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Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar — best of the best

Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar
(photo used with permission)

As an inveterate connoisseur of lenses (Nikon, Canon and others), I’ve seen the whole range of performance—some outstanding, many excellent, many good, and a few poor in optical performance. Optical performance doesn’t just mean sharpness and contrast; it means bokeh (the way in which out-of-focus areas are rendered), distortion, flare, color rendition, etc. Build quality is also important, both for reliable results and pleasure of use.

The new Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar (with “ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime optics from Hollywood’s movie industry”) promises unusual image quality and it delivers on that promise—it’s a magical combination with the Canon EOS 1D Mark III.

I spent 30 minutes in my garden last night at dusk, using the 100mm for the first time (received just Friday afternoon). I had the distinct feeling that hard work will be required to do justice to it, but I offer these images to show its beautiful rendition, even if my compositions could use some work (if I knew how to make a good composition I’d make one every time). Click images for larger versions.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lens this good. It offers bitingly sharp detail across the field even wide open at f/2, stunningly beautiful bokeh (out of focus rendering), unusually lifelike color rendering, and an eye-popping brilliance that makes images jump off the screen. Unlike lesser lenses, there is no trace of uncorrected “haze” (spherical aberration, color fringing, coma, etc). Images just have a “zing” not seen with other optics. The ability to shoot at any aperture for the desired effect, rather than worrying about less-than-optimal optical performance at wider apertures is a major plus with this lens.

MTF charts don’t tell the whole story, but the Zeiss 100mm offers outstanding MTF, both at infinity and closeup. Note that Zeiss MTF charts are 10, 20 and 40 line pairs per millimeter; Canon’s MTF charts only go to 30 line pairs/mm, so the chart below of f/2 MTF is simply amazing; few Canon optics could do this well stopped down to f/8. Note that on the Canon EOS 1D Mark III, the horizontal “17” mark corresponds to the corner of the image; beyond “17” represents a full frame sensor.

Zeiss 100mm f/2 macro wide-open, chart used with permission

The f/2 maximum aperture is unusually “fast” for a macro lens, enhancing the beautiful way in which the background renders, and allowing easier focusing. It uses a buttery-smooth focusing helicoid, not the annoying internal focus that some lenses use that changes focal length with focus distance. While Canon’s 100mm f/2.8 macro is a very fine lens, it is a full stop slower, and just can’t offer the same sharpness, bokeh and color that the Zeiss optic does. It’s a question of excellent versus “world class”. Distortion is also practically non-existent; see the data sheet.

Run, don’t walk to your local Zeiss dealer or online store and get this lens now. Although my copy is a loaner (demo), I’m not planning on sending it back; I’ll be purchasing it. The lenses come in Nikon “F” mount (Zeiss calls this the “ZF” line). Canon users will need an adapter and will have to use manual stop-down, an inconvenience, but not really an issue for macro photography.

It also is a gorgeous performer in infrared, with superb tonal separation and an unusual delicacy with which it holds highlights and shadows. I’ve had no time to explore its capabilities, and have only the modest test shot below to show as yet. I’ve hardly ever seen this quality in infrared before; the full-size image is exquisitely detailed, with delicate tonal separation and a “mud free” tonal range. Image detail in infrared cannot be criticized in any way.

Zeiss 100mm f/2 macro, Canon 5D-IR

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