The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 on the Sony A7r:
my considerations and experiences (so far)
by Dirk De Paepe
Putting the largest and heaviest lens on the smallest and lightest body… doesn’t seem to be the smartest move, does it?!
Indeed, no other FF lens of standard focus length weighs more and is bigger than the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55, and no other FF body is smaller and lighter than the Sony A7r (at the time of this writing, April 2014). Combining those two indeed appears to be a major contradiction. Obviously.
But let me make another statement now.
Putting the best lens on the best sensor… makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?!
Indeed, the Otus was developed by Zeiss with only one simple goal: creating a full frame lens with the best possible image quality, to meet the demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) full frame hi-res sensors, that are able to provide an IQ close to medium format cameras. Zeiss clearly felt the need for lenses that meet (and surpass) those sensor specifications. Therefore the Zeiss engineers received no restrictions whatsoever concerning size, weight and budget. So this lens is indeed big, heavy and expensive. What did you expect.
With the A7r, it’s clear that Sony wanted to come up with nothing less than a masterstroke: combining the most advanced FF sensor with the smallest body, to offer the highest IQ in a FF body of today’s market.
Yet it doesn’t make too much sense to compare Sony’s situation with Zeiss’. Already the life span of both products will differ significantly. The evolution in sensors and bodies rushes further at an incredible pace, with a continuous stream of major new announcements. Still, although every camera body that one can buy today can offer satisfactory results for quite some years, the life span of a good lens remains a lot longer and can be estimated as virtually a lifetime.
Nobody doubts the Otus IQ. And, as far as I followed publications about the A7r, all test reports stated that its IQ is at least at par with, if not surpasses this of the Nikon D800E (until recently the sole standard for hi-res FF sensors). So purely regarding IQ, paring the Otus with the A7r makes a lot of sence. Obviously.
So on Wednesday, October 16, minutes after the first official presentation of the A7/A7r – by Sony Australia on YouTube – I placed my order. This was the camera body that I had been waiting for since about 5 years, when I bought my first NEX-5. Ever since that moment, I had been thinking: “If only they’d make a full frame camera like this, with a good viewfinder and enough knobs for direct manual control of the basic parameters…”
The NEX-7 was already a big step forward, with the EVF as an unexpected bonus. And when the full frame RX-1 was launched, unfortunately not an IC body, I was sure that Sony was in the final straight line towards my dream camera. So that Wednesday morning, I didn’t have to think it over for a second, because I already considered it for five years. During the whole presentation, I thought: “Yes!”
Also when the Zeiss Otus was announced to become available, I placed an order to get one of the first possible lenses that would ship to Belgium. The Otus 1.4/55 immediately tremendously appealed to me. Those who’ve read my first article, being published on this site, won’t be surprised, since my love for Zeiss goes back some 50 years. What I love about Zeiss can be summarized as: achieving the highest possible quality but still selling for reasonable, not Leica-crazy prices (sorry, Leica). All test reports about the Otus spoke of the most extra-ordinary full frame lens of all time, better than the Leica Apo-Summicron, that more than doubles its price. The Otus is said to be virtually perfect in all domains that really matter. OK, it’s not perfect in ALL domains, but that wouldn’t be of this world, would it. It’s big and heavy, actually the biggest and heaviest standard focal length glass on the market. It’s probably not really completely weather sealed, it’s not suitable for autofocus, it has no image stabilization and it scratches pretty easily (that’s what I read, so I try to handle it with great care). Oh yeah, it’s also pretty expensive.
Two versions of Otus
The Zeiss Otus 1.4/50 comes in two versions: the ZE for Canon mount and the ZF.2 for Nikon. Both versions can be used with the A7r – of course with different adapters. (BTW, also the Sony comes in two versions, A7 and A7r, but there has been written enough about this on this website.)
The construction of the optics are identical with both lenses, which implies that the distance from the back lens to the sensor is the same (as it is with all “pairs” of Zeiss ZE and ZF.2 SLR lenses). So the “mounting foot” of each version is adapted to the specific camera body it is designed for, which is a bit shorter (some 3mm) on the ZF.2, due to Nikons longer FFD (flange focal distance = distance from flange to sensor). Thus, when mounting an Otus on the A7r, the appropriate adapter for the ZF.2 version will be 3mm thicker than the one for the ZE. But the total length of the camera/adapter/lens combination will be exactly the same for both – necessarily so, to make the optics work. (The camera is measure from the point where the sensor is mounted in the body.)
Besides the mounting, there are some other obvious differences. The ZF.2 has an aperture ring, which lacks on the ZE. Here the aperture must be set from the camera body. So there is an automation mechanism in the lens that makes the ZE 60g heavier and a bit fatter at the rear end. Yet, on the ZF.2, the aperture ring locks when set to f/16, allowing shutter speed priority (according to the manual), and thus automated aperture setting. With some bodies, it would even be possible to chose whether the aperture is set from the lens or the body. Because the lens manual indicates this, I don’t doubt it for a second. But I didn’t try it.
Which one to choose?
It took me quite some time to make up my mind about which version to choose for my A7r. Initially, I made the following considerations. The A7r has two customizable turning knobs on top of the body, one for thumb control, the other for the index finger. Aperture and shutter time control can be programmed to those, which makes sense, when using the ZE version. Also, I noticed that on the press presentation, the ZE was used in combination with the A7r. So this must mean something, no? They used the Metabones Smart Adapter Mark III (make sure to order the Mark III), which is that one adapter on the market that I’d trust to do the job for the Otus ZE. With some cheap EF to E (former NEX) adapters, you just loose the aperture control. (At the time of this writing) I’m really astonished that those are even on the market. Who for heavens sake would settle for only being able to shoot wide open? Then there are adapters that provide build in aperture blades. Neglecting the aperture system of the lens, those adapters offers an “ersatz” set aperture blades… ? I never tried one of those, and I never will, because, for sure, the character of your lens’ bokeh will be lost. So everything else but the Metabones is definitely a no-go for the ZE, IMO. Luckily the Metabones works really well (with one restriction – I’ll come to that later). It transmits all necessary electronic data perfectly back and forward. BTW, (at the moment of this writing and to my knowledge) there is no adapter on the market that does the same job for the ZF.2, so there’s no data exchange, no lens Exif data available, no lens control from the body, although, in case of the ZF.2, that’s not really dramatic, since the aperture can be set on the lens. To finish this off, all ZF.2 controls (Nikon-style) work in reverse to what I’m used to, which I thought can be confusing sometimes. Concerning the weight, I considered the extra 60g of the ZE to be not really important, in regard to the total lens weight of around 1kg. So it’s clear that I ordered a ZE Otus and a Metabones adapter. (Recently I noticed the appearance of some other data exchanging adapters that are a lot cheaper than the Metabones. But I would be very reluctant to buy a cheap adapter for the Otus, in regard to the problems this can cause – I come to that later.)
The adapter arrived first, even before my A7r. When picking up my camera at the shop, first thing I did was mounting the adapter and putting on a Canon EF lens from the shop, to see if everything worked out alright. And it did! Flawlesly. Even the autofocus beeped and nailed. So my A7r’s DSC00001 picture is shot in full automatic mode with a Canon Zoom lens! I just went outside the shop, pointed and shot – no thinking, just pushing the button. Being a 100% manual shooter, using prime lenses solely, this must be a unicum for both my camera and myself! 🙂
Later, a friend of mine lent me his Zeiss Planar 1,4/50 ZE, to compare it to my own Planar 2/50 ZM. It also offered me the opportunity to further try out my Metabones adapter, imagining how it would operate with the Otus, once it would arrive. And then I made some remarkable observations. First of all: regardless of the set aperture, the lens always stayed wide open, until the moment the release button is pushed (Canon shooters will be familiar with that). I found that very inconvenient, making it impossible to estimate the DOF in the viewfinder and not consistent at all to what I’m used to with the other lenses I have, like the Zeiss ZMs. But I knew this problem could be solved. Canon has a designated button to check the DOF, and indeed, one can program the implementation of the set aperture under one of the customizable push buttons of the A7r, to obtain this function as well. Problem solved. At least, that’s what I thought initially… The DOF is indeed veraciously visible. But when using my other prime lenses, the A7r makes it possible to check the DOF very precisely in the viewfinder, by magnifying critical zones (as a matter of fact, the EVF can magnify any zone I want). Especially when hyperfocusing, I consider this a unique and major quality – “modern manual shooting”, so to speak. And here the ZE (and all Canon EF mount lenses) cause a problem, since it’s impossible to combine closing the aperture blades to the set value (holding down the designated button) with the viewfinder magnification function (for which we need to push another button – it’s exactly the simultaneous activation of two functions that’s impossible). But again, one has tried to provide a solution. This time, Metabones did an effort by features two operation modes on their adapter: Green and Advanced. First of all, it’s not evident to know of those modes, since there comes no manual with the package, nor is there any mentioning that the manual can be found on the Metabones website. If you’re interested in it, you can find it here: http://www.metabones.com/article/of/green-power-save-mode. The adapter is set to Green mode by default, featuring an operation as described above.
The activation of the Advanced mode is very simple: mount the adapter, switch the camera power on and mount the lens on the adapter, while holding down the “wide open” button of the adapter. In Advanced mode, the lens blades will always directly adjust to the set aperture. So there’s no longer need to activate two functions at the same time, which indeed ensures the detailed checking of the DOF in VF magnification mode. Still there remains a serious handicap with respect to the ZF.2 version, since the ZE doesn’t allow finetuning of the DOF while monitoring in magnification mode. That is, in VF magnification mode, the wheel with which you set the diafragm gets another function, namely moving the magnified zone to the left and right. Maybe Sony will eventually come up with a software upgrade to fix this, but that’s not a certainty of course. So what is the exact difference ? Both versions offer the detailed checking of the DOF in VF magnification mode. But with the ZE, this is done in a static way: set the aperture and magnify to check. If you wanna change, leave the magnification mode, set a different aperture and check again. With the ZF.2 on the other hand, you can do this in a direct interactive way: go to VF magnification mode and determine the DOF by fine tuning the aperture ring on the lens, while monitoring the changes in the VF. Fast, simple and accurate. IMO the ZE version makes a lot of detours to end up with a crippled functionality. And on top of it, it’s pretty battery consuming, since every change of aperture requires battery power.
Anyway, at this moment, it’s a no-go for me, and I guess the ZE will never enthuse me. I really can’t think of any real advantage that a body set aperture has – not one. I consider Exif-data interesting, but not really vital (although I’d welcome a Novoflex ZF.2 adapter with electronic signal transmission to remind me of the set aperture) and I look upon aperture setting on the body as an unnecessary detour. But interactively fine tuning the DOF to precision on the other hand, I consider that to be a vital operation for “modern manual shooting”, especially when using a hi-res lens on a hi-res sensor. (No OVF offers this possibility. That’s one of the reasons why I believe that the EVF has the future.)
