Let’s be very honest here, Zeiss lenses are fantastic. They’re capable in every single way. For years, they also had some of the best image quality you could ever get from a lens. Zeiss lenses were available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Leica-M, and Fujifilm X cameras. But they quietly disappeared from the photo industry with more of a focus on cinema. So what happened? Well, I’d like to relay what I’ve seen in my 12 years of journalism and covering the Zeiss company.
For many years, Zeiss has been known as a premium lens manufacturer that offered a wonderful look. They were popular among Leica photographers and a few Canon photographers who used 5D cameras. The lenses gave a look Japanese manufacturers just weren’t offering. Zeiss optics were better: sharper, more contrasty, more vivid, and delivered beautiful focus fall-off. It’s was sometimes pretty obvious to tell when you were seeing a Zeiss image. We were reviewing them not long after I started the site in 2009. My first experience with Zeiss lenses was back in 2010. That’s over a decade ago. And even when I look back at that very old blog post, I still get goosebumps about how nice those photos are. A few times, I’ve gone to eBay to find some of those old Zeiss gems for DSLRs. You’d be amazed at how well they’ve held their value.
Back in 2013 though, the entire lens industry began to change. This was a time when major tsunamis and other effects of global warming were wiping out factories. It was also a time when third-party lens companies stepped up and created lenses that turned peoples’ heads. Zeiss announced the 55mm f1.4 Otus lens. They touted that this lens, when shot wide open, would be as sharp as their competition’s lenses stopped down. And as we saw, they were right. I think every photographer at the time was drooling over that lens but also hesitant because of the insanely expensive price. Zeiss touted this lens as a no-compromise lens to create the single best optic, but they neglected a few major points. A lens costing over $3,000 should have weather sealing and manual focus, but they didn’t have either. Still, the image quality really did prevail.
Around the same time, Sigma announced they’d be coming out with a 50mm f1.4 Art lens with autofocus. Amazingly, it held its own with the Zeiss 55mm Otus lens at a far cheaper cost. Lots of folks decided to go with slightly worse image quality fully understanding they could edit the images later on. They really wanted autofocus though.
Zeiss understood this–and found ways to press on. They delivered the Touit series of lenses for Fujifilm X mount and Sony E mount. We reviewed all of those and really liked them. But again, it was sometimes the price that held us back. Then Zeiss partnered with Sony on the full-frame cameras by delivering the Loxia and the Batis lens lineup. The latter had autofocus, but we haven’t seen anything from the company’s lens division since 2019. By that time, they had pretty much given up on DSLRs.
For the record, The Phoblographer has reviewed the most camera lenses of any publication in real-world reviews. We’ve done entire lens guides for their Milvus lenses while their Batis and Loxia lenses are rolled into our Sony FE Lens Guide. Trust me, if we could test them, we’d do so. Across the board, our staff tends to really like the challenge manual focus lenses give us. It makes our jobs a lot less monotonous.
There are some very odd, dark secrets in the camera and lens world. Some manufacturers make lenses for others. Other brands have closed-door deals. But Zeiss never managed to get autofocusing lenses for Canon or Nikon. However, they all had autofocus contacts for manual focusing. If Zeiss had just made some autofocus lenses, things probably would’ve been different.
So why did Zeiss stop making lenses for Sony? Well, it seems a few years ago that there might’ve been a big split of some sort. Since Sony bought Minolta, Zeiss and Sony were pretty much inseparable. On nearly every Sony lens, you’d see the Zeiss moniker. But then Sony bought into Tamron, and things shifted. That beautiful 35mm f2 lens that we’d seen on the Sony RX1R series ended up on the Zeiss ZX1.
Couple all this with the fact that Zeiss mostly pushes into the cinema world, and things just get kind of perplexing. For what it’s worth, Zeiss made some awesome lenses. But they haven’t made anything for Leica M-mount, Canon EF, Nikon F, Fujifilm X, or Sony FE in many years. Reps would tell me that they weren’t doing Micro Four Thirds because it’s not a professional standard.
And for a few years now, they’ve seemingly quietly left the photography industry. It’s unfortunate as they made a great product and made all the other companies work harder. But their prices were out of reach for a lot of photographers.
So where are we today? Well, their prices are still sky-high. Zeiss lenses for M-mount suffer from long-term durability issues like Zeiss Wobble. The Zeiss Milvus lens lineup remains to be the only weather-sealed lenses for Canon and Nikon. And Sony caught up with making their own lenses to ultimately prove that they didn’t need Zeiss in the end. Further, as DXOMark shows us, their older lenses are starting to show their age. Nikon, Sony, and others are starting to outdo them. With megapixels getting higher, it won’t be long until Zeiss is totally wiped off of the higher end of the list in clinical tests. Even their older Contax lenses are getting rehoused into M-mount.
But as we all know, there’s more to a lens than what a lab test shows. Unfortunately, photographers, these days understand that a lot more. At least, the younger photographers among us have better comprehension. In the end, it was too little, too late. And there’s still the ZX1, but everyone seems to fawn over the Leica Q2 instead.