I've been writing about the Batis 2/40 CF for almost forty days now. Okay, some of the posts have addressed more general things related to photography, but all in all, it's still pretty much about the one ZEISS lens. For these last ten days I've been thinking hard if I have something essential to say that I haven't addressed yet. For example, contemplating about the maximum aperture, and on the other hand, describing the superb stopped down performance have borne out this intensity of the last days (I write these blog posts at night while the family sleeps, but I have to admit that I'm getting pretty drowsy at work). I'm thinking that regarding optical performance I don't have anything else to add. I could, of course, cut the optical performance into different areas like chromatic aberrations (close to none), flare (very resistance) or distortion (nonexistent), but I would start to sound like a typical lens review and I'm not interested about that.
But as much as I have discussed about the optical performance of the Batis 2/40 CF, I still somehow feel that I really haven't got into essence of it. All these different metrics like sharpness, chromatic aberrations, MTFs, etc. we use to measure the optical performance doesn't really touch the real experience of using a lens. Especially the sharpness, bourgeois concept or not, is sort of a single metric that violently reduces everything a lens can be for your photography into a one single number (DXOs perceived megapixels anyone?). And you already know that most photographers love to compare lenses using sharpness as their main concept; it's about putting lenses into a hierarchical order and all that stuff. But if you are a discerning and experienced photographer you already know that all this is a sort of waste of time which has pretty much nothing to do if one is into photographic aesthetics. Staring at sharpness tables with sore eyes doesn't really get you there because the sharpness and resolution doesn't make the lens draw lively and earthly. But still we need to find the right tools we to use to photograph what are often our most precious and important moments in life.
When I'm evaluating a lens the single most important thing from the image quality point of view is the contrast. Contrast contributes a lot to our perception of an image and it often makes an image to come alive in a way that it can add something to a photographed scene. Think gloomy room with a candle or kids playing in a sunlight, and the contrast can add a beautiful layer of warmth and feeling over them. Whereas sharpness only describes how fine details lens is able to resolve, the contrast makes the image and is more related to overall look and 'pop' which always get transmitted to final picture whether you print it or just look it from the computer screen. For me, it is the paramount single thing that I search for when I try out a new lens, but unfortunately way too little is talked about it.
No, I'm not talking about 'micro contrast', 'Zeiss 3D-pop' or anything esoteric or hocus pocus (however you see it). Instead I'm talking about just the plain overall optical contrast that makes an image come alive and gives it some of that 'bite'. I've shoot with the Sony G's, GM's, Sony/Zeiss's etc. and in general they all have a good contrast (and to be honest, the most modern lenses have at least an adequate contrast). But ZEISS is a bit different because they have always emphasized the contrast in their designs throughout the decades. They invented the anti-reflective lens coatings (Alexander Smakula in Jena) and therefore it's in the company's DNA and design philosophy to emphasize this aspect in lens design because that is what ZEISS has been know for throughout the company's history. The camera lenses and few other consumer products they make have an important task for company brand: they make the ZEISS brand and its industrial products visible for the common people - and therefore the highest quality is expected of the consumer products. That's also the reason why ZEISS doesn't make any entry-level/budget lenses like every other company. Everything they do is premium.
To the point: the ZEISS lenses often have a bit more contrast than most other lenses out there because that is what they are aiming for. I know some people write it off with the T* coatings, but it's really a more complex matter which requires that the contrast is taken as design priority right from the start; affecting everything from the number of lens elements, glass materials, to coatings and such. And it's not just picking the right materials into product basket, but more of a systematic development with the in-house research and all. For example, ZEISS even has a guy who's only responsibility is to develop simulations for reducing stray light in lenses to maintain dynamic range and contrast (if interested read more about it here, lot’s of good stuff there).
For me, the contrast (and the colors as a function of contrast) breaths the life into images taken with the ZEISS lenses. It's subtle of course and you can make what you want from it, but it's there and it usually differentiates ZEISS from other manufacturers (okay, okay there's a bit of a premium price also, I'm not denying that..). This is also what I see with the Batis 2/40 CF. It delivers a very nice contrast that you will begin to love once you learn to see it in your images. And for me it is enough. All the technical stuff like sharpness and other metrics - well, I trust that they are more than adequate - but the good contrast is really the thing I want to see for myself in the images whether I'm looking them at the computer screen or from the family album after decades. For me, the contrast makes the image and gives it the shades of life.
Ps. The title of the blog post ('It's the contrast, stupid!') is not meant to be rude or offensive at all, instead it's a slight variation of the phrase "The economy, stupid",from Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. It's a kind of meme that gets new variations all the time.
PPs. Today Sony released the new firmware 3.0 for the A7III and A7RIII cameras. I of course decided to be a guinea pig and installed the new FW right away. I can happily report that the Batis 2/40 CF works perfectly with the new Sony Firmware. The Eye-AF works as intended, actually better as it grabs the eye very quickly now. And the Animal Eye-AF works as well (tested with cat pictures).