The 50mm Planar ZF presents itself as a pillar of modern photography. This is the latest iteration of what is possibly the most significant lens design ever conceived, the “Double Gauss” symmetric lens. When Carl Zeiss puts their name to this lens they imply a deeper connection to the original design than their competitors, since the Double Gauss design originated at Carl Zeiss more than a century ago.
Not surprisingly the current design is close to the classic Double Gauss, with similar tweaks as seen on the Nikon versions (separated front group, additional element at the back). The overall performance of this lens is excellent, thanks to the particularly steep improvement curve it enjoys as aperture is stopped down. Colors are classic Zeiss T* with high contrast and saturation, from highlights to shadows.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I went through several rounds looking at the Sigma 50mm EX, the Nikon 50mm G and the two Zeiss 50mm ZF lenses. All four lenses are phenomenal performers, and I would probably own more than one of them if given the choice. Not being given this choice, I chose the Zeiss 1.4/50 Planar as the most likely option to satisfy both my tastes and my wallet.
The Planar is a very compact lens. Compared to the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D the Zeiss lens is only a bit longer (without hood) and essentially the same diameter on the outside. On the D700 the balance is something of a compromise: the low total weight is great but all of it sits in the back. Ideally (for balance) one would pair this lens with a smaller camera like the FE-2.
Manual focus is slow with a long range of twist from infinity to the closest point at 45cm, of about 180 degrees. It is longer than I would ideally like, frequently forcing me to reposition my fingers while hunting for a subject. The focus ring is just large enough to accommodate a “C” grip with your left hand. Don’t grab it too close to the body however, or you’ll be changing aperture settings while you focus. If you prefer the “U” grip (as I do) you will run a higher risk of changing aperture accidentally, and your hand might be prone to cramping over long periods of use.
Like the 35mm Distagon, the focus mechanism simply shifts the entire assembly forward. At the near-limit the extension is no more than 5 or 6mm. This means there is no correction for close-focus, which should be obvious given the direct connection to the Double-Gauss design (the 2/50 Makro-Planar ZF has this correction).
This ZF presents many different characters under different conditions. The same way that a zoom lens changes character as the focal length changes, this 50mm lens changes character as the aperture changes. This effect is essential to keep in mind or you will be surprised (possibly negatively) with the results.
Wide-open it exceeded my preconceived expectations but proves itself unforgiving of even the smallest of errors. This is how small the error can be: the D700’s focus-assist program has a wider margin for error in low-ish light. On the flip side when critical focus is achieved the resolution is close to the maximum the D700 can deliver, albeit with fairly low contrast.
The character changes around f/2.8 where it lets itself be tamed more quickly by the passionate user. Focus is easy to achieve and image quality is plainly excellent over most of the frame, with somewhat muddy corners still. The final behavior emerges at f/5.6 where the Planar ZF delivers extremely high image quality in all respects over the entire frame – this level might be called perfect in fact.
Bokeh is a mixed bag. At wide apertures, between f/1.4 and f/2.4 approximately, I recommend that you avoid specular highlights in the background. Small points or narrow shapes of light will take on an nervous outline and divert attention from your subject easily. This is fixed at f/2.8 for the entire frame (f/2 for the center) when the bokeh takes a soft and pleasing character in all situations.
Chromatic aberrations are not particularly problematic, in the same vein as the Distagon 35mm that I reviewed earlier. Personally, I was surprised by the low level of chromatic aberrations in pictures taken with the lens wide open. Purple fringing is almost always evident with the Planar, but it doesn’t bother me. The lens is not prone to flare, and at smaller apertures it is downright challenging to cause it to flare even a bit – the combined result of excellent T* coatings and relatively few interfaces.
The 1.4/50 Planar ZF is often painted as the underdog in the Zeiss ZF line-up. Compared to the 2/50 Makro-Planar, the Planar is a simpler design for less demanding uses, and the lab tests are unanimous in the judgement. The Planar also costs half as much, weighs less and takes less space in the bag. At smaller apertures the Planar delivers performance that is anything but “less” however.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes, with a caveat. Although this lens doesn’t require the same velvet touch to focus as the 2/100 Makro-Planar, it remains a very sensitive beast. If you are not hungry for Zeiss T* color and contrast, you might be more productive with one of the other excellent 50mm lenses available at this price point (I would recommend the Nikkor G).
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