Thursday, January 23, 2014

REVIEW: Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4–Is It Really That Good? (Canon 50mm f/1.2L comparison) (Part I of II)

Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* Lens for Canon EF Mount
Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* Lens

You weren’t supposed to see this article tonight, nor were you supposed to see any images.

I was going to do a book review and some research behind the scenes, but an unexpected box arrived tonight that included something that took me by surprise. Inside contained what many are saying is the sharpest and best lens ever made – one that is rumored to be so sharp that no digital sensor has been made that can truly show off what this lens can do.

I had the pleasure of checking out this lens last October and firing off a few shots, and I was very impressed. However, I didn’t get to use my own camera in my own environment, and I was told the lens I held was still being developed. I was impressed with what I saw, but manually focusing and shooting handheld under nasty conference hall conditions didn’t make me think that this was worth its hefty sales price. However, I’ve shot with Zeiss lenses before so I knew it would be much better on my home turf.


I know, I know, unboxing pics and videos are pretty lame but I had to do it for this one. This lens is an absolute work of art, but even the box is above average! The pictures below show the box at it arrives (first picture is the outer sleeve) and the second pictures is inside the box. The lens isn’t shown because it was used to take these photos:

Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* Lens for Canon Box

Otus Box Open

B&H has more photos here that show the lens itself, so I didn’t bother to take those. However, I couldn’t help myself but to show how cool the box is for what has to be the best built lens I’ve ever put in my hands.

Warning – I have a new favorite 4 letter word

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 55 mm, 13s, ISO 100, No Flash, AWB

Click the image to see the in-camera original – unmodified

About 30 seconds after I opened the box, I ran upstairs to my studio and setup for a bookshelf test. I couldn’t help myself – I had to see just how good this lens really is!

Experience tells me that a f/1.4 lens will be sharpest typically around the f/4 – f/5.6 range, and my testing confirmed that f/5.6 was indeed the sharpest. You can see the results yourself, but that’s pretty darn sharp in my book:

100% crop (599x325px) of above shot
100% crop (599x325px) of above shot

Since this is a manual focus lens, there’s a chance that someone with better eyes and hands than me could even improve on that, but with 10x live view zoom that was as sharp as I could focus. The word hobbit feels a little soft, but that’s not because the lens isn’t sharp – that’s mild bokeh for that spine being closer to the camera than the focus point (the Lord of the Rings book).

I looked at the results and I did what I think most people do when they first lens – I said HOLY F**K!!! I scrambled to look at the results from all of the lens I’ve used in 2013 at 50-55mm and nothing topped this sharpness. In fact, not even the amazing a7R with the 35mm Zeiss topped this. I literally could find no lens for any amount of money or with any cameras that could top this result – and as I said, someone more skillful at manual focusing might be able to do better than this!

I’ve decided that moving forward I want to become a better man so that perhaps one day I will be lucky enough to own this lens, so henceforth I’m going to replace my use of the F word with my new favorite four letter word – Otus! HOLY OTUS – yeah, it kinda has a fun ring too it!

Canon 50mm f/1.2L vs Otus 55mm f/1.4 @ f/5.6

Canon 50mm f/1.2L (left) vs Otus 55mm (right) at f/5.6 ISO 100
Click the image to see the in-camera original – unmodified

I compared my bookshelf shots of the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II , the 24-70 f/4L IS, and the Canon 50mm f/1.2L. At f/5.6 I concluded that the 50mm f/1.2L was probably the sharpest so I compared it against the Zeiss. HOLY OTUS – this lens blows it away!

Real World Sample Images

I’ll be doing more that are more interesting than these, but for kicks and giggles I took a few shots tonight just to see how good this lens really is. Click here to see the gallery where I’ll store all my test images, and you’ll notice that all the shots here are featured numerous times because I shot them at various apertures. You can download them and check them out for yourself, but you may not print, edit, or otherwise use these photos beyond that. You must delete them as all images featured in this article (except those from B&H) are Copyright © Ron Martinsen – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

These images come from my Canon 1D X with zero post-processing, but they are the in-camera JPEG’s so it does do a little bit of internal processing. I did turn off all noise reduction just to avoid any softening of the images.

Click any of the images to see the full-size in-camera original.

Art Deco 60 Count Humidor
Canon EOS-1D X, f/11 @ 55 mm, 1/60, ISO 100, No Flash
Manual focus was on center of the Zino Crown Series torpedo shaped cigar
Cigar fans, ignore my hygrometer reading – it’s broken

Art Deco 60 Count Humidor
Canon EOS-1D X, f/16 @ 55 mm, 1/60, ISO 100, No Flash
f/16 (min aperture) suffers from diffraction so f/11 was the sweet spot on my 1D X

Canon EOS-1D X, f/8 @ 55 mm, 1/60, ISO 100, No Flash

Find more Arturo Fuente, Davidoff, & Padron cigars at Thompson Cigars (Special Offer)

Canon EOS-1D X, f/1.4 @ 55 mm, 0.4s, ISO 100, No Flash

There’s vignetting wide open, but it has dreamy bokeh

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 55 mm, 6s, ISO 100, No Flash

A flickering TV in the background caused this to be slightly overexposed

Canon EOS-1D X, f/8 @ 55 mm, 8s, ISO 100, No Flash

Canon EOS-1D X, f/2.8 @ 55 mm, 1s, ISO 100, No Flash

Vignetting is gone by f/2, so 2.8 is pretty awesome

Canon EOS-1D X, f/1.4 @ 55 mm, 1/4, ISO 100, No Flash

Wide open always looks 1 stop underexposed with this lens

Nikon D810 with Zeiss Otus @ f/1.4, 1/1600, ISO 100, No Flash

The Zeiss offers a much more slimming effect on the model despite only being 5mm different from the SIGMA. However, this lens is so sharp that it almost has too much detail in the out of focus regions of the image.


