Zeiss Otus, for Formidable Biceps and Strong Wrists (With High-Res A7R Samples)

Karel van Wolferen
Karel van Wolferen
By KAREL VAN WOLFEREN

There is no question that the Zeiss 55mm F1.4 Otus Distagon T* represents a significant optical achievement. But more than once, as I placed it on my tripod mounted Sony A7R — feeling like a ceramics collector who with one slip loses a $4,000 investment — I wondered what kind of photography it was meant to serve.

In the studio it will work well, but the frame for which it is designed remains after all the small 35mm. Its sharpness into all corners and at all openings is, obviously, a phenomenal asset. With an opening below F5.6 there is probably no match for it at the moment at its 55mm focal length.

Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 | Karel van Wolferen
The F2 Makro Planar would compete at 50mm. But if you prefer 35mm for much of your work, as I do, the much lighter Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art Series at a quarter of the price for an Otus is at least equally sharp, equally designed for the newer high resolution digital sensors and has the great advantage of autofocus (with some necessary microadjusting for ultimate sharpness).

That would certainly have been a great help with the birds I took on the side of the Sinobazu Pond. As it was, the man feeding them, was very cooperative in not moving his hand one inch toward or away from the camera.

For handheld photography with the Otus you will need formidable biceps and strong wrists. Yes, the manual focus could hardly be accomplished more smoothly, but at one kilogram added to your camera, you need support if you go out for more than a short walk.

As a tip, try a carbon monopod like the Gitzo GM2561T in a belt pouch, with a Novoflex Magic Ball — or the surprisingly little known Alzo Camera Flipper which is a bit heavier but very precise, will give your arms a rest.

Using the Otus only on a tripod, I indulged in a bit of view camera nostalgia. Very deliberate framing and patient adjusting; fortunately without the film holders. With the autumn leaves, which I thought would be a proper subject, the wind was again my biggest enemy as it had been in my large format days.

I was surprised how much street photography was possible, notwithstanding the tripod. People hardly seemed to notice, perhaps because I had to wait long from a fixed position for the right moment, for the right facial expressions of the little family in a little hole-in-the-wall eatery, for instance.

Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/80 ISO 2,500 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/80 ISO 2,500 | Karel van Wolferen

For all my critical remarks about the bokeh mania, I think that the unsharpness of the girl taking a picture with her tablet of the Kaminarimon lantern, and of the two couples greeting each other actually works well; blow-uppable, to A2 at least.

Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/5 ISO 320 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/5 ISO 320 | Karel van Wolferen

As with writing, one of the worst things you can do is to begin liking your own work more than for a short and furtive moment. But the only Otus photographs I am likely ever to make did not disappoint me.

Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/80 ISO 800 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/80 ISO 800 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F8 1/125 ISO 125 EV +0.7| Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F8 1/125 ISO 125 EV +0.7| Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F8 1/640 ISO 320 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F8 1/640 ISO 320 EV -1| Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/5 ISO 640 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/5 ISO 640 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F8 1/30 ISO 500 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F8 1/30 ISO 500 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/100 ISO 160 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/100 ISO 160 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/250 ISO 100 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/250 ISO 100 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/500 ISO 640 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/500 ISO 640 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 -- F11 1/500 ISO 125 EV -1 | Karel van Wolferen
Sony A7R with Zeiss Otus 55mm F1.4 — F11 1/500 ISO 125 EV -1 | Karel van Wolferen

+++ You can order the Zeiss 55mm F1.4 Otus Distagon T* from B&H (Canon/Nikon) and Adorama (Canon/Nikon) — or eBay for cannot-resist early birds…

Karel van Wolferen is a writer, but photography has been his second life since he was 11 years old, now 61 years ago. He built his first darkroom at the age of 14. His passion is for high resolution. He used to work with 8×10 and now tries to achieve 8×10 by other means through stitching. Until the Sony A7R came along.

Karel left the Netherlands in 1960 at the age of 19, with one hundred dollars, with the idea to hitchhike to India (before there were hippies). He lived in Turkey, India and SouthEast Asia before arriving in Japan two years later. He worked as a newspaper correspondent covering a large chunk of Asia for 16 years before it became possible to live on income from writing books.

The University of Amsterdam asked him to become professor of comparative political and economic institutions, a position he held until retirement seven years ago. Karel still write books, many for Japanese readership. His second life in photography, which saw the building of three 8×10 darkrooms in Tokyo, has continued with all manner of digital experimenting in which I mix techniques to achieve super realistic images.



  • Well, that’s about the same size and weight as a 24-70mm f/2.8 pro zoom, which is what many working professionals lug around all day as their standard lens. I read elsewhere the design is actually based on the medium-format Zeiss Distagon 50mm f/4 FLE for Hasselblad, with additional correction for the higher aperture. That would explain the superlative sharpness across the frame – my Zeiss Planar 100mm f/3.5 CF easily resolves 100 lp/mm across a 6×6 frame.

    If you want a lighter package, may I suggest the Leica Apo-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH?
    That said, the Zeiss-branded Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar is getting very positive reviews, and the minuscule drop in sharpness is irrelevant in real-world (non-tripod) use.

  • Andy Umbo

    Amazed at how many of the sample photos were NOT taken wide open, which, of course, is my point. I owned the Contax RTS system and LOVED all my Zeiss f/2.8 lenses. This could be an incredible lens at less than a quarter of the cost, and an f/2 or f/2.8, which would probably make it a quarter of the size and weight as well. I salute Zeiss making it a 55mm tho, I’ve admonished all camera makers to do so as well, as it ‘upsizes’ to the perfect portrait lens on APS-C bodies, an 82.5mm vs. the usual ‘normal’, which only upsizes to 75mm, and is not strong enough.

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    Zeiss Otus, for Formidable Biceps and Strong Wr…

    […] There is no question that the Zeiss 55mm F1.4 Otus Distagon T* represents a significant optical achievement. But more than once, as I placed it on my tripod mounted Sony A7R — feeling like a ceramics collector who with one slip loses a $4,000 investment — I wondered what kind of photography it was meant to serve.  […]

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    New A7 -A7r tests | sonyalpharumors

    […] Lindbom, a Swedish landscape photographer are trying out the Sony A7R. A7r with Zeiss Otus at The.me. A7r Shutter sound as Waveform. The Sony compression causes artifacts. It needs to be brought to […]

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