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Zeiss UP Line of Ultra Performance Lenses for Nikon and Canon

To my knowledge, Zeiss has yet officially give a name to its new line of ultra-performance lenses, so I’m inventing the terminology: the Zeiss UP (“Ultra Performance”) line, in keeping with the two-letter ZF (Nikon) and ZE (Canon) designations.

Since the Zeiss UP line is for both Canon and Nikon, I’ll also go with UP.N and UP.C for now, noting that the sample picture of the 55/1.4 shows it as a ZF.2. So maybe it will just be nothing new, e.g. the Zeiss ZF.2 55mm f/1.4 Distagon. But I think this is perhaps not the best move, as the top-end line ought to carry its own designation.

The first of the Zeiss UP line is the announced Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Distagon, and from what I hear, it will be a stunner in several ways: (1) unbelievably good performance wide open, (2) large and very heavy (note the 82mm filter size!), (3) quite expensive.

UPDATE: one reader was kind enough to send me a few shots taken at f/1.4 on the D800E at Photokina. I’m used to looking at good lenses, and I can tell quality from over-sharpening, etc. From what I see, the 55/1.4 at f/1.4 looks as perfect as one can hope for, indeed superior to most lenses at f/5.6 and not even in the same playground as anything else at f/1.4. I’m not kidding. Looks to me like there is reserve there for a 100 megapixel camera, and that Leica should be very, very worried about such developments with regards to the Leica S. Ditto for other medium format vendors. Game over.

Zeiss super-high-spec 55mm f/1.4 for Nikon and Canon DSLRS

Requirements

If the Zeiss UP lens line is to cost about US$4000 a pop, they need to deliver the goods to make up for cost and the burden of lugging them.

  • Field curvature minimized. Ultra high resolution digital suffers badly from field curvature; it forces stopping down to deal with it, which kills the lens brilliance (e.g., f/11 instead of f/5.6). This is only going to be more of a problem with higher and higher resolution bodies.
  • Chromatic aberrations banished. Focusing with any amount of longitudinal chromatic aberration (LOCA) is frustrating and error prone. And since precision focus is the #1 influence on realized sharpness, this is critical. Lateral chromatic aberration can be corrected, but it too should be banned.
  • Optimal results by f/2.8 - f/4. Peak performance must reached no later than f/4, preferably by f/2.8, so that the synergistic “punch” of superb crispness along with beautiful background blur can be combined. And so that the brilliance-robbing effects of diffraction can be avoided; with the Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar focused optimally, f/4 is already visibly better for micro contrast than f/5.6 (on the D800E), due to diffraction. Call it “one stop down, max”, e.g. f2 for an f/1.4 lens, f/2.8 for an f/2 lens, f/4 for an f/2.8 lens.
  • Distortion at 1% or less. Distortion that is “low” (up to 2.5%) can actually be quite visible on some scenes (consider a level horizon or building). A figure of 1% maximum distortion is my cutoff for not having to have an alternate “B” lens with lower distortion. Correcting distortion in “post” kills micro contrast, so I never do it.
  • 12 or 14-bladed aperture. Give us a almost perfectly circular aperture for stunning defocus effects.

Future lenses I’d like to see in the Zeiss UP line

Let me speculate on what would be best and most appropriate to see after the 55mm f/1.4 Distagon ships, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of the existing ZF.2/ZE lens line.

In particular, higher performance for the Nikon D800/D800E and a future Canon high-res body is sorely needed in the 35mm and wider angle range.

Below are the lenses I would like to see in priority order, a too-fast/bright f-stop being something I would pref to see compromised for the highest possible performance (e.g., f/2 instead of f/1.4 is just fine in a wide angle).

  • 20mm f/2.8 —Eliminate the field curvature trip-hazards of the 15/2.8, 18/3.5 and 21/2.8 Distagons and deliver optimal performance with a flat field by wide open. Don’t make me stop down to f/8. All chromatic aberrations banished, and distortion under 1% please.
  • 28mm f/1.4 — Large and heavy to meet performance goals, but a superb 28mm f/1.4 can be a tool for many and varied uses. However, compromise the aperture to f/1.8 if the lens would be obscenely large and heavy or the performance would be compromised.
  • 35mm f/2 —With the f/1.4 need filled at 28mm, improve upon the existing 35/1.4 Distagon and 35/2 Distagon designs with a no compromise f/2 lens that eliminates all chromatic aberrations and barely improves by f/2.8, so that it makes a near perfect image at f/2.
  • 55mm f/1.4 Distagon — already announced, reportedly outstanding wide open.
  • 90mm f/2 APO+ — The existing 85/1.4 Planar has unacceptable focus shift and too much residual “color bokeh”. This new 90mm gives up a stop of speed, but offers a flat field at close range and infinity, and should achieve peak performance by f/2.8, which is only a nudge better than f/2. It should have no peers in its range at any focusing distance, it must be free of LOCA and color fringing, and should be corrected beyond everyday APO designation for nearly neutral out of focus deblur effects. Should focus to 1:4, but 1:5 OK.

The above are not guesses, they are wishes as to what I would find most useful for my own shooting.


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