Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZE Review (some sort of)

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*Photography, *Reviews

Ok it’s no secret that I am a big, huge, super, mega fan of prime lenses.  I never started to realize my style since most of my work consisted in supporting several photographers I worked with, adapting my workflow and style to theirs and the good thing about that was that I never had problems in solving some photography issues on the other hand I get “lazy” and didn´t began to develop my own “style” until I had bought my first 50mm prime.  Most of the time I worked with the canon 70-200mm f2.8 is usm lens and the canon ef 24-70mm f2.8 l  more than enough to cover a wedding (sometimes with the canon ef 24-105mm f4 l usm is “the all rounder” and even with a canon ef 16-35mm f/2.8 l is usm) well don´t misunderstand me it´s normal that a photo assistant need to adapt to the workflow of the boss in order to have a uniform coverage to have a linear story. When the photographer and  assistant works in harmony they perfectly complement each other and they don´t need even to talk (like choreography) then comes the video guy and everything is messed (no just kidding). Love you video guys…

Sometimes they let me loose to try “new ideas” but they were to long I don´t want to say (stagnant) because they are great photographers with a huge amount of experience… lets say established in their workflow so the work began to transform into routine… You may thing routine is bad but to say the truth once you found that routine it gave me security even to try new things.

Now, the last day I only took two lenses to a wedding a Zeiss 35 mm f1.4 and a Zeiss 85 mm f1.4 and I loved it. Ok when it comes to wedding, event, and portrait photography the primes VS zooms discuss always seems to be the biggest issue that divides all who try to give some good advice out there.  Of course there are people who passionately argue in favor of each! And since I worked with both I dare to add my opinion to the vastness of the net.

In my opinion, it is simply a matter of preference, not a “better / worse”.  I worked with photographers who find that they simply  love primes and hate zooms, while others cannot live without a good set of f/2.8 zooms.  Both methods are capable of delivering amazing results; it simply depends on the photographers style in “How much you like to move around”, or be challenged to think creatively, or if you have a bad back, or I don´t know…

The absolute safest bet for wedding photography is a set of 2 or 3 fast zoom lenses and 1 or 2 fast primes lenses.  For example a 70-200 plus a 24-70 and/or a 16-35 zoom, and a 35mm, 50mm or 85mm prime for “creative” shooting and low-light.  This is the many wedding photographers’ work setup. (After cameras and lenses, the third slice of your wedding gear triad is the choice of lighting gear)

A lot of photographers prefer the 24-70 mid-range because it is versatile enough to shoot almost everything from details to formal portraits.  Other wedding photographers feel that 24mm just isn’t wide enough for their style and they opt for a dedicated wide-angle zoom instead. Either way, the bottom line is that it takes about 3 to 4 total lenses to create a well-rounded “product” for a wedding.  (Not even counting specialty lenses such as macro or fisheye lenses.)

Usually the wedding photographers who love primes fall into two categories-  Those who love 50mm only, and barely use any other lenses, …and those who prefer a combo of two or more primes, usually a 35mm and 85mm setup.

In my personal experience, I prefer primes.  I love 85mm prime and 35mm prime. (The “zoom with your feet” thing really works) So I have an 85mm prime on one of my cameras, paired with something wider on a 2nd camera. (The 35 mm lens and 2nd camera was borrowed.)

You still need to supplement your arsenal with a few other lenses, you think.  Shooting with a single lens just won’t produce a full and complete product… wrong… it depends how you tell the story. For example a prime shooter might rely mainly on a single 50mm prime, or a 35+85 combo, telling the hole wedding, with fantastic results…

Now in the rare occasions I find a zoom lens attached to my camera, I still find my feet carrying me to whichever spot best suites either the short or long ends of the glass.  A habit that I needed to cultivate since y used to work with zoom lenses.

So yesterday I’ve had to step back and seriously evaluate my gear needs for the next months.  As the gear in the bag becomes more and more old, worn or broken. My not so recent upgrade was getting a Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZE Planar T*.

I’m not sure about other photographers but that focal length is a very high priority for me and how I shoot both in studio and outdoors.  I thought I’d share some of my personal impressions.  It’s more of how this lens fits with me personally than a technical review.

And yes, yes, I am aware of several other options in this focal length but understand that I have not had an opportunity to compare the Zeiss with other prime lenses.

Having never previously owned some Zeiss ZE lenses, I had no idea of what to expect.  The build quality of this lens (and all other Zeiss SLR lenses I’ve seen) is outstanding or so it seems. The all-metal hood feels great.   Well I don’t “always” use a hood but I do “always” tend to lose things I remove without immediate purpose.  Yes, I have already lose one hood and replacement hoods are only available from Zeiss at 80,00 € (and you thought your Canon/Nikon hoods were expensive).

