It's almost reassuring to see that some things never change. Zeiss (recently it dropped the "Carl" in a move I have to say I disapprove of) has announced a line of quality-no-object—and, more importantly no doubt, price-no-object—SLR lenses. (The way one of the members of the development team puts it is that that project has "no clear cost ceiling.")
The first outing, a 55mm ƒ/1.4, is a monster. You've probably read about all this already if you're interested.
The company formerly known as Carl Zeiss has a long history of not being constrained by the size and weight constraints on lens design. Its Contax 28–85mm zoom was twice the size and weight of competitors' models (that's a big camera it's mounted on in that picture). The 35–135mm Vario-Sonnar, especially, seemed to go past the frontiers—it was as big as a can of tennis balls and as heavy as brick (no, probably not literally). One of those pride-of-ownership lenses that seldom earned a place in camera bags because of the way it took it out on photographers' shoulders and backs.
A 1909 portrait by Indianapolis photographer Charles C. Pike, from an Ebay auction. Photographers back then searched for just the right blend of sharpness and unsharpness, balancing flattery and accuracy. You probably don't need to see every pore of this nice lady's skin to know what she looked like.
If I can be forgiven a smidge of social commentary, what we're seeing in product design these days is a bifurcation of markets. Wealth disparity means that the middle is being sucked out of category offerings. Many people don't have enough wealth to buy new $45,000 cars, for instance, so average car price increases in the lower tiers have been kept relatively suppressed for years; but the increase in cars that cost as much as houses has been pretty spectacular. (It keeps the overall average looking pretty constant.) Then consider that not one but two audio components in the last audio magazine I bought, a preamp and a pair of mono power amps for stereo, each retailed for $45,000. That's not a typo. It's been a long time since the 1970s, but inflation hasn't been 2000%.
So anyway, I suspect that's what's behind this. Zeiss would like a bit of that one-percenter market, please. Nothing wrong with adapting to market conditions, of course.
The bigger question from our perspective, I suppose, is, do we really need much better normal, portrait, and macro lenses, which Zeiss says it's going to concentrate on for the new line? The first offering in the new line, as I mentioned, will be a rather eye-wideningly large 55mm ƒ/1.4. By chance, a "portrait" lens I reviewed a few years ago, the Pentax 55mm ƒ/1.4 DA, has the exact same focal length and maximum aperture. Granted, it was an APS-C lens and just for Pentax cameras, and thus had a different project brief altogether. The new Zeiss will be a longish normal on full-frame cameras. But the Pentax lens is already too expensive, in my humble opinion, at $800, and—most importantly of all—it is just too, too blisteringly sharp for portraits. Do we really need to see skin pores defined even more crisply than they already are? I do understand it's 2013—not 1913, when portraitists searched fanatically for lenses with just the right kind and degree of unsharpness, sometimes even going to great lengths to hide the identity of their prized signature lenses from their competitors. But these lenses aren't portrait lenses in that they don't make portraits look good. It would be really nice if there could be some actual competition to make some actual portrait lenses. But there won't be, for reasons which you'll be able to read in our Comments tomorrow.
I've been studying numerous generously-sized Ctein proof prints of my "Hands" picture over the past few days. I have to say the quality is just fine, and that was taken with a Micro 4/3 camera (the Olympus OM-D, which by the way is on sale until the 17th), and its admittedly very fine quality kit zoom (the 12–50mm, and ditto).
I'm a Zeiss user, a Zeiss man, and a Zeiss fan. So of course I'll wish the team and the company well with their new project. At the same time, I'm not necessarily on board yet, "emotionally" shall we say.
But go to the link and read for yourself what they're doing—they can speak for themselves better than I can speak for them, and you can decide for yourself better than I can do that for you, too.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
KeithB: "What do you do to your prints to make them Ctein proof?"
Mike replies: Heh. That should be "Ctein proof-prints," not "Ctein-proof prints." And people say hyphens do no work.
BTW, prints cannot be made Ctein-proof. Like Superman, he sees through everything.
Ed Richards: "But will it cost more than a Leica lens? Leica moved to the 1% market years ago, and I am guessing that their lenses will be the price benchmark. Your basic 50mm ƒ/1.4 Leica is $3,995.00 at B&H. Since the Zeiss is autofocus, they could tack on a bit more, but my betting line is that they come in about Leica level."
Mike replies: I'm going out on a limb estimating something that could be researched—I haven't done so—but my sense is that Zeiss traditionally exceeds Canikon levels but pretty consistently stays below Leica levels. I could see $2,995 for this lens, but I'd bet not more than that. This is an idle thought, not an expert prediction. :-)
Also, the new lenses are manual focus, not AF.
Bernd Reinhardt: "I watched the video interview with Dr. Hubert Nase about this lens, and what he is showing here is enough to make any discerning photo geek drool over this lens."