23 March, 2015

Loxia 50mm review

Zeiss Loxia 50mm - Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, New South Wales [click to enlarge]

Just about every discussion of the Loxia 50mm also mentions the most likely alternative, the Sony/Zeiss 55mm. (And now, I suppose, I have too.) But this is very rarefied air we're breathing here. They're both outstanding lenses designed specifically for the Sony A7 series cameras. Any idea that one will leave the other in the dust is entirely misplaced.


I have used my 55mm extensively; but this will not be a "This vs That" review. Just because there's an elephant in the room, doesn't mean you have to pet it.

I don't do video, so this review won't be helpful for photographers looking to use the Loxia for that.

I'm not going to be coy. I REALLY like this lens. But I'm not going to recommend it willy-nilly. I'd like to tell you about the lens, and let you decide. But as they say in the small print: The following is provided on an "as is" basis. Your mileage may vary, etc.

So, why the Loxia 50mm?

The "Ifs:"
  • If you prefer primes lenses; and 
  • if you prefer a "normal" (50mm) lens; and 
  • if the manual focus is a serious plus for you; and 
  • if you can live without some of the very attractive features of autofocus; and 
  • if only having a manual aperture isn't a practical negative, 
then the Loxia 50mm might be the lens for you.

Image quality

The most important thing to know about the Loxia 50mm is that it's balanced in terms of its qualities. Zeiss calls it a "flexible all-rounder." There's a lot of truth in that; but only for those that got through the "ifs" without having to think too hard about it.

The Loxia's colour rendering and contrast are both great, and it has its share of Zeiss "pop." Not OMG "pop;" but it's a Zeiss Planar and it does what Zeiss Planar lenses do. Apparently the present level of contrast is more the result of the coating than the Planar design. The Planar design has almost 120 years of history and the Zeiss T coating goes back almost 80 years.

It has extremely low distortion and very little chromatic aberration.

F/2.0 is pretty fast. To get to f/1.4 would have required a bigger lens and that would not have been in keeping with the brief. This is the same speed as its sister, the Loxia 35mm. You have to keep in mind that this is f/2.0 on a full-frame. That means that at f/2.0 on the full frame camera, depth-of-field is slightly more shallow than at f/1.4 with a 32mm (50mm equivalent) lens on an APS-C (crop sensor) camera. So, this affords acceptably narrow depth of field for isolation of a subject, such as for some portraits.

Apparently, the Inuit people have at least 53 words for snow. We seem to be working toward that number of adjectives to describe bokeh. The Loxia's bokeh isn't the very creamy style prized by some; but it's not "nervous" either. I find the bokeh from the Loxia to be both attractive and useful.

This is an outstandingly sharp lens, with a slight softening at the corners, wide open. I had to look for it. It's not a problem for me.

The lens is an equal partner for the Sony A7II. And from the other reports I've read, it also meets the demands of the A7r (which I don't have).

It's not a zoom

Prime lenses held pride of place for many years, but times have changed. The quality improvements in zooms have been revolutionary. So now, while there's a bit of image quality in it, the main difference is lens speed.

Zooms for the A7 series (even the lowly 28-70mm kit lens) usually have their own stabilisation. So if you're not going to be using an A7II (or, seemingly soon, the A7rII), then using the Loxia over a zoom will cost you the stabilisation as well.

Almost everyone who has had occasion to use my camera, has asked where the zoom ring is. Their reaction on learning there isn't one, can only be described as pitying. Now, with the Loxia, they'll be wondering why it isn't focusing. (I fear that things will be moving from pity to something else.)

Manual focus

Manual focusing seems to have "old school" written all over it. It's unfortunate that some think that manual focusing is just for "old guys" (apologies for the sexist terminology) trying to recapture their experiences from the day. Feeding such a view is the fact that old guys started in photography without any autofocus. So, they, or those with experience in using legacy lenses, adjust to manual focus more quickly.

I hate thinking I've nailed the focus on a shot, only to find out when I get it into Lightroom that the system has chosen something else to focus on. (That, of course, is the camera rather than the lens.) So, while I still may occasionally miss the exact focus with the Loxia, I don't get those surprises.

Any movement of the focus ring triggers an immediate magnified view. And a half-press of the shutter button brings you back the full view ahead of whatever timing you've set. You can, of course, turn that off and magnify when you want.

It took me a little time to get used to that magnification arrangement because I had been used to giving the shutter a half-press to force an autofocus.

