Lenses and Optics

Otus is Scharf

Published November 17, 2013

I’m probably setting myself up for a replay of the Exo Tria Arxidia scene, but my friend Bernhard introduced me to the German term scharf the other day. It can mean both sharp and hot (as in spicy, or as in, you know, hot).  After testing our first copies of the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus lens I felt the term scharf was just perfect to describe this lens.

As you know, I usually like to have a half-dozen or more copies of a lens before testing, but in this case getting a half-dozen copies all at once doesn’t seem likely. We received two of the 20 something Tyler ordered and don’t know when more will show up. Both of these appeared well-centered, as expected, and Zeiss primes usually have small sample variation, so I thought testing the two before the went out for their first rentals was still worthwhile.


I always enjoy reading online where people trash a pre-release lens even though they’ve never held it. In this case, 7,364 people had told me how huge this lens was and that they wouldn’t have one as a gift because of it’s gigantic size. It is definitely bigger than most standard-range primes, as you can see in the comparison below with a Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro Planar and a Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G, neither of which is considered a small lens.


Left to right: Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G, Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus, Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro Planar

Bigger, yes, but certainly not huge. My first thought was it was about the size of a 24-70 f/2.8 lens and most people don’t seem to need a heavy-duty tripod and gimbal head to shoot with one of those. So here’s a size reality check.

  Zeiss 55mm Otus Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 G Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 G
Length (inches)
Width (inches)
Filter (mm)7777NA
Weight (lb)

I guess that was pretty close. The Otus is large for a prime lens, but not significantly larger than the everyday zooms we use.

I can’t say what you’ll think of the appearance, but I love it. Very sleek and minimalist. The focus ring has the typical smooth Zeiss throw with a cinema-like 248-degree rotation. I found it extremely accurate. The D800 doesn’t have the very best live view LCD, but I had absolutely no trouble determining good focus in live view. Even using the viewfinder I was fairly accurate, and I’m quite viewfinder-manual-focus challenged.

Let’s compare what’s inside with some similar lenses.

  Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G Canon 50mm f/1.2 L
Aspheric Elements
1 21
Special Glass600
Min focus Dist (in)19.72318
Aperture blades9

Optical Comparison

This lens is supposed to be one of the best optics ever made. To see just how good the resolution might be we tested it on a Nikon D800e.

For comparison purposes, we used the new Nikon 58mm f/1.4 G, which we’d previously tested on D3x cameras (our standard Nikon test camera). Here are the test results for both lenses at f/1.4 on a D800e. Results are MTF50 in line pairs / image height at the center, averaged across the entire lens, and averaged in the 4 corners.

  Center Average Corner Avg.
Nikon 58mm f/1.4700560480
Zeiss 55mm f/1.4965810690

Those are pretty spectacular numbers for the Zeiss, particularly off-center.  Stopped down things get even better.

  Center Average Corner Avg.

It’s worth noting how smoothly the resolution goes up with decreasing aperture, basically maximizing by f/4. Not that f/4 is necessary to get great resolution. By f/2.8 this lens is already sharper than most excellent lenses will get at any aperture. Here are some comparisons of the Zeiss at f/2.8 with other lenses at f/4 or f/5.6.

  Center Average
Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 @ 2.812551090
Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 @ f/5.61105990
Zeiss 25mm f/2 @ f/412151015
Nikon 58mm f/1.4 @f/5.61160940
Nikon 24mm f/1.4G @ f/5.61185845
Nikon 50mm f/.14 G @ f/5.61075890

By f/2.8 the Otus has higher resolution than any of the other lenses we’ve tested, even when those lenses are stopped down to their best resolution. (Those are D800 results, not D800e, so they would all be slightly higher on the ‘e’, but the illustration is still pretty clear.)

Finally, I’ll note that the Otus has a very low 0.8% distortion.

There’s a lot more to a lens than just resolution, of course, and reviewers and photographers are already making a lot of images to show you how the Otus does with those other things. But looking at the build and resolution, it’s most definitely scharf.

A Few Pictures

I got about 60 minutes this weekend when there was daylight without rain and took a few pictures. Jpgs compressed to web-viewing size are fairly worthless for this kind of thing, so I’ve also posted the 100% jpgs online HERE. Feel free to download if you want to pixel peep. They’re all just out-of-camera jpgs; you’d get even better results with some processed raw images.

These were done quickly, mostly manual focus through the viewfinder. Failure to focus properly is entirely the responsibility of the focuser, not the camera or lens. I really did find it quite easy to manually focus.

My dog, named Zeiss. A really nice 3-D effect from about 10 feet. 


I won’t try to say whether the Otus is worth $4,000 to you. But I can certainly say that Zeiss did what they said they had done: gave it exceptional performance even in the corners at widest aperture. From a resolution standpoint, it is, as Zeiss said it would be, “the absolute best SLR lens in the world today.”

