On Trial – Zeiss Loxia Lenses
With the arrival of the 42 megapixels A7R II, Sony’s full-35mm mirrorless camera system can no longer be ignored by professional photographers… and Zeiss is ready with a pair of high-performance FE mount primes.
Sony’s Alpha 7 Series mirrorless cameras are starting to make significant inroads into the professional sector so it’s hardly surprising that the makers of high-end lenses such as Zeiss are starting to take notice. The Loxia 35mm f2.0 Biogon and 50mm f2.0 Planar are the perfect match for these high performing full-35mm sensors.
SLOWLY BUT SURELY MIRRORLESS CAMERAS are moving into the professional end of the market. Olympus’s OM-D E-M1 and Panasonic’s Lumix GH4 leading the way for the Micro Four Thirds format. Fujifilm’s XT-1 and Samsung’s NX-1 are flying the flag for ‘APS-C’ sensors, but perhaps most interestingly, Sony’s Alpha 7 Series offers the appeal of a full-35mm size sensor in a more compact form than any rival D-SLR.
Sony has got in here ahead of either Canon or Nikon (which surely have to offer something similar before too long) and, after a short period of limited lens choices, it’s now full steam ahead for the full-frame version of Sony’s E Mount… better known as the FE mount. Not only has Sony put the pedal to the metal with new FE mount lenses, but Zeiss is weighing in with its own series of models under the ‘Loxia’ name. Well, in fact, Zeiss is offering two ranges of the lenses for the FE mount, but the recently-released Batis models are contemporarily styled and feature autofocus while the Loxia lenses are unashamedly classical, both inside and out. This means metal barrel tubes, glass elements and engraved, painted-in markings.
There are currently two Loxia models – a 35mm f2.0 Biogon and a 50mm f2.0 employing the truly classi-
cal Planar symmetric optical design. Both are designed for the FE mount, but can also be used on the ‘APS-C’ format cameras with the attendant 1.5x increase in the effective focal length. However, Zeiss emphasises that these lenses have been “specifically designed” for the Sony Alpha 7 mirrorless cameras which presumably indicates some interface implications. The mounts carry a set of electrical contacts so lens information is recorded in the Exif data and, presumably, the camera’s lens correction processing (for vignetting, chromatic aberrations and distortion) is available. It’s also worth noting that this interface preserves the five-axis image stabilisation in the newer A7 II and A7R II whereas all other non-Sony lenses default to three-way correction.
Of course, Zeiss is already closely involved with Sony in the designing of the latter’s own lenses (for both the A and FE mount), but the Loxia models are entirely ‘in house’ designs, albeit manufactured in Japan.
They’re both comparatively compact designs to compliment the size of the A7 bodies, but neither are light weights and have a reassuring ‘heft’ which suggests the minimal use of plastics. Also evident on the outside is the precision of the engineering with both the focusing collar and aperture ring flush with the main barrel, located with clearly very fine tolerances. As we’ve come to expect from Zeiss, the focusing collar’s movement is silky smooth… so much so that you’ll find yourself constantly winding it back and forth just to enjoy the experience. Likewise, the aperture collars have nicely notchy detents – in one-third stop increments – but there’s also a ‘De-Click’ feature which switches the movement to continuous. This is done via a small adjustment screw in the back of the lens mount and Zeiss applies a dedicated tool for the job, but should it go astray, a jeweller’s micro screwdriver will work just as well. Both lenses are supplied with a bayonet-fit metal hood.
While the precision of the fit will afford some measure of protection against the intrusion of dust or moisture, the Loxia lenses aren’t weatherproofed as such, but there is a substantial silicone gasket – in Zeiss blue – on the mounts which shields the most vulnerable area.
We tested the Loxia lenses on the original Sony A7 body which has the 24.7 megapixels sensor, but there’s no doubt that the optical resolution of both models will be more than sufficient for the 43.6 megapixels (42 MP effective) of the A7R II.
The Verdict The Zeiss Loxia lenses are arguably as much about the experience of using them as their first-class imaging performance. The manual focusing and manual aperture ring demand more involvement than the alternatives at these focal lengths, but you also still get the digitalera conveniences of an interface that enables the A7 series MF assists, accesses in-camera corrections and records the lens data (which can be useful in postproduction, particularly with RAW files).
There’s no question these lenses are a delight to use, but there’s also real pleasure to be had from their balance of technical excellence and visual sensuality. The 35mm particularly excels in the latter while the 50mm is superior in terms of the former, being better corrected all round, but we’re talking about very high standards here so both lenses deliver command performances.
If you needed another reason to consider Sony’s A7 cameras, the Loxia lenses present two very compelling arguments.
Zeiss is already closely involved with Sony in the designing of the latter’s own lenses, but the Loxia models are entirely ‘in house’ designs, albeit manufactured in Japan.
Zeiss’s Loxia lenses are traditional manual focus designs and have a manual aperture collar which have a ‘de- click’ setting for stepless adjustment when shooting video.
All-glass optics are easily a match for the new generation of ultra-high resolution full35mm sensors.