Focusing with the Loxia is fast. It's not always as fast as some autofocus systems, but it's more reliable. Manual focus, however, rarely gets lost in the hunt. I usually leave focus peaking on, but I depend on the magnified view.

I've also assigned the magnified view to the A7II's "C1" soft key. That allows me to get an even higher magnification quickly when I need it.

If you've come to depend on Sony's great, eye-focus feature (or faces, or smiles, or face recognition, or tracking focus), those don't happen with the Loxia. Except for the loss of the eye focus (which is very accurate, and simple even on a tripod), I'm relieved. There's no grid of phase detection points, or boxes around people's faces, or green dots to signal focus.

It's just point, focus, and shoot.

Zone focusing is not just for street photographers. Once you get used to a hard infinity limit and a hard close focus limit (at about 18 inches), then it's easy to estimate where a shot is going to be.

I haven't tried astrophotography, but my lens sets accurately to infinity. So, if you're trying to focus on the stars, it'll probably be easier on the Loxia.

It's ironic for me that after years of watching the developments and discussing the relative merits of phase detection and contrast detection autofocus, I've decided to skip both — just when they're getting really fast.

Handling

The lens is all metal, so it's relatively heavy, although Zeiss calls it light. Zeiss says it's 320gm, but with the hood and front lens cap mine was 358gm). My kit (the A7II with the Loxia, but without a strap, ) comes in at 970gm. With the strap, call it a kilogram (2.2lbs).

I find that the on-camera balance is perfect.

I've heard the lens called ugly. That, of course, is personal taste; but it doesn't seem ugly to me.

The focus ring is well placed and wide enough. The ring begins just behind the lens hood when the hood's attached, so the ring is quick to find. Yes, yes, the focus ring is very smooth. It's a Zeiss manual lens — it needed to be.

The full, focus rotation for the Loxia is 180 degrees — a manageable spin. But, that's not the useful information. What you need to know is that the focus rotation to go from 2 meters (6 feet) to infinity is only about 35 degrees (about a tenth of a turn of the focus ring). This means that for most situations I can focus within that range without taking my fingers off the lens.

I wouldn't have minded a slightly wider aperture ring. No big thing.

Manual aperture

If you're not a dedicated aperture-priority shooter, then the Loxia isn't the lens for you. It's an absolute manual aperture.

The Loxia's manual aperture benefit, as with manual focus, is that you not only set it on the lens, you can see what you set; and you can see it even if the camera is "sleeping," or off. 

With an auto lens you can select aperture priority, or not. No such choice with a Loxia. (This means that you can't put the camera on "auto" to hand to a bystander to take your picture.)

I rarely use the video on my camera, so I don't need to switch off the aperture clicks. But I was curious to see if the small screwdriver from my Swiss Army Knife (usually used to tighten the screws on eye glasses) would work on the Loxia's click/declick selector switch, that's located on the lens mount. It's not a great fit, but it does.

Exif data reporting

Because the lens reports the exif data to the camera, the f/stop appears in the electronic viewfinder as well. Cool.

The exif data, however, is not just information for idle curiosity. The information feeds the exposure calculations. And when images arrive in Lightroom, you'll have aperture data with those shots.

The focus data is also used by the A7II's stabilisation to afford the full, five-axis assistance, rather than the three-axis available to other manual focus lenses. This also means that when you attach a Loxia, the Sony recognises it and sets the system to the lens just as it does for Sony lenses.

The details

The lens shade is metal, but light. It reverses, but the hood is deep. So, when it's reversed it pretty much covers the focusing ring. There's only the slightest sliver of ring available in a pinch. You really have to remove the hood to focus the lens. I mentioned that it's metal, but it has a plastic ring on the inside for the actual connection to the lens. The inside of the barrel of the shade feels as if it has a coating and it's BLACK. It takes a quarter turn to lock it into place, so if you start with the Zeiss logo at the top, then a quarter-turn will lock it into place and bring the "Loxia 2/50" to the top.

I shoot almost exclusively in RAW, so most of the "features" of the camera are irrelevant to me. I love the manual focus and I welcome the manual aperture because I used to shoot in aperture priority anyway.

On A7 lens mounts there's a white dot for aligning the lens when attaching. The corresponding dot on the Loxia 50mm is blue, and almost invisible in poor light. I use the words "E-mount" in (noticeable) white lettering that's right next to the blue dot as my guide.

