Despite strong roots in photojournalism, the Nikon F system somehow failed to maintain a stable of modern fast wide-normal lenses for most of its history. The landscape changed dramatically when, in the middle of 2010, Nikon users suddenly found themselves with choices of fast wide-normals to suit almost every budget and shooting style. The Zeiss Distagon in this review is the most controversial among these new options.
The high-speed Distagon is a new formula designed as much for high sharpness in the plane of focus as smooth un-sharpness outside. The result of the design process was a surprisingly large optical cell, chosen for reasons of cost probably. In addition to that the lens was equipped with a complex focusing mechanism – seemingly based on metal cams – whereby front and rear elements move at different and non-linear rates. Combining these two features leads to a very large and very heavy lens even for the specification.
As soon as the 1.4/35mm ZF lens was announced it was obvious to me (and my wife) that I would eventually try or directly buy it. The slower 2/35mm ZF was my introduction to prime lenses, to the manual focus ethos and was pivotal in helping me shape my way of seeing photographs. The promise of a “grown up” implementation of my favorite and most-used lens with a boost of speed and improved resolving power in the near-field made my adopting it seem like a no-brainer. In the end I did purchase the high-speed Distagon, but quickly decided to return it for a refund.
The f/1.4 Distagon is a very large and heavy lens; it is even heavier than it looks, it is just shockingly heavy. The build quality of this lens is also a clear notch above the simpler and older Zeiss ZF’s like the f/2 Distagon. Mounted on the D700, the pair handle roughly the same as the D700 did with the 24-70mm zoom when I tested it (I disliked that combination for its size and weight).
Manual focus is neither slow or fast with this lens, the pitch feels just about right, but the task is considerably more difficult than it was with the 2/35mm lens. For action/portraiture the camera’s built-in rangefinder is an invaluable help, but on my camera the lens required a substantial amount of back-focus correction before I could use it. Luckily one can concentrate on the act of focusing without being distracted by the mechanism implementation because this is probably the smoothest-focusing of the Zeiss ZF lenses. Despite what I believe is a complex focus mechanism, the resistance is almost perfect and almost perfectly even throughout the range.
The fast Distagon extends only slightly while focusing.
This lens introduced me to the ZF.2 family, with their slightly different aperture rings and functions with the camera. Here lied a major disappointment however, as the lens sample I acquired incorrectly translated camera settings to the physical aperture. Every aperture selected translated to an aperture that was 1/2 a stop too wide, which lead to overexposure at a minimum and also not the artistic result I desired. My salvation here was a D700 option to switch away from computer-defined aperture and only use the aperture ring, as if it were a ZF.1.
This 1.4/35mm is a good performer on any basis but it doesn’t exactly displace the slower 2/35mm, which has garnered an exceptional reputation over the years. This lens is as sharp as anyone needs it to be however. This is the first f/1.4 lens I think I could use at full aperture with impunity.
This high-speed Distagon is a very sharp lens even at full aperture when properly focused. Fine detail is rendered with average micro-contrast on-axis at this aperture, and more coarse detail in the outer zones. Global contrast is on a very high level especially considering other lenses in the class. The combination of smooth bokeh (sometimes), high global contrast, vivid colors and fine detail in the plane of focus lends impact to images made by the fast Distagon.
In the limited time I spent with the lens I used it very little at the smaller apertures. I limit my comments on small-aperture performance to stating that it looked fine. The appeal of this lens doesn't lie there.
One rarely mentioned and ironic fact of Bokeh is that it is rarely very good on fast lenses. Bokeh quality is strongly affected by astigmatism and mechanical vignetting of the circle of confusion, both of which are associated with fast lenses. In the case of this Distagon the Bokeh is OK, one might say it is good if one qualifies that with "for a lens wider than 50mm". It is certainly very beautiful when backgrounds are distant or contain only low-frequency detail, particularly thanks to the high contrast and vivid colors, but near the plane of focus there can be more nervousness and halation than smooth blur.
Chromatic aberrations could be an issue for some. Longitudinal chromatic aberration, particularly, is often significant even in normal use, because all strong highlights clad themselves in green and magenta outlines. See the samples section for an example.
Like other Zeiss T* lenses the 1.4/35mm ZF shows strong resistance to veiling flare when shooting against the light. In fact it is simply outstanding in this area, despite the handicap of large elements. At full aperture, and staring directly into the illuminant, contrast is maintained all over the frame and up to the border of the light itself.
The 1.4/35mm Distagon ZF is as good a lens as one should hope it to be. It may not live up to the hype of marketing or the unreasonable expectations of some enthusiasts but it is a really fantastic lens. In theory this lens would be bliss to shoot but I didn't enjoy it, I kept thinking that I'm done playing with large and heavy lenses.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? I don't know. My deflated enthusiasm might mean that my conversion to a rangefinder shooter is now complete.