Wednesday, October 29, 2014

REVIEW: Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4–Is it worth the money?

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* ZE Lens
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* ZE Lens

Zeiss Otus lenses are the most amazing lenses to hold in your hands. They are the lens equivalent of a high end Swiss watch where everything just screams precision and perfection. The focus ring is a work of art that makes you wish all lenses could have a focus ring like this. However, do these physical characteristics and it’s massive amount of glass translate into a product worthy of its > $4000 USD price tag? Read on to get my take.

Mug Shot Analysis

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 85 mm, 1/200, ISO 100, No Flash

Click for the unedited in-camera original JPEG
(NOTE: Model intentionally placed lower in the frame to get the eyelashes in the sweet spot)

As one would expect, this is a very sharp lens. In my analysis of this lens I’ve noticed that it’s sharpness really shines on the finest details like that of the pattern and texture of the shirt. If you zoom in there and around the buttons you get a real world idea of just how sharp this lens really is.

Models will certainly hate it for its sharpness on the skin, but as you can see in this image every little pore, glitter flake, hair and eyelash is super sharp.

My subjective opinion is that it is sharper than the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II wide open – especially at the edges. However as you stop down to f/4.0 and at f/5.6 things start to get pretty similar. The 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 85mm is nearly as sharp in all areas except around the outer third edges (the buttons and lower).

Bookshelf Analysis

Canon EOS-1D X, f/5.6 @ 85 mm, 15s, ISO 100, No Flash

The bookshelf testing really shows off just how good this lens really is. In fact, while doing the manual focusing I quickly realized that this lens out resolves the Canon Live View display making perfect manual focusing more difficult. However, with some trial and error I’m convinced I nailed it.

With that said, when you click on the original of the image above you’ll see some amazing detail throughout the image. This lens is insane sharp, no doubt, but the manual focus means that some might not get the maximum sharpness in the real world due to human error. This is an important consideration that shouldn’t be ignored.

After looking at all factors of the bookshelf images, I definitely felt like f/5.6 was the sweet spot for this lens – but it’s fantastic from f/1.4 all the way to f/16!

Canon EOS-1D X, f/1.4 @ 85 mm, 1s, ISO 100, No Flash

As I look at the image with the lens wide open I see creamy bokeh, yet crisp sharpness – both important characteristics for this focal length. Overall I was very satisfied with what I saw and felt like its use on a tripod of static subjects would result in amazing images (or video).

Click here to see the full gallery of images test images.

Depth of Field/Bokeh Test

Canon EOS-1D X, f/1.4 @ 85 mm, 1/13, ISO 100, No Flash

When reviewing a lens with f-stops smaller than f/4, it’s common for people to ask about the quality of the bokeh created by the lens. Generally speaking, the better the lens the more “creamy” the bokeh, so the question becomes – just how good is it for this mega lens.

As you can see from the shot above the depth of field is very shallow at f/1.4 resulting a excellent but somewhat dark out of focus region.  As is true with nearly any lens, going to larger f-stops helps with the wide open vignetting issue. As a result, by f/2.8 you get an incredibly sharp image with a bright and very satisfying bokeh as shown below:

Canon EOS-1D X, f/2.8 @ 85 mm, 1/3, ISO 100, No Flash

Canon EOS-1D X, f/16 @ 85 mm, 10s, ISO 100, No Flash

This is a solid lens stopped all the way down to f/16, so I’d have no reservations shooting at f/16 with this lens.

Click here to see the full gallery of images test images which includes 8 different apertures of this same shot.


I was really impressed with the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, so I was excited to get my hands on this lens. After some frustrations in real world testing with the manual focus challenges I quickly realized that this type of lens just simply isn’t for me. While it is spectacularly sharp with gorgeous bokeh, I’d personally take the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II over this one in a heartbeat. The Canon lens is so sharp with such amazing bokeh that there’s very little for the pixel peeper to find advantageous about this lens, yet the lack of autofocus means that your odds of getting a shot of anything that isn’t completely stationary at f/1.4 will be very difficult. In fact, I hate the long minimum focus distance and slow autofocus of the Canon 85mm prime, so personally I’m happy sticking with my 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 85mm. I simply couldn’t tell the difference in the areas that mattered most to me (eyes, eye lashes and hair), and honestly for the people photography I do too much sharpness ends up being a bad thing (i.e., I spend more time doing skin touchups and fixing the skin with Portraiture).

Yes, this lens is phenomenally built, crazy sharp with wonderful bokeh. Unlike the 55mm which has a formidable competitor from SIGMA in the form of the 50mm Art Series (Nikon D810 Otus vs Sigma), SIGMA still has an average 85mm that certainly isn’t in the league of this lens (or the Canon lenses in my opinion).

If you are the type of person that buys $850 Tom Ford belts without looking at the price tag, then perhaps this is the lens for you. If you are a working stiff like the rest of us, then my advice is to go with Canon 85mm f/1.2L II or Nikon’s 85mm IF you need more than the brilliant 70-200mm zooms offer. You can take the rest of that money that’s burning a hole in your pocket and make good use of it on my other recommendations.

Oh and if you do decide to get it, be sure to check out my tripod recommendations – you are going to need a good one while manually focusing this lens!

Where to order

Click here to learn more or order on the B&H web site.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Is it against the law to have a comparison. When I spend lots of money I search for the best product for the money. The Otus looks amazing. I would LOVE, so LOVE, if someone could say even though the Canon 85mm 1.2 II is less than half the price, and has quick and accurate autofocus, the Otus still is in such a league of its own, just go ahead and spend the $4,500. Thats why we read your blog, sample photography.... to gain knowledge. Thank you kindly, Andreas