You might think 40mm sounds like a strange focal length. I know I did. But this lens surprised me in all the best ways.
Last month I was sent the Zeiss Batis 40mm f/2 Close Focus E-Mount Lens to review. At first I was a bit hesitant. A 40mm lens? That focal length seemed like a strange nowhere land for lenses, but I was intrigued enough to give it a try. After using — and abusing — this lens for a month, I have a lot of thoughts.
Before we get started, for people on a time crunch, I’ll list my favorite, and not so favorite, aspects of this lens.
The Great Stuff:
- Well Built
- Weather Sealed
- Close Focus Option
- Fast, Quiet, Smooth Autofocus
- Very Little Distortion
The Not So Great Stuff:
- Rubber Focus Ring
- Sony E mount or APS-C Only
I want to make it clear that I am going to focus on the practical elements of this lens as it relates to the way I shoot. I am not a gear head, so I don't think it would be honest or fair for me to try and compare the technical specifications of this lens to other similar lenses in the market, if there are any. Neither will I mention any genres of photography with which I am not conversant. But I can let you know what it was like to shoot with this lens, how I feel about the images I produced with it, and what kinds of photography this lens seems suitable for.
When I opened the box for the Zeiss Batis 40mm, my first thought was, “Dang, that is a sleek looking lens!" My next thought was, "Holy moly, this thing is light!" This good-looking lens weighs in at 12.7oz (361g.) The only lens I own similar in size and focal length is the Sigma ART 50mm f/1.4, which weighs a hefty 1.8lbs (815g.) I bet you can guess which one I’d rather lug around on an all day shoot. Not only is it light, but the Batis 40mm is beautifully balanced for the Sony body. I tested the lens on a Sony a7 iii, and I can hold little this duo in one hand, shoot all day, and probably never get tired. That's a big deal when you're working all day.
It's Sturdy and Weather Sealed
Though it is light, this lens is surprisingly tough and well made. It doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy. In fact, I dragged this sucker into some pretty gnarly conditions. I got to hang out with fellow Fstoppers writer Nino Batista at the top of Sandia Peak, about 11,000 ft in elevation, while the wind tried to drag us all off the edge of every cliff and boulder we passed. We hiked and climbed all over the place, which is a situation in which the low weight of the lens really shines. Then I headed out to desert sand dunes during a high wind situation for another shoot. The Zeiss Batis 40mm lens is sealed for dust and weather, and it handled the flying dust and sand during both shoots like a champ. When I got home, I had sand in my eyes, ears, nose, and a few other uncomfortable places, but not a single grain made it past that weather seal.
It's Got Close Focus
Another place his lens shines is the minimum focus distance of 9.4 inches. You can get an insane amount of detail by squishing right up close to your subject. I brought the lens along to a family climbing trip, and was able to capture some great little detail shots. At f/2, it was easy to isolate my subject. If the close focus wasn’t enough, the lens has a Close Focus Selector, which means that if you’re going to be spending some time capturing details, you can basically tell the lens, “ignore everything that’s far away,” and it won’t waste any time trying to grab focus on anything outside the selected focus distance. That can really speed up your workflow, especially at an event like a wedding. While it isn't a true macro lens, at 1:3.3 magnification rather than the 1:1 of an actual macro lens, the close focusing distance and ability to zoom in post for those tighter crops, gives you a lot of flexibility in the final product. The following shots were taken during a climbing trip with my family.
The Autofocus Rocks
Since I’ve mentioned the autofocus, let me just say that this thing is quick, smooth, and quiet. I have a few lenses that fight for focus and you can hear the engine making "vrrr" noises as it transitions. This lens is having none of that nonsense. The Batis 40mm moved from close to distant focus smoothly and silently. If I was a videographer, or even just a photographer capturing video on location or during an event, that alone would be a huge selling point for me.
