Zeiss 35mm f/2 Distagon

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

By Pete Myers

Photo courtesy of Carl Zeiss AG


After decades of photography, most photographers have a “dream lens,” which they cherish for their work. It fits their photographic style like a pair of well-worn jeans, and evokes emotion as though a first love.

When a new photographic lens is introduced into the market, photographers often react to it with suspicion, not interest. After all, why would they need a new lens?

When a new lensfamilyis introduced into the market, the intent can be even more overwhelming. Who needs a fundamental change in lens design?

When aseriesof new lens families is introduced into the market, the view can be that the intent of the manufacturer is pretentious.

So has it been with the introduction of three new lens families from Carl Zeiss. Of even greater surprise in the age of full automation photography, all of the new Zeiss lenses are manual-focus — and just basic, precision optics. No bells, whistles, or bleeding-edge innovations. Their performance emphasis is all about the image quality of the lens and its handling in the field.

The first lens family introduced was theCarl Zeiss Ikon ZM rangefinder lenses. Though these lenses have been on the market for a few years now, their value as a photographic tool has been brought to the forefront with the introduction of the Leica M8 digital rangefinder camera body — as the ZM lenses are compatible for use with the Leica body. Soon, Michael Reichmann will report for this publication on the Zeiss ZM family of lenses and his experiences using them with the M8.

The newCarl Zeiss ZF seriesof Nikon compatible mount, manual-focus lenses is what caught my eye. Their introduction started last year with the release of the f/1.4 50mm ZF, along with the f/1.4 85mm ZF. Photokina 2006 brought news of four more lenses in the family: the f/2 35mm ZF, the f/2.8 25mm ZF, the Macro f/2 50mm ZF, and Macro f/2 100mm ZF. I think The ZF lenses will prove to be an important new lens family, but only if performance, build quality, and quality control are the emphasis of the product.

Additionally, Zeiss also showed a variant of the ZF lens family, known as the ZS series. This lens line uses a universal, M-42 screw mount that can be combined with third-party adapters and used with other makes of camera bodies — such as Canon. To date, the Planar T* f/1.4 50mm ZS is the only ZS lens in release, but other focal lengths are under consideration based on market feedback.

At Photokina, there were also previews of three newCarl Zeiss ZV lensesfor the Hasselblad V series of camera bodies, which will be released in 2007.

To say that these series of product announcements by Carl Zeiss have overwhelmed the photographic community is an understatement. To add further confusion as events have unfolded, Zeiss announced that it would market the new lens series directly — a new venture for the company.

So where does one start in on understanding the feast that Zeiss has laid out in front of us? Will these lenses have any practical impact on the future of our own photography? There is no easy answer, but I believe that for me it starts with investigating one lens at a time; and in this case, I chose the Carl Zeiss f/2 35mm Distagon ZF. I am convinced that this is an important focal length at 35mm, and is critical to the success of the family.

Before this review gets underway, I must confess my own bias towards Leica lenses. For me, my “dream lens” has been the Leica M 35mm f/2 Aspheric — Leica’s current production rangefinder lens. I have made more successful photographs over my career with this one lens, than with all others combined. To me, the optics and build quality are beyond reproach — the 35mm focal length is ideal for my landscape work. I most often use this lens at a working aperture of f/4.

So why would I have any interest in the new Zeiss ZF lenses, and what could it possibly mean to my own work? I already have a “dream lens” with Leica. Why would I want to consider a risk in photographing with a different optic for my imagemaking?

First, the Zeiss f/2 35mm Distagon ZF is a retrofocus designed lens, intended for Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera body use. It seems to me that Leica has lagged significantly in its refresh and update of its fixed focal length R series SLR camera lenses. It has been more aggressive in its design work of zoom lenses for SLR use, and most assuredly the M series rangefinder lenses — its forte. I am keen to see if Zeiss’s fresh designs can approach rangefinder performance on an SLR camera — a tall order indeed, and one that is difficult to imagine at the onset of this experiment.

Second, even my “dream lens” has compromises. The Leica M 35mm f/2 Aspheric gains a lot of its function in a compact design from an internal aspheric element — resulting in almost no field distortion and an equalized image-circle. The Leica aspheric lens tends to equalize the corner response of the image-circle better than any lens of 35mm focal length I have ever tested. But there is always a price to extending performance in one area, over another — and in this case it may be in the perceived smoothness of the lenses “bokeh” — the illusive description of the quality of the transition between the lens focal plane and the “signature” of the fore and aft “cones of confusion.”

