It seems pretty safe to say that Zeiss sure knows how to make an 85mm lens. They aren’t too shabby when it comes to wide-angle lenses either, so when I got the opportunity to spend time with their new Batis lenses for Sony full-frame E-mount cameras, I was eager to mount them up and head out to shoot.
One of the big talking points when the lenses were first announced was the inclusion of an LED indicator screen right on the lens. It’s a very nice addition, but it’s not something I use all that often. I feel it won’t be something that makes or breaks the lenses for many shooters, but I think it makes a lot of sense. The camera is electronic, the viewfinder is electronic, it only makes sense that the distance scale should be electronic.
When you’re using them, the lenses feel very much like you’d expect Zeiss lenses to feel. I spent some time with the Touit when they were first announced and these certainly still feel like a step up. The focus ring is particularly nice, offering a very smooth action and nice damping, even though the lenses aren’t mechanically driven. That might actually be an important point for some users. The Batis lenses are “focus by wire” which means the ring is electronically linked to the actual focusing action. The ring you turn with your hand is linked to focusing only by electronics, not mechanical pieces. That said, the manual focusing still feels very responsive to me.
With the Touit lenses, I wasn’t quite sold on the autofocus performance, which was likely due–at least in part–to the AF system in the body. I found the Batis lenses to be quicker and smoother, even if they do seem to hunt a bit. I also sometimes found it fairly tricky to lock focus when I was approaching the minimal focusing distance of the lens, especially with the 85mm. It’s times like that the excellent manual focus is greatly appreciated.
The lens hoods on these things are rather beautiful, following a flowing shape that mimics that of the camera’s body. They’re not made of burly metal like the Otus, but that keeps weight down and they also feel very sturdy. I found myself keeping them on pretty much at all times. Even without the hood, however, they aren’t very prone to flaring. Even when I was actively trying to flare the lens a little, both lenses keep the sun corralled rather nicely.
In terms of sharpness, my eyeball tests suggests what you might already suspect: When you get the focus right, both lenses are extremely sharp, even under scrutiny available thanks to the A7r’s big resolution. The bokeh on both lenses is nice and smooth, with round specular highlights thanks to the circular aperture.
One thing I noticed when going through all the images I took was how neutral the images are. I was shooting with everything on neutral mode and the images came out looking fairly flat. Even the JPEGs look a little flat, which is a bit of a departure since I’ve often found some Zeiss lenses to be extremely contrasty. That said, the files that were shot with the Batis lenses hold up extremely well to editing, which is ideal for many shooters (including myself) who edit everything before sharing.
All images in the gallery were shot on the A7r and are unaltered unless noted. The chances are mostly a few little exposure tweaks, but never more than a stop and there are no structural or perspective corrections added to the photos so you can get an idea of what the images actually look like. That 25mm seems excellent in terms of distortion to my eye.
I’m looking forward to shooting a little bit more with these before they go back to the Zeiss mothership, so if there’s something specific you’d like to see, leave it in the comments or ask via Twitter.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/2 for 1/500th sec at ISO 400
An example of the 25mm’s ability to render detail when wide open as well as an example of how it handles bokeh from bright highlights in the lights on the carousel in the background.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/8,000th sec at ISO 1600
I know this isn’t the typical picture you shoot with an F/1.8 aperture, but I like shooting scenes like this wide open when I’m looking for vignetting at the corners of the image. As you can see, it’s definitely noticeable here in the sky, but it’s not horrible and it’s easily corrected. The lens resolved a lot of detail from a good distance.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/1,250th sec. at ISO 1,250
This is a situation that’s more fitting for F/1.8. You can see the fine detail on the in-focus area around the latch. It also doesn’t have a hard time with the bright red letters on the lotto signs. I added one stop of exposure in post to brighten it up, but you can see the flat tone reproduction here, which is a theme in the gallery. It lends itself nicely to editing later.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/100th sec. at ISO 1,250
Another tight detail shot with a lot of contrast in the frame. It’s another example of how it handles contrasty scenes.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/125th sec. at ISO 1,250
A typical shallow depth of field photo to show off the bokeh of the 85mm when shot wide open. You can see at the edges it gets a rather swirly appearance.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/8,000th sec. at ISO 1,250
Pure bokeh to show the shape and the clarity. The actual specular highlights are extremely clean without many noticeable artifacts. The center highlights are nice and circular, while they get pretty football shaped near the edges.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/2.8 for 1/125th sec. at ISO 800
The focus hit the front of her nose–she only looked at me for a second–but reaches back to her eyes. The AF is pretty snappy using both lenses, but not quite as snappy as high-end DSLR lenses I’m used to.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/2 for 1/1,000th sec. at ISO 100
A typical wide street portrait to show off the lack of chromatic aberration in the high contrast edges. There’s a noticeable green band of aberration at the very edges, but it’s easy to take out and there’s no purple fringing, even around the oddly-shaped leaves. 1/3 stop exposure added in post.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/640th sec. at ISO 400
