In yet another nod to the animal kingdom, Zeiss chose the moniker “Otus” for its flagship lens series; Otus owls are renowned for their ability to see at night. They could have just as easily been referencing another Otus, the mythological Greek giant famous for challenging the mighty gods of Mount Olympus. After two weeks shooting with the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 with our frequent co-tester David Patiño, we think such Olympian grandeur is equally appropriate. This lens is that good.
With an aperture range of f/1.4–16, the Otus is not quite as bright as Canon’s flagship 85mm lens (the 85mm f/1.2 II USM), but it’s on par with high-end 85mm primes from Nikon and Sigma. It has a minimum focusing distance of 31.5 inches and an 86mm front filter thread. It features 11 elements in nine groups, with nine rounded diaphragm blades. It’s available in Canon EF and Nikon F mounts for $4,490.
The Otus is not your typical 85mm prime lens. It’s larger, heavier and considerably more expensive than most of its competition. When we first held it in our hands, two parallel fears raced through our mind: It would be terribly expensive to drop, and we might lose a toe if we did. With the included metal lens hood attached, the already long 5.5-inch lens gets even longer still. Yet despite its dimensions, we didn’t find it unwieldy. Is it heavy? Your mileage may vary, but hand-holding this lens for an hour isn’t unduly difficult. Beyond that, we broke out the tripod.
This lens is atypical in another respect: It’s a strictly manual-focus lens, forcing you to slow down. But we quickly discovered that the real distinguishing characteristics of the Otus go well beyond its imposing dimensions and price tag.
It starts with the elegantly minimalist industrial design. The smooth aluminum exterior notes your aperture settings and focus distance with bright yellow markings etched into the surface. Patiño really loved how incredibly smooth and sensitive the rubberized focus ring was. You’ll enjoy 261 degrees worth of turn with the ring, and there’s just the right amount of resistance to precisely dial in your focus without flying past the sweet spot.
Unfortunately, the lens does not have a weather-sealed ring on the mount. At this price, it should.
Primed for Portraits
The 85mm focal length is a favorite of portrait photographers, and Patiño put the lens to good use immediately at a corporate portrait session. He was bowled over by the incredibly sharp images it produced on his Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Shooting mostly handheld at f/7.1 under studio strobes, Patiño found the lens delivered a perfect mix of tack-sharp facial features and a gentle falloff at the shoulders. More impressive was the lens’ performance when the lights went down. In a photo of a model’s back, illuminated only by a small off-camera LED at f/1.4, the blackness of the subject’s serpentine tattoo is rife with contrast, even in extremely low light and heavy shadow. The focus falls off beautifully as the tattoo snakes its way towards the model’s spine.
Under both studio and natural lights, we searched our samples in vain for signs of distortions or chromatic aberration. Images were sharp all the way to the edge of the frame. At f/2.8, Patiño spotted some vignetting, which became visible to us at f/2 and plainly visible wide open at f/1.4.
By the end of his time with the Otus, Patiño was definitely sad to see it go. Compared to other 85mms in his gear bag, the Otus “just looks different,” he says.
Zeiss is betting that eye-popping image quality will trump the Otus’ equally eye-popping price. Compared to Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, the Otus commands a $2,900 premium; next to Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, the difference is nearly $2,400; against Sigma’s 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM lens, the step-up price is $3,500. All three are terrific autofocus prime lenses that have served photographers well. So is the Otus 85mm worth it? If your work demands extreme attention to detail, there’s a strong case to be made that it’s worth the investment—and we use the word “investment” advisedly. Simply put, this is a lens that can keep pace with the full-frame megapixel wars, delivering beautiful images and maximizing the mounting megapixels making their way into DSLR sensors. Its ability to deliver strong contrast in low light is unsurpassed.
PROS: Amazingly sharp, flawless images; beautiful bokeh; high contrast; no visible chromatic aberration or optical defects.
CONS: Heavy; physically large compared to other 85mm primes; expensive relative to competitors; not weathersealed.
(Image: © David Patiño)
(Image: © David Patiño)