Lens Review: Zeiss Touit 32mm f/1.8

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About Matthew Durr

"Following experimentation and self-teaching in the DSLR world, I dedicated my pursuit of photography through the EVF of a NEX-7 back in 2011. While I had my career sights set on music performance — currently working as a U.S. Navy musician — I have always kept my manual-focus Nikkors and Sony cameras on hand. I primarily work out of the Tokyo region, but my job also affords me some unique travel opportunities throughout eastern Asia. My blog has always been a place to share my journey of photographic discovery with the world through lens reviews and photo walks, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon!"

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*** October 2017 Edit: I have used this lens for over four years now, and it is still my go-to choice for a “normal” APS-c lens. Firmware updates over the years to both Sony bodies and the lens itself have made all focus accuracy issues go away, though the motor itself is still noisy. Regarding sharpness, the lens performs better on the more recent a6500 due to a better on-sensor microlens design. Throw in the in-body image stabilization the camera sports, and it makes the Zeiss another clear winner. ***

Click here for my first impressions of this lens. IMPORTANT! If you are unfamiliar with my lens review style, please reference THIS POST first! If you are only interested in my comparison of this lens to the Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS, scroll down to the bottom of this page.

Well it’s about time! Ever since Sony released the specifications for the E-mount in April of 2011, NEX photographers have longed for attractive alternative lens offerings from third-party lens manufacturers such as Tamron and Sigma. Sony liked Tamron’s more-compact 18-200mm so much, it was rebranded as the SEL18200LE. Sigma’s low-cost, zero-frills 19/30/60mm f/2.8 primes all provide outstanding image quality for their price. Even Rokinon/Samyang/Bower/(you name it) surprised everyone with their surprisingly affordable and high-quality 8mm f/2.8 fisheye!

It’s better to arrive late to the party rather than never at all though (the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 is a Sony-branded lens so it doesn’t count), and Zeiss decided 2013 was the year to introduce their new “Touit” (pronounced like “too-it”) line of lenses for both E-mount and X-mount. In addition to the 32mm f/1.8, a super-wide 12mm f/2.8 is available now, and a 50mm f/2.8 Makro-Planar (how Zeiss spells “Macro”) should be available by fall. These lenses are all designed with the serious mirrorless shooter in mind, providing optics that are lightweight and compact, yet powerful enough to resolve fine detail across the large APS-C sensors found in the tiny camera bodies.

What many wonder though: are these premium lenses worthy of the Zeiss name, usually associated with outstanding overall optical performance, loads of micro-contrast, and stellar build quality? I can’t say much about the 12mm f/2.8 (other than that it looks very nice), but let’s take an in-depth look at its more “normal” brother!

Specifications

Unlike native E-mount lenses, the 32mm fully opens its aperture both when the camera is turned off and when the lens is unmounted.

Full Name: Carl Zeiss Touit Planar 1.8/32 T*

Dimensions: 2.56 inches/65mm in diameter, 2.83 inches/72mm in length, with a light weight of only 7.05 ounces/200 grams. With the tested NEX-7 only weighing 12 ounces, the entire outfit is very manageable for long shooting sessions, even without a camera strap.

Close-Focus: Listed as .98 feet/.3 meters. This is the exact same as the Sony 35mm.

Price: $900 new ($720 as of October 2017). I purchased mine from Adorama. Back when I preordered this lens, Adorama kept me updated on its shipping progress through regular emails. Their shipping charges are also very reasonable.

Miscellaneous: 9-bladed semi-circular aperture stopping down to f/22, standard 52mm filter thread, large rubberized “fly-by-wire” focus ring, semi-unit focusing (center lens assembly moves in and out for focusing) via DC motor, metal mount, metal barrel, plastic bayonet-style lens hood, pinch-type lens cap, matte all-black finish to reduce reflections and appearance of dirt/grime, engraved and filled markings, made in Japan.

The “Feel”

Spot the blue sticker?

In terms of pure mechanical craftsmanship, nothing has ever beaten my ever-growing kit of AI-s Nikkor lenses. Many lenses of today are built with lightweight plastic to aid low-power ultrasonic motors in fast focusing. This makes them easier to use in more situations, but severely takes away from the lenses’ durability. With their relatively recent “Z” lenses for DSLR cameras, such as the Distagon 15mm f/2.8 and Makro-Planar 100mm f/2, Zeiss has revitalized the tradition of old—heavy, all-metal manual-focus optics with a focus on fantastic technical and artistic performance.

