High-speed 85mm lenses are not the most versatile of lenses but their association with portraiture runs deep in photographic traditions. The 85mm Planar ZF will appeal to those who seek a look from a bygone era, which is another way to say that it is a bit of a throwback. Nevertheless, the Planar can stand toe-to-toe with the best of modern lenses at smaller apertures.
At first glance this Planar is a super-sized derivative of the classic double-gauss design. This design approach is typified by its struggle with spherical aberration but many implementations are available in the marketplace that modify the formula more (Nikon) or less (Leica) extensively to correct for it. In comparison the Planar ZF implements minimal corrections, making spherical aberration part of its signature at the widest apertures.
For those seeking a general-purpose short telephoto lens from Carl Zeiss, this Planar begs comparison to the class-leading 2/100mm Makro-Planar T* ZF. Such a comparison would come to a unilateral conclusion : the 100mm ZF (review) defines the current state of the art while the 85mm ZF plays to a memory from photography’s past. Laboratory comparison was not a goal of this Planar design, simply.
The Planar (ZF version) looks like an iconic lens, something that non-photographers might imagine when they hear the word lens. It looks strangely deep and bright as one peers into it, giving it an air of magic right out of the box. On the D700 the lens feels generally right but this chunky duo is quite a handful. As I will often say, this is not a discrete combination, but for its intended application this is one of the most discrete options for DSLRs.
Manual focus is slow and laborious with this lens because the throw of the focus ring is very long and spherical aberration diffuses the focal plane into a focal “region” that is difficult to judge. To accelerate the process in dynamic situations I tend to pre-focus the lens using the distance scale before putting the camera to my eye. The D700’s focus confirmation feature, despite suffering from spherical aberration as well, proved essential to work with any confidence.
Moving subjects are completely out of the question with this lens. For the first time I’ve had to tell my toddler to stay still to take her picture. I have handled myself quite well with manual-focus so far – I have taken pictures of her running, while running myself, first with a 1.4/50mm ZF (review) and later with a 2/100mm ZF (review) – but the combination of a 60mm aperture diameter and an 85mm focal length is just beyond my tracking skills.
The 85mm ZF extends while focusing as most ZF lenses do, and is not corrected for near focus as few ZF lenses are. The close focus limit is around 1 meter, which is not quite in the realm of close-up photography for this focal length. This might disappoint some but I would say that already by 1.5 - 1.7 meters the high difficulty of focusing is a real limiter to function – I would look elsewhere for a close-up lens.
This Planar is a difficult lens to evaluate. Wide-open it is essentially un-sharp, but with every click stop of the aperture ring its drawing solidifies further until around f/2.8 it transforms into a workhorse lens that can handle anything gracefully. This varying character is similar to that of the 50mm Planar ZF, but where the 85mm lens succeeds (and its smaller sister utterly failed) is in the rendition of Bokeh at wider apertures.
The drawing of this lens wide-open has a richness of color (high contrast at low frequencies) and just enough detail to hold up to both web inspection and “print enjoyment”. Technically at this aperture the focal plane is best described as a zone of least defocus, with a thickness comparable to the true depth of field of the lens at the first stop down. Save for halation artefacts, the near-focus region appears free from color casts, which is excellent behavior.
Step down to f/2 or f/2.8 and the Planar comes out of the fog and draws beautiful images, rich in detail and micro-contrast all over. Step down further to f/4 or f/5.6 and edge sharpness is almost as good as the 100mm ZF on the D700 – i.e. there seems to be around 12MP’s worth of image there, but micro-contrast is not as high as the 100mm ZF. Uniformity over the frame is excellent at all apertures.
Chromatic aberration is generally not field relevant with this lens, but purple fringing (a form of longitudinal CA) is visible in some images. The lens is fairly resistant to flare; I did get some flare artefacts while shooting back-lit images but no more than I would expect from a Zeiss lens. I used the metal hood at all times, so I cannot comment on its use without shade.
Bokeh rendition is the most anticipated and most exciting fact of the 85mm ZF: it is very good, if over-developed. I can think of lenses with better Bokeh, technically, but this lens combines absence of distracting flaws with rich character that anyone could become addicted to.
Wide-open Bokeh is all-encompassing, even the subject appears to participate in Bokeh as it is only drawn in broad outline. With such a thin depth of field most of the subject is out of focus typically, only now there is less of a distracting transition into and out of focus (to a very pleasant effect I must say). At the first aperture stop down Bokeh disentangles itself from the focal plane and begins to neutralize. Between f/2.8 and f/5.6 is the sweet spot for Bokeh quality.
The 85mm Planar ZF is demanding and full of charm – there is much to criticize with this lens but criticism doesn’t seem to stick to it. While I will say with confidence that it is not a great general-purpose lens, it can make beautiful prints wide-open and still render excellent detail and contrast at smaller apertures. Ultimately if you fall in love with this lens then it justifies itself, otherwise it probably doesn’t.
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