So I changed my Otus order to a ZF.2 version, bought a Novoflex NEX/NIK adapter with tripod collar (necessary IMO) and put my Metabones for sale. Yes, I’ll have to live with the inverse settings and mounting of the “Nikon-style” lens, but hey, there’s no ideal world, is there…
Furthermore, choosing the ZF.2 has even more advantages. The possibility to mount a tripod collar on the adapter improves the camera’s balance on the tripod, since the tripod base plate of the collar protrudes a few cm. The Metabones has a tripod base too, but this one is positioned closer to the body, changing the balance. And when shooting OOH, you can’t remove this plate, which “scratched” my left hands fingers from time to time (nothing serious really, but still…). Another point: when using the Otus, I like to mount the vertical grip on the body (which is a no-go in combination with the Metabones, because it inhibits any upwards tilting). This grip substantially contributes to improve the balance of the lens/body combination. I’ve read in several reviews that the Otus would not really be suitable for the A7r, for reasons of unbalance when OOH shooting. I strongly disagree! (See hereunder in the “Balance” chapter.) Just buy the vertical grip and you’ll experience a completely different story. I know some criticized the A7r’s ergonomics, the knobs not being positioned in the places where they expected them. But isn’t that just a matter of getting used to it? I know that’s how it worked for me. And of course, some thorough consideration, about where to program the functions you always wanna keep at hand, helps a lot. What I like about the A7r is that it offers all the possibilities to work without having to pass through the menu and that I can blindly find all the functions I need.
Oh yeah, last advantage of my choice for the ZF.2 version: it gives me the instant overview of focal distance, aperture and DOF scale with a single glance on the lens – as traditional primes do and as it should IMO (I’m old fashioned in that department). This is shown in my picture “Aperture on lens” below:
Why the Otus?
Why should any A7r owner buy the Otus anyway? Well, I can only tell you why I bought it.
Since the time Leica launched its M8, I started dreaming of it and later of the M9. I also could see very interesting lenses being reviewed for those cameras. Now I don’t easily sell my lenses, since good ones can virtually last a lifetime, and it’s the glass above all that determines the character of the image (next to the photographer of course). Some of those reviewed lenses were very appealing to me indeed, but most of them crazy expensive. First of all I think of the Noctilux and Summilux. The latter, being a lot less expensive, was still a no-go for me, regarding it’s price/performance relation. I found a much healthier relation offered by Zeiss, still being of top level (sometimes even outperforming Leica IMO) but being sold for 2 to 3 times less money. It’s clear I went for Zeiss.
The first reports on the Otus immediately pulled me over. Here was a lens that outperforms all my former dream-lenses and is still payable – with some effort admittedly (but that’s a personal matter). That’s my motivation, plain and simple.
The Otus Image Quality
From the very first reports, literally everybody that tried this lens was somewhere between impressed and flabbergasted by its IQ. What I read was that it performs close to perfection for all criteria, at all apertures and in the whole picture up to the extreme corners. The superlatives were flying around. It has the finest detail in all apertures and throughout the whole image, (close to) no flare, no distortion, no CA, incredible micro contrast, the smoothest bokeq (front and hind equally). Read the reviews for all the details… The comments of the reviewers are that homogeneous that I couldn’t but believe them. And having a more than 50 years experience with Zeiss myself, it only allowed me to be even more confident. So I really immediately ordered without any doubt.
But the question is: now that I’ve got it, does it live up to my expectations? Short answer: indeed it does, in every way! I had been searching for all possible Otus pictures online, but still, looking at the first images that I shot myself, really made my jaw drop. I spend minutes, looking at all details on all places, trying to absorb what I saw. Yes, this was really happening! No anomalies in whatever parameter. Detail and (micro) contrast like I’ve never seen before in my pictures. No need for sharpening. An incredibly soft bokeh, with super smooth transitions, especially when setting the sharpening to zero. And the bokeh is of an equal beauty in front and behind the focus point. Do I need to say more? Well, I’ll try: think of anything you want and the Otus will probably outperform any FF lens you know.
Combined with the A7r, the files offer not only tremendous detail, they are very workable as well. Not that you need to process them a lot, but you can, if you wanna go for a certain image that you have in mind. Of course the sensor has a huge participation herein. In “Glass Doll”, I wanted to emphasize the green color in the glass.
I literally pushed every relevant parameter in RAW conversion to the limit (really to the max), just to see how far I could go. And the result still remains very credible IMO. Notwithstanding the very fierce processing, the bokeh and the color transitions remain a treat for the eyes. This one was shot at f/1.4 and the focusing took half a minute or so, to have it exactly on and equally divided amongst the eye, noose and mouth of the doll. The full size version is available on my flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/12444908724/sizes/o/in/photostream/) – I advise you to look at it to really see what’s going on with the color transitions and the details in the glass. All of a sudden, all the tiny faults in the glass become visible in a way that refers to macro shooting. The small focal distance, close to the minimum of 45cm, combined with the hi-res sensor makes this happen.
The Otus is specially conceived for hi-res sensors. So the detail is really important. That’s why I wanted to apply this detail in some of my pictures. In “Bicyclist under trees” I hyperfocused, wanting to get everything sharp, from closest to farthest object.
Hyperfocusing with a 55mm lens is far from obvious, the DOF getting considerably smaller with this focal lenght. A Zeiss sales manager told me: “I wouldn’t buy this lens that much for hyperfocusing purposes.” But personally, I believe it’s really possible, although this requires a very precise focus setting. The detail remains at such a high level throughout the whole field, that IMO it is absolutely possible to hyperfocus with the Otus. The EVF of the A7r, that combines checking the DOF (the amount of detail) in focus magnification really helps in this case. (I don’t wanna work without EVF anymore!) I absolutely wanted to try hyperfocusing, since this is an excellent way to get detail all over the picture, and as such to prove the exceptional quality of the Otus. Looking at this picture, you can see that even in the corners (especially obvious in the upper left and lower right corners) the IQ remains excellent and consistent.
When looking at the objects far beyond the focal point, there is still detail, but the image is unmistakably becoming a bit softer, because those objects are situated at the very end of the field, if not slightly beyond (indicated by the DOF scale). It’s still at par with most lenses at “normal” aperture, while this one was being taken at f/16. In this picture, I really pushed the hyperfocal possibilities to the limit, by focusing at around 7m. On flickr you can get a 100% image, for you to really see what I’m talking about. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/12294747935/sizes/o/in/photostream/) I thought the detail, especially in the branches on the left, is flat out amazing.
I guess IQ is best experienced when shooting yourself, because everybody is used to get a certain IQ level, when opening his own pictures out of camera. You never now what kind of processing was done on somebody else’s picture, but when looking with a fresh eye at your own shots, you can more easily compare. I can honestly say, that I was really deeply impressed when looking at the first shots of my A7r, but I was flat out flabbergasted when looking at the first shots of my Otus. And what I absolutely wanna emphasize on, is how workable those Otus/A7r files are. You can really underexpose and retrieve beautiful natural colors out of close to black zones. Also the opposite is possible: retrieving colors from over exposure. This PP can be done to a really amazing level as I never new before – not by far. Again, the sensor has a huge participation herein.
Why should any A7r owner buy the Otus? There is only one answer: for its flabbergasting image quality, especially combined with the A7r. IMO those two pair amazingly well. This combination will not only deliver a top level IQ, you will also have great cropping power. “Overview” is an example hereof. Cutting off the woman from her surroundings, was an obvious choice. But since I couldn’t get any closer, I needed to crop this picture to 27,5%. Still the image remains pretty detailed. Who needs a zoom?!
I’d like to add something now, about the character of the Otus 1.4/55, when shooting with very large DOF. This is done by using the hyperfocal DOF technique: small aperture and (with this lens) focusing around 7m renders a picture where pretty much everything is in “acceptable focus”. To my experience, typical for Otus is that the image remains very sharp with a defined but still gentle transition to blur in front of the focus point, and that it renders a bit of softness in the farthest zone of the field, while still retaining a lot of detail. As a result of this character (razor sharp detail versus a bit softer detail), the Otus can render an amazing 3D separation, even when applying the widest possible DOF and thus retaining detail all over the picture. This was definitely a very pleasant surprise to me, literally granting an extra dimension to the picture. I had always thought that, to obtain a good separation, one needed to shoot with larger apertures, but Otus expanded the boundaries here. In “Forest, canal and factory”, you can see what I mean, the trees and bushes really popping out of the background.
I’d like to add something now, about the character of the Otus 1.4/55, when shooting with very large DOF. This is done by using the hyperfocal DOF technique: small aperture and (with this lens) focusing around 7m renders a picture where pretty much everything is in “acceptable focus”. To my experience, typical for Otus is that the image remains very sharp with a defined but still gentle transition to blur in front of the focus point, and that it renders a bit of softness in the farthest zone of the field, while still retaining a lot of detail. As a result of this character (razor sharp detail versus a bit softer detail), the Otus can render an amazing 3D separation, even when applying the widest possible DOF and thus retaining detail all over the picture. This was definitely a very pleasant surprise to me, literally granting an extra dimension to the picture. I had always thought that, to obtain a good separation, one needed to shoot with larger apertures, but Otus expanded the boundaries here. In “Forest, canal and factory” above, you can see what I mean, the trees and bushes really popping out of the background.
Why not a faster lens than a f/1.4?
I have been fantasizing about a Leica Noctilux for years, I have even been very close to buying an SLR Magic Hyperprime T0.95 and I reckon I’m not the only one. I guess many would have liked Zeiss as well to come up with such a hyper fast lens, for them to “play in the same league”. But I have only seen pictures shot with those hyper fast lenses of at most 24MP. By stepping up from the NEX-7 (24MP) to the A7r, I experienced that with a 36MP sensor (let alone even more MPs in the future), focusing at f/1,4 becomes extremely critical – the more with the hyper detailed Otus. I guess Zeiss regarded it as useless to go any faster, in any case, that’s exactly how I feel it, now that I own and shoot with the Otus.
