The 85mm focal length has been a traditional standard for portrait shooters, both in and out of the studio. While there are plenty of lenses on the market which can cover this ground, what if you want the best of the best and are willing to pay for it? The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 provides extremely high quality and is also a manual focus lens.
If autofocus is a needed asset for you, then there are other options like in the comparisons below. But, in all other areas read on, as the Zeiss could be a ‘look no further’ lens.
For starters, an 85mm manual only lens may seem restrictive, especially if you’re used to zooms as a staple. But, this way of working forces you to deliberate over your shots more and manual focusing is a pre-requisite for the video guys. It’s a control thing, where the user dictates exactly how a frame is rendered or focused, rather than letting the camera decide.
The general build of the lens is simple and elegant. A design concept that seems to be adopted by other makers. A simple lens layout, with an ample, rubberized focus ring and simple distance scale. All lettering on the lens barrel is quality etched and bright yellow, presumably so they can be seen in low light.
Inside the lens are 11 elements arranged in nine groups, with an 86mm filter thread up top. Everything here weighing in at a sizeable 1200g. The Zeiss can also be used for an APS-C 1.6x body, which brings the focal length up to 136mm. The Zeiss also comes with a lens hood, which seamlessly integrates into the lens design.
As this is a manual focusing lens, the focus ring rotates 265 degrees and feels very precise when adjusting. Subjects slightly change in size on a full rotation, but hardly noticeable with fine adjustments. A very straightforward lens, with only the required features to get the job done.
The Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 in Use
The f/1.4 aperture is a needed asset for a predominantly portrait lens, providing those creamy, blurred backgrounds. This wide aperture also allows plenty of lowlight capabilities, that’s two whole stops above a regular, high-end f/2.8 zoom. In other words, plenty of scope for shooting handheld in low light conditions.
The lens does an excellent job of punching out a subject from the background scene. Backgrounds are rendered with an almost artistic look and it needs a large, high-quality monitor to truly appreciate the detail and color transitions. Most importantly, the images are extremely sharp at f/1.4, with no discernible center or edge softening. The nine-blade aperture is also very adept at producing 18 point stars when needed.
At f/1.4, there is a slight amount of shading in the corners, which almost disappears by f/2.8. On a crop sensor body, corner shading is just under one-stop and barely recognizable by f/2. As for other anomalies, the lens is almost distortion-free, which is evident when shooting buildings or any type of architecture. Straight up lines, exactly as you want them.
As for chromatic aberrations, the apochromat format of the lens and corrective glass elements, reduce chromatic aberration to almost nothing. Purple fringing is usually a factor when a lens is fully wide open, but the Zeiss produces wonderfully clean images, without the need to overly correct in software.
When it comes to sharpness, even with high-end primes, there’s always a touch of edge softness. With the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4, the lens is remarkably sharp across the aperture range.
It’s a definite joy to be able to shoot a body shot, zoom into the eye and everything is rendered as if the image was shot close-up. When the lens is mounted to a tripod and in live view, there’s simply no complaints here across the aperture range, which means the Zeiss will be a great performer in the studio.
Summing up, the image quality is simply outstanding. It initially feels like a pain to cart around a reasonably heavy lens and manually focus each time, but it’s a quick transition to manual focus and the very accurate focus ring smoothly hits focus whenever you need it.
How Does It Compare?
Lining up the most expensive 85mm lens on the market against the competition, almost seems like a foregone conclusion. But, for many the price tag of the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 means it’s out of range for most. This means that for far less money, you can still get very good optical quality without breaking the bank.
One such contender is the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM Art. Sigma has been getting rave reviews for their Art series, which provides great optical quality for the money. The Sigma 85mm on paper has similar specs to the Zeiss: f/1.4, 86mm filter thread, and slightly less heavyweight at 1100g. The Sigma also has the benefit of autofocus which can be a deciding factor for some.
Caveats to the Sigma are that it displays chromatic aberration at f/1.4, which can really stand out against high contrast areas. The effect almost disappears at f/2, but it’s definitely not as clean as the Zeiss. The Zeiss is also the sharpest with better contrast up to f/4, after which sharpness is very close in comparison.
This almost makes the Sigma 85mm a lens to dismiss against the Zeiss, but it is being compared to a lens that costs nearly four times the amount and lined up against other 85mm lenses, the Sigma is a fantastic lens. In other words, you can’t go wrong with the Sigma, but if you want that extra edge in quality, you’re going to have to splash out the cash.
|Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4||Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art|
|Elements||11 Elements/ 9 groups||14 Elements/ 12 groups|
In total, if you want the best 85mm lens out there, you can’t go wrong with the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4. You’re clearly going to have to pay for the privilege, but with superior optics, it is actually worth the money.
As above, there are other outstanding lenses on the market, such as the Sigma 85mm Art. But, the Zeiss offers that extra level in detail and quality. While the Sigma produces excellent images, the Zeiss is in the camp of being ‘magical.’ That extra level of refinement which you can only really appreciate in a hands-on test.
Yes, the Zeiss is worth the money, but it obeys the law of diminishing returns. Lots more money for evermore smaller increases in quality. In this case, if you can afford the price tag, the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 is the best you can get currently at this focal length.