Zeiss ZF 85 vs. Nikkor 85/1.4D (WARNING, many large photos)

Started Dec 12, 2006 | Discussions thread
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Zeiss ZF 85 vs. Nikkor 85/1.4D (WARNING, many large photos)

Zeiss ZF 85/1.4 vs. Nikkor 85/1.4 AF-D on Nikon's D200

Or: "Lit from within" challenges "The Cream Machine"
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Let me start this off by saying two definitives: 1) there is often no definitive "best" in life; this is one of them, and 2) both of these lenses are very, VERY good. But they're different, and it took me quite a lot of time to wade through their characteristics, and which one was best for me.

I started off buying the ZF 85/1.4. To tell you the truth, I wanted the ZF 50/1.4, that being one of my favorite short-tele focal lengths on my prior Canon DSLR, but I couldn't find it in stock anywhere. So I grabbed an 85 instead, on the idea that it would give me a taste of Zeiss glass on Nikon, and also let me try a longer focal length. I used the ZF lens for a few months, and while I loved the image quality when I "nailed it," I found my keeper rate quite low due to a high percentage of shots being out of focus. So low that I got quite frustrated with the ZF 85. I had bought the ZF 50 in the meantime, and my keeper rate was much higher with that lens; proving (to myself) that manually focusing on the D200 was possible, and I wasn't blind, but maybe I'm not up to the task of MF'ing the 85 1.4 at larger apertures.

Add to this I was becoming dissatisfied with the physical characteristics of the ZF 85. The build quality was fantastic, bar none, but I had some serious quibbles which were hindering my efforts at focusing:
1. The focus ring was much stiffer than my ZF 50.

2. The focus ring had a very long throw. In the often-used range (for me) of 5-15 feet, the Zeiss had an extremely long throw; it takes two awkward "ratcheting" focus moves of my hand to cover that range, whereas with the 50 it was just a quick twist of the ring.

My hit rate at F4.0 on the ZF 85 was quite decent (greater DOF being less critical of exact focus point), but I didn't buy the 85 to shoot stopped down all the time... I quite enjoy playing with the razor-thin slice of life in focus at f1.4 and f2.0.So I decided to try a Nikkor 85/1.4 AF-D. I knew this lens was highly praised in Nikon circles, and should put up a good fight against the Zeiss ZF 85/1.4. I had gotten quite used to the manner in which the Zeiss glass was drawing on my D200, and quite liked the look. So I was quite intrigued to see how the Nikkor would compare.

I had spent a few months shooting the ZF glass (both 85 and 50), and was quite familiar with it. I bought the Nikkor locally, and quickly set out to test it during my local shop's return period, in case I didn't like it. I obviously don't have the experience shooting the Nikkor that I had with the Zeiss, but I feel I can make some fairly good general assumptions after some regular shooting and "test" type shots.

Let me address, first, Autofocus and what it adds to the 85mm (nee 127mm) focal length, especially wide open or close to wide open: did the Nikkor AF-D solve my Zeiss focusing woes? Because if it didn't, I'd end the test here. In short: yes... Mostly. In an earlier statement, I estimated that my keeper rate with the Zeiss ZF 85 was 20x less than my keeper rate with the Zeiss ZF 50. At the aperture of f1.4, that is probably close to correct. With the Nikkor, my hit rate improved dramatically. Instead of being lucky to have 1 or 2 true "keepers" (in focus AND good composition) out of 30+ shots, I had somewhere near a 90% success rate if I half-pressed and locked focus before recomposing.

For this focal range, my most common use is to shoot people, pets, and kids. Kids, as you would expect, are some of the most challenging of the subjects. They move, always, never when you want but always when you don't. My dogs aren't far behind that in terms of difficulty. I found the Nikkor to handle both of the aforementioned fairly well, with a very high level of in-focus "keepers." It's no sports lens, and not as quick as my experience with Canon's USM or Nikon's SWM. In true "action" shots (running kid or dog for example), the keeper rate lowered significantly, mostly due to an inability for the Nikon to lock focus VERY quickly (it seemed to pause, lock). If the subject was in fast motion, it wouldn't lock at all. The 18-200 VR does much better for that.

For candids, which I am often doing in low light and wide open, I need focus accuracy, not necessarily ultimate focusing speed. I find adults move less quickly (or maybe just less abruptly) than kids and pets. For this, the Nikkor did great. All of a sudden I was able to shoot wide open, f1.4, in very low light with shots coming out perfectly focused. The Nikkor focused exactly where I wanted, every time. Any focus-calibrations questions I had about my D200 body ended with this test I had a VERY hard time here with the ZF.

So it became quickly obvious in my general shooting that the Nikkor, although not great for serious action, increased my in-focus "keepers" significantly. I was pleasantly surprised, and quite happy with this. Now to the difficult part of the test, image quality.

I have a fair amount of photos on my wall at work from the Zeiss ZF 85/1.4. The more time I spent with it, the more I began to appreciate a subtle difference in drawing from any of the other lenses I owned or have owned for the Nikon. As I started to "learn" the lens, and key in on my favorite characteristics, I found image quality to be quite good with this lens, and I really enjoyed the "keeper" photos coming from it. How would the Nikkor compare?

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