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A Portrait Shoot with the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8

A fast 85mm has long been a favorite among the portrait photographer’s toolbox. Slightly telephoto, this particular focal length lightly compresses the image so that models are comfortably nestled within the background. From a design perspective, large apertures like f/1.8 or even f/1.2 remain cost effective and practical because at longer focal lengths, glass elements necessarily become prohibitively expensive and oversized. Lastly, the 85mm’s working distance lets you stay close enough to the model yet provide a lot more depth-of-field (and bokeh) than your fast 50mm or 35mm.

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15 y/o Mikaila Storrs (left) and 19 y/o Peyton Lake (right) at Newport Beach. Makeup and hair by Jordan Takeda.

So what do we look for when choosing a 85mm portrait lens? Three things spring to mind. First, it has to be easy to handle because the last thing you’d want is a lens encumbering you after the models are made up and the studio is paid for. Try shooting with an EF 85mm f/1.2 all day and you’ll see what I mean.

Next, of course, is image quality but that is often a broad and nebulous term, and 85mms, in general, have been great performers. More specifically, a defining feature of the 85mm is its ability to throw the background out of focus, isolating the subject in a cocoon of soft blurriness. So a good portrait lens should have its own character.

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The girls riding and looking back in a Surrey, a four wheeled bicycle contraption available for rent all along the sunny coast of California.

Finally, since for large aperture primes we’ll be working with a narrow depth-of-field, fast and accurate autofocus is absolutely essential, much more so than for shorter focal lengths. I defy you to eye-focus with a manual lens, on a non-split prism focusing screen, at variable light and working distances. You just can’t do it, consistently, so professionals rely on quality AF at longer focal lengths.

So for this hands-on review, we are using the latest and greatest from Zeiss, their Batis 85mm f/1.8. We briefly looked at its technical specs when we first laid our hands on it, so rather than doing that again here, we’re going to jump straight into the good stuff. We called up Peyton and Mikaila, they drove to Newport Beach from Hollywood and San Diego respectively, and we rented a few bikes along the beach boardwalk. A fun Sunday afternoon in California.

Handles Like a Sports Sedan

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Simple and clean packaging from Zeiss. Not your typical cardboard box with a bubble paper wrapped lens.

At first glance, the Batis 85mm is already an impressive piece of engineering. Minimalistically designed and modern, the lens sports a girthy barrel that tapers down to towards lens mount. This is a good touch because not only are your fingers freed from bumping into the barrel while attached, it enables lens engineers to use larger elements where it’s needed. The construction appeared to be all metal, but it surprisingly turned out to be high quality plastics. Nothing wrong with plastic lenses at all. It’s lighter and won’t ding or knick as easily.

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OLED distance and depth-of-field scale. Additional power draw is minimal. I did not notice a difference in battery life to the camera.

We’ve talked about the world’s first OLED display before and it is indeed impressive. Did we use it all the time? Well for my work, I’ve never paid too much attention even to the manual focus scales but this was still definitely a nice touch.

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The Batis 85mm f/1.8 fitted on the original A7.

As a package on the A7 series camera, the balance of the lens is superb. It looks much bigger than it feels, probably because it weighs only about 475g, very much on the low end of things in terms of large aperture primes (Sigma’s 50mm 1.4 Art is 815g). Holding onto the camera, it neither tilted forward or backwards. If this was a sports sedan, it would have 50-50 weight distribution.

Beautiful Bokeh and Zeiss 3D Pop

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Click to see the larger image. Look at the way the background interacts with the models. Pay attention to the edges of their arms and silhouettes. Shot at f/1.8.

Music is subjective but it’s not really is it? There are varying degrees good music, of course, but there is some sort of consensus on what is good and bad along the scale of things. No one you care should argue the merits of Bieber and Lil’Wayne against that of Beethoven and Louis Armstrong.

So when it comes to lens aesthetics, why do we have such a hard time discussing good bokeh and bad bokeh? Why do most reviews beat around the bush with disclaimer words like “bokeh is subjective” or “judge for yourself?”

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Take a busy place like a beach boardwalk, with people and restaurants in the background, and obliterate it with your lens’ ability to throw it out of focus. Shot at f/1.8.

Well, many lens reviewers have excelled at shooting test charts and leafless trees rather than beautiful California blondes, so I’d argue that our priorities are definitely more aesthetically inclined. We’ve evaluated the different types of bokeh. We’ve tested the rare Minolta’s 135mm f/2.8 STM bokeh monster. We publish polished editorial images rather than snaps at a bar with your friends. We’ve spent our time and efforts looking at the beautiful people and beautiful things, so we’re a confident in our experience and judgement. And on that note…

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Good bokeh should be like a good skin. Smooth, un-distracting, and yet ties everything together.

