The Carl Zeiss Tele-Tessar T* 4/85 lens was released in late 2008. It is a ZM lens designed for Leica rangefinders, with a very pure long-focus five element three group construction. 85mm lenses may well not suffer from any issues on unmodified Sony sensors, and it’s light and compact for a high quality short tele. It has a reputation for being a wonderfully sharp and contrasty: is it good enough to be a great companion to your Sony, despite being relatively slow? This review may tell you.
|Filter Thread||43 mm|
|Weight (w/o adapter)||310 g|
|Max. Magnification (w/o close focus adapter)||1:9|
|Close Focusing Distance from the sensor (w/o CFA)||0.9 m|
|Number of aperture blades||10|
- Optical performance
Build quality and handling
Like most ZM lenses it’s tight and precise, and as far as I know has only a little copy-to-copy variation. I has a nice luxurious mechanical finish. I have a had my copy for a couple of years, and it’s come on many long wilderness trips with no blemish to the finish, so I can say that the anodising is pretty impressive.
It focuses from .9 metres to infinity in about 85 degrees, with a beautifully damped helicoid. The focusing ring is made of metal, and is ribbed in a way which makes it very easy to find and grip
The aperture ring is a nice metal ring at the front of the lens, and stops down from f4 to f22 in 1/3 stop increments, with a very precise click. There are also easy to see 1/3 stop markings. The aperture ring is nicely ribbed except for the smooth area with these 1/3 stop markings illustrated above.
The Zeiss hood is a very nice piece of metal which spring connects to the bayonet at the front. It is, however, absurdly expensive at over USD 100! You can pick up a cheap metal hood with a 46mm thread on eBay for almost nothing.
Adapting the lens to Sony
I recommend the latest version of the Hawk’s Factory helicoid adapter for this lens. The lens performs so well at close distances, that adding some extension will do no harm so a helicoid adapter makes sense. The Hawks adapter has two features no other helicoid adapter has both of. It’s very light for a helicoid, at around 50g, and it has infinity tuning, which is fantastic: you can adjust the lens so that infinity is exactly at the hard stop when the helicoid is not extended. That’s a real convenience for landscape. You can get one via our affiliate link at B&H
Size and Weight
Size and weight are the reason this lens is so interesting. As Jim Kasson has shown, small light teles often give better performance hand held than larger ones, even when the larger ones are optically superior and this shows on a tripod. We are not talking visible camera shake here: just subtle degradation of sharpness that takes a superior lens like the Apo Sonnar 2/135 down to level of excellent, but clearly not-as-good-on-a-tripod, lenses when they are hand held. At 310 grams, or 360 with a decent close focus adapter, this lens is a hikers friend. I for one don’t often want longer lengths for landscape—not enough to want to carry them along with food and shelter anyway. And if you want a prime kit rather than a zoom, this lens augments nicely at the tele end.
These results are based on use with a Sony Alpha A7rIII.
Flare resistance is usually very impressive. There three images show the sun in the frame with heavy shadow lifting in three positions. In every location the result is outstanding.
As with many lenses, it is possible to provoke a dramatic contrast loss with the sun just outside the frame. What is fairly remarkable though is that it’s only a narrow range of positions which can do this, all of which can be easily dealt with by shading with a hand. If you preferred, a longer hood would eliminate this without causing vignetting—but personally I find hand shading easier because it’s very obvious when it happens, and it keeps the lens compact.
Here is the worst I could provoke, showed with the same position with hand shading.
Lovely sunstars ; this image of the sunset breaking through the forest has has a lot of shadow lifting, and there is no loss of contrast outside the immediate sun area, no artefacts, and a nice crisp sunstar.
I’ll start with a fairly distant and busy background at roughly head and shoulders portrait distance.
Of course the maximum blur is a bit limited by the aperture, but given how busy the forest scene is the lens renders nicely, with no onion rings or serious outlining. A better job that any zoom I’ve used at f4 and short tele.
