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Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 2/50 ZF.2

Introduction:


The Zeiss T* Makro-Planar 50/2 is one of two macro lens offerings Zeiss has in their line up of ZF and CF lenses. It’s a great all round 50mm lens with the neat capability to focus close. I chose those words since this lens is far from a true macro lens.


The Makro-Planar 50/2  measures 66mm in length, and considering it’s diameter of 65mm, it seems almost fat and short when mounted on a camera. Weighing 500 grams, this lens is not light weight, but on bodies such as a D700 or D3s, it’s weight doesn’t feel out of place. Again, the build quality is like all Zeiss ZF lenses; A heavy metallic build and very smooth focusing, which is great compared to today’s general flimsy and plastic construction. 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 metal bayonet hood.


From the outside, and from the general feel of things, this lens feels like it won’t or can’t disappoint.




General impressions and opinions:


Like the claims of many other manufacturers, Zeiss’ claim of “macro” is not true. By definition, a macro lens is one that is capable of reproduction ratios of, or greater than, 1:1. ie Life size reproduction or greater. Ironically, both Zeiss Makro-Planar lenses are only capable of reproducing half this, namely 1:2. This is fairly disappointing. This aside, the focusing was easy, and images snapped into focus. Even though the sample lens I had was fairly stiff - the stiffest Zeiss lens I’ve ever used - I was still able to achieve focus easily, however, a firmer grasp was needed. The focus was not as light as the my Makro-Planar 100/2 or Distagon 35/2, and not nearly as light as that of the loaner Distagon 21/2.8, which I considered to be too loose. Generally, I would say that there is a larger inconsistency among these lenses than what I, or others, care to expect.


Generally speaking, this lens is very expensive compared to other offerings with similar focal lengths. The fact that it focuses close is an added benefit, but would it to justify it’s steep price? The MP 50/2 is about 3x the price of fast standard 50mm lenses and 2x that of comparable Nikon Micro lenses. I had high expectations indeed, and comparatively speaking, I had a hard time believing it was up to the challenge. This especially if compared to the performance of my Zeiss Makro-Planar 100/2, which floats in a different league of imagery.


I’m not a huge fan of the 50mm focal length. Ironically, it seems that I own, and have used, a fairly wide array of Nikon fitting 50mm lenses. One of which, the Ais 50/1.2, is a spectacular lens, but for reasons most people would avoid buying a 50/1.2 for.


Mounted on my D700, the lens has a nice weight, size and feel. The 67mm filter size can be odd, since it’s not widely popular, however, it wasn’t an issue for me. Both my MP 100/2 and Pentax 6x7 105mm/2.4 lenses have this thread size, so filters and step down rings were not an issue. Talking of which, filters may be a necessity if one’s too vein to replace the ZEISS branded lens cap. The lens cap is the most un-zeiss part of the Zeiss lens line up. It’s a flimsy plastic cap that falls off so easily, it spends most of it’s time at the bottom of the bag instead of on the lens. Luckily, the front element of the 50/2 is quite recessed, so the risk of lens cap induced scratches are improbable. This is not the case with the other Zeiss lenses.




Imaging Characteristics:

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



The MP 50/2 boasts a familiar luscious and rich colour and contrast, similar to the majority of the ZF lenses available.

Images are easy to focus, and maintain a great contrast when shot wide open. The OOF rendering is very smooth in most cases, and have rarely found it to be unflattering. In an “unflattering” situation, most 50mm lenses would have provided even worse rendering. Like all Zeiss lenses, the 9 rounded bladed aperture sounds like it’s the bee’s knees, but in actual fact, they produce an iris opening that isn’t always perfectly circular. Many of Nikon’s zoom and prime lenses have a far superior iris opening. I have done side by side comparisons of three different 50mm lenses; The Zeiss MP 50/2, the Nikkor Ais 50/1.2, and the Nikkor AF-D 50/1.8. Yeah, you are probably thinking that this is stupid and irrelevant comparison, since Zeiss lenses always get punted for having excellent “bokeh”. Sure the MP 50/2 is very good, but take a look at how the Ais 50/1.2 performs. You’ll be shocked to find that it renders high contrast edges in the background blur with the same, and in some cases better smoothness, than the MP 50/2. I have already illustrated the 50/1.2’s great performance in my comparison of the Ais 50/1.2 and Planar 50/1.4, in which the differences in background blur quality is more apparent. For those not inclined to look for the tests in the sample image page, click the aperture values to see the appropriate comparisons: f/2, f/2.8, and f/4.

