Sony Alpha, Loxia and Tradition – Interviewing Christophe Casenave from ZEISS
Ever wanted to know why ZEISS Loxia lenses have gained such a great reputation among many photographers in such a short time? Find out more in this interview.
Finnish Sony Alpha-photographer and a true Loxia fan Toni Ahvenainen talked with Christophe Casenave from ZEISS, who is, not only a product manager for the Loxia lens family, but also a truly enthusiastic expert when it comes to lens design. Join in while they talk about the Sony Alpha cameras, ZEISS Loxia lenses and hear what makes them special compared to anything else out there.
Toni: Hello Christophe and thank you for this unique opportunity. It’s not very often that I get this kind of opportunity to discuss about particular lens family with its the product manager. I appreciate this and I’m very happy to have some questions for you.
Christophe: You’re welcome.
Toni: Let’s start with the Sony Alpha cameras. During the recent year ZEISS has showed a great interest in Sony Alpha mirrorless system and invested much into it. Not only have you had one lens family for the Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras, but actually a three of them: Touit, Loxia and Batis. Now with a new α7RII Sony has of course become a serious challenger in the camera markets and many professional photographers moving into Sony Alpha system, but this was not always the case since for years Sony was really an underdog compared to certain other manufacturers. It would be interesting to hear that in what point did ZEISS, as a company, realize the potential of the Sony mirrorless cameras? Was there any specific product involved or was it just a cumulative process?
Christophe: It was a cumulative process. ZEISS recognized very early the high potential of the Sony E-mount system. This is the reason why we are an early bird, delivering already a lot of lenses, both as part of our cooperation with Sony, but also as standalone with our Touit, Loxia and Batis families.
Toni: We all know that the DSLR-sales have declined for couple of years already and it has probably affected how the lenses for Canon or Nikon are doing as well. However for the mirrorless systems it looks quite opposite and especially the Sony Alpha system is doing great. How important is the Sony Alpha system for ZEISS currently? I would guess you probably still sell a lot more Milvus ZE and ZF.2 lenses, but since the camera industry is shedding its skin with the mirrorless cameras the Sony Alpha must have some kind of special status in your catalogue, no?
Christophe: Both systems have advantages and drawbacks. While current mirrorless cameras allow to have in your hand a very compact yet powerful gear, they are often criticized for the ergonomics and other aspects like battery lifetime. Many people also do prefer to look through a real optical viewer rather than on an EVF. DSLR on the other hand are seen as reliable working house yet heavy. We believe that both concept might provide benefits to different group of users, that’s why we continue investing in lens development for both type of systems. Sony Alpha is nevertheless very important for us, as it is one of the most rapidly evolving system, the one in which most innovation is brought at the moment and it is a system in a phase of professionalization. We believe that we can help making this system appealing to professional photographers by providing pro-grade lenses.
Toni: What do you think was the reason for success behind the Sony’s α7-concept? Is it, for example, the compactness, full frame sensor or simply the thing that the old DSLR-concept is getting somewhat tired and doesn’t reflect, from designs point of view, the peoples vision of photography any more.
Christophe: There are many aspects. The compactness being one, but not only. If you read photography web pages, many people like to provide old lenses they owned, or sometimes their parents owned, a second life. Even if these lenses are not ‘up-to-date’ or modern in terms of quality, they provide some kind of nostalgic look. Only this system allows to adapt so many older lenses. The Sony Alpha system has also advantages in terms on how you get involved with photography. If you are trying to get involved, you might be somehow afraid of trying DSLR: these cameras talk to me and tell me ‘I’ll be difficult to use’. And now that the lens portfolio for the Sony system is getting serious, there is no reason at all any more to not adopt it.
