Sometimes I cheat myself by believing things that just aren't relevant.

I really wanted to believe that the Zeiss 50mm 1.4 ZE lens for the Canon EF systems would be so incredibly superior to the Canon glass that I would see all kinds of brilliant optical wonders.  My images would be elevated to a new pantheon of photography reserved for the new blognoscenti and clients would flock to me, gushing, "How do you make the colors so rich and vibrant?" before shoving wads of currency in my photo vest.

But it didn't really happen that way.  I had the Canon 50mm 1.8 (type 2) and I bought into the big story. It goes something like this:  The Germans invented all this optical stuff.  They build the coolest mechanical things in the world.  Zeiss makes magic glass.  All the world's top pro's depend on magic lenses from either Leica or Zeiss.  So when my friend bought a Zeiss 50 and then decided it didn't help grow hair in bald spots or enliven his sex life I rushed in from the sidelines to buy it cheap.  "Like New In The Box."

I put it on the Canon 5Dmk2 and rushed around trying to shoot stuff.  The focus was off.  I did the whole micro adjust routine.  It was still hard to focus.  I got a new screen.  Now I could focus it.  And I shot and then waited for the magic to hit.  And I'm still waiting.

Don't get me wrong,  it's a very, very good lens.  The colors are wonderfully saturated, just the like the colors in the image above.  And it shows a high degree of sharpness, just like the sharp lines and detail in the photo above.  And the "micro-detail" is stunning.  Especially if you spend your life glued to your monitor at 100%.

But here's the problem:  The photo above was done with my $90 Canon EF 50mm 1.8 mk2.  And it's just as wonderful and breathtaking as the images from my Zeiss lens.  And did I mention that it cost one sixth the price?

Sometimes we want something to be true so much that we'll spend a lot more money on it and a lot more time convincing ourselves that we need this particular piece of gear.  We don't.  Not always.

I have two favorite 50mm lenses right now.  Neither of them are SEXY at all.  I have the 1.8 and I have the 50mm Macro 2.5.  I tested them recently against both the aforementioned Zeiss and the Canon 50mm 1.4 and guess what?  At f2 they all look equally bad.  At f4 they all look equally good.  At f7.1 I couldn't tell the difference with an electron scanning microscope.

I'm keeping the Zeiss around for the "bling factor", and to remind myself that the best gear isn't always the most expensive gear.


kirk tuck said...

And, P.S. I don't "do" photo vests...

Ghene Snowdon said...

Bling lens! I need some of those ;-)

Anonymous said...

I love the nifty fifty. Great glass and dirt cheap.

I'm disappointed to hear about your Zeiss not living up to the hype. Did you get it exchanged or call to see if you could at least get your money back on it? Sounds like it might be defective.

- Elizabeth Councill

dreamlenses said...

Hi Kirk,
even if I'm keen on great prime lenses, I also sometimes wonder if it's worth it (I mean the price!).
I tried (didn't buy, no money fir that one) a 21mm Zeiss Distagon and I could tell the difference with a Nikon wide angle: no flare shot straight in bright scenes, even in night shots with lights in the corner. For the same reasons I like Leica 50mm because you can shoot against the light. With my beloved Nikon 50mm f1.8, which is wonderful especially for the price, I wouldn't dare.

All in all, is it worth it? I'd say no because both Zeiss and Leica I tried weren't mine, as I can't afford it. If I was wealthy enough I'd say yes (-:

Dave Jenkins said...

I've owned the Canon 50/f1.4 and the f1.8 MkI, but the only one I currently have is the 50/f2.5 macro. It does double duty for me and is really all I need. Good lens.

I'm not into ultra-fast lenses or shallow depth-of-field anyway. The speed of a 24/f1.4, 35/f1.4, 50/f1.2 or 85/f1.2 would not be worth the bulk, weight, or expense to me. YMMV, of course.

Jan Fredrik Leversund said...

I run a part time family portrait photography business, and I was just recently faced with the same dilemma.

I knew I needed a prime lens around the 85mm mark, and naturally the gear head in me craved the Canon 85mm f/1.2. However, the business man in me told me to get the Canon 85mm f/1.8.

I work mostly around f/5.6 to f/11, because of all the group shots. Would I be able to tell the difference at f/5.6? Probably. Would it matter to my customers? Not in the least.

