Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic Lens Review

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic Lens
Note: The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic Lens has been replaced by the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens.
In-Depth Review

The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens is the first available Carl Zeiss lens built specifically for the Canon EOS mount. Prior to the ZE lenses, Zeiss lenses required a special adapter to be used on Canon EOS bodies. People took the extra effort to EOS-mount Zeiss lenses because the image quality they obtained from these lenses was worth it. Zeiss' formal announcement of the ZE series of lenses triggered a flood of emails requesting Zeiss reviews. So, it was with great anticipation that I ordered and received the first ZE lens I could get my hands on - the Zeiss ZE 85.

The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens

I knew this was a high grade lens, but my expectations were exceeded upon opening the Zeiss box. The entirely metal (no rubber or plastic) lens is extremely-precisely and solidly built. It is a high grade work of metal art that feels like it would perform flawlessly forever. Even the included 1.5" x 3.3" (39.1 x 84.4mm) lens hood is metal and has a precise fit (and fits compactly when reversed). A classy-looking center-and-side-pinch lens cap finishes off the appearance.

The first Zeiss ZE lens aspect you need to be aware of is the lack of auto focus. The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens is a manual focus-only lens and is built to maximize the manual focus experience. The 270°-rotating manual focus ring is wide (covering most of the lens barrel), smooth and precise. There is no play whatsoever. Again, there is no rubber on this ring - it is all metal. Engraved distance markings on the MF ring are accurate and line up with the engraved DOF markings.

I have to admit that I am not good at manual focusing without one of the recommended optional focusing screens that make this task far easier. To aid in manual focusing, Canon DSLRs will indicate when focus is achieved by the familiar beep (if enabled) and green in-focus light in the viewfinder - including with the Zeiss 85 mounted. However, I don't find this to be a good indication of accurate focusing. There is a certain amount of focus ring rotation that will keep this in-focus indicator light on, and if you take a picture at either end of this rotation, the image will be blurry. As mentioned, there are focus screens available that make this job easier - and Live View works great.

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens on Canon EOS 60D - Top View

Users of some non-ZE Zeiss lenses will note the lack of an aperture ring - the 9 rounded-blade aperture is controlled by the camera. A wide open aperture is used for focusing/framing and all auto-exposure functions work just as with a Canon lens.

ModelWeight oz(g)Dimensions w/o Hood "(mm)FilterYear 
Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift Lens22.8(645)3.2 x 3.5(81.0 x 90.1)72mm1991
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens19.2(545)3.4 x 2.6(85.4 x 65.5)72mm2006
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens10.2(290)2.9 x 2.0(74.0 x 51.0)58mm1993
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens4.6(130)2.7 x 1.6(68.0 x 41.0)52mm1990
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens15.0(425)3.0 x 2.8(75.0 x 72.0)58mm1992
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens36.2(1025)3.6 x 3.3(91.5 x 84.0)72mm2006
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZE Planar T* Lens23.8(675)3.1 x 2.8(78.2 x 71.5)72mm2008
Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift Lens19.9(565)2.9 x 3.5(73.6 x 88.0)58mm1991
Canon EF 100mm f/2.0 USM Lens16.2(460)3.0 x 2.9(75.0 x 74.0)58mm1991
Canon EF 135mm f/2.0 L USM Lens26.5(750)3.3 x 4.4(83.0 x 112.0)72mm1996

The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens is a solid lens and this is reflected on the scales. However, the comparison chart shows that it is right in line with the alternatives in this regard - and noticeably lighter than the Canon EF 85 f/1.2 II. The ZE 85 is a medium-sized lens that handles well.

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens Product Images

MFD |    w/ Hood:  MFD |    Rotated        Compare >

Noticeable above is that the Zeiss ZE 85 extends a small amount during focusing. The front element does not rotate during this extension. Here is another comparison for review - with the newer Sigma 85mm f/1.4 included.

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens Compared to Similar 85mm Lenses

Positioned above from left to right are the following lenses:
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZE Planar T* Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens

The same lenses are shown below in their fully extended states with their lens hoods in place.

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens Compared to Similar 85mm Lenses with Hoods

Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift Lens15.7(400).16x
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens17.7(450).15x
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM Lens17.7(450).15x
Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens17.7(450).15x
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens33.5(850).13x
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens37.4(950).11x
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZE Planar T* Lens38.3(972)na
Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift Lens19.7(500).29x
Canon EF 100mm f/2.0 USM Lens35.4(900).14x
Canon EF 135mm f/2.0 L USM Lens35.4(900).19x

The Zeiss ZE 85's MFD (Minimum Focus Distance) (measured) is slightly longer than the comparison lenses shown in the above chart with the exception of the closest comparable lens - the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II. Zeiss does not provide a MM (Maximum Magnification) specification for this lens, but I'd estimate it to be around .10 or .11x.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, high image quality is what Zeiss lenses are renowned for. So, I was excited to see what this one could do. After carefully shooting the ISO 12233 resolution chart in my studio/lab, uploading the files and opening them in DPP, I was disappointed with my results - they were not sharp even stopped down. My only conclusion was that I was doing something wrong. So, I carefully aligned everything and shot the test again. I used zoomed Live View, computer-attached Live view, focus bracketing ... with a large number of test samples and the results were the same. Use the ISO 12233 Crops link at the top of this page and select sample "2" to see for yourself. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens, a much less-expensive lens, is noticeably sharper. Based on the reputation, the price and the build quality of this lens, my only conclusion is that my first lens had something wrong with it.

With only 6 lenses in 5 groups, I expected this lens to be sharp. It should also have good contrast.

What I could determine is that the Zeiss ZE 85 has no noticeable distortion - slightly less than either of the current Canon 85mm lenses. Chromatic aberration is well controlled, but there is slightly more CA than in the 85 L II.

Vignetting is somewhat strong in the full frame corners. Corner shading is good when the lens is stopped down to f/2.8. The transition is gradual from f/1.4 to f/2.8. Even 1.6x FOVCF body users might notice some corner shading at f/1.4. The Canon 85mm L II Lens is better than the ZE 85 in this regard and the Canon 85mm f/1.8 Lens fares worse at similar aperture settings.

On Canon EOS 60D - Top View with Hood

The second Zeiss ZE 85 came - On to Part 2.

With my second lens in hand and a lot more use and testing behind me, I can now continue this review. When I decided squeeze a Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens review into my way-too-busy-at-the-time schedule, I thought I was getting into an easy review. There would be no AF problems, no IS testing to do, only one focal length to be concerned with and a high quality lens is easier to review than one with lots of problems to figure out. But alas, that was not the case with this review.

The second Zeiss ZE 85 performs better than the first in the ISO 12233 chart results with a stopped down aperture. But, I used even wider focus bracketing to get these results. It turns out that this lens has focus shift. The plane of sharp focus moves away from the camera as the lens is stopped down (aperture set narrower) - or vice versa. Here is an example:

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens Focus Shift

These crops are reduced by 66% to reasonably fit on this page, but the movement of the plane of sharp focus is still obvious. The lens was at an approximately 45° angle to the chart in this example. The black arrow is positioned at the approximate sharpest area of focus in each sample (the white dirt-like spots are reflections of the flash on the chart). Focus shift is about 2.6" (65mm) at a distance of 9.85' (3m). This is the distance required to frame a target size of 47.25" x 31.5" (1200 x 800mm) on a full frame body. If you compare this size to actual subject framing, you are thinking about a tightly-framed full body small child portrait or 1/2 - 2/3 body adult portrait.

I asked Zeiss about this attribute - here is their response:

"Fast lenses of this optical design (without floating elements) shift the focus due to spherical aberration when the f-stop is changed. This phenomenon is especially visible on closer object distances and cannot be influenced. The AF system of most camera models does not respect those characteristics of a lens. The focus is measured and confirmed by the focus indicator as if the lens has been stopped down to f/5.6.

While using the lens wide open, the correct focus lies usually a little bit in front of the point that has been expected. Beside this, the focus confirmation function of any AF-camera is a relative improper tool for accurate focusing of an f/1.4 lens on closer distances. Also, a standard focusing screen and viewfinder of an SLR camera shows the limitations of accurate manual focusing with an 85mm lens at f/1.4. For instance, it is not possible in practical use to focus more accurately than about +/- 2 cm at an object distance of 1m without additional magnification systems. For accurate focusing at full aperture or stopped down a little bit, we strongly recommend:
-use a tripod if possible
-use zoom-in function in live-view mode while the lens has been stopped down to the designated f-stop.
-focus bracketing exposures (with small steps of rotating the focusing ring)"

1.6x FOVCF bodies hide focus issues better than full frame bodies (greater focus distance for same framing = greater DOF (Depth of Field)). Shooting at longer distances (more typical for outdoor shooting), where DOF becomes greater, also helps to hide this issue. I didn't find much evidence of focus shift in my outdoor testing. However, field curvature became apparent at longer outdoor distances. The plane of focus curves away in the corners (breaking the definition of "plane" of course).

