The Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 Review {Portraiture}

Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 Review, Amanda CME / IG : marcus_low

Otus. The crème de la crème brand of the Germany’s Zeiss lens maker. My review focuses only on its aesthetic output for portraits and doing so using a DSLR and handheld.

All images shot here are done on Canon 6D MK II, Handheld, at wide open f1.4 except for snapshots of bags, camera setup itself done on phone.

We all know that story in 2013 when Zeiss launched the Otus 55 1.4, a standard lens type of focal length with a hefty price tag, some of us are quick to jump on the keyboard warrior pods while others sang praises with less than a day of using it.

I was one of them. When reviews started coming in with images of the Otus size, I was both baffled and intrigued. Baffled because of my own decision of using a Noctilux f1 (50mm) on a relatively small FF camera like the M9 or 240 tells me that it is not going to be a very practical lens.

Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 portrait, Amanda CME
Zeiss Otus 55 1.4, Amanda CME

Intrigued because, knowing Zeiss, this is a solid company that don’t just slap on a price tag because “we can”. What magic lies in that lens to justify the asking price? Sure, we all know the mantras shared in every darn forum and page on “gears don’t matter” , while the background chants sponsored by phone makers whispers “Let us just stick to our Iphones and huaweis”, but for those in the know, you want the best with you when you can. Phones and it’s yearly bs about replacing DSLRS and Mirrorless are just marketing gimmicks. Each year more baals worshippers join the herds as commercials done using dslrs are put up to mislead the public again and again.

Otus 55 1.4, Amanda CME

The day finally came when I sold off the Leica M240. For those looking to buy your first Leica camera, let me just put it this way, the M240 produces one of the most boring, most inaccurate white balance on any of the cameras I have owned and tried and its a huge list in my last 8 years of photography. What it is however, is a very beautiful camera and feels fantastic at hand.

After I left the m240, I essentially left Leica as a brand I would continue to pursue in my journey. Next on my list, Zeiss. So when I got an offer for the Otus 55 1.4, I took it and started shooting.

Zeiss Otus 55 f1.4 review
The Zeiss Otus 55 on Canon 6D Mk2

My main concerns and probably the same concerns that you will have

1.Will it be too heavy?

A Canon 50 1.2 weights 545g. The Otus 55 1.4 is 970g. It is not light but if you are looking for One Camera + One Lens and rule the world setup, this is it. I am a Asian guy, I don’t find it heavy and I am at 169 cm in height. I took it and walked with it the whole day and I feel its ok.

2. Is the size practical?

I would say this is an even bigger concern than weight. The good news is that the size can easily fit a small bag with the camera if you reverse mount the hood. If you want to carry the camera and lens with the hood in the normal position, then you will need a medium size bag.

zeiss otus 55 size
Zeiss Otus 55 f1.4 in a small bag x 300cm long

The red watch is a normal sized watch for the ladies so you can see here the small bag I mentioned is not “small like a wallet or jacket pocket” but it is a very common sized bag.

zeiss otus 55 size
Zeiss Otus 55, the One Camera One Lens Setup

3. How in the world do you manual focus accurately?

Aha! Let me share to you a technique I use just for this kind of setup. It is both practical, enjoyable and produce decently sharp results.

Here are some proof.

How to use manual focus on DSLR for the Otus 55 / Indoor / Handheld

And the crop results.

How to manually focus Zeiss Otus 55 1.4
100% Crop

So here is the technique and the criteria for using it.

  1. You will need a camera that supports Touch Screen (more on the whys later). On Canon this means 6D MK2 and newer.
  2. You must be able to turn on LiveView easily on the back of the DSLR
  3. You need a strap. The kind you hang over your neck and without too much elasticity.

You will need to stretch the camera out before you and have a bit of tension. This provides the stability to reduce handshakes that is needed especially for indoor type of shoot.

Press on the LiveView button, on the Canon 6DMK2, you can easily reach it using your right thumb while holding the camera with two hands.

