Saturday, March 28, 2009

Zeiss 50mm F/1.4 review

Zeiss is one of the oldest and legendary optical manufacturers. They were pioneers of most of the lens designs. The 50mm lens is also one of the oldest and most used focal length range in photography. The initial 50mm designs were Tessars followed by Sonnars. The Planar design was developed, as the name implies, to limit distortion. This was more than 100 years ago. Today most 50mm lenses by any manufacturer is based on a variation of the original Planar design.

This is about the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. There are mainly 2 versions. The Contax version (Z/Y mount) and the Nikon F mount.I have used both and do not find any difference in image quality. The Nikon F mount is made by Cosina and is mostly similar in design to the older Z/Y mount.

As expected of any manual focus lens the build quality is excellent. It will survive normal usage and some occasional bumps. (It may surprise you that the so called cheap "plastic" lenses by Nikon and Canon will do exactly the same in similar situations and because of the plastic, they may actually fare well in certain situations, more on this on some later blog). The Zeiss is not weather proof, meaning that though the lens may survive, the camera may be damaged if water leaks on to the electrical contacts. (This would not happen if you use weather sealed camera/lens combo).

This is a manual focus lens and you have to set the aperture on the lens. The focus and feel of the lens is excellent. Focusing is smooth and if you are shooting wide open for the most part, you need a focusing screen to get accurate focus. But as far as manual focus lenses go, this lens is excellent.

The first thing about any Zeiss lens is its image quality. This is all Zeiss is about. Zeiss has the reputation of having a certain "look" and a 3D appearance to the images. As far as the Zeiss 50mm planar is concerned, it does have a distinct look but whether you get 3D appearance or not depends on your subject and this lens has little to do with it apart from the fact that it is fast with shallow Dof at f/1.4 which helps. Zeiss has a lot of reputation built and some are real while some are not. The true Zeiss strength is resolution and in that respect this lens is exemplary. Todays DSLRs demand high resolution due to the very efficient sensors and this lens provides all the resolution that is needed. At f/4 the resolution is nothing short of stunning. From f/4 to F/11 the images are sharp and offer plenty of resolution. Diffraction sets in at f/16 and beyond. The lens is contrasty true to its Zeiss origins. Colors are punchy and natural. You should be happy with the image quality.

Now wide open at f/1.4 the lens is plenty sharp and has excellent resolution in the center but soft in the corners. You will have to stop to f/2 or f/2.8 for corners to catch up.

No one can talk about a lens without mentioning Bokeh. (Check out Bokeh rant for my thoughts about this) So here it goes, the bokeh of this lens is decent. It is going to be a bit harsh but nothing that would distract your subject if you are capable of composing carefully, appreciative of what you intend to get out of it. The transition of sharp areas with out of focus background (or foreground) is short but again decent without attracting undue attention.

The lens exhibits minimal distortion that is average and similar to most 50mm lenses. The CA is present wide open and is a little bit more than I would expect from a 50mm lens. But is manageable easily with RAW converters. Light fall of or vignetting is significant wide open and needs to be stopped to f/2 or f/2.8 for DX cameras and to almost f/4 for FX cameras. This can again be easily eliminated with RAW converters so I wouldn't worry much about this. Flare is well controlled and is excellent in this regard.

Overall this is a very good lens with exceptional resolution, excellent build quality, smooth focus mechanism and a great manual focus lens. It is average at far as CA, vignetting and distortion goes. This lens will provide you with amazing photos provided you have the right subject and you are a capable photographer. But it does not create magic, it will not make average photos better. To extend it further it will not produce any distinguishing look to most photos. Sometimes when things work as far as subject, composition etc goes, the resolution will make it look exceedingly good but never magical rarely 3D. So do not spend your money if these are your expectations. The Zeiss look reputation is more from its Sonnars than planars. This is a good lens but there are better lenses in the Zeiss line up. As far as competition there is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, Leica summicron 50mm f/2 ( if you willing to use adapters). My next blog is a comparison of the zeiss planar 50mm vs the Nikkor 50mm /1.2 lens. Stay tuned.

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