Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85mm F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ field report

by , June 2007

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZWhen Sony and Zeiss announced Carl Zeiss ZA lenses many of us were pretty surprised that one of the most highly regarded lenses in the Minolta lineup, the Minolta AF 85 F1.4 G D had been discontinued in favour of the all-new Zeiss Planar T* 85/1.4 ZA (aka. SAL-85F14CZ) lens. The latest Minolta model was pretty new (released in 2000), was ADI compatible and has gained excellent reviews. In fact this lens was quite often the reason some stayed with Minolta over the years since, unlike some other 85mm lenses, the Minolta had that bit of extra appeal in smoothing out of focus areas.
It is a widely accepted belief that with many lenses, Minolta lens designers have intentionally sacrificed pure resolution and MTF scores in favour of more pleasing results, especially in the out of focus areas. Minolta even produced a special "limited edition" of 85/1.4mm lens that further improved color aberration control and bokeh; Minolta AF 85 F1.4 G D LE, released only on Japan market (supposedly, only 700 LE lenses were made).

On the other hand, the Zeiss planar 85mm lenses were always highly regarded by many photographers and adding a "real" Zeiss planar to the Alpha system, and an autofocus version at that (previous Zeiss planars have all been manual focus lenses) doesn't sound like a bad marketing move at all, even if it means that the Minolta design had to be dropped. (Somewhat contrary to the Minolta lens design philosophy, Zeiss lens philosophy seems to emphasize absolute resolution).

It is worth noting that the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ sells for significantly more than the Minolta 85 lens. (The Minolta 85mm last sold on B&H Photo for less than 700$ while the SAL-85F14CZ is currently selling for 1300$ !). But even so, not many Minolta and Sony users have complained about missing the Minolta lens design, particularly on digital cameras like the A100 which can record great detail, and the Carl Zeiss reputation has certainly appeals to many.

The Carl Zeiss name implies top quality glass and not surprisingly even those not interested in Minolta / Sony alpha system have found Sony and Zeiss collaboration in this field quite intriguing. And here we come at a point that is so crucial for my review of this lens (and also in my review of the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ review). For the sake of the reputation of Carl Zeiss lenses, it is very, very important to keep both the build quality and optical performance high. I'm well aware of Sony marketing power and "know how" to sell something, but when putting the Zeiss name on the glass it would be very wrong to count on that name alone without maintaining the qualities on which Zeiss has built its name. Fortunately, this lens does nothing to diminish the Zeiss reputation and I hope future lenses will be equal in this respect.

The Planar is a "classic" lens design that dates way; back from 1896. One of the strongest point of this design is the flat image plane and thus here is where the name came from.

It is the most common used lens design today most likely found on your favourite prime lens (at least my favourite 100/2 is a planar)

Unlike some have speculated, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ is a whole new lens made for alpha system (and the only Zeiss 85mm AF lens to date) and different from Planar T* 85/1.4 ZF and Planar T* 85/1.4 ContaxN Zeiss lenses.

Planar

Planar T* 85/1.4 ZF (left) uses 6 elements in 5 groups. Minolta 85/1.4 G (middle) use 7 elements in 6 groups. Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ uses 8 elements in 7 groups (right).

Since I didn't have a Minolta 85/1.4 at the time I had Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ, I was not able to compare Zeiss lens directly to its Minolta precedent. I have used the Minolta 85/1.4 in the past, I'm pretty much familiar with how does perform but my statements here are highly subjective ones so please take them as such.

I know many may be disappointed with this but you may find on Dyxum an informative comparison between the two in an article written by minman which will hopefully be useful enough.

The lens hasn't yet been properly tested and reviewed by any major website but I hope reviewers will finally find Alpha system worth more of their attention.

What's in the box
What's in the box
no hood with hood extended
Compared to 50/1.4 and 100/2
Compared to 50/1.4 and 100/2
Lens with the hood
Excellent lens hood included in the box.

