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