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Zeiss Distagon T* 1.4/35 ZF.2

Introduction:


First of all, I need to thank Zeiss for loaning me this lens. The Distagon 35/1.4 was one of three lenses loaned to me in November 2011. The other two were the Distagon 21/2.8 ZF.2 and the Makro-Planar 50/2 ZF.2. Initially, I was told I could pick up the lenses from the local distributor on November 1, but they only managed to get them just past the middle of that month. This was unfortunate, and quite un-German :) December was a busy time for me and spare time was not abundant, so I didn’t manage to use the loaned lenses as much as I liked to. I barely finished taking the test shots and sample images for the review, and had only one opportunity to use them for personal work, so apologies for the boring test and sample images. Hopefully I will get another opportunity to shoot these lenses.


The Zeiss Distagon T* 35/1.4 ZF.2 was first announced in September 2010, and is one of the latest editions to the Carl Zeiss line up of lenses. Measuring at nearly 8cm in diameter and 12cm long, it’s fair to say that it’s large, and heavy too! ...830gr.

The construction does not disappoint. As with all ZF lenses, the 35/1.4 has a confident metal build, and very smooth focusing.

The ZF.2 lens offers an electronic interface with Nikon cameras, allowing for the aperture to be controlled electronically from the camera body, and proper exif data to be transmitted without the need of manual input. The lens comes with front and rear lens caps, as well as a petal shaped metal bayonet hood. All in all, an impressive lens to look at and hold, which is capable of instilling much confidence.




General impressions and opinions:


After arriving home after picking up the loaned lenses from Zeiss, the first thing I did was open the box of the 35/1.4. I was so incredibly curious about it, and after all reviews and opinions I’ve read online, I had great expectations for the lens. First of all, I honestly imagined the lens to be bigger, and I was pleasantly surprised with how well balanced it’s weight was relative to it’s size, especially when fitted on the D700. It’s a large lens, but it’s not huge.


When I first mounted the lens onto my D700, I snapped away at subjects in my immediate vicinity - all at f/1.4 of course, but for no practical reason other than to see what the lens delivers at f/1.4. Focusing seemed fairly easy, and images snapped well into place though the viewfinder. Careful focusing is demanded, as the lens is sharp and has excellent contrast, so errors in focus are quite obvious. The focus ring is nice and large, and the throw feels very good; Long and butter smooth, allowing for careful focusing with the ability to make minimal adjustments.


The lens boasts an inspiring build and mechanical feel, and could easily create a false allure of one’s own photographic skills.

Jokes aside, if one isn’t capable of taking good images with this lens, then it’s likely that one needs to invest in some courses.

With the high standards of Zeiss in mind, it’s very disappointing tosee that Zeiss are still not taking the lens cap issue seriously. The cap is hardly functional at all, and falls off my lenses constantly. In a downward facing bag, the lens rubbs around on a loose lens cap which risks damage to the front element.  Ironic that the caps do the opposite of their designed function.


I have used the Distagon 35/2 ZF for two years now, and based on that experience, I have to admit that the “honeymoon” phase of the 35/1.4 did not last long... the size and weight irritated me, and the lens felt cumbersome and impractical. This is mainly due to the fact that 35mm is my most used focal length, and when I want to go light and small, the 35/2 is the only lens I take with, with the possible exception of also taking the Nikkor 50/1.2 along.


I see no reason to dislike this lens if the size and weight of the 35/1.4 are non-issues... It is a quietly beautiful, and simple lens, that offers amazing build and imaging quality.




Imaging Characteristics:

(Please NOTE, unless otherwise stated, the opinions expressed are based on experience using a full frame 12mp digital camera)



The first thing I noticed when looking at images I had taken with this fantastic prime, was that it featured a different look to the other Zeiss lenses I have tried. Clean, neat, and to the point. The 35/1.4 renders a less rich and saturated micro contrast, but on a finer level it feels like it’s much crispier than some of the other Zeiss lenses. This is just an observation, and it’s difficult to put into words. It reminds me of the difference between my Nikkor 50/1.8D and Nikkor Ais 50/1.2 shot at f/8. Both being very sharp, but the 50/1.8 being less contrasty and more crisp than the more contrasty and rich 50/1.2.  I find this to be a very interesting observation; Neither good or bad, but just interesting...


