In this profession, every now and then you’ll come across a unique and special piece of photography equipment that stands out of the crowd and shines a bit brighter than competition. Throughout my career I used many different camera bodies and lenses. I had a chance to shoot with good old film SLR cameras and manual lenses. For the past 12 years, I am using digital SLR cameras and wide variety of lenses … anything from Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Hasselblad.
Although I used Zeiss lenses in the past, last summer I had an opportunity to work with the entire lineup of Carl Zeiss SLR lenses. I tried all of them, starting from wide angle to macro and semi telephoto optics. I can say that I was really blown away with their performance, durability and quality. Considering the fact we are food photographers, I had to pick one lens out of the entire Zeiss arsenal for my day to day work, one lens that will be the most useful and versatile.
First thing you need to know is that all Zeiss SLR lenses for Canon bodies are manual and Makro-Planar T* 2/50 is no exception. For all of you who never worked with manual lens before, this could bring some challenges. The main difference between this lens and let’s say Canon 50mm f/1.2L is that Canon offers automatic focusing function while with Zeiss, this is done manually. No matter how complicated this might sound, it’s really not that difficult. From my experience, once you start working with it, it won’t take too long before you get fully proficient.
I got to say that Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 2/50 is one of the best macro SLR lenses I’ve ever worked with. For testing purposes I picked ZE (Canon mount) and I mounted it on my Canon 5D Mark II camera.
First thing you’ll notice is the lens produces an amazing color rendering. Many photographers say that Zeiss colors are exceptionally vivid and natural looking … I have to agree. This macro lens provides a normal perspective and allows for close focusing down to 1: 2. The Makro-Planar T* 2/50 uses a new lens design which incorporates floating elements to ensure high performance across a wide focusing range. As a result, the lens can be used not only for food photography but also for non-macro applications and becomes a versatile ‘standard’ lens on a full frame cameras. If you are using a DSLR with a 1.5 crop factor, the lens becomes a 75mm focal length.
First thing that caught my eye is that Makro-Planar T* 2/50 is stunningly sharp, even wide open. As mentioned before, the lens renders colors in a very painterly manner compared to all of my Canon lenses. The contrast is amazing and photos produced with this lens needs very minimum post processing. The focusing ring is extremely smooth which allows you to be really precise, but the tradeoff is that it might take you a couple seconds to get from macro focus to infinity focus. So much is written and said about the “Zeiss look”. This refers to 3D feel and look that Zeiss lenses produce. It’s a combination of smooth bokeh and awesome contrast that makes your subject “pop out”.
The minimum focusing distance of 0.24m gives you an ideal close-up to the subject. You can get near or move away from your subject without compromising anything. As any other macro lens, Zeiss 50mm f/2 offers wide aperture range. This one in particular goes between f/2.0 – f/22 (1/2 steps). Most likely you won’t be taking food photos wide open at f/2, but again this is matter of personal preferences. My favorite range is anywhere between f/3.5 to f/7 with distance of approximately 0.6m to 1m.
At the end I have to say that Zeiss Makro-Planar 50mm f/2 is not a mainstream lens for two reasons. First, the lack of AF could be a dealbreaker for many photographers. Secondly, the price tag is comparatively high at around $1300 CAD but if you decide to buy one you will be getting superb optics and exceptional build quality in return. In my opinion, this is one of those lenses that you buy and never part with.