Please give these pages time to load, as the mouse over images are loaded in the background and out of immediate sight.



So far, this lens hasn’t proved much to me in the image department. It’s an excellent performer, no question about it, but I just can’t come to grips with the cost/benefit of this lens when compared to others. It’s no MP 100/2 by performance standards, and it’s beat (in my books) by a lens that’s almost half it’s price when bought new, which conveniently also offers an f/1.2 aperture for when it may be needed. In the interim, the AFS 50/1.8 has been released, which seems to be an excellent performer, but I’m not entirely sure how it will hold up in colour and contrast. Surprisingly, I find the Zeiss MP 50/2 and Nikkor Ais 50/1.2 to have a very similar look when shot at comparable apertures, and popping on an extension ring make the latter a better alternative for me.


I noticed that the MP 50/2 has subtle field curvature, which runs outwards at the far edges. Mostly noticeable on distant focused subjects. Unfortunately, the sample lens I had showed slightly asymmetric performance at the very far edges, and ONLY at the very far edges. The very far left showed slightly more blur than the opposite side of the frame, which was still slightly visible at f/5.6 at infinity focus.


Lateral chromatic aberrations are practically non-existent, but unfortunately chromatic aberrations are present in the out of focus blur discs. Blur discs can take on a bright green outer ring, and a softer and dimmer magenta inner, which are already greatly reduced by stopping down to f/2.8. Fortunately, longitudinal chromatic aberration is also practically non-existent. I have tried my best to induce it, but  I failed to find any blue/purple tinge around in focus highlights. Having zero lateral and longitudinal chromatic aberration is a blessing, and I consider this a strong point. Unlike the MP 50/2, the Ais 50/1.2 shows some lateral CA, and also lags slightly behind with regards to longitudinal The MP 50/2 is also better that the MP 100/2, which can display an annoying amount of longitudinal CA at wide apertures in certain circumstances.


With regards to vignetting, it isn’t until f/5.6 that even brightness and contrast is obtained across the entire frame. Assuming a correct exposure is made at f/2, the equivalent exposure at f/5.6 will be a fair part brighter. This is annoying, but it’s not nearly as bad as the Distagon 25/2.8. I wont even mention the faulty Distagon 21/2.8 I had, where the calibration of mechanical and electronic aperture selection was grossly out of calibration. Since metering is done through the lens at f/2 only, it is possible that the lens will over expose slightly when apertures other than f2 and f/2.8 are selected. The difference will be subtle, and not as bad as the Distagon 25/2.8. To my eyes, the contrast of the MP 50/2 far edges start becoming very good between f/4 and f/5.6. This is a far cry behind that of the MP 100/2, and just a little behind that of the Ais 50/1.2.




As with many of the Zeiss ZF lenses, resistance to ghosting and flare is also very well controlled. The MP 50/2 doesn’t fair as good as the Distagon 35/2, but it’s superior to the Nikkor Ais 5/1.2. This is largely aided by the smaller front element, which is recessed deep in the lens. 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:


At the end of the day, the Makro-Planar is another excellent Zeiss lens. For a 50mm lens, it’s performance is right up there with the best (not including the unreasonably priced Noct, Noctilux ASPH and Summilux ASPH lenses). If you can afford it, then the lens will not disappoint. I consider it to be overpriced though, considering the differences in performance and price of other much cheaper 50mm lenses. It’s no Distagon 35/2 with regard to the image’s look and feel, so I can’t see why I should use this lens over the Ais 50/1.2. To me it’s not a special lens, especially if compared to the MP 100/2 which I already own.


Evidently, Zeiss’ quality control variation is far more evident than I feel comfortable with, so in some circumstances I’m over critical with these lenses. After all, they advertise and claim superior imagery and quality, and this is reflected in their price tags. However, I have seen too many lemons and sub par performing Zeiss lenses for me to patronise the brand as blindly as I see others do. Yes, I love the Zeiss lenses I have, and many of their lenses are unique and excellent, but I’m certain many people are blinded by the Zeiss branding smokescreen that has them believe every lens is a gift from above...


Zeiss needs to up their game a little. With their ever increasing premium prices, they need to sort out their quality control variations, improve the shocking lens cap quality, and improve their 9 bladed apertures to be more circular. Even the 1999-2007 AFS 28-70/2.8 has a more circular iris opening.


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. Finally, test the lenses you buy! Zeiss lenses are prone to product variation as well. Of the three lenses I was loaned from Zeiss (21/2.8, 35/1.4, and 50/2), the 35/1.4 was the only lens that performed as advertised.

NAVIGATION: