The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Versus … a Two-Year-Old Pocket Camera

Otus-85-ZF.2-Product-sample-II

She’s a beaut. (Except for the rubber ring.) Image courtesy of Zeiss.

 

Laaaadieeesss and Gentlemennnn! I have for you the lens test to end all lens tests! Not a mere test, mind you, but an epic showdown, a clash of the titans, the ultimate cage match! Pixel peepers rejoice!

In one corner, wearing all-metal trunks in black with yellow piping, we have the Zeiss Otus 85mm, a lens so sharp the TSA banned it from carry-on luggage. A lens so sharp the state of California passed legislation requiring it ships with a warning label. Diamond cutters in Amsterdam are currently investigating ways to harness its fearsome powers.

A lens of this ground-breaking resolution makes sensor engineers wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. But Sony has risen to the challenge with confidence and quiet dignity. The world’s biggest sensor maker answers the Otus with a full-frame, 36 megapixel “Low-pass filters, we don’t need no stinking low-pass filters” A7R. This camera is so powerful that it actually can steal someone’s soul.

In the other corner, we have, well, we have what I had with me at the time–a two-year-old pocket camera, the Sony RX100. Yeah. That’s right. The battery door sticks and the multi-coating on the LCD is experiencing some major exfoliation issues but worry not, this little dynamo is still in fighting trim.

Now, those of you who have read my previous post on using the RX100 as a pro camera may think, ah, ok, I guess this guy worships at the RX100 altar and he’s now trying to convert us all and pretty soon he’ll be sending his sons around to meet our daughters. The truth is a lot more benign, and even more simple. I used the RX100 because I own the RX100. It’s just one of my cameras, and also, given its size, the one I have with me more than any other. (Not counting my iPhone 3Gs–I’ve held out for five years in the hopes of another iPhone with rounded corners. Now I have crossed the desert, and lo, my thirst is quenched.)

So, let’s get on with the show. At the Photokina trade fair in Cologne, Germany, I walked towards the Zeiss booth, mission in mind. The only thing was, I couldn’t be sure how the Zeiss guys were going to take it. After all, I was asking to compare their newly minted masterpiece of optical engineering to a pocket camera. The line I had prepared in my defence was, “Well, it is a pocket camera with a Zeiss lens… .”

But explanations weren’t necessary. The reps I had been talking with at Zeiss throughout the show were by far the most generous, informative and candid people I talked with at Photokina. I guess that kind of attitude is easier to adopt when you are one of the undisputed kings of lens design, and part of the history of photography itself. Or perhaps they’re just super nice guys. (Or both.)

Anyway, they indulged my little stunt. Watch the video. The only thing I’ll add is that after the test, as I said goodbye to the Zeiss engineer who helped me, he said, “I hope there’s a big difference!”

I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The 100-percent crops. Here they are. Both are jpegs right out of the camera, auto white balance, 100 ISO, f/5. The one from the Otus/A7R is bigger and shows less depth of field thanks to its higher resolution and physically bigger sensor.

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Sony RX100. ISO 100, f/5. This image has been resized to fit. Click to view larger, true 100-percent crop.

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Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 85mm. ISO 100, f/5. This image has been resized to fit. Click to view larger, true 100-percent crop.

So there you have it. Incredible resolution from the Otus, but that didn’t surprise me. Pretty damn good show by the RX100, but that didn’t surprise me either. What I find astonishing is how little difference there is between the two, considering the vast difference in size, weight, sensors and price. Sure, the A7R/Otus combination wins, but not by that much. Besides, it bloody well better win! It’s up against a two-year-old pocket camera that weighs and costs a small fraction as much. (Ignore the color differences since I didn’t bother to set precise color balance on each camera, and they’re not even in the same color space–but then again that wasn’t the point.)

I know what some of you are thinking. “You can’t expect me to take this seriously.” And well, no, actually, I don’t. Except for one thing, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, a question: Is this lens actually going to sell? The 85mm is brand new, so to answer that, we have to look at the 55mm Otus, a similarly huge, heavy, expensive lens that has been out for a while now. I spoke with an executive at Zeiss who has worked on the Otus project from the beginning. He said, “We have been surprised by the sales numbers. They were so strong we opened a second manufacturing line and still we have no stock. Not one of us expected it.”

Yeah, I get that. Why would anybody buy such a heavy, expensive ‘normal’ focal length lens that offers only a slight improvement over light and cheap 50mm lenses–a difference seen only when studying the images up close on a computer screen? Not even Zeiss thought many people would buy the Otus. It wasn’t even their intention. “This started as a strategic lens family just to show what Zeiss was able to do,” said my Zeiss contact. “We didn’t want to lose any money but we didn’t even have to earn money from this.” What they wanted was for you to look at a real test of the Otus, go “Wow!” and then buy a more sensible Zeiss offering, such as the Planar 85mm 1.4–a quarter of the price, much smaller and lighter, sharp as hell, and with a metal focussing ring instead of a silly rubber one. But clearly they underestimated the fervor of the pixel peepers.

Now, let’s be clear here. I’m not trying to dissuade anybody from buying the Otus lenses. (And for the record, Zeiss is one of my favorite lens manufacturers.) Buy whatever makes you happy. Heck, buy two of each. But don’t think you have to in order to get great images. We’ve all gone a little crazy about the technical quality of digital images. It’s really the least important and most mundane aspect of a photograph. And this is where we get to the real point of this post: The quality of today’s digital cameras and lenses is not a limiting factor in your photography. Period. End of story.

It’s fun to talk about lenses, and see how they perform. But which one you use doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is getting out there and taking good pictures–hopefully, of things a lot more interesting than test targets.

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16 Responses to The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Versus … a Two-Year-Old Pocket Camera

  1. Joe K 01/10/2014 at 8:16 pm #

    Nice review Mike…love shooting with my 85mm, so I was very curious to see the results. As expected the gap continues to close between the old guard and the newer compact P&Ss.

    However, my main reason for owning my Nikkor 85 1.4G is for the 1.4 (or at least under 2.0) I rarely use it at any other aperature. That’s its raison d’etre.

    So, yes, I have no doubt with metrics such as sharpness, the gap will more easily narrow. However, I think a fairer test for any 85 1.4 would be comparing those metrics for which people buy 1.4 lenses (sharpness, bokeh, lack of distortion, etc), which are necessary to evaluate at or near wide open.

    My bet is that looking at combination of sharpness and creamy bokeh at 1.4 on the Otus, would make you drool enough wreck the electronics on your RX100

    That said, it’s still interesting to see how small optics have progressed from the days of the old Kodak 110 Instamatic that my dad used to carry around in his pocket back in the 70s.

    • Mike Randolph 01/10/2014 at 11:26 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Joe. But it’s the other way ‘round: the old guard in this test is the pocket camera; the new stuff is the A7R and Otus!

      But you’re absolutely right, a serious test of the lens would have been at f/1.4. But the RX100 doesn’t open up that wide. And also, this wasn’t a serious test.

      A fairer test would have pitted the Otus against your Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, mated to a camera with a full-frame sensor (instead of the RX100’s small 1″ sensor). But this post was more about pixel peeping, and how we can all get carried away with it. Now that you bring it up, however, I’m sure you wouldn’t notice any difference between your lens and the Otus. Unless of course you were pixel peeping. 😉

      • Shamael 03/10/2014 at 3:29 am #

        Test it against one of the top notch Minolta 85-1.4, you will be surprised. For sure, a good copy of that lens is less than quarter the price of the Otus, but I do not believe that the Otus will beat it in quality all over. The Otus had the advantage that you can get one at every corner, the Minolta has some antiquity value already. But for 600 to 900$ you can get some in excellent state on e-bay

  2. Kaizen 02/10/2014 at 2:30 pm #

    As a pixel peeper, I can believe centre sharpness would be close. Could you show the corner sharpness as that is where you should notice the difference in quality.

    • Mike Randolph 02/10/2014 at 3:46 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Kaizen. I don’t think the corner sharpness of the two images will tell you much, since the subject (the bush) was not flat. Besides, it kinda misses the point. If you have any doubts, let me assure you, the Otus-A7R combo is superior. But I have to say, I’m surprised you thought the centre sharpness would be close…I was quite amazed by the results!

  3. Shamael 03/10/2014 at 3:20 am #

    This does not surprise me. When the NEX-7 came out once, an ancient world I lived in became reality once more, and that was being the captain aboard of the ship. Adjusting my speed, diaphragm and my focusing again was an old dream that was a bit uncomfortable in dslr’s not being laid out for that specifically.

