Thursday, October 15, 2015

WTF is up at Zeiss?

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of years (and, let's be honest, most rocks have some sort of pundit under them, so you'd have to have been living under a very specific rock) you're aware that Zeiss has been rolling out lens lines and lenses in them like some sort of demented glass-grinding gerbil. I can't recall all the lines, something like Otus, Hocus, Pokus, Loxia, Sleepy, Dopey, and Doc, I think.

Since everyone else seems to mainly want to breathlessly quote press releases, and the few remainders are mainly taking pictures of test charts and tabulating the results, I thought I'd take a crack at WTF is up at Zeiss? since that's actually the interesting question.

I am by no means an industry expert, and arguably should be roughly the last person to write this piece, but since nobody is stepping up, here we go.

There are to my eye two important threads in these product lineups. The first is the ultra-luxury aspects of the Otus lenses. Yes, they are superb. Duh. MTF charts? Who cares. The lines are higher and straighter than anyone else's, we get it. Me, I masturbate to pictures of naked people, but I won't judge what you choose to look at in those intimate moments. It is equally clear that in order to see any observable benefit from the use of one of these lenses over a cheaper but still high end competitor, you have to engage in heroics. Heavy tripod, good quality body, very precise focus, and pretty specific shooting parameters (wide open, lots of important fine detail in the scene, etc, etc), and you have to print the results.

As an aside, I like to note that as you go up Nikon's price scale, the pixel pitch consistently drops, so arguably you'd be best off pairing your Otus with the lowest end Nikon body, rather than the highest end. File that under "things that make you go hmmm."

Reality is, almost no pictures taken with an Otus lens will meet all these criteria, and so the benefits will not be there. It is therefore clear that Zeiss is devoting substantial resources to delivering a Luxury Item, rather than a Picture Making Instrument. Coach handbags are good handbags, but the point is that they're Coach. Ditto, Otus. That these lenses are luxury items has been noted by other, wiser, heads than mine, I will add. This thought is by no means original with me.

Hold that thought.

The second thread is weatherized (in at least one line) lenses with clickless apertures. These are, basically, cheap cine lenses, as is frequently noted by reviewers, but rarely thought about much.

A quick poke around the internet suggests a bunch of these things for Sony E-mount, but they're also offering some clickless aperture stuff for other mounts. So, they're covering some bases here.

Let's see if we can reverse engineer any kind of strategy from these two things. (Spoiler warning: I can't, sorry.)

Why is Zeiss building super high end lenses into a market that everyone agrees is collapsing? Sure, there's always a play in milking the high end of a dying market, but you don't go big there, you stand pat, invest as little as possible, and suck up as much market share and cash as you can. Zeiss is going pretty big here. These are not moves you make to attack a shrinking market, there are moves you make to grab a piece of an expanding market.

The luxury market, as it stands now, is pretty straightfoward. Europe and the USA set the standards, they define what is and is not luxury. They do not, however, pay the bills. The Chinese, the Arabs, and the Russians pay the bills. Mainly the Chinese. So the name of the game is to get the west to agree that your thing is desirable and luxurious, and then take that to the money who should obediently buy a ton of it. Zeiss apparently thinks that they can make a nice business selling Otuses to these people, which implies that they think these people will be buying high end cameras and whatnot.

The cine lens thing is different. As DSLR lenses go, these things are pricy. As cine lenses go, they're cheap like borscht. Does Zeiss think there's going to be an explosion in indie filmmaking? That's a very interesting idea. I am explicitly not seeing this as a Chinese, Arab, or Russian phenomenon. There's a reason those guys are rolling in mountainous piles of cash, and it has to do with the fact that they shoot people who make indie films.

Is this simply a two-pronged approach to the product line? Zeiss doesn't strike me as a large enough player to be defocusing in this way, to serve two completely unrelated markets. It's not even obvious to me that there are halo effects in play here -- the indie film guys by definition don't give a crap about luxury, and the luxury guys don't give a crap about what lenses indie filmmakers use (although they probably DO want to watch the more chic of the films).

The Thom Hogan answer here would probably be that Zeiss is a bunch of idiots who should let him run the company. I am dubious.

Realistically there's a couple possibles here:
  • Zeiss is a bunch of idiots
  • Zeiss is bigger than I thought and can in fact go after two separate markets without losing their focus
  • Zeiss sees some connection here that I'm missing.

Given that I'm basically just some dumb guy on the internet, the smart money is on the last one.

