Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 extended preview/ Medium format in a 35mm body? Yes, with the right lens.

Zeiss Otus 1.4 55mm ZE

Zeiss Otus 1.4 55mm ZE

Every now and then a piece of gear appears, which changes not only the photo gear landscape and forces the competition to alter their plans, but also pushes photographers into working differently using new equipment. The Fuji X system managed to do this, with lots of people switching to this system. The Nikon D800/e had a similar effect just as Canon 5D. And so we come to the Zeiss Otus 55mm 1.4, which might also be such a game changer, although matching its qualities will be very difficult for the other lens makers.  For now let us look at the basics.


Looking at the cosmetics, the lens has a modern look, an all metal barrel and a rubber like focusing ring, which is easy to detect with your fingers when looking through the viewfinder, easy to read distance and depth of field scales. Apart from the brilliant design (it won the 2013 IF product design award) the first thing you notice is the sheer size of this prime. It is after all a standard lens. It’s not a 50mm nor a 45mm, which is in fact closer to the diagonal 43.3mm, but a 55mm, yet the size and weight is much closer to a medium format 80mm, then the standard fifties we are used to.

All of this has a reason. The Otus, with the diastagon optical construction, is a very complex lens; 12 elements in 10 groups with floating elements design. The specialists at Zeiss worked on the whole project for 3 years, but the time from starting the work to building the first prototype was just one year. According to Dr. Nasse, scientist from Carl Zeiss and one of the first people to shoot with the lens, this was possible thanks to the extensive experience in building high performance cine lenses.

zeiss otus construction

zeiss otus construction

When designing the lens, the engineers and scientists had a totally free hand, not restricted neither by size, weight nor cost. Richard Schleuning from Zeiss says this was a new approach, as normally these restrictions are a part of every project of a new lens. This time there were no compromises with just one goal in mind, the absolutely best lens for 35mm.

The diastagon is normally used for wide angle lenses, it is a more complex, but also gives a possibility of correcting both for chromatic aberrations and field curvature. Schleuning claims both of these parameters are controlled across the whole aperture spectrum, if so, this is an amazing achievement.


Who is it for?

The project started 3 years ago, back then Zeiss must have already realized that there is a group of photographers who are leaving their medium format bodies for full frame DSLRs and are ready to pay the premium price for the quality they are used to from MF lenses. The raising quality of 35mm systems also prevented some shooters from upgrading to MF and its bulk. It is for these clients that Zeiss designed this lens, which could match the quality of the glass produced for Phase One/ Leaf/ Mamiya, Hasselblad systems (Fuji, Rollei or Contax MF systems are a thing of the past unfortunately).

zeiss otus ze zf

zeiss otus ze zf

When the resolution of modern 35mm bodies is approaching 40MP with 14bit color and the pixel size dropped under 5 microns a large number of lenses, which are on the market, do not give these sensors justice. Ultra high resolution sensors need lenses of highest quality to show what they are capable of.

Of course we can correct most lens defects in post while developing RAWs, but the thing many people miss, is that the correcting process deteriorates the quality of the image, as each channel needs to be transformed in various ways, in order to remedy the faults of the lens construction. As Roger Ciala from LensRentals puts it referring to correcting distortion :

Distortion correction is a wonderful tool. But every tool, whether in-camera or in your post-processing program, that modifies an image is a trade-off of sorts. There is no way you can shift that many pixels around and not decrease resolution. ()

Zeiss wanted a lens which could out perform the resolution of cameras like the D800E and yet be virtually free from optical defects. This gives photographers the possibility of achieving medium format quality, when using modern high-end DSLR systems, together with the Otus. What’s more some people are saying the lens is so good, edge to edge, even at f/1.4, that it out-resolves many 60MP medium format systems. Time will tell. I am sure once the lens starts shipping we will see many comparisons and tests. However the images, which have already surfaced prove its outstanding optical design.

And so who will buy it? Manual focus is a barrier for many photographers, those who need to nail it in seconds, or even faster. Sports, action, or wedding photographers often don’t have the time needed to focus by hand. For the rest, this lens sounds like the holy grail. Virtually no aberration, flat field of focus, amazing resolution and contrast, all of this across the whole frame and at all apertures… too good to be true?

It comes at a price, $3,990 at B&H on pre-order and it doesn’t sound like its coming down any lower in the future.



If all of this is true, as we have to wait for the true production samples with their faults (although Zeiss is very good about quality control) to be sure. If it is so good, this might be the dream lens, but only for those who are ready for:

– it’s bulk / at 1kg (2.3lbs) it is a heavy lens
– it’s price tag
– the lack of autofocus

That last point might be the decisive moment for many of us. In my understanding it is also the biggest fault of the lens, however stupid that might sound. Autofocus has its giant advantages which many photographers need. Maybe not everyday, but every few shoots most of us really need the quick focus response. The fact that medium format systems have autofocus is for that very reason. People do use it. So why make a lens aiming at those medium format users who are downgrading to 35mm, or the DSLR users used to using AF and looking to move to medium format and give them a manual focus lens?

Zeiss surely has this thoroughly thought out. The only possible answer to me is, that there are enough of those pros who are willing to dump the autofocus. Their selling statistics must prove, that people are willing to cope with manual focus in exchange for the premium optical quality, the color matching of their whole line, and the very durable construction.

And so it would be stupid to say that the lack of autofocus is a downside. It is what it is, a masterpiece and as every true masterpiece it has its drawbacks.

So why not go shopping. B&H is offering pre-orders with expected availability on November 11th.


The specs


Focal length                55 mm
Aperture range           f/1.4 – f/16
Lens elements/groups12/10
Focusing range         0.50 m (19.68″) – infinity
Angular field (diag./horiz./vert.)      43.7° / 36.7° / 24.9°
Coverage at close range                        246 x 163 mm (9.69 x 6.42″)
Image ratio                 1:6.8
Filter thread               M77 x 0.75
Length with caps      ZF.2:    141 mm (4.93″)
ZE:       144 mm (5.01″)
Diameter                     92.4 mm (3.64“)
Weight                        ZF.2:    970 g (2.22 lbs)
ZE:       1030 g (2.43 lbs)
Mounts                       ZF.2 (F bayonet)
ZE (EF bayonet)


B&H video interview with Richard Schleuning from Zeiss

Zeiss press release video

and a second, more interesting video with Dr. Nasse, staff scientist at Carl Zeiss, talking about creating the lens and its superior qualities.


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    Zeiss Otus Extended preview

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