This is a superlative lens. Exquisite, even. It is not perfect, but if you want the very best – optically – in the normal range for Nikon or Canon full frame cameras, this is it.
I didn’t mention it as a Pro or a Con, because it could be one or the other depending on your preference and the situation, but this is a manual-focus-only lens. No autofocus. No image stabilization, either. In fact there is one ‘control’ on the exterior of the lens: the wide, rubberized focus ring, which is smoothly damped and easy to use. If you cannot abide manual focusing – and modern focus screens in the newer DSLRs from Nikon and Canon can make it a chore – then you can stop reading now and look elsewhere. With the Nikon version you do get electronic contacts to communicate with your camera body, so you can set the physical aperture on the lens to f/16 and then control the aperture with your DSLR (in aperture priority or manual mode) and the lens will meter and communicate EXIF info to your body, like any Zeiss ZF.2 lens.
The Otus is large and quite heavy, tipping the scales at 2.13 pounds (970 grams). It’s extremely well built, even besting the previous Zeiss ZF.2 lenses I’ve used like the 35mm f/1.4 and 100mm f/2 in that regard, but all that metal and exotic glass can cause quite the pain in your neck if you aren’t careful. I took to holding the camera up in one hand while hiking with this lens and my D800E, to give my back and neck a break (that works until your elbow or biceps or forearms get tired, of course). It is not technically weather-sealed, either, which seems a bit of a travesty at this price point (although I’m guessing you could use it in light showers without problem – I just didn’t want to subject my rental lens to that kind of treatment).
And, yep, it’s expensive. Very expensive. The nearest competitor in terms of optical quality (which I haven’t personally used yet), the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, is one quarter the price of the Otus and, according to many reports I’ve read, is just as sharp in the center as the Otus (though it cannot match the Otus on the edges/corners at f/1.4). The Sigma also has the benefit of autofocus.
So. Big, heavy, expensive. What do you get for those negatives?
The best optical quality you can buy for Nikon or Canon full frame DSLRs at the time of this writing. That’s what.
Wide open is where this lens shines, where it was meant to be used. It is exceptionally sharp stopped down, and loses the vignetting that is admittedly quite present at f/1.4 – so there is no reason not to stop it down when the situation demands. But the magic happens at f/1.4.
What do I mean by “magic”? What makes this lens so special, what qualities does it have that made me want to go out and shoot things just to see what they would look like when shot, that made me take hundreds of photographs in the few days I had access to the lens?
It’s a combination of factors, but comes down to an extremely high level of optical correction. Many – the vast majority – of large-aperture lenses suffer from a number of problems at their widest apertures: namely, chromatic aberration (lateral and/or axial) that manifest as color fringes along high contrast lines, before or after the focal point; and more generalized softness either everywhere or at least along the periphery of the image.
The Otus uses lots of heavy and expensive glass and a floating-element design to compensate for chromatic aberration, and provide sharpness at f/1.4 across the entire frame (really – I know people use this term all the time for lenses that don’t deserve it, but this lens is genuinely razor sharp at f/1.4 across the entire frame). There is no lateral chromatic aberration to speak of. I was able to see some axial chromatic aberration (green and purple fringing), but only in specific scenarios that would be exceedingly difficult for even the very best cinema-quality lenses (e.g. a very dark tree with many leaf-free branches set against a very bright sky, shot at f/1.4). In comparison, the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2, the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, and, to an even greater extent, the Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar, suffer much higher levels of axial chromatic aberration even in less demanding circumstances. I have spent a lot of time correcting chromatic aberration on those lenses in post; I never had to with the Otus.
The Otus is, then, essentially, a true APO lens.
This fact, combined with that critical sharpness, gives images even at f/1.4 an exceptionally clean, vibrant look. Bokeh (blur element) edges are free of green or red or purple fringing, as are high contrast edges. This opens up a whole new creative universe where you can safely shoot critically tack-sharp images at f/1.4, with clean separation between the subject in your shot and your background.
An additional benefit of this optical correction is manual focusing is much easier. You focus through the optical viewfinder with the lens wide open, to gather the most light; on other, less well corrected lenses this can mean hitting critical focus is very challenging. I had a much higher hit-rate with Otus than I have with previous manual-focus Zeiss ZF.2 lenses I’ve used on my D800E. I still missed sometimes – you will have to “chimp” or check the back LCD after critical shots, and zoom way down to make sure you really did nail it – but the keeper rate was quite high, even with the very slim depth of field afforded by f/1.4 at 55mm.
Another benefit? The high level of transmission for this lens – it must be close to T/1.5 or even better – means I was consistently seeing my D800E select lower ISOs and faster shutter speeds to achieve proper exposure. That’s a huge help when hand-holding, and let me get more tack-sharp shots even in low light than I would have expected going in.
The 55mm Otus does have a large amount of vignetting wide open. This is a drawback in some cases and a benefit in others. For many photographs of subjects near the center of the frame, the vignetting actually contributes to the three-dimensional quality of the image, helping the subject “pop”. Vignetting is also comparatively easy to correct in post. As a result, with its value as a creative element, I don’t consider this a negative – just something to be aware of, and to work with. Personally I have opted not to correct it on any of the images I’ve processed where I shot at f/1.4. The vignetting is entirely gone by f/2.8.
The best thing about this lens is the freedom it gives you. This may seem paradoxical considering it is a fixed focal length manual focus prime lens. Wouldn’t a zoom with autofocus and vibration reduction give you more creative freedom? Well, maybe, in a way. But the Otus gives you the ability to use any aperture – even f/1.4 – and place your subject at any distance you want, anywhere in the frame. And if you nail the focus the lens will deliver the goods, with tremendous sharpness and great color and that Zeiss rendering and pop. Simple as that.
Does your creative itch call for your subject in the extreme lower right corner with only a sliver in focus at f/1.4? Go for it. Do you need f/11 for a large landscape? Go for it. That’s the really, huge strength of this lens. It made me want to go out and shoot with it. Shoot everything and anything, just to see how the result would look.
It’s not a lens for sports or action. It’s probably not great for weddings or fast-moving events unless you are darn confident in your manual focus ability. But it is, right now, the best lens in terms of pure optical quality that you can buy for Nikon or Canon full frame DSLRs.
(100% crop of the shot above, taken at f/1.4)