To put this in perspective: while you probably would not choose this lens if portraits were your primary use case, you can get quite a bit of blur at f4, and with any luck both eyes in focus. And the bokeh is plenty smooth. Micro 4/3 users often use a 1.8/45mm lens as a portrait lens, and do very well; and that class of lens has close to the same level of blur as a 4/85 on full frame (and rather less system resolution than a 4/85 on FF).
Axial Chromatic Aberrations
The lens shows some axial CA at close distances; the crops below are from around the minimum focussing distance. Here is a tendency to slight magenta discolouration just in front of the focus point (0) and green just behind it. There is also just a touch of violet or blue fringing wide open. This is good performance. I have seen APO lenses that are worse, though the very best modern APO lenses are a bit bitter. It improves at f5.6 and again by by f8. I have never noticed it as a problem in the field, except as slight and easily correctible fringing around bright highlights wide open. It is, however, stunningly sharp at these distances.
Lateral CA is very low.
Section to come
Section to come, though I will give you a spoiler: not much!
f/4: Excellent in the centre and mid frame, the corner is very good but just discernibly less good a than other apertures.
f/5.6: Outstanding everywhere.
f/8: Outstanding everywhere.
f/11: Diffraction is reducing contrast just a tad.
This is remarkably good performance. You can use this lens with fantastic results at any aperture and any location in the field. The wide open corners are the only area where, when pixel peeping, you can see a slight difference from elsewhere, but it’s still very good here and no image would really be the worse for this even of performance in the corners. F11 shows the effects of diffraction across the field, which is a good sign in a lens. The only remotely negative thing about this is that the centre image wide open shows a touch of LoCA (in the form of purple fringing) that reinforces the close focus test. I found it easy to correct. No visible LaCA.
A note on our testing procedures, which might get incorporated into a future article. We don’t do numerical tests, bench or IMATEST. I would guess that if we had an optical bench, we would see somewhat higher numbers on some recent lenses (perhaps the Loxia 85 and Otus 85) at mid apertures. But I doubt that this would show up in these 100% infinity crops. Does that mean our test is not sensitive enough? We don’t think so. Something that is not visible at 100% on a 42MP sensor surely should play no role in choosing between lenses, even if it’s interesting for optics geeks. What about future 100MP sensors? Well the difference between 42 and 100 is not massive. It’s possible that something invisible might become visible. But it won’t become significant.
Summary: it’s important to know what the visual effects of resolution is, and actually seeing details is what will do that.
Zeiss Loxia Sonnar T* 2.4/85: This is the obvious alternative. It’s 1.5 stops faster, and in many ways a better, state of the art lens. It’s visibly a little better at f4. But by f5.6, according to Fred Miranda’s tests, any theoretical improvement that the Loxia has is no longer visible with a 42MP sensor at 1:1. As an all round manual 85 mm the Loxia is probably a better bet, though almost twice as expensive, as the extra speed (and the superb wide open performance which makes being only f2.4 less of a hassle) makes it more versatile. But for the hiking purposes for which I use the ZM (I prefer AF for a portrait 85) the weight, size and cost reduction for a very similar look makes the ZM the right choice.
Sony FE 1.8/85 This, and the clearly even higher resolving Zeiss Batis 1.8/85 (according to the average of ten bench tests of each lens by Roger Circala) are very good lenses. Once again they make good all round 85mm lenses. Neither, though, have lovely sunstars, and this is something that matters a lot to me, especially around sunset and sunrise, and in cityscapes at night. The Sony is not much heavier than the ZM plus adapter at 371 g, though it’s bulkier which matters for the hiker. I don’t have access to direct IQ comparisons with the Sony, but I think the Batis is at least as good as the ZM in terms of resolution and contrast, but not sunstars.
Zeiss Contax G 2.8/90: A touch smaller and lighter. I think it would make a very fine hiking lens, though I would myself choose the ZM for reasons of sunstars. Also the Contax is a bit clunky on adapters, and the best way to use it is to get it helicoid mounted which is either a difficult or expensive job. I haven’t used it myself, though my colleagues have. My impression from comparing samples and crops without doing a direct AB is that the ZM is a little sharper and contrastier across the field.
