PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

14Mar/0916

Carl Zeiss 2/100 Makro-Planar T* Review

The 100mm ZF lens is a high resolution optical device. It is probably one of the few lenses on the market today with headroom to grow beyond the current crop of high-resolution sensors. Resolution is its raison-d’être and its fair-earned reputation among ZF users and watchers.

This latest iteration on the 100mm Planar concept appears to be a fresh start from Carl Zeiss. Previous generations included symmetrical “long normal” Gauss-type designs and asymmetrical telephoto Sonnar-type designs. From the cutout diagrams I note only one point of resemblance between them and the new symmetrical design (left): the front elements appear to be derived from the Contax-era 100mm f/2 Planar T* MM. The new design outperforms substantially all of the older designs based on MTF data.

With only this information and a handful of samples from the internet, I convinced myself that the 100mm Planar was a lens for me. Six months later I made the jump and started what was to be a troubled honeymoon period with the lens. I learned a great deal in the first few months shooting with it. I am writing this report after five months of almost-daily use.

Operation

Upon first impression the lens is nearly the right weight and size, with a slight stoutness to its proportions. On the D700 it makes a very attractive and balanced combo that conceals the power within. Although the pair is certainly not discreet, it is far more portable than Nikon’s most popular zoom alternative (the 70-200 VR). The latter when used on the D700 is just physically demanding due to sheer mass.

Like all ZF lenses, this lens is designed for and limited to manual focus. I understand that this is controversial but my personal experience is that autofocus performance is more uneven and unpredictable than my own. This said, focusing this lens is very challenging and its implementation of manual focus could be improved in a few ways. The rotation on my sample is stiffer going towards near focus than towards infinity, and further stiffens as you approach the near-limit. This isn’t a useful tactile feedback to me, and I would prefer that the resistance be lower and more even. Occasionally the throw of the focus ring also gets in the way of fluid operation, for example head-shots sometime require a double-clutch when starting from rest at the infinity position.

A less-known fact of the Makro-Planar is that it extends considerably when focused closer than infinity, up to about double its length at infinity. This is due to a very high degree of correction for near-focus (macro), implemented as a “floating” rear group behind the lens aperture. Take note however, this extension mechanism is nothing like the dinky wobbly plastic cams that the Japanese brands inflict on us, rather the lens feels like a solid metal cylinder even fully extended. In portraiture use the extension in length is usually negligible, well under a centimeter or about 10%.

Drawing

Optically, the 100mm ZF is easy to classify, but with one caveat. Resolution outclasses everything I have access to, lenses and sensors equally. The lens is extremely resistant to flare and other veiling effects. It produces no lateral chromatic aberration that I can tell. Spherical aberration is insignificant for photography, and flatness of field is perfect for all purposes.

Besides sharpness and general freedom from aberrations, the 100mm ZF is well known for its beautiful bokeh drawing. What is remarkable about it is not the amount of blur it produces, it is the perfect neutrality of the circle of confusion. Even more beautiful, to my eye, is the long and soft ramp in and out of the plane of focus. That means the image transitions from focus to defocus gradually and not with a sudden jarring “wall of blur”.

All these qualities should earn it a rare label – masterpiece – but there are two negatives aspects to the imagery worth considering.

The first negative is that it produces longitudinal chromatic aberrations and highlight fringing very easily. At f/2 the lens prefers gentle local contrast, and draws magenta/green casts and purple fringes on all harsh contrast edges that interact with the plane of focus. Whether this is problematic depends largely on whether shiny things like jewelry or glasses are present in or near the plane of focus.

The second negative is not an optical flaw, but it does it affect imagery. It is extremely difficult to manually focus 100mm at f/2 in most common indoor conditions, meaning that it produces ten unsharp images for every sharp one. Most likely you will need to learn to combine the camera’s electronic rangefinder with your intuition to get anywhere near a 50% success rate even with adult subjects. This essentially negates the f/2 speed advantage because you will want to step down to gain some depth of field in assistance to focus.