COMPOSE! You do your composition now, ignore the focus point.

Press the Magnify button (or whichever button on your camera that allows you to select a focus point via touch). This is the reason why I insist that this technique requires touch screen, it makes the whole shooting process easy because you already composed your shot, there will be no recomposing.

Press the Magnify button twice (eg 6DMK2) or whichever button to get you maximum ZOOM. Twist that smooth focusing barrel on the Otus 55 1.4 and when you see the image is clear, just press the shutter, don’t worry about the image looking wobbly while being in the zoom mode.

So just to recap, you shoot using the liveview, compose first, click on the focus point, zoom in and manually focus on the zoomed-in image, press the shutter. All while having that tension between the camera and strap.

Marcus Low

What’s so great about the OTUS 55 1.4?

Now that we are done with the technique, let’s see why this lens is a must have for a standard focal length if you don’t mind manual focusing.

Contrast, Colors, Sharpness

The bokeh. I am a bokeh whore and there for a 50mm kinda portraits you will need bokeh. The Otus at 55 1.4 means you will have plenty of that, but who needs ugly bokeh?

Check out the ugly bokeh of some 50s that you have probably come across. Below is the 50 1.4 Canon USM.

Bokeh Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 vs Canon 50 1.4 USM
The model is beautiful (fb: colleen), the Bokeh is questionable

Now check out the Otus 55 1.4

Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 Bokeh
Zeiss Otus 55 1.4, Busy background but beautiful bokeh, Model Amanda CME

More examples of great COLORS, CONTRAST, SHARPNESS

Readers of my blogs will understand that I often prefer to demonstrate the points by picture instead of elaborate texts. So sit back and enjoy the images. Pay attention to the shifting tones between light and shadows, highlights and the falloff in depth of field rendering.

Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 portraits
Zeiss Otus 55 f1.4 portraits
Zeiss Otus 55 1.4, 3D POP!

Check out the colors! Those living in Malaysia know we don’t have the best angle for good sun light, every bit of advantage you get from the lens helps!

Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 portraits
Zeiss Otus 55 1.4 DOF renderings / Melaka

When I first got the lens and took some shots, I saw something I didn’t find in my other lenses. Something subtle yet makes the images different. I found it hard to pinpoint the factors. I spent some time reading the technical details on Zeiss own site and took notice of the amount of work their engineers had to do to create this lens.

Flare is like none-existing, instead you get a kind of glow.

Otus 55 f1.4 portraits glow
Otus 55 f1.4 portrait. Flare becomes a glow / no-flash

I am so happy with owning this lens, although admittedly I didn’t come in with the launching price, I wished I owned this lens much earlier and I would have happily paid the price for admission. Sometimes, the timing in technological advancement and features are just not there to make this connection, for example, I would have failed in using this if not for the touch screen introduced on the DSLR like 6DMk2.

Otus 55 f1.4 review
Bobba tea anyone? Cheers to Zeiss

Thanks for reading. You will notice I did not add any affiliate links to BHPhoto/Amazon or anywhere, that is because I am not paid for writing these, just sharing from one enthusiast to another. – Cheers.

Glasses {portraiture|medium format}

malaysia top portrait photographer

I wanted to write this piece after stumbling upon the story of this girl called Plaaastic. She died late last year, taking her own life after a series of what she would termed as being singled out by the universe for abuse.

(*all the images here are not related to plaaastic or anyone, they are taken by me for this illustration)

Looking at her instagram and content that she generates, i see a creative soul snuffed out of this world, an immature death. It’s hard to imagine how one can deal with a situation in life where you got betrayed by the one you loved, abused by parents, abandoned by friends, tried to stood up and reclaim her life only to be robbed on the streets.

Frankly after reading the part on her villain husband who was introduced to her by her photographer friend, i could only wonder, what an idiot he is.

This series of images is going to reflect the loneliness of such a life and the prison that one can be in. She is not alone, in the last few months, we have seen korean k-pop idols who took their own lives. One could never fathom the “why” but one could feel. I ended this series with a positive note, a hope and i hope those who feels trapped by these invisible walls, will find strength to stay on.

Glasses. A prison of the soul. 

You called out to those who seems so near. Yet they can’t hear you, your pleas and your plight found no one. Many are standing so near and yet the icy glass makes them so far.

Do we often create invisible barriers by our own decisions? A few steps to the right, a few to the left, are those steps all we needed for freedom. Do we walk right into another layer of glass even if we escaped this one?

malaysia top portrait photographer marcuslow

Draw strength by looking back! What if looking back we could only draw hurts and unlock hidden memories that are too painful to be held to our attention? What then, how can one continue the journey if every step taken in the past only draws us back to darkness.

Peace. What one took for granted, is priceless to some. Unattainable, remote, like stranger that does reply no matter how much we calls out to.  Each waves that swept over us are waves of disappointment.

But, then, we realize something. We could be happy. What if we are not trapped, but we are merely worthy of harder challenges in life to move us further up.

malaysia outdoor top portrait photographer marcuslow
enlightened

What if those who are actually trapped are these same people over the other side of the glass? People who are complacent and happy without direction nor purpose. Celebrating around a little fire that they started, unaware of the reality of life on the other side. Unable to offer help, they became like the deaf and mute.

freedom

Life is not a series of chance and tragedy. Life is about free gifts that are given to us, breath given to this Universe so that we could play a part in it, to experience Love and His great plan.

It cannot rain forever.

Kim {portraiture}

Invited a friend of mine for an outdoor portrait shoot at the popular Petaling Street. A group of friends requested that i organize this shoot for a friendly rate for the model. Since i don’t organize for fees, i just do the transportation and took a few shots while the group event took place.

Just sharing some of the images that i took during the shoot. The model is Kim Goh from Penang, i met her in 2013 when she participated in Miss Malaysia 2013 and was selected for the finals.

It been 5 years since and as the saying goes, Class is forever, beauty is temporal, Kim could easily carry out the portrait shooting successfully.

Enjoy the images.

Follow my instagram for  more images : marcus_low

outdoor portraiture guide kim
when u enjoy being with urself

kim goh outdoor portraiture marcus low
amber stripes

outdoor photography marcus low best malaysian photographer
that look

malaysia top outdoor portrait photographer marcus low
i don’t mind your ride

malaysia best photographer marcus low outdoor
kim + rolleiflex

marcus low photography outdoor
kim + rolleiflex

malaysia important outdoor photographer marcus low
it’s me

kim goh outdoor photography with marcus low malaysia
Love + Vintage

Portrait Sharing 1st Feb 2018 {film}

creating portraits that matters, malaysia

In following up with the guide i wrote about my opinion on natural model posing for outdoor portraits, i wanted to write a guide on how to create portraits that matters. I wrote a whole section about sunrise and sunset and why those moments add that magic to otherwise common portraits and four other elements. But i stopped.

One of the things i told myself this year is that i won’t be creating images driven by the need to feed the public. Neither should i be writing blogs about technicalities and compositions rules, instead i should be sharing what i feel, what is true to myself and the reasons i took the images.

*All the images here are taken on ProImage100, 50f1.4 on a Nikon U2 film camera.

creating portraits that matters Malaysia
“..and she turned around, with the glory of the sun behind her”

“There is this theme that i wanted to shoot. It’s going to be somewhere between Shah Alam and Klang and i am going to do it on film”, I told Angela. Angela, a popular social influencer and a friend of mine, wasn’t a big fan of film, her work requires her to publish image quickly and create interesting content. She uses Instax and Fujifilm X-A3 cameras, both choices suggest that getting results fast, matters.