 

Build and handling

In a typical orange Sony Alpha box Sony has packaged the lens, front and rear lens cap, lens hood(SH0002), soft pouch, manually signed Zeiss certificate and set of printed instructions. Sony is keeping a good old Minolta tradition of including caps, hood and pouch in the package. Kudos to Sony for this decision (and remember it when comparing lens prices to certain competition) !

A word of caution to (possible) owners here; the estimated value of the soft pouch is $30 while the ALC-SH0002 hood retails for $130, so keep an eye on them !

The build quality of the lens is excellent and I doubt any owner will have complaints in this respect. Metal construction, with a weight of 560g and a 72mm filter thread, the size of the lens is just perfect for my tastes. The lens balances very well with or without the vertical grip on my 7D and that helps hold my camera steadier at critical, low shutter speeds.

The focus ring is adequate, well damped with even stiffness across the range. Manual focusing is a joy here !

As can be seen from the images on the right, the lens does extend during focusing. An auto clutch feature keeps the manual focus ring from rotating during AF mode.

The lens features a focus hold button which can of course be "programmed" as a DOF preview button on our cameras

The distance scale is visibly marked with DOF scale (F8, F16, F22) in 35mm terms.

The lens cap is really nice, with center pinch release. It is much, much better than the one found on Canon 85/1.2 L US lens, for example, as can be seen here since it can be put on and taken off without removing the hood.

As the price suggests, the lens hood is really good. Metal (aluminum) construction, with rubber on the hood end for safe (no sharp edges) and easy handling. The inner hood surface is lined with a matte foam material which will helps reduce light reflections (and will hold a lot of dust).

I'm a big advocate of using hoods since they DO improve image quality and  I need to be a little picky :)

Since the front element doesn't not rotate during focusing I would rather see a flower shaped hood and a filter hole (as seen on the 70-200 SSM hood ) would be nice, but again the hood is still very good.

The hood uses a bayonet mount and at least on my sample it does come off too easily which creates a risk of losing it if you carry your camera outside the bag (I almost lost it, but thanks to its metal construction I heard when it felt down on the street) .

AF is reasonably fast, and if my memory serves me well I would say it's a tad faster than with Minolta 85/1.4 G D lens. For those were hoping for SSM focussing, this lens is noticeably faster with my 7D than the Canon 85/1.2 II lens used on a Canon 20D. The Canon lens is of course quieter (this isn't really a fair comparison since the Canon lens - a beautiful piece of glass, btw - is heavier and more glass needs to be moved when focusing).

As a little curiosity, I would like to mention that the lens (just like the Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* DT 16-80 F3.5-4.5 SAL-1680CZ and Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135 F1.8 SAL-135F18CZ) comes with two serial numbers engraved; one on the external lens barrel (and on the box) which is Sony serial number and other on the inner lens barrel (Zeiss serial number, same as found on included Zeiss quality certificate).

Worth noticing is that the lens is correctly recognized by Dalifer as Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 f1.4 ZA

Lens build quality is what one would expect at this price tag. Excellent in every aspect, this lens is build to last !

 

Performance

If something is of "concern" for the owners of the Minolta 85/1.4 lens, then it's the performance with the aperture wide open. This was emphasised again with the advent of the DLSR age; a "pixel peeping mentality" encouraged by MTF charts have somehow resulted in a common opinion that at F1.4 or F2 the lens wasn't very usable. While I don't share this opinion I have some great news here; the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ is very good even wide open. I didn't have any doubts that Sony and Zeiss would provide an excellent lens optically, I do confess however that I was positively surprised by how well the lens performs wide open. I may go that far and say that even at F1.4 the main limiting factor was 7D sensor resolution. 

Here are some images taken wide open (jpg straight from 7D).

