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Introduction

When Sony took over the camera business from Minolta (read: bought), the company made a strategic decision to expand its relationship with Carl Zeiss of Germany (Sony previously was already using Carl Zeiss designed lenses in its video cameras) and add a number of Carl Zeiss designed lenses (Sony still manufactures the lenses itself though). Over the last several years this decision proved to be critical in helping Sony rapidly gain market share and bypassing such long-time established camera companies as Olympus and Pentax. These days, Sony is no longer happy with the status quo of being the third largest SLR camera manufacturer in the world and is now challenging Nikon for the second place in select countries like S.Korea. Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 was one of the first Zeiss lenses that Sony added to its lineup, and unlike re-badged Minolta lenses, Planar is a true Carl Zeiss design. If you are not familiar with the history of Planar lenses, it's worth mentioning that the design dates back to the 19th century and has been the cornerstone of many famous lens models from both Carl Zeiss itself, as well as third party companies that used the Planar model once the patent on the optical design expired. Carl Zeiss currently manufactures Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 in three different mounts - ZE for Canon, ZF for Nikon and ZK for Pentax, but all these lenses are manual focus primes. Sony took the Planar design from Carl Zeiss and packaged it into an auto-focus lens - kudos to  Sony for that! However, priced at ~US$1,300, Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 is certainly a fairly expensive toy, ughh, instrument I mean.

The optical construction of Planar 85m f/1.4 ZA consists of 8 elements in 7 groups (compare that to 6 elements in 5 groups for the ZE/ZF/ZK version). The build quality of the lens is superb - all metal barrel, with an inch-wide, grooved focusing ring. The lens is about average in size for medium telephoto prime, weighing 650g (1.43lb). and measuring 81 x 75mm (3.1 x 2.95in) although the barrel of the lens extends during focusing towards the closeup, adding another inch or so to the overall length  The lens has an AF mechanism with non-rotating focusing ring, but obviously also supports manual focusing. The lens focuses down to 85cm (2.7ft). The minimum supported aperture is f/22 (the aperture is fully electronic and should be set from the camera) and the filter thread is 72mm.

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZA is a traditional full frame lens, and is compatible with all Alpha mount cameras, APS-C and FF alike. Sony also offers a dedicated adapter to use all Alpha lenses, including Planar, on NEX series cameras. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on a full frame Sony a850 full frame camera.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 8 elements in 7 groups
Angular Field 29 degrees
Minimum Focus 85cm/2.7ft
Focusing Action AF/MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/22, electronic
Filter Size 72mm
Lens Hood Metal (included)
Weight 650g/1.43lb
Dimensions 81x75mm/3.1x2.95"
Lens Case N/A

 

 

Handling

Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZA is a fairly bulky lens, it is slightly bulkier then the 85mm Planars in ZE/ZK/ZF mounts, I suspect because of the AF mechanics incorporated into the lens. Of course bulky is relative here - compared to Canon's EF 85mm f/1.2L USM for example. The lens balances fairly well on larger full frame cameras like Sony a850, with the lens tipping the camera a little bit down, due to its weight. You can  still easily hold the camera/lens combo with one hand, but most likely you will end using your second hand as the base to rest the camera on and your thumb resting on the AF focus hold button located on the side of the lens barrel. On smaller APS-C bodies, and particularly on Sony NEX, the lens dwarves the camera making the combo somewhat hard to hold - you end up holding the lens rather then the camera

Interestingly, Sony decided not to incorporate their new generation SSM or SAM focusing mechanisms (both sporting an AF motor inside the lens) and instead used an old style, mechanical pin-driven AF. This results in a fairly noisy and somewhat slow AF operation, particularly when the camera shifts lens elements around to catch the exact point of focus. Autofocus is fairly accurate at long distances, but hunts quite often in low contrast, dimly lit environments as well as at closeup distances, where it seems like it can't quite decide where to lock the focus. It's hard to blame the lens here though, since the AF is controlled exclusively by the camera in this case. And since the lens was designed with the AF ergonomics in mind to begin with, the manual focusing, while possible, is not really optimized - the focusing ring rotation is quite smooth once you switch the camera into manual focus mode, but the focusing ring has ~100 degrees of rotational thrust, with slightly wider spacing at close distances, and hence not giving you the level of precision of some of the fully manual lenses of the past. The DOF scale engraved on the barrel has three markings for f/8, f/16 and f/22, and so in theory you can preset the lens to the hyperfocal distance and use it as a point and shoot - at f/22, your working focusing range would span from about 5m to infinity.

One final word is about the dome lens hood that Sony conveniently included with the lens. Make sure you take care of it as it is quite expensive to replace - at $130, one might think that the lens hood is made of gold, not metal. I don't understand the reason for pricing replacement accessories so high, except for milking the poor souls who are in a bind because they misplaced or broke their original ones. Sigh. Reminds you any other company? I little hint - it's a German company and it is not Carl Zeiss...