The Loxia is a much tighter fit on the A7II than on the A7. That's a good thing, because the lens mount has been strengthened on the A7II. The only problem is that there's very little finger purchase on the Loxia 50mm in the space between the aperture ring and the camera for giving it that twist. It's a bit easier to use the space between the aperture ring and the focus ring.

I haven't done any testing, but without an autofocus motor, I think I'm getting better battery life.

Conclusion

I have the Loxia, and I'm keeping it. It's my everyday, "walking around" lens. And, I'm hoping for Zeiss to release a Loxia 85mm in the future.

I'd like to think that after reading this, you'll come away with an idea about whether this is a lens for you. But it's serious money, so if you're in a big city, you might want to rent one for a couple of days.

Alternatively, when these lenses are more available, head to your local dealer, put one on your Sony, and take it for a spin (focus-ring play-on-words intended).

I have to agree that autofocus has become incredibly good on mirrorless cameras, and you can still manually focus those lenses with fly-by-wire. So, I admit that the Loxia's manual focus may provide more lens control than actual photographic control. But I've used fly-by-wire manual focusing as an adjunct to "auto" on many autofocus lenses, and I don't miss those experiences.

Good luck with your Loxia, or whatever lens you choose.

NB: The photo at the top and those in the preceding three posts are all Loxia 50mm images.

16 March, 2015

Peeking over the fence at Leica

Zeiss Loxia 50mm - Mt Tamborine, Queensland [click to enlarge]

To my mind, in the sixties there were two "real" camera choices: the Nikon F or the Leica M3. Of course, I couldn't afford either, so I "settled" for a used Minolta.

In that hypothetical, even though my head told me that Nikon was the more flexible choice, Leica won on romance. A friend had a pretty full Leica kit, including the Visoflex — Leica's way of dealing with SLR envy. But, my needs were few. I would have settled for the M3 and the 35, 50 and 90mm lenses.

But enough of a walk down memory lane.

Leica lenses have never been toppled from their perch at the top of the optical tree. And, until the introduction of mirrorless cameras, Leica cameras were the main avenue for using those lenses.

But, times are changing. Computer modelling, cheaper aspheric lenses, new coatings, and in-camera correction of distortion and chromatic aberrations have narrowed the distance between Leica and the other high end players. I don't think there's enough in it to justify anything like the differences in cost.

There's no question that rangefinder mechanisms have inherent benefits. You can compose more easily, seeing more of the scene. They're quiet(er), with no mirror to slap around, They are less subject to vibration, with no mirror to slap around. They are compact, with no mirror to slap around. You get the idea: There's no mirror box.

And, until more recently, Leicas were the most compact way to access full-frame sensors. But there are some negatives: There are parallax problems, limits on the length of lenses, and rangefinders need the occasional adjustments of their complex mechanisms.

Over these many, intervening years I would have been willing trade my cameras and lenses in an even swap for Leica gear — until fairly recently. I wouldn't have swapped my NEX-7 for a Leica. And now, there's no way I'd swap my A7II for either an M9 or a 240.

I hope that Leica can reinvent itself. And, I hope it can do it in a way that won't disappoint its devotees.

When I was a boy, I thought a car phone would be the coolest thing. Now I have a phone / computer / music player / camera in my pocket, and I don't want a car phone anymore.

06 March, 2015

Loxia footnote

Zeiss Loxia 50mm - Sydney Opera House, Sydney [click to enlarge]

When I focus my Loxia lens, the movement of the focus ring automatically puts the viewfinder into magnification mode. And, a half-press on the shutter release button returns it back into full-screen mode.


It's a great arrangement; but, unfortunately, I had become used to auto-focus lenses that are triggered to acquire focus by (you guessed it) a half-press of the shutter release button.

There are workarounds, but I think it will be better to break the old habit.

05 March, 2015

Sharpness

Zeiss Loxia 50mm - Braids, Sydney, New South Wales [click to enlarge]

The reprint of Henri Cartier-Bresson's, "The Decisive Moment" is finally out. It reveals so many moments captured from around the world. It's a time-capsule from another age. The book is one of photography's seminal works. This, however, is not a review. (Too many have reviewed it better than I could.)


HCB famously said, "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." And, the book is a powerful reminder that in documentary photography the moment takes precedence over everything. In street photography, missing the shot is missing the point.