From the initial idea to develop a new high-end SLR lens family to the preparations to bring it to market, ZEISS has come a long and exciting way.

The development of the new high-end SLR lens family posed a special challenge for the ZEISS product managers. The design of the new high-performance lenses was mainly driven by the responsible product managers Nicole Balle, Dr. Michael Pollmann and Christophe Casenave. “An outstanding experience” is how they sum up their three years of hard work.

The most important requirement they had to fulfill was: make no compromises and create the best lens on the market. During the kick-off event, the team geared up for the endurance test that lay ahead of them by taking a hiking tour together. “There was a really special mood,” recalls Nicole Balle. “This assignment was truly extraordinary. Of course, we were all thrilled to be able to have so much freedom in developing a product. The work atmosphere was completely open. All ideas were welcome and were evaluated by the team.”

The project had been discussed internally at ZEISS for a long time. The first concepts were already discussed in 2008, but it was not until 2010 that things became concrete. Back then it was clear to the experts at ZEISS that the image sensors in the new generations of cameras would make such a big leap forward that there would already be a need for corresponding high-performance lenses in the medium term. In 2012, the Nikon D800 came on the market, equipped with a full-frame sensor with 36 megapixels. This was the highest resolution of any sensor in a full-frame camera to date. ZEISS wanted to offer photographers a range of high-end SLR lenses that would enable them to use the full potential of such cameras. Such a combination would achieve performance values that would be comparable to those of medium-format systems.

To learn more about customers’ wishes, ZEISS worked with a lot of photographers. The product managers defined the target groups to be professional photographers and very ambitious hobby photographers. In interviews with selected customers, the product managers asked about areas and situations in which conscientious, manual picture-taking plays out its strengths. After analyzing the answers, it was decided to focus on portraits, landscapes and still lifes. “We knew that hardly anyone would buy the complete family, but we expect that demanding customers, such as photographers who work in advertising, would decide for at least one of the new lenses,” says Balle.

At the beginning of last year, Dr. Michael Pollmann took over the product management for the new lens family. The issue now was to specify the parameters for the first lens types, develop them and qualify the first prototypes. “Optical designers, design engineers and the colleagues from the lab who did the qualifications were the key people during that phase of the project,” reports Dr. Pollmann. “Of course, we also had to get the feedback from our expert users to avoid developing ‘engineering monuments’. Instead, we had to keep the benefit for the end-user in mind at all times.”

The most memorable moment for Dr. Pollmann was the evaluation of the first prototypes. “Up to that point, our opinions relied on theoretical simulations and diagrams,” he says. “None of us could give a satisfactory answer to the question of how clearly the better image performance would indeed be visible in pictures later on. In diagrams, minimal differences become visible which the viewer in the real world does not recognize. Even some of us were skeptical and reluctant. After we had the first results from the prototypes, even the skeptics were surprised at how clearly the higher image quality becomes visible in the pictures.”

For the entire team it was a great pleasure to draw the attention of the public to this new lens family for the first time at photokina 2012.  The before-and-after pictures taken during the evaluation phase were used to show the public. Following the motto “a picture is worth a thousand words” ZEISS simply let the results speak for themselves. The response from customers was overwhelmingly positive. “One customer even told me that by presenting this product, we had made his day and the trip to Cologne had been worth it just for that reason,” recalls Dr. Pollmann.

The 1,4/55 in application
First application tests of the 1,4/55 during product development

Thanks to the ZEISS team’s good sense for the market, an attractive solution had been found which customers liked from the start. An additional challenge was the continuously growing physical size of the first member of the new family, which was inevitable for reasons of physics: the large aperture of f/ 1,4 and other optical characteristics require a rather complex optical system with a relatively large amount of glass. When used with a DSLR camera with a high-resolution sensor, the system was considered by customers to be nevertheless balanced and coherent, despite its size and weight.

In early 2013, Christophe Casenave became project manager, taking over from Dr. Pollmann. This last phase was all about preparing for the pilot production. “In this phase, all the details have to be right,” explains Casenave. “The variations in optical quality should be almost zero: every customer has to get exactly the same quality level. Also, in the product design there are a number of minor details that should be optimized. They are truly minor, but they make the difference to a standard product. Here again there should be nearly no variation from production. Even the packaging required a lot of effort. Such a product is not just unpacked. We want the “unboxing experience” to be something that is really special and representative about this unique product.”