Test image
7D; 1/2000s; F1.4 Entire frame 100% crop
Test image
7D; 1/750s; F1.4 Entire frame 100% crop
Test image
7D; 1/1000s; F1.4 Entire frame 100% crop

Since the lens is such a good performer even wide open, making overall judgement about resolution is quite easy when stopping the aperture down. It is an excellent sample of why Zeiss designs are so well regarded and this planar design confirms their reputation.

Contrast and colours are well tailored toward portrait shooting but lens can be really great for other applications as well.

test image sample images
7D; 1/250s; F2 crop 1 crop 2 crop 3

As expected the lens doesn't exhibit noticeable geometry distortions. Another excellent feature of the lens is very good flare control and at this point I don't have any examples of flare occurring when you wouldn't expect it :)

sample image
7D; 1/90s; F8; excellent geometry isn't a suprise.

Fast lenses (with large aperture openings) can be very prone to color aberrations and purple fringing. After few weeks of using this beautiful lens, I didn't find any serious issue in this regard. Of course, in most challenging situations this anomaly can always be seen as the next sample image shows:

Test image
7D; 1/1500s; F1.4 Entire frame 100% crop

Again, this happens in very rare cases, and in very demanding situations, so it cannot be considered as a weak part of the lens.

Many of you may be familiar with the kind of images like the next one, where highlight sparkles in water reflections can cause very nasty purple fringing.

Test image
7D; 1/3000s; F4 Entire frame 100% crop

Excellent !

With every lens sold today that is aimed to be anything like a "portrait" lens, you will read about smooth out of focus rendition in the manufacturer’s description. Bokeh ("aesthetic rendition of image areas outside the focal plane" as Zeiss describes it) is becoming a major marketing point and this lens is no exception. As already said in this field report, bokeh is something Minolta users have always considered as a strong asset of so many old Minolta lenses and I mainly share this opinion.

It is fair to say that it wasn't uncommon to find quite negative opinions among Minolta owners about how much (or how well) Zeiss design copes in this field especially considering the old Minolta philosophy.

Once I started using Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ, I really regretted not having a Minolta 85mm lens at the same time, since my feelings tell me that the Zeiss lens is quite different to the Minolta one. Of course, I have many other Minolta lenses, I did some comparisons against CZ 85 lens and I DO have my SUBJECTIVE opinion about how well the new Sony / Zeiss 85mm lens is performing bokeh-wise. However, presenting these results here would be a wrong thing to do IMHO and I will skip them.

Let's see some image samples with bokeh in mind:

sample images
7D; 1/500s; F2.8 Entire frame crop #1 100% crop #2 100%
test image sample images
7D; 1/250s; F2 crop 1 crop 2 crop 3

I guess these samples show little to complain about for most of you, but personally (and highly subjectively) I was a bit disappointed.  Hard to explain it without image to image comparisons but the Zeiss lens performs a bit too harshly (or is too "analytical") for my tastes. It's more like a CaNikon approach, if I'm allowed to be rude, than a Minolta one.

test image sample images

7D; 1/3000s; F2.8

 

A "tough" lighting condition and a background texture with which the lens has coped with very well, but it is still a bit "too mannish" for my likings. Whether or not lens design efforts to make resolution and sharpness as high as possible do compromise a bit the gentle and subtle character of bokeh is beyond my knowledge (I'm not an expert in optics at all).

But, let’s be open; if we could provide the option to have smoother bokeh OR better sharpness (especially wide open) most users will select the second opinion in a heartbeat; especially today when zooming our images on screen is a more often used method to evaluate our gear than viewing large prints. And for those of us who may prefer the first option, an AF STF lens would be better thing to ask for in the future.

As a pure curiosity here are some comparisons with the EF 85mm f/1.2L USM II lens and Minolta 100/2 (reframed to match frame coverage)

Test image
CZ85mm@F1.4 CZ85mm@F2 Min100/2@F2 Canon85/1.2II@F1.4 Canon85/1.2II@F2

And again, Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ compared to Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L USM lens (both taken at 1/4000, F1.4)

Test image
CZ 85/1.4@F1.4 Canon 85/1.2II@F1.4

test imageThe lens is only one part of the story, with the body being the second.