Toni: Let’s talk a bit about the Loxia lenses since you are the creative brain behind this lens family and I’m sure many of my readers would like to hear your thoughts about them. Now, I’ve tried out all the current Loxia lenses (except the new Loxia 2.8/21) and there is one key thing I really love about these lenses: it’s how the overall concept of this family is tied into values and aesthetics of traditional photography rather than in technology. With the Loxia lenses ZEISS is really offering something different here. For example, let’s start with the fact that these lenses are intentionally designed to be used by manual focusing. To me, this as well as the other key aspects of the family challenges the current paradigm of the digital camera industry where everything is automated and very performance orientated. I believe this kind of ‘going against the stream’ is needed and to me it tells that there might exist a certain kind of need to move the technology outside and bring man back to photography, like it was decades ago before the current performance orientated culture. How did you come up with this kind of concept? I would guess the manual focusing comes from ZEISS’s own engineering tradition pretty naturally, but it surely takes a certain courage to offer it to Sony Alpha system which very much based in the pure technological performance. Where there any concerns that these kind of lenses would not find their users in today’s camera culture?
Christophe: While the biggest majority of customers are happy with autofocus lenses, we received quite a lot of request for high craftsmanship quality manual lenses. We also remarked that many people were adapting our ZM lenses, even if they are not all optimal for the digital sensor. In addition, we figured out that the AF lenses, while still quite compact, compared to DSLR lenses, still tend to get bigger on this system. The combination of these three factors gave us the idea to develop a new family of very compact, very high craftsmanship manual lenses, integrated the most loved aspects of the mirrorless system (the automatic focus assist) and also the transmission of EXIF data. As we were answering to an existing demand, we have not been that much worried about the appeal that the lenses would find on the market.
Toni: Now the Loxia lenses has been selling very nicely and they are pretty much out of stock everywhere. It sounds to me like the ZEISS has caught by a bit of a surprise with Loxias success. Have this changed the way ZEISS sees Sony Alpha cameras and their users?
Christophe: Not at all. For us it was always clear that the Sony system could also address some of the old rangefinder users by providing the same kind of user experience with a much more affordable and versatile way. This is of course not the main user target of the system, but it cannot be neglected.
Toni: The first two lenses of the Loxia family, the Loxia 2/35 and Loxia 2/50, were adapted from rangefinder ZM family. Was this just a practical decision or did the ZM family work as a some kind of concept model the Loxia, regarding lens size, intended application and rendering?
Christophe: As the Loxia family stands for itself and does not really complete some existing focal length range, we decided to start with the most used focal length: 35 mm and 50 mm. In addition to that, it comes out that we had these designs in our drawers, so it was easier and faster to adapt them to the Sony cameras. This is why we have been so fast at providing these lenses.
“You are right, the Loxia 2/35 is probably the lens that represents the ZEISS look the best.”
Toni: Another way to investigate how the Loxia lenses are tied into traditional photography is to see how they convoy that traditional ‘ ZEISS-look’ for which ZEISS is known in the photography circles around the world. Especially the Loxia 2/35 is wonderful in this regard, would you agree? I know we are entering a bit into the ‘subjective zone’ here and ‘how the lenses render’ is really a context sensitive question because people look different things through their lenses, but how would you describe that traditional ‘ ZEISS-look’ which characterizes the Loxia family so well?
Christophe: You are right, the Loxia 2/35 is probably the lens that represents the ZEISS look the best. I would say it is very sharp, but not too sharp, very contrasty, but not too contrasty. When stopped down a bit, it will give you a nice 3D pop up effect for the objects in the near field. When fully opened, you will get probably one of the most creamy and beautiful bokeh that any lens can give you!
Toni: Do you think that in lens design what ‘looks good’ is same as technical perfection? Or to put same question into more provocative form, can the beautiful rendering be reduced into technical attributes? To understand where I’m coming from, I’ve got a feeling that nowadays most of the lens manufacturers share a very similar understanding of what makes lenses good.The normative measureable attributes, such as ‘sharpness’, ‘chromatic aberrations’, ‘flat focus field’, etc. play the dominant role here and what ‘looks good’ or is in some other way ‘aesthetically desirable’ is largely left offside – at least in marketing brochures and in general discourse which is transmitted through reviews and such.
Christophe: These parameters are of course very important to characterize a lens, but they are not enough at all. It is a bit like talking about the ‘quality’ of a wine. What does this concept mean? Nothing! Of course some are objectively very bad, but within the ‘good’ ones, which one is better or worse … that’s up to your taste. I consider it to be the same for a good lens. One must try it with real world subjects and not only cold test charts to figure out if he likes it. The Loxia 2/35 is of course a good lens, even an excellent one. But when one looks at the test charts, you would ‘only’ qualify it as ‘an excellent lens’ by technical means. But within all the excellent lenses on the market, I fell in love with the Loxia 2/35. And I know that I am not the only one.
