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The New Zeiss APO Lenses for Close-Up


Michael Erlewine

Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 APO

Zeiss 135mm, f/2, APO

Well, we all know that these two new APO lenses were not designed for close-up work, much less macro photography. And since I have a score or more of great macro lenses, why would I spend time working with these lenses that are by definition telephotos? The answer is very simple. They are so damn good!

Some of you that hearken from the old days of Nikongear.com will know that about the only lens you ever heard about from me or saw photos shot with was the Cosina/Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar. Except for occasionally, I never shoot with that lens any longer and for the reason mentioned above: the new Zeiss APO lenses surpass anything else I have, including the CV-125. However, as mentioned, the new Zeiss were not made for what I use them for, so I thought I would discuss how I do use them in case anyone is interested.

Close-Focus and Extension

First, the close-focus distance of these two Zeiss lenses is not that close. The Otus 55mm is 19.7" (.50 m), which is getting back there, and the Zess 135mm APO is not even close at all, 31.4" (.80m). That is way back there. Now, with the the Otus 55mm I can get away with adding the minimum extension tube that I have, which is the PK-11a, which adds 8mm of extension. This shortens the close-focus distance significantly, but also makes it imprudent to shoot wide-open as there is an obvious degradation of the image quality. In fact, it is not until something like f/4 (maybe less) that the micro-contrast is restored. Anything less than that sacrifices image quality at the micro-contrast level, which is why I bought the lens. And, of course, you can't really add extension to the Zeiss 135mm APO. At least I don't have a small-enough extension ring. So how do I use these two for my work?

I am reminded of the old Motown hit by Mary Wells "Two Lovers," which has the lines:

Well, I've got two lovers and I ain't ashamed,"

Two lovers and I love them both the same."

That's the way I feel about these two Zeiss APOS. I love them both the same and alternate from day to day, even from hour to hour. Neither is better for my work, only different. I often take them both with me into the field most of the time, although they are heavy as all-get-out. Who cares, when the results are so stunning? And I don't use them on my RRS tripod (TVC-33) with a RRS BH-55 full-size ball head like I used to. I tried that. Instead, I pretty much exclusively use the TVC-33 tripod with the Swiss-Arca Cube mechanical head. With the D810 and these lenses, the slump that comes with tightening the BH-55 ball head is no longer acceptable. I need exact movement, and the Swiss-Arca Cube gives me that. In fact, I am selling my quick-release version of the Cube (if anyone is interested) and getting the twist-knob version of the Cube because I have always used that kind of release. Unless I am shooting moving subjects, I am much better off with the mechanical Cube head than with a ball head. Once I got used to it, I will never go back.

You may find it odd that although I have shot some thousands of photos with my new D810 camera body, I have yet to look through the OFV even once. I will make a point of doing so, just to check it out. Instead, I have been totally happy with LiveView (relative to the D800E) and the ability to magnify it for focusing. I really, really needed that with these longer Zeiss lenses.

LiveView is a total hog when it comes to battery life, which was at first a shock to me, especially since battery life is advertised for the D810 to be improved, but that is just when you use the OVF, not with LiveView. I hate that it does that, but LiveView is so important that my own attitude has to be, "So what?" I bring an extra battery along in my kit. That's about the size of the repercussion.

I can't but come across many comments on why we don't need to upgrade to the D810, but I just laugh at that. For my work, this new camera is such a bargain compared to anything I have ever had. It does what I most need done, thanks to the improved LiveView and ISO 64! Enough said.

Being forced to stand back farther than I would with a macro lens from my subject with these new Zeiss lenses is a little tough, but as mentioned the results make it a moot point. Thank god for LiveView and the ability to expand the magnification until I can see to finely focus. And fine focus with these Zeiss APOs is crucial. Of course I wish that instead of LiveView, we had a quality EVF screen instead only because in low-light situations, we get noisy grain at greater magnification. I am still waiting for a FF camera from Nikon that has a superior EVF, so that I can magnify and still see what I am doing in low light. It will come.

My whole process now has taken a step toward the Medium Format folks, not because I am comparing the results of the D810 with my old Mamiya RZ67 with its digital back, but because I find myself composing each shot more carefully and, yes, more slowly. I don't mind and I can see it could get slower yet if I start using more reflectors. As Lloyd Chambers remarked to me "Your "field" is really like studio work." That is true, or getting there.