    Only my Fuji S5 with Katzeye matte could do that more or less good, but Nikon bodies, same as Fuji have forgotten to be provided with the ‘shoot without lens” menu. Nex-7 made this real, and thus manual lenses and older glass made sense again.

    The point was then to seek for lenses that could perform good, without spending too much for all kind of Leica or Zeiss toys. Here Voigtlaender entered in the breech, and then e-bay with tons of ancient lenses.

    Now, as I found out, not much performs better than a Nikon 50/1.8, the Sigma 30-1.4, and then I discovered what old Minolta glass can do, the 24/2.8, 35-70/4 and the 70-200/4 outperform just any similar modern glass you find on the market. The Tokina 12-24/4 performs like a dream and so on, and I bet all one wants that testing those against the Otus will make the difference shrink for a bit more.

    Beliefs and pretension do not make a halt when it comes to photography, why should it anyway, and then, there is what you call GAS.

    Thanks for the report Mike, hope it teaches somewhat to many, even if it will not change there mind, If we all did, market could not progress, maybe some of us are a bit too “old fashion”, 🙂

  4. Ritsmer 03/10/2014 at 7:26 am #

    Great idea, Mike, to compare these two cameras from different worlds.
    It might help opening peoples eyes to see that anything below FF DSLR’s and video cameras carried on the shoulder is not just junk – but really usable in many situations.

    I.e. one of my Sony TX-55 (http://www.sony.co.uk/support/en/product/DSC-TX55) mini-pocketables always follows me when travelling – and with just a little improvement in post they do help making nice travel videos.
    For these occasions even my RX100 is far too big – and conspicuous …

  5. Keith Caldwell 03/10/2014 at 7:42 am #

    Why all the polite replies ,why has no one mentioned the bias introduced in the comparison by the fact that the RX100 image if better exposed ? Sure the same exposure parameters have been used but that does not guarantee identical exposure rendering.

    I’m sure that it is just a coincidence that this comparison is made at the same time as Sony want to clear the remaining RX100’s….

    • Mike Randolph 03/10/2014 at 8:45 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Keith. You’re right, it is just a coincidence! I wish I’d known…in the video I say the price is $489, but at $329, it makes my point even stronger. No connection to Sony, but thanks for bringing it up–a lot of readers might be happy to know there’s a deal on right now. http://www.sonyalpharumors.com/super-sony-deal-rx100-for-329-only/

    • Anna 03/10/2014 at 9:28 am #

      Open discourse is what we all want and being “polite” is the best way to get there.

  6. Mike 03/10/2014 at 9:32 am #

    seriously?

    two shots at f5 and the conclusion is that the x100 isnt to shabby?
    Do some test shots were it excels, wide open.

    This comparison is nonsense, most lenses look equally sharp / good between f5.6 and f8… -.-
    no distortion visible / no flare visible / no aborration (most of these problems occur wide open)

    • Zack 03/10/2014 at 9:55 am #

      Did you miss the part where he says not to take it seriously?

  7. Starski 03/10/2014 at 10:56 pm #

    So why Zeiss does not make the Sony Alpha mount if they do not need to win money with this lens? They say we do not produce a Sony version as it would not sell. Crap, I do not get Zeiss, and their evasive answers.

    Anyway, most people getting Zeiss Otus are using it on Sony’s cameras. Really, Zeiss, aren’t you a bit strange on Sony Otus mount?

  8. Fuad Efendi 27/12/2015 at 2:00 pm #

    “cameras and lenses is not a limiting factor in your photography” – totally agree.

    One parameter is missing in this comparison: sharpness at f/1.4.

    Without that… PINHOLE CAMERA OUTPERFORMS BOTH!

  9. Fuad Efendi 27/12/2015 at 7:20 pm #

    This is completely different viewpoint: why not to compare performance of Zeiss Otus with the smaller image sensor? 1-inch sensor which is about 8 times smaller than full frame? Can it provide similar sharpness? With 9 times smaller pixels?

    I believe Sony RX100 lens is clear winner. “Each joke has a grain of a joke” ( only a grain)

    P.S. Many businesses such as wedding photography are extremely happy with Otus. These wouldn’t make good money with RX100.

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    […] About the author: Mike Randolph is a writer and photographer based in Madrid, Spain. For tips, technique and gear talk, check out his travel photography blog. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook. This article originally appeared here. […]

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