My favorite thing about this lens is it’s versatility. That 40mm focal length, which I wasn’t sure about at first, turned out to be incredibly useful. It’s wide enough for environmental shots, but not so wide that it distorts portraits. It’s wide enough to work really well in tight spaces, but not so wide that I had to work hard to keep distractions out of the frame. That close focus allows for great detail shots, while the quick, quiet autofocus means it’s a fantastic option for video or quiet events. It worked just as well for me on a mountaintop as it did in busy Old Town Albuquerque and the confines of my tiny garage studio. It seems to combine the best aspects of a 35mm and 50mm focal lengths. Honestly, this lens has great potential as the kind of lens that never leaves your camera simply for the flexibility of use. I felt just as comfortable using this as a portrait lens on location as I did grabbing some detail shots during a climbing trip with my family.
Features That Could Go Either Way
These features were neither overwhelmingly positive or negative, and would likely come down to personal preference and usage.
Unless you are a pixel-peeping number-cruncher, which I am not, I can't see anything to complain about as far as sharpness, even wide open. I’m sure there are sharper lenses on the market at similar focal lengths, but I think this lens is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It's more than sharp enough for me, but I'm not super picky about sharpness, either.
One of the features of this lens I have not found particularly useful is the OLED display. It’s a super cool feature that shows the focus distance and depth of field range on the top of the lens barrel. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really benefit the way I shoot, so it became a throwaway feature for me. But for someone working on a tripod and shooting still subjects, I can see how this display could be incredibly helpful. It’s not a question of a question of love it or hate it, it’s just a feature I haven’t used.
The focus ring works well, but I don't love that it's made of a kind of sticky rubber. While that does contribute to the sleek look of the lens, those good looks don’t last long because the rubber picks up — and hangs on to — fuzzies from every corner of the earth, while not making manual focusing noticeably easier than any other focus ring I've used.
Another downfall, depending on your point of view, is that this lens was designed for Sony E-mount cameras, which leaves non Sony users out of the equation. According to the description on the B&H website, it can be used on APS-C models, which I assume requires an adapter, but that pushes the focal length to 60mm, so you would lose everything unique about the focal length, which is a bummer.
The widest aperture, f2, paired with the close focus allows you to get good separation between the subject and the background. This lens has a nine blade aperture, so the bokeh (here we're talking about the shape and quality of the out of focus points of light) is nicely spherical, but the quality of the blur isn't exactly what I would call creamy, even at f2.
Considering that Sigma has a new 40mm f/1.4 ART lens that isn't exclusive and sells for $1399, that makes the price of the Batis for Sony, at $1,124 seem a bit steep, particularly considering the substantially wider aperture and the quality of the bokeh and blur Sigma lenses offer.
All in all, I think the main strength of the Zeiss Batis 40 mm CF f/2 lens, one that outweighs any of its downfalls, is its flexibility. This is a lens that could stay on your camera and get great stills and video of almost anything you point it at quickly and quietly, in a variety of situations. You'd rarely need to take it off your camera, which is a huge plus for me because I hate switching back and forth between lenses, especially on location. I like to stay in the grove while I'm working, especially if I have a great rhythm going with my model and my team, so it's hard to underestimate the value of getting everything I need with one lens. In addition this lens is light. I can't overstate that. I love the image quality of my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 but working with it for hours really takes it's toll on my neck and shoulders, especially if I'm hiking out to a location or carrying my gear bag all day. Given all the benefits of the Zeiss Batis 40mm, I think the $1,124 price tag is pretty reasonable.
Having photographed weddings in the past, I would enthusiastically recommend this lens to wedding photographers. This lens can be used for single portraits and group shots without noticeable distortion, even in crowded or small spaces. It will capture those close up details couples love, and be completely unobtrusive during the ceremony whether you’re shooting stills or video.
I would also recommend this lens to portrait photographers who love to work on location, shoot candidly or in a photo journalistic style, or who work in smaller spaces and want a bit more room to capture their subjects without the more obvious distortion of a wider lens.
If you love your zooms, need to capture action at a distance, have a bokeh and blur obsession, or if compression is your jam, this lens is obviously not for you. But as a short normal length prime, with the flexibility to capture almost everything quickly and quietly without adding a bunch of weight to your bag, this lens is ideal. I captured some photographs I really love with this lens, and was able to take both environmental portraits and more intimate portraits with no fuss. I've been wanting to purchase a Sony body for a while now, and this lens could easily push me over the fence.