Now there is one more caveat, and that is magnifying the LiveView screen. I use an old Zacuto Z-Finder viewer with 3x magnification. Some folks permanently affix a snap-frame to the back of the camera, but I tried it (years ago) and didn't like it. Others, like Chambers, wear the Z-finder around the neck and hold it up as needed. I don't like that either. What I do is strap the Z-finder on using the little balls and elastics that come with it. I just strap it right over the whole camera and have no real problems. Yes, it can shift around a bit, but I just manually shift it right back. I find it works great and gives me everything I need in terms of magnification, when used with the magnifier in LiveView. And that's my setup.

Now I will say something about how I use these new Zeiss APO lenses in the field.

Shooting at Narrow Apertures

Believe it or not I regularly shoot these lenses, at least the Otuss 55mms at f/16 and don't seem to see the image suffering too much from diffraction, if any. I am sure the pixel-peepers can prove me wrong, but if I can't tell, then my readers can't tell. Anyway, the Zeiss 55mm APO does better IMO at small apertures than any other lens I own. It's big brother the Zeiss 135mm, f/2, APO does just about as well at f/16, so I use it a lot too. It works.

So, I either shoot with a very small aperture, like f/16, or a very wide aperture (f/2 or something like that). With the small aperture (f/16) I am going for a subject that can survive having the background also pretty much in focus, which I don't like much. In other words, it won't do well for shooting one leaf against a background of leaves, because all the leaves will be in focus. However it will do well if the foreground subject is naturally different from the background or if the foreground subject and the background make an interesting pattern.

Shooting at Wide Apertures

At wide apertures I am going to have a narrow depth-of-field, so only the subject will be in focus. The background will blur out to bokeh. I can choose how much depth-of-field the subject will have by playing with the aperture and mid-range stops, from f/4 to f/8 for single-shot photos.

If I want to shoot wide open or nearly so, I either have to be happy with a very narrow depth-of-field or stack a little. I am not talking about stacking the whole subject, but rather stacking enough of the subject to define it so that it stands out against the rest of the photo, which will be bokeh.

If you stack, stack at an aperture at which the lens is sharpest, usually a couple of stops up from wide open, but of course this depends on the lens. Some few lenses are sharp wide open. The advantage of keeping the aperture wide is bokeh. We say we want everything in focus, but what most of us really want is part of the image razor sharp and the rest a lovely blurry bokeh. At least I try for that.

I will stack as wide open as I can, as long as the lens is sharp. I kind of paint focus on in a block using stacking just enough to create my foreground focus, and let the rest go to bokeh. I have included some examples of what I described above.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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Great article Michael.

As usual lots of insight from you.

Macro is not my thing - I don't have the passion, the patience or the equipment - but I admire the results you produce.

Even more I admire your willingness to share what you learn and the amount of time you dedicate to produce a well written report.

The photos you attached are very good examples of what you have been discussing.

Just for further clarification, and I know you have written more on it earlier: when you focus stack I presume you add a focusing rail to your Arca Cube? (or maybe you are using it also for single shots)

I think I remember you said you settled on the Novoflex Castell, is that right/current?

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I seldom use a focusing rail, but when I do it is usually the Novoflex Castell you mention. Mostly I use just the focus ring on the lens because that produces a better result than a rail. However, the lens you use has to have a good focus throw. Otherwise we can't focus fine enough easily. In stacking focus, the best way to get a good stack is as follows, in order or preference:

 

(1) Mount the lens on a bellows, fix the front standard, and move the camera with the back standard.

 

(2) Focus Ring.

 

(3) Focus rail.

 

The first option does not work well with most lenses, so I use the second option most of the time.

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I seldom use a focusing rail, but when I do it is usually the Novoflex Castell you mention. Mostly I use just the focus ring on the lens because that produces a better result than a rail. However, the lens you use has to have a good focus throw. Otherwise we can't focus fine enough easily. In stacking focus, the best way to get a good stack is as follows, in order or preference:

 

(1) Mount the lens on a bellows, fix the front standard, and move the camera with the back standard.

 

(2) Focus Ring.

 

(3) Focus rail.

 

The first option does not work well with most lenses, so I use the second option most of the time.

 

Very interesting, thanks for the response.

I agree option 1 is difficult to achieve with many lenses.

But maybe it is viable with some longer focal lengths like the APO 135?

Can you move the rear standard instead of the front one with the PB-4, 5 or 6?

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Excellent discourse, along with great illustrations of the concepts Michael.

 

Early on you did answer one lingering question that I had regarding your use of these lenses, which was "why not extension tubes?"

