Couple of posts ago I talked about the using Zeiss lenses has lead me away from technically oriented enthusiasm (see the post here). This post is kind of follow up for that previous post and I continue to map those changes that using Zeiss lenses has brought to my photography. Zeiss lenses are particularly known for their top end quality and now that I've almost used them for a year the question that begs for answer is that how I perceive this quality and what does it mean to me? As a photography enthusiast like me you already know what great image quality means in technical terms and how it is endlessly discussed in online photography forums and such. Sharpness, lack of chromatic aberrations, vignetting, bokeh, you know the thrill and there is very little I can offer you what the other sites haven't wrote before. One can, if interested, browse to the DXO site (for example) and compare the lenses in question to another products out there. I've got a feeling that there are many photographers following these discussions in search for 'the best lens', 'the bargain', 'the best substitute', 'the mini-otus' and so on. And I get it, of course I do, because each of us have a limited amount of chips in the game and we want to make best of them according to our own taste. I know because I've been there and done that myself too.
However, using a pretty complete Zeiss setup for a year and having the lenses that score high on that very discussion has somehow altered my perception of the image quality and what it means to me. I used to be very rigorous about little differences between lenses, like the lateral chromatic aberrations of the lens X is measured lower than the lens Y, or the bokeh discs are rounder on the lens Z, and so on. The review sites and their discussions made this very easy, and I didn't have to face these so called 'huge differences', 'apples and oranges', in real life. But using the lenses in real life is different because you have to put all the image quality related questions to a context of your personal photography. One can dream, for example, about the Otus-level image quality of perfection but once you use it and get used to it, your perception changes and eventually you need to reconsider your original conceptions. But of course, if you are only reading about from the online forums, you never need to readjust your perception – but then again you not advancing to anywhere either.
I like the clean image quality that emerges from well corrected high quality lenses. Lack of distortion or chromatic aberrations is respectful to notice, especially when lens performs great in challenging conditions. However, this sort of stuff is irrelevant to my photography in a sense that I'd rather not even think about it – and not having to deal with it is, of course, a relief. Still, no matter how hard the Zeiss designers are working to achieve that top end technical performance, it is really the contrast & colors that matters to me and what I love so much with these Zeiss lenses that I've been using for almost a year now. Sure the Batis 2/25, for example, has some lateral chromatic aberrations when shot wide open at f/2 in right situations, but it has never really bugged me as the contrast & colors of this lens are so excellent. The Loxia 2/35 has its limitations, but again, the colors & contrast are what I'm interested in at the end. After all I'm interested in creating memories not technically perfect images (though using Zeiss gets me close to that anyway).
I still remember when I tried my first Zeiss lenses couple of years ago (Touit 2.8/12 & Touit 2.8/50M). I had been using the great Sony SEL50F18 for two years at least and when I mounted the Touits I could see the difference right away at LCD-display of my Nex-5N – though at first I wasn't sure the difference was a step in right direction since it was a bit different color scheme that I was used to (colder) and it took me about a month to become convinced that I was going towards cleaner colors. I still remember the very pictures that made me suspicious and the ones that finally proofed the Zeiss-look for me. And here's the thing: even though there is always some novelty in new products that eventually wears off, this experience with Zeiss colors & contrast hasn't worn off and I still do love that look every day. I still love to photograph things that doesn't really fit into my style, but just because they exhibit some particular color scheme and I want to see how they come out on the computer screen later on. That is pretty significant thing to me as it happens in my photography every day.
For me image quality is about inspiration; great image quality makes you want to go out there, take pictures and enjoy the results. It's not about the competition which lens is the best in terms of technical attributes, it's more about passion and investing into image quality is investing to your photographic inspiration. And with this definition you should remark that I don't want to limit the image quality to Zeiss alone as there are other manufacturers out there doing great job as well. It's just that for me, likely because of personal taste, the colors & contrast of the Zeiss lenses has come to exemplify that legendary 'Zeiss-look'. Lack of artifacts is great technical achievement as well, but it only serves me as I don't have to think about it and I can concentrate more on the photography itself. So, contemplating on image quality kind of leads me to same kind of conclusion as with the earlier post: when the image quality is great, I don't need to worry about whether there is something else out there which performs better, instead I can concentrate my photography – and be inspired about it.