Cameras come and go. Lenses are forever. – Anon
Knowledgeable photographers understand that in the digital era cameras may come and go, but lenses are the cornerstone of quality imaging. Having the latest sensor will naturally contribute to better image quality, but over the long term whatever camera you’re shooting with today will be superseded before too many years have passed. That’s just the nature of semiconductors, and like it or not that’s the cornerstone of this industry.
But, the lens used plays as big if not a bigger role in contributing to image quality and baring some mishap will likely last for many years, if not decades. Indeed a quality lens designed for digital from the get-go is unlikely to be surpassed in image quality for quite a long time to come.
Manufacturer’s lenses are a mixed bag. Some are as good as it gets, others are designed for the beginner / hobbyist market where price is the overriding concern. Third party lenses makers, such as Sigma and Tamron, similarly have a few gems in their line-up, but also quite a few dogs. Price is often a determiner, but even a pricey lens can often disappoint.
But there is one third-party lens maker that rarely disappoints. Zeiss has long made lenses for various still and video cameras, most recently with a range of manual focus lenses in Nikon and Canon mount. These are all primes, of excellent build quality, and they regularly receive little but accolades when reviewed. I have aZeiss 100mm Makro Planarfor my Nikon 800e, and it’s one of the few lenses that can push that camera’s sensor to its limits when it comes to resolution.
Clef Wall. Sydney, Australia
Fuji X-Pro1 with Zeiss Touit 32mm f/1.8 @ ISO 1000
Now Zeiss has expanded its offering to a new line of lenses called Touit. These are available in Sony E mount for NEX cameras and in Fuji X Mount for Fuji X mount cameras, such as theX-Pro1andX-E1. The first two lenses are a12mm f/2.8 and a 32mm f/1.8. Both lenses are now shipping (mid-June, 2013) in both camera mounts, priced at approximately $1,250 for the 12mm and $900 for the 32mm.
Zeiss USA was kind enough to loan Kevin and Michael X-Mount copies of both lenses for a workshop they were teaching in Western Australia in early June, and these lenses saw considerable use.
Zeiss Touit 23mm f/1.8
The Focal Length Quandry
Before describing using these lenses in the field it needs to be noted that the focal lengths chosen for these first offerings (on the Fuji cameras at least) are odd ones. Fuji already has a highly regarded 14mm f/2.8 and similarly a well respected 35mm f/1.4. The 14mm is priced at $900, hundreds less than the Touit 12mm, and the 35mm Fuji is just $600, again some $300 less expensive than the Zeiss lenses.
It isn’t so much the price discrepancy that’s at issue, it’s the focal length cross over. Yes, 12mm is somewhat wider than 14mm (18mm and 21mm equivalents in full-frame terms). But, the 32mm Fuji and the 35mm Zeiss are quite close.
This, in spite of the fact that there is a glaring gap in the current Fuji lens line up, at about 24mm, the equivalent of 35mm in full frame terms, and it’s surprising that Zeiss didn’t seize the opportunity to fill that desirable focal length hole. Also, many Fuji owners tell me that they are awaiting the Fuji 10–24mm f/4 ultra-wide zoom, which is scheduled for late 2013 release.
Cable Beach Sunset. Broome, Australia
Photograph By Michael Reichmann
Fuji X-Pro 1 with 12mm Zeiss Tuit lens
Fit and Finish
The first word that comes to mind when handling a Zeiss Touit lens is – smooth. Everything about the exterior finish has a soft touch, with parts of the body in a smooth but grippy rubberized substance.
This is a 180% opposite design approach to Zeiss’ ZF.2 lenses for Canon and Nikon, which have a traditional metal finish with heavily knurled turning surfaces. Nevertheless these new lenses fit the design aesthetic of the Fuji X in particular, even though Fuji’s own lenses have a much more traditional design aesthetic.
Three Sisters Rock Art. Kimberley, Western Australia
Fuji X-Pro 1 with 12mm Zeiss Touit lens
A photographic expedition and workshop is a terrific venue for using new lenses, but a poor one for actual testing. Between Michael and Kevin many hundreds of frames were shot with both the 12mm and the 32mm. We both also used the Fuji 14mm and 35mm lenses interchangeably with the Touits. This lead to some non-rigorous comparison shots, examining and comparing such factors as resolution, vignetting, and resistance to flare (especially on the 12mm).
In the end such tests accomplished little other that to reassure ourselves that the twoTouit lenses (four actually, since we had two of each between us) performed at a first class pace. Careful image comparisons against the two competitive Fuji lenses showed there to be small differences, to be sure, but none that we believe even the most neurotic lens examiner could use to declare one to be clearly superior to the other, in either focal length. There were some shots, particularly those where the 12mm and 14mm were closely compared at 100% on-screen, where one would appear slightly superior to the other in terms of resolving power. But, then another frame would show the opposite. Small difference in contrast as well as colour rendition also helped to confound declaring any one lens a clear-cut winner.
One concern that both Kevin and Michael noted immediately on first using the Touit lenses was that the aperture ring was looser than we would have preferred, and that the “A” position definitely needs a firm click stop if not an actual lock. Naturally the Sony NEX version does not have an external aperture ring and therefore this concern isn’t relevant to those lenses.
Another concern is the hood on the 32mm when the lens is used with the optical finder of the X-Pro1. It blocks a part of the view, and should have a cut-out the way that Leica M lenses sometimes do. On an XE-1 with its electronic finder or when using the EVF on the X-Pro1 this of course isn’t an issue.
Overall we rate the new Touit 12mm and 32mm lenses very highly. Technical reviews on sites that measure MTF, distortion and such are already showing first rate results, and our pragmatic field tests fully corroborate this.
Zeiss is one of the great names in lens making history and nothing less than first class optical and mechanical performance is to be expected. These lenses don’t disappoint, with the single exception of the need for a somewhat stiffer aperture ring on the X Mount versions.
We’ll close with an observation that Fuji has long had a reputation for producing first rate lenses themselves. With few exceptions we have found Fuji’s new lens offerings, primes as well as zooms, to be excellent lenses, especially for their money. They are now joined by these two new Zeiss offerings in X mount, and we’re all the richer for it.