Epitome of Lens Design: Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2

Optics manufacturer Carl Zeiss set out to design and produce the ultimate camera lens based on more than a century of knowledge, and the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 is the result. It is available for Nikon and Canon cameras, and I had the opportunity to use the Nikon version, designated by ZF.2. Considering how good the $1,700 AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G is for practical shooting, what does the $4,000 Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 have to offer?

For one thing, the Zeiss optic offers manual focusing and only manual focusing. Not only that, the focus ring needs to rotate through 248 degrees to change from its 2-foot close focus distance (about the same as the Nikkor) to infinity. This makes for extremely precise but extremely slow focusing for still photography.

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It’s also a large, heavy lens, beautifully made of metal. It’s about twice the length of the Nikkor and nearly three times the weight. By comparison, the focusing ring on the Zeiss is nearly the size of the Nikkor lens. The focusing ring uses ball bearings like the finest cinematography lenses to ensure a smooth, silky feel free of backlash or play. There are stops at the minimum focusing distance (19.7 inches) and at infinity. And the focusing ring rotates in the proper direction for the camera on which it is mounted.

Distance markings are engraved on the lens and filled with bright yellow. And there are depth-of-field markings for each aperture from f/1.4 to f/16. These are similarly engraved and painted.

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As beautiful as the Zeiss lens is, the real art is in the optical design. Based on the Zeiss Distagon formula, the 55mm Otus utilizes 12 elements in 10 groups. The resulting images are as close to flawless as I have seen. There is barely a hint of vignetting, color fringing, or chromatic aberrations, even at f/1.4. The only noticeable aberration was the smallest amount of coma in point-source light at the edge of the frame at f/1.4. From f/2 to f/16, the images are flawless. Sharpness and contrast from corner to corner are excellent at f/1.4 and remain so throughout the aperture range.

With the lens mounted on a high-resolution digital SLR such as the Nikon D800E and the system on a steady tripod, the image quality is nothing short of outstanding. Even at f/1.4, contrast is high with no veiling glare in the shadows, and there is an almost three dimensional quality to the images.

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Click for larger view. Exposure: 1/125 second at f/1.4, ISO 100. Camera: Nikon D610 with Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 lens. ©Stan Sholik

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Click for larger view. Exposure: 1/125 second at f/1.4, ISO 100. Camera: Nikon D610 with Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 lens. ©Stan Sholik

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Click for larger view. Exposure: 1/500 second at f/1.4, ISO 100. Camera: Nikon D610 with Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 lens. ©Stan Sholik

While it won’t be the lens of choice for action photographers, wedding photographers will benefit from the ability to hold detail in the bride’s dress and the groom’s dark clothes. Landscape photographers will benefit from its ability to hold detail in both highlights and shadows. But portrait photographers will be in for some post-production work smoothing skin tones and blemishes.

Zeiss promises that the Otus 1.4/55 is only the first in a line of Otus lenses designed with fast apertures and the highest optical and mechanical standards. The Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 represents the epitome of the current state of lens design and manufacturing—and at a price representative of that achievement.

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