The Zeiss Batis lens, designed for Sony’s E-mount cameras, is a bit of a departure for the company. Best known for their legendary, high-end manual-focus lenses, Zeiss has carved out a customer base of photographers looking for excellent image quality, sturdy build yet without autofocus because, as the company’s website puts it, “manual focusing promotes creativity in the design of the image.”
The Batis line, however, seems to have sprung forth from the company’s two-decade-long partnership with Sony—Zeiss lenses can be found on everything from their cameras to camcorders—a modern implementation of the Zeiss optical heritage. Designed from the ground up for the Sony system, the lenses feature autofocus and a more modern design than their manual lenses, albeit with a slightly less “hefty” feel.
In their description of the partnership (found here: http://lenspire.zeiss.com/en/sony-and-zeiss-what-photographers-should-know-about-the-partnership/), Zeiss explains that their engineers design the optics for the branded partner lenses, to their standards, yet there are some differences between Zeiss-branded lenses (like the Batis) and Sony/Zeiss lens (like those available for the a7-series cameras) when it comes to being “optimized for the corresponding system.” Sony/Zeiss lenses are sold via Sony’s channels while the Zeiss-only lenses like the Batis are sold through the existing Zeiss channels.
The Batis lenses arrived right at a time when Sony was working hard to bolster their lens lineup—the current G-Master lenses hadn’t even arrived yet—and having a third-party making native lenses was a big deal. While a lot of early Sony adopters used their existing Canon lenses and adapters, the Zeiss Batis lenses would work without an adapter, and provide autofocus, as well.
The Batis lenses also turned heads thanks to the lack of an aperture ring, and the interesting inclusion of an OLED display on the barrel to indicate focal length and aperture, something that seemed especially radical for a company that has typically favored mechanical designs and physical implementations of settings.
The first wave of Batis lenses include the 2/25 (Zeiss lists the aperture first) and the 1.8/85, and now the 2.8/18, which we test here.
The 18mm Batis lens uses the same Distagon optical design seen on other high-end Zeiss lenses, an aperture range from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/22, four aspherical elements, seven “special” glass elements, and a glass coating to reduce flaring and chromatic aberrations.
At $1,499, it fits into the middle range of the price of Sony/Zeiss co-branded lenses, yet a good deal below the company’s Milvus line of lenses for Nikon and Canon despite sharing a very similar look. At $2,299, the Milvus lens is $800 more than the Batis, yet is a manual-focus lens, with an aperture dial—clearly there’s a difference in the two product lines.
I’ve looked previously at both the Milvus and Zeiss Otus lenses, and they’re exceptionally sharp and exceptionally beautiful pieces of glass. The Batis line’s name has a bit of an indication as to the position of the lens in the company’s lineup as well. Each of the Zeiss lens lines is named after a type of bird. Otus is the Latin name for an owl (and these have ƒ/1.4 apertures), Milvus is the Latin designation for a “red kite,” which is a hawk-sized bird of prey, and Batis is, as Wikipedia puts it, a “small stout insect eating bird…”
One lens line is a night-hunting bird, one is a predatory hawk, and the Batis catches flies. Now, that’s not to say that the Batis line is any less capable of taking a great image than the other lenses, but it certainly shows that when it comes to the Batis lenses, Zeiss has a bit of delicacy and alacrity in mind that aren’t in common with the rest of the line.
The Batis line, and specifically this 18mm lens, is much lighter and more delicate feeling than the other Zeiss product lines, despite having autofocus—not in a “cheap” way, but it’s a different-feeling lens than you’d expect from Zeiss.
The OLED screen, found on the top of the barrel, is an interesting, innovative choice, and one I’ve come to really like. The screen can be shut off, if necessary (and settings confirmed via the camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen). Zeiss says the OLED screen draws very little power (and I’ve seen no difference in power between it and other lenses), and the fact that it’s visible in the dark has been incredibly helpful. The OLED screen has allowed me to change the aperture setting on my lens during long-exposure night shots, without having to activate the LCD screen or EVF. Most of the time, I’m setting the aperture through the viewfinder, so it’s moot whether there’s an aperture scale and distance setting or not.
The rubber-coated manual-focus dial is comfortable and easy to turn. I wish there were a manual/automatic focusing switch on the lens, so I could switch between AF and MF without going through menus on the Sony. (Or maybe I just wish the Sony a7 had a focus selector switch on the housing, as Nikon and Canon pro cameras do.)
While the housing flares outwards to accommodate the optics for the wide field of view, the actual front element is surprisingly small. The filter size for the 18mm Batis is 77mm, and the central optical piece is less than half that size.
Focus speeds were fast with the Batis, so much so that they were unnoticeably different than any other lens. Even when hunting for faces, the lens grabbed subjects with no problems.
I had the opportunity to test the Batis 2.8/18 alongside the new Tokina FiRIN 20mm ƒ/2 and a handful of Sony glass, and it stands up very well by comparison.
Ultra-wide-angle lenses are always a bit odd to evaluate, as their perspective doesn’t match that of the human eye, and the unnatural distortion of the scene—which is their main attraction—makes things look un-real by definition.
You can, however, judge an ultra-wide lens by what it does not do. A good wide-angle lens will modify a scene, but it shouldn’t reduce contrast or add in chromatic noise or halos. There will naturally be vignetting on an ultra-wide-angle lens, though it shouldn’t be overpowering.
The Batis 2.8/18 passes on all of these fronts. While there’s an expected loss of detail in areas of high contrast, there isn’t a color shift or chromatic aberration noticeable. Leaves set against a bright sun, for example, don’t end up with any purple or green fringing.
Despite its wide angle (or rather because of it), the lens is also particularly useful as a documentary tool, able to capture the full feeling of a crowded street or busy landmark without making the scene look bizarre. As ultra-wide-angle lenses distort more at the edges, it’s a good idea to keep faces away from the corners, but the wide angle makes for an unusual and unique angle of view in many scenes.
In comparisons against Tokina’s excellent new FiRIN 20mm, I noticed slightly greater detail, better flare and chromatic correction on most images, in general. The Tokina lens has the benefit of being half the price of the Zeiss Batis 2.8/18 but lacks autofocus.
Thanks to the excellent image quality, small size and fast focus speeds, the Batis 2.8/18mm is a high-quality and highly recommended ultra-wide-angle lens for shooters of the Sony a7-series camera. While the $1,500 price point will make it out of the range of some shooters, for the pro looking for excellent image quality on the Sony platform, the 2.8/18 Batis is well worth the price.