The latest blog post from Carl Zeiss details how their team was able to pull out all the stops to redefine what is considered “state of the art” for SLR lenses. Their efforts are embodied in the Zeiss 1,4/55 scheduled to be released at the end of the year and available for both Canon and Nikon mounts. Here’s a bit about that quest for the perfect lens and the journey that would take them three years to complete.
The development of the new high-end SLR lens family posed a special challenge for the ZEISS product managers. The design of the new high-performance lenses was mainly driven by the responsible product managers Nicole Balle, Dr. Michael Pollmann and Christophe Casenave. “An outstanding experience” is how they sum up their three years of hard work.
The most important requirement they had to fulfill was: make no compromises and create the best lens on the market. During the kick-off event, the team geared up for the endurance test that lay ahead of them by taking a hiking tour together. “There was a really special mood,” recalls Nicole Balle. “This assignment was truly extraordinary. Of course, we were all thrilled to be able to have so much freedom in developing a product. The work atmosphere was completely open. All ideas were welcome and were evaluated by the team.”
The project had been discussed internally at ZEISS for a long time. The first concepts were already discussed in 2008, but it was not until 2010 that things became concrete. Back then it was clear to the experts at ZEISS that the image sensors in the new generations of cameras would make such a big leap forward that there would already be a need for corresponding high-performance lenses in the medium term. In 2012, the Nikon D800 came on the market, equipped with a full-frame sensor with 36 megapixels. This was the highest resolution of any sensor in a full-frame camera to date. ZEISS wanted to offer photographers a range of high-end SLR lenses that would enable them to use the full potential of such cameras. Such a combination would achieve performance values that would be comparable to those of medium-format systems.
To learn more about customers’ wishes, ZEISS worked with a lot of photographers. The product managers defined the target groups to be professional photographers and very ambitious hobby photographers. In interviews with selected customers, the product managers asked about areas and situations in which conscientious, manual picture-taking plays out its strengths. After analyzing the answers, it was decided to focus on portraits, landscapes and still lifes. “We knew that hardly anyone would buy the complete family, but we expect that demanding customers, such as photographers who work in advertising, would decide for at least one of the new lenses,” says Balle.
At the beginning of last year, Dr. Michael Pollmann took over the product management for the new lens family. The issue now was to specify the parameters for the first lens types, develop them and qualify the first prototypes. “Optical designers, design engineers and the colleagues from the lab who did the qualifications were the key people during that phase of the project,” reports Dr. Pollmann. “Of course, we also had to get the feedback from our expert users to avoid developing ‘engineering monuments’. Instead, we had to keep the benefit for the end-user in mind at all times.”
The most memorable moment for Dr. Pollmann was the evaluation of the first prototypes. “Up to that point, our opinions relied on theoretical simulations and diagrams,” he says. “None of us could give a satisfactory answer to the question of how clearly the better image performance would indeed be visible in pictures later on. In diagrams, minimal differences become visible which the viewer in the real world does not recognize. Even some of us were skeptical and reluctant. After we had the first results from the prototypes, even the skeptics were surprised at how clearly the higher image quality becomes visible in the pictures.”
For the entire team it was a great pleasure to draw the attention of the public to this new lens family for the first time at photokina 2012. The before-and-after pictures taken during the evaluation phase were used to show the public. Following the motto “a picture is worth a thousand words” ZEISS simply let the results speak for themselves. The response from customers was overwhelmingly positive. “One customer even told me that by presenting this product, we had made his day and the trip to Cologne had been worth it just for that reason,” recalls Dr. Pollmann.
Thanks to the ZEISS team’s good sense for the market, an attractive solution had been found which customers liked from the start. An additional challenge was the continuously growing physical size of the first member of the new family, which was inevitable for reasons of physics: the large aperture of f/ 1,4 and other optical characteristics require a rather complex optical system with a relatively large amount of glass. When used with a DSLR camera with a high-resolution sensor, the system was considered by customers to be nevertheless balanced and coherent, despite its size and weight.
In early 2013, Christophe Casenave became project manager, taking over from Dr. Pollmann. This last phase was all about preparing for the pilot production. “In this phase, all the details have to be right,” explains Casenave. “The variations in optical quality should be almost zero: every customer has to get exactly the same quality level. Also, in the product design there are a number of minor details that should be optimized. They are truly minor, but they make the difference to a standard product. Here again there should be nearly no variation from production. Even the packaging required a lot of effort. Such a product is not just unpacked. We want the “unboxing experience” to be something that is really special and representative about this unique product.”
Our efforts are already bearing the first fruits of success: the first lens of the new family was recently awarded a design prize. Due to its optical performance, the lens will set new standards in the industry. “The public’s enthusiastic anticipation is almost contagious,” continues Casenave. “For me and all my colleagues this is a highlight in our careers, and we are feverishly awaiting the market introduction in fall 2013.”
Looking back at the exciting development period, the team emphasizes especially the outstanding team spirit and the great support from all sides: “I very much liked the mix of technical enthusiasm and economic sobriety at ZEISS,” says Balle. “This included management constantly asking questions about our product ideas. This kept our feet on the ground, because we constantly needed to rethink our decisions. Especially in a project with no clear cost ceiling, this is essential to avoid overshooting.” Dr. Pollmann adds: “It was tedious to define the technical specifications but even more so to define the conceptual design. Despite our comprehensive market research, it was difficult to assess up front whether the acceptance in the market for such an extraordinary series of lenses would be high enough to amortize the development. Our confidence has grown thanks to the positive reactions to this project.”
“When the 1,4/55 comes onto the market at the end of 2013 as the first in this family of lenses, it will be one of the best lenses in the world,” summarizes Casenave. “There will be nothing of comparable quality, and that not only applies to this specific focal length range. With this product ZEISS has truly opened up a new dimension of digital full-frame photography.”
For more information about the new Zeiss 1,4/55 go to their website at: lenses.zeiss.com
Check out the Zeiss blog at: blogs.zeiss.com/photo