How Carl Zeiss found an aesthetic identity for its new high-end SLR lenses

The high-end SLR lens that will come on the market at the end of 2013 reflects the new design language the best: the funnel-shaped form, a surface that is soft to the touch, the optimized focus ring and other details will contribute to even better manageability and an unmistakable look.

When the 1.4/55 focal length comes onto the market at the end of 2013 as the first member of the new high-end family of SLR lenses, it will not only introduce a new lens with uncompromising image quality. The lens’s new prize-winning product design will also be a talking point. “ZEISS lenses are known for their technical precision, excellent image performance and ergonomics. That will always be the case because we know photographers’ needs and user circumstances. But our new lenses should also fulfill the highest aesthetic expectations of our customers to become design objects in their own right,” explains Martin Dominicus, Head of Marketing in the Carl Zeiss Camera Lens Division.

ZEISS lenses have been around for over 120 years, but product design has never been the foremost factor. But for this new high-end family of SLR lenses, Carl Zeiss was already considering the aesthetics of the finished product during its development. The newly-defined design is intended to reflect the lenses’ unique character and make ZEISS lenses truly unmistakable in the future.

The new design for ZEISS lenses, which recently won the prestigious iF Award, followed a long identification and development process. It began in 2010 when Carl Zeiss invited various agencies to a competition, won by Stuttgart design studio Phoenix Design. While most lenses on the market are very technically-oriented in their design, Carl Zeiss’s goal in this project was to communicate the brand personality of its new family of lenses through its design. In other words, form should follow content rather than function.

Especially when faced with poor lighting conditions, it is important that a photographer or cinematographer can quickly read the parameters of his lenses at one glance.

But how do you get a brand identity to mirror itself in the form? Carl Zeiss put Phoenix in contact with a pool of professional photographers, many of whom had worked with ZEISS for a long time. In a series of interviews with photo artists, as well as product and automotive photographers, the core factors of the ZEISS brand were analyzed and given certain attributes. Accordingly, it was concluded the brand’s image has three core elements.  The technology is defined in the combination of terms “precise – progressive – high-performance”. From the user’s perspective, the elements “logical – uniform — reliable – user-oriented” are most important.  Finally, the effect of the lenses is described as “integrative – pleasant – distinct.”  This definition prescribed fairly clearly how the external design of the lenses should look: Form and labeling should be part of the brand’s uniqueness. At the same time, ZEISS lenses should also be recognizably ZEISS.

The results of the surveys were incorporated into an almost 50-page design guide, which served as the foundation for developing the concrete form elements. The high-end SLR lenses for full-frame-format cameras, which will be on the market at the end of 2013, will distinguish themselves through their soft and smooth forms. The lens hood’s funnel-shaped form lets in a maximum of light; the smooth surface expresses precision; and the detachable stray-light reduction lens hood has been integrated into the overall form of the lens and, together with many other elements, signifies reduced complexity: nothing should distract the photographer from his work.

The lenses’ new window scales serve the same purpose: Only the relevant scale range around the index line is visible to the photographer. The yellow scale numbers, which like the scales themselves were modeled after professional cinema lenses, are easy to recognize in poor lighting conditions and therefore represent an additional unique feature for camera lenses. The new typeface DIN 1451, which was introduced with the lenses, is highly legible. This typeface is known not only for its clear, classic, modern appearance; it has been in use since 1936 for German road and rail signage. It was cut into the lens using fine cutters and a fixed stroke width.

On the dials of many lenses there is usually a grooved surface that is actually not strictly necessary for very fine and precise settings. Carl Zeiss and Phoenix decided instead on a smooth surface in order to guarantee the strongest possible adhesion – similar to Formula 1 tires, which have no tread. The result, in addition to the optimized adhesion, is a clear and precise look.

The lens hood presents itself as an optical component part of the camera lens. The lens hood's funnel-shaped form signals the high speed and performance which ZEISS lenses are known for, among others.

Another issue that came up while developing the new design was how to design the metal edges on the parting lines between the fixed and movable parts of the lens. Carl Zeiss and Phoenix decided on extremely fine chamfers in order to express precision through the effect of light reflections.