I'm pleased to say that the business man won this round, and he saved me a small fortune. The gear head is still sulking in a corner.

I guess the bottom line is that once I started looking at all the equipment simply as tools to get the job done, the perspective changed a lot.

Anonymous said...

*cough* ZD 50mm F2?

Clay said...

I've got a D3X and in a fit of boredom one day ran the old 'photograph thebookshelves with the camera on a tripod' test with my Zeiss 50/1.4 and my 20 year old Nikon 50/2 Ais. The 50/2 beat it handily. Sure, it is a stop slower - but lens speed matters a whole lot less now that you can shoot ISO3200 with any pro DSLR with very little sacrifice in quality. You never know.

Les said...

One's light and fragile. The other is heavy and durable. Both take good pictures now, but in 1 year? 5 years? 10 years? How durable must the lense be that attaches to computers posing as cameras?

They are both useful in the service of art. How long do fat and thin paint brushes last? (grin)

Danny Chatham said...

Ah!reality check in the world of photography;
how refreshing.

Steve Burns said...

The best glass is the glass that you have at hand and use.

Every now and then; as in before every wedding I shoot, I go through the mental anguish as to which set of lenses to bring to a gig.

The 24-105 is the standard for one camera with a flash on it, and it makes a great back up.

The other two cameras are reserved for primes, getting either a very fast set of heavy and expensive glass, or a much lighter set of slightly slower glass from my earlier days with Canon.

The anguish is tough, but the sore back is tougher the next day. What makes it worse is that I know I might not have been able to get those shots that had to be captured at 3200 & 1.2.

Will the world change if they are not made? Will the world miss them if they never see them? I doubt it. In fact they probably never know what could have been, and there for the anguish between dealing with the weight, and morning after pain.

At this point I'm leaning toward's the smaller lighter set of older lenses for next weekend; however on Friday I imagine that anguish will set in again.

Scott Johnson said...

Is that photo of that new, government building I heard about? It was supposed to be revolutionary and "green" and marvelous. Then they could never get the HVAC to work, and the whole thing went astronomically over budget as most government projects do? The building looks familiar, anyway.

Damien said...

Hi Kirk,

Love the blog, and follow it almost as a matter of religion.

Given that you only recently "left" the Olympus system, I was wondering if you are still using any of the Zuiko lenses and whether you think they are comparable to the lenses from Canon you are now using?


Damien Sass

kirk tuck said...

Naw, just a high rise apartment in the middle of Austin. Totally private enterprise. Sorry, I've forgotten the name of the project.


kirk tuck said...


I think the Olympus lenses are really good. The best ones, the 14-35mm and the 35-100mm are probably better than their competitors. I still have a few of my favorite Oly lenses around. Who would give up on the 50mm as long as you have an e520 body to put it on?

The only caveat emptor for the above statement is that I haven't played with the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 new version yet....

Steve Korn said...

Right on, Kirk.

I did splurge and get the 85 1.2, and it is phenomenal. The color and contrast are amazing. But, I hear you. I think the 85 1.2 is a rare exception.

Leonard Llewellyn Godwin said...

As a warning, I'm glad it was the Canon 50mm 1.8 that fell out of my bag and shattered on the driveway earlier this year. Even replacing that, I'd have to drop it 6 times to match the price of the Zeiss. I also have a nice, heavy Nikon 50mm 1.2 with adaptor that I do love, but at 1.2 it doesn't have a lick of sharpness, not even at the focus point, and that cost $500. Worth it? Not sure, but it helps for video to have a manual focus stop and aperture control, so maybe...anyway, like the post, nice to hear someone trying to keep it in perspective.

BlueTsunami said...

A little research goes a long way. It seems like the people who most disappointed by the Zeiss 50/1.4 are the ones that buy it on impulse with no forethought. Its known that the lens performs very much like every other fast 50 from Nikon, Canon and Pentax etc.

The Zeiss name isn't magic. And it does render different, but better? Thats obviously a matter of opinion. I find that he Zeiss "line" in general are more contrasty than Canons mid range lenses. With that said, they perform head to head with "L" lenses in that regard. Sharpness isn't the only way to gauge a lens.

kirk tuck said...

Slap! Ouch! I guess reading the DIgiLloyd review and the SLRgear review and the......reviews doesn't really count as research. But it is true that sharpness isn't the only way to guage a lens. And that being said I really do like the color rendering and.....the way it works for video.