A more traditional portrait shot with the 85mm lens. The conditions were relatively contrasty, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the picture. It’s a nice neutral starting point, but needs a bit of contrast before it’s ready to share.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/400th sec. at ISO 100
A stylized portrait shot through a car window. The focus hits the front eye and the sharpness wide open is very impressive. You can clearly see the edge of her contact lens in the full-res version. Achieving focus, however, in this situation was pretty tricky and required some manual tweaking thanks to the reflections.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/100th sec. at ISO 400
Some leaves after a quick burst of rain.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/100th sec. at ISO 250
Another more typical full-body portrait for the 85mm lens. 3/4 stop exposure added in post.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/2 for 1/80th sec. at ISO 400
Some red rubber balls in a challenging lighting situation. You can start to see the distortion creeping in at the edges here very clearly.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/50th sec at ISO 8,000
During the day, this would be ideally shot with a narrow aperture, but sometimes dark conditions call for small F-numbers. I was actually impressed with how much detail was left in this image out of the camera and at that high ISO.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/2.8 for 1/400th sec. at ISO 200
There was bright sunshine hitting the point of the cow’s head but it didn’t get totally blown out. I actually added a stop of exposure in post to bring out the cow’s facial features a bit.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/8,000th sec. at ISO 400
Another contrasty scene with some trees used for framing in the foreground.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/8,000th sec. at ISO 400
Lights hanging from the ceiling of a butterfly house. It’s a low-contrast scene by its nature so it would need a fair bit of punch added in post to feel finished.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/2.8 for 1/3,200th sec. at ISO 400
A detail shot with the 85mm with the focus locked onto the butterfly
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/2.8 for 1/6,400th sec. at ISO 400
Another butterfly detail shot, this time with the wide angle lens. In terms of contrast, the 25mm seems to offer a little more pop than the 85mm, which makes sense in terms of their average use cases.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/2.8 for 1/500th sec. at ISO 400
One of the things I found impressive about the 25mm is its relative lack of distortion. It’s not crazy wide, but the edges still remain very nice.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/5.6 for 1/200th sec. at ISO 400
A friendly goat shot up close in what I found to be the sweet spot in terms of pure sharpness for the 25mm lens. Note the great detail on the fur and around the eye it rendered.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/5.6 for 1/500th sec. at ISO 400
Another detail-heavy scene shot at F/5.6 to show off the 25mm’s strength. I added one stop of exposure in post. Note the “3” near the right edge of the frame and how it’s still very distortion-free, which I found pretty impressive.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/2 for 1/4,000th sec. at ISO 400
That bright patch in the right of the frame is the actual sun, and you can see that the flare it throws is relatively tame. There’s very little loss of contrast throughout the rest of the picture thanks to the coatings.
Tech Specs: 25mm at F/2 for 1/1,250th sec. at ISO 400
Despite the high-contrast nature of the colors in the tent, you can see that the image starts out pretty flat.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/8,000th sec. at ISO 400
This ride was moving just a moment before I shot this, hence the high shutter speed, but it’s a good opportunity to see how the lens and body handle lots of shiny surfaces and intricate details.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/5,000th sec. at ISO 400
I pre-focused where the kid is in the slide because the AF is snappier than other Zeiss AF lenses I’ve used, but still not blazing fast. I shot it at F/1.8 to put some blur on those signs in front. I love that you can very clearly see the kid sticking out his tongue in the high-res version.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/2,000th sec. at ISO 400
In retrospect, I actually wish I had shot this at a narrower aperture to really draw out the details in the car, but that’s in the moment now.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/2.8 for 1/8,000th sec. at ISO 400
Even at F/2.8 you can see that you get a little vignetting when shooting into the sky
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/2.8 for 1/400th sec. at ISO 400
For a finished image, I would add a fair bit of contrast in post for this photo, and crop it pretty significantly, but not bad for out of the camera.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/640th sec. at ISO 2,000
One stop of exposure added in post. There’s a lot going on in this photo and the 85mm did a great job really knifing in there and putting the focus squarely on the cow’s eye. You also get a nice look at the transition between light and dark.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/2,000th sec. at ISO 1,250
This was shot literally seconds after the previous photo, hence the relatively similar settings even though conditions were brighter. I honestly didn’t expect the AF to nail the cow, especially when shooting wide open, but it got there.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/1.8 for 1/2,500th sec. at ISO 2,000
A guy walking his cow to the trailer.
Tech Specs: 85mm at F/5.6 for 1/3,200th sec. at ISO 2,0000
The 85mm does great in terms of sharpness at F/5.6 as well. The contrast seems to come up a bit as well. One stop of exposure added in post.
Stan Horaczek is the senior gear editor of PopPhoto. He oversees a team of gear-obsessed writers and editors dedicated to finding and featuring the best and most useful photography equipment, from cameras and lenses to bags and accessories.