Development of the product design

Based on the design guide, the next step was the actual design — first of a lens, which was entirely made up, and then of the first of the new high-end SLR full-frame lenses with a focal length of 55 mm. Whereas at the beginning of the development process the designers worked mainly with the marketing and product management departments of the Carl Zeiss Camera Lens Division, the developers now entered the picture, incorporating their recommendations for form into the design. From freehand sketches to 3D computer-generated models to scale modeling, ideas were analyzed jointly by the designers and developers, and judged for both their ability to offer optimal usability and their technical practicability.

High-end SLR lens CAD modell

What began with the lenses of the high-end SLR range has since been carried through the design for the entire new range of mirrorless system cameras, as well as the cine and anamorphic families of lenses. In the future, the new design language will be applied to all further focal ranges of these series, as well as future lenses. The design of the high-end SLR lenses served as the template to develop the ideal form that will characterize how all ZEISS lenses will look in the future.

For more about our upcoming 1.4/55 from Dr. Hubert Nasse, Staff Scientist at Carl Zeiss please watch

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    1. ZEISS Camera Lenses

      Hi ignasi,

      Since the lenses are more demanding in terms of material selection and construction than our previous ZE and ZF.2 lenses, the price level will be higher. We are expecting prices around EUR 3,000. The expected arrival is autumn 2013.

      Best regards,
      Carl Zeiss Lenses Team

  1. richimages

    what is the release date in the US and will there be more than just the 55m focal length for release?

    1. ZEISS Camera Lenses

      Hi richimages,

      The expected arrival is autumn 2013. Concerning your second question: currently, we are developing three prime lenses, with more in the planning stage. We are not ready to reveal them at this time.

      Best regards,
      Carl Zeiss Lenses Team

  2. As a professional photographer at a young age and now 30 years later. I do not care what the shape or superficial style of the lens. Only the image "thumbprint" of the lenses I choose to use. I have used both modern and vintage lenses on my Leica's, Hasselblad, Rollei Sl66 and also view cameras. What I need to see is a much better examples of the image characteristics of these new lenses. I now shoot with Nikon Professional digital cameras.

    So also as a professional writer and photographer I am more interested actual results not press babble. Technical information helps but it is not enough to justify a purchase. What can you do or show me as so far I see nothing of importance. At $4500 USD of a lens that no one has in stock or I can test is not getting me excited to consider a purchase.

    Show me what you got.

    1. Did you see the video? It shows exactly the sort of image quality one can expect from this lens. The image samples from the "other" lens they compare the new Zeiss lens against is very consistent with my experience on small formats. Purple fringing and chromatic aberration levels seem exceptionally low for a 50-something f/1.4 lens. However, in the CA example (basket?) it's clear that the "other" lens is below average with a high field curvature or serious softness wide-open, making the Zeiss lens' image look better even at small magnifications.

      I also agree with what you say about the looks. I don't quite care for it. And design can be both good and bad... like in the case of the new Schneider PC-TS lenses which are mechanical design marvels but ergonomics-wise they're some of the worst things I've used.

    1. ZEISS Camera Lenses

      Dear Michael,
      In 2013, at least one fast lens with M bayonet will go on sale. But you’ll have to be patient, we are not yet revealing anything more.
      Best regards,
      Carl Zeiss Lenses Team

  3. I am sure you have compared performance to many other lenses. What were your findings when compared to the latest 50mm Summilux from Leica?

    1. ZEISS Camera Lenses

      We understand your wish to get to know which specific lenses we used in our comparisons. However, our fairness towards our competitors precludes us from giving such details.
      We can ensure you that the Distagon T* 1,4/55 was compared with almost all current 50 mm lenses for full-format SLR cameras – our own and those of successful competitors.
      Certainly there will be lots of comparisons in independent magazines and blogs after the launch confirming our statements. We are looking forward to that.

      1. @Carl Zeiss Lenses:

        Yes, I can understand that you can't give out the names, etc. Current ~50mm lenses for the 35mm format are of a very poor quality and it's very nice to see CZ step up and make an exceptional lens like this that addresses the exact same issue.

        Since we're talking about the design aesthetics... I don't quite find the bright yellow text adding to the look in a positive way and certainly takes a bit of getting used to. I can understand the functional justification but regular photographers aren't sitting on top of camera cranes most of the time of the time. They would be more worried about the yellow text showing in a reflection or gaining too much attention from muggers.