In pictures like “Bicycle parking” (above), a typical OOH street shot, where the moving subject obliges you to focus fast and constantly readjust, it’s extremely difficult to nail the focus perfectly. I took four shots of this girl, trying to catch the most significant moment, but only in half of them I nailed the focus to what I consider an acceptable level, when looking at full size, that is. I was pretty pleased with this one, beautifully illustrating the scene, but as a matter of fact, the focus is perfect on the handle bars of the bike and “acceptable” on the girls face. I would rather have it the other way round, but if I would be that demanding, my percentage of keepers would drop dramatically. I have to say, it’s only when looking at 100% that one can see the difference in focus quality, but if you don’t look in that much a detail, what’s the use of using the Otus anyway? (Yes, I know, there’s a lot more to the Otus than just the detail, but still we can’t disregard it.) All in all, with a f/0.95 lens of this optical quality, combined with a 36MP sensor, I guess nailing the focus in this kind of circumstances would be a matter of sheer luck…
Even to exactly nail the focus on a still subject at f/1.4, the Otus requires an extremely careful and precise setting, regarding how quick the blur occurs (again, when looking at 100%), to the extend that I absolutely wonder if I would even want to use any faster glass, and, in regard of the wonderful 3D separation and the absolutely gorgeous bokeh of the Otus, if there’s really anything further to gain. When I think of how much bigger and (even more important) how much heavier such a f/0.95 lens would be, provided that Zeiss would want to obtain the same optical quality, there’s no way that I would have even considered for a second to buy such a lens. I really don’t want to carry and handle a standard focal length lens of >2kg! You think I exaggerate? Just think of the Noctilux being more than twice as heavy as the Summilux… BTW, such a lens would probably sell for about double the price. So it’s a no-go on all fronts. But most importantly, I truly believe that the gain would be of very little use, if not virtually nonexistent because of it being next to impossible to exploit. And if Zeiss was to produce a f/0.95 lens of about the same size, weight and price of the Otus, in addition to the present 1.4/55, the choice would go between a significantly better optical quality in the 1.4/55 version, versus a very questionable gain of speed in the f/0.95 version. As far as I’m concerned, I’m absolutely happy with the choices Zeiss made and I’m 100% “cured” from my “hyper fast lens fever”. 🙂
Another few words on the Bicycle Parking picture. I slid the sharpening in the RAW converter back to 0% and didn’t use any unsharp mask, preferring to preserve the hyper smooth bokeh and grain, which would always become harsher when adding even the smallest amount of sharpening or unsharp mask. I really would like you to go watch this picture on my flickr page in full size version, to appreciate the quality of grain and bokeh that this lens renders. To my taste, although the background buildings make for pretty nervous and busy surroundings, the grain and transitions are still from an utterly butter-smooth quality as I’ve never seen before and, what’s even more exceptional, this counts for both front and hind bokeh to the same extend. In the places where the focus is perfect, the detail is absolutely impressive, until recently pretty unthinkable at f/1.4. Still, there is indeed a tiny slight degree of softness here, where at smaller apertures the Otus becomes bitingly sharp. But IMO this slight softness is absolutely desirable when going for bokeh. To conclude about this picture, this wasn’t an attempt to realize the most spectacular shallow DOF – the focus distance was way to long for that – rather than it was to 3D-separate the subject and realize a beautiful bokeh, while still transmitting information of the surroundings. This is how I prefer to use shallow DOF. Oh yeah, this picture was first cropped to 88% and than (obviously) cropped to square, which diminishes the shallow DOF effect to some extend. But I’m not one who’s really into pursuing the most spectacular shallow DOF, merely for the sake of the “effect”.
It’s also important to look at the 100% size picture (flickr), to see how shallow the DOF really becomes, when shooting with the Otus on a 36MP sensor – or in other words, how early the blur occurs, when looking in full detail. Looking at 100%, you’ll see how precarious the focusing becomes (compare the handle bars and the face) and you’ll probably agree that f/1.4 really is the widest meaningful aperture.
No concept is without issues. No camera serves every purpose. No lens pleases every photographer. So how do I deal with the most common published issues of the Otus, particularly in combination with my A7r? And do I experience some issues myself?
Here are the possible issues that I can think of and/or that I read about:
– Loosing the compact concept of the A7r.
– Adapter issues.
– Ending up with a poorly balanced camera/lens combination with poor handling.
– Early induced motion blur when shooting OOH.
– Hyper delicate focusing.
– Manual focusing only.
– No image stabilization.
– A very big, heavy and expensive lens.
Let’s look at those issues one by one.
Loosing the compact concept of the A7r
As a matter of fact, I don’t feel like loosing this. Like probably any buyer, I chose the A7r for it’s compact size and light weight, combined with its FF sensor. Steve mentioned it frequently: “With a heavy DSLR, I’d miss a lot of pictures, because 85% of the time, I’d leave it at home.” Same for me. So most of the time I have my A7r in my bag, body without vertical grip, the Zeiss Planar ZM on it and two extra lenses of different focal length as backup. Total weight around 1,6kg, bag included. That’s the weight of my wife’s purse. Camera/lens in a smaller bag (without backup lenses) will weigh around 900gr. When I go out shooting with the Otus, this will mostly be the only lens I carry, because I will more have a plan on forehand of what to shoot. Camera with grip plus lens weigh a good 1900gr. My tripod another 1300gr. Adding the bags gives me a total weight of 4,25kg. Too much to carry all the time, IMO (that’s why I have my “compact formula”), but not that much when going out on a dedicated “shooting trip”. Last situation, when going out for OOH shooting with the Otus, I carry 2,4kg with me. Still very manageable.
I often think of my A7r as a kind of chameleon. It can really adapt to any situation. So do I loose the compact concept of my camera? Not at all. I believe the A7r only offers opportunities. Whenever I wanna travel light, the A7r offers me this possibility. On other times, when I wanna go for uncompromising quality, again the A7r helps me out. I don’t wanna go compact on every shoot, but whenever I want, I can. So what did I loose? Nothing. I only gained.
The most important problem (that I experienced) with inferior adapters are planarity issues. No surface is perfectly plane. But if the deviation is too big, one side will focus closer then the other. So it will be impossible to focus consistently throughout the whole image. For many pictures, this will hardly be seen, but on some occasions (for instance technical or architectural pictures), you really can get into trouble. Surely, you don’t wanna ruin your Otus with a lousy cheap adapter. So my advice is not to economize on the adapter and always perform test shots immediately after buying. Personally, I’ve put my trust in Novoflex adapters. I even tried putting two on top of each other (NEX-M and M-FD) and then shooting a flat surface positioned perpendicular in regard to the lens. I shot with the Canon FD 1,4/50mm wide open, to induce the blur as early as possible, focused on one corner and I could not observe any irregularity in how blur occurred in the four corners. This was not a scientific test, but it was good enough for me. I’m sure that Novoflex stays way below acceptable tolerances. Still, testing every new purchase remains mandatory IMO.
Another adapter issue is that often the adapter makes the lens to focus beyond infinite. But the Zeiss engineers themselves conceived the Otus to focus beyond infinite, to oblige the photographer to carefully focus in all circumstances. So can we really talk about an issue here? Not regarding it having percussions on the focusing process anyway. But if the shift is too big (which was the case with some cheap adapters I’ve tried), you’ll lose a considerable part of your closest focal distance. And again, that’s a no-go.
Conclusion: don’t economize on the adapter(s).
First thing I thought when I started shooting the Otus was: this is a lens for tripod use! So let’s talk about that first.
Until I got the Otus 1.4/55, my “personal” photography (that is: for personal use, just for fun, the shots that were not mentioned for our publications) was almost all shot OOH. But I knew from what I read that with the Otus, I’d want a tripod. So I bought a new one, since the one we use for product shooting is much to heavy to carry. Now I have to admit that my experience with tripods “on the road” was non-existent. After reading some articles and talking with a few guys, I bought a Sirui lightweight one (1310gr, ballhead included). But a few days later, when commenting on an editorial online, I started to doubt wether or not I made the right choice, after someone said he was sorry that I didn’t buy a really good and more stable tripod, like a Gitzo. That was even before the Otus arrived. So to check it out, I mounted a Canon FD 200mm tele with 2x-A Extender on my A7r, to get a weight that matched the Otus and I shot the same images with the Sirui tripod and a heavy Benbo. Looking at 100%, indeed I saw some slight but still noticeable motion blur with the Sirui – about half of what I got when shooting OOH. But then I thought of the hook, at the bottom of the central pole, and attached my bag to it to increase the weight, in an attempt to enhance stabilization. And it did the job: the motion blur was gone. Since I didn’t want to spend another €1500 or so at this time, after the €3500 for the Otus, I planned to stick to the Sirui and just use my bag as extra weight.
But then I got the Otus. And since I bought the ZF.2 version, I use the dedicated Novoflex collar, attached on the adapter of the same brand, to mount the camera/lens on the tripod. This collar provides a mounting point a few cm further away from the camera body. And to my pleasant surprise, when also mounting the vertical grip to the body (which I always do when using the Otus), I got nothing less than a perfect balance from this camera/lens combination. Even with the clamping knobs completely loosened (hold your breath!), the camera stays perfectly horizontal, thus in absolute balance. My picture “Tripod balance” shows the camera on the tripod with completely loosened clamping knobs, the camera still not falling aside. This perfect balance has two consequences: 1) the framing can easily and quickly be performed to perfection, since there is no more movement whatsoever after tightening the clamping knob, and 2) the weight is equally distributed amongst the three legs, increasing the stability and as such eliminating motion blur even without hanging extra weight to the central pole hook. Conclusion: chances are real that I will never have to buy a €1000+ tripod. I simply don’t see where it could improve my performance. Oh, and when comparing tripod work between the A7r and a traditional DSLR (like the D800): since you’ll mount the DSLR with the body on the tripod, instead of via a collar, the weight of the Otus (1kg!) will cause some serious unbalance, compared to the A7r. So I guess the advantage clearly goes to the A7r in this department.
After a week or two of tripod work, I felt the urge growing, to use the Otus for OOH shooting as well. In the articles that I read, there were quite some questions put, regarding OOH shooting with the Otus on the A7r. Those made me reluctant to shoot OOH for some time. But like I said, the urge was growing.
Anyway, in the meanwhile, I removed the tripod collar, because its long tightening screw really sits in the way of the right hand fingers, when shooting OOH. If you’d wanna go back and forward between tripod and OOH shooting, you can also twist the collar to the left, to move it out of the way of your fingers. BTW, twisting the color gave me the idea to use this position for vertical framing on tripod as well, since as such the perfect balance on the ballhead is remained. Indeed, it can remain upright, because the 90° twist is performed by the camera within the collar.
But let’s get back to OOH shooting. When holding the camera with the right hand and using a “free” left hand for focusing (as I’m used to do with a lightweight camera/lens), the 1kg Otus makes the front really too heavy. Your right hand will get tired very quickly. I think this is a no-go. The balance is absolutely lost. Already after a very short while, it will be very hard to hold the camera still and you will induce motion blur very quickly, needing even faster shutter times. In short: your performance will suffer from it. A 36MP sensor already asks for a faster shutter speed, since the motion blur is earlier induced – that’s a fact. Coming from the 24MP NEX-7, I didn’t expect this to be that prominent, but It’s as if a threshold has been taken: I really need to set the shutter speed faster. Of course, when reducing the resolution of the picture in PP, I can shoot with the same speeds as before, but with an A7r, you wanna use its full abilities at least sometimes, don’t you. So the faster shutter speed becomes a reality at that point. When using an A7r with a lightweight lens like a Zeiss Planar ZM, resulting in a mere 720gr for the camera/lens combination, it’s not easy to hold everything stable. One simply needs to shoot with extra care. But when mounting a hyper precise, super detailed lens like the Otus, that ads 1kg front weight, you might expect it to get worse. But as a matter of fact the weight will help a lot, if you carry it with your left hand. I did some experimenting with holding technique and got some extra-ordinary results.
