PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

15Mar/0914

Carl Zeiss 2/35 Distagon T* Review

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.

Operation

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.

Drawing

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.

Conclusion

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.

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 (14) Trackbacks (6)
  1. Thanks for the review. How do you think this lens compares with the Zeiss 28mm f/2?

    • I haven’t used a 2/28 myself but every review, test, samples I have seen say the exact same thing about it. From f/2 – f/4 it just isn’t up to par with the other Zeiss lenses. It can make beautiful artistic effects, sure, but it has relatively weak resolution compared to expectations. Then from f/5.6 down it’s super sharp everywhere.

      So my personal opinion is that the 2/35 is the lens to get if you’re flipping between the two and you’re not craving for a ‘glowy and soft’ lens wide-open.

      • Hello – you mentioned that you use this lens on your D700?
        I’ve got a Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f1.4 for Contax/Yashica … do you know of any mount converters, or am I better to sell this (as i was planning).

        I’m finding it hard to find a ballpark figure for this beauty. Can you offer me any help?
        Cheers

  2. Thanks again. I’m waiting for these lenses to be available in the ZE mount so that I compare them with my EF 28mm f/1.8

  3. using the Zeiss 35 on a Nikon , I know you manually focus, and I believe you manually expose? which intails exactly what? Setting aperture and shutter speed?

    I use a Voitlander for Nikon and as you commented in another post, you manually focus but one can choose the aperture and the camera chooses the shutter speed..

    Needless to say I am having a little trouble getting it all straight,
    This is a GREAT site, so much info thanks joanlvh

    • Hi Joan,

      The Zeiss ZF lenses are slightly more manual than the newer Voigtlanders. The ZF don’t have the electronic contacts that allows ALL Nikon cameras to operate in Aperture-Priority mode, but they do have the mechanical coupling that allow SOME Nikon cameras to do so. The Fx, Fx00, Dx and Dx00 series cameras have the required hardware but the Fx0 and Dx0 series cameras do not. What that means is that on the D80 the 35mm ZF is 100% manual (you must set everything in “M” mode, including flash power if you use flash) but on the D700 you get fully-functional “A” mode with matrix metering and automatic flash exposure.

      By the way, I think the new voigtlanders even allow the camera to choose the aperture. It’s really only the focus which is manual, all the “PASM” and PictureStyle modes are available to you for exposure control. With the Zeiss ZFs the only modes that work are “A” and “M”, nothing else is available.

  4. Just bought the ZF 35 for my D700 two weeks ago and very happy with it.

    I found it hard to find a free and good review of this lens.
    Thanks for the info. You really helped me made the decision.

  5. Bought the 35/2 ZF some months ago and pushed it to the limits. I must say this is an awesome lens and I second your review. Including the color fringe that is quite visible (enlarged to 100% on the screen). This will not stop me from using the lens as its pictorial quality is second to none. I will buy the Makro Planar 100/2 shortly.

    Did ot want to spend so much money on a single lens but the picture quality of the 35/2 (and the 25/2.8 I also have) have fully convinced me this lens is worth it!

  6. Hi Oliver,

    Did you see the newest post done by Erwin Puts where he compares the M9 with the D3x (www.imx.nl/photo)? Did you also see the D3x is tested with “a very new redesigend Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 with Floating element.”.

    Think this is the new ZF coming up!

    Darn Zeiss! Have just bought my 2/35 while I had wanted the 1.4….

  7. Hi Mel,

    >> Hello – you mentioned that you use this lens on your D700? I’ve got a Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f1.4 for Contax/Yashica … do you know of any mount converters, or am I better to sell this (as i was planning). I’m finding it hard to find a ballpark figure for this beauty. Can you offer me any help?

    I do not believe you can convert a Contax lens for use on a Nikon body. You can use it on a Canon body however, if that’s any consolation.

    You’re probably better off selling it to a Canon user if you’re not planning to switch systems. I think this lens is worth around $1000, just from an assessment of MTF and system compatibility.

    I have no idea how the market really values it. It might fetch as much as $1600 or it might not sell for more than $700 either. Since the Canon market is expecting new ZE lenses, now is a good time to sell. The value will for sure go down a Canon-native lens becomes available.

    It’s worth noting that Zeiss is probably coming out with a 1.4/35 lens for Nikon soon. I expect it will be a reworked version of the lens you own. It will surely be better, and more expensive.

    Olivier

  8. Olivier,

    I just wanted to thank you for pointing me to this lens with your review. I picked on up on the weekend and absolutely love it! This lens is a perfect match to my D700 and has a great signature. My only complaint would be the heavy the heavy vignetting, though the lens profile in Lightroom 3 does a good job of removing it when I find it bothersome, though I generally find it adds character to most shots. I find it’s sharper than the ZM version, but has more distortion, both have the same Zeiss warmth and contrast though. It’s amazing to me that Zeiss is still so superior in look and feel compared to the Canon and Nikon, with all the new technology they throw at their lenses. The only lenses that seem superior to the Zeiss lineup, to me at least, are the most recent Leica ASPH lenses, which are rangefinder only, much more expensive and backordered everywhere.
    I am now addicted to Zeiss glass and I thank you, though my bank account may not as I believe I now MUST have the 100mm makro planar 😉

    Warren

  9. have you tried the Samyang 1.4/35mm? I’d be curious to see how they compare to the Zeiss. Best


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