Battle of some Portrait Primes. Full Frame vs m4/3, Zeiss vs Leica, let the pissing contest commence…

battle

Well hi there!  Been a while.  Yes, I’ve been focused largely on launching the Nauti Straps stuff (utterly shameless plug, of which it will not be the last, surely) which has been going smashingly thus far, so thank you to everyone who’s supported me in that venture.  That said and done, I’ve been long wanting to compare these two premier portrait focal length prime lenses for the two formats I shoot in concert in the Sony FE and micro 4/3 systems.  

Enter the Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 Sonnar FE mount lens for Sony E mount cameras, and the Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 DG Nocticron lens for micro 4/3 system shooters.

C’mon in for comparisons, pixel peeping galore and my thoughts as someone who has been shooting these two lenses for the better part of the last year.

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So, we have one glaring difference right off the bat in that we have two systems utilizing different sensor sizes, and requiring differing focal lengths to capture the same relative angle of view.  I’ve gone on about this in the past, and have another article mostly written looking more deeply at these differences which I will be posting in the near future, so I’ll not get too into that here.  I want to see pure image quality and then compare the touchy feely bits between these two lenses which are offered at similar price points, and boast technical test numbers that would have blown most lenses in the category away a mere few years ago.  I want to look at how they compare at like aperture in a studio format (light and exposure see no difference in the size of format, no matter what some want to say) as an 85mm focal length (or equivalent) is largely targeted to be portrait, short tele lens.  I’ve also shot a few thousand frames with these lenses out and about in the wild for shits and giggles, so I’ll share some of those as well.

First, let’s look at these things on paper.

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Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8 Sonar (B&H, Adorama)

  • $1199
  • Sony E mount Full Frame – Auto Focus via a Linear AF Motor
  • f/1.8 – f/22
  • 11 elements in 8 groups – Sonnar optical design with floating elements and T* Anti Reflective Coating
  • Optically Stabilized
  • Included OLED display, replacing a more standard distance/DOF scale
  • Dust and moisture sealed
  • 29 degree angle of view
  • Mimimum focus distance: 2.62′ (80cm)  1:7.9 max magnification ratio
  • Weight: 16.8 oz / 475 g
  • Plastic lens hood included

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Panasonic Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 DG Nocticron (B&H, Adorama)

  • $1398
  • micro 4/3 mount – Auto focus lens
  • f/1.2 – f/16
  • 14 elements in 11 groups – Nocticron designated design with 2 ASPH, 1 Extra low Dispersion and 1 Ultra high Refractive index elements
  • Nano Surface Coating (anti reflective for contrast/flare control)
  • Optically Stabilized
  • External Aperture Ring (compatible with Panasonic Lumix cameras)
  • 29 degree angle of view
  • Minimum focus distance 1.64′ (50cm) 1:10 max magnification ratio (1:5 in FF equivalence)
  • Weight: 15 oz / 425 g
  • Metal lens hood included

The main points that jump off the page, outside the obvious physical focal length difference, are price, maximum aperture and the fact that the Leica isn’t listed as “splash proof” to which I’ve seen conflicting reports.  That said, if they don’t advertise it, I’m assuming it isn’t so, which is a shame.

I’ve made the argument regarding price, that the Nocticron (being similar in physical construction to a 50mm f/1.2 lens) is very justified price wise.  Speed doesn’t come cheap, and no matter what the FF fanatics want to say, a 42.5mm f/1.2 lens is still a 42.5mm f/1.2 lens, capable of soaking up a full stop more light than an f/1.8 lens, transmission numbers aside. (we’re not talking about S:N here, just pure exposure, folks)  Most full frame systems offer a “budget” 85mm  f/1.8 lens for much less than $1200, but I’d have to say, this Zeiss isn’t a normal 85mm f/1.8 lens, so while high by comparison, I’d say this price point is just about right on as well considering that Sony’s new foray into mirrorless full frame system world is priced (optically anyway) at a pretty massive premium comparatively.

Enough about the on paper comparison, let’s have a look at pictures.  For this article, I shot the Zeiss lens on the Sony a7II, and the Leica on the Lumix GX8.

Everything shown here was shot in the formats respective RAW files, with the Sony files being captured in the uncompressed, 14 bit RAW option as opposed to the 11/7 compressed files we were forced to shoot originally, and I’m now using Capture One Pro 9 (v 9.3.0.69) which is amazing, I must say.  Again, I’ll get into nuanced detail and difference between the two formats in the later article, as this is more to see how different these images may or may not be when shooting great lenses in controlled light which will largely eliminate subtle differences in pixel size in many cases.  Can we tell a signature difference?  Does the Zeiss or Leica “magic” come through definitively, or by shooting RAW using two great lenses, are we just provided a solid high resolution image to start from?  I honestly don’t know, as this is the first time I’m comparing these two lenses side by side in any semblance of a controlled test.

Let’s get to it shall we?

First side by side is a test looking at sharpness at like aperture.  I had each camera shot from a fixed tripod, and set up to ISO 200, 1/125 sec, at the listed aperture.  I manually adjusted my strobe, stop for stop, to achieve identical exposures between frames on both cameras.  White balance was set to Flash WB on both cameras and the 2 second self timer was set for both as well.  Everything that can be adjusted in camera and lens, is identical between the two sets.  The image on top is as the frame was captured, and then 100% crops at each captured aperture following below.

Click to see full size:

batisvsnocti

Sharpness wise, they both look equal to one another at each captured aperture setting to my eye.  The obvious variance in depth of field aside, the only real difference I can see is that the Leica looks to transmit less light at the stated aperture setting, perhaps about 1/3 to 1/2 stop less (detail in the highlights).  This would be something to account for, for those needing to calculate exposure for motion video (T-stop) but I’d imagine that would be done regardless of the lens in use, and seems close enough to be within that fraction of a stop between the two.  That said, it should be taken into consideration that the listed max aperture of f/1.2 will probably only allow the transmission of around f/1.4 – 1.6 while still producing the depth of field of an f/1.2 optic at this focal length.


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How about portraiture?  Well, here are a couple side by sides which I think give us a better idea on any “signature” in regards to color and contrast.  Every series is captured at the same settings on both cameras, with any lights added at the same exact output.  I’ve not played with these in post, just to preserve the files as close to being captured as possible.  RAW conversion through Capture One pro, and converted to JPEG for space.

These shots were both at f/5.6 – 1/125 – ISO 100 – wb: (5700K) using an AB800 through soft box camera right, with the light fired via a camera mounted Pocket Wizard:

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Can you tell which was taken with each lens? DOF is a dead giveaway here, but outside of that, look at the colors and contrast.  The first is the Leica and as I’ve seen in previous shoots and mentioned in my reviews, it certainly has a more red/magenta tint to it compared to the Zeiss which is more yellow.  Either is easy enough to correct for, either in camera, or more easily in software with the RAW file, but again, just like to see what each lens produces.

This next shot is taken at different apertures to see equivalence in the depth of field.  On the Leica, I used a two stop ND filter and shot the lens wide open at f/1.2 while shooting the Zeiss stopped down to f/2.5 to gain the DOF equivalence.  Shutter speed was 1/125, ISO 200 and the point of focus was the near eye.  I wanted to see, and show, how shallow the smaller format was capable of getting with this lens wide open.  As is often the case for me, shallow DOF is utilized for moody or story telling portraiture.  The lenses were set up and focused at roughly 40″ which is within about 8.5″ of the Zeiss’ minimum focusing distance, but about 20″ shy of the Leica’s.  Not hugely important, but if looking for extremely shallow DOF, I did want to mention this because both CAN get quite a bit shallower by getting quite a bit physically closer in terms of the Leica, or opening up another stop for the Zeiss.  Regardless, both shots below were taken at identical settings, white balance, et al, outside of the aperture.  See if you can tell which is which…

portrait-1 portrait

The depth of field, for our purposes here, is near identical.  Lighting, distance, power and angle is all the same, but the signature of each lens tends to show itself here a bit more in color and contrast.  If I were to be processing either of these files, I’d certainly do a little dodging and burning to further enhance the low key mood while bringing the exposure on the eye up a bit. I’d work on softening the skin a touch, and  I’d adjust the color on each, as I don’t particularly like either when it comes to skin tone with one, again being too yellow, and the other too red in my opinion, but all in all, I feel I have two solid frames here.