Many Leica aficionados cite the previous fourth-generation Leica M 35mm f/2 with its conventional optics as the “king of bokeh” in wide-angle lens design. Could it be that stretching the image with aspheric elements robs performance in other areas? Perhaps the Zeiss f/2 35mm Distagon ZF will help me gain insight into this area of optic design tradeoff. Is the forefront of photographic optics a return to more conventionally designed optics, with computer-corrected enhancement of image distortions in post-production? Would we get more into our image quality by demanding less of our optics?

My only concern in reviewing theMTF and distortion plots of the new Zeiss 2/35 ZFhas been in regard to the data showing more than 2% barrel distortion in the extremes of its image-circle. While this amount of distortion is rather typical of nonaspheric, retrofocus lenses of this focal length — will I find it “an issue” for my work, since my “dream lens” shoots essentially distortion-free?

Third, Nikon has all but given up on manufacturing manual-focus lenses. For me, I think manual-focus lenses are important even in an autofocus world. In landscape photography I find the manual-focus lens indispensable to my work (which is such a complex topic that it will have to be deferred to a full-length article specific to the subject). Suffice it to say that I am overjoyed with Zeiss’s decision to release these new series of lens families, all with manual-focus. I do not think I am isolated in my feeling.

Fourth, not all lens coating technologies are the same. On my Leica “dream lens,” the coating is so phenomenal that I often cannot even see the front element when cleaning the lens — I just bump into it with a cleaning swab.

Zeiss is famous for its T* Coating technology, and I want to investigate for myself if these new lenses perform in high dynamic-range lighting at least on a par with Leica’s lens-coating technology. If the surface reflections are not well suppressed within a lens design by using advanced multicoating technology, the residual light will swamp and “fill in” the dynamics of the deep shadows of the photographed scene. The purity and zonal separation of the deep blacks within the scene is at risk unless a lens is superbly engineered and manufactured. Few lens series in the world are engineered to this degree of build quality. Zeiss makes amazing motion picture camera lenses forArri, and I would hope that the standards of quality exhibited therein would carry over to this more cost-efficient lens family (as it is a volume-based product). There are indications from Zeiss that this was the strategy. Will this lens perform well in high dynamic-range light?

Fifth, Zeiss has made design decisions with the ZF series to hold the cost within reason. The naïve assumption is that a lens that costs $3,000 will have ten times the performance of one that costs $300. The reality is that the $300 lens will likely give 95% of the performance of a $3,000 lens. Getting extremes in performance from a lens design is horrifically expensive, with little forward gain. With the Zeiss ZF series of lenses being at a medium price point, I am hoping that they are emulating performance aspects from their high-end category lenses, rather then just supersizing lower-end lens technology. Will the ZF perform to a new standard of excellence for the price?

My interest in Zeiss started a number of years ago when my wife, Kathy, and I frequented the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Kathy kept teasing me that we were on the “Garden Island” of Hawaii, with some of the most lush and colorful vegetation on the planet, and yet all my work was in monochrome — not a color image to be found.

To end the teasing, Kathy soon found herself as the recipient of a new Contax Aria camera, equipped with a Contax/Zeiss f/1.7 50mm Planar lens as a gift from me. The camera package was efficient in cost and volume, and a good traveling companion for her. She was “awarded” color negative film for our trip photos, so that I could continue my monochrome work in peace. She still owns this camera and lens, and they are still working well.

I soon found myself distressed at the stunning images that she had produced with the Contax on a casual basis, while I had slaved away under the same conditions with my Leica — sometimes to lesser effect. Her photos were beautiful, and the image quality all started with a superb lens. I was seeing image quality that I had only seen previously in Leica photographs. How could this be given the huge price difference between Contax/Zeiss and Leica lenses?

Moments like this are haunting. But years passed without any attempt on my part towards exploring Contax/Zeiss lenses. It was with regret when I heard that Kyocera had decided to end its interests in manufacturing Contax cameras with Zeiss-designed optics.

Over my career, I have had the opportunity to photograph with equipment from almost all of the major camera makers. Yet my work has always drifted back to Leica, based on optical performance alone.

While most of my work has been photographed with a Leica lens and rangefinder camera, it is not for lack of wanting the advantages of an SLR. In fact my first venture into Leica cameras was with an SLR — the R8. Despite my best efforts, I found that focusing the R8 was difficult to perform with precision when using wide-angle lenses — the huge advantage of the rangefinder camera system over an SLR. Also, the corner response of the Leica SLR lenses tended to show some weakness, which is not the case with its more advanced rangefinder lenses.

When I photographed with theKodak DCS 760m digital monochrome camerafor 18 months, I was impressed with the Nikon F5 body as part of camera kluge. It allowed me to use Nikon AI-S manual-focus lenses by means of the camera’s electronic rangefinder system and focus-confirmation LED. It worked marvelously, even with the extended wide-angle lenses that were necessary for my work (the 760m had a 1.3X correction factor for image-sensor size).

