Carl Zeiss Planat T* 85mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Planat T* 85mm f/1.4

 

Introduction

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 is a classical manual focus lens for the now defunct Contax/Yashica mount. The lens origins date back to 60s, with the first mass-produced version of the lens manufactured for Rollei SL35 mount. The lens remained quite popular among photographers who wanted a fast, but reasonably priced medium telephoto. Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 was not really the fastest (there were, and actually still are, a couple of even faster 85mm primes, including the anniversary edition of 85mm Planar, Contax Planar 85mm f/1.2, which these days costs a few thousand dollars, as well as equally expensive and fast Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L), nor the cheapest. However Zeiss struck a balance with this lens by pricing it within the reach of advanced amateurs and obviously professionals. The continued popularity of the design contributed to the deciding factor when Zeiss resurrected its line of SLR lenses for Nikon, Pentax and now Canon mounts - Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 is alive and well these days, and is available for purchase at most photography retailers near you.

Like most of its other C/Y lenses, Carl Zeiss used to manufacture the 85mm Planar in AE and MM variants. The lens was initially manufactured in both West Germany, at the original Zeiss factory in Oberkochen, as well as in Japan, first by Yashica and later by Kyocera, which acquired Yashica. However, while it is relatively easy to find an AE version of the lens that was manufactured either in Germany or Japan, majority of MM versions of the lens that are being sold these days on used markets were made in Japan. It's not even clear to me whether any MM versions of this lens were ever manufactured in Germany. Since the lens is pretty common on used markets, its price remains more or less reasonable, with good quality MM copies of the lens selling for ~US$500 on eBay. Compare that to ~US$1,050 being charged for the new ZF or ZK (Nikon/Pentax mounts) copy of the lens or ~US$1,170 for the (Canon) ZE copy.

The optical construction of the lens consists of 6 elements in 5 groups - this simple by modern standards design has not changed since the first introduction of the lens. The build quality is superb - like most of Carl Zeiss lenses of that period, the barrel is made from metal, with rubberized focus and aperture rings. The focusing ring is pretty smooth and the aperture ring snaps into position with ease. The minimum focusing ditance is 1m (3.5ft) and the minimum supported aperture is f/16 (with the aperture ring moving in one full f-stop increments). The lens is not the lightest 85mm lens on the block (partially thanks to its large maximum aperture which requires a pretty large front glass element), weighing 595g (1.3lb) but the weight actually adds to the overall impression of sturdiness. The lens measures 7 x 6.4 cm (2.75 x 2.5in), but the barrel extends slightly when the lens is focused towards the closeup. Filter diameter is 67mm.

Image

Like all Contax lenses, Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 is a full frame lens, so when used on an APS-C type cameras with 1.6x crop factor, the field of view of the lens will resemble that of a 136mm on a full frame body. Planar 85mm f/1.4 is easily adaptable to a number of alternative camera mounts, including Canon's EF/EF-S cameras, as well as Olympus/Panasonic Four Thirds systems. Within the scope of this review, the lens was tested on both full frame as well as APS-C type Canon cameras.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 6 elements in 5 groups
Angular Field 28 degrees
Minimum Focus 1m/3.5ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/16, manual
Filter Size 67mm
Lens Hood G-13 soft hood or No.4 screw-in (optional)
Weight 595g/1.3lbs
Dimensions 70x64mm/2.75x2.5"
Lens Case No.2 (included)

 

Field Tests

Like any other manual lens out there, operation-wise, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 is all about simplicity - there is really nothing particularly special about this lens that makes it any different from other manual lenses. The lens support auto-aperture on Contax cameras, however, even that functionality is not available to those who adapt it to alternative mounts. Hence all focusing and aperture control are done manually. With one obvious caveat - as mentioned in other reviews for alternative mount lenses, because auto-aperture is not available, you would have to rely on stop-down metering when using Planar T* 85mm. Generally speaking, the lens is pretty bright at wider apertures and you would not have any problem focusing it at f/1.4-f/4 - beyond that the viewfinder will get pretty dark and will cripple your ability to focus accurately. If you are using an adapter with AF chip, then you should be safe to about f/5.6 and in very bright conditions even f/8. Be aware however that if you are relying on camera's metering system to set the exposure, you will likely end up overexposing your shots when shooting at smaller apertures. At least that is what has been happening pretty consistently with all Canon cameras used in these tests and according to some web reports to some other SLRs as well. Something is going on in the camera's metering system that prevents it from calculating exposure correctly with limited amount of light passing through the stopped down iris of a manual lens like Planar T* 85mm f/1.4.