Here’s the problem: such a lens on a mirrorless camera just wouldn’t work. Not only would autofocus draw too much power from the smaller batteries, but the sheer size and weight of DSLR-designed lenses don’t fit within the mirrorless ecosystem (though, admittedly, I use relatively heavy Nikkors on my a6500 and NEX-7 all the time…).

So Zeiss had to cut a couple corners on the Touits, understandably so. The hood is plastic, and Zeiss reports that some of the internals are of polymer construction. This helps shave off as many ounces as possible, but at the cost of decreased perceived durability. Though it’s hard to tell exactly where the weak points are, I won’t go around dropping the lens to see when or if it will break. That said, the outer metal body feels more than strong enough to stand up to most hard bumps with little more than a scratch.

One item of note that will be discussed a bit more in the accompanying comparison to the Sony 35mm: though the Zeiss sports a very nice focus ring, autofocus has some issues. Not only is it relatively slow and noisy, but it also back-focused considerably at f/2.2-2.8 on numerous occasions. Whether it is an issue specific to my lens or not, I’m unsure.

All this taken into consideration, how does the 32mm stand up to my four pillars of shootability?

  1. Small size? Yes! The 32mm, without the hood, makes for a very compact kit in relation to other e-mount primes. With its extra-long hood attached (which is reverse-mountable), the lens lengthens considerably.
  2. Light weight? Yes! At just over half the weight of the tested NEX-7, the Zeiss balances comfortably in both hands.
  3. Smooth operation? Yes and no. Mounting is smooth, the hood firmly locks into position, and adjusting aperture with Tri-Navi is a cinch. Manual focusing is also a joy with the ultra-damped and rubberized focus ring (even though it is still fly-by-wire). However, optical stabilization, as found in the Sony 35mm, is missed, and autofocus can be clunky every now and then. Zeiss claims to be releasing a lens firmware update by Fall to hopefully help with focus issues.
  4. Generally favorable optical performance? Yes, and then some! Though not perfect (despite the Zeiss name), the 32mm excels in many technical and artistic areas of photography.

Performance

Summary

I had my doubts with the 32mm after initial testing. Performance in areas like vignetting and distortion threw me off guard for such a high-priced optic. However, after spending more time with the lens, I began to see the benefits of high cross-frame sharpness and essentially negligible chromatic aberrations. Though not a lens I’d recommend for video in the least, the Touit 32mm is a go-to choice for demanding photographers in the market for a fast “normal” lens for their NEX or Fuji X cameras.

Sharpness

Starting off with 100% crops of center sharpness, we see just how capable the 32mm is. Detail is just a tad soft wide-open, but even the veiling haze is nothing to worry about, taking away very little contrast and sharpness. Stopping down only to f/2.2 completely removes this haze. Sharpness continues to climb even higher and essentially peaks at f/4. However, zoomed in to an unrealistically close 1100%, I can see just a tad more detail at f/5.6. For all intents and purposes though, it’s extremely difficult to find any differences between the two apertures in actual photography. Sharpness and contrast remain high throughout the rest of the aperture range, with f/22 showing the telltale signs of image-degrading diffraction.

It is corner sharpness that really shows off the Zeiss’ strength. Despite the vignetting, there is plenty of detail even wide-open, and sharpness improves to an excellent degree at only f/2.8. Stopped down further, corner sharpness reaches its peak at f/5.6, though f/8 is very close in comparison. Contrast is still excellent throughout the range, though again, f/22 looks dull even in the corners. Unfortunately, corner sharpness never really catches up to the centers at any aperture, no doubt falling prey to the infamous offset microlenses of the NEX-7’s packed sensor. Corners would be expected to perform a little better on lower-resolution cameras such as the Sony NEX-6 or Fuji X-E1. Other reports I’ve read not just about this lens, but other native e-mount optics, suggest such an outcome.

On another quick note, I can’t pick up on any field curvature, and focus shift is all but absent from f/2.8-4.

Running Down – 32mm, ISO 100, f/11, 2 Seconds Of course, more often than not, the necessity for greater depth-of-field, rather than finer pixel-level detail, dictates which aperture to choose.

Sharpness at Infinity

The Touit 32mm continues to be a super-sharp lens even focused to infinity. To assess this, I shot the all-too-familiar local clock tower:

100% crops taken from the clocktower face:
Left: Center at f/5.6 Right: Corner at f/5.6

As in the test chart shots, corner sharpness just can’t match the razor-sharp performance of the centers, at least on the NEX-7. That said, corners are still plenty sharp even for the pixel-peeper. Also, it’s great to see that both the center and the corners peak at f/5.6.