 

Your comments about the 55mm Otus makes sense to me.  Since the design was likely optimized for a lesser magnification it is logical that you might need to stop down some to get comparable IQ with an extension tube.

 

However, I don't exactly understand this statement:

 

"And, of course, you can't really add extension to the Zeiss 135mm APO. At least I don't have a small-enough extension ring."

 

Unless there is something unusual about the Zeiss lens design, usually one needs more extension tube rather than less to get equivalent magnification with a longer focal length.  Consequently, I would expect the same PK-11a to have less effect on close focus distance and image magnification on the 135mm  vs. the 55mm.  Are you referring to image degradation?

 

From the description of your approach it sounds almost like, in procedure, you have jumped back over the medium format to treat the D810 as a view camera of old (of course, with an extremely nice digital back).  That seems very appropriate to the type/style of images you make.

 

I note that you've commented upon not yet using the OVF of the 810.  However, I'm curious if you ever tried a magnifying adapter for the OVF on your previous D800's?

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Guest arthurking83

Posted

.......

 

Unless there is something unusual about the Zeiss lens design, usually one needs more extension tube rather than less to get equivalent magnification with a longer focal length. ....

My initial response to this thread mirrors Bills.

 

Curious, as well, what this comment with respect to small size of the extension means.

 

I have a few extension tubes for use with an old 135mm Schacht lens I have but they never seem to be long enough, so it's primary use is when coupled with the PB-4 bellows (for closeups).

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As I see it, lenses were never made to have extension, diopters, teleconverters, or even UV filters on them, at least as far as image quality is concerned.

 

Even the tiny 8mm from the Nikon PK-11a has some effect on the quality of the lens, at least at low f/stops. I find I have to push the aperture to around f/4 to cancel out the degrading effects of extension. So, while sure, more extension is needed to reach greater magnification, I am not about to trade that for poorer image quality. After all, why did I but these expensive Zeiss APO lenses, if not for IQ.

 

As for magnifying the OVF, I use the DK-17M eyepiece on all my Nikon bodies, and I have it on the D810. I just have never looked through it yet, since I am too enamored of the improved Live Views.

 

And with these Zeiss APO lenses, I am not trying for macro range, just a reasonable close-up will make me happy.

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Guest rvink

Posted (edited)

First, the close-focus distance of these two Zeiss lenses is not that close. The Otus 55mm is 19.7" (.50 m), which is getting back there

The close focus limit of the Otus 55 is normal for a non-macro standard lens, giving magnification of about 1:6.8. I suspect the performance already declines at close range even without tubes (although since performance starts from such a high level, it probably remains very good). This is an outstanding lens by all accounts, but to get the best performance it has to be used for what it was intended. Shooting closeups at f16 with a lens designed to be shot wide open at distance is well outside its design envelope. Given your extremely high standards I am a little surprised you are using the Otus 55 for this purpose. Surely a dedicated macro lens such as the Zeiss 50/2 would give much better technical performance at close range? Of course, I can't argue if you like the results more, but it does seem strange :)

 

... and the Zess 135mm APO is not even close at all, 31.4" (.80m)  ...  And, of course, you can't really add extension to the Zeiss 135mm APO. At least I don't have a small-enough extension ring.

As for the 135 APO, the close focus limit is longer than the 55, but it has to be seen in context because the focal length is much longer. The distance of 0.8m is very close for a non-macro 135mm lens. The 1.4 magnification ratio already allows a wide scope of closeup photography - with a very good working distance.

 

And what you said about extension rings doesn't make sense ... you can easily add tubes to this lens, but the problem may be finding extension long enough. Long lenses tend to perform better with tubes than short lenses, indeed, they require more extension for the same magnification (magnification = extension / focal length). Small extension rings like the PK-11A will will hardly increase the magnification enough to make a useful difference. The PK-13 (27.5mm) would be a better candidate, with the lens "focused" at infinity the magnification will already be 1:4.9 (although the optics will be configured for distance so results may not be optimal). At close range the magnification will be close to 1:2 (where the optics will be configured for close range, so performance is probably quite good).

 

Even the tiny 8mm from the Nikon PK-11a has some effect on the quality of the lens

That is true, but it varies from lens to lens. On some lenses, like my old AIS 105/4 micro, this tube has no effect on the quality at all - it's a macro lens with no floating elements, so it is designed to be used with extension (whether it's the built in focus extension, or a tube). Just because the 55 Otus suffers with the PK-11A, doesn't mean the Zeiss 135/2 don't perform well with even longer tubes. In fact I suspect it will do rather well, especially when focused close. On the other hand, you also have the CV 125, a highly regarded macro lens, which probably performs we well or better at close range, without having to fiddle with tubes.

