PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

12Sep/128

Carl Zeiss 2/25 Distagon T* Review

The newly-redesigned, faster version of the 25mm Distagon is a power tool for reportage. With a higher asking price come improved handling and nearly flawless performance at near and middle distances. The new 25mm ZF.2 is more than a viable alternative for the big systems’ fast lenses of similar focal length, it just might be the preferred choice.

The 2/25mm Distagon is a new design with all the technology you might expect in a new high speed wide-angle lens from Carl Zeiss: floating elements, aspherical surfaces, glasses with anomalous dispersion, and the famous T* coatings of course. All but the coatings are new to this focal length in the ZF.2 product line; this level of performance is also new.

The launch of the 2/25mm Distagon on the market went by without much notice from me. It’s only later on, after the D800 landed at my doorstep, that I started looking for a fresh take on my favorite kind of lens, the reportage wide-angle. The Distagon proved to be the perfect companion to the D800 – although in terms of absolute performance it isn’t as strong as the 28mm Summicron-M ASPH, it is both more versatile and simply more fun to use.

Operation

The 2/25mm ZF is exactly the right size and weight; on the D800 and in my hands the balance is fantastic. The build quality of this lens matches that of other recent ZF.2’s such as the 1.4/35mm Distagon, and is a notch above what is seen on the older members of the catalog like the 2.8/25mm it obsoletes. Best of all, and despite the serious physical qualities, its relatively small size compared to the faster 35mm lens is a significant advantage when photographing human subjects.

Manual focus is implemented very nicely on this lens, but it is not without some low points as well. Like all the other ZF lenses, focusing is smooth and very well damped, but it felt much too stiff every time I picked up the camera again after a few minutes of idle time. The floating element design is easy to see in action, the lens contracts as it moves away from the image plane.

One big problem I encountered when focusing this lens is that my D800 provided only an unreliable estimate of focus with it – and this camera is not exhibiting any focusing issues with auto-focus lenses. This is anecdotal evidence only at this point, so don’t read too much into this, but I had a very similar problem with the only other ZF.2 lens I have used so far (on a D700 then).

I made use of the manual aperture ring with this lens, instead of the optional ZF.2 electronic aperture control. I did not try to prove that the electronic aperture control worked correctly, which was an issue I hit with the faster 35mm ZF. Within the constraints of my usage, though, it worked without any surprises.

Drawing

The 2/25mm is an astonishingly good performer at close range and at any aperture, but is softer at longer range. This speaks to what I see as the true purpose of this lens: recording of human-scale narratives. Its less than perfect rendering of far-away scenery is a relatively small blemish that I could easily live with, personally, but hardened landscape artists could disagree.

Note that this is my first review with the D800 and I feel I must mention that many flaws seen at 100% view aren’t so readily visible at 50% view – which is almost a 10MP image in its own right. A D700 user could conclude differently than I have about the fine points of this lens – and possibly that it is simply indomitable on that sensor.

At the full aperture of f/2 the fast 25mm Distagon renders very fine detail with very good contrast in the near field (2 to 6 feet), close to the center axis. Performance drops when looking further away from the center axis, with fine detail resolved over most of the frame but only coarse detail in the outer zones. At this aperture the biggest challenge with the outer zones is field curvature, and a fair amount of coma outside the plane of focus help to ensure the drop in performance is precipitous – depending on focus choice of course.

Each stop down improves performance only slightly until diffraction takes over. On-axis performance eventually becomes razor sharp but the outer zones never become great. Performance at longer distances (beyond 10 to 20 feet) is lagging by a stop or more. This being said, in my short time with this lens I made very few images past f/2.8 or at a distance greater than 10 feet – it might be best to weigh other reviewer’s opinions above mine for such uses.

Other aspects of this lens’ performance are uniformly strong. Chromatic aberrations are very well corrected, even longitudinal chromatic aberration doesn’t show meaningful levels in this high-speed lens. Flare is suppressed to remarkably low levels, well beyond the norm even for a ZF lens, this one shoots into the Sun with impunity. Bokeh is pretty average.

Conclusion

The 2/25mm Distagon is a lens that I could shoot it all day, most days, because it captures the way that I see naturally. It has some flaws, but to me they amount to little more than nitpicks. This lens puts human subjects in context beautifully, and it’s beautifully made to boot.

Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes, but primarily to shoot in a reportage style.

Samples


Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Just when I thought you had abondoned your nice website I see a new entry coming. And again I smell the love for CZ lenses in your text that I feel the same.

    Welcome back!

    And eh, on this lens:
    I am not going to replace my 2.8/25 CZ for this one. I still love the 25 over all other CZ lenses I have. Maybe if I ever buy a D800 will it shows more weaknesses than strengths. Nevertheless I think your review is a very usefull addition to the other reviews on this lens on the net.

    THX for doing this!

    MP

  2. Hello,

    What do you mean by “shooting in reportage style” : using hyperfocal ?

    Manu

    • No. I mean shooting people in their context, with the lens in a position where the viewer of the photograph is basically put inside that context with the subject. The goal is to convey the feeling of being a participant to another person’s actions, despite the obvious separation in time and space that come from viewing a photograph.

      This style is most commonly found in photojournalistic / documentary works. It has taken over most of the wedding photography space, over the course of the last two decades.

      Typically you can’t use small enough apertures for hyperfocal to work, because you’ve got to follow the subject to wherever he/she is and that is 80% of the time, a dark place.

      In case you mentioned hyperfocal in the context of street shooting… I would not equate reportage with street shooting at all. Street is more a state of mind than a particular visual style. It may or may not be reportage at the same time.

      Cheers,

      Olivier

      • OK, thanks a lot.
        I was curious to know whether you can use manual focus in situations like photo #4 for instance (or if hyperfocal was used instead).
        The set of photos of this page is stunning 🙂

        Manu

        • Thanks for the kind words.

          All of these were manually focused. I have a lot of experience manually focusing at this point — I haven’t made much use of auto-focus lenses in the last 5 years. If Nikon implemented focus trap (a.k.a catch-in-focus) there would be nothing left that I like in auto-focus.

          Olivier

  3. What do you feel between the 2/25, 2/28 and 2/35 for example? I was looking at the 35mm for some time but found it in a strange place – not wide enough from 50mm but not long enough. I tried the 2/25 and loved it for unique portraiture moments.
    I shoot mostly landscapes so this would help whenever I feel my 2.8/21 is too wide but I am keenly interested in trying portraiture too. The 2/28 is considered a wider 35mm style portrait lens – so is the 2/25 in most situations a bit too wide in your opinion?
    The other thing I wondered was if it’s an interesting pairing to go with a 25mm, 50mm and 100mm to cover the range (in a 2x fashion).
    I’m rambling but if you have a moment, would love to hear your thoughts.
    Cheers!

    • Hello Ajit,

      There is a sweet spot for me on DSLRs with 25mm & 35mm lenses, so I don’t think 25mm is too wide. The space between 35mm and 50mm is also quite significant in actual use. Any combination here will be wonderful to use, the trio you outlined is definitely a terrific set.

      Olivier


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