The good news is that all of these issues are easily resolved by stepping the lens down to f/2.8 - 3.5 or smaller aperture values. From there the 100mm ZF lens is essentially perfect.

Conclusion

The 100mm ZF lens is a challenging and rewarding lens. It is no bargain, but the price appears to be fair considering what the lens can do in the right hands.

Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Probably no, not out of the blue. If someone comes to me with a personal interest in this lens, then definitely yes.

Samples

If this information was useful to you, then act on it!

I take the time to learn to see the way that each lens sees, in the field, then I describe to you my mental model for the lens so you can know it too. That is a ton of work. Whew. Hey, I know of way you can help!

The next time you buy a nice lens from B&H, do it using my affiliate store. It won’t cost you extra and it tells B&H that you care about my reviews so they should support them. If you get yourself something nice this way, feel free to drop me a line!



Comments (16) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Hi Oliver,

    As I get to know the Makro Planar 100 better I sometimes get annoyed by the color fringing at full aperture that is, under specific circumstances, really severe. More severe actually then with my, much inferior, Sigma 105/2.8 Makro. I decided to ask Zeiss if this was by design or not as more (but not all!) reviews name the issue. Below an outline of the reply by Zeiss:

    –First I send in an email with a complaint about the color fringing.
    –Zeiss’s reply was to ask for pictures to proff the fact. I provided some pictures.
    –Then the final reply came:

    Thanks for sending the sample pictures.
    You told me below:

    > The color fringes at these two largest apertures is so severe that it is
    > actually worse when compared to any other lens I currently have even if
    > these lenses actually perform worse in any other aspect.

    Which lenses did you compare with the Makro-Planar T* 2/100 regarding color fringes?
    We do not know any other high-speed lens that shows no color fringes at full aperture.
    To avoid this, just stop down the lens to a reasonable f-stop (we do not see any sense in taking the picture with the cows at f/2 – stopping down to f/4 would reduce color fringes enormously).

    Picture “Station Rotterdam”: color fringes in out-of focus areas at contrasty edges are normal and unavoidable. Of course, stopped down a little bit (or taking the picture with a slow speed zoom lens) the depth-of-field increases, and the color fringes even in out-of-focus areas will be reduced.

    So, from this email and after evaluation of my pictures I must conclude the color fringing issue is by design and not a production flaw. Quite comforting for all ZF lens users. Or not?

  2. Mpve,

    Over time this issue bothers me less and less. I’ve found that the color fringing appears worse when you are mis-focused by a very small amount. When you really nail focus then fringing is much less visible, and basically disappears in many situations.

    Also I do think that Zeiss gave you a fair evaluation. The first thing to note is that your Sigma doesn’t open to f/2 so right off the bat you need to stop down 1 stop for a fair comparison. (the other way to say this is that the Zeiss gives you an infinitely better picture at f/2 because the Sigma doesn’t give you anything) It’s also probably that the f/2 option brings the effect of larger elements to all other f/stops, so even at f/2.8 you might see a little bit more fringing.

    In practice I am no longer seeing this as a problem. I very rarely shoot at f/2 and I am extra careful about focus and image contrast when I do.

    Cheers,

    Olivier

    • Hi Oliver,

      I agree with you Zeiss was fair in its evaluation. Just wanted to know if this behaviour is by design and yes, it is.

      The Makro Planar indeed gives you more fringing @2.8 as compared to my Sigma (or Nikkor 80-200) but also a much better picture. I will have to live with it and, most probably, will get used to it or can avoid it while I get to know the lens. My shooting style might not help here as I like to use wide apertures. We have to see.

      THX again for your comments and also the two new reviews you are currently working on.

      Cheers!

  3. Mpve,

    I put up a lot of material today, enjoy. :^)

    I also noticed that my Nikkor 70-200VR is particularly resistant to fringing and chromatic aberrations both lateral and longitudinal. When I did direct 1:1 testing I was very impressed with the Nikon. But it will flare badly if any light source is in the frame, while the 2/100 just keeps shooting like the light wasn’t there.