This is not the first time that i did this nature, sunset theme but it is a theme that i should do more often cause it is one of those theme that i won’t get tired of doing.

sunset portraits film in malaysia
“the wind blew past her hair, the lilies greets the gentle breeze”

There really isn’t anything around that is more beautiful than that moment when the sun rises and when it retreats, the glorious golden light separates the night from the day. These are moments that you can find almost in anywhere else in the world and it lights up the landscapes and people caught in the rays beautifully.

film portraiture in sunset in Malaysia
“she embraces that moment, that whispers from nature itself”

Each day when i woke up, it is a gift. How often this divine gift is quickly drowned by the cares of this world, the evil news that floods my facebook timeline and the griefs of the world crying out to all who would hear. More than often, i swam with the flow and echoes what is out there. These images i create, i wish above all else, that it would be useful to my friends and it would grant the viewer a moment of serenity.

A moment that you breathe.

film portraits of models in analogue in Malaysia
“when the sun embraces her, it was as if a cosmic dress was worn, whose threads are made of gold”

Truth is, living is hard enough. Recently two korean pop artist left the world leaving both observers and fans grieving and fuming over the incidents. While it is very easy to point fingers at celebrities giving up their lives while others struggle to keep them, the crux of the matter is that it is simply the outcome of the lost of a battle. The battleground took place in the heart and the mind and not the physical world and when the battle is lost in your mind, your body could never survive. You have no idea how lonely these people are and why they felt that death, is the way out. The real cowards are not these celebrities that gave up, the real cowards are those who pledge religious cause to take away the life of the innocents.

Life was given to us free.

suicide is not the solution, Love is.
“she walks towards the unknown, the path is there, lighted by the sun”

film portrait of angela in malaysia
“a lily from the roadside”

I hope that these images would inspire you to create more images that promotes life, serenity, peace and love. These images are not about sexy, fine art nor highly fashionable in any sense. They are meant to be comforting to look at, to enact the moment of being there, seeing life in a care-free world.

film portrait of angela in malaysia
“life comes with gifts, sufficient on its own”

I just had to share this story. When we were at this place scouting to find a spot to shoot, we saw a cluster of giant lilies in the middle of the field. So I drove there slowly as the terrain is kinda off road, then we notice something moving in front of those giant lilies…a huge snake. We gave up the idea quickly and went to the roadside and this series was created.

Thanks for visiting and reading my blog. Sometimes my blogs are hard to read simply because they reflect fragments of my thoughts that could be unstructured.

When you don’t have the time to even read a blog, you can visit my instagram, they contain tags of my friends that i collaborated with and say hello while you are there.

* The films are developed by my favourite lab in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Marcus’s random Natural outdoor portraiture guide {film|portraiture}

best guide for natural outdoor portraits

Sometimes…maybe often, i would look for new portraits inspiration on the Internet. The best came from some obscure photographers that publishes their work more for storage rather than sharing, many good ones comes from social influencers that thru practice and hard work became skilful in creating them. However…there are quite a number that appears on seemingly professional photographers websites but are cringe worthy and makes me wonder if perhaps i have a different level of acceptance or culture.

I learn portraits by practice, joining workshops and practice. I am blessed with lots of beautiful friends that i met while pursuing my photography passion and it would be an injustice to them and myself if i didn’t focus on portraits.

I would therefore share 5 of the key reminders that i personally use in my portraits and i do mostly outdoor portraits based on available light. I am going to skip thru the normal guides like “look for interesting light”, “rules of 3rd” and those other stuffs that you can find elsewhere.

I shot all images here on Nikon U2 with Kodak ProImage100 film on a 50mm lens. Model friends ig: x.x.angela, stephyyiwen

ig: marcus_low

1. It doesn’t always have to have eye contact

best natural outdoor portraiture guide
eye contact is not always necessary

Join a group shoot and look at the photos, chances are 90/100 of those photos are images of the model or person looking straight into your camera.

While its ok and you should definitely have photos with eye contact with the model, those images quickly becomes boring when almost every single one of them are the same expression of “look into the camera”.

For shoulder and head portraits, eye contact are classical approach for getting good portraits, but it should not be more than 70% of your total images.

