This post continues the series where I share my impressions on all the lenses I've used for this project during the year 2016. In previous posts I've told you about the Loxia 2/50 and the Touit 2.8/12. This post concentrates on the Zeiss Batis 1.8/85 – the lens that I consider 'the high end performer' in my setup. Follow the post to hear more about it!
If there is one lens in my setup that I had high expectations before I started this project, it was the Batis 1.8/85. I guess there are multiple reasons for these expectations as the Batis 1.8/85 have been a very sought after portrait lens for Sony Alpha system. But for me, one major reason relates to Sony SEL 50/1.8 OSS (SEL50F18) which I used for years when I was still shooting with the Sony Nex-5N – that is, the Batis 1.8/85 is a pretty similar lens compared to the SEL50F18 as far as the technical concept is examined. They are both short tele-lenses with relatively large maximum aperture and both of them are equipped with image stabilizer which makes them great tools for hand held low light shooting.
The SEL50F18 was my favorite lens for a long time and I guess I could say that it has shaped my way of seeing. However, the SEL50F18 had three weaknesses which I hoped the Zeiss would take care of. First, wide open at f/1.8 the lens was a bit soft with fair amount of lateral chromatic aberrations and it was always a bit of a gamble to shoot at full aperture (stop down to f/2.2 and it gets a bit better but doesn't exactly correct the problem). Second, I often felt that I needed stronger ability to isolate the subject than what was possible with the Sony Nex-5N and this lens (especially when subject was further away, the APS-C just wasn't enough). Third, the autofocus speed with a SEL50F18 was a bit slow, again with the Nex-5N, and I could see the benefit of having faster autofocus.
So, did the Batis 1.8/85 fulfill my expectations? Well, the answer is both yes and no. Let's look at the positive side first. Optically speaking the lens is very good and delivers such a great sharpness already from wide open that it has definitely draw attention in technically discerning photography circles. You can of course stop it down a bit, for example to f/2.8, and the sharpness and contrast gets better as with any lens, but comparing shots taken with f/1.8 and f/8 the difference doesn't really bring a lot of to the table – at least at the center of the image (see example here, from the raw-files no sharpening whatsoever). The corners are also very good from wide open, though not as crispy as the center of the image, and get better when closing the aperture a little. In my eyes the optimum contrast and sharpness is delivered at f/4, but like I said the difference isn't big and you can shoot wide open without any hesitations. Chromatic aberrations are also very well corrected and unlike with other typical 85's you don't see much of them in real life use. Sometimes there is small amount of magenta/green at the high contrast edges, but it is easily to solve, if even needed.
Much have been written about the Batis 1.8/85, bokeh and the cat eyes. There seems to be a persistent perception that this lens has a disturbing swirly bokeh and it delivers cat eye shaped bokeh balls at the edge of the picture. Those who are satisfied with it, seem to be outnumbered by the loud critics who base their own analysis on the online discussions. With a one year experience with this lens I can say I quite like the dense bokeh which Batis 1.8/85 create at the typical portrait distance. It's smooth, almost like a gaussian type of buttery which can sometimes look even too ideal. Have I experienced the infamous swirly bokeh? Sometimes yes, but so rarely that I think the whole conversation regarding the swirly bokeh is just out of proportions compared to results in real life use. Most of the time the bokeh looks just like it should and I believe these type of spherical aberrations occur more or less with any lens in appropriate conditions. How about the cat eye bokeh balls then? They are real and pretty easy to stir up if you setup your background accordingly. Are they really a problem, I'm not sure as every 85mm lens known to man produces them – though with different ways related to the size of the front element. Personally I think that producing bokeh balls at the background the picture isn't very interesting effect in modern visual language – kind of like 80's with over made-up women and leather jackets to me really – but I could also be wrong and to some it might be one thing to consider. Bottom line for me is that the Batis 1.8/85's bokeh is quite charming, if you can just get past the pseudo critical online conversations and try it out for yourself.
If there is something I would complain about regarding the optical performance, I would say that the Batis 1.8/85 renders highlights a bit harshly – at least to me they sometimes seem a bit over undefined like overblown in bright daylight or in another harsh light scenarios. I cannot exactly put my finger where the problem is, maybe it's just the light fall off and vignetting that makes it harder to adjust just a right amount of exposure leading to over bright highlights here and there, but I feel it's there and takes a bit attention in post processing afterwards. The lens also delivers the best performance in near field scenarios and I feel it isn't as efficient at infinity. Some have critiqued the well known distortion (3% of pincushion), but I haven't really found it to be a problem. Most of the human centric pictures are just fine without correction and the Lightroom profile takes care of the rest. Still, I do admit that software correction is against my idea of the ideal optical design, but I guess it's more of a psychological than a real world problem.
In the end, if there is one thing that really characterizes the Batis 1.8/85 in my setup, it is that it's 'the high end performer'. Using the Batis 1.8/85 one doesn't have to think about the optical performance at all as the lens can be used utilized fully already from wide open and there just isn't much to gain by stopping it down – I love that I can really concentrate on my aesthetic choices rather than weighting on the optimal apertures. With the optical image stabilizer I feel I can bring this lens to any situation and walk away with successful pictures. I've taken sharp hand held pictures at 1/8 of a second in conditions that were ridiculously dark. The autofocus is also very fast even with the vanilla Sony A7 body and I can only imagine how fast it works with Eye-AF available in newer Sony bodies such as A7RII and others.
In short, the Batis 1.8/85 is a superb tool from the technical and aesthetical point of view – but why then it didn't become my most important lens as I thought at the beginning of the year? The reason is, once again, the Sony SEL 50/1.8 (SEL50F18). Having shot couple of years with a fast 85'ish portrait lens I began to feel that I'm going circles and doing similar shots again with the Batis 1.8/85. Again, I want to emphasize that I am pretty excited about the sheer performance it brings to the table, it's just that inspiration and passion isn't always about 'having the best'. After first excitement I found myself going towards wider field of view away from tele lenses as using something like 25mm and 35mm felt very refreshing after years with the Sony SEL 50/1.8 (which gives 75mm angle of view considering the full frame equivalence).
Another interesting remark, for me personally, was to reconsider my needs for the thin depth of field. When I was still using the crop sensor Sony Nex-5N I used to crave for the thinner depth of field as I knew a fast lens with a full frame camera would give me better subject isolation. Having shot with the full frame Sony A7 and the Batis 1.8/85 for a year, I honestly have to say I've grown to appreciate the APS-C format as a very nice compromise between image quality, depth of field and total size of the camera setup. At the half body portrait distance I'm fully satisfied the possibilities that crop sensor gives with such a fast lens as a Sony SEL 50/1.8. Of course the Sony A7 and the Batis 85/1.8 will give thinner depth of field, but it doesn't always add up as better images and I see a lot of images online which just exemplify a poor taste as photographer relies too much for subject isolation. This makes me wonder if all those who claim they prefer f/1.4 lenses such as Sony GM 85/1.4 (better than Batis, seems to be the collective opinion) really do need it after all. Photographers like Miguel Quiles definitely does as he can put it to use in his craft, but a hobbyist who takes pictures of his family, I don't know...
However, there's no going back once one goes to full frame and I have to add that I do like better subject isolation possibilities which the Batis 1.8/85 brings, especially when the subject is further and I can still make it pop from a distance. This is the difference between the crop sensor and full frame sensor – and if one is, not only willing to pay more for it, but also to carry heavier lenses because of this possibility, then go for it, the Batis 1.8/85 is a very fine choice as it complements the Sony A7 concept beautifully and is definitely one of the best 85mm lenses out there.