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Introduction

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZE, along with its ZF.2 version for Nikon, is one of a handful new SLR lenses that Carl Zeiss started manufacturing after the demise of Contax relationship with Kyocera. The lens was first introduced in 2006 for Nikon and Pentax mounts, and in 2009 the company added support for EF mount, while also discontinuing Pentax mount. The lens currently is being manufactured by Cosina of Japan, which also makes all other SLR and RF lenses for Zeiss. The price for new copies is ~US$1,300 after an almost 20% price hike in 2009.

The build quality of Carl Zeiss lenses is superb, and Planar 85/1.4 is no exception here. It is said that only Leica matches and sometimes exceeds build quality of Zeiss lenses. Having owned various Zeiss and Leica lenses of the past and present, I tend to agree with this - some prefer Leica, others Zeiss, personally, I think they both top notch. But with the other side of the build quality is weight - the barrel of Planar 85/1.4 is metal, as is the aperture ring. The lens weighs 570g (1.25lb), while measuring only 77 x 62mm (3.03 x 2.48in). The Canon version of the lens has an electronic aperture, which has to be set directly from the camera, while the Nikon version has an aperture ring but also support electronc aperture settings. The filter diameter is 72mm, while the minimum focusing distance is 1m (3.2ft). Minimum f-stop is f/16.

 

 

Carl Zeiss Planat T* 85mm f/1.4 ZE is a full frame lens, meaning that it can be used on film as well as digital FF and APS-C cameras. When used on APS-C bodies with 1.6x crop factor, the lens will give EFOV of 136mm. The manufacturer's box includes the lens, front and rear lens caps, metal lens hood, quality control card and manual. Two copies of the lens were tested, albeit at different times - a sample in Nikon F mount and a second in Canon EOS mount. The first copy (pictured above) showed rather substandard image quality and had minor decentering, which led me to believe that it was damaged. The second copy, in Canon EOS mount, performed much better and the results from this lens sample were used in this review.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 6 elements in 5 groups
Angular Field 29 degrees
Minimum Focus 1m/3.28ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, electronic
Filter Size 72mm
Lens Hood Metal (included)
Weight 570g/1.25lb
Dimensions 77x62mm/3.03x2.48"
Lens Case N/A

 

Handling

Over the years, I have owned a number of fast 85mm lenses, including the previous generation, Contax-branded, Planar 85/1.4. Out of all, the two that still remain in my collection are Leica's Summilux-R 80/1.4 and Sony branded Planar 85/1.4 (for the Alpha mount). The original Contax version of Planar was a fairly decent performer at smaller apertures, but wide open the lens struggled quite a bit, both in terms of resolution, as well as in handling color, particularly at close focusing distances. That ultimately led me to selling the Contax version and sticking with Summilux. Many users claim that a revised Contax N Planar 85/1.4 is much better lens than the original Contax-Yashica, but I do not have any experience with this lens and can't really comment on these claims. Sony's Planar, on the other hand, is indeed a much more capable lens, and probably should be used as the benchmark for the 85mm Planars. Unfortunately, adapting a Sony mount to anything else is a pain in the neck and the only way to compare the two lenses is by adapting a ZF lens to the Sony mount (also a pain in the neck). Bottom line is that I don't really have a direct way of comparing Planars at the moment, so my comments are generalizations only. On the other hand, I have been comparing ZE Planar 85/1.4 to Summilux 80/1.4 directly, and have a slight preference towards Summilux primarily because of its slightly shorter MFD and its color balance, although I must admit that the two lenses now go neck in neck and the gap that existed between them has shrunk quite noticeably since the Contax days. But as always, I am jumping ahead of myself with these comments...

ISO 200, 1/800, f/1.4, 85mm (Canon 5DMk2)

Planar is a fairly chunky lens, not as big as say Canon's venerable 85/1.2L USM II, but big and wide enough to attract attention from passersby. Ergonomics of the lens are fairly good - the camera/lens combo can be held in one hand in theory, but since the lens is fully manual, you would end up using your second hand to focus it and so you would instinctively use the palm of that hand for support. On larger cameras like Canon 5DMk3 and Canon 1DsMk3 the lens balances quite well. While I always recommend using a top of the line ballhead/tripod, the combination is not as demanding as some of the longer tele lenses. On smaller bodies like Rebel series, the lens is heavier than the camera itself and the combo is front-heavy.

The focusing ring is very precise and rotates for ~270 degrees when going from the closeup to the infinity. This is definitely better than Sony's version, as well as Summilux - manual focusing in Sony's Planar is an afterthought, while Summilux gives you about 180 degrees of rotation. The focusing ring has longer thrust at close focusing distances, which gives you a little bit more precision. As with all manual focus Zeiss lenses, Planar sports an engraved DOF scale, which can be used to preset the lens for quick shooting. There are three distinct markings for f/4, f/8 and f/16 with intermediate, unmarked positions. Since the ZE version incorporates a chip which allows the lens to communicate with the camera body, you will be able to rely on your camera's AF assist - as you the image gets into focus, you will get a familiar AF beep and AF confirmation light will go off in the viewfinder (assuming these are enabled). However, because most cameras' AF confirmation triggers within some small, but measurable range of the focusing ring rotation, your images might end up looking soft, if you get unlucky and front- or back- focus the lens while exclusively relying on the AF confirm. A better option is a Live View, if your camera has it, which will allow you to rely on your eyes to get the focus where you need it. Alternatively, dedicating focusing screens can be installed on some of the high end cameras, but Live View is probably still going to be the best option.

Another difference compared to Sumimlux as well as old Planar lenses, is the lack of aperture ring, at least on the ZE version. If your main camera is Canon (or Nikon for the ZF.2 version), then you're pretty much set and there is nothing to worry about. However, you're not gonna be able to adapt this lens to any other mounts, unlike Summilux for example, which can be used with Sony's NEX or any Micro Four Thirds cameras.

With its fast f/1.4 aperture, Planar 85/1.4 is subject to some focus shift. This is quite common in fast lenses that don't employ aspherical elements to correct for spherical aberration. The copy of the lens I used in these tests showed a fairly noticeable jump in focus shift from f/1.4 to f/2 and then to f/2.8. Increased DOF will helps mask smaller focus shift beyond f/4 and hence would not require any adjustments during shooting. Increasing DOF by mmoving away from the subject (i.e. shooting at infinity) would also mask focus shift to some extent. Given that, manual focusing Planar 85/1.4 at wider apertures gets rather tricky and can contribute to less then sharpest images. Your best bet is probably to use camera's live view for focusing or rely on focus bracketing.