Sony and Carl Zeiss have long had a strategic partnership—you’ll find the blue-and-white Zeiss badge on products ranging from the company’s compact cameras to Sony-designed lenses for the company’s flagship Alpha series. With the release of their first two Batis lenses, which are only available for the Sony E-mount (such as the a7R II), the German manufacturer has started to bridge the gap between the Sony lenses with Zeiss optics and their own higher-priced (and usually manual) lenses.
The new Zeiss Batis lenses were designed specifically to work in concert with the Sony a7 series and provide full autofocus and Zeiss’ legendary image quality, while at the same time shedding some of the weight that Zeiss lenses are known for. They also have helped Sony tackle one of the bigger obstacles to adoption of their full-frame mirrorless cameras: the lack of available lenses. That’s great news for the Sony shooter, as the a7 system doesn’t have nearly the range of offerings as do Canon and Nikon. Having high-quality, third-party lenses available for the Sony E-mount helps legitimize the platform.
Zeiss also decided to eschew convention and has put a first-of-its-kind OLED display on the lens barrel to provide distance information while working in manual-focus modes. It’s one of the most talked about features of the new lens, and is an interesting solution to a problem caused by today’s focusing systems.
Fly By Wire
With manual-focus lenses like the Zeiss Otus, or classic film-era lenses, turning the focus dial mechanically changes the optics inside the lens. There’s a direct correlation in these systems between the amount the dial is turned and the amount the focus is changed.
By contrast, the Zeiss Batis is a "fly-by-wire" system that translates the movement of the external dial to commands for the internal focusing motor. There’s no direct connection between the dial and the optics; instead, a processor in the lens translates the movement of the dial into movement of a focusing servo.
That means that there’s no direct way to show focus distance on fly-by-wire lenses, since the dial doesn’t correlate to anything physical in the lens.
To provide more information during manual shooting, Zeiss has included a small, bright Organic LED (OLED) display into the barrel itself. This OLED can also be turned off by the user, preventing a glowing white screen from interfering with a shoot.
In practice, the OLED seems to be neither a benefit nor a detraction. When manually focusing, I’m rarely checking the barrel indicator anyway, so I don’t notice the OLED. It’s an interesting way to provide more manual controls, but we’ll have to wait to see how well the OLED stands up in heavy use.
That the company didn’t first release a "standard" prime in the 35mm or 50mm lengths is telling. With the first offerings at 25mm and 85mm, there’s a wide gap between focal lengths, one that suggests more Batis lenses are coming.
The Zeiss Batis 25/2 has a street price of $1,299, and the Zeiss Batis 85/1.8 has a price of $1,300, which makes the lenses just a tad lower in price than similar Sony-Zeiss lenses.
When coupled with the Sony a7R II, the Batis 25mm focuses as fast as any lens I’ve tested, and better than many of the lenses in the co-branded Sony-Zeiss partnership.
The 85/1.8 is slower to focus—there’s just more glass being moved—but faster than the Sony 55/1.4 and much faster than the Sony 90mm macro.
Sharpness And IQ
When used properly, the Batis lenses provide incredible sharpness and vivid color rendition, and create images with very little chromatic aberration or artifacts. The best results with the Batis lenses come when shooting studio work or portraits, places where the sharpness wide open really is helpful.
I combined the Batis 25/2 and Batis 85/1.8 with the Sony a7R II and the results are pretty stunning. Zooming into the images reveals a level of detail not possible on other lenses, short of the incredibly expensive Zeiss Otus 85/1.4. The Otus, with its nearly $5,000 price tag, is vastly more lens than most photographers need on a regular basis, but it’s a good benchmark for Zeiss’ top-end imaging.
The Batis lenses aren’t quite as sharp as the Otus, nor do they deliver the creamy bokeh of the Otus, but they do provide autofocus (the Otus is manual), they weigh significantly less, and they cost a fraction of the Otus.
Extension Of The Platform
As far as third-party lenses go, having Zeiss creating glass for your platform is a big deal. The company has an insight into Sony’s future plans, thanks to their existing partnership, and wouldn’t build a new product class if they didn’t feel the Sony system has legs.
It would be great to have more focal-length options in the Batis series, and I’m sure those will come. A 35mm and 50mm lens would be fantastic, but as Sony already has high-end lenses in those focal lengths, it makes sense that Zeiss started with the 25mm and 85mm primes.
In the meantime, the Zeiss Batis 25/2 and 85/1.8 are tremendous lenses, and they’re good enough to make users of other platforms jealous. With a reasonable price (relative to other Zeiss glass), they’re affordable enough for any pro or enthusiast to add them to their inventory and be confident that the money is well spent. It’s hard to get a better-looking image at this price, regardless of camera system, and there’s little reason why they shouldn’t be in the arsenal of any Sony shooter. zeiss.com/camera-lenses