Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 Lens Review

What is It?
The Zeiss Batis 18mm is an autofocus focus wide angle lens that can be used with any of the Sony mirrorless cameras (E or FE). As such you get 18mm on the A7 models, and a near 28mm (equivalent) on the A6xxx models. 

The Batis line is a slight departure for Zeiss, in that they’re modern-style autofocus lenses. When I say modern, I mean modern, right down to the OLED display for focus point (when in manual focus) and depth of field, something that Zeiss got to first, but is now starting to be copied by others.

The 18mm f/2.8 is small for its focal length/aperture combo. Significantly smaller and lighter than the 18mm Zeiss I used on my Nikon DSLRs for awhile. As with all the Zeiss lenses, the 18mm is small enough to consider using on the smaller A6300 (crop sensor) camera, and it is still reasonably well balanced on the front of that camera. That said, for a 28mm equivalent, it would be regarded as big on the A6xxx bodies. For 18mm on a full frame body, it’s a little on the small size. 

So what’s the actual size and weight? 3.7” (95mm) in length, 3.9” (100mm) in diameter, and 11.6 ounces (330g). That’s right, compared to the Batis 25mm, the 18mm is bigger in diameter but a bit lighter. Go figure. 

Internally, the design features 11 elements in 10 groups, with quite a bit of special glass. For Zeiss, it’s a complex design, and a more modern one, even though it’s once again based on the Distagon designs of the past.

A 10-blade aperture diaphragm is controlled electronically; there is no aperture ring on the lens. 

Near the front of the marked aperture ring is an OLED display that tells you the approximate focus distance, plus near and far depth of field numbers. The DOF is calculated separately for APS (e.g. Sony A6300/6500) and full frame (e.g. A7 model) cameras.

Up front, we have a 77mm filter thread, and Zeiss supplies a petal shaped lens hood that bayonets onto the front of the lens. Lens length and front element position do not change during focus. 

Zeiss's page for the lens is here. The lens sells for US$1500 and is made in Japan. The lens is weather sealed.

This review is based on one sample borrowed from B&H.

How’s it Handle?
Short answer: too smooth. 

This is a fly-by-wire lens for manual focusing. First, the focus ring is a very smooth rubber, one that’s not particularly good for handling when your fingers (or it) are wet. 

Its not perfectly repeatable due to some hysteresis, but the focus ring turns from minimum to maximum distance is well over a half turn, and it does so quietly and extremely smoothly. At the two ends of focus distance, you can be moving the ring slightly and nothing seems to be changing in the OLED. Elsewhere even a slight move of the ring moves you to the next labeled focus marking (or change in DOF at some closer distances). 

bythom batis oled

Thing is, focus indicators have never been absolutely perfect, and in the modern era of low dispersion glass, temperature has an impact on precise focus position, too. Thus, as you cycle up/down through the focus distances, don’t get too stuck on them. They are not as precise as the are shown on the display. By the way, you can select meters or feet for the OLED display; only one shows at a time.

Personally, I’d like a little texture on the focus ring, and I’d like the OLED to show that I’ve moved the ring even if the data being calculated isn’t changing at the two ends. But these are mostly nitpicks.

And yes, I know this next one will be probably the nitpick to end all nitpicks, but Zeiss seems insistent on doing this on the E-mount lenses…

The lens mount alignment mark on the Sony cameras and lenses is an easy to see white. Even in low light. The lens alignment mark on the 18mm Batis is a darkish "Zeiss blue", and somewhat difficult to see in the dark. 

So yes, another nitpick, but please make the alignment markers match the camera, Zeiss. If Zeiss were to follow the marketing logic of making things blue, there would be other blue markings on this lens. Other than the blue field behind the Zeiss logo and the blue lens alignment marker, there isn’t any other blue, not even the blue ring on some of the Loxia lenses. So here’s a thought, Zeiss: put a white alignment marker with a blue box behind it ;~).

Lest you get the wrong opinion, I don’t really have any major objections to the way this lens handles. I just wish that the ring had a bit more texture to it so as to be easier to use in cold/wet climate, and that the lens alignment marker was more visible. Not flaws for which I’d lower my evaluation of the lens on, at all.

