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July 10, 2014

Zeiss’s Magic Glass

Did you know that Zeiss is in the business of selling magic? I’m not talking about prestidigitation, here–I mean real wizardry packaged in metal and glass. I recently rented a package of Zeiss primes from LensRentals.com (they should rename this the Magus Package) and it’s really amazing that a tool could actually affect my pictures this much.

Sony A7R, 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 1000, finsished in Nik Silver Efex Pro and Lightroom.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/2.8, 1/60s, ISO 1000, finished in Nik Silver Efex Pro and Lightroom. I made this image during a workshop with the incredible Giulio Sciorio.

If you’ve been listening to the Photofocus podcast for more than a few years, you’ll have heard Scott Bourne say again and again that “98% of lenses are better than 99% of photographers” meaning that the lens on your camera isn’t the reason your pictures are not sharp and stunning, and I know it’s true.

However, I recently wrote that using a prime lens can actually make you a better photographer by helping you focus your vision, and I recommended using the manufacturers’ cheapest 50mm for this exercise because they are very good lenses. Well, this pack of Zeiss primes almost makes me want to mortgage the house and buy these lenses because the pictures I made with them were more…magical.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/4, 1/125s, ISO 100.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/4, 1/125s, ISO 100.

It’s not just that the pictures are sharp–that’s a given for any modern lens–but it feels like these would be sharp at even greater resolution. In fact, the best reason to buy the Sony A7r is so that you can have these lenses on your camera with full functionality. I’m no stranger to 36 megapixels (I own a D800), but these lenses really make every one of those pixels shine.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4, f/2, 1/320s, ISO 500, manually focussed

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4, f/2, 1/320s, ISO 500, manually focussed

Like I say, it’s not just about the sharpness, either. There’s something about the bokeh (the out-of-focussness of the background) that is really terrific, too. Things near to the focal plane are pleasantly soft, and things far away become a creamy dreamy soup of soft color and tone which leave your subject standing out clearly without shouting “I’m the only thing in real sharp focus!” I’ve used a lot of lenses, but no other lens has given me the painterly smoothness of this 135mm f/1.8. It was awesome.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/1250s, ISO 320.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/1250s, ISO 320.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/1600s, ISO 320.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/1600s, ISO 320.

Unfortunately, the 135mm is also pretty heavy and big–it’s a long lens with a very wide aperture, after all. But the 85mm is also a perfect portrait length, and being a slightly wider aperture only helps your camera autofocus better. That big opening lets in lots of light which make it easy for the sensor to focus. It also made it easier for me to manually focus with Highlight Peaking as I did for a few of these images.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/2, 1/125s, ISO 500, manually focussed.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/2, 1/125s, ISO 500, manually focussed.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/1.4, 1/640s, ISO 500, manually focussed.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/1.4, 1/640s, ISO 500, manually focussed.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/2, 1/160s, ISO 500, manually focussed.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/2, 1/160s, ISO 500, manually focussed.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/1.4, 1/640s, ISO 500, manually focussed. Even the images that are slightly out of focus maintain a certain depth I feel comes from the lens.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens, f/1.4, 1/640s, ISO 500, manually focussed. Even the images that are slightly out of focus maintain a certain depth I feel comes from the lens.

The 50mm and the 24mm also produced a magical feeling image. It’s kinda 3D-like, and I love it.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/2, 1/1600s, ISO 320.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/2, 1/1600s, ISO 320.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 24mm f/2 lens, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 250.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 24mm f/2 lens, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 250.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 24mm f/2 lens, f/4, 1/640s, ISO 250.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 24mm f/2 lens, f/4, 1/640s, ISO 250.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 24mm f/2 lens, f/2, 1/4000s, ISO 250.

Sony A7R, Zeiss 24mm f/2 lens, f/2, 1/4000s, ISO 250.

So, have I ordered these lenses, yet? Nope, and I probably won’t. See, lenses don’t make your photography any better than it is. A great lens may help enhance your skills a little bit, but I’m betting only you and your magnifying glass will be able to tell. Now, these lenses definitely have a place in my work, and they do make a few of my images really stand out, and when I use them I can tell the difference.

But owning them would be like living in Disney World; it just wouldn’t be quite as special after a time. When I have a wedding, or a particularly artful project, though, you can bet I’ll be renting these again so I can whip up a little wizardry and make some special images for my client.

I’d love to try out Zeiss’s new Otus 50mm, the supposedly sharpest 50mm ever made, and also the terrific Sigma 50mm A1 which gives the Otus a run for his money and leaves a whole lot of money in your pocket.

Catch up with Levi on Twitter, and check out his other articles here on Photofocus.


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Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. I have to say that if you love the photos that much, it makes no sense to me for you to use different lenses.

    Reply
    • It’s just a matter of expense for me, Dave. They are terrific lenses, but I can let LensRentals carry the inventory, and I can rent them for special occasions. My current Nikon lenses are terrific, and they get the job done well. But when I need magic, or my client is willing to pay for magic…then I call LensRentals. If I were starting fresh and didn’t have a big quiver of gear, I might just go ahead and get these. As it is, selling my current stuff won’t get me enough to replace it all with these. Plus, I didn’t love the Sony enough to get it, and they only autofocus on Sony bodies.

      Reply
  2. Hello Levi.

    I loved the Zeiss when I was using Nikon equipment, too. The “magical three” are the 21, 35/2 and 100/2 in my opinion. Especially the 35/2 is famous for the 3D-effect you wrote about. Maybe you’d consider it for your next rental.

    Best regards
    Matt

    Reply

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About Levi Sim

Photography is my life, and I'd like my photography to be part of your life, too. Whether I make pictures with you or help you learn to make your vision pop out of the camera, I'm happy to help.

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Fine Art, Gear, Landscape, Photography, Portrait, Reviews, Technique & Tutorials

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