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As Good As It Gets: Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 Lens

By Stan Sholik

For five years, Carl Zeiss has produced single focal length, manual focus lenses for camera bodies that accept Nikon, Canon, Sony, K-mount, and M-42 screw-mount lenses. These lenses are highly regarded by landscape, closeup and portrait still photographers, for both film and digital cameras. Videographers have also become a major market.

The latest in the series is the Zeiss Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4, presently available with Nikon and Canon mounts. I tested the Nikon ZF.2 model.

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The Zeiss lens (left) is larger and heavier than my older 35mm f/1.4 Nikkor (right). Image quality of the Zeiss is also greater. The Zeiss ZF.2 series of lenses for Nikon don’t include the metering prong of classic Nikkors and of the Zeiss ZF lenses, but do include Nikon’s auto-indexing (AI) ring and tiny secondary aperture scale. Zeiss ZF.2 lenses include an internal CPU and external contacts that transmit EXIF information to the camera body as well as allow the use of all metering functions. ©Stan Sholik

Zeiss incorporates an improved T* anti-reflection coating and a nine-blade aperture for a nearly circular diaphragm. If you’ve ever wondered about the pleasing bokeh effect, you’ll instantly know it when you view images shot at f/1.4 with this lens.

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I needed a high shutter speed to capture this model making jewelry lit only by window light. Shot at f/1.4, vignetting is visible at the edges of the frame, but more important to me is the beautiful soft look of the out-of-focus model in the background. ©Stan Sholik

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This assignment photo for a dog-friendly vintage clothing store was a perfect opportunity to use the Zeiss 35mm f/1.4. I needed to use available light in a dark area of the store to stop the action of the dogs and show the models enjoying the shopping experience. Shooting wide open also allowed me to focus attention on the model. ©Stan Sholik

The silky smooth focusing ring on the 35mm f/1.4 rotates through about 150 degrees from minimum focusing distance to infinity, for extremely accurate focusing. At an aperture of f/1.4, the image is four times brighter than one shot with an f/2.8 lens, making focusing easy, even with the viewfinder screens in modern digital SLR cameras. The focusing ring stops when you turn it to infinity or the minimum focusing distance, so you always know where those points are. These attributes are what endear Zeiss lenses to videographers.

The aperture ring includes half-stop detents that click firmly into place between the marked aperture settings. The extensive use of metal in the lens construction gives it the look, feel and weight of classic Nikkors. The 35mm f/1.4 is a monster compared to my 35mm f/1.4 Nikkor. The Zeiss weighs more than twice as much, is twice the length, and requires 72mm filters rather than the Nikkor’s 52mm filters. Having tested other Zeiss lenses, I wasn’t surprised to find the 35mm f/1.4 superior to my old Nikkor 35mm f/1.4, but it’s surprising how far more superior it is.

Even at maximum aperture, the Zeiss shows superb sharpness in the center of the lens. Sharpness falls off somewhat to the edges of the frame if you ever place the subject near the edge of the frame when shooting wide open. By f/2, sharpness is excellent everywhere. There’s a hint of barrel distortion at f/1.4 on a full-frame camera, but that too disappears by f/2. Distortion is non-existent on a DX-format camera.

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Sharpness is superb at the center of the image at all apertures and also at the edges by f/2. In this image shot at f/8, the tiny hairs on the stem of the weed are perfectly sharp against the sky. ©Stan Sholik

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In image after image with this lens I am impressed with its sharpness and its ability to render color so accurately. Despite it being moderately wide angle, there is no hint of distortion. ©Stan Sholik

Vignetting is quite apparent at f/1.4 on a full-frame camera and requires stopping down two stops to eliminate it. I’m a little surprised by this, given the size of the lens, but I’m a fan of vignetting, so it doesn’t bother me. Vignetting was less apparent with my old Nikkor, the only facet in which the Nikkor beat out the Zeiss.

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By f/2, vignetting is minimal. The out-of-focus background is rendered beautifully soft, with light sources retaining their natural shape thanks to the nine-blade diaphragm. ©Stan Sholik

If the Zeiss lens has a weakness it’s the way it controls chromatic aberration near the edges of the image with a full-frame digital camera. Chromatic aberration was invisible on film, but more obvious than I expected in images from a D3X. It’s easily corrected in post, but I expected better.

Fast prime lenses open new possibilities for all photographers. The low-light capability enables photojournalists to capture images in difficult available-light situations. The beautiful quality of out-of-focus backgrounds and the strong vignetting make the lens useful for portrait and fashion shooters. The astounding overall image quality when stopped down by two stops, where f/2.8 zoom lenses suffer the worst image quality, renders the lens appropriate for landscape photographers as well. And even sports photographers, if they can get close enough to the action, would benefit from the ability to increase shutter speed by two EV and eliminate distracting backgrounds. The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 lens for Nikon and its Canon equivalent are valuable additions to the Zeiss line of ultra-fast lenses, joining the 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.4.

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Ultra-fast lenses aren’t only for shooting at maximum aperture in low light. Here I stopped the lens down to increase the depth of field and increased the ISO so I could hold the heavy lens steady in the light at dusk. I was amazed that the lens was able to accurately render all of the subtle tonal variations I saw in the failing light at sunset. ©Stan Sholik

MSRP for the 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2 lens is $2,395, with a street price of about $1,850. See lenses.zeiss.com for more information about the 35mm and the other Zeiss lenses for Nikon, Canon, K-mount and M42 screw-mount bodies.

ZF.2 OVERVIEW

The original series of Zeiss lenses for Nikon was designated ZF. ZF lenses function with all film and digital SLRs that are designed for Nikon lenses, from the original Nikon F to the latest D3 models, as well as Kodak and Fuji digital SLRs. Not only are the classic Nikon metering prong (which can be 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’s original lenses. Even the markings are engraved and filled with white paint—no silk-screening here.

While the ZF series is still available, the newer ZF.2 lenses are enhanced versions of the ZF lenses. They feature an electronic interface (CPU). This CPU enables the ZF.2 lenses to support all-important operating modes such as shutter priority, aperture priority and programmed auto exposure or manual exposure settings even on non-AIcompatible camera housings. No longer is it necessary to set the parameters in the camera menu, as the lenses now transmit standard data such as focal length, speed and the aperture setting to the camera. This data can then be viewed in the EXIF data of each picture.

The metering prong is not available on the ZF.2 lenses, so you cannot use light metering on older cameras (F, F2, Nikkormat, etc.). The ZF.2 lenses have a mechanical lock on the aperture ring to lock it at the lowest setting and prevent unintentional adjustment while taking pictures. They even have the engraved number representing the smallest aperture filled with orange paint, just as the Nikkor AI-P lenses did.

While the mechanicals may seem retro, the 35mm f/1.4 is thoroughly modern. Technicians at the Carl Zeiss factory in Oberkochen, Germany, create the optical and mechanical specifications along with quality targets for the ZF lenses. Production is done at the Cosina factory in Japan under the watchful eye of Carl Zeiss employees in charge of quality assurance.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, Calif., specializing in still life and macro photography. His fifth book, “HDR Efex Pro: After the Shoot” (Wiley Publishing) is available in October, 2011.