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Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 APO Distagon T* Review

John Riley reviews the Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 lens, the premium manual lens with a bright aperture.


|  Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO Distagon T* in Interchangeable Lenses
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Handling and Features
Performance
Verdict
Specification

Zeiss Otus 55mm F1,4 Oblique Front

Designed with the highest performance in mind, the Otus range is expensive, bulky and heavy. But, billed as “The best standard lens in the world” on the Zeiss website, let's see how this 55mm f/1.4 stands up to this brave and unequivocal claim, and especially if the price tag can be justified for a manual focus lens.

Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 Handling and Features

Zeiss Otus 55mm F1,4 Front Element

The first impression of this lens is that it is large, heavy and gorgeous. The finish is exemplary, the controls silky smooth and the metal lens hood clips into place with absolute precision. The impression that lingers is that feeling of beautiful engineering, but the offset is a very large and heavy optic, weighing in at 970g in Nikon (ZF.2) mount and 1030g in Canon (ZE) mount. The version reviewed is in ZF.2 mount for Nikon, using the Nikon D810 body.

The lens is as minimalistic as the instruction manual, the latter telling us very little as regards specification and just the bare bones of handling. For more information, we have to refer to the Zeiss website. It is a design though that clearly has class, a solid and satisfying sense that conveys quality in manufacture, just like its 28mm f/1.4 sibling previously tested. Compared to the norm for 50mm or 55mm standard lenses, under the skin this is a highly complex optic.

The optical formula is 12 elements in 10 groups. There are five aspheric elements and six elements are made with anomalous partial dispersion glass. The construction is completed by floating elements, used to maintain quality at closer focusing distances. All of this results in an apochromatic lens based upon the Distagon retrofocus design. Apochromatic lenses are designed to give full correction for three colours of light - red, green and blue, focusing all at the same point to avoid colour fringing.

Zeiss Otus 55mm F1,4 On Nikon D810 With Hood

Lens controls are sparse, consisting of a focusing ring and aperture ring. The aperture ring has a locking stop at f/16 for auto functions, depending on the camera, or offers the usual aperture options with click stops at half stop intervals. The exception is between f/11 and f/16, which is a full stop only. This aperture ring is very nicely engineered, firm but easy to use and just light enough in action. Filter size is 77mm.

We are offered manual focusing only and this is adjusted with a comfortable and reasonably wide rubberised ring that is silent in operation. There is no lens extension as we focus closer as the lens employs internal focusing. There is a cut out for the distance scale, boldly marked in feet and metres. There is also a depth of field scale and an infra-red focusing mark, all very traditional for a manual focus lens. Focusing is down to 0.5m (19.68 inches) from the sensor plane. It must be said though that manually focusing accurately does take some attention. If the camera's focusing screen is to be used then it may well be that the standard AF screen is unsuitable. Certainly with the Nikon D810 manual focusing is very difficult and using Live View is much more effective. This is the only real difficultly with the lens, and focusing well does reap benefits. When it's right, as we shall see, it is spectacular.


Zeiss Otus 55mm F1,4 Oblique Rear

Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 Performance

This is a very complex lens, as well as the size and weight already mentioned. Compared to the usual standard lens it is huge, and Zeiss clearly are making no compromises in their quest for the optimum optical quality. The optical formula is a long way removed from the traditional 7 elements in 6 groups that we might expect from an f/1.4 standard lens.

Taking distortion first, this is held very well to -0.786% barrel. This is excellent and should pose no problems in general photography. In any event, corrections can be made in software.

Resolution is very high, and rarely, if ever, is such a high, even performance seen. Yes, there are differences in the figures from aperture to aperture, but it makes little practical difference whether we look at the centre or edge of the field or what aperture we use. It can be regarded as universally excellent, with aperture merely changing the depth of field. This is a remarkable performance indeed. A lens which is universally as sharp as we could wish for.


 

 
MTF
MTF
 

How to read our charts

The blue column represents readings from the centre of the picture frame at the various apertures and the green is from the edges. 