        The focusing ring also doesn't look nice because it blends with the rest of the barrel too much. Also doesn't it increase the chances of slipping compared to the usual design of these things? I would have much preferred if there was a way to screw on a handle for precise or dampened focusing.

        As for the optics, interchangeable rear-baffles would've been a selling point for people using these on smaller sensor stills and video cameras. And a standardised set of rear filters in addition to front filters threads would've been a nice addition to a premium line-up like this. E.g. drop holders with CZ CPLs, CZ variable NDs, and a generic threaded filter adapter for special purpose filters like IR, IR-cut, UV-pass, etc.

        Hope you guys can take these in to consideration in the future designs.

  4. Achim Vowe

    When I view the DOF preview of my 50 mm 1.4 AiS Nikkor, the viewfinder starts darkening somewhere in the middle between f2 and f2.8, so the viewfinder does not show f1.4 DOF, but ca. 2.5 instead.

    Now the 1.4/55 is a retrofocus (Distagon) lens, which according to my understanding would mean that the lens appears to have a longer focal length (rays hitting surface at less oblique angle) when viewed from camera side.

    Does this result in f1.4 being visible in the viewfinder, i.e. brighter finder image with less DOF => easier focussing ?

    What about focus shift when stopping down ?

    Achim Vowe

    1. @Achim Vowe

      From what I gather, you seem to think that viewfinder darkening is an indicator of DOF preview working. In SLR-type cameras, all auto-aperture lenses are always wide-open and only stop down to the chosen aperture at the time of shutter opening. So, the DOF preview allows the photographer to see the image in the shooting aperture (if stopped down) instead of at the full aperture (for reasons). So it's only there for f-numbers smaller than the max one. Otherwise your focusing screen is showing the DOF at all times for the max-aperture. There is no need to press a button for this.

      As for retrofocus having an impact on the viewfinder... theoretically there is because the angle the light rays hit a focusing screen can change how dark or light the corners get (vignetting on the focusing screen) because of the fresnel-type pattern you find on them. But in the case of SLR lenses, lenses sit relatively very far away from the focusing screen to the point that this is not a noticeable thing.

      On the otherhand, this lens will likely have around 11 elements whereas ordinary 50mm SLR lenses have around 7-8 elements... so light transmission will likely be a bit less at the end of the day. You can see the 35mm 1.4 Distagon is measured at T1.7 and Canon/Nikon/Sigma/Zeiss ZE/ZF 50mm f/1.4 lenses are all measured at being T1.6... by DxO... now I'm not saying DxO's numbers are accurate but I don't think they'll mix up big numbers with small numbers.

    2. @Achim Vowe

      Forgot to mention... this lens will most definitely not have serious focus shift issues because the aberrations that cause focus shifts seem to be kept well under control.

      But the real question is, why should focus shift even be a concern... it appears only when you stop the lens down (again, due to SLRs focusing at max-aperture and stopping down at shooting-time). If I were to pay for a lens like this, I'd not be shooting at anything less than the max aperture for close subjects and for far subjects (e.g. landscapes) it'd be stopped down for more DOF to the point that focus differences don't matter.

      If you're shooting things close by and you need a bit of DOF, a macro lens would be better... there are exceptionally good macro lenses in longer focal lengths and their longer lengths and slower aperture combinations will also help in maintaining subject isolation while giving adequate DOF.

  5. Achim Vowe


    To clarify : I just used DOF preview function of camera to check which is the fastest aperture that is shown by the focussing screen, and that is about 2.5 although the lens is 1.4. (Canon S screen does not fit into my Nikons)
    I would like to see a bright viewfinder with 1.4 DOF for ease of focussing.
    And of course, no focus shift, as I want accurate viewfinder focussing (measured at open aperture) also when taking pictures with the lens stopped down.

    1. The brightness of a matte-type viewfinder and its ability to show shallow DOF are conflicting features. That's why stock focusing screens that don't show DOF well are bright and the higher precision matte-type ones are darker but they still won't show the full DOF. If you want the latter, you need to get an opaque screen and look at it from the front :) It's much easier to use live view when focus is that critical.

