85mm 1.4 Zeiss ZE Rocks for me.

It was a long, happy day yesterday.  I spent my morning and part of the early afternoon at St. Gabriel's School here in Austin taking photographs for their marketing and "look book."  I photographed young students with their older mentors, kids learning, drawing, playing, looking at Texas snakes and even playing under a giant colorful parachute.  It was a good job.  One that moved fast.  One that actually made good use of my ability to direct kids and teachers.  As soon as I wrapped that job I headed back to the world headquarters of the VisualScienceLab and headed into the top secret lab to download around 1500 raw files I'd shot.  I used three different cameras, including:  The Canon 5Dmk2, the Canon 60D and the Canon 1Dmk2N.  I used several Canon L zooms but my favorite lens of the morning was the Zeiss 85mm 1.4.  The images I shot with it seemed to have a sparkle and a snap that's more elusive to capture with the zooms.

So, after downloading the files and checking for any issues, and after recharging the batteries for all the cameras I got to packing for my next job, my service as the volunteer photographer for the mighty Rollingwood Waves swim team.  It was a hot day.  The meet started at 5pm.  I'd been trying to cover everything at previous meets and had been hauling around two 1D series cameras along with a 24-105mm L lens and a 70-200mm L lens.  I wanted to change up everything and in the process change my point of view for the rest of the afternoon.  To do that I committed to one lens and one camera body and headed to the pool.  I chose to work with the morning's winning combination:  The 1Dmk2n + Zeiss 85mm 1.4.  I have the 1Dmk2n fitted with a split image rangefinder screen that's optimized for manual focus and it works very, very well.  Especially in bright sun.

The pool area was packed.  There were 180+ swimmers on our team and over 200 swimmers on the Westwood Country Club team.  Add in three hundred or so parents and coaches and you have quite a big crowd.  Our pool has electronic timing and we tend to run a fast meet but even so it took nearly an hour and a half just to run thru the 25 and 50 yard freestyle events.  Heat after heat.  In the heat.
Instead of shooting the swimming action I spent the day photographing the kids.  And, in the process, remembered the things I love about the 85mm Zeiss lens.  It's great to work in close and to be able to drop backgrounds out with luscious, soft transitions.  When focused correctly on peoples' eyes there is a sparkle that gives images extra dimension.  The focal length on the 1D camera equals about a 113mm lens on a full frame 35mm camera so I can fill a frame with a person's head and not be right on top of them.  The Zeiss lens isn't necessarily sharper than the 85mm Canon lens I had been using but it seems cleaner and, for want of a better word, more "accurate" to the way the scenes look to my eyes.  But the snap and the sparkle is the thing.  I uploaded these files in a larger size than I usually do so you could click on them and see a much larger image. Note the detail in the boy's eyes above.  I may not be putting what I'm seeing in words very well but maybe the image will show you what I mean....

There's a distinct operational advantage to working with one lens and one body.  It's easier to get into a shooting rhythm because you start to anticipate, well before you bring the camera to your eye, what will be in the frame and how the background will most probably look.  That's a cool thing because you begin previsualizing how your shots might look instead of bringing a camera and zoom lens up to your eye and then zooming around hoping to find a workable composition.  I've always thought that the fewer choices I have to (or can) make the more powerful the photos.

 After my experiences last Sunday trying to photograph Suzan-Lori Parks in a dark rehearsal studio I was a bit nervous about my ability to quickly manually focus with autofocus based cameras.  I guess the morning's working session helped me get my focusing eye back in shape because there were very few missed in the afternoon's take.  I stayed at apertures around f2.8.  Sometimes playing with f2 and occasionally messing around with 3.5 but never stopping down past that.  If someone goes out of focus in the background then that's how the art was meant to be.  I know the Canon 5Dmk2 is supposed to have much better IQ than the three generations older 1Dmk2n but I like the way the older camera shortens the reaction time and fires with much less shutter or system lag.  And I am convinced that, for the most part, the inherent quality in both cameras still exceeds my abilities to extract it.  The 85mm lens gets me closer to my goal.

I'm happy with the images I got for the might Rollingwood Waves.  And I'm glad I was only carrying around one camera and one fixed lens.  The part of my brain that usually has to keep track of which zoom is on which body and which one would be best to shoot in a given situation got to take a rest.  And I found out just how much system resources that constant set of subroutines demands.  Freed of largely unnecessary decision making the rest of my brain could spend time analyzing the scenes in front of me and figuring out how to fit them into a fixed construct.  It was like working a with a reduced instruction set computation.  More a+b= photo than a convoluted equation with lots of variables and multiple correct answers.