How’s it Perform?
Overall, this is a better lens than the Zeiss 18mm I used to use with my Nikon DSLRs. That said, it isn’t quite as good as the Batis 25mm or the Loxia 21mm I tested.

Wide open the Batis is sharp, but not terribly so. Sharpness is what I’d call excellent in the center, but there’s slight degradation even out at the APS frame edges, and much stronger loss as you move to the full frame corners. The full frame corners are definitely improved, but the APS corners pretty much stay the same: near excellent, but softer than the center even at f/5.6. Overall I’d judge edges to be good wide open, and very good to excellent stopped down. The center, as I noted, is excellent. It’s a tough call, but I’d say f/8 is the best aperture corner to corner on my sample. f/5.6 is tightly close, though.

Lateral chromatic aberration is present, but to only a small degree. This is the issue I remember with the Nikon mount 18mm Zeiss: clear CA on high contrast edges, but the Batis does not seem prone to that. I found some minor longitudinal chromatic aberration, but not as much as you usually see on fast primes. Astigmatism and coma into the corners was pretty well controlled. This lens would be decent for astrophotography.

Linearity is good. While there’s very little linear distortion, it’s again mustache style on the barrel side. For A6xxx users, I’d say the linear distortion is mostly barrel and easily corrected. For A7 users, you’ve got some pin cushion to the edges that makes it more difficult to correct all the linearity. That said, the in-camera tables do a good job of correcting this for JPEGs. 

Vignetting on an A7 body is clearly visible and needs correcting (about 1.5 stops worth), but stop down to f/5.6 and it becomes mostly ignorable. Vignetting never quite goes away at non-diffracted apertures, by the way. For such a wide angle lens, the vignetting performance is decent, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t vignette ;~). Wide open without correction in raw files, you’ll absolutely see the corner falloff. 

Flare is only partly evident on light sources in the frame, but you can trigger inner colored ghost reflections, and some of them are difficult to post process out.

Bokeh isn’t something you usually write about with wide angle lenses. But if you get close enough to your subject wide open, it might start to come into play. I’d call the bokeh slightly busy. There’s clear onioning going on, and the outer edge of unfocused specular highlights carries with it the longitudinal chromatic aberration issue, so you get a ring. The good news is that the out-of-focus areas are regular; there’s not a lot of aberration and coma towards the edges that distorts the bokeh shapes, moreover, the aperture diaphragm seems more regular than the Nikkor’s I’ve been testing lately.

Overall, this lens is another winner. The sharpness and contrast are about as good as you’ll find in a wide angle prime in the central region, and the other attributes don’t really detract from that, though some will need corrections (either in camera for JPEGs, or post for raw).

Final Words
In a word: lovely. Just like the Loxia I reviewed earlier. High quality build, really smooth focus ring (in both respects), highly visible and somewhat useful DOF markings when in manual focus, good integration with the camera’s smarts (automatic magnification on focus), and some really great optical characteristics. All in a modest, easy to transport package. Why would I not like this lens?

Well, the kicker for most would be price. It’s not inexpensive even for a ~18mm prime with a modest aperture. Indeed, it can be called slightly expensive. There, I said it (actually, I wrote it). So once again you really have to want a lens like this to opt for it. 

The good news is that if you want an autofocus 18mm lens that covers the full frame of the A7 cameras and delivers performance that looks good even at 42mp, then you’ve found a candidate lens in this Batis. This is a good companion to the Sony A7rII for when you want to go wide and tightly control focus yourself. I suspect that street and landscape photographers will be the ones that most respond to this lens. But it’s not bad for night photography, either.

I certainly can recommend it, though at the price I really want more texture on the focus ring than the Batis 18mm gives me and I’d really like to see more regular distortion and less flare artifacts. As usual with Zeiss, there’s a punch to the images produced with this lens that you often don’t see using zooms and lower-priced optics. And that punch is what a lot of you are looking for: better edge acuity coupled with a bit more overall scene contrast makes great images look greater.

Batis 18mm, Loxia 21mm, or Batis 25mm? Pick by needed focal length I’d tend to say. Personally, I prefer the Loxia, as the 18mm is a little wide and the 25mm is not wide enough. But all of these lenses are good.

Recommended (2016 to 2018)

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