Zeiss Otus 55/1.4 vs. Sigma 50/1.4 Art vs. Nikkor 58/1.4G vs. Nikkor 50/1.4G vs. Nikkor 50/1.8G

2. Perceived Sharpness

This is the #1 claimed reason for the new generation of 50s like the Zeiss and the Sigma: high perceived sharpness even wide open. Whoever thinks that sharpness is for pixel peepers and people who hang out in forums discussing sharpness rather than actually shooting pictures: You’re right. But it’s also for people who actually shoot pictures. There’s a great quote by Mark Crislip aka PitchBlack who sums it up perfectly.

Still Life Shot: Detail Comparison

Ok, so here’s a still life motive that I was shooting and that I modified a bit for this test. Delicious hot pasta from ½” audio tape tossed with crunchy stereo jacks:

Still Life with Horch

This was shot wide open with all lenses. For the 58 mm and 55 mm lenses, the camera was slightly pulled back to compensate for the focal length increase. The focus was set on logo of the Horch studio microphone on the right (see last paragraph of this section for details). The whole scene is lit by three lights plus the candles: A large soft box on a boom from above, a 15°-gridded highlight from the back right on the glass and a medium striplight behind a diffusor panel (for grading) on camera right. Yes, there’s lots of room for improvement, but this isn’t about the scene itself.

Let’s just look at a crop so we can compare perceived sharpness. This is really unbelievable. Check it out, these are 100% crops (as opposed to all the other images on this site, they’re not in high-dpi, so people with “retina” displays will find it a bit blurry).

  • As you can see, there’s just an extremely slight advantage of the Zeiss over the Sigma, but it’s hardly noticable. (Note that the focus plane is something like a mm further away with the Sigma image.) It’s absolutely breathtaking what level of detail these lenses both produce – wide open! Keep in mind that the images are on a D800, it must be even better on a D800E or D810.
  • Just to give you an idea what league we’re talking about here, click next for a comparison of the Sigma and the horrible Nikkor 58/1.4G.
  • Just because comparing the worst with the best is a little unfair, the next one shows the Nikkor 58 vs. an average lens, the 50/1.4G. I guess you get the idea now.
  • Then, you can see a comparison of the two Nikkor 50s. They are not really that much different from each other, except for the color fringing (quite visible with the 1.4, not so with the 1.8).
  • The next comparison is the Sigma with each of the 50 mm NIkkors.
  • Finally, you get a comparison of the Zeiss with each of the Nikkor 50s.

Do these differences matter? Sometimes. Check out this separate article if you want to see how they do.

Addendum: Because some people asked how the focusing was done, I’ll tell you. As said, I used the center of the logo on the mic as a focusing point. With each lens, I took four shots. They were focused 1. with AF in Live View (this uses contrast detection), 2. manually after focusing to infinity, 3. & 4. repeat one and two. With the manual-focus Zeiss, I took four shots focused manually in Live View, focusing to infinity in between. I then compared the results in 100% view in post, and took the “best” shot, which was the first one in all cases – the Live View focusing did a good job. In the above crops you can see that the focus plane nevertheless isn’t precisely the same, but varies by a millimeter. However, as the selected crop intentionally contains a curved surface with a layered structure, you’ll be able to easily locate the in-focus structure in every shot.

You may interpret the failure to focus 100% accurately in two ways: a) This should not happen in a test! Correct. Well guess what: As you can imagine, I tried my very best, because, as you correctly noticed – this is a test. So if you consider the mm of focus point variation an issue, then the other interpretation is for you: b) Even if you try your best, use a heavy studio tripod, Live View, a still life scene and good light, this millimeter is what you can achieve in practice. At least in case you’re a photographer and not a test lab. So you may take this as an additional result.

Focus Test Chart Comparison

Yeah well, test charts. One quote I like from Ken Rockwell is: “…if you are shooting test charts, a flatbed scanner is still far better than a D800.” And I’d add that if you’re shooting brick walls, the thing you need to worry about most is your taste, not image quality. Anyways:

I always use the Focus Test Chart by Tim Jackson to fine-tune the AF for my lenses before I first use them. The thing is, you can see quite a lot of your lens qualities from that simple chart, e.g. sharpness and contrast, longitudinal CA, focus shift. With this chart, the camera is pointed at a 45° angle to the chart, producing an image like the one on the right. The frame marks the crop area from which you see the images from the respective lens.

Keep in mind that the “results” that you can see concern specifically the marked area of the image frame, i.e. off-center. Since the focus point of a good image is rarely in the exact middle, I don’t care much about this exact center, off-center like the marked area is actually much more relevant in my photography. (To get an idea of how sharpness varies across the image frame, you can check out the field maps on DxOmark: Choose a lens, and go to Measurements -> Sharpness -> Field map.)

