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Nat Geo shooter Ben Horton compares Canon glass to Zeiss glass.

October 22, 2010 by Gear, News, Reviews

A few months back I was on the verge of selling all of my Canon equipment. I was going to switch to Nikon because I found that all my pictures were coming out soft when I saw the images at a 1/1 ratio on my 5D Mark II. There was also chromatic aberration in the high contrast areas, and as a professional photographer looking to get the best images possible this frustrated me to no end.

I did some research and found that though both companies get government contracts which enables them to spend a lot of money on research and development, Canon mostly focussed on telescopes and the internal components like the sensors that capture the image, while Nikon focussed more on microscopes and optics. I tried Nikon, and I loved the lenses. Wouldn’t you know it though, I just didn’t like the Nikon bodies. That Nikon doesn’t have a HDDSLR that can compare to the Canon 5D Mark II made switching over impossible for me.

The real problem with the 5D Mark II isn’t the camera. It’s that the 22 megapixel sensor can capture more detail than the Canon L lenses can give it. These problems never showed up when the sensors were smaller. Until a few days ago, the 22 megapixel sensor was a useless product of the megapixel race that has forced me to buy new cameras every few years just to keep up. Using standard Canon glass, any sensor larger 16 megapixels is a waste. While trying to find a way to take advantage of the 22 megapixel sensor, I tried mounting a medium format lens on my camera that can pass more detail. Even though it worked, the easiest way to take advantage of these lenses is to permanently change the lens mount on the body of the camera rendering my Canon lenses useless.

I found a potential solution to this problem while talking to the sales rep for Carl Zeiss lenses at the PhotoCine News Expo. Just a few weeks later, I have three Carl Zeiss fixed focal length lenses in my hands, a Distagon T* 3,5/18 , a Distagon T* 2/35 and a Planar T* 1,4/85 . Even before the lenses arrived I knew exactly what the foremost arguments against them were going to be. They are manual focus, and they don’t zoom.

I decided before I went about comparing the actual quality of the glass I’d get out and shoot with them for a few days. I want to challenge the idea that manual focus won’t work when you have to shoot quickly. The hardest thing to shoot manually is sports, so I took them to the 24 Hours of Moab bike race and tried the lenses in every lighting condition possible and with fast moving subjects.

Shooting in autofocus mode is just lazy. To get perfect focus with an auto-focus lens, a little tweaking is always necessary. When you look at the focussing ring of a Canon L lens, there is about a quarter of an inch between Infinity and 10 feet. That’s not a lot to work with if you are trying to focus on something that is 30 feet away and forget trying to pre-focus. The Zeiss lenses had a bit more room, but the real advantage is that the focussing ring doesn’t spin freely. It will always be in the same position when you are focussing at a given distance, every time. It wasn’t long before I could focus the lens entirely by feel.

My initial impression after using the lenses for a few hours came as a surprise. When presented with an opportunity to take a good photo, I chose the Zeiss lens over my Canon lens every time. I didn’t even have to think about it. The contrast, the clarity, and the feel of the lenses was so much better from the very beginning that I had ceased to use them just for the review, I was using them so I would get the best image that I possibly could. The lens I used most of the day for the wide expanse of the desert and the narrow canyons the racers were riding through was the 3,5/18. This lens has a beautiful and smooth vignette when compared to the Canon counterpart which just has dark corners. The contrast is far more natural, and the colors are richer even in the raw files.

The following photos were processed in aperture and I set all of the image correction sliders to zero so that none of the noise, chromatic aberration, contrast, or anything was changed by the program. Both images were shot at 1/40th of a second at F22, ISO 160.

The Zeiss image has much more contrast, color, and less blur when viewed at a 1/1 ratio. The Canon image is soft, and darker (even though I used the same exposure) as well as a little bit gray.

The Canon lens is a zoom and the Zeiss is fixed, that could be Zeiss’ advantage in this instance. Now I would compare the Zeiss 1.4/85 to my absolute favorite Canon lens, the 1.2/85. With both of them being fixed, it would be a more accurate comparison. I brought the lenses to a fashion shoot in Denver, Colorado to put them to the test.

Click the following image to see it at a 1/1 ratio. This was shot at F1.4, you are looking for a few things: How sharp are the focal points, and how much contrast, saturation, and detail is in the final image.

Model: Nikki Hairrell Agency: Donna Baldwin

Zeiss lenses are better. The Canon lens doesn’t have the clarity, contrast, or saturation that the Zeiss lens has. Below are some edited, but not sharpened full size images from both lenses.

The one thing I didn’t test on these lenses because I have to send them back is how well they stood up to a beating. I have Canon lenses that I still use after having to dive down 30 feet and pick them up off the ocean floor. The feel of Zeiss lenses is that they are rock solid. Having seen a cross section of one at the PhotoCine News expo, I’m confident that if I decided to use Zeiss lenses shooting rock climbing, in the jungle, or in -40 degrees they would hold their own against any other lens, possibly even perform better since they are not burdened with the electronics that an autofocus lens needs.

If you shoot a lot using an underwater housing, or if you have bad eyesight and can’t focus on your own, perhaps you need autofocus lenses. I never once felt like I was limited by having to manually focus these lenses. I felt liberated from the L glass. I was inspired to see just how I could take advantage of these superior lenses. I know that I will be buying Zeiss glass next time I’m looking for a new lens, but I’ll keep my Canon lenses handy, I still need them for underwater photography and camera traps that I won’t be around to focus on my own.

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