Edited by rvink

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Rvink:

 

I certainly have respect for your work, so take this in the intent it is meant. Over the years, and especially on this site, there is a lot of knowledge available, but also a tendency to use numbers to define what is and is not possible. I will give one example. I spent years here trying to tell folks that sharpness very much depended (in my experience) on how well corrected the lens was. I did not, to my memory, get any support in this, or very, very little. Klaus D. Schmitt would be one who was supportive, but he has left the forum I am sorry to say. On the contrary, I was sometimes made fun of, but mostly just ignored. So I was fighting the curve to even get a witness.

 

Then come the two new Zeiss APO lenses which exactly make my point. Correction is very important in what we see and sharpness is a combination of a number of factors, acutance, and so on, but the degree of correction plays a great part.

 

I am not going here by the numbers, but by actually using the lenses, and for hundreds of thousands of shots. I also have the two Zeiss Makro-Planars (50mm and 100mm), and the CV-125, a couple of Leica Elmarits and a bunch of very highly corrected industrial lenses, including three of the Printing Nikkors that are VERY highly corrected. And others. So I have some experience. None of the above mentioned lenses are satisfactory to my eyes (except perhaps the Printing Nikkors), and for my work, not even the CV-125, at least not compared to the new Zeiss APO lenses.

 

I don't want to put a lot of extension on the new Zeiss APO 55mm Otus. As it is, I notice degradation with even the PK-11A until about f/4. And I have not used extension much on the new Zeiss APO 135mm for some of the reasons you mention. I can get what I want. Also I don't shoot everything at f/16, but at various f/stops, depending on what I am trying to do, just like everyone else. It seems that folks don't like the thought (without trying it themselves) that for some reason these new Zeiss APO lenses seem to tolerate higher (smaller) apertures. I can't explain it; I just report it as something I notice.

The Zeiss Otus 55mm does not have to be used for what it is intended, but rather we use it the best we can for our own purposes, like anything else. As I well know, it is not a macro lens or even a close-up lens, but that does not mean I will not try to use it for that.

 

As for my use of extension and your quote "And what you said about extension rings doesn't make sense." That is the kind of remark that I take issue with, politely of course. Perhaps it does not make sense to you, but what makes sense to me may be different. I don't want to degrade the quality of these lenses at all, so I don't push extension far, and mostly don't even use it at all.

 

I very much appreciate your taking the time to make these comments, and this is why I like this site. My take away here is that I probably will push the Zeiss APO 135mm a little harder with extension and see what happens. I have written to and corresponded with the Zeiss folks, asking for a macro lens of this quality. They say it is doubtful. They would need to sell 10,000 of them to make it worth it, is what I was told. Maybe the popularity of these new lenses will overrule that thought.

 

In general, those of you who have never used the two new Zeiss APO should actually try them, borrow them, rent them, etc. and then tell me what you find. Those folks on many sites, including Mein Thein, Lloyd Chambers, and others seem to see what I see in the new Zeiss Apo lenses. 

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Guest Thomas_MUA

Posted

Michael again another wonderfully in-depth analysis on your micro photographic endeavors… truly appreciate and grow professionally with each of your offerings…

 

That said in my research of the D800 series as a possible backup I ran across a serious issue with how D800 produces magnified previews and how the issue may impact your ability to perform accurate manual focusing within Live View.

 

If you want to review this simply Google “D800 Live View Magnification and MF Issue (Video by testcams)”

 

In this presentation he illustrates that the D800 doesn't provide a true 1 to 1 pixel level rendering as it does in some of it’s other DSLR's  In particular he mentioned that the Nikon D7000 does indeed provide a true 1 to 1 pixel view.

 

What he has discovered in extensive testing is that the D800 is skipping lines of pixels and providing an interpolated rendering...  He determined in testing that manual focusing in Liveview on the D800 at 1 to 1 is decidedly more difficult owing to image interpolation than on the D7000 with it's true 1 to 1 rendering...

 

He has since created a follow-up on the aforementioned which you can also locate by Googling “Nikon D800 Live View MF Issue follow-up (Video by testcams)” in which he uses an HDMI line out of the D800 to showcase a live video feed coming from the D800's Live View (at 30 fps) In this video you can clearly see a serious want of crisp sharpness attainable via manual focus...