Generally speaking, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 performed quite well in the field. The lens produced sharp and contrasty images at lower apertures - f/4 through f/11 seemed to give the best results across the entire picture frame and on both FF as well as APS-C cameras. Things were not as consistent at wider apertures, particularly with a full frame camera - the lens still showed pretty decent resolving capabilities in the center, but borders were wishy-washy. The lens did seem to produce somewhat better results across all apertures at infinity, which probably means that the designers have tried to optimize the optical formula for infinity shooting. Color reproduction was quite good, with color palette remaining consistent throughout the aperture settings and sufficient detail in shadows and midtones.

 

ISO 400, 1/320, f/1.4, 85mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 400, 1/320, f/1.4, 85mm (Canon 5D)

 

One of the main benefits of a fast lens like Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 is its ability to produce a pretty shallow DOF, which is typically prized by photographers who want to isolate the subject in focus from the foreground/background. If the lens smoothes foreground/background well enough, particularly if it also manages to produce low contrast background/foreground without reducing the contrast of the areas in focus, the effect can give a three-dimensional feel, which would make the pictures ‘pop’. Hence users often refer to the ‘quality of bokeh’ when discussing the ability of lens to render nice looking out of focus areas. Keep in mind however, that the feel of bokeh is highly subjective – not only different lenses would produce different bokeh at the same apertures, but the same lens would produce different bokeh at different aperture settings, as well as can produce different bokeh even at the same aperture setting when used at different focusing distances. Testing each lens for all possible permutations of bokeh at different focusing distances and aperture settings is outside of the scope of the reviews here, so the lenses are only tested for one setting – wide open aperture and close or at the minimum focusing distance (for majority of lenses, this setting would produce the most blurred fore/background, but not necessarily the sharpest or even the most contrasty overall image). The test shot above shows how Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 performs at its widest aperture with the focusing distance of ~1m (the focusing point is the porcelain cat’s right eye). As you can see, Planar produced a pretty smooth back/fore-ground with nice, low contrast transitions that don’t really distract the viewer from the object in focus. However, the out of focus highlights, which can be seen around the figurine of a gnome on the left (well, it’s probably even impossible to tell that this is a figurine of a gnome sitting on the left side of the cat since the lens blurred the background so much), show some harsh edging, which is somewhat distracting. You can also notice a slight double-edging around the darker objects placed against lighter background, which while not that significant is still undesirable in images. All in all, most users would probably consider this to be an average quality bokeh, and we would not argue with them.

 

ISO 100, 1/2000, f/1.4, 85mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 100, 1/2000, f/1.4, 85mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 100, 1/500, f/8, 85mm (Canon 5D)
ISO 100, 1/500, f/8, 85mm (Canon 5D)

 

Generally speaking, flare is often not a bit issue with telephoto lenses. This is true only to some extent with Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 - the lens does not fare that well when pointed towards a strong light source (like the sun in the shots above). Granted, this is probably the worst possible scenario, with the sun positioned right above the picture frame and hitting the front element of the lens under ~50 degrees. That large front element that makes the maximum aperture of f/1.4 possible on this lens is a great asset for low-light photography, but not so much in situations like above. At f/1.4 the light bounces back and forth in the lens, greatly reducing the contrast basically to the point that the shot becomes completely useless. As you stop down the aperture, things (meaning flare) actually get better - contrast is still pretty low, but that is as much a problem of the camera's sensor clipping the dynamic range as is the problem of the lens itself (notice the washed out sky - it was actually light blue the day pictures were taken). Bottom line - don't point the lens towards the sun. If you do, you're asking for trouble since the lens does not really handle such situations gracefully.

 

Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs APS-C
Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs APS-C

 

For a lens with a fast max aperture, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 managed to produce a pretty moderate to minimal amount of vignetting. On a full frame body the lens showed some noticeable, but not extreme, vignetting at f/1.4, which is significantly reduced at f/2 and becomes minimal by f/2.8. And on an cropped body the lens shows very minimal  vignetting even at f/1.4.

As expected from a fixed focal medium telephoto lens, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 showed no visible barrel distortion. The lens did not show any major color fringing.

 

ISO 100, 1/2500, f/1.4, 85mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/2500, f/1.4, 85mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for both types of cameras.