“The lens talks to you and tells you it does not want to be used like any other lens. It forces you to think about what you are photographing and how you do this.”
Toni: One special topic that needs to be raised when talking about the Loxia and tradition is really the build quality of these lenses.I trust I’m not too far off when I say that among the photographers of today there is a certain discontent regarding how the camera industry have become just a part of consumer electronics. Where there once was ‘build to last’ mentality and honor there is now a certain ‘plastic feeling’ and ‘everlasting upgrade continuum’ which really reflects the character of our time. But the Loxia lenses are different in this regard also. With their traditional full metal bodies and perfect finishing they seem to carry a certain kind of persistence and longevity in them, which at least to me, feels like a healthy ideal for a change. These are not the lenses you sell once another product appears into market.These are more like a ‘lifetime buddies’ that grow with you – just like the cameras,which we use for capturing life in all its beauty and perishableness, should be. Is this kind of ‘build to last’ and persistence a conscious stance that ZEISS have taken with the Loxia and do you think that going against the current manufacturing culture can change, not only how people feel about their equipment, but also how they use them and feel about their photography in general?
Christophe: I believe that holding a lens like the Loxia, feeling the very high manufacturing quality it applies, forces you to respect it in some sense. The lens talks to you and tells you it does not want to be used like any other lens. It forces you to think about what you are photographing and how you do this. Feeling the quality makes you enjoy composing photos and take time. It brings also real fun.
Toni: Now the ZEISS Loxia 2.8/21 is the newest member in the Loxia lensfamily. This one is a totally new optical design and not adapted from the ZM family. What kind of design choices did you take to ensure that the characteristic and the nice rendition of the Loxia-family is conveyed with the new Loxia 2.8/21?
Christophe: We could not do a symmetrical design, because we needed to ensure that the ray angle is low enough to avoid any kind of aberrations in the corners. As such, we chose a Distagon, with a very light retro-focus.
Toni: By looking at the MTF-curves of the new Loxia 2.8/21, it seems to me that this a sort of engineering miracle considering the quite small physical size of this lens. It looks even better than the much bigger and two times heavier ZEISS Milvus 2.8/21. How on earth was this possible?
Christophe: Computation power allows us nowadays to optimize and calculate things we could not a couple of years ago. This together with the growing experience of our designers makes it possible.
Toni: Our small interview is coming to an end and like in all interviews I need to summarize it for the nice ending. One way to put it could be to state that ZEISS is very good creating products that are more than sum of their parts. I think the Loxia lenses are a great example of this kind of product which are not just ‘optically great lenses’ in a technical sense, but also something which convoy a certain craftsmanship and fine design philosophies that make them, at least in my eyes, aesthetically and intellectually satisfying to use.This kind of product design definitely differentiates ZEISS from other manufacturers out there, but what do you think is the most challenging aspect of lens design in today’s world? How do you find the right kind of concepts in a world where there are several other manufacturers also pushing the envelope of what is optically possible? What would you like to challenge next?
Christophe: Majority of lenses look very technical, not only in their rendering, but also with their outer design. You immediately recognize that you own and use a ‘gear’. ZEISS lenses are not only gear, they are tools that are made to help photographers being great artists, a bit like paintbrushes. This is why we tried to design them with a timeless, sleek and non-technical design.
Toni: Time for the last question. You find yourself at the desert island with the Sony Alpha α7RII (don’t ask how the battery charger works, it’s fictional island). You only get to take one lens with you and it can be any single lens from either Touit, Loxia or Batis family. Which one would it be?
Christophe: Even if I literally fell in love with the Loxia 2/35, my new favorite is the Loxia 2.8/21. On a desert island, in order to survive, you need to look at your world with new perspectives: this is exactly what you will get with this lens. It is a technically perfect lens with very strong character. Like I have always mentioned: it’s a jewel.