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Zeiss ZF (Nikon mount) lenses.

Robgalbraith.com reports on the price announcements from Carl Zeiss for their new Nikon-mount “ZF” lenses (a 50mm/f1.4 and 85mm/f1.4 so far).  In rough dollar terms, the lenses will be $600 and $1200 respectively. By comparison, Nikon’s autofocus 50mm/f1.4D is $269 and Nikon’s autofocus 85mm/f1.4D is $1015.

Certainly the build quality is worth a significant premium, but at more than twice the price, and no autofocus, the Zeiss 50mm needs to demonstrate very nice rendering indeed. Though the “made in China” Nikon 50mm is cheaply built, I consider it one of my best lenses optically.  We can only hope that the Zeiss 50mm offers improved sharpness, contrast and bokeh.

The main issue I see is focus precision (and speed of focusing).  The Nikon D2X offers such high resolution, that anything but spot-on focus will make any potential sharpness differences moot.  This is already a problem, even with autofocus.  My experience with most Nikon lenses is that the autofocus precision is less than perfect, leading to obviously-blurred results in some cases, though it’s better with fast lenses.  Using the focus assist feature in the D2X and D200 helps with manual-focus lenses, but it’s just not accurate enough at f1.4 for precision work (try focusing 10 times and observe the variability in results on a high-contrast target, and a lower contrast target). Part of the problem is the vague coverage of the D2X and D200 focus sensors, even the center one.  Canon is better in this regard.

Zeiss trumpets the outstanding sharpness of their new lenses in the center.  Gosh, a lens that’s sharp in the center?!  As anyone who has read one of my comparative reviews knows, I make comparisons between similar items whenever possible, controlling the variables as feasible, thus allowing meaningful conclusions to be drawn.  The Zeiss claims on resolution are not very useful for two reasons:

First, the use of only the center area to assess sharpness is of little use in understanding the sharpness across the field.  There are plenty of lens designs with outstanding center sharpness and fair corner performance.  As any Canon 1Ds Mark II shooter knows, finding a lens that yields excellent sharpness across the field, especially wide-open, is no easy task (see D2X vs EOS).  This is also true on the Nikon D2X/D200, because the 2/3 frame sensor demands high resolving power.

Second, the test was performed on special high-resolution film.  While no doubt there are still film shooters, it is likely that any of them are shooting the film Zeiss used (and film flatness and MTF is always an issue).  For the vast majority shooting digital, the high resolution claimed by Zeiss may or may not be significant. The only useful comparison to be done is showing how the Nikon 50mm/f1.4D compares to the Zeiss 50mm on the Nikon D2X, Nikon’s highest-resolution digital SLR (alternately the two 85mm lenses). For that matter, Zeiss could demonstrate the claimed superior bokeh of their lenses by posting direct comparisons.   But perhaps Zeiss feels that reputation, not facts, are sufficient to sell their new offerings.

If you’re in the market for a manual-focus 85mm lens, the $1320 Nikon 85mm/f2.8D PC-Micro-Nikkor offers outstanding optical performance, while also offering superb macro and tilt/shift capability—a far more flexible investment unless you must have f1.4 and f2.

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