Incense

by Bart Arondson

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I've been reading a lot of lens reviews for prime lenses lately, for 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses. I noticed that Zeiss lenses are made directly in a Canon mount, which has intrigued me. For landscape and astrophotography work, a manual-focus lens with a very wide throw is more useful to me than an auto-focus lens with shorter manual throw. In almost all of the reviews I have read about Zeiss lenses, I have noticed something about Zeiss lenses that bothers me a bit. After focusing on a specific point, taking subsequent shots at increasing F/numbers shows that most Zeiss lenses seem to have a focus shift, often quite pronounced.

Comparing similar Canon lenses with Zeiss lenses, I can't say that I've seen the same effect on Canon in most cases, and if there was some focus shift (i.e. EF 50mm f/1.2), it was not nearly as pronounced on the Canon lens as the Zeiss lens. Is there a reason for this? It seems surprising to me that such a high quality, highly rated brand would have such a consistent problem with their aperture/focus. I can only imagine the problems this could cause, the aperture is only stopped down when the shutter is released. Either I would have to use aperture preview on my camera while manually focusing a Zeiss to make sure it is focused correctly (which is just complicated), or just deal with the focus shift... :(

Is there some specific design decision that leads to focus shift like that when stopping down?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

In answer to another question of mine, Matt Grum left a couple links that describe focus shift. One of them linked a very excellent page by Zeiss that explains why they chose a lens design that incurrs significant focus shift at wide apertures for closer focus distances:

C-Sonnar T* 1,5/50 ZM

Information about special features for dealers and users

The C-SONNAR T* 1.5/50 ZM is a very special lens; based on a classical lens design concept from the 1930´s. The additional letter “C†in the name of the lens expresses this designation.

This lens design helps to achieve pictures with a special artistic touch. This lens ‘draws’ your subject in a fine, flattering manner and is therefore ideally suited for portraiture. It renders a sharpness that is slightly rounded, being less aggressive than in contemporary lens designs, but at the same time not soft in its rendition.

Many famous portraits of glamorous and prominent people during the 1930´s used this technique to great effect. These images are characterized by portraying the person in a shining, nearly celestial way. This effect is very well balanced and not exaggerated; therefore many viewers see it in a subconscious way. The trained observer, however, understands the underlining technique and enjoys the results.

This lens design exhibits some additional effects, which should be understood to achieve the maximum benefit from the C-Sonnar T* 1.5/50 ZM:

Because of the above mentioned classical characteristic of the lens the best focus position in the object space can not be kept exactly constant for all f-stop settings.

The passionate photographer might notice a slightly closer best focus in his pictures than expected. When stopping down the lens to f/2.8 or smaller this effect is minimized, so the focus position will be as expected.

In order to balance the performance at full speed and other f-stop settings the lens is adjusted with above described characteristic.

The special features of the C-SONNAR T* 1.5/50 ZM are best used in emotional, artistic, narrative images, portraits or atmospheric landscapes. For documentation or technical subjects CARL ZEISS recommends to stop down the lens at least to f/5.6 or to use the PLANAR T* 2/50 ZM lens.

As I understand it, the effect is due to spherical aberration, or a focus plane that is not entirely flat from the center to the edge of the image circle. This is an intentional design decision that helps create the amazingly soft bokeh of both the Canon 50mm f/1.2 and Zeiss 50mm C-Sonnar f1.5 ZM and similar lenses.

I've seen a few images taken with the Canon 50mm f/1.2 that take this focus shift into account, and they are truly stunning!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/latitudes/2280382988/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/latitudes/2907174824/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/latitudes/2863026063/

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To add to the above I don't consider a degree of spherical abberation to be a problem in a manual focus lens. MF emplies a more deliberate, careful focus and composure process, plus you can always focus stopped down if needed. Lens design is allways a compromise of so many factors and Zeiss lenses are designed for a different market.

When shooting a wedding I don't want to have to be jogging the focus ring after every shot, or even worrying about focus shifts that may or may not occur. Lack of focus shift really emphasises what a stellar lens the Canon 85 f/1.2L is given the quality of the bokeh after correction for spherical abberation.

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This review of the Zeiss 85mm has an explanation from Zeiss, it's about half way down the page. In a nutshell, they state it is the nature of a fast lens, of this design, without floating elements as focus shifts as a function of spherical abberations. Anyways, more detail in the article.

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To answer your question, yes, this is a design issue. The Canon 50L, like the Zeiss Planars, do not have floating elements to correct focus shifts. For Zeiss lenses that have floating elements, like the Makro-Planars, Distagons, etc, focus shifting is well-corrected. Focus shift is also more apparent in fast lenses and at MFD.

My experience with the Canon and the Zeiss is that they both exhibit focus shift between f/2 to f/2.8, which is readily compensated for once you get the hang of it. I also don't find it to be much of an issue be cause I rarely take photos at/around minimum focusing distances. If you do, test the lens at different apertures at close to MFD, and you will observe a pattern (shifting towards or away from the camera) that you will get used to and compensate for.

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Thanks for the info. –  jrista Oct 30 '10 at 0:01

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