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.