The 35mm ZF is a work horse of a lens that will bring out the journalist in you. It delivers an even performance across the image field with few meaningful weaknesses. For APS-C cameras the 35mm ZF is an attractive choice of normal lens; that is why I bought it a little over a year ago and how I first became a Zeiss ZF user.
Very little is known about the pedigree of the 35mm ZF other than what relates all Distagons. The name itself is associated with wide-angle lenses designed under the Zeiss principle of “design relaxation” : to correct aberrations over a large number of elements so that each one bears a smaller burden. Resulting lenses therefore have unusually long optical paths compared to classic wide-angle designs (e.g. Biogon), and tend to be associated with tele-centric systems such as reflex cameras.
The role of the T* thin-film coating goes beyond merely suppressing ugly artifacts in this context, it permits a large number of elements to be used without loss of image contrast. This is why Zeiss applies the coating to all air/glass interfaces rather than the typical one or two interfaces for Japanese-branded premium coatings (e.g. Nano, SWC). The benefits for the photographer go beyond compensating for aggressive lens design, the very high contrast of T* lenses is a Zeiss hallmark that spans reflex, rangefinder and medium format photography.
The 35mm ZF lens is relatively large and bulky for its specifications. That doesn’t mean it’s a large lens in absolute terms, but if you put it side-by-side with other 35mm f/2 lenses then it is likely going to stick out like a sore thumb. In use the size proves irrelevant because the lens is still more compact than even small consumer zoom lenses. On the D700 the lens is on the smaller end of what constitutes good balance.
Manual focus is quick and decisive with this wide-normal lens. Even at f/2 it is possible to achieve a very high rate of success if you apply yourself to the task, but don’t expect that to come on your first day with the lens. Less than one-tenth of a rotation covers the entire focus range of a rangefinder camera. This high focus speed is balanced with an even dampening that is the result old-fashioned grease between simple metal threads (not cams).
The 35mm Distagon extends slightly while focusing, by up to 5 millimeters roughly at the near-limit. The focusing movement is simple, the entire assembly is shifted forward, which means that it is not specially corrected for near focus.
The 35mm ZF is not the strongest performer I know. It isn’t as resistant to flare, nor as sharp, nor as well-corrected for chromatic aberrations, nor does it make as beautiful bokeh as the 100mm ZF. This is an unfair comparison however, because the 100mm ZF is not a wide-angle lens and costs twice as much. The Distagon is also far more versatile than the Planar, and having used it under very diverse conditions I can say that there are few where it strains much.
Sharpness is not lacking at any aperture for either of Nikon’s sensor format sizes. It is very good across the frame straight from f/2, and is simply outstanding around f/4 - 5.6. I would not have any second thoughts before using this lens with the highest-resolution sensors available today.
Bokeh is neutral to me; I find it neither remarkable, nor terrible. The circle of confusion is almost completely neutral, with a hint of ringing at f/2 that is only visible on isolated points. I would characterize bokeh as clinically excellent though plain emotionally. Depth of field is often sufficient to hold human subjects in focus so it is much less sensitive to the character of the ramp in/out of focus (also average in this case).
Chromatic aberration is one reproducible flaw of this lens. By this I mean to say that it is present and it can be found if you look for it. It is not on a problematic scale, staying well within the ability of software to fix, I would say that it compares to the best “professional” zooms that cover this focal length. Hiding together with chromatic aberrations is mild highlight fringing that disappears completely only at f/8 – this is the more objectionable flaw of the two if you ask me. The fringing is most visible with blown highlights and is not frequently seen elsewhere.
Internal reflection flares are also a potential problem, but veiling flare is not. When a strong light source is present inside the frame, or just barely outside of it, the lens will always produce one or two oblong flare spots. Expect a half-dozen flare spots for shots directly into the Sun. Amazingly the lens does not veil under these or any other ‘reasonable’ conditions (I overexposed a glowing wall of light once and it veiled then). Even with the light source inside the frame, shadow detail is preserved at nearly perfect contrast up to the border of the light itself. This makes the Distagon a very powerful tool for daytime and studio shooting, particularly if you position yourself for partial or total backlighting of the subject.
If my analysis leaves you thinking that the 35mm ZF is an average or a compromised lens, think again. It is a very sharp, high-contrast optic can that be used effectively without restraint. If you can see and set-up the shot, then it will deliver it to you. This is a strong contender for the title of best 35mm lens ever made.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Definitely YES. This is the lens that I use 80% of the time on my D700 – it walks around, it portrays and it reports.
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