Having never been afraid of exploring new paths, I experimented with alternative ways of holding the camera, to tackle the weight and balance issues. And it didn’t take me long to find out the most stable way to hold the camera – it almost came to me spontaneously. The Otus has large fixed zones, that can easily be used to hold and support the camera+lens. I have the A7r handgrip rested on the cushion of my hand palm, near my wrist. My thumb supports the fixed ring between focus and aperture. My index finger points forward and supports the lens, centrally below the front end. My middle finger is located at the right side on the focus ring. My ring finger holds on to the same fixed ring as my thumb. And my little finger is on the aperture ring. Middle and little finger can operate their respective rings. Zeiss has coated those rings with the exact covering material (and provided a butterly smooth yet perfect feedback giving operation) to be set easily with one finger. Of course the focus can only be fine tuned in this way, since it features a 270° turn from min to max. But it’s exactly the fine focusing that’s really delicate and takes extra care, right before pushing the release button, so that works out perfectly. A 270° turn is large indeed, but IMO that’s what’s absolutely needed, to offer enough “play” when fine focusing this lens at f/1.4! Also the aperture doesn’t need more than to be fine-tuned, when looking through the viewfinder, that is: I only might want to adjust the DOF very slighty at that point. Anyway, holding the camera in this way provides an absolutely exceptional stability, the index finger playing a crucial role, by supporting the very front of the lens and the whole camera resting on one stable surface. You absolutely don’t need to “grab” the camera – it’s just lying relaxed and comfortably in your left hand. And with your elbow resting on your chest, you barely need to use any muscle power to hold it, and your hand has a direct connection with your body.
My picture “Left hand balance” (above) shows you how the camera is lying in my left hand. You’ll use your right hand for operation of all functions (except for focus and aperture) – all knobs of the A7r are very conveniently located at the right side of the body for that matter, except the menu button, that you never have to use during shooting, since every function that you need can be programmed under the customizable buttons. And of course the right hand also provides extra safety, should anybody give you an unexpected push. Thanks to this really exceptional stability and balance, you only need to use very little muscle power and wont get tired that soon. Muscle power induces instability, hence motion blur. No muscle power means relaxation. Relaxation means stability, hence absence of motion blur. As a matter of fact, the size (enabling a large support surface) and weight (largely contributing to the stability without becoming too heavy) of the Otus/A7r (with grip) have become big advantages as far as OOH shooting is concerned. Of coarse it’s still a considerable weight that you’re holding. And after several minutes staying in the same position without moving, some tension will arise. But it’s very rare to stay unmoved that long.
An unexpected stroke of luck: while my hand has a reverse position (thumb to the left) with this lens in comparison to its position with other lenses (thumb to the right), there’s actually no other technique needed, to set focus and aperture, neutralizing the “inverse Nikon-style”. Streching my middle finger results in focusing closer in both cases, pulling it back moves the focus point further towards infinite.
Shooting out of hand at 1/10 sec!
I can understand you being skeptical when reading this. Therefore I wanted to give you some kind of proof and I wanted to push it to the limit. My “Selfie” was shot in manual mode in front of a mirror, giving you proof that it’s absolutely an OOH shot.
I’ve also put this picture on my flickr pages, in full resolution, with published Exif data. Please check it to verify. You’ll notice that this is indeed a 1/10s shot, with the Otus mounted on the 36MP A7r. Pretty amazing, isn’t it. Please click on the link to choose the full size 36MP file. This is a converted RAW file with zero sharpening applied. I only flipped this picture 180° to get rid of the mirror image. I focused on the text at the bottom of the lens. And as a matter of fact, the lens front is the only thing in focus in the whole picture, whereby the in focus area is that small, that it almost seems as if the whole picture is blurred. Still, what I wanted to show here was the extreme balance of the camera and so I chose one precisely defined focus point, with zero margin for error. In this case, you absolutely must look at 100% to even notice that there really is something in perfect focus. The extreme shallow DOF, due to the f/1.4 aperture, makes the blur set in very quickly. So the stability of the camera was not only required in left/right and up/down directions, but also in back/forward. OK, on tripod, the result would probably have been yet even a bit better. Still, to my eye, this is a pretty good OOH shot – as good as it gets. But remember, this one was shot at 1/10s. Needless to say that this would be plain impossible if the A7r/Otus combination would offer less than a perfect OOH balance. I wonder (and even doubt) if this can be improved by the D-800E/Otus combination. So in this department, I guess the A7r is at least at par with the best DSLRs. I rest my case.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that 1/10s is a normal OOH shutter speed for the A7r/Otus, because it isn’t. What I’m saying is that, with the right technique, this camera/lens combination provides an exceptional balance, otherwise I could impossibly have succeeded in taking this shot. What I’m also saying is, that, where one expects to need faster shutter speeds, due to the hi-res sensor and hyper precise lens, one can actually work with “normal” speeds and even go slower. When applying a minimum of care, I consider 1/30s as a normal feasible shutter speed for this combination. I took my first Selfie-testshots in aperture priority mode. I operated very carefully and succeeded from the first shot, which appeared to be taken at 1/13s. That’s when I thought; let’s push this to the limit. So I switched to Manual mode, kept the aperture at f/1.4 and set the shutter speed at 1/10. I missed the first two shots and realized that I needed to hold the release button longer, beyond the moment of the shutter’s closing. Keeping it down gave me my third picture, the one you can see. BTW, the A7r release button helps a lot for this kind of shots. It has a very soft action, without resistance point – some call it “spongy” and that’s correct. For many applications, one could prefer more definition, but for this kind of use, it’s absolutely a benefit. Furthermore, and this is IMO, for normal “action” shots (in my case that’s mostly candid people shooting) the shutter release button requires some habituation, but isn’t problematic at all.
This is absolutely the matter. This lens/sensor combination reveals every detail, as no other FF does (the D800E does as well, of course). Result: when looking in 100% size (and again, you need to do this – where would you otherwise use this combination for), the out-of-focus is induced quite a bit earlier than what we were used to. Of course, with smaller apertures the margin gets bigger, but as you approach the f/1.4 it really gets tough. And wide open, even on a tripod, you need to proceed with great care. The viewfinder magnification function is no unnecessary luxury in this.
Yet I need to add that when shooting for “normal” formats (using less MP), the focusing can be done as easy and fast as with any other lens. And with the A7r EVF, you don’t need any special assistance. In the parts that are in focus, the EVF produces an almost overly sharp image. It’s difficult to describe, but when you’d try it, you’d notice immediately what I mean. With some experience, you even don’t really need the focus peaking anymore for those shots, let alone the VF magnification. But as I said, at large apertures, with very shallow DOF, and at full resolution, it’s another story. The focusing becomes absolutely very delicate.
Manual focusing only
I’m a MF guy. So I can’t really compare with AF systems. But I read in different reviews, that AF is not always absolutely precise on a 36MP sensor. Another statement I remember was that the EVF of the A7r does a better job in focusing than the OVF of the D800E. That, and my own focusing experience with the Otus, makes me understand why Zeiss chose to make it a manual focus lens. I guess with (today’s) AF systems, it’s not possible to set the focus to the same level of precision as one can perform manually. For instance in “Glass Doll”, I wonder how an AF system would manage to determine the exact in focus zone where I wanted it (eye, nose and lips).
Moreover, Zeiss has a vast tradition in manufacturing MF lenses. And personally, that’s exactly what I want.
No image stabilization
This is my personal opinion. After reading the “Shooting out of hand at 1/10 sec” chapter, you’ll understand that I really don’t care the Otus not having any image stabilization. Nor the A7r for that matter. I’ve never been missing or wanting it. But I can absolutely get that some people would’t wanna shoot without it. So this is a personal matter. This lens is not for them. Nevertheless I still think that one should work on improving his shooting skills first. But, OK, this is not my domain of experience.
A very big, heavy and expensive lens
I heard the rumor that Zeiss developed the Otus as if it were a medium format lens. In that way, by cropping the corners of the image, we’d get rid of the zones with less than optimal performance. I don’t know if this is really true, but I guess all lenses follow the same optical laws, performing less in the corners. So it makes sense to me: if you want your lens to perform optimally in the corners, you need to crop – which makes you end up with a bigger and heavier lens.
And if you want an image that’s (virtually) free of distortion, you need to correct the image internally. This means more glass elements (12 in the Otus 1.4/55). Again: bigger and heavier.
There are no miracles in optics, I guess. Only choices and consequences. If you want a smaller lens, settle with less perfect performance. I do anyway, when I wanna go compact. I surely don’t always need the Otus performance. But I have to admit, it’s tempting and it’s kind of addictive. It’s inspirational too.
Then the price. Is it expensive? Sure it is! But is it crazy expensive? Sure it isn’t! Being less expensive than the 50mm Leica M Summilux, let go the Apo-Summicron or Noctilux that double and triple it’s price and that the Otus still optically outperforms(!), I guess we gotta stay reasonable concerning the price. To all that criticize its price, I can only say: what do you expect anyway?
I’d say the Otus is not cheap at all, but still it’s absolutely very attractively priced. I love Zeiss for that.
What to shoot with the Otus
What I wanna tell you in this last chapter is about the considerations I made, when starting to shoot with the Otus – considerations about what kind of images to shoot, about how to select the subjects.
This is the best lens in the world, so obviously, my pictures should have to show it, no? Since the subject is the most important element of any picture, I started thinking about what kind of subjects would prove those exceptional Otus qualities. This made me shoot mainly at f/1.4 and f/16 initially, because at the widest and narrowest apertures, Otus still renders exceptional detail, where normally we’d expect a lens to get a lot softer. Another matter, that kept me busy, was how to show that this detail is rendered all over the image, not only at widest and narrowest apertures but also in the corners. And then there is the matter of the incredible micro contrast. And the lack of distortion, flare, etc… To make a long story short, finding “Otus-worthy” subjects quickly became a worrisome task.
But then I thought of how I always have compared musicians, that merely show off their technique, with a circus act (“look what I can do!”) – impressive, but having not much to do with music. Since, as a matter of fact, my professional education has been in music, it always helps my photography to think of comparable situations in music. All of a sudden, I realized that I absolutely don’t have to show off the Otus’ superiority. Whatever lens is used, one rather just needs to think about the picture, and how to shoot it in the best possible way, but not about how to come up with the most “virtuoso” images, using this exceptional lens. That would only have a paralyzing effect and stand in the way of creativity. From that moment on, I felt kind of liberated an relieved. I could use all apertures again in regard of the most favorable DOF and not regarding the “applause” I’d get for the “stunning technicality” of the picture. Every Otus image would already have a superior quality, compared to what I would have gotten, should I have used another lens. Thinking about this lens in this way, makes me absolutely enjoy every shot, also the most simple and modest ones, and makes me use it without restraint whenever I feel like it. In every picture, I see the extra that is contributed by the lens, as I also did, when upgrading from the NEX-7 to the A7r.
Besides that, this lens/camera combination is particularly appropriate for large format printing and extreme cropping, two things that for most of today’s photographers are pretty exceptional. Still, as I said, owning and enjoying one myself, I simply use it, whenever I feel for it and whenever its focal length makes sense – as I do with all my lenses. It’ll never let me down when I employ in that way.
My overall conclusion
The A7r absolutely offers the widest variety of lens/body combinations amongst FF camera’s on the market today (surely for MF shooters that are not afraid of buying some good-quality adapters). Of all those combinations, the A7r/Otus is probably the most extreme concerning size and weight, since in that department, they differ the most (which can be harmonized by mounting the grip on the A7r). Still, both have pretty much all other characteristics in common. It’s not the case, but when combining them, it surely feels as if they were meant for one another. Indeed, this turned out to be a very workable combination for me, one that not only offers the summit in IQ, it’s also surprisingly well balanced, as well on tripod as in the hand. Thanks to the latter, and with the right technique, one can shoot OOH at surprisingly slow shutter speeds, significantly slower than average. So the Otus performs wonderfully great on the A7r, but this is no “plug-and-play” lens. You need to know what you’re doing and if you wanna exploit it fully, you need to proceed with great care.
The Otus 1.4/55 is not cheap, but still it’s very competitively prised. (Same counts for the A7r, BTW.) This lens is not compact at all, but still it’s a tremendous joy to use, because it’s so well made. It really feels good to operate and it’s so extremely rewarding regarding IQ, the more in combination with the A7r, that it easily becomes an addiction.
That’s more than enough for me!
(There are some more pictures hereunder. You can look at all pictures in bigger size in a dedicated set on flickr, by clicking on http://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/sets/72157641276669365/)
Thanks for reading, guys! I hope you enjoyed it.
There are more Zeiss Otus images in Steve’s A7 and A7r review HERE.
I really like this review. Nice approach Dirk and thanks for sharing.
Dirk, a year plus later and the addition of the A7RII, I’d be interested in knowing your current thoughts about the Otus-A7RII combination. Thank you, very much.
I learned from every sentence. Thank you.
Hello Lucas, thanks for your kind words. Indeed, my first goal here was to write a good article, that I wouldn’t call “a review” BTW (you understood that correctly), since I didn’t systhematically cover all aspects of a lens – thit was already done enough by the experts. What I did was trying to come up with interesting information, that is typical for using this lens with this body – something that was not done so much yet.
Also thanks for appreciating how I compose… I indeed try to do this with great care. I’d like to invite you to my flickr page on a regular basis. 😉
Indeed Dirk, I will visit your Flickr page. And I would enjoy hearing any updated findings you discover with the Otus. But further you seem like a very patient gentleman who doesn’t deserve the badgering for simply stating your thoughts with the Otus. Those saying the A7r makes no sense using a large lens because it’s whole concept is the that it’s convenient to carry, is like saying a beautiful wife belongs strictly in the bedroom, and expecting her to be a good cook is a misuse of gods intent.
And for you to say your report is not a review is underestimation. You can read all the specs you can find on your favorite sports car, but a test drive is the litmus test, and your test drive was eloquently and usefully stated, with just the right number or words, no more and no less.
Some tend to forget the resolving power of the A7r sensor, the headlines which focus on everything else about it do make the package that much more alluring. So if you got it because it has not mirror fine, or because it’s a small FF that’s good too. But remembering that the D800e has the same sensor, a huge body and an optical view finder with its limitations are additional reasons to want the little Sony.
The trouble for me with your provocative report is you stirred up settled dust. I too have an A7r and was waiting months for the Otus to become available. The wait was so long I came down with buyers remorse even before I took delivery, so I canceled and got the FE 55 Sony instead. It’s nice. I also tried the Summilux 50 1.4 ASPH, It’s a very nice package I would have love to have kept it, but after seeing how is wasn’t suited to the A7r sensor, I reluctantly returned it.
In the end, it comes down to what you need/want to do with your gear, and if your needs trump your disposable income. Or do you simply need to get your next fix buy buying something new. We can only answer that question for ourselves. The most abusive reactions seem to be from those that suffer the latter…
I really enjoyed your review and for me the images do exactly what they are supposed to, ie highlight the qualities of the lens. I love the look of the bokeh and particularly the micro contrast which helps the images to have a depth that you don’t see in most lenses. I also particularly enjoyed your response to the first poster “Second, you’ll understand that you made me very curious for your images now. Is there any place I can see some of them?” .
I too would like to see these compelling images but I see he hasn’t come back yet.
I am trying to decide on some higher end lenses for my Sony A7R. At the moment I have the Nikon 20mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4 and the Sony Zeiss FE 35mm.
I am looking hard for a lens that offers that little bit more character than the usual suspects. I expect I may end up with the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.2 as I love that focal length but I am also looking at the Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4. or perhaps you have other suggestions? How do you rate the Zeiss Planar?
I can’t stretch to the Otus right now as the girlfriend might kill me and it’s not really suitable for the travelling that I will soon be doing a lot more of.
Thanks for the review and enjoy the gear.
Thanks, David, for your appreciation.
Concerning the Planar, I have tried both the 50mm f/1.4 (in ZE version) and of course the 50mm f/2 ZM that I own. Both lenses are pretty similar, as far as character is concerned, the f/1.4 rendering a tad more detail and being a full step faster. But this difference in detail can only be seen when comparing very meticulously in 100% size, to the point that I consider this to be negligible, regarding the use of this lens. On the other hand, the ZM can be closed further (to f/22), where the SLR versions (ZE as well as ZF.2 – BTW I’d go for the ZF.2 if you should decide to buy a Planar f/1.4) are limited to f/16. This means the ZM has the ability for a larger DOF. But the most important difference is the size and weight. The ZM is A LOT (!) more compact and light. So when you’re travelling, this can really make a big difference. This is why the Planar 50mm f/2 is still my favorite lens for the A7r. It fits it so well. And don’t forget to buy a really good adapter!
BTW Zeiss also has the Sonnar 50mm/1.5 ZM, which I owned, but sold when buying the Otus. It’s a matter of personal preference of course, but I don’t like its character so much, being more “capricious” – one could say it has more character, I guess. But I like the Planar for being so absolutely reliable in all circumstances and I absolutely love its bokeh when shooting wide open. This is IMHO a real masterpiece.
You can see some of my Planar ZM shots around https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/11761644145/
Thanks so much for this really well laid out and thoughtful review Dirk.
I think its really cool that you have found a camera and lens combination that gives you pleasure. One of the current joys in photography is the configurability within and between systems. That Otus is a landmark lens. I hope it is still giving you pleasure in 20 years time when you have gone through no doubt several iterations of body/sensor sitting in behind it. And the lens is so well made, or of such high quality, that it will give pleasure to future generations of users long after you and I are both gone. And as the focus throw becomes second nature (like it has for many Leica users) you will be quicker in poor light than most AF lenses would offer – and they will be broken or obsolete before too long anyway.
Some have commented here that they don’t like your pictures, and that the point of the camera system is, after all, the final result. Others have said that your combination (Otus+A7) is ungainly, compromised by the adaptor, and so on. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have found something that gives you pleasure, an I thank you for sharing your story with us. We all come up with our own answers on the gear question. I think yours is the most interesting I’ve read since Ashwin Rao shared is experience of going down the vintage Leica lens route with the Leica M Monochrom.
It’s one of the things I like about Steve Huff’s site – its rather pluralist and open-minded. I think your article fits very well.
One thing that was not mentioned in the article:
The focusing is reversed on the Nikon version, which could be very annoying on a camera like the A7R because most other manual lenses (including cinema ones) have it the ‘right’ way round.
Zeiss should be releasing manual lenses designed specifically for the E-mount towards the end of this year, I hope it will keep the old-school approach (proper mechanical aperture ring).
(sorry, it was mentioned, just did not read it thoroughly enough)
I keep my fingers crossed!
(converning the proper mechanical aperture ring ánd depth of field scale)
It’s by far the most detailed article I’ve read on the Otus, well done and thanks !
These images is a great reminder that it’s not all about the gear. Sharp photos, yes, good photos, no.
And we are eagerly awaiting your detailed report (on any gear) posted along with truly mindblowing photographs ! 🙂
All this negative comments is people believing that better (more expensive) lens will give you “spectacular” results, I enjoyed Dirk’s composition and attention to detail, and all the detailed information written, thank you Dirk!, you took the time to write a nice article, people who is looking for “spectacular” results should learn more about post-production and the digital lab, and worry less about equipment.
A big THANK YOU for all your hard work writing up this excellent article ! I was diaappointed to see some negative comments. I can never understand it how people do not appreciate the free information they get on these and other photographic sites. Nobody is asking them to agree with everything they have read ?
I am NOT a gear head -some say I must be one because I have a Leica M8 and some Summicrons !! but honestly I’m not. To me it’s ALL about the simplicity of the camera and the quality of the lenses. I dont read these Gear reviews normally but felt I should as it involved such an effort to produce. To me this Zeiss lens is superb -is that a surprise ? So how practical is it? We are lucky we have people writing articles like this to help us figure that one out. Just one final comment, it might be a good idea for future prospective contributers reviewing cameras/lenses to make a supreme effort to submit some well thought well composed images as against some “test images” as this will go a long way to help their case.
Sorry, my friend. As much as I’d like that, it’s not my job. This article is a User Report, not a product review. The latter must be done by the professional reviewers, like Steve Huff. Those guys get access to so many products and have the oppurtunity to compare with virtually the whole market. I can only write about my personal experiences with the products that I own. I’d be very reluctant to say that Otus is the best in the world, if it wasn’t that every reviewer (that I read) was unanimus about it. So I’m only quoting them in that particular matter. 🙂
On the other hand, I can certainly testify about a few things, that not every reviewer has experienced like I did: how the Zeiss ZE and ZF.2 versions perform differently on the A7r or how the balance of this not obvious Otus/A7r combination is much better than many expect (as long as they can omit their prejudices) or even some reviewers experienced (because of using another version, and/or mounting the lens on the body without grip)… Of course it’s always interesting to hear what other users experience, regarding IQ, but still, it is what it is: a user report. You can’t regard it as a review.
So to compare the Otus with the Art, I should have to buy the latter, which I don’t plan to do, as you can imagine. Maybe, with a big strike of luck, one of my friends could buy the Art – that would create some possibilities of course… 🙂 But I hope that Steve can find a possibility to compare those two. I think you and I are not the only ones that are looking forward to this.
Anyway, thanks a lot for your appreciation.
This was a reply to dgd
All the landscape photos you posted make me feel as if I am there.
(To me that says something about Otus & A7r).
Sigma Art 50mm F1.4 $949 review says is “displaying nearly identical results” to Otus (sharpness, distortion, bokeh, CA ).
Would you please if you have a chance, compare Sigma Art 50mm F1.4 to Otus
Hello Dirk, try to learn photography first before you buy expensive gear. Thank you.
Thank you for sharing such a detail article – the last photo is my favorite. I don’t understand why people insist on telling you what you could have/should have done. This is what you did and these are your experiences with it. You shared them with us to help us understand how this particular combination works. Looks to me like it can be a powerful combination.
I also don’t get people that immediately criticize the larger lens on the smaller camera. Just because it’s mirrorless does that mean you’re not allowed by some unwritten rule to attach a large lens to the A7r? I think it shows how versatile the camera is. A different way to look at it; the smaller body offsets the larger heavier lens. A big DSLR with a big lens has you juggling a greater mass of bulk and weight.
Thanks again for the article and congrats on an amazing photographic combo!
Thanks, Christos, you complete got it right! Not everybode understood it in that way though. I hope they can see that, as I said in other comments, it’s a “User Report”, certainly not a review (that’s Steve’s job), neither is it a “Daily Inspiration” contribution. But I’m glad many people really appreciated my writing.
I agree! No rule says that you have to use a small lens on the A7 series. I have a huge 180mm f/2.8 zeiss prime in Contax Yashica mount that is killer on my A7R. As long as I am willing to carry it, that’s all that matters. I’m glad Dirk is enjoying his otus. May he use it in good health!
I don’t see it, my A7r with the 50mm Summilux asph small and unsurpaseed
Exactly what I was thinking…the Summilux is at least as good and a hell of a lot smaller.
This whole article is about justifying why someone paid so much for such a lens, great, technically great, but photography is missing…who cares?!
I really feel sad when I read the negative comments about the photographs here. People have become too used to Photoshop and over saturated HDR or SilverFX. The point of this review was to illustrate what the lens and sensor give you out straight out of the camera with minimal post.
I think it does that admirably.
I would gather the photo people like the most (the glass mannequin) is probably the least useful in assessing the combination. I appreciate the examples especially as they show how both foreground out of focus is rendered and attempts to use the lens in hyperfocal as mist Leica shooters would. However, I agree with the Zeiss dealer; thus is the wrong lens for that style picture.
Final note, there appears to be a paragraph that was duplicated just before “Why not a lens faster than 1.4 ?” Caption
I agree, Karl. This is not at all a typical lens for hyperfocal shooting, as I wrote (“Hyperfocusing with a 55mm lens is far from obvious”), but still it’s possible I think – which doesn’t mean that this should be the preferred use for this lens, not at all. Still I shot those pictures because I believe that, to know how big a country is, the best you can do is seeking out its borders. To me, in this stage of experimenting with this lens, I wanted to try this to see how the Otus performes throughout the whole of its dof, and I thought it was interesting to see how detail remains, while getting a bit softer at the end of the dof.
In the subtitle of this article, I wrote “so far”, indicating that I have a lot more experimenting to do with this lens. One can wonder why I didn’t wait for this before publishing. Well, the main reason why I posted this article already now is, because I wanted to share some of my findings with the potential Otus buyers/A7r owners asap, especially regarding which version to choose. I personally changed my order to the ZF.2, after having tried the ZE Planar. I would have been very sorry, if I only would have found out the difference between ZE and ZF.2, after buying the “wrong” version.
Furthermore, I think it wouldn’t be a smart idee of me, wanting to post a real lens review. There are so many profound opinions and excellent pictures available about this lens, provided by professional reviewers (and photographers) – I really don’t have to add to that. That’s why I think it’s more meaningful to come up with something different, that still can be of real value to some people, as long as they don’t expect it to be a classic lens review.
If an article like this should be better not to be published, is there any reason for Steve to maintain the “User Report” section?
Thanks, Elderin. In this combination, it’s indeed no longer a compact camera. But I guess I’m not the only one that doesn’t ALWAYS need a compact camera. So with the A7r, I can have both: small and unobstrusive or big and powerful (although the most compact combination with the A7r is still very powerful), depending on my needs/wishes. The AF matter doesn’t play here of course, since the Otus is MF only. I never use AF, but I know that indeed (some) DSLR-AF systems are faster. So, whoever absolutely needs the fastest possible AF is better to buy a DSLR. I guess that’s correct. But if you refer to the lenses, when mentioning speed, I have to say “incorrect”, because most DSLR (and range finder) lenses can be used on the Sony. All possible speeds are available.
This review highlights the problem with gear reviews. On the one hand, a master photographer can take a junk lens and make wonderful photos with it. That’s not to mean they couldn’t use the advantages of a better lens, but they don’t need it to make great photos. On the there hand, a photographer lacking vision can have the best equipment, and the photos won’t amount to much, except for the occasional lucky shot. FWIW, I put myself far more into the latter category, but then, I don’t regularly post my photos for the world to see…I just try to improve.
When a review is done by a master, it’s tough to judge how much of the photo is the gear, and how much is the artist. When it’s done by, let’s say a “non-master” (both to be polite, and because I am not any sir tot official arbiter on who is a good photographer), I can’t get much of anything from the review. Maybe it would be best for these reviews to have, side by side, the same or similar shot, one taken with the piece of equipment reviewed, and the other with an infamous piece of junk, so that we can see the degree to which the gear made a difference.
Thanks for your comment, David. You are right in every way. But I didn’t write this article to be a review. In even wrote “Read the reviews for all the details…” to make clear that this writing is not a review. I wrote this article, because I’m probably one of the first to own and use this combination, who is willing to share experiences about it. But I guessed that there are probably more “candidates”/A7r owners that are thinking about the Otus. I guessed that they could benifit from some of my experience, if only to help them when deciding on which version to choose.
Wow, that combo looks like a brick. nice image quality but unobstrusive it is not. heavy? probably yes if you compare it inside the mirrorless market. with that size and weight, a dslr would make no big difference in use but most of these dslr’s (all ?) have better auto-focus systems and speed. If i would buy into the mirrorless market, than because of it being small and lightweight. Nice review though.
Dirk, you can pick up some old Leica R glass cheap on ebay, and with a good NEX/LER adapter for your A7r, you can get the Leica glass magic in your shots. I have used my Leica 50mm R lens with the A7r, and the images are just so magical with this Sony sensor, even though this 55mm R lens is over 35 years old. Yes, good glass will last a very long time.
Indeed, Kenneth, the R glass is performing really well on the A7r. But I always had a week spot for Zeiss. And this Otus is so special… It’s absolutely not a lens that I needed, but one that I absolutely wanted. I normally don’t shop in this price range, but I made an exception in this case. But yes, the R range is very apealing.
Thanks Dirk for the detail review. I am with you on this subject and I love legacy manual lenses and is seriously considering the Otus just for what it is. Who cares whether it makes sense. If we want to talk about pragmatism, the Oly kit zoom on my EP3 is fantastic in the hands of many and the list go on. U spend your hard earn money the way you like it and enjoy.
To me, the photo of the apples on the kitchen counter top is the one image that really shines and shows what this lens/body combo can do.
The colors and the shadow detail/tone are truly outstanding.
I have a Sigma DP2 Merrill and do not think that I could match the quality of your “apples” photo with my DP2M.
Thanks so much for sharing.
Glad that you mention this picture, Webco. Indeed, it illustrates the Otus capabilities the best, also IMO. But I was doubting if people would appreciate more pics like that. I even hesitated to post this one, for that reason. 🙂 Should have posted more like this one, it seems…
uh , what ‘s your point ; these are ordinary photos taken with an extraordinary lens .
Dear Rosa, I wrote this article for all (future) A7r owners, that are concidering wether or not the Otus could be a valuable option for them. I’m not saying that I own the one and only truth, but I think that some of my experiences could be of real interest to them: choosing the right version, how the lens handles on tripod and OOH, how easy to focus, etc. I don’t know if you are part of this target group and if you are, if you have really read the article or if you just looked at the pictures. But this was meant as information, with pictures to illustrate what I wrote. If you expected something else, I’m sorry to have wasted some of your precious time. Anyway, the comments show me that there really are quite some people that appreciated this information. So that’s good enough for me.
If I had a ZF.2 Otus, I would also have a Nikon D800E with it – not a Sony toy with adapter.
Too many words about a – sorry for that – nonsensical combo.
I am so glad with my oly em1+25 1.4
I vehemently disagree.
I much prefer the smaller Sony bodies (ok, with Gariz half case) to the bulky Nikon body… much more easy to handle with my small hands…
As proud owner and regular user of the ‘Lux 24 f/1,4 on MFT I agree it is a nice lens and allows for great visual results. However, compared to decent glass on full frame sensors, there are severe limitations…
Have to agree, resolution, incredible sharpness, and good DR don’t make for very interesting images on their own.(As a DP2M owner I am very familiar with this crutch.)
“A 36MP sensor already asks for a faster shutter speed, since the motion blur is earlier induced – that’s a fact.”
That is not a fact. NEX-7 has much denser packed sensor pixels which are much smaller and tightly packed than those on A7R.
There is no reason for the 36MP sensor to be more sensitive to the motion blur.
He individual sensor pixel size of A7R is bigger but close to that from NEX-6.
You could say A7R is like NEX-6 but with bigger sensor.
The only reason you are experiencing “motion blur” with A7R is the shutter vibration.
A7R has a big problem where shutter induced vibration renders images blurry between 1/125 and 1/160.
1/80 does no present the problem, neither do lower or higher speeds.
I’m still mulling over what to do with my A7R, as I don’t want to go around carrying additional battery grip and most certainly don’t want to attach weights to the camera, just to be able to shoot blur free images on the street.
The A7R lacks electronic first curtain. With it, it would’ve been an awesome NEX-7 repacement.
I went from a D3s to a D800, the statement about the requirement for a higher shutter speed for 36Mp is 100% true.
By simple triangulation laws. Up the megapixels, the pixels get smaller. Therefore the the the shift that occurs across a single pixel area vs a smaller one is increased. This was all debated to death and proved when the nikon D2 came out and people were getting disappointed in the shake issues at 12.3Mp on an APS-C sensor size.
I too had a NEX7 and normally I’d see these effects if I was using an unstabilised lens.
Looking at the otus + A7r combo and relating it back to the film days. You need in theory a 1/60th to handhold this lens as a bare minimum, with good technique on say a 400 speed emulsion (resolves a good quality 12Mp on a good scan across the plane). However to achieve a usable shot on a lower speed film that resolved more, for each stop down in film speed you would need to up that hand held minimum to allow you to hold it within the limits of the film.
Never doubt physics 😀
Completely agree. I’m usually on auto-ISO on my D800, and fortunately can tweak the minimum shutterspeed to above what would be normal for the focal length, so 1/125 as a minimum for 58, 1/80 as a minimum for 35. This solves most (not all) of the problem, and the mass and good ergonomics of the body help a lot as well.
It’s mass, not weight, that’s important here. Light bodies are fine dangling on your neck, not so good for taking sharp pictures.
I am talking about physics.
Pixels are BIGGER on A7R than on NEX7.
The NEX7 has a pitch of 3.88 um while A7R has pixel pitch of 4.86 um.
That is why I wrote that the pixels are smaller and denser packed on NEX7 than on A7R.
The only reason you get blurry images on A7R and not on NEX7, using same shutter speed is the shutter vibration.
As you said, you can’t escape physics.
A7R has a flaw that Sony will have to address.
Same goes for D800, that is why it can lock the mirror to alleviate the shutter vibration problem.
NEX7, just like A7 has an electronic first curtain shutter and it has no vibration problems to speak of.
Soooo, “putting-the-cart-way-before-the-horse” any thoughts on wether or not the new A7s, with the huge pixel size (but 12mp total) will/will-not have this shutter slap issue?
No idea. I am a bit disappointed with Sony.
A7r is being sold with light leak, shutter vibration, sensor reflections, bullseye color cast and lossy compressed raw files that go nowhere near 14bits. There is also a big question mark regarding weather sealing.
Those are not small problems and one can notice them all the time.
Sony didn’t even acknowledge the issues.
I guess they will go the way of nikon and d600. A class action suit is needed to remedy the problem.
(1) Light Leak:
Cannot reproduce it even with a 100000 Candela Xenon Arc point source with a total of three A7 purchased between December 2013 and March 2014. Could reproduce it with a November 2013 A7R.
So, I am not certain that the problem is ubiquitous.
(2) Shutter vibration:
Was an issue for me on an A7R which I did return in December 2013 as it did not allow proper use of my 750mm f/6 APO tele. Not a problem with short and sturdy lenses (like Sonnar FE 55, Sonnar FE 35, Summicron R 50 on adapter, Summicron M 90 on adapter), big problem with long lenses with bad vibration damping. Disappointing but not a showstopper for ‘normal use’…
(3) Bullseye Colour Cast:
Depends a lot on settings. Did not manage to reproduce it on any practical RAW image produced by me with (using old glass, Sonnar FE 55 f/1,8 and a number of Zeiss and Sigma Lenses for Sony Alpha combined with LA-EA4. Firmware 1.02 on A7, up to now ± 10 k frames, RAW processed with DXO Optics Pro 9 Elite…
(4) “Lossy Compression”.
Relevance of that for practical use still needs to be proven…
(5) Weather sealing
I did have an unplanned tryout of the weather sealing of A7 (Nov ’13) and Sonnar FE 55 (Nov ’13) last weekend, ending up unprotected in a Dutch downpour followed by two hours of drizzle. Some fogging of the finder, apart from that no damage but the one to my health (I am having a cold now)…
But for the A7R shutter vibration in specific situations I do not see a real problem with the A7 series…
Hey Damir. I made the same erroneous reasoning as you. My formar camera was indeed the NEX-7 and indeed its pixels are smaller. But think of making the same image with both. When I’d use a 50mm lens on the NEX-7, I’d need a 75mm on the A7r. At that point any given surface of your subject (not of the sensor) would half 50% more pixels with the A7r. If you “perform” the same motion blur with both camera’s, you move along more pixels with the A7r. Or in other words, you’d cross one pixel earlier than with the NEX-7, making it visible earlier, when looking at 100%. But also, don’t forget that your image will be 50% larger in surface with the A7r.
Small correction: I made the same erroneous reasoning as you for a while. That was at the time that I had ordered the A7r, but was still using the NEX-7. So I can quite understand what you are saying. My former camera…
I’m afraid blurring occurs with 35mm f2.8 too, so, it has nothing to do with FOV.
Check this for more info regarding the “cropping” you are mentioning:
As you can see it’s the shutter vibration that is blurring images, ’tis all. Google it, Internet is full of examples.
A7r should behave regarding the blurring exactly the same as NEX-6 (similar sensor pixel size and density), but it doesn’t.
NEX-7 should show much more blurring than A7r but it doesn’t even with first electronic curtain turned off. It simply does not have the shutter problem of the A7r.
Sony should step up and offer a solution.
Top notch IQ, for sure. Looks like square ones are shot with medium format. Leica format shots look cheap here. Sony should make square format sensor for 135 lenses.
I think that’s incorrect, Brian. Given the focal distance of 1.2m, the moving of the target is only compensating the moving of the image for a very low, neglectible percentage. I can tell you from experience: the slightest move will cause considerable motion blur with this lens/sensor.
The weight of the lens gives you more stability for slower speeds. That is one of mirrorless disadvantages, the light weight of the whole camera set makes long exposure times handheld difficult to master. I shoot 1.5 seconds quiet with the Fuji S5 with grip and 2 batteries, with the NEX-7 is makes 1/25th at best.
Your shots are razorsharp, and knowing this places gives me some nostalgia. I lived 20 years in your country Dirk, and all the channels between Antwerp and Mechelen, around Boom, up to Sluis and Dendermonde are all places I used to ride around with my bicycle. I live now 13000 km away, and there are some parts of Belgium I miss a lot, mainly the Boleke, the Kasteel, de Sankt Sixtus, and similar friendly brews, and not to forget the Frietkot. Thanks for you report on the Otus, i will turn to Sigma Art lens when it is available, it will be a bit more in my price range.
Sorry … the result … maybe is “outstanding” in technical department, sharpness, CA, corner fallout, bla bla bla … and don’t forget … the prize … but the picture wise … is just a snap shot … maybe it just me … … for me, e-m5 and 25mm f1.4 just work better… and enjoy shooting more than spending more money just for pixel peeking …
Dirk, congratulations with this review which is one of the best that I have read during the last 12 months. It is indeed a challenge to combine the best FF mirrorles camera and the best lens to see what comes out, and you have indeed proven that the results are awesome. Thanks a lot for your efforts writing this article and good luck this summer to shoot a lot of nice images.
Thank you so much, John.
A very well researched and written article, thanks for this, it must have taken quite some time to write.
HOWEVER — in my opinion, this is a typical case when a photographer is too rational and technical, is so carried away by his expensive and perfect gear (to the point that even the weight of his camera bag becomes an issue), that in the end, all of this results in photos that are simply boring (the last one is the only exception). Yes, they have great detail and are technically perfect, but, despite being made with the world’s best sensor and the world’s best lens, these photos mostly lack everything else that makes a stunning image – even if just meant as ‘tests’.
Here is my honest advice for you, Dirk:
SELL the Otus and buy the Zeiss FE 55 / 1.8 for $950 instead – it is an amazing lens, a superior performer, much smaller and an all-in-all much better lens for your A7r. And for the $3000 you save, buy a used EM-1 with two or three lovely Oly lenses — just for kicks, and to loosen up about things, to open your mind towards AF and even (gasp!) zooms, try the tap release and have fun with it, experience 5 axis stabilization… liberate yourself from your rather stubborn approach of being an all-manual shooter for half a century. And then see what happens. I promise, you will be amazed and inspired by yourself. And for all the money that you still have left, buy your wife a new bag, and then see what happens… 😉
Thanks a lot, Patrick.
I indeed think sometimes that the FE55 would have been a “wiser” choice. For sure it’s by far offering the best value for the money. But it’s not a typical MF lens, which makes it less appealing to me. And Otus is absolutely something else. You know I just wanted to own this very special lens. I’m sure there are many photographers that can make a better use of it. But that’s not the point. The point is that it makes me feel good using it, that I enjoy seeing the results of it. And I’ve come to the age that I can afford to afford this lens. So I’m sure that the Otus was yet the wiser choice for me after all.
That s a gear aquisition syndrom..
Happiness come from the idee of possessing the best..
My personal opinion, I do not see photographer or photography in this article…sorry but the pics are boring…I don’t get the point to shoot a kitchen. Another way to be happy: put 7000 euros on a kitchen table and shoot it with an iphone.
I think your post is demeaning and offensive.
Your opinion is yours – but allow others, like Dirk, to have theirs…
And, obviously, I feel with Dirk, and find his decision quite rational.
Perfect advice, Patrick!
I think you (Patrick) are trying to spend someone else’s money here as if you are more capable of making personal decisions like that. I wouldn’t begrudge others what they have any more than I would want anyone to do it to you. Keep your eyes on your own pockets. You’ll be happier and you won’t interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment of the fruits of their labor.
@Andrew Paquette (@paqdream)
+1 – or ‘I fully agree with your statement…’.
I recommend to Check the native 55. it is crazy sharp from edge to edge.
The selfie might not be a good way to check for shutter shock blur because the target of the photo is moving along with the shock, possibly minimizing its effect.
This shot was performed to prove the excellent balance of this combination, when shooting OOH, Brian. Given the focal distance of 1.2m, the moving of the target is only compensating the moving of the image for a very low, neglectible percentage. I can tell you from experience: the slightest move will cause considerable motion blur with this lens/sensor. Also I think for a possible shutter shock to have effect, the shutter speed must quite a bit be shorter. OOH motion blur on the other hand becomes the more obvious as the shutter speeds lenghtens.
Sorry but I see no sense in this. I would pick the D800E + Otus combo any day over this, and use the lens with the better handling body like it was designed for. Plus at this level of lens resolving power and megapixel count I would be hesitant to trust any adaptor, even the best kind.
I like the Sony, but it’s just best to use it with native lenses, the FE 55 f1.8 is still a great lens…
Well, Daniel, if you only wanna shoot big lenses, I’d say: go for the D800E. But I can use my A7r also as a very compact camera, or in between… whatever I want. That makes a lot of sense to me.
Concerning adapters, let’s make it simple. Please indicate some problems in the pictures that are posted here, problems that are caused by the adapter. That would be news to me. Maybe you may not condemn the concept of using an adapter too soon. I think it’s a question of tollerances. Since the image is digital, if we stay under the 1 pixel margin, I think we’re fine. Don’t forget every mount acts like an adapter, also the original lens mount. With the adapter we double the number of surfices. But as long as the tolerances are under 50% of the “allowed” tolerance, it’s OK. I think my Novoflex does the job. I show quite some full size pics on Flickr – you can check them out.
The FE55 is a great lens. But again, tell me what aspects of these shots would be improved, if I would have used the FE55. Only then you could say that it’s best to prefer the FE55 over the Otus. One thing is sure: if you absolutely want AF, don’t buy the Otus, but the FE55 instead.
Wow, you put a lot of work behind this piece, very well written. For landscapes and fine art photography, a comparison with the ZE 1.4 55, the upcoming Sigma 1.4 50 and the humble Sigma DP2 Merrill would be interesting.
Thanks a lot! Let’s ask Steve to do something about it, shall we!
Hey Dirk, Any comparisons between the Otus and FE 55? I would have thought the FE 55 would make more sense? I know we are all after the best but as you state in your article for one of the main reasons for choosing zeiss over Leica was cost, I’m surprised the sony 55 wasn’t a consideration?
Hello Steve. I’m an MF guy. The FE 55 doesn’t handle like a traditional MF lens. So it’s not an option for me.
Though its IQ is excellent, the Otus still is something else.
Concerning cost, this is NO Leica money. The Apo Cron costs the double and is slower, the Noctilux triples its price. It’s an f/0.95 alright, but with a 36MP sensor, I wouldn’t go any faster than f/1.4 anyway.
I agree with the last two comments. If u are going to use large lenses, use a full sized camera like a d 800. These cameras are big for a reason, it makes them very comfortable to shoot, and help stabaliize the camera. They also don’t have to suffer from all the compromises needed to make a camrera small.
I wouldn’t be in a rush to buy the Zeis either. Word is that the new Sigma lens matches the performance at a reasonable price.
Fantasic lens with the red line sensor in MPs. Sorry I would go with the Nikon D800 or the D800E.
Very informative and in-depth piece that nicely illustrates the resolving capability of the Otus.
Lovely IQ combo to be sure; were it me I would definitely want the grip on the A7 all the time, though.
IQ aside, however, this strangely reminds me of someone trying to shoehorn a 400 cubic inch V8 into a Fiat 500. lol.
Thanks, Robert. I guess you are a DSLR user. You know I use this camera in so many different ways, sometimes with hyper compact lens and still the grip mounted. But really, being able to use it in its most compact way is so very useful! I’ll be going on a trip in a few weeks, with a max of 6kg carry-on baggage. And when shooting people, with a compact camera, you are so much more discrete. It really helps to shoot “natural behaviour”.
Nice. But the Images do not convince me. Bokeh is not really impressive. And from what I can do with my cheap small summicron on the a7, I would dare to say the summicron is more crisp at F2. So the APO I guess leagues above the otus. At least looking at the fotos on an iPad.
On my iPad, I can’t get all detail of the 36MP files. I also have to say that I tuned back the sharpening to zero, where my Photoshop is set at 25% as default. But I think you need to watch the full size files on a big monitor, to really see.
Alas, you are wrong. I have several versions of the ‘Cron 50 f/2 (all R, all M since 1968), and have tried all of them on A7 and NEX-7, using Novoflex- and Fotodiox-Adapters. Each Version of the ‘Cron its own character, and they are quite sharp and render color well – but they are no match for either Sonnar ZE 55 nor Otus on modern high resolution sensors – compared with the Otus, not even the stopped-down Apo Summicron M has a chance… even the Leica-fanatic in me has to admit that (do I count as such with by now four analogue Leica M/R/C bodies and15+ Leica lenses from 1962 to 2009…(;->?!)…
Take the effort, visit a well-equipped shop, try A7R and a number of lenses. The result tends to be educative…
Dirk- very we’ll written article and I hope you have found the gear to keep you happy. Hope this puts your GAS affliction to rest.
Thanks David. But I fear that I suffer from some serious GAS. 🙂 I like to by classic lenses from time to time. Mostly second hand. I’m always curious for what their character is. Luckily they are not that expensive…
Fantastic review. So well written and illustrated – THANK YOU Dirk.
Looks like a really amazing lens, but with my eyes, I think MF is pretty much out of the question. Thanks for the write up, it was well worth the read, especially your choice of the ZF model.
What a great article that answers a lot of questions for me. Choice of mount/adaper. Hand held/motion blur. Ergonomics. And so on. Thank you so much for that, Dirk.
“Losing” not “Loosing”
Thanks, Colby. My native language is Dutch. I still make errors in English on a regular basis. But if I may try to translate an old Flemish saying: “A good understander only need half a word”. I’m sure you perfectly understood what I meant. 🙂
It’s Vlaams Dirk, it isn’t Dutch… 😉
OK, it sounds a bit different when spoken.
Written however, I find Vlaams (aka Belgish-Nederlands or Zuid-Nederlands) pretty close to Nederlands (aka Noord-Nederlands)… so, please do not pick the nit on us, Michiel, even if I pick it on you now (;->)…
(…zegt een Duitser…)
what’s the point when there is the amazing FE55/1.8 for under a third of the price, third of the size, auto-focus and will you ever really see the difference
The FE55/1.5 is no option for me, since it’s not a MF lens and handels differently than a MF one. I would only consider buying it, if ever I’d want an AF lens. In that case it would be my first choice. As far as I’ve seen pictures from it, its IQ is stunning. But still, Otus is something else. Although you will not always see the difference right away, in A/B comparisons, I’m sure it will show. Anyway, Otus is not a lens you absolutely need, it’s rather one you absolutely want…
I find the manual focusing on the fe 55 1.8 to be pretty great on the a7. I like how it will vary speed based on velocity of my hand movement, making fine adjustments easy. Not quite as tactile with the fly by wire, but now that I’m used to it, I fell in love.
Once you get to the highest level of lenses, there is a huge price jump for minor gains in quality. That may be worth it to some, if only for the new found invigoration to go out and get your money’s worth.
Otus aside I will probably be selling my leica summilux 50/1.4 asph because the FE55 is so good and that is saying something.
Nice job Dirk. I’d love to see side by side shots with the Otus and the Leica 50/1.4 ASPH. Goliath and David in size but not in IQ I expect.
I suspect the Otus is better than the ‘lux, but would be interested to see the Otus against the APO ‘cron side by side.
Very different lenses and concepts though – back in the film days you wouldn’t compare a Zeiss 80mm on a ‘blad to a 50 ‘cron on an M6, and the Otus D800E/ A7R combo is aimed to replace the blad – the M plus 50mm to replace an M6 (for those of us who still think in film terms!).
I am considering buying myself a 500CM or CW kit, but wondering if getting an Otus for my D800 and treating it like a ‘bald might be the way to go, especially one the promised wide angle and 85mm arrive. MF in live view on a tripod in stead of on the ground glass.
Get a Hasselblad 503CW + makro planar 120 + roll film, great buck (and you’ll see what film is still capable of) !
Absolutely! I own an old 6×9 Ikon, but the process of develloping and the scanning process is really what keeps me away from it. Too time consuming, if I see what I can do with A7r and Otus.
Comparison of the Otus with Summilux, Noctilux, HyperPrime CINE and Zeiss FE 1.8/55:
Thank you so much for this link! Indeed, the Zeiss FE55 offers the best value for the money. And indeed, the Otus sets new standards. But what really strikes me here is how the Leica Noctilux and Summilux and the SLR Magic Hyperprime are really not up with a 36MP sensor.
@Dirk & 3D-Kraft:
I support your conclusions.
I drew mine from 3D-Kraft’s review, and (after careful comparison of some test shots at Foto Sauter in Munich) went for the Sonnar 55 f/1,8 ZA… but the Otus stays on the Radar.
Maybe I should sell off my WATE (which has seen limited use, despite its outstanding quality in combination with the A7- and NEX-7 sensors) and go for the Otus with Nikon mount… the 55 mm hits a sweet spot for me on FF.
Thanks! But you need to ask Steve! I’m just a user, not a professional photography reviewer/publisher. Indeed some comparisons would be nice – also with the Apo Cron and others…
This was a very well written article. Thank you, Dirk.
Many thanks for the thought- and insightful article!!!
Seems like overkill. The images posted here (granted not archival, large paper prints) aren’t really any better IQ-wise than say the Oly OM-D EM-5 with a PL25 f1.4 or new Oly 25 f1.8. Hand-holding the latter with its IBIS would seem to permit much lower-light use than the blunderbuss Otus on the non-IBIS Sony. There’s also the tremendous price difference too. But, whatever floats one’s photographic boat…
I’d have to agree… lost interest reading the article after a while. No offense to the writer who has put in alot of effort, but images don’t make me want to rush out and buy the combination, and such a large lens sort of defeats the purpose of the compact camera that is the A7.
Stunning images. Some that could come from other lenses, and others that simply could not come from anything else. Truly, what you want in a lens of this caliber.
The Otus is intrieguing but IMO too unwieldy on such a small camera. I’m going to look seriously at the A7S, after I do a lot more research. Will plan to use Leica M glass to start and for my 50, I have a Zeiss planar. Only an F2 but with the high ISO capapbilities of the A7s, the slower speed doesn’t concern me and I just bet the Planar is on-par with the Otus for sharpness, speed not withstanding.
The 50 Makro-Planar you’re probably referring to is a lovely, really lovely lens, but I don’t think it’s as sharp as the Otus. But why would that matter? If the rendering appeals to you (it certainly did to me, on my D700 and then D800), it’s a great lens.
Not a 50 macro. It’s a zm 50 f2 (Leica mount). I also shoot with a DSMKIII and appropriate megazooms. At 60 years old, I’m growing tired of the needless size and complexity. Somewhat OT, what are your opinions of the A’s ergonomics, ability to change camera settings quickly etc. I’ve heard so many varying opinions, I’d like to hear more before I buy into the Sony A system.
Sorry, couldn’t say, only handled the A7 in a shop. I didn’t like the EVF at all.
Chris, I own the Zeiss ZM Planar and it’s still my favorite lens on the A7r. Look here (https://www.flickr.com/photos/keepnitgood/11761644145/) for some full size shots of it. The detail is excellent, but the Makro Planar has more detail and the Otus plays in yet another leage. Still the ZM Planar is my favorite choice for having with me on a trip, due to its compact size and light weight, combined with an IQ that I really love.
Concerning the Otus being too unwieldy, do you own the A7 and did you really try the Otus on it? Or are you only assuming? If you read my “Balance” chapter and the next, you’d understand that it would be impossible to shoot OOH at 1/10s (Selfie) or do OOH streat shooting of moving subjects at f/1.4 (Bicyclist) when this body/lens combination would be unwieldy in the slightest way. Please beware not to be prejudiced. Sometimes things are different from what one would expect. That’s one of the main things I wanted to emphasize on with this article. But the truth is: when using the A7 with grip and Otus, this is no longer a compact camera. It rather needs to be compared with a DSLR in handling. One can prefer the DSLR for that kind of use, but when choosing the A7r, one has the advantage of still having the possibility of using it as a compact FF camera, preferrably with the ZM Planar (IMO) for standard focal lenght.
Hi Dirk: Great images on the flickr link. Intense sharpness & nice color. I agree with your DSLR handling when mounting a large lens. I use a 180R via an R-to-M adapter for my Leica M and the handling of the M set up this way, while well balanced most definitely looses it’s svelte feel. I remount the zeiss-50 on the same body (or any native M lens) and it feels like a completely different camera!
Great post, with lots of varying comments, most constructive 😉 I’m still intrigued by the A7S. Should not have the shutter bounce and great low noise, high dr image files.
Firstly I have no doubt that the lens is a fabulous optic but smooth bokeh was never a top design parameter for zeiss (ask any cinematographer who has used their lenses, the colour balance and contrast are wonderful but busy bokeh).
Secondly looking at the images above there is nothing visibly different at the resolutions I can view them at. I fully understand, as a part time pro, that some clients need very high resolution. Using such a lens for snapshots that would look similar on any DX Nikon with a 15-xxx lens doesn’t do your photography any favours.
As Ansel Adams famously said “there is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”…
Don’t get me wrong I am a gear head but learned to use my gear to take compelling images.
Thanks for your comment, Danny. First, I’d like to say that I’ll never call any of my pictures “compelling”.
Second, you’ll understand that you made me very curious for your images now. Is there any place I can see some of them?
Dirk, I feel everyone has the right to express an opinion about images posted, without having to prove that his or her images are better than the ones criticized. Having said that, i thought that the images you posted are meant to demonstrate the qualities of the lens, not so much for themselves. Am I right?
This is true. Everyone’s a critic, but only a few have words that mean anything at all.
Dirk, is there any similarity to pixel peeping and counting the number of words in an article?
I for one found yours work more compelling than most any review from any so called
“Expert”. The length was too great only to those looking for simulation rather than
Information. For me, your report was like watching a great movie, hoping it wouldn’t end.
And obviously many of the posters didn’t trouble to do their fundamental research. Yourpacific observations paralleled most any tech report I read on the lens. e.g. DXO Mark. I like your images too Dirk. You have an eye for composition. Cheers from California
Oh yeah, I forgot something. You say “at the resolutions I can view them at”. But really, don’t judge the IQ unless you’ve looked at the 36MP files, please. BTW, this article concernes my first impressions (hence the “so far” in the subtitle). I thinks exploring this lens is a bit of a journey.
Dear Dirk, watching this pictures on a laptop, like I do, will do no justice to the camera/lens- combination.
And I would say to everybody out there that criticizes the pictures that they should try to write such a long and excellent article together with their own pictures before they bash someone else. Just my two cents
No one can criticize the president, because they have never been president.
You don’t have to be a good photographer to recognize good photo’s. How many music listeners can actually sing? Beside that, people are extra critical when really expensive gear is used. Do you think that is wrong?
Sorry but these photos do not do the Otus justice.
I opened this article on a photo website about the sharpest lens on the highest rez sensor…and then trudged through the opening 2800 words about one man’s journey to pick a lens adaptor before reaching the first photo…of the adaptor…well, the title is pretty accurate. I tried scanning through the rest of the article, but at 10,000 words I gave up…the article is about 10x too long. This seems like a great combo for a studio photographer as a medium format alternative so it would be great to see images of that type. But the snapshots and hyperfocal shooting presented in this article don’t this sensor-lens combo justice. It’s like demonstrating that an axe can be used to remove a screw.