Our efforts are already bearing the first fruits of success: the first lens of the new family was recently awarded a design prize. Due to its optical performance, the lens will set new standards in the industry. “The public’s enthusiastic anticipation is almost contagious,” continues Casenave. “For me and all my colleagues this is a highlight in our careers, and we are feverishly awaiting the market introduction in fall 2013.”

Looking back at the exciting development period, the team emphasizes especially the outstanding team spirit and the great support from all sides: “I very much liked the mix of technical enthusiasm and economic sobriety at ZEISS,” says Balle. “This included management constantly asking questions about our product ideas. This kept our feet on the ground, because we constantly needed to rethink our decisions. Especially in a project with no clear cost ceiling, this is essential to avoid overshooting.” Dr. Pollmann adds: “It was tedious to define the technical specifications but even more so to define the conceptual design. Despite our comprehensive market research, it was difficult to assess up front whether the acceptance in the market for such an extraordinary series of lenses would be high enough to amortize the development. Our confidence has grown thanks to the positive reactions to this project.”

“When the 1,4/55 comes onto the market at the end of 2013 as the first in this family of lenses, it will be one of the best lenses in the world,” summarizes Casenave. “There will be nothing of comparable quality, and that not only applies to this specific focal length range.  With this product ZEISS has truly opened up a new dimension of digital full-frame photography.”

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  1. After an extrhordinarily positive track record with your lenses (I own 4 ZF.2), I'm really excited to see such outstanding lenses finally on the market. Bravi !

    1. Dino, i think the same way. The 50 makro is outstanding. How much better does it get? Well, recently I did try the new 135mm f2.0. Yes, it was better (but a different lens, different function). So far I love my 21, 35 and 50 and more will follow...

    2. huonder

      I would appreciate it so much to get the Zeiss 2/50 as standard version only (no macro) for smaller size and lower weight with this outstanding performance. Such a lens would possibly be smaller than the 1.4/50 and provide better performance from f2 than the latter. Although tempting, the 1.4/55 is just too big for general purpose.

  2. I love all the Zeiss lenses I can get my hands on both zoom and static. Can you please tell me if you will also include options for The Sony full frame a99 which I use and love? Thank you in advance.

  3. This is indeed a great development by Zeiss and I am looking forward to trying one out quickly as it is launch ~ end of 2013? Is there a pre-order system to ensure getting one early?

  4. Ben

    I wanted a high performance, large aperture normal for a long time. I hope your new 55mm F/1.4 is as good as your say!

    New line of high quality lenses is very welcome. So, keep it going, Zeiss, more lenses and dont compromise on the quality.

  5. If Zeiss starts producing auto focus lenses, I will buy them all and sell all my Nikon and Canon ones.
    Untill this happens, I am not interested no matter how good they are. I do not have time to fiddle with focus when shooting a wedding os some event. I do not understand the thinking behind making a Rolls Roys without wheels!!!!

    1. Anatoly, we nere at ZPI are on the same page with you!
      No more, no less!
      Let's wait for Zeiss to catch up with the crowd.

    2. John

      Yeah, there was a time long ago before auto focus, when were not able to shoot weddings.

      Candids were not possible either, and photojournalism hadn't been explored yet.

      Thank goodness for technology, now you don't even have to know how to use a camera! Lol

    3. James Richard Tyrer

      A simple question from an engineer that understands how servo systems work: how accurately do you think that the servo system in your camera can focus your lens? Actually, that isn't the correct question since it is a matter of a accuracy verses time. So, the accuracy that you get is going to be a function of how long you can keep the camera pointed at the target. But, the question remains as to how accurately is the servo system in the camera focusing your lenses?

      So, the thinking is why have the worlds best lens if the focus is not exact..

      Perhaps if differential contrast can be made to work on a camera -- that is how an enlarger focus meter works -- then auto focus can replace a human with 100% accuracy.

      1. John

        Exactly James!
        As nice and fast as AF is, critical focus does still seem to remain elusive.

        When shooting macro, or still subjects, I still get a more precise image knowing what plane of my subject to focus on while an IC chip may not.

        I see so many tight face shots with the tip of the nose nicely sharp and the eyes lacking critical sharpness, unless the lens has been heavily stopped down.

        At this point the background can be extremely distracting, hence the desire for soft, creamy bokeh.

