciate that these two Zeiss lenses actually gave me a very good reference point regarding image quality. I’m not talking about ‘image quality’ in absolute terms, but as a valuable standing point where I don’t need to speculate if some other piece of gear would have provided me the result I was looking for. If I don’t get it with Zeiss it’s because of me, conditions or something else – and not because the lack of ‘right gear’. This sort of certainty which comes with more expensive high quality gear is something that is often less talked about aspect in gear reviews and forgotten when putting value for photography equipment. Personally to me, it has made my photography easier since I don’t need to worry if I have equipment good enough. Instead I can concentrate on particular situation, getting my images and feel good about it.
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/12, ISO400, 25sec, f2.8, Raw
Finally for the end of this article, I will try to expand the usual views how we taught to approach the photographic equipment we use. I’ve been talking a lot about sharpness, colors and other things that make up the image quality, and which is, in the end, something you would expect to get for your money when buying Zeiss lenses. However, there are other point of views as well which are often forgotten when approaching from a technical point of view. Zeiss has been manufacturing lenses for a long time, probably longer than any other of the current companies. This means tradition and maybe it’s because of this tradition Zeiss tends offers more information and history about their lenses than other companies. For example, the Zeiss staff scientist Dr Hubert Nasse has written excellent papers explaining the history of their designs like Distagon and Planar. Reading these I got the impression that Zeiss takes its tradition pretty seriously and tries to transfer it into their designs as well. Honoring the tradition and craftsmanship is similar to values which I believe many photographers share as well – at least ideally. Therefore I think using Zeiss is something that can also support one’s identity as a photographer.
I don’t know about others, but at least I enjoy using tools and equipment that are aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually pleasing to me. When I’m trying to capture ‘that moment’ which speaks to me about my life, time and being, I need to get away from all the technical discourses. Using something that I connect with, whether it is the rugged point&shoot, high-end camera or a shoebox with a hole, certainly helps me to see and feel these moments. In the end, I think the Zeiss succeeds very well in this and perhaps even better than most of other lens manufacturers. It is also the final reason why I became a Zeiss fan (might lead to expensive taste, though). Not only did I find that I could finally get the colors I was looking for, but I also found certain intellectual and aesthetic pleasure using Zeiss lenses. And I believe I’m not alone here, these kind of experiences shared by other photographers like me may eventually be the reason for the Zeiss’s high reputation.
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO800, 1/60sec, f13, Raw
The definition of good photography is, of course, not related to equipment one uses and there are many paths to photographic success. Therefore I don’t want to say with my article that you should run to the nearest camera store and put your last money on Zeiss lenses – there are other ways to succeed as well. But if you already are on a verge and maybe considering the Zeiss, you should know that it’s really more than just ‘image quality’ if you open up to it. And while I can’t tell anyone that Zeiss lenses would be worth of their price for them, I can certainly say that their high quality shows in terms of image quality, construction and total shooting experience, and that they are not overpriced for what they offer.
As for right now, I have just entered into last phase of my photography project. With the ‘Season of Photographic Eye’ I will be discussing about the photographic eye, which is a particular way of seeing things and subjects, which is partly subjective and partly cultural. While I’m trying to explain why I approach the photography the way I do, I will also try offer some inspiration for others to contemplate their own photographic eye. If interested, be sure to check my project at: www.yearofthealpha.com
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/12, ISO800, 1/20sec, f2.8, Raw
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO800, 1/80sec, f13, Raw
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/12, ISO200, 1/60sec, f7.1, Raw
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO100, 1/500sec, f5.6, Raw
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/12, ISO100, 1/2000sec, f5.0, Raw
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO160, 1/80sec, f13, Raw
Sony Nex-5N, Zeiss Touit 2.8/50M, ISO100, 1/80sec, f2.8, Raw