The Nikon F6 camera body goes one step beyond the F5 in regard to being able to program in details of non-CPU, manual-focus lenses, and still allow for full functionality of the 1000-point matrix metering system.

When it was announced at Photokina 2006 that Carl Zeiss would be shipping the newly designed f/2 35mm Distagon ZF lens by the end of 2006, it intrigued me. Was it possible that this new lens in conjunction with the Nikon F6 could bring my work forward in a new way?


First Look

When Kyocera withdrew from the production of Contax cameras and lenses, Zeiss could have easily had its fill with making still photography lenses. Zeiss is a powerhouse company in lens design and production; the still photography market is only one aspect of its overall corporate efforts.

But the history of Zeiss as a company and its participation in still photography is legendary. It seems wise of Zeiss to have looked for new ventures and continued its legacy. These new series of manual-focus lens families play to its absolute strengths. But even a large company like Zeiss cannot afford to produce a boutique product, with a sky-high price point, resulting in mediocre sales. It would need to combine its efforts in seeking optical perfection, while reflecting on real-world manufacturing costs to keep the product price point at reasonable levels.

Cosina of Japan has been silently building expertise in camera and optics manufacturing since 1959. After its success in designing and manufacturing theVoigtlanderrangefinder camera series, it was a real tip-of-the-hat for Carl Zeiss to discuss the possibility of manufacturing these new series of lenses for Zeiss.

Make no mistake about it, the new Zeiss ZF and ZM lens series are not Cosina lenses badged with a Zeiss label. These are Zeiss lenses in every regard.

Richard Schleuning, National Sales Manager for Americas, Carl Zeiss Photo, commented to me:

Å“Cosina was chosen as our manufacturing partner in part because its manufacturing process could be adapted to meet the Zeiss standards used in Germany. There are Zeiss employees employed as the final QC inspectors, and no product leaves the Cosina plant until the product meets the spec. Zeiss has also installed its own MTF testing equipment at Cosina, so the same gear that is used in Germany is also employed in Japan. Protecting and preserving the Zeiss brand receive a tremendous amount of attention at the factory, and great pains are taken to ensure that the ZM and ZF lenses manufactured by Cosina would be no different than if produced on the lines in Oberkochen.

A global economy dictates that each company must adhere to its strengths and find partners around the world that amplify its efforts. Whether building the newBoeing 787 Dreamlineraircraft with its 43 global partners or building a photographic lens with but a few partners, a company has to seek the strengths of others and make them integral to the success of the product. Cosina was a good choice for Zeiss as a manufacturing partner. But how does the partnership play out in the actual product?

Out of the box, one is greeted with a hand-signed Test Certificate, with serial number, from the inspector of the lens. It does not appear to be a  “gimmick” in any sense, but a genuine effort to sign off that the lens is within spec before shipping.

The next layer yields a warranty card of 2-year duration, followed by a multilanguage owners manual. The manual contains little information and many pages. I much prefer the information on Zeiss’s website to what is found in the box. At least I now know that the synthesized word, “Distagon,” is the same in English, French, German, and Italian.

The Styrofoam molded box insert nests and protects the lens and lens hood well. Both are wrapped in simple plastic bags — end cap and lens cap well in place on the lens.

My total visceral reaction on viewing the lens is that it’s abeautifullens—which is a bit of a surprise. In comparison, I find Nikon AI-S lenses to be rather “dull-normal” in presentation, and Leica lenses look like “little jewels.” But I did not know what to expect of the ZF series. The ZFs have a unique look, and I think I like it.

The laser-engraved lens markings are carefully colored. The engraving is not as aggressive as what one would see on a Leica lens, but it’s a matter of Zeiss’s taste — and it looks great to me.

As it is, I am still excited about this lens as it comes out of the box. It has a really solid weight in hand — something you do not feel when purchasing most fixed focal length, autofocus lenses these days.

My impression of the size of the lens is that it is smaller than depicted in pictures by Zeiss. This is good. It seems like it is the right size to do the job. Though likely three times the volume of my Leica M 35mm f.2 Aspheric dream lens, the ZF is a retrofocus lens. It needs to bend the light “around the corner” gradually, and then project to the back end of the camera box — and that requires some distance in lens length. Retrofocus lenses are often referred to as “inverse telephoto” in design, so it should not be a surprise in regard to the length of the lens required to support the optical performance.

The focusing mechanism has significant drag and feel — not excessive at all in my book, but just right. I want to be able to focus smoothly, but with precision. That is what I am getting out of the box. If it stays about the same in feel during the cold of winter and heat of summer, it will be a terrific balance.