 

Canon APS-C: Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 showed very consistent results almost throughout the entire aperture range. Almost - the lens was tack sharp both in the center and around borders from f/2.8 all the way through f/8. As a matter of fact, center performance in this aperture range is easily in the top quartile of all fixed focals I have tested to date. At f/11 performance degraded somewhat but still remained very solid. Unfortunately, the lens did not fare as well at wide open apertures. At f/1.4 it was simply mediocre and while center performance improved at f/2, border quality remained rather weak. At its best, the lens would produce very good 19in and decent 24in prints, which is pretty solid but not unique among fixed focal lenses. Conclusion? As long as you are OK with somewhat weak performance at f/1.4, the lens is not going to disappoint you. It's just that the results are not going to leave you awe-struck either. Overall, solid medium telephoto.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 85mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 85mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 85mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 85mm

 

The lens showed well-manageable amount of chromatic aberration in image center with an APS-C type camera. Here CA approached ~0.65px at f/1.4, then quickly dropping to ~0.35px around f/2 and remaining on about that level through the rest of the aperture settings. CA around borders was quite higher, reaching ~1.1px at f/1.4 but then slowly dropping to ~0.6px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 85mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 85mm

 

Here are 100% crops, taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi, comparing image borders at f/1.4 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 85mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 85mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: On a full-frame Canon 5D Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 showed outstanding center performance from f/2 all the way through f/11. At f/1.4 center was reasonably sharp, but not exceptional. At the same time, the lens struggled a bit around borders with wide open apertures, producing rather mediocre results from f/1.4 to f/2. Border quality improves with stopped down aperture and by f/4 reached outstanding levels. Conclusion? There were no surprises in the overall performance on a full-frame camera, and the lens held its ground throughout the tested aperture range.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 85mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 85mm

 

The lens showed minor degree of barrel distortion, however, at 0.10%, distortion should not be visible in regular type photography.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 85mm
Distortion (FF) @ 85mm

 

Chromatic aberration remained on a full-frame camera remained more or lenss under control, particularly in the center, where CA never exceeded ~0.6px and actually remained at even more manageable levels through the most of the tested aperture. CA around borders was somewhat higher, reaching ~1px at f/1.4, slowly drifting lower with stopped down apertures and reaching ~0.6px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 85mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 85mm

 

Here are 100% crops, taken with an FF type Canon 5D, comparing image borders at f/1.4 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 85mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 85mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

Carl Zeiss used to manufacture two 85mm primes for its Contax line - the Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 reviewed here as well as a slower, lighter and more affordable Sonnar T* 85mm f/2.8, which offers excellent overall characteristics, even when compared against its bigger cousin. As mentioned above, Zeiss re-introduced the 85mm prime recently, with Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 now available in Nikon, Canon and Pentax mount. If you're into Zeiss lenses, then you might also want to take a look at Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8 or its older incarnation Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 80mm f/2.8, both of which are medium format lenses for the now defunct Pentacon 6/Exakta 66 format and were manufactured by Carl Zeiss Jena (the East Germany branch of Carl Zeiss that was split out of Zeiss when Soviets turned East Germany into a communist state). Outside of the Zeiss family, Leica offers two very capable medium telephotos in its SLR range - Leica Summilux-R 80mm f/1.4 and Leica Summicron-R 90mm f/2. Both lenses sport superb image qualities but cost quite a bit more then their Zeiss alternavies. Nikon offers a fantastic 85mm prime - the older Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 AiS as well as new AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D should be on a short list of any user interested in medium telephotos. Finally, a lens from another discontinued mount, Olympus OM Zuiko 85mm f/2 is quite an interesting lens, with great overall performance and price to match.

 

Recommendation

Historically, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 has been considered to be one of the best medium telephoto lenses for the now defunct C/Y mount.  Even after some 20+ years since the original design, the lens is still an interesting choice for those of us who are willing to use a manual focus lens (at least occasionally). The lens offers pretty good performance at medium and small apertures, but struggles somewhat at wider settings. There are a few other minor 'gotchas' like extensive flare in extreme lightning conditions and slightly higher level of CA at wider apertures. Nevertheless, Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 offers a good value for money when compared to similar fast lenses from other manufacturers. This is particularly true even when compared to the newly released version of this lens for Canon/Nikon/Pentax mounts, which retails for over US$1,000 at the moment of this writing.