Though this set is categorized in our "Vintage" lens test, these lenses are far from vintage. We originally had them in the test as a "palate cleanser" to the vintage glass tested.
Zeiss built the Master Primes to ARRI's incredibly high standards: high speed, almost no visible aberrations, high contrast, exceptional flare suppression, sharp even at a T1.3, and absolutely no focus breathing. That last detail is something that almost no lenses could claim. Most lenses breath at least a small amount when focusing. Even though Master Primes are "primes," each lens has what could be considered a zoom group.
When focusing, this group compensates for the changes in field of view caused when focusing. So as you focus, the lens is actually changing it's focal length slightly so that the field of view stays exactly the same from minimum focus to infinity. The exceptional image quality of these lenses has insured their place in cinematography for years to come.
These lenses extend the Master Prime concept to the anamorphic format. Their key innovation is dispersing the anamorphic optical power throughout the lens rather than at only one place. They have high contrast, low flare, good sharpness, minimal lateral color and the least distortion of any anamorphic tested. They are also the most consistent lenses when comparing focal lengths within a set. These lenses represent the state of the art technical performance in a 35mm format anamorphic lens in PL mount. These are very modern designs and are meant for digital cine cameras. It should be noted that we did not have the proper glass way (simulating the IR and OLPF on a digital cine camera) for the test projector mount on hand at the time of the tests, so it is possible that these lenses could perform even better in projection with the glass way. Projection scores range from .01 to 1.00
These lenses were in the test mostly as a benchmark to compare the other lenses to. When Master Primes came out, they represented the pinnacle of Zeiss optical engineering. The image they create is about as close to “perfect” as you can get, which has given them a reputation of being “clinical.” I don’t feel that way about them. Good glass is good glass, and they are gorgeous. They have very little in common with the vintage lenses in this test, but that makes them so useful to use as a comparison.
They are very sharp and have a lot of contrast at all apertures, even wide open. Their color is neutral and accurate, they don’t breath, they barely flare, they have little to no distortion and the have very even illumination from center to the edges even wide open, and have a very pleasing and soft bokeh. What I like about them is that they make the camera work so invisible, which means they don’t distract the viewer from the story and the acting, and it also makes them a great choice for VFX work. They are big, heavy and expensive, but they are worth all that cash and weight.
The Zeiss Master Primes are akin to what is known in the automotive industry as a "Supercar." Like an exotic sports car, when the Master Primes started shipping in the mid-2000s, their performance was off the charts! Like the engine found in a supercar, the opto-mechanical design of the Master Primes is exceedingly complex, and incredibly precise.
These lenses are some of the largest and most expensive PL mount primes on the market, but when you mount a Master Prime on your camera, you have the ability to shoot with a lens that is extremely fast (T1.3,) optimized for sharpness relatively wide open, extreme contrast (even when wide open,) very high MTF, and zero breathing. It was this last feature that really set these lenses apart.
It's not widely known that Master Primes actually have a dual floating element design similar to zoom lenses, but with one major difference - the floating elements move when the focus ring is turned. When this happens, the Master Prime is changing its focal length in such a tiny micro amount you can't see it. What you can see is that the size of frame does not move at all when adjusting the focus. Lens breathing is generally considered an undesirable distraction and the Master Primes handle breathing at least as well (and probably better) than any cinema lens ever made. These lenses are zooming the exact amount required to completely counteract lens breathing.
Even with more recent additions, the exotic high-end of the cinema lens market from Leica and Cooke, Zeiss Master Primes are still widely regarded as some of the finest cinema optics ever made.
The king of the castle… The Master Primes are a technical achievement wherein the image quality is maintained almost entirely through the t-stop range. It’s rather expected of lenses to become softer, lower contrast when pushed to their limit, wide open. However, the ARRI Master Primes’ sophisticated optical design maintain a high degree of performance in a wide range of shooting conditions by suppressing distortion, aberrations, breathing, and flaring.
In today’s market of vintage lenses, the Master Primes have secured their place as the go-to for precision image acquisition. Essentially, the opposite of the current vintage lens craze...