With the Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens, Zeiss set out to build the best lens in the world. Did they succeed? And what’s the price of perfection?
35mm-sensor DSLRs are, for many professional photographers, taking the place of medium-format film cameras. The image quality you can get out of a Nikon D800, for instance, with its 36MP sensor, easily rivals the kind of image you could get from a 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 frame of Kodachrome back in the day. The problem? Such incredibly high resolution also reveals the optical limits of 35mm format lenses that were designed for lower-resolution sensors. Now along comes the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens, which promises the kind of uncompromising optical quality that perfectly matches the unforgivingly sharp images produced by today's top DSLRs.
Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens key features:
- Aperture range f/1.4-16
- Manual focus
- Close focus to 19.7 inches
- 12 elements in 10 groups
- 77mm filters
- 2.22 pounds
- Available in Nikon F (ZF.2) and Canon EF (ZE) mounts
Above: Shot at the widest aperture with a Nikon D800, this 55mm f/1.4 Zeiss Otus portrait has a medium-format feel. At 100%, below, the sharpenss is outstanding. Photo courtesy Carl Zeiss.
First, let's talk about that funny name. What the heck is an Otus? It's a type of owl that has unusually sharp visual acuity. And, apparently, the Zeiss Otus line, of which the 55mm f/1.4 is the first, will consist of lenses that are unusually sharp and well-matched to DSLRs such as the Nikon D800.
Zeiss makes some mighty claims for this lens, saying it's nothing less than flawless—no color fringing, no distortion, no chromatic aberrations. They also say the lens offers the highest possible contrast performance over the entire image field. Even more impressive, the lens's image quality doesn't change as you change the aperture setting, so the edge-to-edge sharpness at f/1.4 is equal to that at f/8 and so on.
Uncompromising lens design results in imperceptible imperfections, even in low or extreme lighting conditions. Photo courtesy Carl Zeiss.
Zeiss backs up its claim with solid construction: The lens is made of special glass with anomalous partial dispersion. Apochromatic coating is said to reduce chromatic aberrations so bright-dark transitions are almost free of color artifacts. The lens's aspherical design is said to provide constant imaging performance throughout the focus range in both the center and edges, thanks to a more complex surface profile.
Pleasing bokeh on display in this low-light scene. Note the smooth transition and pleasing shape of the specular highlights. Photo courtesy Carl Zeiss.
Yes, the lens is heavier and bigger than a typical "normal" lens, but the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 is clearly not normal—it is, by design, extraordinary and worth its extraordinary price for high-end professionals who demand uncompromising quality. It can be pre-ordered now at Adorama for Canon and Nikon DSLRs for $3,990.
This photo of a fuzzy dog demonstrates more proof that the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 is anything but that! Photo courtesy Carl Zeiss.