For an exclusive pre-testing, the renowned independent author and photographer Lloyd Chambers had the chance to try out the new ZEISS Otus 1.4/55 in practice.
Lloyd Chambers has seen many lenses in his professional life. As a professional photographer and the author of one of the most successful photography blogs, he has been testing a variety of lenses, cameras and gear of reputable manufacturers for many years. Impressing him is not easy — so you would think. But ZEISS again succeeded in doing that with its new Otus 1.4/55 lens.
Chambers got the exclusive chance to try a prototype of the Otus 1.4/55 for practical use — and the new ZEISS lens left behind a lasting impression. “When I first shot with the Otus 1.4/55, I was shocked in a way; the images showed an entirely different quality. There is a transparency and three-dimensional quality to the images; it is a sense of 'presence' and immediacy, of being in the scene as if seeing a moment frozen so perfectly in time that one could almost step through a portal directly into the scene. That sense of presence is the most compelling aspect of the Otus 1.4/55.”
Chambers has a personal preference for outdoor photography. He loves the solitude of untouched nature. He often hikes alone for an entire week. The calmness and sense of space help him to focus on the essential — just like in photography. Therefore, the Otus 1.4/55 also accompanied him on a photographic walking tour in the White Mountains in California: “When there is a synergy with my professional work, I like to bring an exploratory or documentary aspect to my images, including a penchant for recording details that often go unnoticed. Details of special places are often passed over in favor of a spectacular mountain or sunset scene. But such details can deliver a tangible feeling of ‘being there’, so I enjoy shooting the gamut of subjects wherever I go. I also enjoy making portraits, which to me means any subject (not just people), such as a fantasticly twisted and sculptured 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine, or an unusual glacial erratic — anything for which a singular focus applies.”
For Chambers, the visual effect that is created by a picture is decisive. The visual effect reveals more about the special performance of a lens than all the numbers and values. That is precisely why the new Otus 1.4/55 fascinated him so much: “Every optical characteristic is tightly ‘nailed down’ by the Otus 1.4/55: sharpness and contrast, bokeh, color rendition, vignetting, distortion, freedom from color errors, exceptional flare control. It is a sum total effect. One might call it a cine-grade lens for still photography, but in a manageable form factor.”
The aspect of manageability is extremely important to Chambers. It is a real benefit that with the Otus, Chambers has a lens at hand that on the one hand is relatively compact and on the other so powerful that he does not have to think anymore about technical limitations while taking pictures. The mechanics work smoothly and yet precisely – a true luxury. And even in difficult shooting situations, the Otus proves itself as decidedly reliable: “The control of veiling and ghosting flare makes the lens my very first choice for any kind of contre-jour shooting. It helps make the lens exceptionally versatile and I can generally ignore adverse lighting as a concern: in fact, I might seek it out for effect, knowing that the lens will deliver.” It is a wonderful tool for creative work because it is so extremely reliable – both with an open and a closed aperture.
When Chambers compares the Otus 1.4/55 with the performance of camera lenses, he probably thinks less about spectacular Hollywood-type images and more about spectacular optical details. For it is the detail, the unrelenting focus on the subject, that fascinates him. When asked about his favorite picture taken with the new Otus, he answers a bit coyly: “a rather banal” picture that shows his daughter’s black cat on a wooden table in his yard during dusk. Chambers’ attention was on the cat’s shimmering yellow eyes. “To be persuasive, the yellow eyes and its interior iris structures should be razor-sharp, the lens has to deliver high contrast into black fur (with small white specks in it), and there should be no veiling haze or violet color fringing or off-center oddball effects. And all of this at ƒ/1.4. And that is what the Otus 1.4/55 does. No other lens could put all those elements together that well.”
In order to get a comprehensive impression of the performance delivered by the ZEISS Otus 1.4/55, Chambers tested the lens under controlled conditions as well as freely in practice. Shooting at night is one of the most difficult disciplines and bears a real challenge for a lense. A very small source of light combined with a maximum of contrast in the image do reveal any optical weaknesses a lense might have. If you try to depict stars or highly illuminated windows as an exact point source and without coma, that comes near to the standard testing procedure in the laboratory to determine the optical quality of a lense.
Here, too, Chambers sticks to his highly positive opinion of the new lens. “ZEISS calls this new family of lenses ‘Otus‘ (owl) and that is fitting. But you could also compare it to the eyes of a cat, which are able to adapt to all conditions of brightness and contrast.”
Another typical test situation for lenses is close-ups. Here, too, Chambers naturally wanted to know how the Otus 1.4/55 would work under these conditions. He even went a step further, toward macro photography. He used a close-up extension ring because this distance lies closer than designed focusing range of the Otus. And again he got excellent results: “I also made various comparisons to other lenses. A real strength of the Otus 1.4/55 is in delivering total image quality across the entire frame also from very short distances. The constant quality to the edges and corners is just excellent.”
All in all, the new ZEISS Otus 1.4/55 not only passed the scrutiny of Lloyd Chambers, an experienced and passionate tester, but truly won him over. He would go so far and describe the Otus as a “milestone in optics technology.” “This is a true professional-grade lens. One might say it’s the first and only such lens for a DSLR, when all aspects are considered, thinking in traditional medium-format terms with very high expectations for optical and build quality. The resolving potential of high resolution digital cameras can only be realized by lenses performing at a very high level, and here the ZEISS Otus 1.4/55 sets the standard by which other lenses will be compared.” Chambers does hold great expectations for the future lenses of the Otus family that are still in state of development at ZEISS. It may be expected that he already reserved a timeslot in this agenda for another prototype testing.
Lloyd Chambers learned photography thoroughly from scratch. He acquired knowledge of laboratory technology during high school. Later, as a university student, he was the head of the dark room of Stanford University. These days he has of course already become immersed in the digital age. He is a photographer and author. He has been writing for years about the newest developments in photography technology, evidenced by his popular blog diglloyd.com and numerous printed articles. Many of his readers are professional photographers. He therefore has high demands when providing an overview and orientation among the impressive selection of lenses, cameras and gear on the market. Chambers lives and works in California.
A detailed report about the ZEISS Otus 1.4/55 can be found in the Guide to Zeiss on diglloyd.com.
Further blog posts by Lloyd Chambers concerning the Otus 1.4/55 can be found here: