Zeiss unveils second uber-premium SLR lens: Otus 1.4/85mm

Sure, almost nobody can afford a $4,490 lens. But the German lensmaker's newest top-drawer Otus line keeps the pressure on competitors by showing what's possible.

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Zeiss promises its Otus 85mm f1.4 lens will be sharp as last year's 55mm model, the first of the premium family.
Zeiss promises its Otus 85mm f1.4 lens will be sharp as last year's 55mm model, the first of the premium family. Carl Zeiss

German lensmaker Carl Zeiss announced the second in its Otus line of premium lenses on Monday, an 85mm f1.4 model aimed at people with $4,490 to spend on prestige and image quality.

The Zeiss Otus 1.4/85 takes the same approach as last year's 55mm model: an attempt to produce a lens with the best image quality without worrying about how much it costs. If the quality is high enough a certain class of professional photographer, accustomed to medium-format digital cameras that cost tens of thousands of dollars, could conceivably find the Otus line financially justifiable since it would let them use cheaper full-frame SLR cameras from Canon or Nikon.

The 55mm Zeiss Otus showed unparalleled sharpness, and Zeiss promises a sequel with the 85mm model it's unveiling next week at the Photokina show in Germany. As with the 55mm, the image quality is high even when using the lens wide open at f1.4, the company said:

Optically, the Zeiss Otus series stands out for its high image quality, even with an open aperture. Specifically, that means a neutral bokeh in the background, highly detailed images without any optical artifacts, consistently high resolution power across the entire image field, no color fringing or distortion, and an extremely high image contrast all the way into the edges. The imaging performance remains almost entirely consistent for all shooting distances. High apertures can be used even for close-ups.

Only a small fraction of photographers can justify this kind of expense, but even with these prices, there's competition. Canon just cut prices for many of its professional lenses, including its own $2,100 EF 85mm f/1.2L ll USM model, and third-party lensmaker Sigma has produced some hits recently, including its $950 50mm f1.4 DG HSM model .

The Zeiss Otus 1.4/85, shown here with and without its lens hood, comes in versions for Canon and Nikon cameras.
The Zeiss Otus 1.4/85, shown here with and without its lens hood, comes in versions for Canon and Nikon cameras. Carl Zeiss

The 85mm focal length is popular among portrait photographers who are often untroubled when sharpness tails off toward the corners of the frame; they're often shooting faces and want smooth and undistracting backgrounds. Zeiss, though, is pitching its lens also to product and nature photographers, though, because the Otus 85mm is sharp all the way to the corners, the company said.

The lens will be available in Nikon and Canon mounts starting in mid-September. It has 11 elements in nine groups, one aspheric and six using special glass. Its close-focus distance is 0.8m (31.5 inches). The Canon version weighs 1200g (2.65 lbs) and is 124mm (4.88 inches) long; the Nikon version is a smidgen smaller and lighter. Neither features image stabilization.

Many of Zeiss' lenses offer only manual focusing, which can be a problem in the modern era when photographers have grown accustomed to precise autofocus. Zeiss, though, chooses to see this as an advantage, saying that "freedom to focus -- one of the most important creative elements in photography -- has literally been put in the hands of the photographer as an artistic tool."

At $4,490 or €3,361 in Europe (that translates to about £2,700 in the UK and AUS$4,660), the Otus 85mm won't find its way into many hands, artistic or otherwise. But with so much attention aimed at smaller "mirrorless" cameras and smartphone photography, it's good to see the industry advancing the state of the art in the established part of the market, too.