Roger Cicala




November, 2013


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • Arthur Meursault

    Despite the cost, size, weight, manual focus, I still keep my Otus 55mm in my carry bag and often mounted to my D850. It’s my go to lens when I really want spectacular results and don’t require AF. Sharpness is one aspect but it’s really in the way that it paints. The Otus just does something that other lenses can’t manage.

  • Roger,
    Any chance you and OLAF would participate in a discussion thread on DPReview regarding the resolution of a full-frame sensor that would be a suitable match for the Zeis Otus 50mm f1.4 ?

  • Max

    Crazy sharp lens. http://flic.kr/p/itiBhr

  • Will

    And I thought scharf was short for sharp as f#(%…

  • Michael Watt

    Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus lens is no doubt an elitists optic that floats in the clouds beyond the consideration of us mere mortals. I don’t doubt the optical qualities of this lens but I question the practical application that for most output is destined for magazine print or screen monitors. Even many camera senors would be hard pressed to capture the pixels this lens would throw at it. An analogy is that it would be nice to drive a Lamborghini to the corner shop to buy a loaf of bread but the same job can be done riding a bicycle. In low light work this lens may have a distinct advantage but you would have to be earning pro mega-bucks and specializing in low light work to justify purchasing this lens. I consider this is a wonderful plaything for millionaires and an optic that is waiting for the rest of the photographic industry and recording media to catch up.

  • ferrif

    Mr Cicala,

    Just out of curiosity, did you shoot any picture stopped down to f/4 or f/5,6, and if yes, would you care to upload them as an addendum?
    The DOF is very shallow at f/1,4 on a full frame camera, hence it probably does not really do this lens justice.
    Again, I’m just curious, this lens is practically worth my cam and my three most used primes… Highly unlikely I’ll ever cough up $4000 for a 50mm.

  • Roger Cicala

    Michael, we do rent them. I’ll retest them one of these days (we did it on older cameras so not a direct comparison).


  • Richard

    I love the look of this lens, but am disappointed its manual focus, as I have been considering D4 or DF with the standard and 35mm. But I need auto. I see many references to it being the sharpest – but I can’t see any reviews of this against the Leica Apo Asph FLE 50mm Summicron. I saved for a year for this and bought it and it substantially out performs anything else I’ve ever had. It would be very significant to see a comparative test between the 2 lenses.

  • Stephen Scharf

    “Scharf” also happens to be my last name! We’re relatively far and few as last names go…

    When I was doing a lot of pro motorcycle racing photography, a coupla of the pro roadracers nicknamed me “Sharpshooter” because my last name meant sharp in German.

    Stephen “Sharp” Scharf

  • Robin

    Yes, agree it’s a stupid name. Why not call it “Bob”? I didn’t realize lenses had to have names? Will there be more Otuses (Otae?). Sounds like a collection of country hicks.

    Agree the Leica-M lenses are not “SLR lenses”, but you can now use them on such cameras as the Leica M240 and Sony FF A7 with EVFs, so the mount is rather irrelevant these days, hence my question about th’Otus’ performance relative to the Leica M 50s.

  • Carl

    Andrew, good point. “Otis” was the town drunk in Mayberry, for those of us who might have seen a certain tv show from back in the day. He was harmless though, because the only reason he stayed drunk is so he could sleep it off in the jail and not have to go home to his wife. I don’t have so much problem with the name “Otus” though. There are worse names…much worse.

    LPO, the lenstip review is interesting, but it’s a shame they don’t use a D800E, rather than the D3x.

    However, I’m pleased to see that their test clearly shows my Cosina Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Nokton, is in second place behind the Otus, for maximum resolution at optimized aperture (slightly ahead of the Zeiss Macro Planar), and in third place from f/1.4-f/2.0 (ahead of both Nikkor lenses). It’s also the best value of all of these lenses at around $445, in my opinion. It’s more than enough resolution on my 6D. The bokeh may not be quite as smooth as the Canon 50 f/1.2, but it’s more than good enough considering price.

  • Andrew Burday

    This is absolutely, totally irrelevant to any real issue, but every time I look at the title of this post I have the same thought: the people at Zeiss really need to work on their English language marketing. “Otus” just does not work in English. It makes me think of odious and otiose and an awful odor. It’s Mr. PItiful, sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time.

    Ok, brief rant over. Of course if it weren’t so far out of my tax bracket I’d buy one, even if they had called it “Steaming Dog Turd”. Just… “Otus”… No. Just no.

  • L.P.O.

    For those interested, LensTip has their review up at http://www.lenstip.com/index.php?test=obiektywu&test_ob=390

    They seem to like the lens a lot, only complaining about vignetting (which is, though, roughly on the same level as with other similar instruments if you look at the numbers).

    And, just to add my own Exo Tria Arxidia: did you know that “otus” is Finnish and means “creature”? My guess is that Zeiss didn’t have that in mind when naming the lens.

  • Phil

    can you make a MTF50 in line pairs / image comparision to Nikkor 200mm F2? Should be sharpest lens made by Nikon.

Follow on Feedly