The Zeiss has the advantage of being stopped down, and while both lenses are pretty darn sharp wide open, stopping them down does produce a sharper image file, no doubt about it.  The transmission differences show up a bit in how the transition from shadow to highlight are rendered with the weaker transmission of the Leica showing a bit more contrast, or more specifically, less info in the shadows.  Really, I’d be happy with either shot to be honest, but if we look closely, there certainly are differences.

So, which is which?  If the tell tales from previous comments and frames haven’t yet given it away, the first is the Zeiss, and the second is the Leica, but after all that, can you truly tell a difference in sharpness or DOF when viewing these on screen?  While pixel peeping, I might be able to squeak a win out for the Zeiss, but not by much, and again I’d certainly chalk at least a little of that up to being stopped down compared to being shot wide open in the case of the Leica, and utilizing larger, and more pixels which will provide better resolution numbers in most every case.


What about that bokeh?

Each of these lenses has something going for it in regards to being able to throw the background out of focus, and to be blunt, I feel both do a wonderful job at rendering out of focus areas and points of light.  Nice and creamy, with slight differences in micro contrast perhaps, but otherwise, both very, very pleasing.

For those of us who’ve not spent hours upon hours geeking out on the equivalency of DOF between formats, let me quickly explain.  Firstly, depth of field (DOF) is purely a result of three factors.  1. Focus distance 2. Focal length  3. Aperture   That’s it.  There are misguided debates on how the size of sensor affects it, but the sensor size has no effect on DOF.  The circle of confusion, aptly named, is where it gets a little foggy, but that brings in pixel size (not amount) and viewing distance, bringing individual perception into the conversation which is subjective based on an individual’s eye sight at a given viewing distance.  Where we need to look to equivalents, and simply put, (luckily for us in this example) to achieve the same relative angle of view, the micro 4/3 format needs to halve the focal length, and by that math, requires two full stops of adjustment at the same focusing distance to achieve an identical depth of field.  

Below, I’ve shot both lenses from a tripod set at the Zeiss Batis’ lens minimum focusing distance, meaning this is as shallow a DOF as the Zeiss is capable of being (when shot wide open anyway).  Bokeh, is the subjective quality of the out of focus areas in an image, and while the relationship between the focusing distance, and the distance from that point of focus the background elements are, will vary in how far from that DOF they are, and in turn, how ‘out of focus’ they will appear.  That said, focused at exactly the same distance, I’ve shot the Zeiss wide open, then at f/2 (neither of which the Leica can equal in shallowness) and the Leica kicks in wide open at an equivalent for the Zeiss at f/2.5.  From there, it’s stop for stop to see how each lens renders these out of focus areas.  Click the image to see it full sized.

bokeh

The Leica picked up the hotspots in the lights from almost the word go, more egregiously than the Zeiss which better balanced those out for longer I’d say.  I’ve always found the Pana-Leica lenses to produce a more contrasty, saturated and punchy file which also come through here to my eye.  The Zeiss lenses I’ve owned (for the Sony, Canon ZE and Hassleblad systems) have always seemed more muted and what I’ve always seemed to refer to as “cinematic” to me.  Both approaches are great, depending on how you want an image to look out of the camera, and this is where we start to look at a manufacturer’s lens design and optical signature.  Two heavyweights in the optical game here, and we can say what we want about the partnership between Leica and Panasonic, but I’ve seen nothing but great quality in all the Leica designed, Panasonic manufactured lenses for the m4/3 system, so to me, those conversations are fairly moot.

Now I mentioned above that each of these lenses provide different upsides when it comes to shooting at these larger apertures, with the Zeiss obviously capable of a shallower DOF at it’s minimum focusing distance when the equivalent field of view is achieved at the same focusing distance.  Buuuut, the Leica has the ability to focus nearly a full foot closer than the Zeiss.  Not totally handy if wanting to fit an entire head in the shot, but if wanting to create a higher magnification, or creative vignette, the Leica can shallow it up with the best of them.  Have a look at these three shots, taken at the Leica’s minimum focusing distance… Click to see larger.

leicaclosefocusbokeh

We would have to cut the focusing distance in half to achieve like for like between these two formats at like aperture, so these aren’t quite there, but they’re close.  I shot the Leica wide open, and at the same aperture as the Zeiss wide open, as well as f/2.5 which is the aperture at the same distance we need to stop the Zeiss down to, to achieve the same DOF as the shorter focal length on the m4/3 camera.  Nothing scientific here, just thought it might be interesting.