And there is one field where this lens and our cameras do provide great opportunities – as a tool in low light situations. When it comes to low light shooting, we are very fortunate to have that unique Minolta invention in our cameras: AS / SSS.

Many people underrate this option when comparing our system to CaNikons.

test imageWhile both Canon and Nikon try to compensate for the lack of in-body stabilisation with IS or VR lenses, there isn't anything like a decent 85mm IS or VR lens (add to this, our old and beautiful 28/2 or 35/2 lenses).

In-camera AS means we have an excellent low light machine in

The samples above should be taken just for fun and not to prove any judgements. Only minor changes in framing may cause different results here and every lens will perform differently in various lightning conditions.

It's really hard to fault the performance of this lens, no matter what you are looking for. One of the reasons I prefer the Minolta 100/2 ahead of the Minolta 85/1.4 is faster AF and performance wide open, since I often shoot concerts. I tried the new lens under these circumstances on two occasions and it is great for this use too! No frustrating AF hunting, very good performance wide open, good flare control and pleasing bokeh makes this lens excellent tool for the job.

 

Final words

Every time I use Canon cameras in manual focusing mode, I'm aware of how much I miss some simple features on my 7D -- focus confirmation, and the highlighting of the chosen AF sensor area in the VF. It's a very isolated drawback of the Minolta design, but would be so much help when manual focusing. With this in mind, I really hope Sony will not overlook this feature in their upcoming camera models.

I don't have any doubt that the Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ is an significant addition to Alpha system. Having the Carl Zeiss name on the lens (while keeping the Zeiss reputation for excellent build and image quality !) represents a strong asset for the future and a strong commitment about how seriously Sony takes Alpha system.

This isn't a lens that will be sold in mega-electronics shops like cakes; this is a serious glass for those who knows what they are looking for.

Optical performance is great in every aspect and while I do have some reservations about bokeh, this is more of a subjective nature than a real drawback.

Despite it being considered as a "classic" portrait lens, its range of applications are far wider. A large aperture does isolate the subject from the background and foreground making it perfect lens for flowers, nature shoots, street photography…

Excellent resolution and distortion free results make this lens a great  choice for documentary photography as well. And last, but not least, as already stated, image stabilisation in our body and the large aperture of the lens do result in an excellent low light tool.

Carl Zeiss Planar T* 85 F1.4 SAL-85F14CZ  will became a very popular lens between those who need this kind of glass, and with this lens, the Sony Alpha system can compete with the best (and even more expensive) portrait lenses that other systems provide.

For those who already have (and love) the Minolta 85mm lens, "upgrading" to this one shouldn't be a priority in my opinion (save the money for Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135 F1.8 SAL-135F18CZ instead :)). For all others, this lens will rarely bring any disappointment and despite higher price than the Minolta one it is a more than a worthwhile purchase. 

Rating 5

 

Happy shooting !

You can find discussions about this article in our forum

My special gratitude goes to Sony Croatia (especially to mr. Goran Ajelić) for giving me the opportunity to try several products from Sony Alpha line including this beautiful lens!
At the same time I hope that someone at Sony headquarter will find this article useful enough to provide Sony Croatia with other lenses from Alpha system that may be reviewed here (how about CZ 135/1.8 being the next?).

Thanks to my friend and colleague Dalibor (inforovinj.com) for lending me his exceptional Canon 85/1.2 II lens

Thanks to Cameron (brettania) and Dennis (CTYankee) for helping me with the English language.

All images provided here are copyrighted and can be used for private use only!

Sample RAW files (8.5MB) !!

 

SAL-85F14CZ Sample raw file

SAL-85F14CZ Sample raw file

SAL-85F14CZ Sample raw file

SAL-85F14CZ Sample raw file

SAL-85F14CZ Sample raw file

Images by mladen sever

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