        A couple of favorite lenses are the Mamiya 180 on the RZ, and Leica's Elmarit 90mm f2.8 which both allow fantastic portraiture.

        I find the Zeiss glass has a bit more pleasing contrast and saturation.

        Really looking forward to seeing this new lens in person!

        I find it interesting how deeply emotional the responses are in both the AF and MF camps.

        Perhaps it offers a glimpse of how attached we have become with technology in our modern world?

  6. Is that a manual aperture control ring by the lens mount? It looks as though it would be completely obscured by the overhanging prism/flash assembly of most DSLRs.

  7. NancyP

    I have a hard time imagining "better than Distagon 21/2.8". I will be very curious to see the new lenses.

  8. phentex

    Such a wide lens, and still not auto-focus driven. How the fuck do you get the focus plane right a max large aperture on a highdef dslr such as a D800 ? ? ? ? ?

    1. Bob B.

      Well I use the Zeiss 21mm ZE on my Canon and it has electronic contacts. Yes, it is manual focus, but I get visual and audio feedback when I rack focus at the selected focus point. A lot of manual lenses do not have that feature, though.

  9. Dario

    Re phentex
    it is not for everyone and not for all types of work mate. Get sth else if you need autofocus.
    I use ZF.2 35 1.4 and get the focus right on D800E most of the time, awesome lens with a character btw. Keep it up Zeiss. I look forward to see what 55 1.4 does..

  10. Richard Lamprecht

    I bought a Pentax K-5 IIs and am now building up a profile of lenses. On my list is the Pentax DA* 55mm F1.4 SMS SCM lens which get a great review at SLR gear. I wonder how this Zeis will compare. I am also getting, the highly rated 21 mm F3.2 SMD DA* lens. These are prime lenses and are water and dust proof.

    1. Maxim Burgman

      Zeiss is a whole other world. You will like the Pentax 55 and you will be really disappointed with the 21. The 21 is probably the most overrated of the lineup. I have Zeiss 25mm 2.8, and it gives this otherworldly quality - I say buy Zeiss for the character and not just sharpness, though I am excited about this new series of lenses...Though nothing for Pentax, I am sure. Try the FA77, it's probably my favorite of the bunch.

  11. I have no experience with Zeiss lens but I have used a lot of manual focus lens. My problem is the lens will back or front focus and their is no manual focus fine-tune on any camera. Is this lens have a back/front focus proof? Thank you.

    1. huonder

      to Thanatham Piriyakarnjanakul: there is AF finetune on every camera, but for MF lenses, the AF finetune will show only with the focus confirmation flash in the finder (Canon) or the dot in the finder display (Nikon)

      1. huonder

        ......if the lens is chipped, of corse. The 1.4/55 certainly is, as all Zeiss lenses for Nikon and Canon are.

    2. Markus Wörsdörfer

      You should look at Katz Eye focusing screens. They have split image, perfect for manual focus and it is in fact possible to adjust your mirror box on Nikon for exact manual focus.

  12. No compromise?
    1. Size (actually I prefer large-but others may not)
    2. Weight (and heavy-but others may not)
    3. Price (I prefer cheap-othera may not)
    4. Made in Japan vs. made at home in Germany (I don't care-but others may)
    5. no AF (I love AF, but I also love a smooth MF)
    6. colour (I like white, doesn't heat up while doing landscapes in hot California or FL)
    7. no IS (no go for me).

    I see a lot of compromise. Maybe they ought to have said no compromise in optical design. Now I have to wonder.....

  13. Jerry

    As long as your hand is steady and your eye doesn't back focus, I'd say your pretty sure the lens won't 😉

  14. Dann Malpinski

    Beautiful lenses with a beautiful price. Out of reach for most of you. Talk is cheap. Please, wake up.

  15. John Chase

    For those worried about no AF, f ring at back of lens (obscured by pentaprism) no focus confirmation etc., it is possible this may not be the lens for you.
    Then again, it might!
    I am old enough to have grown up focusing on ground glass with no focusing aids in camera.
    We were taught to "rock the focus" back to its sharpest apparent point after rolling just past that sharpest point.
    Often when manually focusing like this with my Nikon AF bodies, I then look left in the VF and notice the focus confirmation dot is lit up.
    Apparently, it is possible to hit the critical point of focus using your eyes and some practice.