Perhaps Zeiss thinks there's some synergy, that there's some exotic spin in running a cine lens on your still camera that's going to appeal to the monied classes outside of the Europe and the USA? Are they going to push some sort of weird cachet in clickless apertures, or are they really making a serious play for some potentially expanding low budget filmmaking market?

So there you go. WFT is up at Zeiss? I don't know.


  1. Could probably look at some sales reports and come up with something, I just spend 10 min looking at one, until I realised that it was from the medical department. Then proceeded to try to find the camera lens department's report, before realising that it would be like someone with no knowledge of cardinal directions trying to use a compass.

    Ask a high up shareholder?

    I'm a bit disoriented. Heh, Just noticed a funny typo.

    Well Fuck That (which) is up at Zeiss? I'm inclined to agree!

    1. I'll leave the typo, in honor of your observation ;) Maybe it's like an MTF but sort of like a WTF.

  2. You are asking a very good question here: what does Zeiss know that we do not?

    I can't answer, but I can point to something. The new policy of Zeiss towards SLR lenses started when they partnered with Sony to bring a series of lenses to the A700 and A900 cameras. Before that, they only had manual focus lenses made by Cosina. What is even stranger is that for some of these AF Zeiss lenses, the patent has been found and the listed inventors are Sony employees.

    What should also be noted is that, before that time, Zeiss cooperated with Nokia and Sony for lenses for smartphones. I don't think recent smartphone use lenses which bear the Zeiss brand, so Zeiss apparently has left this market, which is where the biggest growth is.

    Maybe that is the answer: the costs associated with the Zeiss brand only make sense for relatively small markets?

  3. One observation: Zeiss is privately owned by the Carl Zeiss Foundation, whose goals are explicitly not maximizing profits. The foundation may well consider 'continuing the Zeiss traditions' to be an important thing, whether or not it makes money, and Zeiss has certainly been making a certain sort of camera lenses for as long as it has existed. And if you're going to do that at all, you might as well go big (and I suspect Zeiss has always had lens designers who itched to do the very best job they could, price be damned). So Zeiss may well be serious about the Otuses as picture making instruments, even if other people aren't and the line doesn't make much profit or have a high ROI.

    (Arguably Zeiss sticking to manual focus lenses already shows that their priority is not high sales.)

  4. Here is another thought:

    In the bicycling community, it is widely known that most people who buy $5K carbon fiber race bikes are not profession (or even amateur) racers. They ride them, sure, and they generally ride them relatively fast, but they are not racing. Also, they generally would be objectively better off (in terms of cycling speed) if they bought a significantly cheaper bike and spent the couple of thousand dollars of saving on a gym instead.

    (A high end carbon fiber bike is a very expensive way of losing a little weight.)

    These bikes are (mostly) not bought for decoration, they're bought for use; people ride them, often quite committed people. My sense (as a bystander cyclist) is that they're not bought particularly as status objects; instead they're bought because they can be and because they're better than the less expensive bikes; they not make much difference or be much better, but they do make some and are somewhat better. Since the buyers aren't stupid, it's important that the bikes actually be better bikes, not just fancier, more blinged out ones. They have to actually perform, even if they don't necessarily perform for you (because you're not good enough and fit enough to tap the performance they're capable of).

    Regardless of what one feels about this, there is clearly a market for these bikes. Enough people buy them to sustain a number of companies making a number of models (of increasing expense right up to the really high end models that get used in pro races), and even to attract new companies into the market every so often.

    I see direct analogies to the Otus line in all of this, including in that people may well buy Otuses because of their performance even if they can't use that performance. Hobbyist photographers are not necessarily any more rational than cyclists who buy $5k bikes instead of going to the gym, but both parties often have money.

    (In fact I've read commentary that most 'pro' cameras are bought by hobbyist, not working pros. Do they need them? Maybe not, but they sure buy them. I think this may hold true for pro lenses as well.)

    1. It is true that professional riders do not buy 5k carbon fibre bikes. I know some professional riders. Their bikes cost more like 20k.

  5. Most of the chatter about new, better, best gear on the Internet is of no interest.

    I use a 2004 vintage EOS 1Ds mark ii and a handful of not-very-expensive lenses (all bought second hand) of which the 100mm f/2.8 macro (non-L, non-IS) is the best of the bunch. At the ISO-settings I use (100-400) don't see any TECHNICAL difference between my images and those from the best and most expensive equipment of 2015.

    On the other hand some talented children are taking better photographs than any of us with $200 P&S cameras