On-camera, this lens feels like a good fit and balanced well on both the Canon 5D Mark I and a Canon 6D. Ah yes there is that insignificant detail, the lack of an autofocus system… Yeah, you heard that  right.  This is the one thing that most people say would be the “no go”.  If you’re unaware, every Zeiss SLR lens is manual focus only.  That being said, there really is no way to describe how accurate and buttery smooth the focus ring operates.  The operation of ring really gives you the best sense of the tank-like build quality that Zeiss is known for.

During my first time using this lens, I’ll admit it became something I had learned to work around I’m not sure I’d be able to live with it (manual focussing) but we will see…

I also had been warned to perform some micro-adjustments prior to using this lens. Unfortunately, I had some back-focusing problems and that was also the case with my copy of the lens as well.  To complicate matters, I had become accustomed to the focus-confirmation feature of the Canon bodies to ensure my focus… what a mistake.  On both bodies, back-focusing was an issue and with the lack of a split-image focus screen on modern DSLR’s, the micro-adjustments would be needed, unless you enjoy live view but my 5D Mark I has none… 

Images come from this lens with nice punchy contrast which actually is quite a bit more pleasing than any of the Canon zoom models.  I’d have to say this lens really does not produce an usable level of sharpness until it’s stopped down to f/2.8 and I would say the sweet spot for this glass is actually around f/5.6 and even f/4.  This would be of particular disappointment to me as I am frequently wide open when shooting. Not for light purposes but for effect.  There is nothing I hate more than bokeh with edges (non-circular aperture blades).  The Zeiss does have rounded 9 blade diaphragm throughout the aperture range (1.4-16) which is a great thing to have.  Being able to hover around f/4 to f/5.6 and still get backgrounds I’m accustomed to seeing was a definite plus.

With the poor sharpness at wide apertures started the bad blood between this lovely glass and me, the presence of excessive chromatic aberration was heartbreaking. There was quite a lot of CA present that I thought my old 5D was failing as the Planar design has a reputation for aberration control. For those who don’t deal with CA, the trouble is the more you have to fix your aberrations in post, the more detail you loose from the image overall (simple explanation).

Perhaps it´s why I actually enjoyed the lens so much that I keep it, I love trouble ones, makes me work harder. Sure, it slows me down a bit but thats not a bad thing, causes me fits in processing and looks outstanding with smaller apertures set.  In the end, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* is an excellent lens for me now that I know how to handle it… and forgive me of writing so much bla, bla…

Escrito por

Founder of Lichtbild & Head of his own strange world / Vintage Enthusiast / Photographer / Graphic Designer /Typography "lover" / Book Collector / Spanish+German Mix / Lives in Coruña / Sometimes heads back home & Sleeps. /*

7 thoughts on “Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZE Review (some sort of)”

  1. Hallo Alberto,
    ein wunderbarer Artikel. :-D Meine volle Zustimmung!
    Ich selber besitze das 50er Makro Planar und ich muß gestehen, es ist schon fast mein “Immerdrauf” Allerdings hab ich auch ab und zu den Ärger mit den CA’s, kann es aber verkraften ;-) Die Haptik solcher Objektive ist einmalig. Selbst bei schwierigem Licht funktioniert die Fokusbestätigung der Kamera excellent, da kann ich mich nicht beschweren und das Bokeh ist so wunderbar weich. Es wird nicht meine einzige Optik von diesem Hersteller bleiben :-D
    LG kiki

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    • Hallo kiki,
      Oh ja aber das 50er Makro Planar ist eine ganz andere liga viel, viel besser als das normale 50er Planar. Nicht so viel CA, kein focus-shift und keine back-focusing Probleme XD mal sehen ob ich meine Finger an das 35er Planar bekomme… ich finde die Zeiss objektive sind einfach zeitlos und irgendwie gewinnt die Fotografie und das ist nur meine persönliche Meinung irgendwie etwas handgefertigtes ich weiss auch nicht wie ich es beschreiben soll… “etwas” XD LG Alberto

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  2. Da gebe ich dir völlig recht, der Gewinn bei den Fotos ist … unbezahlbar ;-) ich hab schon manchmal fast ein schlechtes Gewissen, wenn ich an den RAW’s tatsächlich mal kleine Korrekturen vornehme, so beeindruckt bin ich jedes Mal, wenn ich mit dieser Linse um die Häuser ziehe. :-D Und wie du schon schreibst, sie haben etwas zeitloses und haben zu Recht ihren Ruf für sehr gute Qualität. Ich schiel ja auf das 15er, muß aber noch tüchtig sparen…
    LG kiki

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