… I can say with the utmost sincerity and honesty that the bokeh from this Batis lens is bloody gorgeous. This aspect of image quality really seems to be Zeiss’s magic sauce. We’ve raved about this before with the 55mm f/1.8 (even though it is a Zeiss/Sony collaboration) and the Loxia manual primes, and this Batis 85mm is definitely up there with the best of them. Simply put, after shooting with this lens, I would throw that $2,000 EF 85mm f/1.2 L on the ground.

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What are your guesses? f/2.8? Maybe f/2? Nope, left the iris closed by mistake and shot it at f/ 4.5. Great bokeh shouldn’t be premised on large aperture alone.

It’s not just about the quality or amount of blur. It’s the way the in-focus subject seemingly sits on a plane above the blurred background. The in focus areas are so sharp and the transition to the blurred background so abrupt that the “3D-ness” really gives the stills a cinematic quality (even at smaller apertures as shown above).

I’ve shot Canon lenses for about seven years, and the only EF lens that’s come close in terms of “pop” has been the EF 135mm f/2 L. The EF 50mm f/1.2 and 85mm f/1.2 has wonderful blur but the transition between the blurred background and the in focus subject is very gradual between f/1.2 and f/2. It is a pleasing effect but it is not as crisp as this Zeiss. The fabled Zeiss (or Leica) pop is real. Pick on up or rent one and shoot for yourself. Do a blind test, and you can pick out the Zeiss lens every single time.

Fast, Accurate, and Silent Autofocus

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As the sun was coming down and the street lamps flickered on, we took to testing the lens’ AF system. Bearing in mind that the lens was mounted on the older A7 body that AF from 0EV upwards, the Batis 85mm did remarkably well. In well lit scenarios, the focusing system was fast and flawless. Even in dimmer light with fast moving models on beach cruisers, the continuous AF kept up with the pace.

AF is achieved by a linear motor. The above video shows a cutout demo of the Zeiss/Sony 55mm f/1.8 linear AF  motor. It is very different than the ring-type USM many may be used to. Linear motors are completely silent unlike ring-type piezoelectric AF motors that quietly buzz as it racks from end to end. Because of the lack of noise, linear motors are better optimized for shooting stills and videos with autofocus than ring-type USMs.

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To really put the lens through its paces, I left the aperture at f/1.8, set the camera to AF-C, and followed the models as they biked towards me. While there were some misses and I suspect the bottleneck was the camera body itself, most shots were spot on. For a lens with such a narrow depth of field, this was a real stress test.

I suspect for the majority of photographers, the Batis 85mm will be used in daylight or in-studio. For some, it will be used for indoor events such as lit concerts or maybe some indoor sporting events. I can certainly imagine some photographers using the Batis 85mm for night portraits lit by the skyline. In any of those scenarios, you can rely on the Batis for fast, accurate, and silent autofocus.

Value for Money

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The Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 Sonnar is listed at $1,199. The biggest question for many will be, is it worth the price? Yes, you can get a EF 85mm f/1.8 with an adapter for significantly less than that but you will not come close this Zeiss’s level of finish, execution, or quality. You can mod a Honda Accord all you want but it won’t turn into a base level BMW 3 series.

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But it’s really different strokes for different folks. If budget is an issue, there is nothing wrong with an adapted EF 85mm on your A7 series camera. I’m sure you’ll be happy with the focal length, its abilities as a portrait lens, and its bokeh. Honda Accords are great cars.

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If you have a little bit more money to spend, you can definitely appreciate what makes it undeniably a Zeiss lens. You will be greeted with a clearly legible and next generation OLED screen. Its the plastic materials are so rich that you will mistake it for metal construction. And most importantly, you will fully understand just what I mean by Zeiss pop the first time you load your photographs into Lightroom and look at it on you computer. It’s something that Canon lenses simply does not have and cannot do. Life is short, maybe it is time to move up to your BMW?

Conclusions

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So like Who’s Line is it Anyway?, the points don’t matter. I’m not going to rate the lens on a 1-5 scale or give you an exact percentage like that of DxO Labs. A million points to Colin Mochrie though, always. As always, I’ll conclude by asking the question, “Would I buy this lens would my own hard earned money?”

Yes. Yes I would, and am going to, buy this lens with my own money, not because it excels at any one thing, but because it is flawless in so many. Do I wish it was a little cheaper or it had a slightly larger aperture? Maybe, but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice quality or handling for either of those things. In its own way, this Batis 85mm is perfect.

In the very near future, we will compare this Batis 85mm f/1.8 to the venerable king of mirrorless lenses, the Zeiss/Sony 55mm f/1.8 and see how it stakes up. Stay tunes.


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