 

Now the good news... he shows how to use picture controls to more effectively deal with the artifacts of the D800's interpolation tainted liveview...

 

Of merit this issue is likely more of a major concern for commercial shooters… where product detail is critical…

 

Hopefully this is of merit for your endeavors…

 

Again many thanks for the gracious sharing of your wisdom on applied macro…

 

Regards, Thomas

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Michael,

 

Some of your comments are really confusing to me as a relatively new member here.

 

"I spent years here trying to tell folks that sharpness very much depended (in my experience) on how well corrected the lens was. I did not, to my memory, get any support in this, or very, very little. Klaus D. Schmitt would be one who was supportive, but he has left the forum I am sorry to say. On the contrary, I was sometimes made fun of, but mostly just ignored. So I was fighting the curve to even get a witness."

 

I am very surprised that one of the key principals on this site (or, or more specifically, Nikon Gear) would not support your position.  For years I used Bjørn Rørsletts' previous website, naturfotograf, and the lens reviews there as a guide for my purchases.  He almost invariably points out when a lens is inferior because it is not well enough corrected to produce satisfactory images, as well as the converse.  An example from his evaluation of the 24-70/2.8 af-s which I recently bought:

 

"Absolutely state of the art optical performance and the enhanced acuity and better micro-contrast compared to the identical capture with the 28-70 were plainly visible. Image quality held up well to beyond f/16, even f/22 looked very acceptable, a most unusual finding." (from Naturfotograf by Bjørn Rørslett).

 

I, for one, have no trouble at all with your observation concerning diffraction versus degree of correction.  To me, it is simple logic that if different wavelengths of light, say red vs. blue, are already diverging as a result of inferior optical correction they will diverge even more from the effect of diffraction (since they will diffract differently) and degrade image quality.  Conversely, the more coherent these wavelengths are when they reach the aperture the less the deviation as they are diffracted.

 

I also think that you might be taking something out of context here.

 

"As for my use of extension and your quote "And what you said about extension rings doesn't make sense." That is the kind of remark that I take issue with, politely of course. Perhaps it does not make sense to you, but what makes sense to me may be different. I don't want to degrade the quality of these lenses at all, so I don't push extension far, and mostly don't even use it at all."

 

I think that rvink had the same reaction that I did (but said it more bluntly) to the original comment about not finding extension tubes small enough for the 135mm.  By my simple calculations (using a single lens element with focal length of 135mm instead of the complete stack of glass that actually makes up the Zeiss lens, but results won't be too far off) that same 8mm extension that you have used on the Otus lens would only change the close focus of the 135mm from 80cm to about 65cm.

 

Now if your post had been that you had tried extension tubes on the 135mm and they had completely destroyed image quality I doubt anyone would have a second thought.  However, the implication of the posted statement was that you believed longer lenses needed shorter extensions when just the opposite is true.

 

It is not that anyone is trying to take shots at your work or article.  I think that most here, including me, admire your work.  These apparently contrary posts were for my, and I believe rvink's, part aimed at correcting a perceived misconception and sharing some information.

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Been out of town.

 

BillO:

 

Not much more to say about your first comment, about not getting much support. I came to NikonGear originally because of the work of Bjørn Rørslett and learned a great deal from his analysis of lenses, of course. As for getting support for the idea that what we call "sharpness," seemingly a word that has different meanings to different people. As mentioned already, for me it includes acutance, resolution, and whatever we can agree is APO (another loosely defined term). For me it was the APO that made a lens seem sharp to me, the idea that the correction of color, etc. in a lens affected our perception of final "sharpness," and so on.

Perhaps I did not make it clear, but what I was trying to say is that the Zeiss 135mm APO does not really need extension. In fact, DXOmark (if I remember clearly) found the Zeiss 135mm lens sharper than the Zeiss Otus 55mm on the Nikon D800E.

 

My extension work was most on the Zeiss 55mm Otus, and my using a minimum of extension is a personal preference because (to my eyes) extension causes image degradation until we bump up the aperture a couple of stops from wide open.

 

I never said anyone "is trying to take shots at your work or article," but that early on I did not receive much acknowledgement in what I was trying to determine for myself, the APO/sharpness thing, my not being skilled in testing, etc. like someone like nfoto is. A simple confirmation of my hypothesis would have helped, but figuring it out on my own was ultimately good for me. Lloyd Chambers and others found the same thing.

 

As they say, "it is all good," and I am happy as a clam using APO lenses for most of my work, and other lenses of course for snapshots or standard fare.

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