I find the approach of being the invisible photographer a much more rewarding approach than “look into the camera” approach. The best images are always the most natural and one where you want the person to feel very relax as though ur not there.

2. Head and shoulders portraits are boring

best natural outdoor portraiture guide
Include more of the environment background with the model

There is a true story of a group of friends that book a flight to a overseas country and went to a beautiful site to do a photoshoot of a model that joined them in the trip. They then proceed to take out their 85mm and 135mm lenses and started shooting.

The resulting images are all photos of the model without any background whatsoever. The blurring of the background and the background inclusion were so minimal that one might as well rent a studio to save cost.

Always try to include some of the environment that the model is in, preferably if the model can have some form of interaction with the environment.

On the other hand, if you going to shoot for wedding photographs, (this is where i differ from the current trend seen in Asia), it’s not a scenery shoot, don’t go shooting the couples looking like miniature figures in a beautiful scenery.  A few years down the road the son or daughter will be looking at that image and wonder who are those people in the scenery.  Might as well buy a poster of that scenery and pin it up.

3. This is not a fashion show, don’t pose like one

best natural outdoor portraits
Even leaves, yes leaves.

Unless you are doing a fashion shoot where you have this tall model wearing some designer ultra urban dress, avoid doing fashion poses in the natural outdoor. Those poses often only makes sense when showing off the clothes or if it’s done with conceptual/artistic background.

For everyone else, including the model that just dressed nice and looking beautiful, your aim should be to take photos that makes her look natural. Poses can be interesting by having some props around like a camera, book, bag or even leaves.

Poses are very important to give the image a sense of comfort and candid feel.

4. Bokeh are good if they are 1.4

best guide for natural outdoor portraits
Bokeh are a big differentiator

There are only two kinds of photographers in portraiture. Those that use bokeh and those that use f1.4 bokeh. I am not saying 1.4 is the same across all focal length, the idea is to use the largest aperture lens that you can find and use that to your advantage.

You see, bokeh and shooting with shallow depth of field differentiates your images with those fake iphones/android types of portraits. If you are not shooting with shallow dof and leveraging on bokeh characteristic of lenses, you might as well shoot with a phone. Eric Kim once posted something silly about his Samsung results are as good as a medium format and he could just be right if you are shooting without any shallow dof.

If you are using a 50mm lens, well, 50 1.8 is the most common 50 mm lens that is available in almost any camera, the idea is to avoid that “normal” range and go for the 1.4.  You want different results, use something different (probably the least important criteria to get good results, but good vs different is a different story, get it?)

5. Don’t over edit

best outdoor portraiture photography guide
keep it natural.

Hell have a special place for three(3) types of photographers. First, those who exploit new models for nude shoot in the name of art, those who use HDR on portraits and lastly, this group outnumber the first two by a large margin…those who liquify and edit their subject generously.

While its perfectly understandable that female subjects would love to look flattering in your photos, you know the edit is too much if anyone who sees that person have an “ouch” effect. “Ouch, she don’t look like anything in her photos” kinda ouch.

Clearing blemishes, spots and lighten the dark circles and the model would look really good as though as he/she had a very good makeup artist. But slimming her down like 30% or making those alien V faces and pulling the legs longer is just no no no. Fact is you would be doing the model more harm than good and you should be drawing anime instead of photography.

* this photo has editing done on the eye’s dark circles.

In 2018, i would love to do more collaborations with models for outdoor shoot but with heavy focus on “feel”. How do we define “feel”, it is that feeling that you get when you look at the photo and you could feel the serenity, loneliness or the joy of that person.

 

The Vietnam Connection {portraits | film | experience}

It dawn upon me that some of the “best” photographers are the famous photographers. In today’s age of internet and social media, popularity and fame falls upon those that are able to blog and express their photos. Maybe its not a popular opinion but from time to time i am often confounded at the quality of portraits or streets that are shared by some online photographers. Its not that they are bad, they just didn’t satisfy my thirst for inspirations.

