After testing the Zeiss 21mm and 35mm lenses, I was convinced that the German manufacturer has an edge over Canon in terms of sharpness, color definition, micro contrast, bokeh and build quality. The announcement of the Zeiss 85mm ZE 1.4 lens tempted me to purchase it to replace my Canon 85mm L f1.2 II prime lens.
The Canon 85mm L is noted for producing high quality images and is well suited for portrait and travel photography. I’ve used the Canon lens for over a year and it has enabled me capture some great portraits. The main gripe I had with the lens was it’s poor manual focus ring and bulk.
Here is how the two lenses look side-by-side (Zeiss on the left):
The Zeiss 85mm is significantly more compact and has better build quality than the Canon. It balances well on a Canon 5d body and makes for a lighter travel kit.
Here are a series of portrait tests I did to compare sharpness, color rendition and contrast of the lenses at close-to-mid focus distances. All images were shot in similar lighting conditions, using tripod and live view to manually focus on the eyes. Zeiss crops are on the left-hand side and Canon on right in the series below.
The Zeiss drawing style renders smoother skin tones and colors with more punch, although the Canon has a slight edge in sharpness between f1.4 – 2.0 at close focusing distances. Following are 100% crops of the right eye at different aperture settings.
@ f1.4 – Canon has the edge in sharpness, although Zeiss renders the eye colors more brilliantly.
@f1.4 – Zeiss image has been sharpened a bit using Photoshop. Notice how the difference in sharpness is no longer obvious. It is harder to reproduce Zeiss colors and drawing style with post-processing on the other hand.
@ f2.0 – Canon retains the edge in sharpness and contrast.
@ f2.8 – it’s hard to tell the difference is sharpness between the two lenses. Zeiss renders eye colors and skin tone better than the Canon IMO.
The Zeiss produces good quality bokeh, although the Canon is no slouch in this department either. Here is a sample showing off the ZE bokeh wide open:
Overall, I felt my initial test was enough for me to decide to sell the 85L on eBay and keep the Zeiss. I’ve been using the ZE now for over six months and continue to be impressed with the quality of the photos it produces. It is a harder lens to use, since it is manual focus only and exhibits focus shift at close focusing distances that needs to be compensated for.
Update after over two years of field usage
The Zeiss is undoubtedly a great lens, although I’ve gone back and forth between using the Zeiss and the Canon 85L. Comparing photos taken using Adobe Lightroom at 100% magnification, it is clear to me that unless you use Zeiss lenses on a tripod, you get sharper photos using Canon autofocus lenses especially at larger apertures. Manual focus while handholding an SLR requires technique that takes time to master in order to get acceptably sharp large sized prints.
At the end of the day, you will get more keepers using the Canon 85mm L than the Zeiss. The reason I’ve kept the Zeiss around is that when you do get a keeper, it ends up sticking out from the crowd of photos and worth hanging on your wall.
Here are some additional samples using the Zeiss 85mm ZE lens shot using a Canon 5d II body:
@2.2 – 2.5
Photocinenews: National geographic photography Ben Horton compares Canon glass to Zeiss.
Fredmiranda: User reviews on Zeiss 85mm f1/1.4 ZE Planar T* lens.