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.
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.
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.
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.