PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

10Jul/0922

Carl Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon T* Review

21linsenschnitt

The 21mm ZF lens is the unchallenged king of wide-angle lenses. The original 21mm Distagon MM is unmatched by any other SLR lens to this day, save for the Distagon ZF. Much like the 100mm ZF, the 21mm ZF’s legendary destiny is high-resolution imaging going beyond current high-resolution sensors.

Not much has changed on paper since the MM version. Glass types changed from lead-based glasses to ECO-glass, and the formula was tweaked somewhat. That belies the tremendous complexity of its design however: 26 surfaces with T* coatings, rare glass types, floating elements and internal focusing. This lens is the latest installment in an epic story in photography.

This is one review I have been looking forward to for years. I rented the lens for 2 weeks so that I could try it firsthand, but also use it as part of a major photography project. Now I don’t want to put it back in the box, I will be sad to return it.

Operation

The Distagon is a sizeable lens, even on the D700 it is not subtle. Its simple shape draws attention to it: from the slim body that suddenly flares out to a whopping 82mm filter thread to the hood’s sharp geometric angles that look like a sharp open beak. This makes the 21mm ZF somewhat of a fashion statement before it makes a photographic one. In your hands, and behind the viewfinder, the balance with the D700 is excellent and invites confidence. The total size is surprisingly similar to my previous wide-angle solution, the Nikkor 18-35mm AF-D.

Manual focus is very fast but also a bit uncertain with this Distagon. A 10-degree rotation will take you from infinity to 0.6m on this lens, a dizzyingly fast travel. The problem with this kind of speed is that the depth of field is also very significant, even at f/2.8, and it is difficult to say where critical focus lies in the frame. Architectural or landscape photographers will not mind this problem, but my journalistic style will benefit from more training with this lens.

This lens does not extend at all when focusing. If you dismount the lens you will notice the rear groups are moving into the lens as it is focused, theoretically providing better close-up performance than would normally be expected. The focusing motion is also extremely smooth and pleasant with this lens, even more so than other Zeiss ZFs.

Drawing

The 21mm ZF an excellent lens to only a few caveats.

Sharpness and contrast are high over most of the frame wide-open, covering at least 70% of the area with beautifully rendered detail.  Only the absolute corners are muddy at the maximum aperture of f/2.8 though even the near borders take on a slightly troubled look with a bit of an orientation preference.  This performance is carried through until f/5.6 or f/8 where the entire frame is “lifted” up to essentially perfect reproduction from corner to corner.  Another stop to f/11 can help to firm up those gains with more contrast at the extremes but this is picking nits, because you could convince someone that a corner crop is a center crop at any of the small apertures.

Chromatic aberration is completely absent from the images I have looked at.  Thin dark branches against the bright sky can take on a bluish tint but color separation is not visible on default Lightroom conversions from RAW.  Compared to the recent crop of wide-angle lenses from the big Japanese brands this is simply wonderful.

Bokeh is nothing to rave about.  At f/2.8 there is a slight ringing to the circle of confusion that is most pronounced at the outer edges of the frame.  This effect never really goes away but only one stop down to f/4 will take out the sharp contours and give you beautiful images in the field (the remaining artifacts being so small).  Note that the circle of confusion takes on an oval shape as it moves away from the center of wide-angle lenses such as this one, smearing out-of-focus objects along the borders – I believe this effect is unavoidable but it takes some of the magic out of Bokeh.

Some may chastise me for commenting negatively on the Bokeh of a wide-angle lens because many will choose to use it only set to f/11 and hyper-focused.  My personal choice of reportage style with people as subjects compels me to jump into the center of action with a wide-angle lens.  This means I will use the lens nearly wide-open with a close focus distance compared to the background distance, potentially including specular highlights and point lights sources.  In these conditions the lens will often reveal large-circled Bokeh, and it is good for me to know that I would enjoy its drawing more at f/4 than f/2.8.

Finally, flare resistance is on a high level but it is not immune.  The full solar disk will cause some veiling and much flaring, but anything less intense (such as a foliage-scattered solar disk) will not produce visible artifacts.  Flare spots are quite visible on a dark background and would be very difficult to remove.  Their apparent brightness look to my eye to be 4-5 stops lower than objects lit directly by the light source - this means some photographers will never see them (in the open) while others will see them frequently (indoors, backlit by the Sun through a window).

Conclusion

I rented the latest 21mm Distagon to help me understand if the lens was a “nice to have” or a “must have”.  My conclusion is simple: no other 21mm lens will do for me after this.  I enjoyed the color rendering, the feel in my hands, the precise drawing…  immediately after returning this lens I will make plans to acquire my own copy.

