Zeiss ZF 85mm f1.4 vs Canon 85mm f1.2 L (Mark 1)
[published september 2006]

Preliminary to the main 85mm group test, here are some first impressions of the new Zeiss ZF 85mm f1.4. Shortly, we’ll be testing it in a Nikon mount against the mighty Canon 85mm f1.2 L and Nikon’s highly regarded AF-D 85mm f1.4.

Studio lighting notes

Ironically, far from revealing what a lens is made of, studio lighting is a great leveller.  Supply an average optic with copious amount of perfectly balanced 5500K light, and time after time the results will be richly detailed and ideally contrasty. It takes a really bad lens not to shine in the studio. The real test is how they perform in daylight, or even better, whether they can retain shadow detail and microcontrast in everyday, overcast, gloomy light. At least that’s the challenge in England.

But the depth of field at 85mm, f1.4 and 2m to the subject is so thin that I wanted to start the test with at least one variable nailed: the light.

Many hours later, I discovered that first impressions (namely, that the thick and thin Nikon-EOS adaptors I use depending on which lens they suit best), were wrong. You will need the thick kind, not the commonly available thin steel ones. Once again, the FotoDiox Pro does the job. For this reason alone I would recommend the ZF Nikon mount version of this lens over the ZS M42 version, which is less well served by high quality adaptors. Not to mention the higher resale value, and the fact that you’re leaving the door open to use Nikon bodies in the future.

Anyway, the dead giveaway that you’re using the wrong adaptor with Nikon lenses is that the plane of focus appears not to be flat. Given the elusive nature of the plane of focus at f1.4, you can be forgiven for  taking a while to work this out. Don’t be as stupid as me: buy a proper adaptor – something at least as expensive as the FotoDiox: the CameraQuest and Novoflex ones are fine, too – just unnecessarily expensive.

It should be noted at this stage that the first batch of ZF 85mm f1.4’s have horribly stiff focus rings, and far from reassuringly grippy lens caps. Whether these are teething gremlins or design faults remains to be seen, but ergonomically my spanking new Zeiss 85mm leaves much to be desired. Manual focusing is nowhere near as nice as – say –  a Nikon 85mm f1.4 D . . .

First impressions

For starters, though, here’s how the new Zeiss lens handles the CA problems that blight even the best of these lenses wide open.

On the left we have the new ZF 85mm; on the right is the Canon 85mm f1.2 – both shot at f1.4: wide open in the case of the Zeiss; half a stop down for the Canon.

Click the picture for a larger, actual pixel 100% sample.

Left: Zeiss ZF 85mm / Right: Canon 85mm f1.2 L

Centre-frame sharpness seems about even at this aperture (note the fractionally different focus!), but it’s immediately evident that the Zeiss has near-total mastery of chromatic aberration, in contrast with the Canon L.

At f2.8, the Canon has lost its CA, but the Zeiss ZF looks a little sharper.