Does camera A work better with lens B or lens C? When photographers talk about the optimal equipment to create perfect images, the discussion can go beyond the facts and become very opinionated. The differences between world-class lenses are too minimal to be recognized with the naked eye. Or perhaps not?
How do different lens characteristics influence the final image?
We wanted to test this and set-up a portrait shoot. In a meticulously planned comparison test we shot the same motifs with the same camera but different lenses: ZEISS Classic Planar T* 1.4/50, ZEISS Milvus 1.4/50, and the ZEISS Otus 1.4/55. All three lenses create fantastic pictures. So will it still be possible to detect differences between them?
When shooting portraits, it is best to set a wide aperture to capture a shallow depth of field, so the background behind your subject is nicely blurred, making them stand out better. Therefore, we were above all interested in seeing the behavior of the three contenders with a wide-open aperture, which for all three corresponded to a fast f/1.4.
If a lens has problems with color fringing or getting the corners sharp, it will show up most when the aperture is open. In addition to meeting that challenge, the lenses also had to master a motif with strong backlight, as well as a motif with a vivid sea of flowers, tediously fastened by hand, one by one, to a table placed upright against a wall. Visible in every photograph was model Ellie. With her appealing expression and perfect skin – nothing in the images is retouched – the lenses had an easy job.
Perhaps too easy: without skin imperfections, even the sharpest lens will not find faults. And yet: zoom into the images and you’ll spot fine but important differences, especially in the sharpness. The ZEISS Classic lens cannot hold up as well in this situation compared to Milvus and Otus. Details become somewhat softer and milkier than with the two other lenses. That is not a shortcoming in quality; rather it has to do with the fact that the Planar was designed for specific purposes. Some beauty photographers swear by this soft look, which evens out tiny wrinkles and brings out the skin tones so nicely. But anyone looking for super-sharp images would need to default to the ZEISS Milvus or ZEISS Otus lenses.
The differences between these ZEISS Milvus and Otus lenses are truly marginal. If you look very closely, the images taken with the Milvus lens look slightly cooler, whereas the Otus earns points for rendering a very natural skin tone. Even with a wide-open aperture at f/1.4, both are sharp all the way into the corners of the image. An excellent feature that both lenses share is their buttery-smooth manual focusing. That’s important, because with an open aperture minimal changes in the distance setting decide whether it’s the tip of a nose that’s sharp, or an eye or earlobe instead.
So which lens is better for portraits? The ZEISS Classic Planar, Milvus or Otus?
The best answer to this question is: That depends on the look you are going for. ZEISS Otus lenses make the skin tones appear more natural to while still offering unsurpassed sharpness. Connoisseurs of soft focus will definitely want to use the ZEISS Classic Planar with its uncorrected spherical aberration. Lenses lacking correction for spherical aberration offer low contrast wide open, but can become very high performers with some stopping down.
Follow this link to view the high-resolution files on flickr: ZEISS Lens Comparison