Click through this gallery (100% crops @ high-dpi), a summary of which is provided below:

  • The Zeiss is tack-sharp wide open, has very moderate spectrochromatism, and absolutely no focus shift.
  • The Sigma is pretty much the same in this respect, only that there is noticable focus shift (which is normal for many lenses, unfortunately). Too bad, for a lens of this sharpness class, you might think. Well, the thing is, in practice, you won’t notice too much of this. Maybe this is something for a separate article.
  • The 58mm Nikkor… as I said in the beginning: It’s a joke. It’s worse than the 50/1.4G. Useable results start at f/2.8. In the above examples you can see the heaps of CA, too. The only good thing about this lens is that there is no focus shift at all…
  • …which again the Nikkor 50/1.4G has quite a lot of, the highest amount of all lenses. In the comparison slider you can see how the focus shifts backwards as the lens is stopped down. If you get a good copy (there seems to be considerable sample variation with these), it is as sharp as the 1.8G, with two third stops advantage. At f/1.4 it’s as sharp as the 1.8 at f/1.8, and so on. This goes for the off-center. In the center, they’re the same at the same aperture. Again, keep in mind that this varies with the quality of the 1.4G copy. What doesn’t vary:
  • (Longitudinal) Chromatic aberration is substantially worse with the 1.4 than the 1.8. The 1.4G is infamous for this, too. It’s the main reason why I and many people I know got the 1.8G instead.
  • Also, the Nikkor 50/1.8G has a lot less focus shift.

Before I go ahead and compare all the thousands of combinations, you can download the whole set (crops from all five lenses at f/1.4 through f/5.6) and compare yourself.

Go back to page 1: Introduction

Go to next page 3: Bokeh quality

Proceed to page 4: Sensitivity to bright light inside/outside the frame
Proceed to page 5: Vignetting, Coma, Sunstars, Color Rendition
Proceed to page 6: Handling & Quality
Proceed to page 7: Summary

24 thoughts on “Zeiss Otus 55/1.4 vs. Sigma 50/1.4 Art vs. Nikkor 58/1.4G vs. Nikkor 50/1.4G vs. Nikkor 50/1.8G

  1. Nick

    Thanks for putting your time and efforts into this amazing comparison. It would be even greater if you could compare the Art lens against his older twin, the Sigma 50mm HSM. I own a Nikon mounted version and it is one of my favourite lens. In this review, it looks to be on par and even brighter than the Art version, and there is a slight back focus which could explain the potentiaĺ loss of sharpness.

    http://www.slrlounge.com/head2head-sigma-50mm-f1-4-dg-hsm-art-vs-sigma-50mm-f1-4-dg-hsm/

  2. Flow Post author

    Nick, thanks for your reply! I *knew* someone would complain about this or any other lens (wait until people ask for the Nikkor D) missing in the comparison. I just needed to stop somewhere. But I can tell you: I had the old Sigma as well for a month, and it’s NO way on par with the Art, the Art is really a new generation, and I don’t know what you’re seeing with the sharpness, but it’s a league that just hasn’t existed before (for 35mm).

  3. Hussain

    Very nice and neat comparison. I loved the the X vs. Y lens layout :) I honestly can’t see anyone justifying the Otus since the Sigma is almost just as sharp, has AF, much more affordable and I didn’t see anything special about the Zeiss rendering, and I am a Zeiss fan and user. I should say though the Nikon 58 1.4g has a much nicer rendering, it’s not very pronounced here in the test but from images I’ve seen it’s something to consider, although on the expense of resolution.

  4. Flow Post author

    Thanks, Hussain!

    Yes, there are aspects where the Zeiss is just different, and there’s sure reasons pro and against it.

  5. Nick

    Well i didnt have the chance to compare the Art version with my regular HSM copy and I know that the comparison in the link doesnt show full sized samples, but when looking at them and their exif data, it seems that the older lens (77mm thread) gathers more light, even at faster speed than the new one, and the sharpness (back focus put aside) seems to be on par.I really wish someone could compare them properly, do you own a copy of the older HSM perhaps ?

  6. Flow Post author

    No unfortunately not, but I do still have some test images here that are too ugly to post them anywhere. As I said, it’s a different league. This is not to say that the old 50 is a bad lens, just not “on par” as you’re guessing, at least not concerning the sharpness wide open. The images in the link are just a nice illustration that a sharp lens doesn’t make a difference for an overall image. You will be able to see this sharpness difference only if you have an image where this matters – and if you need to look at it big. Check out the other article on this. But if you’re really interested, why not just order the new one and test it for yourself and compare, and if you don’t like it, send it back.

  7. Nick

    I live in Canada and as far as i know, the lens is hard to find here, even harder to return as they can only be preordered. “Ugly” seems a very strong qualification, mine still pulls out superb images either on my D600 or D300. And is extremely sharp wide open.

