Zeiss 12mm for Sony E-Mount Cameras

Wide angle imagery is a primary area of interest for underwater photographers, but putting together the tools to do it well can be difficult. Even incredible topside lenses don’t always perform well underwater behind a dome port, and information about what works well can be difficult to find. Luckily our staff like to dive, and can put this gear through its paces to sift out the real gems for underwater shooting.

Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 is one of those gems. It is the sharpest super wide rectilinear lens behind a dome port we have ever tested on any format. Corner sharpness here outperforms the best Nikon and Canon glass on professional full frame bodies at equivalent coverage angles. It also compares favorably to the best APS-C DSLR cameras, and the best that the Olympus / Panasonic Micro Four Thirds system has to offer. Amazing stuff!

I’ll concede that there is a lot more to a lens than corner sharpness, and Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 really excels in some of these more subjective areas. The lens has incredible contrast, to the point that it is noticeable on the camera’s tiny little LCD while still in the water, and really jumps out at you on a nice monitor. Color is warm, which nicely complements the underwater scenics that this lens is appropriate for.

Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 is compatible with the Sony E Mount systems (NEX, Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R, and the new Alpha 5000). It covers APS-C sensors, which means that the Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R will need to be used in their cropped sensor modes. The lens has a 99 degree diagonal field of view, making it just a bit wider than the old Nikonos 15mm lens, and about the same coverage found on a full frame dslr with an 18mm lens. There is no noticeable distortion when used in water, meaning that straight lines are straight, and big animals at the center of the frame don’t have that unnatural fisheye bulge. The lens focuses at 7 inches, making it great for close focus wide angle shooting.

The construction methods employed in this lens are a pretty dramatic departure from the Zeiss standard. The Touit series are the first autofocus lenses ever produced by Zeiss. To better match the tiny Sony NEX and Alpha E Mount Camera bodies, the lens body is plastic, and the focus ring is a smooth rubberized band. The lens is surprisingly light, and I can find the focus ring easily by feel. I won’t say that manually focusing this system is as satisfying as the ZE, ZF2, and ZM lenses with their hard focus stops and well dampened feel, but I don’t see that as such a big deal on a mirrorless system. Using only LCD screens and electronic viewfinders, I’m more likely to trust autofocus than to try to focus manually, especially with a lens this wide.

The lens is paired with the Zen DP-170-SS dome port for underwater shooting. DP-170 is an optically coated glass dome port. Glass domes are hard to scratch, and don’t have that annoying backward roll associated with the buoyancy of plastic ports. The specialized optical coatings used here knock out reflections caused when shooting into the sun, and increase imaging performance.

Zeiss Touit 12mm f/2.8 is a pretty chubby lens, and can’t actually fit through the back of the Nauticam NEX port mount. To support this lens underwater we use a step up port adapter (Zen PA-NM-SS60) that is mounted on the housing after installing the camera, and before installing the lens. The dome attaches to the front of this with a traditional Sea & Sea style bayonet.

Competition Compared:

Touit 12mm provides best in class (actually best in any class) performance, but comes in at a pretty hefty price point. The lens and parts to support it underwater approach $2500, which not everyone will be able to justify. The Sony SEL16 with Wide Angle or Fisheye converters is a good choice at a reasonable price point, and is supported by a small acrylic Nauticam dome. The optical performance won’t reach that of the Touit lens, but it will leave some more cash in the dive trip fund. Sony SEL1018 beats Touit 12mm in the versatility category, but corner sharpness isn’t as good at 12mm, and the color is a bit cooler. This is without a doubt a good lens, it just doesn’t have the soul of the Zeiss 12mm.


Coming soon:

The third installment in the Zeiss Touit series will be a 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens that reaches 1:1 reproduction ratio. This fills another void in underwater utility range of the Sony E Mount cameras, and I’m really excited to see what this lens can do when it becomes available, and see if we can squeeze it into a port.

Extra credit:

Our focus is underwater photography, but it is hard for me to hide my enthusiasm for great glass. I see the lens choices for Sony’s E mount systems criticized in online communities, and I don’t think that is fair. Zeiss Touit 32mm f/1.8 would be my topside walk around lens of choice, replicating the field of views found on “nifty fifty” full frame lenses, with a fast aperture, great color, and contrast. This lens has a really appealing look that is warmer and dreamier than the Sony branded offerings at the same focal length. Sony’s Sonnar E 24mm /1.8 (designed by Zeiss, made by Sony) is very sharp, and very fast at a focal length that can be hand held even in low light indoor situations without motion blur. I’m still getting to know the new Sonnar T* FE 55mm /1.8, but I think it has a lot of potential as a long portrait lens on the APS-C E Mount cameras.