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What Zeiss Has Not Done, Hasselblad in effect Has Nailed: Relatively 'Slow' Lenses for High-Grade Performance and Portability

See my Hasselblad X1D wish list.

Back in 2015 I wrote the The Irrational Aim of f/1.4 Lenses as the culmination of many prior comments in previous blog posts. I wrote:

But in the main, size and weight of f/1.4 lenses are unfriendly at best. Why this irrational and self-defeating aim towards all these compromises just for f/1.4? To gain a stop or two while degrading all else when most purposes are best achieved with stopping down?

The market cries out for better-than-Otus quality in f/2.8 designs. The heck with f/1.4! I want lenses the size of the Zeiss Loxia 21mm f/2.8 which perform as good or better than Zeiss Otus. This is achievable, and at much lower cost than Zeiss Otus.

When will Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Sony, Zeiss realize that the market for ultra high performance f/2.8 lenses is large and unserved?

In effect, Hasselblad has delivered exactly what I was talking about, but on a larger sensor. The format-equivalent f-stop for Hasselblad XCD f/3.5 lenses is f/2.9 ~= f/2.8. Which is exactly what I had in mind for the 35mm format when I wrote the above.

If one can stomach the cost, it’s clear that the vision I’ve had for years of very high performance lenses on a very high performance sensor has now been realized. I am hopeful that the same will be true of the Fujifilm GFX performance.

None of Zeiss or Sigma or Nikon or Canon or Leica have seen the light. And now that the market has turned on them (collapse of the DSLR market, Leica’s failure of vision), the struggle back will be far more difficult than it would have been a few years ago. I fear most for Zeiss, for not taking steps to implement some form of the vision that Ming Thein and I communicated together in person at the highest levels 18 months ago. One has to say that Sigma has taken up the banner of aggressive lens development—now if Sigma can just get over the f/1.4 hangup.

Why bother with 35mm when medium format is aggressively moving forward, and perhaps Sony and/or Ricoh might throw their hats into the ring too? Medium format is the new full frame. Yes I know there are still many special areas that require the flexibility of a Canon or Nikon lens line and AF system. That’s just the problem—for Nikon and Canon sales, and their high-end shooters—turning yourself into a niche player by strategic bungling incompetence is a sorry road, but at least Nikon is realizing the wanton self-immolation of it, as recent press releases sadly demonstrate.

If the price can be stomached, there are now two medium format systems on the market both of which cut down my pack-load (vs DSLR + Zeiss Otus). While I love Zeiss Otus lenses, and Zeiss Loxia are wonderful, I’m thinking that Hasselblad and/or Fujifilm are looking awfully attractive in terms of DUMPING the 35mm FORMAT for many uses, particularly if Hasselblad gets some work done on firmware improvements and Fujifilm lens quality is what I hope for. The Hasselblad XCD lens line will be complete from my POV by year’s end, and I expect Fujifilm will get there in a similar time frame. Game over for CaNikon for the way I shoot.

Subscribe to diglloyd Medium Format area for full coverage of medium format cameras.

Put another way: why would I buy another huge and heavy Zeiss Otus given the sorry state of CaNikon when I could put that money into a Hasselblad or Fujifilm medium format system with smaller and lighter lenses instead? And get an Olympus E-M1 II for all-around shooting with its amazing autofocus and image stabilization and 4K video? Or use Sony with Zeiss Batis/Loxia as a 2nd system.

Wwhat I want is better than Zeiss Otus quality in an f/2.8 lens: flat field, fluorite-like color correction, no focus shift, and stopping down is purely for depth of field, not for image quality reasons. The Hasselblad XCD lenses don’t qualify on all these metrics, nor do Zeiss Otus or Loxia or Batis. On the 35mm format, losing 2 stops (f/1.4 to f/2.8) should be able to deliver such quality at a price and significantly lower than than the Otus line, particularly if Sigma were to get rolling on a “Compact Art” series.

The question is, which medium format system is better for my use? (and the use of my readers). That question will consume most of my time for the next month or so, because just like my readers, affording one system is pretty tough, let alone two. I want to make the best choice for myself, while making sure the evaluations and field use experience is highly relevant for my readers in making the same decision.

It should be a VERY interesting year in all areas. A year of wrenching change for camera and lens vendors, for sure.

Philip S writes:

I am in complete agreement with you about the desirability of relatively slow, high quality lenses. Many photographers are not well-served by lens makers’ obsession with f/1.4 as some sort of gold standard. That said, I think Zeiss deserves a bit more credit than you are giving them, at least as far as FF E-mount is concerned. I’m thinking specifically of the Batis line, which from what you and others have written, seem to be pretty darn good lenses. I’ll use Sigma for comparison:

Batis 2.8/18 330g
Sigma 1.4/20 Art 950g

Batis 2/25 335g
Sigma 1.4/24 Art 665g

Batis 1.8/85 452g
Sigma 1.4/85 Art 1130g

The Batis are 1/3 to 1/2 the weight of the f/1.4 Sigma Art equivalents. True, f/1.8 is not particularly slow, but the weight savings with the Batis 85mm are huge compared to the top-of-the-line 85mm f/1.4 lenses.

A Batis 135mm is rumored to be imminent. If Zeiss is following a plan of slower-and-lighter, I’m guessing max aperture will be no faster than f/2.8. Which I suppose isn’t all that slow for 135mm, so maybe it will be slower, say f/3.2 or f/3.5.

DIGLLOYD: yes, Zeiss Batis line is lightweight, and the Loxia line is similar weight yet more compact—even better for field use. But they of course require shooting Sony. Sony image quality is too “cooked” for my taste versus a Nikon D810 or medium format. Still, a new camera might change that equation and when I have to hike long or hard, the Sony with Batis and Loxia are my rig of choice at present.

When Nikon debuts a mirrorless lineup, we will be stuck with large and heavy lenses if the camera(s) use the existing F-mount (a big plus for existing users). Ideally it would be a short backfocus new mount, but with supplied high quality lens adapter for Nikon F-mount lenses included. Then Zeiss could design all-new lenses (maybe even adapting Batis and Loxia designs) to the native mirrorless backfocal distance without the constraints of the DSLR mirror box.

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