Natural Rule-of-Thirds
32mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/60

Sharpness at Macro

The 32mm is such a sharp lens, it’s a real shame that the close-focus distance is only about a foot, same as that of the Sony 35mm f/1.8. Fine detail actually peaks across the frame at f/4, rather than f/5.6 at other focus distances (though, f/5.6 is essentially just as sharp):

As close as you can get.

However, there’s still a bit of a silver lining for those wanting to get close with the Zeiss: this lens is amazingly croppable on the NEX-7, even at wider apertures. Click on the below image for a 1 megapixel crop:

Bee on Clover
32mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/2000

It may be interesting to see this kind of sharpness combined with the close-focusing ability of the upcoming Makro-Planar Touit 50mm f/2.8. Time will tell!

Bokeh

As a fast-aperture lens, the Touit 32mm is expected to provide smooth out-of-focus backgrounds in contrast to a sharp in-focus subject. With its normal field-of-view, bokeh will only show up at mid- to close-range focus distances. However, as we’ve seen above, the Zeiss’ planar design provides technically superb results. Does this adversely affect its artistic rendering, despite the 9-bladed aperture (which usually foreshadows superb bokeh on my Nikkors)? Click on the image below for larger examples.

Per my standard bokeh test, this arrangement of small and equal-sized dolls (the wide-angle perspective makes them look like different sizes) had to be performed at a close distance, about 2 feet. That means the following observations should apply to close-focus bokeh only. Wide-open, everything from background (far left) to foreground (far right) bokeh is pleasingly smooth. Throughout the rest of the aperture range where bokeh is noticeable (by f/11, everything starts coming into focus), close-foregrounds (right) become mildly distracting due to doubling artifacts starting at f/2.8. At f/8, foreground bokeh begins to show distracting doubling as well.

Deep Color
32mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/30

Unfortunately, bokeh takes a turn for the worse as the focus distance increases.

Overgrown – 32mm, ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/640
The distracting backgrounds are most prevalent at f/1.8, where any fine texture becomes doubled.

The effect of bokeh at medium focus distances can either take away from the 32mm’s appeal or add to its unique character. It all depends on how you choose to look at it. If you want creamy bokeh at medium focus distances (which is difficult to do for a lens covering this field-of-view anyway), the 32mm Touit isn’t your lens. We can see exactly why bokeh is distracting by taking a look at out-of-focus highlights, or circles of confusion.

At all apertures, out-of-focus highlights at medium focus distances have hard edges along with an odd hotspot near the center of the highlight. Whether this hotspot could be due to a possible centering problem with my specific copy, I’m not sure. A piece of good news, however, even at f/2.8, the aperture shape is mostly circular (thanks to having 9 blades).

Web-Spinner – 32mm, ISO 100, f/2.2, 1/100
Again, remember that focused close, bokeh is remarkably smooth with the 32mm.

Chromatic Aberrations

Superior control of chromatic aberrations is one of the largest reasons to own the Touit 32mm. Take a look at this worst-case scenario, shooting branches against a 2-stops-overexposed sky:

100% crops taken from the cluster of branches in the center:

Keeping in mind this is the highest level of contrast you’ll find in any real photographic situation, it’s astounding to see essentially zero purple fringing at any aperture. Though there is some odd red-tinged fringing wide-open with a width of about 5 pixels, purple fringing hovers around only 1-2 pixels wide until completely disappearing at f/5.6. This kind of fringing will never be noticeable at the image level (even the weird red fringing), and for the perfectionist, it’s extremely easy to edit out in Lightroom.

Now, take a look at the out-of-focus branches immediately surrounding the branch tested for purple fringing. Wide-open, there’s a bit of out-of-focus lateral chromatic aberration, but it’s mostly ignorable. Stopped down any further, and out-of-focus LoCAs are completely absent. Well done, Zeiss.

Fallen – 32mm, ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/400
Both in- and out-of-focus LoCAs would be prevalent here with most other lenses wide-open, but the Touit keeps everything under control.

