Traditional Indian industry documented with the ZEISS Batis 2.8/135
My wife suggested we remove ourselves from our comfort-zone and head out-of-town and shoot from the hip. A few hotel bookings were made and soon we were on the road with the Sony A7R2, the new ZEISS Batis 2.8/135. I wanted to be able to shoot on the go but still be able to control the ambient light to achieve the look that I wanted.
Photographers are some of the luckiest people on this planet. We have a handful of manufacturers fighting for our attention and our money. They will move mountains to grab that edge to win the specifications war. There are two manufacturers who seem to have ignored what everybody else is doing and gone about things their own way.
One of them is the Japanese manufacturer, Sony. Sony makes a majority of the sensors that find their way into cameras that are created by various manufacturers including Fuji, Hasselblad, Phase One and Nikon. They practically own the mirror less market with their fantastic full-frame and crop-sensor offerings as well as the much smaller 1″ sensor offerings in the compact segment.
The other is the German optics manufacturer, ZEISS. ZEISS used to manufacture lenses for Hasselblad until not too long ago. They make a variety of lenses across all camera mounts and sensors. From Cine lenses to fixed lenses on consumer cameras all the way down to mobile phone camera lenses. ZEISS is a strong brand with phenomenal brand recall. Their Batis series of lenses are not the fastest (F-stop) but the rendering is recognizably “ZEISS” and visibly different from similar lenses from other manufacturers.
The famous ZEISS look is a quality that makes an image leap out of the screen and make you wonder “Did I really shoot that!?”
When you combine the technical brilliance of Sony cameras with the stoic and resolute self confidence of ZEISS lenses, you end up with something that is both affordable and incredibly powerful in the hands of a photographer. For many, the aspirational ZEISS Otus lenses are out of reach. For those who can afford the Milvus or Loxia series, the lack of auto focus may be a deal-breaker. I own the Sony A7R2 and I use the Metabones Mk4 adapter to mount the Canon 16-35 F/4, 50 F/1.8 STM, Rokinon 14 F/2.8 and other Canon lenses. For a photographer like me who has always aspired to shoot naively with ZEISS lenses and experience the “pop”, the announcement of the Batis lenses for the Sony E-Mount was exciting news!
ZEISS Batis – Compact, high-performance lenses for Sony mirrorless cameras
Here was a series of E mount ZEISS lenses I could afford and, as an added bonus, they came with very fast and accurate focus! It was a very easy decision to buy the ZEISS Batis 1.8/85 and my jaw dropped when I experienced the performance of the lens and the sharpness and rendering of the images when it was used with the Sony A7R2. I let go of my Canon and Rokinon lenses to go native E-Mount with the Batis 1.8/85. I also have the ZEISS Batis 2/25 and Batis 2.8/18. I have executed several commercial and personal shoots with the Batis series as well as the excellent Loxia and Milvus lineup.”
Like most photographers I started my journey as a photographer with Nikon. In 2013 I picked up my first DSLR (a Nikon D600 with 14-24/2.8, 85/1.8, 300/4, 70-200/4) and within a year I switched to mirrorless with the excellent offering from Fuji (XT1, 10-24/4, 56/1.2). The combination of a portrait lens and a wide-ultrawide lens worked perfectly for me. The quantum of weight and volume I shed by moving to Fuji had several benefits and it made me a better photographer purely because my back did not give up carrying my gear to remote locations or during a long and tiring day. This unobtrusive nature of the mirrorless system was key to helping me get into places or up close to people who were camera shy.
After I switched to Sony I found myself shooting with large adapted Canon lenses. There were no compelling lenses from Sony at the time (soon after the A7R2 was launched). The weight and volume was back! I found myself wondering if the added dynamic range, resolution and RAW file handling convenience was really worth the switch. I desperately needed compact lenses that were designed for the E mount. The Batis lenses ticked all the items in my wish-list and I was hooked!
The ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 landed in my hands on the 10th of March. The by now familiar packaging of ZEISS was discarded quickly and I held the lens in my hands for the first time. A key difference from the Batis 1.8/85 and Batis 2/25 is that the focus ring is much bigger and feels like it was handed down from the Milvus line. Now, I am not spec savvy and do not know for sure if this is a focus-by-wire system or not but THIS is how a focus ring should feel. The focus rings on the Batis 1.8/85 and 2/25 did not quite measure up to what I had expected from a ZEISS lens. The 135mm has a proper focus ring that gives you a sense of authority when you switch to manual focus. Anyone who has shot with the Loxia 2/50 or any of the Milvus or older ZEISS lenses will know what I am talking about.
The lens is a little bit heavier than the Batis 85mm but still feels surprisingly light and well balanced on the A7R2. Build quality is top-notch and this lens is dust and moisture sealed. I do wish they had seen fit to give this a metal hood, even as an optional extra. These long lenses tend to stick out a fair bit and I did knock this one on a few doorways. Perhaps the plastic is better at absorbing the shock rather than transmitting it to the chassis of the lens? I do love the Milvus 2.8/21 and the metal hood on that lens is a work of art on its own!
Overcoming the creative trough
So I had the lens…and I drew a blank! I had nothing to shoot and no source of inspiration. I was tired of shooting the same scenes from around Chennai. The problem with photography today is that it has a very high “Cliche to Original” ratio. Everything sort of looks like something you have seen the day before. The rate at which I browse through images, beautiful albeit, on Instagram makes me wonder if we are being badgered with so much imagery that we are slowly becoming desensitized.
