My dad on the evening of his 60th wedding anniversary. We all celebrated at their favorite restaurant down in San Antonio. I brought along a camera. He's still pretty spry in his mid-80's. His doctor advises no more cage fights or extreme combat sports.......
The long suffering spouse, Belinda, stands still for a quick dissection of the ZE's out of focus character, nearly wide open.
This is a short post. That's because there's very little philosophy to impart/discuss, no in-depth tests with DXO software and old Air Force optical charts. I don't know how to measure chromatic aberrations and I could care less about corner sharpness in a high speed 50mm lens (that's why we have three or four macro lenses sitting around.....) but I wanted to report how I feel about the 50mm Carl Zeiss ZE f1.4 lens that I've been shooting since late last Summer. In as few words as possible: I like it.
Here's how I like it: On the front of a Canon 5Dmk2, shot between f2.5 and f4, in low daylight. It's not a "show off" lens. It doesn't scream, "Look how brutally sharp I can be!!!!" It doesn't throw oversaturated color in your face. It's well behaved and it hits a beautiful balance between the impression of sharpness and high detail. It's a graceful lens for shooting faces.
I think I've read just about every mainstream review of high speed 50mm lenses currently on the market. The testers test everything the same way. They want the same sharpness in the extreme corners that they get in the center. They want MTF curves that kiss the top of the graph at every aperture and (if zoomy) at every focal length. They don't seem to understand that all lens design is fraught with compromise.
I want to know what a lens is supposed to do and whether or not it does that thing well. If you read the works of Erwin Puts, an expert on Leica lenses and lens design, you will learn many things and one of them is that optical designers work to optimize the inner 2/3rds of the lens coverage based on the idea that the photojournalist who originally needed fast lenses was most likely trying to capture a subject or subjects in the middle of the frame and that the edges didn't matter. You'll also find that it's possible to optimize a lens for high contrast and apparent acuity or high resolution but not both, simultaneously. Good designers strive for a balance between the two. Color rendering is at least as important as sharpness and contrast and, finally, all of these factors are inter-related, like the sides of a triangle.
I have no way of knowing what was in the minds of the designers at Carl Zeiss when they came up with the final design of the 50mm ZE but I know that their final product gives me a look that is more realistic than photographic. Perhaps they've made the conscious design to tame hard edged acuity in favor of detail and wider tonal range. At least that's how it seems to me.
The nice thing for photographers is that we have so many choices available to us. I've compared files with the Sigma 50mm 1.4 and it'a clear that it is optimized to have high acuity and high contrast. That could be very appealing to a "Jpeg Only" shooter who doesn't want to spend a lot of time messing around in PhotoShop. The cool thing is that if you have a 50mm that's optimized for higher resolution and slightly lower contrast you can control additive contrast in raw post production and augment the good qualities of your lens without the attendant compromises.
Think of it this way, a lens that is optimized for high contrast and high impression of edge acuity will look fabulous in the same way that highly saturated, highly sharpened images first look on the screen. But you'll notice that they produce less real resolution and detail and the higher rendering contrast comes at the expense of wider tonal range. You can buy a lens with a different combination of attributes and then add saturation and edge sharpness in post to emulate the best aspects of the "flashy" lens and the "tamer" lens.
It's all academic to me. I judge a lens after I've shot with it for a while and pulled out some images that I really like. So far the 50 CZ ZE is a mixed bag for me. I like the focal length on the cropped Canon format but I think I like the performance of the lens on the full frame camera better. What I especially like is the opposite of what most reviewers say. I like the way it renders out of focus backgrounds better than my 50mm Canon 1.8 or the 1.4. The lens whose characteristic is closest to the performance of the Zeiss lens is a much overlooked optic from Canon, the 50mm 2.5 macro. At 2.5 to f4 it looks nearly the same. When I grab a lens now it's generally a toss up between the Zeiss and the Canon macro. People trash talk it's loud autofocus motor but it can be manually focused just like the Zeiss with the same silent profile.
Would I buy the Zeiss lens again with all the knowledge I've accrued concerning the four different 50mm's I've played with? Probably so since I like the way it renders color. If I were on a budget I'd just settle for the 50mm 2.5 macro and I'd be pretty happy.
What about the 50mm 1.1.2 Canon L series lens? It's way too big. It's way too expensive. And I'll probably figure out some way to rationalize its purchase and then regret my purchase and sell it at a loss in the not too distant future. Oh the horror of being a mindless consumer and still having the self knowledge of my foibles.........