Every modern camera lens owes something to ZEISS. The optics brand was an early pioneer of lens technology, thanks in no small part to its eponymous founder, Carl Zeiss, a 19th Century optician and businessman. Today, they continue to manufacture and sell high-quality lenses that offer the distinct ZEISS look; a unique, unrivaled image quality defined by its sharpness, color, and contrast.
Photographers that are seeking to identify their own unique visual style should experiment with lenses from the various leading brands, especially ZEISS. You may find that the ZEISS look is more conducive to the visual style you’re trying to produce in your photos than the image quality offered by a competing brand.
We’ve broken down what defines the ZEISS look below, and how to determine which ZEISS lens may be right for you.
A Brief History of ZEISS
Carl Zeiss was born in Weimar, Germany in 1816. Growing up amidst the industrial revolution, he spent much of his early life studying machinery and mechanical engineering. In 1846, he opened his own workshop, where he eventually started making his own microscopes.
By 1866, the workshop had sold over 1,000 microscopes, and Zeiss was eager to ensure the longevity of its success. He hired Ernst Abbe, a physicist, to help the workshop produce better quality microscopes. Abbe’s scientific approach led him to make multiple, major contributions to the field of optical science, and kept the Zeiss workshop at the forefront of innovation.
By the time of Carl Zeiss’ death in 1888, his once-small workshop had become a world leading manufacturer of microscopes and optical glass. The company began manufacturing camera lenses and binoculars in the 1890s, and continued to make lasting contributions to the field of optical science.
In 1935, ZEISS was the first manufacturer to invent and apply an anti-reflective coating to the front element of their lenses to prevent flare and ghosting. In 1969, they supplied NASA with lenses specifically designed for use in space in order to capture man’s first moments on the moon.
More recently, in 1996, ZEISS partnered with Sony. The inclusion of their glass designs in many of Sony’s camera, lens, and smartphone products since then has helped ZEISS garner widespread recognition as a manufacturer of high-quality optics.
Today, the ZEISS brand continues to be defined by a focus on innovation and technical advancement. In 2020, 13% of the company’s annual $6.3 billion revenue was invested in research and development.
The ZEISS Look
ZEISS’s legacy of constant innovation has ensured their lenses continue to be of the highest quality. As a result, it’s not unusual to encounter a photographer that primarily shoots on ZEISS lenses. Of course, they also offer a tangible difference – the ZEISS look.
As mentioned, the ZEISS look is the distinct image quality offered by their lenses, defined by its color, sharpness, and contrast. We’ve broken down how each of these qualities contribute to the ZEISS look below.
The color rendition of a photograph can vary depending on the lens, and lens brand, you use to capture the image. For example, a photo captured on a Fujifilm lens may have slightly cooler tones; a Canon lens, a little warmer.
By comparison, the ZEISS color rendition is relatively neutral. That isn’t to say the resulting imagery is bland; on the contrary, ZEISS lenses reproduce colors that look and feel natural and realistic.
This is primarily thanks to the high contrast offered by a ZEISS lens (more on this below), in addition to the anti-reflective T* Coating that’s standard on every lens. The coating enhances the transmission of light through the lens, reducing flare and ghosting, and enabling it to achieve a remarkable level of clarity in each image.
In addition to superb color reproduction, the clarity and high contrast of a ZEISS lens also helps achieve ultra-sharp imagery. The focus mechanism that ZEISS lenses use also plays a part.
ZEISS is unique in that they are one of a few major lens brands that still produces manual focus lenses. That is, lenses that cannot be autofocused. This isn’t controversial; many professional photographers prefer to exclusively use manual focus, ensuring they are in full creative control over their imagery.
Additionally, autofocusing lenses use a different mechanism that’s arguably less accurate. Bertram Hönlinger, an optics expert at ZEISS, explains:
“With autofocus lenses it is important that the parts are light so the motor can work fast. With manual focus lenses, we have a lot more design freedom in that regard. That means we can use more robust, long-lasting materials such as metal for the internal lens movements.”
The helicoid mechanism inside ZEISS lenses affords the photographer an unrivaled level of control. It makes it far easier to select the precise, accurate focus point, allowing you to capture incredibly crisp, clear imagery.
High Micro Contrast – The ZEISS ‘Pop’
High micro contrast is perhaps the defining element of the ZEISS look.
Contrast is an important parameter for measuring image quality. It refers to the ratio of light and dark colors in an image, and thus plays a significant role in giving the image definition. Micro contrast simply refers to the level of contrast over the entire image field. A photo with high micro contrast has greater tonal variation over the entire image, down to the individual pixels.
High micro contrast translates to better definition and depth in your imagery, ultimately helping your subject stand out from other elements in the image. This captivating visual quality is also called 3D pop, or the ZEISS pop.
High micro contrast also helps ZEISS lenses achieve better color rendition and makes focusing easier. Even ZEISS autofocus lenses offer superior focusing precision thanks to the high micro contrast generated by the lens.
The overall combination of neutral colors, sharpness, and high micro contrast means that images captured on a ZEISS lens have a distinct look. At the very least, this should interest photographers that are eager to experiment with how these qualities complement their own visual style.
Which ZEISS Lens Should I Try?
ZEISS manufactures a diverse range of camera lenses, divided into two collections: photography and cinematography. Within the photography collection, there are seven product lines: Batis, Loxia, Touit, Milvus, Otus, Classic, and ZM.
The Batis, Loxia, and Touit lines are designed for mirrorless camera systems. The Batis line features five, full-frame, autofocus prime lenses designed for use with Sony E-mount cameras. Each Batis lens is constructed with aspheric elements and special glass with anomalous partial dispersion. The result is fantastic, crisp imagery with the distinctive ZEISS look.
Like the Batis line, Loxia lenses are also full-frame primes designed for use with Sony E-mount cameras. However, they are manual focus lenses. Loxia lenses also feature an aperture ring, which can be ‘de-clicked’ for smooth adjustment when shooting video.
The three Touit lenses are designed for APS-C format mirrorless cameras and are available in Sony E-mount and Fujifilm X-mount. Meanwhile, the Milvus, Otus, and Classic lines are all full-frame, manual focus lenses designed for SLR cameras. Finally, the ZM line features ten full-frame, manual focus lenses for rangefinder cameras (Leica M-mount). If you also shoot video, the Loxia, Milvus, and Otus lenses are optimized for both still and motion capture.
Like any lens brand, there is some variation in price across the range, depending on the focal length and construction of the lens. However, there is an overall quality to ZEISS lenses that means you are unlikely to be disappointed, whichever lens you choose.
New York City based photographers are invited to try using a ZEISS lens at our upcoming photowalk event in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, on Wednesday June 26, 2021. You can learn more about the event here.