Flare

With its T* multicoatings and extremely deep lens hood, it is easy to think the Touit 32mm would have no problems with flare. That is…not the case here. Take a look at the video below shot in B&W to emphasize the reflections:

Yeoch. Though this is a worst-case scenario (bright sun shining through underexposed trees), I’m still quite surprised to see so many reflections both on and off-axis, as well as long streaks emanating from the sun. There isn’t much veiling flare, so that’s a plus.

Warm Feeling – 32mm, ISO 100, f/18, 1/100

Vignetting

As a fast and APS-C–only lens, the Touit 32mm exhibits heavy vignetting:

Corrections needed (in Lightroom 4):
f/1.8: +70 Amount, 0 Midpoint
f/2.8: +35 Amount, 35 Midpoint
f/4: +20 Amount, 20 Midpoint
f/5.6: +15 Amount, 25 Midpoint

By f/8, cross-frame illumination is even.

Storm Front on the Freeway – 32mm, ISO 100, f/8, ¼

Distortion

The Touit 32mm fits in the “normal” field of view. In the world of SLR lenses, even fast normal lenses tend to have little to no distortion. Just as with flare control, this lens has problems here:

A large correction of +7 is necessary to overcome barrel distortion. Most primes I’ve tested only require one or two points of correction.

I wouldn’t recommend the Touit 32mm for architectural photography, but at least the curve is uniform and correctable.

Peace – 32mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/20
The barrel distortion is visible in the roof patterns.

Let’s hit the old recap on this Touit:

Pros and Cons

Pros
– Excellent build quality all-around with a solid metal feel, despite some internal polymer construction
– Smooth operation with a rubberized focus ring and metal mount
– Superb sharpness across-the-frame, immensely croppable
– No noticeable field curvature or focus shift
– Contrasty rendering at most apertures
– Very pleasing bokeh and out-of-focus highlights at close focus distances
– Negligible chromatic aberrations
– Low veiling flare

Cons
– Relatively slow autofocus via noisy DC motor, semi-unit focusing
– Corners, though sharp, aren’t as sharp as the center of the frame
– Close-focus distance could be a little shorter
– Distracting OOF highlights and bokeh (or bokeh with “character”) at medium focus distances,
– Multiple flare reflections and streaks
– Strong, but expected, vignetting
– Noticeable barrel distortion for a normal prime
– High price at $900

The Bottom Line

The Touit 32mm can be a difficult lens to recommend. On one hand, it’s probably one of the highest resolving native E-mount lenses you can currently buy, with amazing build quality and uniform control of chromatic aberrations. On the other hand, some problems with basic optical performance, noisy autofocus, and somewhat busy bokeh can potentially turn many photographers off. While other, much less expensive alternatives exist for both E-and X-Mount, this Zeiss brings a welcome high-end option to the table for critical photographers that place both a high emphasis on technical image reproduction and mechanical craftsmanship.

Peaceful – 32mm, ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/80
Climbing Higher – 32mm, ISO 100, f/4, 1/1250
Learn to Share – 32mm, ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/250
Stonehill Farm – 32mm, ISO 100, f/11, 1/320
Go With the Flow – 32mm, ISO 100, f/6.3, 20 Seconds
Framed – 32mm, ISO 100, f/3.5, 1/2000
Dusk Among the Rolling Hills – 32mm, ISO 100, f/11, 1/30
Spikey, Front and Center – 32mm, ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/200
Lopsided – 32mm, ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/800
Broken – 32mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/640

BONUS! Compared to the Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS!

The most obvious competition to the Zeiss is the already available—and highly reviewed by myself — Sony 35mm f/1.8 OSS. At exactly half the price of the Zeiss and sporting features the Zeiss can’t match, they’re worth comparing. First up, some size comparisons:

With each lens’ hoods removed, the difference in length is forgivably small. Add the hoods though, and the Zeiss turns into a conspicuously longer lens. The illusion of larger size via the circular lens hood of the Zeiss also contrasts starkly with the seemingly-small petal-type hood of the Sony. Though both lenses are all-black, the Zeiss’ matte finish mutes reflections and is aesthetically more pleasing.

Both lenses are also clad in metal, though the Sony’s outer layer feels much thinner and brittle, while the Zeiss feels very solid. By comparison in build quality, the Zeiss wins, hands-down.

Getting one missed feature right out of the way, the Sony sports very effective optical stabilization, which I’ve found to effectively eliminate normal hand tremors for long handheld shutter speeds. I have to be more careful with the Zeiss. Whereas on the Sony I can push down all the way to 1/8th of a second with reliable results, I hardly ever find myself going below 1/30th of a second shooting with the Zeiss. Even then, I shoot in burst mode to ensure I get a couple sharp shots out of a group. For low-light handheld shooting, the Sony is the way to go. Also, any sort of handheld video work is easy with the Sony, the stabilization reduces enough camera shake to simulate that of a steadycam in the right hands.

