Reviews

Zeiss Batis Lenses Are Mind-Blowingly Good

Give anything a fancy name and people will pay more attention – MERS seems to get a lot more attention than if it was merely referred to as a respiratory infection. Likewise, Zeiss lenses seem to be garnering a lot of attention since they’ve been given unique names in addition to their optical design designations, with those mysterious-sounding monikers – Otus, Loxia, Touit and now Batis – derived from various types of birds. Whereas MERS will make you feel ill, the E-Mount Batis 25mm f/2 Distagon and 85mm f/1.8 Sonnar are (to use some trendy-speak) pretty sick.

Admittedly, before we reviewed this pair of lenses for DigitalRev TV, I wasn’t exactly going cuckoo over them. I suppose the lustre of the Loxia lenses took the sheen of the Batis lenses for me, with their beautifully-made metal barrels paired with the old romantic vision of manually focusing your shots. The Batis lenses are bare-looking, with a barrel that is almost as a bald as a coot (there’s another bird for Zeiss’ new naming convention) and featureless bar the rubber focusing ring. But then you’d be wrong to think that the external parts have been under-designed because once you see that OLED screen on the most promiment part of the lens light up, you’ll not be looking at any other part of the lens.

Having said that, you shouldn’t really be spending too much time looking at the lens itself really, seeing as photography is usually more productive when you’re looking through the lens via the viewfinder rather than looking at the lens.

Although some people might disagree, the OLED screen is no gimmick. This is not like some feature that allows you to feel the heartbeat of a friend on a smart watch nor is it a touch screen that doubles as a chopping board, it is merely a 21st century interpretation of something that has remained pretty much unaltered over the last century – the depth-of-field scale.

The great thing about the display though is that it amends the depth-of-field information when you change aperture and focus to different distances, which makes it nice for scale focusing.

Manually or automatically focusing is a breeze. It doesn’t have the same feel as the Loxias for manual focusing, simply because it’s focus-by-wire, so manual focusing doesn’t feel as direct and as smooth as a red-hot knife gliding through a chunk of butter, it’s got a more melted low fat spread kinda feel that you get with manual focusing autofocusing lenses.

The 25mm worked nicely for street photography, with quick and accurate focusing on the a7 II. I like the colour reproduction with both lenses, giving some punchy, contrasty images that really ‘pop’. The images look nice and sharp, with great centres and very decent corners. The edges lack any significant light fall-off and is a pleasnt performer when it comes to keeping chromatic aberration at bay. Even when I’m doing daft things like shooting straight at the sun, flaring and ghosting is minimal. Bokeh is smooth and creamy with the Distagon too, making it seem like an almost perfect 10.

But then what would it make the 85mm f/1.8 Sonnar? They’re different lenses for different purposes, but when I looked at the images from the 25mm Distagon and then looked at the 85mm Sonnar images, I could only think of the Sonnar image – they are simply mind-blowing.

Yes, the bokeh is typically Sonnar-like in its character, and the background melts away gorgeously when shot wide-open at f/1.8. But then you look closer. And closer. And then even closer. That’s when things should crack up and look a blurry mess. Nope. The detail you get with the Sonnar is so sharp it’s almost too sharp. It pulls out all the imperfections, showing up pimples and pores that will surely not please the self-concious. This is at f/1.8 too, not f4, but wide-open. If you want a portrait lens for the Sony a7 series, you need not look further – this is the definitive piece.

For some reason, however, there are people who don’t understand the Batis lenses, they think it’s too gimmicky, too expensive (although the circa $1000 price mark is not unreasonable). But all you have to do is to look at the results, to appreciate what it can do. If you look past the fancy name and fancy OLED screen, they are still essentially both incredibly good lenses.