Next weekend, at one of our saturday morning swim meets I'm going to bring along a 300 2.8 and shoot some video.  We'll see if that makes it into our end of the year slide show.  Big fun.  Cool water.


Will said...

Nice article and some lovely shots. Glad to follow

Mike Padua said...

GORGEOUS glass, beautiful shots, thanks for sharing this with us.

Anonymous said...

Suggestion for next topic: sensor cleaning :)

Chase Palmer said...

I'm beginning to feel the same way about the "pop" that some lenses have, but I'm seeing it in my EF-S 60mm Macro. I actually purchased it in part because of your Jeffrey's food shots, but I am absolutely loving it as a portrait lens.

kirk tuck said...

Anonymous---damn dust. I'll have our internal cleaning dept. take care of that and then instruct the retouching dept. to make short work of it.

Chase---I agree about the 60mm. It's really stunning. Perfect for APS-C

kirk tuck said...

Anonymous. My retouch department had the whole dust issue sorted out before I came back from lunch with our executive committee. The chairman was very impressed. Heaped scorn on our IT guys for letting the dust soaked images out the door in the first place........bastards.

Rick Dickinson said...

Thankfully, my various E-system cameras' dustbusters have worked well enough, so far, that my own various departments haven't had to fight that particular battle yet.

So, Kirk, your dust-busting adventures have sparked a bit of curiosity. Did you keep any of your Olys, besides the Pens, when you started shooting more with the Canons? I haven't heard you talking about them, lately, so I was just wondering.

kirk tuck said...

Rick, I kept a small assortment. Only my very favorites. Two e1's, a 50 macro and the 14-35. I'll drag them out next time we have a good rain and see how they're doing. I'm just having too much fun with the 1D series these days...... And I'm pissed at Olympus for totally abandoning the 4/3rds stuff.

Rick Dickinson said...

While I understand the sentiment completely, I'm not quite sure that "abandoning" is the right word. After all, they did finally release the E-5.

I've got the 50 macro, and while I can't argue its quality, I'm not in love with it the way a lot of folks seem to be. Some people tend to "see" in certain focal length ranges, and that's not mine, evidently.

I assigned myself a photowalk through Hollywood with just the 50mm for a day, and while I can see its attractions, I'm still not a big fan of that particular focal length. I kept wanting something wider, to let me get much closer, or something longer, to let me grab details from further away.

I'm not going to get rid of it; it's too useful in specialized situations. But as a general rule, I'm not a fan of the 50mm view of the world on four-thirds.

I'd love to get my grubby mitts on the 14-35, however; I have its big brother (the 35-100), and the images I craft with it just feel so doggone nice that I can't help but want to try its shorter sibling.

I'm with you 100% on the E-1. The color rendition is gorgeous. The controls are made to fit a photographer, without a lot of superfluous cruft. The shape of the body lets it hang effortlessly at your fingertips, ready to bring to the eye, in the blink of an eye.

And, have you ever heard a sexier shutter?

I'm hoping that FUD and ill feelings will drive plenty of people to abandon four-thirds in a fit of pique, and I'll be able to pick up an E-5/14-35 combo for a song, right before Oly rolls out an E-50 to bring everyone back.

I can dream, right?


neopavlik said...

Kid with fake mustache is awesome !

Anonymous said...

I am always confused when I read your lens reviews because all of you images look so good. The EPL2 lenses look as good as the Zeiss lenses and it's hard for me to separate your good technique from the quality of the lens itself. Maybe if you also had a really shitty shooter take some shots also we'd have a more real world assessment. How the lens would work in our hands. You have the (enviable) ability to make all lenses look pretty damn good.

Denis Markell said...


Found your site when I was researching the EPL-2. These are fantastic pictures, and what's worse...you're a graceful and witty writer. Damn you! (I've been known to write for a living so take that as a compliment). I will slowly make my way through your older posts...especially interested on your views of using the EPL-2 for video with an external mike as well (I know you've written about this).

I DID buy the EPL-2 with money I made selling my old Digilux 2. I couldn't believe people are willing to pay seven hundred dollars for a seven year old camera which (as nice as it is) is still an OLD camera!

kirk tuck said...

Denis, Thank you for a lovely compliment. As pleasurable to me as a lively cup of coffee. Congrats on moving your Digilux so well.

Peter Cane said...

Thanks for the info on this lens, it was a very helpful post.