  8. Glenn

    Thank you. This is absoluletly the best lens review/comparison I have seen, hands down. Kudos to the whay you used the sliders to immedialy visualize the lens differences.

  9. Flow Post author

    Enrico, thanks for your hint. First of all, I don’t want to buy a 1,600 Euro prime lens and then need to have it adjusted because QC wasn’t taken seriously. Anyway, I’d love to see some results, so just in case you want to help: Click. Thanks!

  10. Udo

    Hi, and thanks for this impressive test. As an owner of the Otus and Sigma lens, I totally agree to your results. The Sigma is wonderful, the Zeiss a little bit better, and both are in a different league than the others.

  11. Christobella

    Well done on a great comparison, the clearest and most informative that I’ve come across. The split-screen tool on the images works really well for direct A/B comparisons. More please!

  12. Alex

    Great comparison, thanks! I recently purchased the 50mm art, and also own a 35mm art, as well as a Zeiss 135mm apo f2. The Sigmas are amazing values, although their construction leaves something to be desired. The rear barrel came lose on my 35mm art, twice. I’m hoping the 50mm won’t have the same issue. The Zeiss makes them feels like toys in terms of build quality. I would pay a few hundred more for the Sigma if it was all metal. The plastic hood gets worn over time and doesn’t click in the same on my 35mm. The Zeiss is as good as the day I bought it. I wish Zeiss would put in AF in these fast lenses, might be worth the 4k then.

  13. Robert Ash

    This is fantastic work. Thorough, meticulous, well thought through. I wanted to buy the 50mm Sigma Art but now I have a lot better comfort level with that decision. I’ve bookmarked your site for future reference, it’s outstanding. Not only that, you have world-class partner sites (Uwe Steinmuller, Rob Galbraith, etc.). Luminous Landscape and Cambridge in Colour would be worthy additions. Thanks again for the amazing work! It’s a real blessing to all of us that you take the time to do such a thorough job.

  14. Flow Post author

    Robert, thanks very much for your extremely nice comment! Good to know this helped you. All the best!

  15. Frank

    Excellent review and comparison. One of the best I’ve seen. Well done.

    A couple of comments.

    1. The Otus/Art sharpness test shows a very different rendering of parts of the microphone that might show greater microcontrast, fewer aberrations with the Otus. Am I misinterpreting.

    2. With the Otus, I see some shots that show incredible clarity/readability of the scene both wide open and fully closed at f16. The lack of distortion and the more apochromatic nature of the lens may be responsible for that. IOW focus blur wide open and diffraction fully closed are subjectively attenuated because of the lens rendering. Have you seen that?

    3. One of the key features of the Otus, confirmed by others, is that it is more nearly apochromatic than just about all other 135mm lenses. I see an increased purity of color that behaves very smoothly in processing. Would there be any way to test that?

    4. Impossible to test, I think, but in general processing with the Otus is much more linear than with my other lenses. This allows processing to be more precise.

    So, my overall question is, am I kidding myself about these qualities of the Otus, which are not necessarily apparent in all images? Or are they based on its unique characteristics?

  16. Flow Post author

    Thanks for your feedback, Frank! Your questions:
    1. Yes, this is also what I see, but it’s a very small difference, I think.

    2. No, to be honest, I haven’t. But it wouldn’t exactly surprise me, as except for the sunstars and the manual focusing (and the size), the lens is indeed absolutely flawless, as I wrote.

    3. I don’t know, sorry. To be honest, I’m a little bit against these “myth-style” statements like “purity of color”. What’s that supposed to be exactly? Apo is a marketing term and it simply means that it’s optimized to have the same focus plane for all wavelenghts. This doesn’t imply a better color rendering overall. I didn’t see any better or more “pure” rendering, and I checked with the Color Checker, too. The other lenses deliver great results, too.

    4. What’s “more linear” or “more precise” processing supposed to mean? Whatever it is, if you can define it, you can test it, surely. :-)

    Overall question: Except for the latter two terms, I don’t think you’re kidding yourself there. Anyways, be careful not to extrapolate your positive emotions for the thing to variables that are beyond judgement. It’s exactly this part that I was trying to avoid in the review, too.

    All the best!

  17. Tuomas Puukko

    Check your terminology – you wrote “lateral chromatic aberration (purple and green fringing of out-of-focus areas)”. That is longitudinal chromatic aberration, not lateral.

    Lateral CA is separation of colors towards the edges of image circle. You may see red & green-blue colors apart when you look in the corners, esp. with wide angle optics and digital cameras. Stopping down doesn’t remove this aberration.

    Then there’s axial chromatic aberration – it’s the chromatic equivalent of spherical aberration. Color halos around bright areas. Spherical aberration disappears when stopping down, so does axial CA.

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