The lens performs very well wide open. It’s sharp, and has very good contrast on top of this. Only a very slight soft veil is present at times.  For shooting in harsh lighting conditions, it’s much more usable than the Planar 50/1.4. Stopping the lens down improves on what is already very good performance. Global contrast and micro contrast improve, reaching their peak just after f/2.8, after which vignetting is eliminated by f/4. Also, by f/4, the contrast between extreme corners and centre become indistinguishable. Centre to corner sharpness is very good, and the edges are impressive for such a fast lens. Centre resolution is very high, and this can be seen with images taken on modern DX cameras. Compared to the 35/2 ZF, it lags a bit behind at the far edges, but from f/4 the 35/1.4 seems to offer better sharpness. This is hard to judge properly on a D700, but it’s evident on a D3x or a similarly high resolution full frame camera. Comparing the two again, the 35/1.4’s edges seem just that little bit more crisp at f/5.6. The lens’ lower levels of lateral chromatic aberration is probably a significant contributor to this difference in off-centre detail. I unfortunately didn’t test for field curvature, since I have not noticed any obvious signs of it. However, the images I’ve taken do suggest a very slight inward running curvature towards the edges. An amount I would consider practically irrelevant. On a last point of comparison to the Distagon 35/2, it seems the 35/1.4 boasts a perceived shallower depth of field at most comparable aperture settings. I found this to be quite intriguing, and would suggest the 35/2 for those that consider a greater depth of field to be priority.


As mentioned, images look neat and clean from f/1.4. No muddy tones and colours, and the usual fast-lens-smearing at the edges is also quite well controlled.  The images, especially at night, show little Sagittal Oblique Spherical Aberration and coma. This is great for night time shooting, since off-centre point light sources often take on a bat-winged shape at wide apertures, and the 35/1.4 controls this quite nicely. Again, much more usable in this regard than the Planar 50/1.4 ZF!



So lets talk about blur and the out of focus regions... Overall, the lens offers a smooth and neutral looking background blur. It’s absolute magic at close focusing distances, with evenly illuminated blur discs with no hard edges to high contrast edges. At medium to far distances things can become a little different. While in most cases the background blur is very nice, it can tend to look busy at distances further than around 5 meters. Unfortunately, the blur discs and high contrast edges in the background can often show quite a high level of chromatic aberration, especially the outside of the blur discs which take on a terrible green/yellow tint. This green colour feels sickly, and I’ve yet used a lens with the same green hue. The fringing does contribute to making the background blur less pleasing to the eye at medium to far distances, and as much as I expect fringing with fast glass, I find that the hue of the green fringing is bothering me the most. In most cases, the blur discs maintain a very pleasing circular shape when the lens is stopped down. However, some blurred point light sources can outline the iris shape perfectly, and this is where the apertures polygon shape starts showing as early as f/2.



Chromatic aberration is otherwise not much of a bother. Lateral CA is very well controlled, and is virtually a non-issue. I imagine it could show up on much higher resolution bodies, but comparatively speaking, it shows very little signs of it. Other than what’s present in the out-of-focus regions, longitudinal CA is not invasive. Fringing around high contrast areas around the plane of focus is, in my opinion, very well controlled and not invasive. Yes, it is visible, but for such a fast lens it does very well. There were times I was surprised to see a lack of longitudinal CA in images I expected it to occur! I have shot some difficult scenes that showed almost zero CA near the plane of focus, such as the garden scene on the samples page, image number two in the third row. Other than that, when it does occur, the magenta fringing is fairly easy to desaturate in photoshop without affecting the rest of the image, but unfortunately this isn’t  the same for the green fringing.