Would I recommend this lens to other photographers?  Yes.  I have no reservations, this lens delivers exactly what it promised.

I understand that many have an auto-focus or zoom bias, and that’s ok, Nikon makes the equally astonishing 14-24mm zoom for them.  There is no shame in going for that other lens.

Samples

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Comments (22) Trackbacks (3)
  1. Can’t wait to hear your conclusion.

    I think I’m going to end up with the 17-35/2.8 AFS but if money was no object, I’d love to have one of these.

  2. Oliver, you’re making me re-think my lens selection AGAIN, which I thank you for, actually.

    I had started out wanting the 14-24G, knowing of it’s glowing reputation, but thought that it was too impractical. I knew the 17-35 had flaws, but I didn’t realize that the ZF 21mm was that much better.

    My challenge is that one of my main subjects will be a fast-moving baby, so while I’d love to have the time for careful focusing, the reality is that I will want to make use of the D700’s AF. That brings me back to the 14-24G.

    I emailed a number of ZF 21mm owners who also have the 14-24G (found them on Flickr) and many of them said that they love both the ZF 21 as well as the 14-24G, but that the Nikkor was more practical in usage. I’m concerned by the size/weight myself, which pushes me towards the ZF 21 as it is a decent bit smaller.

    I suppose the Nikkor would be easier to sell should I need to do so (I assume it’s in greater demand than the ZF 21mm.)

    • Gen, you’re welcome. ;^)

      For what it’s worth, I’ve been shooting my fast-moving baby with Zeiss lenses exclusively for a year and half already. It’s true that I get a lot of blurry shots but I take so many that I have plenty of awesome & sharp shots too. The blurry shots don’t count.

      With the 21mm I can also reasonably guess the focus distance just by eye and the distance scale. That’s what I did for the picture on this page (http://ogiroux.wordpress.com/zeiss-2821-distagon-t/).

      Okay, hrm, now my advice between those two lenses…

      Flip a coin.

      There aren’t many lens pairings where I would say that. I would take the 21mm ZF for myself but really you can’t go wrong with the 14-24mm if you prefer that. I’ve handled that lens briefly and it’s not as big as you might think.

      Olivier

  3. Hm…

    “The trouble with the near-perfect Zeiss 21mm is its waveform distortion. The shameful truth is that by the time the wrinkles have been ironed out, some of that lovely Distagon goodness disappears too: the bottomless resolution is inevitably compromised by the subtle interpolation required to fix the geometry. After correction, the images are scarcely an improvement over the Nikon or Canon zooms.”

    That sort of evens it out (17-35 AFS vs. ZF 21.)

    I do see the 17-35 as more versatile than the ZF 21.

    • Ah, I know this argument, but it only applies when you’re going to correct the distortion.

      I can see no reason to fix geometric distortions less than 2% on a reportage/journalistic picture. The only reason to fix them on landscapes is if you’re visiting the beach or the plains and have a long horizon that needs straightening. So really this issue only a problem for architecture.

      I doesn’t bother me.

      Olivier

  4. Helpful review, thanks. I just ordered a 50mm 1.4 Zeiss and can’t wait to put it to use, but was also considering this lens at some point. I’ve seen a few photos made with this lens here and there and the detail and micro-contrast appear stunning to my eye, though I’m not an expert in such things. Wish I had this lens for the photo project I did in Barcelona recently. Used a canon 16-35 L II and it was all right, but not quite as sharp as I would have liked. (Sold that lens since)

    • Thanks Hammer,

      When you get your 50mm Planar, step it down to f/5.6, this is what the 21mm Distagon looks like (except it’s a 21mm and not a 50mm). Roughly. Note not just the small details but also the colors.

  5. just out of interest, have you tried the CV 20/3.5? …if yes, would be fun to hear your opinion, if not, you should!

    ….I’ve chosen the CV over the Distagon 😉

    • Hi Alex,

      I haven’t tried the Voigtlander but the data is out there for a comparison. I shoot full-frame and I value edge/corner detail – this combination puts a lot of pressure on a lens. The Photozone data (for example) clearly shows that the Skopar cannot at any aperture draw the outer zones as sharply as the Distagon does wide-open, and the Distagon still improves by stepping down.

      Why do I care about the outer zones? Many people attempt to deflect such arguments by saying you won’t ever place your subject in the corner, how silly!

      I care about outer zones because the depth of field is so significant with a 21mm lens stepped-down that almost everything in the field of view will be in focus, and there will be something in some of the corners, not nothing. That something in the corner may not be my true subject but if it’s in focus then I expect it to not be smudged. I find smudge inside the depth of field to be a distracting artifact that draws attention to itself in a large print. Smudge is only acceptable outside the depth of field.

      Alright. So a $2000 lens is better than a $500 lens. Not a big surprise.

      I will soon be writing a review about another wide-angle choice that is half the price of this Distagon and I believe should appeal to far more people. Stay tuned.

      • Could not find the MTF charts for the Skopar, but judging from experience — and I do also shoot full frame, a D700 as the matter of fact, and use quite a bit of the corner area in my work too — I bought the CV after playing with both lenses for some time, because I could not see much of a difference for most of the image area, save the last 5-7mm of the image circle, f/5.6 and above and no difference below f/8.

        The thing these lenses do differ in, is flatness of field, yes, here the Ziess shines, while the CV focuses the corners just farther than the center, at close distances, and this can be visible, again at close distances, way down to f/8.

        But this whole thing could indeed be more of a habit thing… I do tend to shoot most of may images in low (if any 😉 ) light, hight ISOs and slow shutter speeds, so for me the difference is indeed negligible…
        but what I really wanted to know is not the theoretical, MTF-based comparison, but an opinion coming from experience with both lenses in slightly different conditions than I work in 🙂

        Thanks!

        • Hi again Alex,

          I do not have personal experience with the Skopar, so I don’t think I can add much to what you already know.

          It’s good to know that the Skopar performs poorly in tests only because of field curvature. Not everyone suffers the same from field curvature.

          Olivier

  6. Hey Oliver,

    I am interested in this Zeiss 2.8/21mm and Nikkor 1.4G/24mm for the wide angle prime use. I don’t have any lens in this category. I have the Nikon D7000 and already have 1.4G/35mm on order. I am interested in how Zeiss 2.8/21mm performs in comparision with Nikkor? I can get the f/1.4 performance from 35mm so 1.4 isn’t really a factor here.

    And yes thank you for your review. Your blog looks mighty interesting to me especially with more concise reviews and no techno mumbo-jumbo.

    • Hi Danish,

      It’s a complex question. The Nikkor 24mm is (as recently discussed on this thread) quite a sharp lens, but it is not a high contrast lens which can make the delivered image appear less impressive than the Zeiss.

      This kind of comparison is in fact systemic between Zeiss and non-Zeiss. Ignoring resolution of different lenses, the Zeisses consistently have higher contrast than their competitors, and more often than not are more resistant to veiling when back-lighting. That is likely to be true of the 35mm f/1.4 lenses too, though I have not seen either yet.

      If I may suggest an approach for anyone in picking lenses : find the color rendition you like the most, and the features you like the most (like AF… :^), and then standardize your entire kit on this brand / family of lenses. I have found it difficult to buy non-Zeiss lenses to augment my Zeiss-based kit because the colors are so different, the images don’t fit side-by-side without some processing. Even after buying a Leica M9 I have found that I prefer Zeiss ZM’s in general over the Leica M’s because they deliver the color I like to much.

      Alright. My concise advice is : 24mm Nikkor. (To augment my standardization argument, I’d say standardizing on f/1.4 is also a valid approach too. So not only the colors match, but they operate the same way.)

  7. Oliver,

    Thank you for your reply.

    So this is my cognizance of your reply, pick a family of lenese which produce similar characterstics in images. I want to go prime only, and was considering the 1.4/24mm, 1.4/35mm and 1.4/85mm when I started hearing about Zeiss lens and how good it is. By January I would have enough funds for the nikkor trinity. Of all my focal lengths(I have 1.8DX/35mm and 18-105mm kit lens apart from the 16-85mm variable apperture zoom), I use 35mm 60% of the time, and I personally think that autofocus has its untility at this FL especially if you are thinking about street photography but then again I have never used the Zeiss lens with their manual focus, which few consider to be superior to autofocus in accuracy and at times in speed too.

    Now I do like the look of Zeiss lens, and I think 2.8/21mm, new 1.4/35mm, 1.4/50mm and 2/100mm (for portraits) will form a formidable kit! It would cost me about the same as the nikkor trinity and I would be able to get the 50mm too.

    I guess I will have to rent one of the zeiss after these holidays and try it out myself. But till I do that, another question for you, how convinient do you think manual focus is for portraits and candid street shots? Do you miss the autofocus for your journalistic shoots?

    Thanks again for all the help! You might be getting tired by now, answering all sorts of questions by noobs like me 😀

    • No problem, Danish.

      The Zeiss lineup you describe is more or less what I shoot. If I had some loose change, I would quickly trade the 1.4/50 Planar for the 2/50 Makro Planar.

      On the subject of manual-vs-automatic focus, I will summarize my thoughts this way: none of the six lenses I use regularly have AF, but I would be glad if they all had AF. Unfortunately you don’t get a choice of focus means when you buy a particular optic, they come in one flavor each.

      No matter what you do, you’ll keep thinking of the other choice probably. These days I often think of going with the Nikkor lineup because it would make my life easier.

  8. Hey,

    I think it must not be really hard for Zeiss engineers to implement the autofocus in their lineup! And they don’t have anything in north of 100mm in telephoto range. They should make something like 2.8/7-200mm with AutoFocus.

    Thank you for your replies. I guess I’d be able to decide once I have rented and used them for a week or so.

    I would bug you again with my findings once I have bought the lens. And keep up the good job! You got a very nice blog here.

    • Thank you, please do come back to talk about your experience.

      Zeiss does offer AF lenses for the Sony mount. There is a long story around Zeiss and autofocus for CaNikon cameras. I’ve spoken about it several times before, I’ll recount the short version here…

      When Zeiss offered the ZF v1 lenses for Nikon and skipped Canon, they made some statements about not reverse-engineering the electronic protocols (like Sigma does) and waiting for CaNikon to willingly give them access (the ZF v1 lenses didn’t need those protocols). More recently with the launch of the ZE line and the ZF v2 line, we’ve got signs that this technology transfer has happened. It’s not crazy to think that AF lenses may now be within Zeiss’ power to offer.

  9. Hello Olivier,
    I’ve been reading your fantastic site for a very long time.
    First of all, let me thank you for all your wonderful articles! They really help me to understand some lenses-related topics; recently I switched from the nikon trinity (14-24, 24-70, 70-200 vrII) to a (more or less) equivalent Zeiss set-up (2/35, 2/50 MP, 2/100 MP).
    Your reviews of Zeiss lenses helped me a lot to choose the primes more suitable to my needs.
    Now I would like to buy a wide angle prime, but unsure which one to choose – I’m undecided between a Zeiss 21mm, a Zeiss 25mm, a Zeiss 28mm or a Nikon 24 1.4.
    Having a Zeiss only setup, I think I should stay with the Zeiss… but the Nikon is tempting 😉
    Two more things: the first is that I shoot mainly street; when I had the 14-24 it was the least used lens! 14mm is to much wide for me. On the contrary, I used a lot my 24-70 and 40% of the shots I did with it are at 24mm.
    Have you some suggestions?
    Thanks in advance!

    Daniele

    • Hi Daniele,

      Thanks for the kind words. I can definitely relate to your experience.

      You can skip the 25mm ZF, but the other lenses you mention are all first-rate. Personally I would pick the 21mm ZF, but I admit I would lose a lot of sleep over the 24mm Nikkor thereafter. As you mention, I would pick the Zeiss to keep the look and feel of the system the same.

      Feel free to comment with your experience and questions!

      Olivier

      • Hi Olivier,
        thanks for your kind answer 🙂

        After having used the Zeiss lenses I think it’d be very difficult to buy a Nikkor again: I love so much the look and the way of “drawing” an image of the Zeiss, that in comparison the images that come out from the Nikkors seem to me dull, flat and definitely boring.

        Nevertheless, I’m not able to try the new 1.4 Nikkor’s primes (unfortunately there’s no rental service in my place), so I have to rely on what others say on the internet. You told to Danish that you’re considering to going with the Nikkor lineup because it would make your life easier. So my question is: are you willing to trade off some AF convenience for the “look and feel” of a Zeiss lens? Is it the Nikkor 24 1.4 any better than a Zeiss 2.8/21? What about the Zeiss micro-contrast that we learned to love?
        If I have to rely on my own experience with the holy trinity, I can say for sure that I won’t use a Nikkor anymore – but, again, I don’t know how different or better are the Nikkor’s primes vs Nikkor’s zoom.

        • Daniele,

          The 1.4/24mm was the most FUN lens I have ever used, so I have nothing bad to say about it. If you look over in that review comment thread you’ll see we struggled to rank it versus the Zeisses.

          Despite often saying that I want to pick up a lens with AF, when it comes time to spend money I always go with MF. Indeed the “look and feel” of the Zeisses is what keeps me I’m the ZF line for my Nikon system.

          Olivier


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