Having the opportunity to review the best ZEISS lenses on the market is a bit like being given the opportunity to review the best Ferrari models currently available. Basically, being able to get my greasy paws on the best and most exclusive items from a certain product area.
The German manufacturer has whipped up its reputation over the last hundred or so years, originally producing things like microscopes and other scientific instruments. Eventually, they moved to produce things like binoculars, rifle scopes, and obviously camera lenses.
High-end optics are the focal point, and besides their own range of lenses, you can often find the ZEISS name on lenses from other manufacturers. These collaborations include the likes of Sony, Nokia, and Hasselblad.
Quality is a given with a ZEISS lens, but so is a high price tag. This comes down to the laws of diminishing returns, where that extra sliver of optical quality demands a higher price point.
The first question that usually comes up asks: is the extra cost worth it? Most definitely, but you also have to appreciate what the superior optics can provide. Let’s break down some of the most popular ZEISS lenses and see how they fare in the real world.
1. ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF (Overall Winner)
The ZEISS Batis 40mm f/2 CF may be for the Sony E-mount, but the lens is reasonably priced considering the quality of optics and very usable focal length of 40mm.
The optical arrangement consists of nine elements in eight groups, featuring an overall Distagon optical design, with two aspherical elements, three partial dispersion anomalous elements, and one aspherical element. The lens also features the ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating to reduce reflections and increase color and contrast.
The lens barrel is a simple and straightforward design with an integrated OLED display and is fully weather-sealed against dust and moisture. The lens is reasonably lightweight at 361g and the close focusing distance of 24cm expands the creative potential.
This lens is incredibly sharp at the maximum aperture of f/2, while also producing superior bokeh renditions at the same time. The Batis 40mm f/2 CF isn’t just about sharpness, but also about the character of an image, with an extra level of rendition you simply can’t find from other brands of lens.
In other words, the Batis 40mm f/2 CF is a great all-rounder, representing a still affordable price point, along with fantastic optics, at a focal length that is usable in many situations.
For those out there who need a wide-angle lens for applications such as landscapes, then the ZEISS Milvus 15mm f/2.8 is a good choice. This lens has a Distagon optical design, with five anomalous partial dispersion elements, two aspherical elements, and the highly regarded ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating.
This is a manual focus only lens, with its own aperture ring and click indicators throughout the range. The rock-solid barrel design is fully weatherproofed and although weighing in at 880g with a 95mm filter thread size, it doesn’t feel that cumbersome when in use.
Sharpness levels when the aperture is fully wide-open can’t be faulted, with virtually no sign of lens anomalies such as chromatic aberration. The f/2.8 aperture is very capable of producing lovely creamy bokeh and as long as you don’t mind a manual focus only lens, this ZEISS lens will be a great choice for covering the wide-angle side of things at 15mm.
Another offering from the Batis department comes in the form of the ZEISS Batis 135mm f/2.8. This autofocusing lens has a medium telephoto view, with a fast f/2.8 aperture and obviously high-quality optics.
The optics are wrapped around an apochromatic optical design, with eight anomalous partial dispersion elements and the ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating. The lens benefits from a linear autofocus motor and is fully weather-sealed against dust and moisture.
The OLED display is a great addition to show focusing distance and depth of field, especially in low-light conditions. It also works with optical image stabilization, further enhancing the feature set.
There is no faulting the overall image quality, as this lens provides an extra level of sharpness and contrast above similar focal length lenses. There are of course higher-priced ZEISS lenses, but the Batis range represents great value and can be a great alternative to the usual 70-200mm zoom lens.
There’s a few reasons for featuring the ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 in the 85mm focal category. One reason is to show an example from the Otus range and another shows that price isn’t a consideration, only optics.
The ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4 is wrapped around an apochromatic optical design with one aspherical element and the ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating. This is a manual focusing only lens, with the only external features on the lens barrel being the distance scale.
This is a heavyweight lens, coming in at 1.2kg, and the close focusing distance is only 80cm. However, all the goodness of this lens has been piled into the optical design, which stands tall as one of the best 85mm lenses out there.
We could have easily recommended the ZEISS Milvus 85mm f/1.4, which is also manual focus and also comes in a much cheaper price point. If you want ultimate optical quality for areas such as portraits, then the Otus 85mm f/1.4 is a great choice.
Another lens from the Otus range is the ZEISS Otus 28mm f/1.4. As a lens with an f/1.4 aperture at the 28mm focal length, this lens stands more or less on its own. But, it’s the optical quality and ultimate image rendition that count here.
This lens features a Distagon and apochromatic optical design, with two aspherical elements and the ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating. It’s also a manual focus only lens and is available for a range of camera mounts.
Overall sharpness and optical quality can’t be questioned with this lens. Plus, it has a very useful close focusing distance of 30cm. However, it’s a very weighty number coming in at 1390g. Being a manual focus only lens means you have to deliberate over your shots far more.
But, as is the case with all ZEISS lenses, you’re buying into the ultimate optical quality, with all other aspects being secondary. This means if you don’t mind the high price tag, this is a wonderful lens for the 28mm focal length.
6. ZEISS Planar T* FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA (Budget Winner)
The terms ‘ZEISS’ and ‘budget’ don’t really go together, but we had to put something in this category. The ZEISS Planar T* FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA is really a Sony lens, with both companies having a healthy linkup for many years.
This lens features a fast f/1.4 aperture, with a Zeiss Planar optical design featuring 12 elements in nine groups as well as the Zeiss T* anti-reflective coatings. There’s a ring drive Super Sonic wave autofocus motor, plus a larger than expected 11-blade rounded diaphragm for superior background blur effects.
The standard focal length of 50mm benefits from the wide and fast f/1.4 aperture. Plus, the 11-blade diaphragm does a great job of producing very rounded light balls and wonderfully smooth bokeh. Essentially, for Sony users, this is one of the best lenses you can buy at this focal length.
Wrapping up the Best ZEISS lenses
In many ways, there can’t be an ultimate winner of the best ZEISS lenses. Each focal length has its own merits, different apertures, and can feature manual or autofocusing.
If autofocusing is very much needed, then the Batis range is a good option. If you don’t mind a manual only focusing lens and simply want the ultimate in optical quality, then the Otus range is where to look. As a rule of thumb, once you own a ZEISS lens, the cost of ownership is insignificant compared to the buzz you will get from all those sumptuous images.