Speaking of video work, stay away from the Zeiss unless you shoot with an external mic and manually focus everything. Focusing on the Zeiss is accomplished through a DC motor, while the Sony uses a completely silent ultrasonic motor. The difference in noise — and focus speed, somewhat — is instantly discernable:

 

But let’s move on to a pixel-level comparison in a real-world scenario. I took both lenses out to find a landscape that had a couple features to test for chromatic aberrations, sharpness, and flare. I came across this semi-backlit field:

The Little Details – 32mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/1000 What you see here is the final, post-processed, photographic result. 100% crops of the boxed areas have only been cropped from unprocessed files in RAW. Camera remained stationary via tripod between lens changes. Equal exposure parameters were made for all test shots, including keeping white balance set to daylight.

First up, a center sharpness/aberration comparison. Zeiss crops on the left, Sony’s on the right:

Right off the bat, we can see the different kinds of fringing each lens exhibits wide-open (this is even more “worse-case” than my previous aberration test, as the sky is almost clipped white!). The Zeiss shows a red tinge, while the Sony is all purple. At f/2.2, most fringing in the Zeiss is gone, while the Sony still lags behind. An interesting pattern starts to emerge as we look through all the crops. The sharpness of the Zeiss is one stop ahead of the Sony at almost every aperture (i.e. f/5.6 on the Sony looks about the same as f/4 on the Zeiss). Both lenses, at 100%, begin to look pretty dull as diffraction sets in noticeably by f/16. The odd coloring in the bottom left of the Zeiss crop at f/22 is a stray flare reflection. Overall, though, both lenses are plenty sharp in the centers.

Now, let’s see if that holds true for the corners.

Here we can see a slight difference in vignetting, with the Sony’s corners darkening a bit more than the Zeiss; it’s not much, but it’s there. In the way of chromatic aberrations, though the Zeiss still shows a bit of a red tinge on the roof, there’s little purple fringing. The Sony is a different story; the roof filled with fringing until straightening up at f/5.6.

But sharpness, there’s a huge difference here. At every aperture from f/1.8 through f/8, the Zeiss runs circles around the Sony, even with the Sony’s advantage of a tighter field-of-view (more pixels filled with data of the structure than the Zeiss). At f/11 on, both lenses look about equal, just because diffraction is equally affecting both. That high cross frame sharpness I talked about earlier? This is what I mean. 🙂

It wouldn’t be a final comparison without taking a look at both lenses’ handling of out-of-focus lateral chromatic aberrations. I’ve begun to notice the fringing more and more every day I go out with the Sony 35mm that I was taken aback by the Zeiss’ performance here. At the same time, the below two images can be a comparison of the bokeh each of these lenses can produce. Zeiss on the left, Sony on the right, both at f/1.8 with the same white balance.

An interesting note, this example isn’t even a worst-case scenario. I did this test late in the day as the sun was setting, so all light is soft and ambient. On top of that, the lily isn’t even against a dark background to make the fringing worse. I’ve seen much worse from the Sony. Even then, the aberrations are still visible with the 35mm, while the Zeiss 32mm has a color-less transition from in to out-of-focus. Keep in mind that out-of-focus aberrations are much harder to tame than in-focus purple fringing.

One more thing, even at close focus, we can see that the Sony has a bit smoother bokeh, while some of the foliage with the Zeiss is busier.

So then, this brings me to another conclusion to those considering both of these lenses for their NEX:

If you are looking for high cross-frame sharpness (even on the NEX-7), negligible aberrations, a bit less vignetting, and much better build quality, look for the Touit 32mm. If, instead, you are wanting image stabilization, better control of distortion, smoother bokeh, and you don’t mind less sharpness and much worse aberrations, the Sony is a great choice at a much lower price.

That’s all for this big review, guys and gals. I hope you found all the information you were looking for. I WILL be selling one of these lenses soon on eBay, and the Sony will probably be the one to go. I don’t do video and low-light photography enough to really justify the optical stabilization in the Sony 35mm, and the times that I DO go out knowing shutter speeds will drop, I bring a tripod along anyway. I’ll keep you all updated in a post about it soon.


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