I’ve been using the 85 mm f/1.4 Zeiss Otus recently. It is, I believe, an even better lens than the 55 mm. It’s not just that it is so sharp, or so contrasty or so free from distortion – the images just look right. The photographic term of art for this is that the lens draws well. I’ll say.
I’ve been using it both on the Nikon D810 and on the Sony alpha 7R. While it works great on cameras with less resolution, it somehow seems a shame to use it on an instrument that can’t come close to resolving the image that it can lay down on the sensor. In fact neither the Nikon nor the Sony, with their 36 megapixel resolution, can do justice to this lens. It would work great on a 150 megapixel camera.
The combination of high-resolution sensors and lenses like the Zeiss 85 have cause me to rethink some things that I thought I knew about photography.
The first is depth of field. The changes in my thinking here are more of an evolution than a revolution. Over the last 10 years, it’s become obvious that the depth of field tables developed for use with film were hugely optimistic in the digital world. As the sensor resolution increased, the gap opened wider. Now, lenses like the Otus are turning it into a chasm. Seeing detail that is even slightly out of focus next to the incredible rendering of the in-focus areas that the lens delivers is sometimes shocking; it stands out a lot more than with lesser lenses.
It is a paradox that a lens that delivers its ultimate sharpness around f/4 makes you want to stop it down well past that to get enough depth of field. Focus stacking only works for static subject matter, but this lens calls out for it. The delightful long-travel focusing ring makes the necessary focusing adjustments simple and precise.
You knew what was coming next, didn’t you? Yes, in spite of its imposing mass, which tends to reduce vibration, the sharpness of this lens means that it really needs to be held still. When handholding the D810 I need to get the shutter speed up to at least 1/320, and preferably 1/500. With the alpha 7R, the shutter speed needs to be even higher.
I see that Sony has announced a successor to the alpha 7 that has in-camera image stabilization. I hope this becomes a trend. However, I wonder if the systems are tuned for small enough corrections for use with lenses like the Otus. I suppose we will find out soon enough.
You’ll get the most out of a lens this sharp if you use it on a tripod. I would’ve preferred it had Zeiss equipped the lens with a removable Arca-Swiss compatible dovetail. Having all that weight hanging off the front of the camera is a little worrisome with the D810. When using the lens on the alpha 7R, I use the dovetail on the Novaflex adapter. This is not entirely without problems. The foot of the adapter needs to be raised a bit to fit it on a tripod; I use an RRS dovetail for that purpose. The resulting attachment is front-heavy, but not nearly so much as clipping the camera body to the tripod.
The new D810 live view makes tripod-mounted focusing a pleasure. However, the optical finder, devoid of any of the focusing aids of the film era, just isn’t up to the task of precise manual focusing. This isn’t a new thing, I’ve noticed it with all of the Zeiss lenses used on Nikons. However, the Otus demands precise focusing. The focus-assist arrows and dot are altogether too eager to say that the subject is in focus, and really aren’t much help at all.
I don’t think that this lens should be used handheld on the D810, except in special circumstances.
With the alpha 7R electronic viewfinder, things are different. Focus peaking works quite well, although I reiterate my request – are you listening Sony? – to be able to assign buttons on the camera to change the focus peaking sensitivity, since there is no setting appropriate for all subjects and magnifications.
The bottom line? The Otus 85 mm is a great fit for a sturdy tripod and either the D810 or the alpha 7R. When it comes to handholding, better go with the Sony.
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