PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

18Nov/1110

Carl Zeiss 1.4/35 Distagon T* Review

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.

Operation

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.

Drawing

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.

Conclusion

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.

Samples


Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Hello Olivier,

    I share your comment & thought. I have not tried this new lens & am contemplating to get one. I do have the concern on 35mm F1.4’s worth since I am also using the 35mm F2.0 ZF now. Though I am not totally satisfied with 35mm F2.0 as I think the color is rather too punchy & its handling in low light is less effective than 28mm F2.0 (see your reply to me earlier on 28mm F2.0. In fact, I returned the 28mm & get the 35mm instead as I feel that 35mm is better in day to day application). I do mind this heavier option as I really dislike the D700 & 24-70mm F2.8 combo. Your review does help me not to pursue this route. I now have the 100mm F2.0 Makro & I think if I want better color rendition & sharpeness, I will go for the 21mm F2.8 ZF instead.

    Thank you again!
    Michael.

    • If you think the color is too punchy then Zeiss lenses, as a general group, may not be your cup of tea. They tend to have very vivid color. The flipside is that in post-process you can choose a more flat curve.

  2. Very nice review again, Oliver!

    And, having a handful of ZF’s myself along with a rangefinder set, I notice the same natural trend towards disliking the D300/ZF combo’s and liking the rangefinder combo’s.

    Size does matter! And the recent stream of mirror-less camera’s show this clearly.

    A bit sad as I really love the ZF lenses. But I think my next lens will not be the 21/2.8 or the 28/2.0 or the 35/1.4 but the 50/1.5 (Sonnar)…

  3. Thanks for posting this review Olivier!

    I’ve been waiting patiently for this one, and to be honest from what you’ve written I don’t feel I’m missing out by sticking with my 2/35 zf.2, which is becoming one of my all-time favourites (and was purchased because of your review!).

    On a side note, I do wish Zeiss made a version of their 50mm Sonnar for the F mount, as I prefer it’s rendering to the Planar. Maybe one day 🙂

  4. Hello!
    I am currently looking to purchase either the 35 f/1.4 or the f/2.0 and wanted to know more about their comparison. I know that weight might be an issue for some, but if we are to disregard weight as a factor, does the f1.4 improve that much over the f2.0? Thank you!

    • Hi Nathan,

      The improvements are not always easy to see but they are there. The least well quantified, but most important improvements are the handling of color and contrast at the widest apertures.

      I sent back the lens I tested because of its defect, and did not get another copy because I thought I would just shoot on rangefinders for a long time, but with the D800 coming to my home soon I think it’s unavoidable that I will trade my f/2 for the f/1.4 again. So there’s the proof of the pudding… I tested the f/1.4 and will get it again despite owning the f/2.

      Olivier

  5. Hi, Olivier.
    I’m quite happy I was lucky to find your photo blog and zeiss lenses reviews in particular.
    Could I ask one question corresponding a large and heavy Zeiss ZF 35/1.4 lens? You have a lot of photo gear options to choose from (rangefinders, DSLRs) so your opinion is to be unbiased. Finally do you miss ZF 35/1.4? Do you want to reaquire this lens? Is its weight and bulk justified by its unique drawing style?
    Actually I’m in search of a zeiss lenses set up for FF and close to choose 21D, 35/1.4 and 100MP so your experienced ponit is quite valuable.
    Best regards, Alex.

    • Hi Alex,

      Size and weight are the only two low points for this lens. I would have the same complaint for any other SLR lens at the 1.4/35mm spec, though, and if faced with the choice I would pick the Zeiss every time. I think the ZF (or ZE) group you’ve mentioned (2.8/21, 1.4/35, 2/100) is absolutely the best of breed at the moment; with the 2/50 being the clear fourth option.

      However, for myself… I strongly prefer the rangefinder system now. I *just* returned to the SLR club with a D800 and I’m not enjoying it as much as I thought I would, or as much as I remembered from the past. I can see myself buying a new lens for the D800, but there is now a very difficult test any lens must pass: “would it make sense on a Leica with an EVF (e.g. the new M)?” If not then I might rent it, but I’m not going to buy it.

      The 1.4/35mm ZF makes absolutely no sense on a Leica with an EVF. The haptics for that would be terrible – you can see the size difference in the picture above.

      Hence I give the 1.4/35mm ZF a *glowing* endorsement, insofar as one is and remains an SLR user.

      Cheers,

      Olivier

  6. Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon MC 35mm f/2.4 is a very solid lens. The lens shows some weakness around borders at wide aperture settings, especially on a FF camera, but again, I have yet to see a wide angle lens that doesn’t struggle here. Overall, this lens can easily compete with Carl Zeiss Distagon (C/Y) T* 35mm f/2.8 for your attention and bucks. One major advantage that could be quite valuable to some photographers is the close minimal focusing distance – it is actually shorter then on some dedicated macro lenses! Of course, all this assumes that you’re OK using a fully manual lens.

  7. I own the Canon (ZE) version of this lens and use it on a 6D. I’m also a rangefinder shooter and use the Leica M-E and M Monochrom (original).

    This lens on a DSLR, even a light one like the 6D is a beast. It is big, heavy and would not be my first choice for a long day walking. What it is, however, is magical in its rendering. It is sort of an anti-rangefinder sort of lens, as when I shoot with a rangefinder camera I tend to the smaller and lighter (not to mention slower) lenses. At 35mm I shoot the Leica 35mm f/2.5 Summarit, and wouldn’t think of putting an f/1.4 Summilux or f/1.4 Distagon on my M cameras. While the Fast RF lenses are smaller and lighter than SLR lenses like this Zeiss, thy are still big and heavy by RF standards and make me think that I may as well carry my SLR.

    The other big disadvantage of RF cameras and lenses is close focusing. I love close focusing at wide apterture on a 35mm lens, but even the $5000+ Leica Summilux just won’t do it.


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