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Pro Review: Zeiss ZF Lenses

Zeiss Nikon-mount primes bright and beautiful

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Caption: These two images were both made with the Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/25 ZF lens. The wider view shows the forced perspective possible with the lens while the close-up of the driftwood illustrates the close-focusing capability. It can actually focus in much closer, to within two inches of the front element. (Nikon F100, Ektachrome 100G, 1/250 @ f/5.6) ©Stan Sholik (Click/right-click here to download full-size wide-view image [11.5MB] or close-up [11.25MB].)


By Stan Sholik

In an autofocus/autoexposure/11X-zoom lens world, legendary lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss has introduced a line of manual focus/manual exposure/single focal length lenses for Nikon cameras. What’s up with that?

According to Zeiss, their industrial clients were the first to inquire about lenses to replace the manual focus lenses that have been discontinued by Nikon. And I would imagine that the continuing sale of adapters for Contax camera lenses to Canon cameras, along with the premium prices the lenses themselves are commanding on eBay, further confirmed the marketability of modern single focal length lenses.

Two wide-angle Distagon T*  Zeiss ZF lenses for Nikon are currently available—the 25mm f/2.8 and 35mm f/2—as well as two Planar T* lenses—the 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4. Promised in the near future are two T* Makro-Planars, a 50mm f/2 and a 100mm f/2, which will make them the fastest small-format macro lenses available.

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ZF lenses will function with all film and digital SLRs that are designed for Nikon lenses, from the original Nikon F to the latest D2Xs to Kodak and Fujifilm DSLRs. Not only are the classic Nikon metering prong (easily removed if desired), auto-indexing (AI) ring and tiny secondary aperture scale included, but both the aperture and focusing rings rotate in the same direction as Nikon original lenses.

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Caption: The nine-blade diaphram in the ZF lenses produces pleasing, circular highlights in out-of-focus areas. This image made with the 35mm lens at its maximum aperture and minimum focusing distance. (Nikon F100, Ektachrome 100GX, 1/60 @ f/2) ©Stan Sholik (Click/right-click here to download full-size image, 10.23MB)

What has changed with the ZF lenses in comparison with their Nikon and Contax counterparts is the optical and mechanical design. Based on their most recent experience designing the UltraPrime, MasterPrime and DigiPrime lenses for motion picture cameras, Zeiss has incorporated an improved T* anti-reflection coating for superior flare and ghosting control, resulting in superb contrast and tonal separation. A nine-bladed aperture makes for a virtually perfect circular diaphragm, and silky smooth focusing rings provide long rotations for more accurate focusing. The lenses feature all-metal construction. And I can verify from my own shooting with film that the color rendition is identical on all four of the focal lengths that were made available for testing. For photographers shooting digitally, this eliminates the need to color match the same scene taken with different focal lengths in post production.

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Caption: Color contrast and fidelity is excellent for all of the ZF lenses. This image made with the 35mm lens. (Nikon F100, Ektachrome 100GX, 1/30 @ f/2.8) ©Stan Sholik (Click/right-click here to download full-size image, 11.18)

200704we_06zeisslenses_2 The Distagon T* 25 f/2.8 ZF (right) quickly became my favorite lens of the group. Not only does it produce sharp, contrasty, distortion-free images, but the lens is capable of focusing on objects just over two inches from the front element of the lens! The focusing ring rotates through nearly 360 degrees to achieve this. Image quality is superb throughout the focusing range. Weighing just over a pound, it was wonderfully balanced on both my F100 and D2X cameras. No color fringing is obvious at the edge of the frame on images from the D2X. Zeiss clearly seems to be aware that photographers shooting digitally are looking for highly corrected optics.

200704we_05zeisslenses With the 25mm on one camera, I usually had the Distagon T* 35 f/2 ZF (left) mounted on the other. This caused a bit of a problem when I was editing the film because the images from both lenses looked so similar in color balance and contrast that it was difficult to tell which lens had made which image. Good thing I was taking notes. Although it is a longer focal length and a stop faster than the 25mm, the 35mm lens is only slightly heavier and two inches longer. Both wide angles take 58mm filters.

200704we_04zeisslenses If you’ve become accustomed to shooting with f/2.8 prime or zoom lenses, the brightness of your viewfinder with the 50mm and 85mm f/1.4 lenses mounted will amaze you. It is even possible to focus accurately and consistently using the D2X focusing screen without resorting to the in-focus indicator signal. My fast prime lens is normally a 35mm f/1.4 Nikkor, so I didn’t shoot that much with the 50mm ZF lens (right), even though my favorite image, that of a cactus and its shadow against an orange wall, was made with it. Shot on Kodak 100 G transparency, the cactus spines are frighteningly sharp, and even their shadows, and the texture in the wall behind, have outstanding detail. It, too, takes 58mm filters and weighs in at a mere 12 ounces. The light weight makes it an ideal lens for low light photos.

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Caption: All of the ZF lenses exhibit outstanding sharpness, but I was amazed at the sharpness of the cactus spines and the texture in the wall when I examined this transparency shot with the 50mm lens. (Nikon F100, Ektachrome 100G, 1/250 @ f/5.6) ©Stan Sholik (Click/right-click here to download full-size image, 11MB)

200704we_03zeisslenses On the other hand, the Planar T* 85 f/1.4 (left) saw a lot of use despite its 20 ounce weight and large diameter front element requiring 72mm filters. It is an extraordinary portrait lens for both film and digital photography. The f/1.4 maximum aperture allows precise focusing on the eyes, and the range of apertures from f/1.4 to f/16 permit romantically soft to exceedingly sharp portraits. It’s also an extremely competent available light lens, but one requiring firm support or a fast shutter speed for sharp images. You won’t go unnoticed when you raise this piece of glass to your eye.

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Caption: Fortunately I had the 85mm lens on my camera when I saw these two girls waiting for their parents in a pickup truck. The f/1.4 aperture allowed me to focus quickly on the foreground girl and shoot a quick burst of photos. (Nikon F100, Ektachrome 100GX, 1/250 @ f/4) ©Stan Sholik (Click/right-click here to download full-size image, 11.2MB)

A few words about compatibility. Since the Nikon bayonet mount, metering prong and auto-indexing components are in public domain, Zeiss could use them without restriction. Nikon’s autofocus and electronic coupling technology is still proprietary, and Nikon has chosen not to license these to Zeiss. Canon’s EOS lens mount is similarly patent protected and Canon has likewise chosen not to license it to Zeiss.

While the Zeiss ZF lenses will operate on all Nikon and Nikon lens compatible cameras, including the Sinar M, on some cameras the operation is somewhat restricted.

Zeiss explains this as follows: For Nikon Nikkormat series, F, F2, F3, EL, FA, FE, FG, FM, FM2/A, FM3A, you can use the Carl Zeiss ZF-lenses on these cameras without limitations. The aperture transfer works either with the AI lever or with the shank-coupling. For Nikon F50, F55, F60, F65, F75, F80, F401, D50, D70, D70s, D80, D100, Kodak Pro 14n, Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro (cameras without AI lever), while Carl Zeiss ZF-lenses can be fitted to these cameras, the cameras will provide no metering to assist exposure. The cameras can be used in manual exposure mode in conjunction with an external exposure meter.

For Nikon F70, F90/x, F100, F301, F501, F601, F801, F4, F5, D1, D1X, D1H cameras, ZF-lenses can be used with limitations on exposure modes and metering options. With manual focus lenses one can use the exposure modes A (aperture priority) and M (manual). For metering one can use center-weighted or spot metering. Note that it may be necessary to activate a custom mode setting in order to use manual focus lenses on some of these cameras. And for Nikon F6, D200, D2 series, by specifying lens data (focal length and maximum aperture) using the "Non-CPU Lenses" menu option, it is possible to access an extended variety of CPU lens functions when using a manual focus lens.

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Caption: Midday sun and a cloudless sky are no problem for the 35mm lens. No flare or ghosting are evident and both shadow and highlight detail are excellent. (Nikon F100, Ektachrome 100GX, 1/250 @ f/8.5) ©Stan Sholik (Click/right-click here to download full-size image, 11.23MB)

200704we_zeiss08_50 The lens specifications and the quality targets are created at the Carl Zeiss factory in Oberkochen, Germany where technicians also perform prototype testing in their labs and “torture chambers.”

Caption (left): Shooting hand-held inside a dark restaurant makes you appreciate a 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and the absence of ghosting and flare from the bright light sources in the background. (Nikon D2X, ISO 800, 1/15 @ f/1.4) ©Stan Sholik (Click/right-click here to download full-size image, 18MB)

Production is done at the Cosina factory in Japan under the watchful eye of Carl Zeiss employees in charge of quality assurance. The actual quality control is performed on measuring machines designed and made by Carl Zeiss in Oberkochen, just as it has been on all Japanese-made Zeiss Contax lenses. Production in Japan is done to ensure that the lenses will be available at prices that a large number of photographers can afford and in the range that Nikon professional photographers are accustomed to paying.

Zeiss suggested Minimum Advertised Prices are as follows:

  • Distagon T* 2.8/25 ZF, $874
  • Distagon T* 2/35 ZF, $874
  • Planar T* 1.4/50 ZF, $624
  • Planar T* 1.4/85 ZF, $1,249
  • Makro-Planar T* 2/50 ZF, $1,124
  • Makro-Planar T* 2/100 ZF, $1,749