So i asked myself, “if u think ur better, why don’t u share more of your portraits, gears and street photos, maybe similar minded folks out there could be looking for some inspirations too”. Thank you, 2018, lets just do more of that. In my posts i will attempt to share images, gears and street photos all in one article per post.

I visited Hanoi on 26th-30th december, hazy and cloudy, there isn’t much good lighting to look forward to but i was really excited to see some of the unique scene in Hanoi and wanted to do some shoot there with a model.

I had this peculiar camera with me, its nearly a 80 years old and do or die, it’s the only gear i brought with me.

rolleiflex portraiture film
The rolleiflex 75mm f3.5 automat

 

I brought along some Kodak 400 porta and Fuji 160NS 120 films.  After walking around the streets i notice a unique occurrence in the Old Quarters where a live railway runs thru the city, this is it, i told myself, i need to do an album here.

Thru SanAsia Event, a model was selected for my shooting, her name is Phuong Thao. The agent Miss Dao Thuong from SanAsia Event is a savvy and charming lady, she  told me that Phuong Thao is one of the top 30 in Miss Vietnam search but her dreams are cut short because she could not fund her own glamour outfits nor photo-shoot.

rolleiflex in vietnam portraiture
Miss Thao Phuong, Rolleiflex 75 f3.5, Fuji 160Pro film

vietnam film portraiture rolleiflex
Miss Thao Phuong, Rolleiflex 75 f3.5, Fuji 160NS

 

Miss Thao could understand english but her pronunciations of the english language sounded queer to me. The agent Miss Dao told me that this is a common problem in Hanoi, mainly because graduates are taught in the wrong pronunciations.

While shooting i thought of how lucky the other pageants and contests are in other countries as most of the requirements and needs are covered by sponsorships and the organizers.

After shooting two rolls of film, Miss Dao from SanAsia suggested that we should do the next shoot at Long Bien Bridge, a french architecture marvel that is still supporting the commuting activities in Hanoi.

rolleiflex film portraiture vietnam
Long Bien Bridge, Rolleiflex 75 f3.5, Porta400

000006000009

Despite the weather which was hazy and the light is flat, film tones are just so beautiful. It brings out the moment and the very life of the scene, when i look at these images i thought to myself, “wow, i could just reenact the scene and hear the sounds of the bikes and see the hazy ambiance”.

Shooting with film has always been special because i need to manually focus the Rolleiflex and i always shoot wide open regardless of camera and lens. On the Rolleiflex automat this require a lot more effort because the focusing screen is just a ground glass, relatively dim with no split screen or focus confirmation of any sorts, you just have to see the image and when you believe you got it in “focus”, you press the shutter.

The efforts slows down your photoshooting tremendously, i needed to do it fast so that Miss Phuong Thao here won’t be posing too awkwardly waiting for me. It is those very effort and focus that you do while shooting film that your mind embeds the scene with everything in it far beyond what you can remember on a casual snapshot.

So how fast was i? Here is an image of a man riding a bicycle while walking his dog in Hanoi.

rolleiflex street film photographer
man, bicycle and a dog, Rolleiflex 75 f3.5 Porta400

 

The guy running the film lab in Kuala Lumpur didn’t believe this is possible. Well, it is. In fact i am a lot slower than Vivian Maier if you have seen her works, those photos that she did with shallow depth of field on the street, they are impossible to be shot slowly.

Here are some other images on the street that i took.

000010

portraiture rolleiflex film hanoi
Farmers of Ninh Bimh, north of Hanoi, Rolleiflex 75 f3.5, Fuji 160NS

 

I did bring along a backup camera, my phone, the Google Pixel2. I also took some pictures using it on the rails and the bridge, the results are too crappy to be shared here. Despite being the latest and greatest in mobile photography, “portrait mode” results is far from usable except in the most common scenario of poses.

Feel free to see some of the fail cases of Google Pixel2 here.

Today we live in a world where instant gratification and yada yada is cutting short our experiences and joy in many ways. Film photography as painful as it is, brings back some “pauses” to this world.