As compact system cameras grow in popularity, it’s no surprise to see a venerable lens maker like Carl Zeiss jump on the bandwagon with two new prime lenses for Sony Alpha NEX and Fujifilm X Series mirrorless compact system cameras (CSC). The 2.8/12 and 1.8/32 are the first models in a new line of autofocus CSC lenses that Zeiss has named Touit, after a small Brazilian parrot.
Optimized to work with the Sony and Fuji APS-C-sensor-based CSCs, the two lenses offer fields of view equivalent to those of 18mm and 48mm lenses on a 35mm or full-frame digital camera. Both optics feature the company’s T* anti-reflective coating, and thanks to Zeiss’ close collaboration with the camera manufacturers, they support in-camera image-correction functions that ameliorate imperfections such as vignetting, chromatic aberration and distortion.
This is Zeiss glass, so it doesn’t come cheap. The 12mm f/2.8 carries a list price of $1,250, while the 32mm f/1.8 goes for a somewhat more palatable $900. To find out whether these new lenses are worth the expense, I took them out shooting in New York City on a Sony Alpha NEX-7 and a Fujifilm X-E1.
The Touit lenses’ construction represents a bit of a departure for Zeiss, and not solely because it incorporates autofocus. The optical designs are new, although they’re based on traditional Zeiss designs—Planar for the 32mm lens and Distagon for the 12mm. The Touits also have barrels and internal mechanisms that are constructed from a combination of metal and plastic parts—instead of having Zeiss’ usual rock-solid, all-metal build—in keeping with the lightweight cameras they’re designed to work with.
The plastic focus rings on the Touits are covered with a soft rubber that Zeiss aptly describes as “grippy,” and the lens hoods that come with them are plastic instead of the typical Zeiss metal hoods. Plastic notwithstanding, there’s nothing flimsy or cheap feeling about the Touits, and Zeiss has achieved its goal of creating lenses that balance nicely with CSC bodies yet still have a solid feel. With the 12mm weighing in at just over nine ounces and the 32mm at just over seven, they provide a satisfying heft.
The lens barrels have a very clean design—some might say too clean, since there are no focusing distance or depth-of-field scales on them for waist-level shooting. The Sony E-mount lenses are especially sleek because aperture is controlled via the camera body on NEX models, while the Fuji X-mount lenses incorporate an aperture ring covered with the same soft rubber as the focus ring.
Anyone who likes the quick, intuitive control offered by an aperture ring will appreciate Zeiss’ implementation here: The ring clicks clearly but smoothly through the aperture range, and lets you easily throw the camera into Program mode by turning to the “A” just left of f/22. In my testing, I found that both the aperture ring and the focus ring had the right balance of tension and play to let me operate them with precision. Both lenses focus internally, so it’s no problem to use a polarizer or a rotating graduated neutral density filter on them, too.
The Touit lenses have a lot of glass to move, and Zeiss has equipped them with DC gear autofocus motors to do the job. The autofocus performance of these lenses is a bit of a mixed bag. On the positive side, both lenses consistently locked focus, except in very low light with a low-contrast subject. The manual focus rings on the Touit lenses are electronically coupled for fly-by-wire focusing, but I found it easy to make fine focus adjustments.
On the Fuji X-E1 both lenses autofocused quickly enough to be a pleasure to use for street photography. But on the Sony NEX-7, the autofocus was sometimes slow enough to be a hindrance with moving subjects. When it comes to wide E-mount lenses, Sony’s very compact 18mm and 20mm optics, and even the larger 10-14mm f/4, autofocus much more quickly.
One drawback of the focusing system is that it’s noisy during both automatic and manual focus. You’ll hear it in any video you shoot unless you capture your sound with a separate device. If you do use these lenses for video, make sure your camera firmware is up to date. Zeiss says that older versions can cause autofocus problems.
In general, the Touits capture sharp images with good contrast that are free from any major flaws. The 12mm lens keeps barrel distortion to a minimum, and both lenses minimize flare and produce a beautiful bokeh that melts out-of-focus highlights into a smattering of softly rounded dewdrops. Color fringing along high-contrast edges was exceedingly minimal, with one exception: Wide open, the 32mm lens did produce some quite noticeable reddish-purple fringes along strongly backlit edges.
At f/1.8, the 32mm was also noticeably softer even in the center, but sharpness improved at f/2.8 and was significantly better at f/3.2. The 12mm lens, on the other hand, remained impressively sharp in the center wide open, although there was some mild softness around the edges. Above f/11, however, images became slightly softer overall. The 32mm stopped down to about f/20 before showing greater overall softness. Both lenses produced excellent edge-to-edge sharpness and brightness in the middle of their ranges.
The Bottom Line
These lenses are a pleasure to shoot with, aside from the occasionally sluggish autofocus performance from the Sony models, and they capture gorgeous images. But Sony, Fuji and other lensmakers offer lower priced options in the same focal-length ranges; there’s an especially big price difference when it comes to the ultra-wide options.
It’s hard to recommend the 12mm Touit to Fuji shooters over Fuji’s $900 XF 14mm f/2.8 R Ultra Wide-Angle Lens, which I also spent some time with. It outdid the 12mm Touit when it came to maintaining edge-to-edge sharpness throughout its aperture range, and it offers a distance scale on the lens barrel and a more intuitive way to switch between autofocus and manual focus via its snap focus ring.
Sony shooters who prioritize autofocus speed might consider Sony’s faster focusing $850 10-18mm f/4 Wide-Angle Zoom Lens with optical stabilization, although in my tests, the Touit had an edge over it at 12mm in terms of sharpness and general image quality.
Pros: Excellent overall image quality and contrast, with very sharp images edge-to-edge in the middle of their ranges; good ergonomics and balance with camera bodies; generally reliable autofocus
Cons: Pricey; autofocus a little slow on Sony NEX cameras; no focusing distance or depth-of-field scales; noisy focus motor; not fully weatherproofed
Prices: $1,250 for 2.8/12 lens; $900 for 1.8/32 lens; www.zeiss.com
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