The Zeiss 85mm f1.4 (on a Nikon D3)
For a recent wedding in North Carolina, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to test a beautiful brand new 85mm lens, the Zeiss 85mm f1.4. It’s an awesome lens, built like nothing I’ve ever seen from Nikon, all metal, beefy, and luxurious. It’s front element looks like a giant robot eye, with an impressive chrome bezel. It’s markings are pure business. It’s rings turn like silky clockwork. No plastic at all. Very cool.
It’s a perfect fit for the D3, clicking firmly into place and integrating beautifully with the Nikon’s onboard computer. Aperture and focal length are transfered for smooth shooting in any exposure mode, and a useful focus-confirming dot in the viewfinder. Once in Lightroom, the lens info appears automatically right in line with other modern lenses. It’s a joy – and a throwback – to use.
If you’re like me, using a classic-feeling manual focus lens will certainly slow down your photography, for better and for worse. My first shot with it, as seen above, rendered some of the sharpest-looking lettuce I’ve ever seen (seriously, just click the image to see it bigger.) It doesn’t come quickly though, it’s a long haul on the focus ring to go from near to infinity, and it’s a very well-dampened ring. It was a finger workout for me to quickly switch focus during the wedding the following day: crank-crank-crank, close up on some flowers, crank-crank-crank, the flower girl 25 feet away, crank-crank-crank, MOB would like a photo, please, etc… None the less, my weekend with this lens was a pleasure.
85mm is, I believe, the new standard focal length in full-frame 35mm. It has long been considered a great focal length for portraits and headshots, but it is more than that. It allows precise control over depth of focus, a good distance between photographer and subject (close enough to interact without being creepy close) and it makes people look good. 50mm, also considered a standard, is slightly wide and will certainly distort if the camera is too close to a subject or if the point of view is a little wacky. I love my 50mm, as it really does seem to correlate to the way we see things without a camera, but 85mm makes for prettier photos.
So with that out of the way, here are my thoughts on this newest entry to the high end 35mm prime lens market.
The front element of the lens travels slightly while focusing, but it’s very subtle, and it will never creep. The lens hood is awesome, all metal and a velvety-lined inside. it clicks into place like a precise, miniature bayonet, and shames the quality of every Japanese-designed lens hood I’ve ever seen. It is tricky to find a place to stash it when not fixed in place, as it doesn’t reverse like many others. I found myself leaving it attached most of the time, except to show off the chrome ring on the front of the lens. The lens cap is simple and stylish, very similar to recent Nikon caps, though a bit trickier to mount. The weight, shape, and size of the lens is an excellent match for the big Nikon. It takes on a very purposeful look, free from the on-lens advertising and excessive buttons and switches found on so many other lenses.
Just as with older Nikon lenses, there is a position on the aperture ring to lock it in place, allowing the camera to control aperture. On the D3 with default settings, the front control dial selects aperture, nothing different about this lens. Focus with the Zeiss is manual only (which I’ll discuss a little further down) but very smooth. The long travel of the ring allows precise, though slow focusing. The deep metal contour of the ring feels very solid and purposeful. For me, the ring is a bit too dampened. Though it stays in place and allows tiny adjustments without wiggling back and forth, it is heavy to turn, especially over a long distance. One flaw in its operation that had me quickly back-pedaling a few times, is it’s limited close focusing ability. It is not built for the close-up image. I would try my usual quick close-up on a bridal bouquet or newly installed wedding rings only to be bounced back to a wide shot by the minimum focus distance. It is, overall, a joy to use. It is the right size, offers a vivid, clear viewfinder, and a battle-ready feel to a Nikon body. It’s two rings (and only two controls) move precisely and firmly. Awesome.
The most striking feature of this lens, and it’s real selling point, is the finished image. There are many links in a chain from capture to on-screen or printed color rendering, including white balance, exposure, RAW treatment, processing, etc. but it starts with the lens. Without question, this lens has a color-capturing advantage over any zoom I’ve every shot (and there are 31 SLR lenses listed in my current Lightroom catalog.) I have spent the morning studying images from a Nikon 85mm f1.8, Canon 85mm f1.2L, and a handful of zoom lenses that cover the same range. The Zeiss images, as straight from camera, are the most vivid and saturated. Nikon’s next best lens, with respect to color, is actually not a prime, but the new 70-200mm f2.8 (which I’ll discuss in a later post.)
It’s tough to directly compare the Nikon-mounted Zeiss with the famous Canon 85mm 1.2L, as the Canon 5DII and Nikon D3 have very different approaches to image processing. The combination – for what it’s worth – of 5DII and 85mm 1.2L makes for creamier, warmer, softer images, while the D3-Zeiss combo delivers sharper, more saturated, cooler images. Because I love deep color rendering that may be a bit brighter than reality, I would venture to declare the Zeiss the better lens with respect to color capture, the more artistic lens of the comparison. I should certainly add, though, that my preference has long been for Nikon’s more assertive contrast and saturation over Canon’s truer-to-life yellowy capture.
To conclude my thoughts on image quality, though, let me say this lens captures beautiful images. Photos come alive with a theatrical sense of depth, out-of-focus highlights sparkle with color
This brings me, though, to what I believe is this lens’s fatal flaw. Canon and 1.2L aside, I would readily choose it over either outdated and outclassed Nikon 85mm (1.4 and a 1.8) but for one key component: Autofocus. As a professional photographer, my career began and has grown completely in the digital age. My undergrad days of shooting Velvia are long gone. I shoot lots of portraits, and for those, provided no one is moving and the set is relatively static, the Zeiss’s color and sharpness, freedom from distortion and sparkly image would make it my go-to lens. But, usually, people are moving and I like to be moving around while I shoot too. I like to fire off a string of shots when the expression and composition is just right, when the lights are in just the right spot or when the strobes have just recycled. I’ve grown used to taking for granted that nearly every shot will be in focus (or at least something will be in sharp focus in every shot.) Not so with a manual-focus lens, especially not an f1.4 manual-focus lens. While the spot-on shots are awesome, at least some will be off. In 2010, not having autofocus is a handicap. My trusty 50mm 1.4 has a nice manual-focus ring that has – in 29,653 photos (according to my current Lightroom catalog) – almost never been used. If I’m shooting, especially if I’m shooting for a client, I need to know (because with modern technology, we can know) that every shot is in focus and will be available as an option during editing. I do not want to throw out otherwise useable imagery for a technical issue.
Some handicaps make sense artistically, shooting a certain type of film, or shooting prime lenses instead of zooms, but omitting autofocus is not a handicap that makes sense in my workflow.
Perhaps we’ll see a future version of this brilliant 85mm that is fully operational and I think it will be my new favorite lens. I love the photos from the D3-Zeiss combo. I love that Zeiss has stepped up to fill obvious modern prime lens gaps in the Nikon line. Zeiss is bringing the teamwork mentality of medium format equipment to the closed world of professional 35mm gear and it will be a very good thing, once it is done completely. Thank you Zeiss! Next round, AF please!