The box and lens just sat there on my desk as a reminder of my laziness and every time I walked into my office I would avoid looking at that corner. The fact that this was probably one of the handful of lenses handed over to photographers world-wide served to amplify my guilt. The pressure was building and I was almost content to call ZEISS and tell them that they would be better off finding someone else to shoot with it because I had run out of ideas. But my wife had the solution. She suggested we remove ourselves from our comfort-zone and head out-of-town and shoot from the hip. A few hotel bookings were made and soon we were on the road with the Sony A7R2, the new Batis 2.8/135, Einstein Vagabond Mini, Elinchrom FRX400 and a Rotalux 70. I wanted to be able to shoot on the go without having to search for wall-power and with the Elinchrom Skyport Plus HS trigger, I could control the ambient light better to achieve the look that I wanted. I did take the Batis 2/25 and Batis 1.8/85 along but I forced myself to shoot with the 135mm even in situations where the wider lenses would have made life easier.
We spent the next 5 days on the road from Chennai to Rameshwaram, Dhanushkodi, Karaikudi, Athangudi, Kanadukathan and Kumbakonam. The idea was to photograph traditional Indian cottage industry and handicraft workers going about their routine.
Engaging with the 135mm focal length
What the Batis 2.8/135 brought home was the ability to pull in the distant backgrounds and make them significant again. As you go wider, the background distances itself from the subject and becomes less apparent. With the longer lenses it pulls right back in. I could now work with backgrounds that had textures and colors that made my subject pop right off and out of the screen. Many of the locations were small and dark. I ended up shooting with my back against the wall or through a window or doorway while standing outside the room where the action was happening. In a few photographs I am actually standing in the middle of a busy street shooting back through the doorway and into a small room. With a 135mm lens, you have to accommodate for the working distance if you want to shoot full body / wide shots. It is possible and I shot several of these because I believe that the body language is not communicated with a tight half-body shot. If you watch a cyclist in action, they generate power from the legs as well as their core. Their arms provide stability and control. Shooting a tight shot of a cyclist can look interesting but it tells only half the story. I try to shoot full body shots so I can capture the energy from every extremity.
The aperture question: f/2.8?
Now let us talk about the number that everyone is raising eyebrows about, the F stop. At f/2.8 it is collecting roughly half the light than the Milvus 2/135 or the excellent Canon L 135/F2. I rarely shot at f/2.8 though because I had my strobe with me. Had I been shooting with natural light then I might have been happier working with a faster lens that would afford faster shutter speeds and lower ISOs. For my style of photography, the lighting has to enhance the image and help tell the story. Natural light was not suitable in the situations in which I was shooting. These are ancient cottage industries that have not changed much since the days of chariots, clan lords and gratuitous violence. The rooms were dark and there was precious little light trickling through holes in the roof or through the windows. Even the f/1.2 lenses would have struggled to shoot using ambient light in these conditions.
Shooting with a powerful strobe hooked up to a battery gave me the flexibility to work around the slower F stop of the lens. I did not test the image stabilization as I did most of my photographs with the camera perched on a tripod. Most of the images below were shot between f/4 and f/8 with a majority sitting in the f/5.6 bucket. My own personal style aside, will you miss having the larger f/2 aperture if you bought this lens? I don’t know. If you use lights at all or shoot in a studio, it should not matter. I have tried shooting with fast F:1.2 Canon lenses and while the bokeh is smooth and ethereal, I am happy to trade that for quick AF and a delightful rendering that is populary known as the ZEISS “pop”.
Experience the ZEISS ‘pop’
The sharpness of this lens depends a lot on where you shoot. Out in the open on a hot day with the sun rising up I had some softness creeping in from the convection currents in the air. This was exacerbated by the longer focal length. You can see this effect to some extent in the image of the horses at Dhanushkodi.
The ZEISS rendering means a lot to me. It forms the foundation of the look that I use to tell my stories. The lighting accentuates the look and actually thrives on it. When I get both of them right, I can make a powerful image. I do not get this rendering or the “look” that I am after when I shoot with other glass with the exception of the Sony 55mm and the 85mm G-Master. I have shot with the Sigma Art series of lenses and I love the build quality and the pricing. I personally believe the Sigma lenses are highly competent and do no disservice to the camera and sensor. As you start to rein in your “look” you will automatically gravitate towards the glass that helps you achieve it. Some of you will stick with Canon, others will prefer Sigma and some of you will not deviate from ZEISS.
My desire is to show you a scene precisely how I see it. There is nothing lost in translation. What you get is what I see when I observe a scene, sense the mood, smell the energy, hear the thwack of the chisel against the metal, feel the heat from the summer sun against your skin and experience the gravity as your knees buckle under the load that these workers carry around as they do what they and their ancestors have been doing for centuries.
$2,000.00 is more money than you would pay for a Sigma 1.8/135 or the excellent Canon 2/135. What makes this ZEISS Batis so special? You have to shoot with it to experience the Autofocus performance and the quality of the image at all apertures. I am confident it will be a great tool for videographers as well. The ZEISS look is unique and I depend on it and get a kick out of it. Finally the lethargic AF of the other non-native (adapted) 135mm lenses feels disappointing after shooting with the ZEISS Batis 2.8/135. These factors make the Batis 2.8/135 worth the money. To gander at all images I shot with this lens! Here is my story.