    As for the f ring? Hold your left hand palm up, thumb along the left side of the camera lens (as the operator sees it) and you get the most stable shooting stance, and your fingers are not impeded by the pentaprism.
    Holding the camera palm sideways to the right with the thumb underneath is often a sign of a self taught bad habit.
    It does not make you a lesser photographer, just a less steady photographer.
    Happy shooting every one!

  16. gcg

    I'm curious to know what other lenses of that series are planned.

    I was able to make some snapshots with the 55mm last year in Cologne. Incredibly sharp. The out of focus areas looked a bit overcorrected to me (at f4). Nevertheless a 'must have' lens for everyone who cares for quality.

    1. ModernPhoto

      Sharpness is only one of the criteria for quality. Fast and accurate autofocus is another.

  17. Rick Knepper

    I hope a version between 18-24mm is on the short list for us landscapers. The wider the better. I could make things work with a little cropping. If I have to, I'll unload my 6 Zeiss lenses if need be to pay for one "No compromise" 21mm (say no to gullwing distortion Zeiss).

  18. Max

    I had no idea my 50mm lenses were performing this badly until I saw this thoughtful comparison you put out for the new $4000 Zeiss 55mm Distagon.

    I never noticed that my conventional lens (also made by you) had such bad IQ.

    In reality it makes me wonder if you need to skew your comparisons in such a corrupt manner maybe your lens isn't everything you're hyping it up to be.

  19. I have been shooting with Nikor lenses for a long time on the D3, D3S, D800E and then I tried the CZ lenses. WoW what a difference, yes it is manual but the metering works and so does the focus indicator. I leave them and signed up for the new 1.2/55mm. I have seen it and tried it at photokine.... I am sold..

  20. Michael

    To what camera will this advanced AF 55/f1.4 be attached?


    Not for the A99 as the ZA 50/F1.4SSM already exists in demand.


    The new CONTAX FF (SONY) digital ... now that the Kyocera agreement has fully expired. The Ikon line will be converted.

    All guesses.

    1. ZEISS Camera Lenses

      Dear Michael,
      the lens comes in Canon EF and Nikon F.2 Mount versions.
      Best regards,
      ZEISS lenses team

  21. It is good to know that companies are trying to raise the bare and unlash digital power.

    For me, what makes a lens “magical” is its balance between sharpness, contrast, color rendition and pleasant defocused areas. Nevertheless most of these parameters can be metered, and then quality assured, what can not be metered is the “magic” itself, because it is on the “balance”, on the interaction of a lot of factors that make optic design still a hard work.
    So, as they said, we will have to wait to see the photos to really know.

  22. Jeremy

    This lens is said to be release in Fall this year. Does any know exactly when will it be available? We are now in October and soon fall will be over.

  23. Daniel

    For manual focus you need a matte focusing screen. Available from a number of vendors for the better SLRs. No problem using any of my Zeiss lenses (C/Y or ZEs).

    Re distortion in the 1x mm focal range, try the Zeiss 15 mm, even less distortion than the 21 mm. I don't use either of them every day, but when there is an opportunity, both are a joy to use.

    Re missing AF, Zeiss does not do AF because it would compromise the precision machining of the lenses. Remember the Contax AX? Take any AF lens, put the focus between close focus and infinity, then wiggle the front and rear elements relative to one another. You will notice that there IS some play. Try it with a Zeiss lens, there is NO play. That means precision alignment = better error corrections.

    Zeiss is not for everybody, but if you like quality optics, there is nothing else out there. Will be interesting to see how it fares against the Makroplanar 100 mm ZE.

    Have been pondering a normal lens for a while, and the Otus is certainly on my holiday shopping list. Until now, the Tessar 45 mm pancake was the sharpest lens (AFAIK). But the Otus seems to have outdone it. Not too shabby.

  24. I was actually looking for image comparison. All I saw at the suggested site were "benchmark" test results. As impressive as they are numbers are numbers and pictures and flaws are something different. How can 1 measure flair? That was my problem with Sigma and my test for example showed me that new Sigma has a better flair control but the coma was much more pronounced. So I was hoping for a similar scenario where I could see that Otus handles a certain situation better than another lens. There's a video on Youtube that does that but they don't say which lens Otus was compared to. Was it a $50 Vivitar or $500 Nikon?


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