The scale on the left side is an indication of actual image resolution as LW/PH. The taller the column, the better the lens performance. Simple.

For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D810 using Imatest.

Chromatic aberration, or colour fringing, is also well under control, with figures hovering between one quarter and one half of a pixel. This is insignificant, and results in incredibly clean images of, for example, tree branches against sky. This clarity does give a different impression to the right images and is no doubt what Zeiss mean when they refer to a “medium format” look.


 

 
CA
CA
 

How to read our charts

Chromatic aberration is the lens' inability to focus on the sensor or film all colours of visible light at the same point. Severe chromatic aberration gives a noticeable fringing or a halo effect around sharp edges within the picture. It can be cured in software.

Apochromatic lenses have special lens elements (aspheric, extra-low dispersion etc) to minimize the problem, hence they usually cost more.

For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D810 using Imatest.

The high sharpness does, however, seem to make the bokeh of the lens a little less smooth than some. This is a subtle point and depends very much on the subject matter and, compared to the major advantages of the lens, a minor criticism. A more substantial criticism is that there is no weather sealing. These days weather resistance is seen, quite rightly, as a major advantage and it's a disappointment that at this price level it is not included. Perhaps that would mean even more bulk and that was where the line was drawn.

Flare is also very well under control and it is quite difficult to induce any signs at all of artefacts and internal reflections. Under the most arduous conditions there may be a slight drop in contrast, but for all practical considerations flare is absent.

The only real limitation to performance seems to be the ability to focus accurately, and it does make an enormous difference to the results, especially at wide apertures. When it's right, it's stunning.

Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO Distagon T* Sample Photos

Value For Money

Value for money is always going to be a tough call for lenses at this price level. £2699 is a very high price for a 55mm f/1.4 standard lens, by anybody's standards. It is, however, on a par with the Leica Summilux-M Aspherical 50mm f/1.4 at £2999.

Alternatives for Nikon are the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 G AF-S (£275) and Nikkor 58mm f/1.4 G AF-S (£1349). There is also the manual focus Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S (£699). Canon offer the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM (£232) and the EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM (£995).

For Canon and Nikon we also have the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens (£669), the Samyang 50mm f/1.4 AS UMC (£283), the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 (£949), the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 (£559) and the Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Color Nokton SL II (£409).

So, what price do we put on the technical excellence of the Zeiss Otus lens? That is, in the end, a very personal choice.

Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 Verdict

If the objective is the best possible technical quality then there is no doubt here is a lens that's probably as good as we can get. It's not a compact travel lens, it's not weather resistant, so as a constant companion it might well be a burden. In the studio it will excel.

The lack of autofocus may also be a drawback as manually focusing the lens is very critical and quite difficult to get right every time. Inevitably, when standards are so high we will become more and more critical and it becomes obvious when we are even slightly astray.

If the need for this quality is there and the price is within range, then the answer is very clear. Most of us though will find the high cost to be quite a hurdle when there are so many lens choices that also perform very well.

Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 Pros

Superb optical quality
Impeccable construction quality
Very uniform, even performance

Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 Cons

No weather resistance
Manual focus difficult with AF screen
Large and heavy lens
Very high price

FEATURES  
HANDLING  
PERFORMANCE  
VALUE FOR MONEY  
VERDICT  

The Zeiss OTUS 55mm f/1.4 gives superb quality at a high price.

 


Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO Distagon T* Specifications

ManufacturerZeiss
General
Lens Mounts
  • Nikon AF
  • Canon EF
Lens
Focal Length55mm
Angle of View43.7
Max Aperturef/1.4
Min Aperturef/16
Filter Size77mm
StabilisedNo
35mm equivalentNo Data
Internal focusingYes
Maximum magnificationNo Data
Focusing
Min Focus50cm
Construction
Blades9
Elements12
Groups10
Box Contents
Box ContentsNo Data
Dimensions
Weight970g
Height142mm

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Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon Manual Focus Lens (Canon EOS-Mount) Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon Manual Focus Lens (Canon EOS-Mount) BUY NOW $3980.21

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