I will say, I love both of these lenses, and find them to mate to their respective formats beautifully.  We tend to go round and round when trying to prove one system, or lens is better or worse than another, and while there are certainly arguments for and against different optical formulations and whatnot, I’d like to say, for me, these two are subjectively as close to equals as I’ve seen in the tests like this I’ve performed.  Either will be able to provide a wonderful tool for whichever sensor they’re placed in front of, and either system shooter should enjoy shooting with either one of these lenses.  I know that I really do.

To finish up, here are a few random snaps from over the last year “in the wild” and by wild I mean mostly around the house.

Leica – f/1.2 – 1/100 – ISO 1600:

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Zeiss – f/1.8 – 1/8000 – ISO 400:

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Leica – f/5.6 – 1/1600 – ISO 400:

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Zeiss – f/8 – 1/125 – ISO 100:

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Leica – f/1.2 – 1/800 – ISO 200:

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Zeiss – f/1.8 – 1/500 – ISO 1600:

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Leica – f/2.8 – 1/160 – ISO 400:

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Zeiss – f/8 – 1/640 – ISO 200:

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The differences in these two lenses as far as quality is concerned are, in my opinion, minimal and nearly indeterminable.  Image quality will more largely be determined by the sensors they record light onto I feel, and we can look more closely at that in the upcoming article.  The pros and cons for each are going to be largely aesthetic in things like the LCD screen on the Zeiss, or the aperture ring on the Leica.  Zeiss and Leica continue to build lenses around trusted and true optical formulations, and both of these are beautifully executed.  Perhaps the aesthetic design of these two lenses speak more to the philosophy of each lens maker with the Zeiss looking at designing toward a very modern, minimalist aesthetic while the Leica is certainly more in line with their other lenses which have largely stayed unchanged in fashion and function over the years.  

In conclusion, I will say that both lenses are nothing short of wonderful.  Do I need both?  Probably not, but I don’t think I’d be able to get rid of either, at least not for a good long while.  I’d say that if you’re invested in either of these systems, these lenses are going to provide as good an image file as these systems are capable of producing, and certainly allow for a good return on investment.  Of course, if you’re in the micro 4/3 realm, you have a lot of other choices, a few of which I compared and reviewed HERE.  If you’re on the Sony side of things, unfortunately we’re not quite up to the same levels of variety, price point and choice, but with Sigma releasing the new Art 85/1.4 and the Sony G 85/1.4, while not nearly as cost friendly, the choices are starting to materialize in popular focal lengths, so that is very promising.

Thank you for the read.  If you’re interested in either of these lenses, you can find them via my affiliate links below:

Batis 85mm at B&H HERE, at Adorama HERE

Nocticron 42.5mm at B&H HERE, at Adorama HERE

If you’re interested in perusing the hand built camera straps that I make, you can see them at Nautistraps.com HERE.

If you’re the sadistic type, and want to subject yourself to more comparison and review articles, you can find many, many others via the Reviews tab.

As always, I’d love to connect via the socials, so hit me up on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Instagram.  

To stay up on new articles, you can add your email address at the top of the page (via standard browser) or below if viewing on a mobile platform. Happy shooting,

Tyson

 

19 thoughts on “Battle of some Portrait Primes. Full Frame vs m4/3, Zeiss vs Leica, let the pissing contest commence…

  1. Hey Bud, great comparison. Really surprised how similar they are in quality, I prefer the the leica I think but that may be purely down to a preference of the system so I’m probably a touch biased. Great read, thanks man!

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    • Thanks Chris. I go back and forth between these two lenses, and really have come to the conclusion that, for me, it’s like choosing between children. Inanimate, cold, metal children, but the idea I guess is that picking favorites won’t ever get me anywhere. More what I wanted to see, was if there was in fact any major quality differences between the two, and in short, I don’t think there are. CA is a little more egregious on the Zeiss wide open than the Leica at the same aperture, but that is easy enough to correct for, and the Leica wide open has its own issues as well, so really, it’s 6 of one, half dozen of the other.