Vignetting is moderate and  un-invasive, unlike with the Distagon 25/2.8 ZF, but it takes stopping down to around f/4 to disappear. I have not made a side by side test between film and digital shots, but I imagine that a little of the vignetting seen in my images are sensor induced, and that less vignetting is present when shooting film. Scrolling through an aperture series from f/1.4 to f/5.6, it is clearly visible how far into the centre the vignetting reaches, and the images look notably darker at f/1.4 than at f/5.6, given the correct exposure. It’s only the very centre of the lens that seems consistently bright. With the sample lens I had, the camera’s auto metering correctly exposed scenes for apertures from f/1.4 to f/2.8, after which results started becoming a bit bright. Since these differences were not very great, and that centre brightness didn’t change much when stopping down, I didn’t check for discrepancies between the electronically and mechanically selected aperture values. One would assume these to be properly calibrated, but unfortunately the MP 50/2 ZF showed some variances through it’s aperture series, and the Distagon 21/2.8 ZF was hopelessly out of calibration. May I remind that these lenses are not cheap, and are advertised as top quality equipment.


As with many of the Zeiss ZF lenses, resistance to ghosting and flare is also very well controlled. Shooting directly into the sun will cause ghosting, but it’s little compared to other manufacturers’ lenses. Scenes remain contrasty even when heavily backlit, and this is a wonderful characteristic for a lens to have. On this topic, it really is best to shoot the Zeiss lenses without filters. I have protective filters for my lenses when the conditions demand them, but in most cases it’s not needed. Filters can cause ghosting in strongly backlit scenes, and weird reflections at night. Rather leave them off and exercise caution, and shoot with the hood attached. Hoods offer invaluable shading from the sun, as well as protection from knocks. Other than that, don’t underestimate the resilience of coatings, as they are tougher than one assumes them to be.





Conclusion:


All in all, this is a top performing lens! It’s really excellent, and I can’t see how anyone can be disappointed with the Distagon T* 35/1.4 ZF.2. The lens is probably better suited for higher resolution camera bodies than the already excellent 35/2, especially with regards to it’s lack of lateral chromatic aberration. The 35/1.4 is a fair size bigger and heavier than it’s brother, and given the 35/2’s performance, it may be hard to justify the the real world differences between the two. From my experience, I found the 35/1.4 slower to focus due to the size of the focus ring and it’s larger focus throw. It wasn’t harder or less accurate to focus, even with the stock D700 screen, but I still felt I preferred the feel of the smaller 35/2. I wouldn’t say that the one is better than the other, as the differences in build, image rendering and application will be appreciated by different users.


To summarise the image quality, I would emphasise that this is an all round excellent performer, where little to no hesitation should be had with shooting at wide apertures. It is far more usable at wide apertures than the Planar 50/1.4 ZF and Planar 85/1.4 ZF lenses I have tried, and it renders a smooth blur on top of it! It’s a very sharp lens especially when stopped down, performing very well across the entire frame, which includes the wonderful added benefit of virtually zero lateral CA.


Unfortunately, Zeiss still supplies it’s exclusive optics with the original dinky plastic lens caps, which ironically are more hazardous to damaging the front glass than protecting it. It’s annoying to see that over the past few years nothing has changed here. Another ironic part is that Zeiss launched a line of protective filters based on high volumes of user requests, however, they did nothing about the lens caps which so many complain about. Priorities seem very skewed.


I also feel that Zeiss has not put enough effort in keeping the aperture iris circular for the larger aperture values, from wide open  up to about f/5.6. My Nikkor AFS 28-70/2.8, AFS 14-24/2.8, and AF-D 70-180 Micro all do a much better job at maintaining a circular iris shape for their larger aperture values. This is not a critical issue in photography, but merely an aesthetic issue I put much value in when shooting or consider purchasing these calibre or class of lenses.


Finishing off, I would like to emphasise the value of renting or loaning the lenses one is considering buying. Reviews can only help so much, and the best insight is gained by physically using the lens. This leads me to one last thing... test your lenses!

Zeiss lenses are prone to product variation as well. Of the three lenses I was loaned from Zeiss, the 35/1.4 was the only lens that performed as advertised. I experienced no weird aperture control inconsistencies, no noticeable image quality issues, and no uneven performance across the frame. It was what I thought to be a fine specimen, unlike the MP50/2 and especially the Distagon 21/2.8. Having said this, the chances of receiving a lemon are quite slim.

NAVIGATION: