The 25mm Distagon ZF is a typical wide-angle lens on paper, conservatively specified and priced. In practice it is a versatile lens that could be recommended to many who wish to concentrate on their photography skills. For various reasons the appeal of this Distagon is centered on APS-C cameras where it offers a handy field of view, delivering much the same experience as the 2/35mm Distagon ZF does on full-frame cameras.
The design of the 25mm ZF does not appear to be a refinement of the previous Contax 25mm design, but rather a fresh start for Zeiss and this focal length. The Distagon name is associated with retro-focus lenses, such as this lens is, and suggests that geometric distortions may be a challenge for this lens. Based solely on the charts, it looks as though APS-C users may be less affected by the distortions as the dreaded “mustache” effect comes into play only in the outer regions on full-frame sensors.
I recently discussed this site with Roger at LensRentals.Com and he generously offered to send me a copy of this lens for review. The lens I received from LensRentals was in the same condition that all of LensRentals’ lenses are, in my experience as a customer, which is to say immaculate and looking like new. Even though my time with the lens was shorter than usual, I was able to do three solid shoots with it, including a full day of journalistic coverage at a technology conference in Silicon Valley.
The 25mm ZF is slightly shorter than the 35mm ZF but looks otherwise identical to its sister lens. It is slightly larger than the only other similarly-specified lens, the ancient Nikkor AF 24mm f/2.8D, but in use the size of the ZF feels just right. On the D700, or most of Nikon’s DSLRs, this is a compact lens that compares well to the massive AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G zoom at this focal length.
Manual focus is fast with this lens but precision is a real challenge. As with the 21mm ZF, the significant depth of field with a wide-open aperture makes it difficult to tell where the plane of critical sharpness lies. A viewfinder magnifier or a viewfinder with greater native magnification is necessary for precision work.
The implementation of focus in this Distagon offers one surprisingly useful feature : a maximum reproduction ratio of 1:2.3. This is nearly the same as the macro lenses in the ZF lens program, which I think should merit this lens the nickname “Makro-Distagon”. Sadly the reproduction ratio is not marked on the lens barrel as with the Makro-Planars, so you are left guessing at the distance needed to achieve a particular frame coverage.
The Distagon extends while focusing, quite significantly so at the closest focus distance, and all the elements move as one. Hence despite the unusually large reproduction ratio, this lens is not equipped with floating elements to correct for close focus conditions. Note, the 21mm ZF offers this feature despite a much lower maximum reproduction ratio.
Zeiss overstates the performance of the 25mm ZF somewhat by using the term “legendary”, but it is still quite a good performer. In my opinion the 25mm ZF delivers 3/4 what the 21mm ZF does, for roughly 1/2 the price, and in 1/2 the size. In terms of resolution on full-frame sensors this ZF is roundly outclassed by its properly legendary sister lens, but can still deliver truly excellent results on APS-C sensors.
Sharpness wide-open is good with fine detail at high contrast in the center portion of the frame. Except for the outer zones on full-frame sensors, there is little incentive to stop down as the performance is high from the start and does not improve much at smaller apertures. These outer zones show poor detail and contrast at full aperture however, and only small incremental improvements come here with each aperture stop until the peak around f/11 (the diffraction limit).
Lateral chromatic aberrations are low across the frame, but if you try your hand at macro-photography with this lens you may notice some longitudinal chromatic aberrations. These are also present on the larger Makro-Planars and go away at smaller apertures. You may also want to use smaller apertures to reduce the appearance of light fall-off, which is pretty significant with this lens at full aperture.
Bokeh is generally good with the lens, but the uncorrected astigmatism revealed by the published MTF charts takes its toll. In some images the defocused background will look smeared, rather than confused/blurred.
As paradoxical as it may sound the 25mm ZF is the “value” wide-angle lens in the ZF line-up, in a sense similar to the 1.4/50ZF which it complements very nicely. In a nutshell it offers less thorough performance than some of its sister lenses, at a lower price and with lower bulk. APS-C users should rejoice however, because they will see comparatively higher and more even performance with a field of view that is relatively more useful than full-frame users will.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes. Much more enthusiastically so for APS-C than full-frame users however. Full-frame users should first look at the 21mm ZF.
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