      Can’t remember if I’ve properly congratulated you, but if I have, it bears repeating. Congrats on the engagement, and all my best to Ali.

      Take care man!

      t

      Like

  2. Hi Tyson,

    i’m a long time follower of your work, so if you don’t mind, I would like some information on your wrist straps. I would like to order a few of them, for my 2 Olympus EMD EM5 (mark I and II) and also for my two Nikons (D500 and D600) . But I’m not sure if the straps will hold the weight of the Nikons; I don’t use heavy zoom lenses, only primes ranging from 20 to 105 mm.

    What’s your advice?

    many thanks,

    Kind regards,

    Kris Ysebaert Antwerp Belgium-Europe.

    >

    Like

    • Hi Kris!

      Thank you for the read and taking time to comment.

      I use the Vector (in the pics above) and Cascade wirst straps on my full frame Canons, Sony cams and the m4/3 cams without issue. The reason I designed the Vectors specifically is that they’re very comfy, hard wearing, but nice and light weight material that should last for many, many years. I use the same material for the yacht racing industry, and the material I’ve used for the straps is designed for horribly harsh, open ocean sailing conditions, so longevity in water and UV are very important. I special order the split rings which are rated to 170lbs, so they’re more than capable of hanging as large a rig as we can physically hand hold 🙂 The steel quick release clasps that I use on the Regatta and Speed Slings have been holding up wonderfully for me on my original prototypes that I still use for my Sony and Canon cams and FF lenses, and I’ve been using them for over 2 years.

      I’m currently working on a wider flat shoulder/neck strap that I’m intending to be better for heavier cameras, if you’re more into neck straps, otherwise, the current wrist straps will be more than capable, as long as you don’t mind that kind of weight on your wrist 🙂

      Let me know if you have any other questions. I’d be happy to try and help.

      Cheers,

      Tyson

      Like

  3. One of the things I love about your reviews is that they teach me as much about optics and photography as they do about the lenses themselves. Thank you for sharing your expertise (and time) so generously, Tyson.

    Like

  4. why are you not comparing the Noctorion to the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G – one of the best portrait lenses for less than half the price of Leica/Zeiss. Sony lenses are overpriced anyway, so it is not the best full frame contender.

    Like

    • Well, because I don’t, nor do I plan to shoot with a Nikon system. I’ve shot with many 85mm full frame lenses from various manufacturers over the years (Canon 1.2, 1.2II, 1.8, Zeiss 1.4 ZE, old Sigma 1.4) If Nikon wants to sponsor the site and send me review copies, I’d happily oblige, but until then, I’ll stick to the systems I’ve invested in 🙂

      Like

  5. I would have liked to have seen a low light comparison set up. The FF system has an advantage in low light situations, but as you used flash, that advantage was neutralised.

    Like

    • Hi Tadgh.

      Actually, I stated in this article that I didn’t want to look at differences between the sensors for this comparison specifically, but rather the lenses. I’m working on a sensor comparison currently that will look at resolution, ISO performance, etc. and wanted to keep that one separate, as I use many different lenses for each system, and here, just wanted to look at optical output, not sensor output.

      Thanks for the read, and stay tuned!

      Cheers,

      Tyson

      Like

  6. Pingback: Sony Tidbits... - sonyalpharumors sonyalpharumors

  7. Very nice comparison ! I like the fact that you took the time to take beautiful photos with both lenses. This changes a lot from the usual brick walls we’re so used to seeing, It shows how great those lenses can be in the hands of an experienced photographer. Thanks a lot !

    Like

  8. It’s an interesting comparison. Fans of each brand would have us think that nothing else is as good. However, my experience is that they’ve put their name to inferior products quite frequently.

    It’s good to see that these are both quite good and give good examples of what each system will do. Hopefully, both systems will continue to grow and to be improved.

    Like

    • Where I feel the biggest difference between true Zeiss (as opposed to Zeiss for Sony) and Leica (as opposed to Pana-Leica) is that much of the optical shortcomings are corrected for in camera through processing tweaks, but this is also why these lenses cost $1200-1500 as opposed to $10,000. That said, I’d say these two lenses are both very, very good optical formulations and result in a solid image file.

      Like

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