I’ve only had this lens for a couple hours so I’m not done reviewing yet. I still need to test this lens in the field, and believe me - I will! Given the manual nature of this lens I’ll probably stick to landscapes, but I may bring in a model for the heck of it. Models cost money though, so if you want to make a donation that would certainly help the cause!

My findings thus far tell me that f/1.4 is a bit on the dark side so you’d need to add +1EV of exposure compensation at that setting to offset the vignetting. On my 1D X (or a Canon 6D) you’d hit the sharpness limit and start really suffering from diffraction at f/11, so practical real world use would probably have you at f/2 – f/11 for the best in-camera results in aperture priority.

Due to licensing reasons, neither Canon nor Nikon version support autofocus. That is very unfortunate and will be a huge pill to swallow for those who look at the steep price of this lens. With that said though, this really is the Maybach of lenses. A person doesn’t buy a Maybach (or Ferrari) because it’s practical or because it makes sense – they buy it because they have a crap load of money and want the best that money can buy. Sure strict spec analysis and number crunching will favor cheaper lenses, but if you want one of the best lenses ever made – then this is certainly it!

At 2.3 lb (970g), this lens is pretty heavy – it’s also quite large in physical size too. My contact at Zeiss told me this was because they used a lot of the best glass money can buy to minimize distortion and chromatic aberrations. From what I can see, it has worked. To house this expensive glass is the most solid case I’ve felt on a lens, and the hood is metal as well. The rubber focus ring is one the most smooth operating objects I’ve ever turned (and this goes beyond lenses). As a result, in your hands you really feel like you are holding the best lens ever made. Hell, even the lens cap with the color Zeiss logo is freakin cool!

There will be more to come, so please check back often to see my next installment of my review of this amazing lens. It’s not for everyone, but if you can afford it you should get a great tripod (recommendations) and prepare to be amazed.

For the second part of this view, see my article entitled Landscape Shooting with the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 (Review Part II)–Unedited Forest Photos.

Where to order

Click here to learn more or order either the Canon or Nikon version on the B&H web site. If you enjoyed this article, I strongly encourage you to purchase from them as this wouldn’t have been possible without their support!

Where to rent with a discount

Can afford this lens? Me either – ha, ha! It’s still fun and worth checking out, so rent it and have your day of fun with it too!

My friends at and both offer discounts on my discount coupon code page where you can rent this awesome lens.

Here’s the pages that link to this lens on their web site:

Remember, to visit my Discount Coupon Code page for this and other discounts!

Other articles you may enjoy

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If you make a purchase using links found in this article, I may make a commission. It doesn’t cost you a penny more, but it does help to support future articles like this. I’d also like to thank B&H for letting me borrow this lens so that I may bring this review to you!

If you enjoyed this article, please support future articles like this by making a donation or saving money by using my discount coupon codes. Either way, your support is greatly appreciated!

This blog is intended for freelance writing and sharing of opinions and is not a representative of any of the companies whose links are provided on this site.

The opinions provided are of Ron Martinsen alone and do not reflect the view of any other entity


Unknown said... your article.
I saw you quote an 24-70 f2.8 L
I have of this, w 5dII (580exII) and not happy with tha "loosing focus" issue
It has a serious trouble to find focus in dim light. Do you why?

Ron Martinsen said...


The 24-70 f/2.8L does not have a "loosing focus" issue. That's Internet crap from amateurs who don't have a clue how how autofocus systems work. If there is not enough contrast nearly any AF system will go into a focus hunting scenario where it can't lock focus. The same is true if you are within the minimum focus distance. These aren't defects - they are lens basics 101.

If someone thinks the 24-70 f/2.8L II has a losing focus issue, they should sell all of their gear and get out of the world of photography because they'll never be happy.

Do some copies of the 24-70 f/2.8L II have issues with being front or back focused - yes. I had that with mine, but when your lens is under warranty you can work with Canon and they'll fix it at no charge. Sadly it took them two times to get it perfect on mine, but it's been fine ever since.

One other thing, on your 5D Mark III when you use spot focus (the small square with the dot inside of it), that creates a very tiny (think laser pointer) focus region so it's VERY easy to get into a focus hunting situation because you are putting your proverbal laser pointer on a spot that doesn't have enough contrast.

To prove this - take any autofocus lens and try to get it to focus on a dark black non-reflective sheet of paper (like construction paper) without it having any direct light on it. Even the best lenses and cameras will fight like hell to try to acquire a focus.