Click on the image below to compare the Zeiss 85 with a couple of Canon 85s and a Sigma 85.

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens on Camera Comparison

The comparison below was primarily for my own benefit, but since I went to the work of creating it, I'll share it here. Note that, to reduce page load time (especially for mobile users), this comparison is being hosted on a separate page. Click on the image below to open this comparison in a new window/tab.

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens Flare Comparison

Two identically-configured 1Ds Mark III bodies were used side-by-side to create these images - I couldn't wait any longer for a perfectly clear day to align with my schedule (required for single-camera outdoor testing). So, these same-aperture shots were taken simultaneously. This explains any slight composition alignment differences in the comparison. These images were shot RAW and processed to the "Standard" Picture Style with sharpening set to "1" (low).

One aspect noticeable throughout my comparison testing are the warmer colors in the Zeiss lens. Watch the bottom left image in the above comparison for an example. I have not found the warmer colors objectionable. The full frame vignetting difference can also be seen in the above comparison.

Overall, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens wide open delivers images that are somewhat soft. As usual, stopping down increases image sharpness. By f/2.0, center of the frame image quality has greatly improved and images are sharp at f/2.8 Corners appreciate a narrower aperture, but become nicely sharp around f/4.

The Zeiss ZE 85 does a nice job at suppressing flare. Use the flare link at the top/bottom of this review to see the test results.

Canon 1Ds III-selected Zeiss auto exposures are generally 1/3 stop longer (shutter speed) or wider (aperture) than identically framed Canon 85 L II auto exposures. The Zeiss results are about 1/6 stop brighter than the comparable AE Canon 85 L II images. Thus, the Canon gives an image that is about 1/6 stop brighter on average (not considering the vignetting differences).

The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens has really nice, smooth bokeh and produces a healthy amount of background blur due to its wide aperture and short telephoto focal length. A quick-grab portrait of a Christmas-anticipating young girl shows the back window frame and foreground tree blurred even at the f/2 aperture used for this shot. Portraits are one of the best subjects for the ZE 85. The focal length is right - for all format DSLRs (obviously the 1.6x bodies are going too require more space to work in). Portrait subjects are generally not in action (which becomes much more challenging for a manual focus-only lens). Short distance, wide aperture portraits will need to compensate for the focus shift, but mid-distance portraits work well. Wide apertures allow nice separation of the subject from the background.

Other good uses for this lens include product photography, landscape photography (if stopped down) and for other general purpose uses.

I typically provide a disclaimer relating to compatibility when I am reviewing non-Canon Canon-mount lenses. Since the ZE 85 does not have autofocus, my biggest compatibility concern is alleviated. The aperture/exposure controls conceivably could still have future compatibility problems. Just so you know.

Another note: Just because it is a Zeiss lens does not mean it was made by Zeiss in Germany. My inquiry to Zeiss requesting information on who actually manufactures this lens was answered in this way:

"From the beginning of the long history of the Carl Zeiss Camera Lens Division in the 1890´s, many superb lenses designed by Carl Zeiss have been manufactured all around the world. During our partnership with Kyocera until 2005, most of the famous C/Y-mount, G-mount, N-mount and Contax 645 mount lenses were made in Japan. To offer our customers high quality lenses for a reasonable price, we decided to manufacture lenses like the C Sonnar T* 1,5/50 ZM in Japan at our partner Cosina, who has a longtime experience in producing high quality cameras and lenses for different major camera brands. Our products are manufactured there under the quality control of Carl Zeiss, under the same specifications and checked with the same measuring equipment as our lenses "made in Germany".

My take on this response, for what it is worth, is that the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens is made by Cosina, for what that is worth.

Mounted on Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

The first question you must ask yourself when considering the purchase of the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* ZE Lens is: Do I need autofocus? If so, this obviously is not the lens for you. Otherwise, you will not likely find a better built 85mm lens for your purposes. It's definitely a joy to use a lens this well built. Image quality is not as top-of-the-line as build quality (and I don't like the focus shift issue), but it is not bad - and the ZE 85's price is also not top-of-the-line. And that is a good thing.

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Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic Lens
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