Zeiss Contax (C/Y) 3.5/100: A very good lens of which I still have a copy, and a good hiking choice. I think the ZM is a little ahead in resolution and contrast and bulk, and I don’t like the look of the sunstars on the C/Y at all. But it’s much cheaper, and a fine choice.
Zeiss Contax (C/Y) 2.8/85 The A mount 2.8/85 is said to be much the same as this too, but I can’t confirm that (except to say they have the same simple overall optical design, but the devil is in the detail here). Not bad when I used it briefly, but not as well behaved as the ZM (or indeed the 100), and worse sunstars. But small and light and it would be a good budget choice if you could find one at a budget price. But in decent condition they rival the ZM for price, so not good value.
Sony G 4/70-200 FE : The ZM is a little better in the outer field at every aperture at around 85mm. But these lenses aren’t really comparable. If you need the convenience of the zoom, and your application is one which allows you to carry it, you won’t be looking at the ZM. You should be aware that zooms from everyone vary a lot in where they are best, so a review of one copy won’t tell you want to expect. The review of the 70-200 by Phillip linked to above clearly shows that his copy was worst around the outer field at the short end. My copy is good there, and worst in the outer field at the long end.
Sony G 4/24-105 FE: This could be a good all in one solution for many people. I’ve seen comparisons online which suggest the Loxia is visibly nicer across the field at 85mm, which if true means the ZM probably is too. Sunstars not nearly as nice. But again, if you are looking for a zoom in this range you won’t be looking at the ZM.
Leica Summarit 2.5/75: This lens is very good, and can sometimes be found at a non Leica-like price. It has more LoCA than I’d like at f2.5 (much more than the Loxia 85 for example) but from f4 it’s just as good as the ZM, perhaps a tiny bit better in the corners at f4. The 22 pointed sunstars aren’t bad, but I prefer the ZM in this respect. Which of these you prefer may come down to focal length. EDIT: I have since performed a direct comparison of the corners of the Summarit against the ZM from f4. My recollection above is not quite right. The ZM is slightly ahead at all apertures until f8; and the Summarit has a touch of purple fringing the ZM lacks. Still, performance is close enough that choice should probably be on the basis of other criteria.
Other Lenses These are the lenses I have direct access to and which I consider rivals (I haven’t mentioned any f1.4/85 lenses, for example, because I don’t consider them in the same class. No-one chooses between an f1.4 and and f4 85 mm lens. You choose the one that is best for your use, or you choose both if you do very different things.) No doubt there are other lenses I could use to compare with this lens, but I don’t have copies of them, so when you write in the comments “please compare this with lens X” the answer is “Sorry, No”.
If your usage is primarily landscape then I think this is probably the most sensible short tele you can get. It’s not too expensive, and the quality at landscape apertures is superb, combined with lovely sunstars. The Loxia 85 might measure a touch better (and give you more versatility outside of landscape) but I see no reason to pay the extra money and carry the extra weight for landscape.
If it’s for landscape that involves hiking, then I think this lens is definitely the way to go, and I highly recommend it. I doubt that anyone will release a lens this good and compact for many years if ever. Our best hope for an update including a native mount might have been the Loxia series, but they chose to go with a slightly faster and therefore bulkier though more versatile design.
Of course you can take lovely portraits with this lens, but a lot of people prefer more blur and AF as well, so I don’t imagine many people whose principal interest is portrait will buy this lens. But I think it’s well worth getting in addition to another lens of similar focal length if, for example, you have a GM85 or the big Sigma so that you won’t be weighed down on landscape expeditions.
The Carl Zeiss Tele-Tessar T* 4/85 can be purchased via our affiliate links at Amazon.com or else B&H Photo Video for about $US840. You can get it new on eBay.com here, or you can get it used on eBay.com here. Used prices vary a lot; you often see people trying to sell them for more than the new price. If you are patient you should be able to save up to $150 buying used.
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Some more image samples
Latest posts by David Braddon-Mitchell (see all)
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- Carl Zeiss C-Sonnar T* 50mm f1.5 ZM: A Detailed Review - October 12, 2018