      Alternatively, have you considered the micro-prism type screens or ones that have a split-center? There are third-party companies making these and they're easier than the S-type Canon screens to use when in a hurry, if your subject is towards the center.

      If you say you want the highest quality images, shallowest DOF and in a camera that's easy to focus, you're talking about large format :)

  6. Stirling

    Why not give the canon version of this lens a manual aperture ring as well? I prefer completely manual lenses but I come from Cine and the reverse focus of nikon lenses is a habit I'm afraid of forming. A zf lens with cine/canon/leica focussing direction would also be very attractive. Even more so than an ZE lens as it would be more adaptable. I could keep the glass and just change bodies as canon and nikon one up each other.

    1. Stefan Czech

      I use ZF lense on my Canon 5D II / III with Novoflex adapter because of the manual apr.ring.
      I allway looking for the long rotation of the focusingring and the smoothness of this.
      Since Canon FD time, there are no Canon glass with m.a.ring ;-(

  7. Stirling

    Would they ever make a nikon version with a reverse throw? of the three options:
    1 standard canon
    2 standard nikon
    3 reverse nikon

    I think the reverse nikon would be the most versatile.

  8. sakyo1966

    The barrel surface is similar to ZEISS binoculars Conquest Compact, so I love this look. Unfortunately I cannot use this lens because of the price not because of my poor technic. Anyway I’m looking forward to seeing Planar 1.8/32mm for my NEX, not DIstagon 1.4/55mm. Until I get it, I will use YC Planar, YC Sonnar, YC DIstagon with NEX.

  9. Marc-Henri

    I am looking forward to see this new lens, it looks exactly what I need for the D800E.
    Having shot with Zeiss lenses for 40 years, (Contax 645 - the Apo-Makro Planar 120 is a real treat - and before Contax RTS), I am quite confident this one is gonna be a winner.
    Congratulations to the lens team, keep up the good work!

  10. Ike

    I truly admire that you Zeiss guys are dare to develop a lens that truly can match the insane resolution of my Nikon D800. I have a Distagon 28 f2 and it is telling the story of "Miss Perfect meets Mr. Charming". A lens with character meets the perfect camera. I can´t wait for the sequel "Miss perfect meets Mr. Perfect" :)

  11. Kev

    Just wonder if this lens is also available for other manufacturer's camera besides Canon and Nikon.


    1. I'm also curious to see a comparison. I've been using the Sony Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 since it's release a couple of months ago and am amazed by its characteristics. I have to say it's the sharpest Sony Zeiss lens I own, and I find myself drawn to use it even in situations where the 50mm focal length wouldn't normally be my first choice. I also just got through using it in very demanding conditions in the Andes and Amazon where the drip/dustproofing was most appreciated. If this lens can surpass the Sony Zeiss 50mm (and I'd like to see it), then I'll be very impressed.

  12. LEE

    Why do you choose Distagon as the new 55mm's structure, not the used Planar? Is this lens delivered a larger image field and we just use the central part of it?

  13. Scott McLeod

    Maybe I missed it but is there a specification for the weight of this lens, at least approximately? With DSLR focusing screens not really suitable for wide-aperture manual focusing, I'm having a hard time imagining holding a FF DSLR steady at half-arms-length to focus using live view. Using a tripod is an obvious solution but kills the spontaneity engendered by the classic "standard" FOV lens. I hope it is not as heavy as the size suggests, or that due to its optical qualities it will be relatively easy to focus at f/1.4 on most DSLRs.

  14. gabrielefx

    you design with Rhino!
    good to know...
    Now you need Octane for Rhino, to be released soon...
    it's perfect for previz

  15. Tom

    I have no doubt that this lens will be simply stunning optically. My concern is in the actual advantage touted over "conventional" lenses. What are these lenses your refering to in the video?

    I want to know how this stacks up to your already superb 50mm 1.4 Zeiss (ZA). Besides wide open performance advantage, how much better is it ....say...f4-f11?

    Lastly, when will this be offered in a-mount for us Sony shooters. Come on, we want this too!

  16. Tom

    If you make a 135mm 1.8 Otus I'll send you the numbers to my bank account. The awesomeness of my favorite focal length perfected would be worth some serious coin.

    If anyone can make it happen, you guys can:)

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