    Thanks.

  4. Hi Olivier,

    For anyone on the fence concerning the 100 f2, I can say my experience largely mirror yours. It is not a lens that instantly yields great photos, but patience and practice are rewarded. I was somewhat shocked at just how severe the purple fringing is, even at f4 it is observable in extreme contrast images. So I stop down further or use a different lens. I wear glasses and manual focus even on my D700 has been a challenge, but I am getting better at it. I can’t focus it reliably, even on still objects, with my D300. Oh, yes it is sharp.

    Cheers,

    Tom

    • Thanks Tom,

      Color fringing is dependent on the placement of the focus plane. Purple fringing happens when the focus plane is behind an extreme highlight. The effect is less obvious when the focus plane is in front, as the fringing is a less obvious shade of green.

      Hence fringing improves as your focusing skills improve. If you pay attention to the highlights and favor focus towards the highlights then you can get almost fringe-free images at full aperture.

      Over time it has become less of an issue for me.

      Olivier

  5. Olivier,

    Thanks, You are right, and I had meant to mention that paying attention to the focus plane helps. It forces us to consider the composition more carefully before pressing the shutter, not an entirely bad thing.

    Tom

  6. Olivier,

    Do you use a focus screen with your D700? I was thinking about getting one for manual focus lenses and was curious what your thoughts were.

    Warren

    • Hi Warren,

      I bought one, I tried it, and then went right back. It worked fine but I was too productive with the camera’s electronic rangefinder to put up with the inconvenient (the center portion being always in focus).

      What I would have liked is a microprism screen – the entire screen covered in coarse microprisms. I think that would work wonderfully but none exist. Possibly because that would interfere with the meter.

      So the short answer is that I don’t use an aftermarket screen.

      Olivier

      • Thanks Olivier,

        I appreciate the response! I was using my friend’s Canon AE-1 recently, I thought it had an interesting focus screen. The thing that I found difficult, was focusing on something small and specific (like an eye) at wide apertures.

        I think I’ll forget the focus screen then.

        Warren

  7. Hi Oliver, Warren,

    I’m not sure if this may help with the focussing issue. I still prefer to use my old prime manual focus lenses on a D700 and, as I’m not as young as I used to be, manual focussing was becoming a bit harder. I took the focussing screen out of an old Mamiya 645 that I had and re-sized it to fit the D700….It makes it so easy to manual focus and is brighter than the original D700 screen.

    Of course I’m an old fart with way too much time on my hands so this solution may not be for everyone..

    Steve

  8. Oliver,

    I just bought a used Zeiss 100mm f/2 Makro Planar. I got some good first results – portraits in a dim room. But about the manual focus ring. I find there’s a very small mechanical delay – approximately a 0.25mm “click” before the focus ring engages – but then it’s smooth throughout the movement. Is this normal for this lens? I also bought the 28mm f/2, used as well, recently and find both lenses do not sit perfectly tightly in the bayonet. There is a very slight amount of play there too. Both movements are extremely small, but I find them annoying. The optical results are pleasing to me, though, and I like the fast aperture compared to my Canon 24-105mm f/4.
    Thanks for your review.

    • Hi Stuart,

      I think this amount of play might be in the mount. I have the same issue with mine, I can feel the whole lens turn very slightly at the mount when I torque the lens. I doesn’t really affect focusing, at least in my case.

      Cheers,

      Olivier

      • Olivier … yes, the mount has a teeny bit of play, but the focus ring on this lens also has a very small initial “click” … the Zeiss rep in New Jersey (who has responded quickly to my concerns) says by email he thinks “the helicoids (!) need to be re-lubricated” … I’d have to ship the lens via them to Europe for servicing at my cost, because the warrantee is non-transferable … I’ll use it for awhile and then decide …

        thanks for your feedback … Stuart

  9. Excusez-moi. Olivier!


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