The long throw of the f/2 35mm ZF focusing mechanism is in sharp contrast to autofocus lenses, wherein the mechanism is designed for a precision short throw. This is one of the reasons I like manual-focus lenses, and this lens seems to be built to handle. The focusing ring is broad, all metal, and with a good grip for all shooting conditions.

The aperture ring adjusts readily, and snaps to each position with enough force to even feel it through lightly gloved hands — which is a real asset when working in winter.

The iris stops down with nine blades, and though not quite a perfect circle, certainly looks smooth in form. This will have a positive effect on the bokeh of the lens.

A quick look at the optical lenses shows water-white coating of the primary elements in front of the iris, with a bit more color showing in the coating or lens towards the rear elements. The quality of the coating clearly reminds me of Kathy’s Contax/Zeiss f/1.7 50mm lens, but the overall quality of the lens itself seems to be substantially higher with the new ZF series — the new lens looks more “modern,” for lack of a better term.

It is hard to compare the Zeiss T* Coating of this lens with what I have grown accustomed to with Leica lenses. The internal structure and groupings of the ZF lens are so much different than the Leica rangefinder lenses that it is all but impossible to tell by inspection how the lens will perform in high dynamic range light. This will be something that will need to be tested in the field.

Internal Structure of Zeiss 2/35 ZF, Nine Elements, and Seven Groups
Illustration Courtesy of Carl Zeiss AG

A few minutes with a laser pointer to probe the interior of the lens yielded no surprises — no air bubbles in lens elements, nor coating issues. The more I play with the lens, the more excited I am about getting a chance to use it in the field.

The stainless steel mount for the lens hood bayonet and 58mm filter thread is wonderful. Those of us shooting in monochrome and using contrast filters really benefit from this precision — after all, the contrast filter actually becomes a “lens element.” Both the precision of the thickness and glass quality of the filter, along with squareness of its mount-to-lens, will determine if there will be any optical distortion in the path based on the filter glass. I useB+W MRCcontrast filters, with some of the highest optical standards in the business. I also find that the MRC coating can be cleaned like no other — truly remarkable.

The lens mount looks great, and the lens mounted with “authority.” As the lens turned in the final stages of mounting, it was a race to see if there was enough room left as tension increased. It is this quality of precision in mounting that I find time and time again with the best lenses. There is no question once seated whether the optic is correctly in alignment with the camera body — not even the tiniest sense of play is felt. It is as though the lens and camera body are as one.

I do not like the front lens cap supplied with the lens. It looks good, but I fumbled with it repeatedly in trying to seat it on the lens. The one that arrived with my camera had a slight mar on it as well. I will likely replace it with another brand before I get underway in the field. It is a minor issue, but annoying — something for Zeiss to work on in future versions of the lens — and certainly no excuse to degrade the lens. It’s just a lens cap, and it can be replaced with scores of other variants to taste.

The lens hood is bayonet mounted, and goes on with precision — but a little rotational play after mounting — which is not an issue in use. The lens hood is flocked on the interior. The good news is that this will function as a true lens hood, with maximum absorption and diffusion on the inner surface. The bad news is that it’s likely to attract debris in the field that will stick to it like Velcro. It may turn out to be a cleaning chore, if not a nightmare, for field use. But this is why we field test — to find these things out.

Perhaps a lens hood cap would serve a better function than a lens cap. The hood and mount look to be a positive strength of this lens; so perhaps this is the way to go in capping the hood, not the lens. That would protect the hood flocking as well. I will report back if I get it to work.

It is hard to tell the effectiveness of the lens hood, as it is a standard round hood, and not form fitted, as is the case with my Leica “dream lens.” But the ZF is an SLR lens, and as such, adjustments can be made by sight through the viewfinder — and oftentimes, with better results by shielding with the photographer’s hat, than with the camera lens hood.



I am excited about this lens. I saw more coming out of the box than was expected — especially considering the price point of the Zeiss 2/35 ZF.

My interest in the field will not be in terms of technically testing the lens, but rather to see how it functions as an artistic tool. Its performance at an aperture of f4 will be critical in my evaluation, as a lens of this quality will yield best results “opened up.” Aperture f4 is often the balance point of best performance for an f/2-designed lens of this focal length. I will be looking for smooth bokeh and healthy focus maintained into the corners.

Before I can report back on performance of the Zeiss 2/35 ZF, I will likely face a month or two of fieldwork—so “stay tuned” for Part 2 of this report. As I look out the window at my snow-covered New Mexico landscape, with record snowfall and gray skies, I wonder when I will see sunshine again! An El Nino year, it will be a challenge to find quality light in the west during the next few months.

Nikon F6 with Zeiss 2/35 ZF

© 2007, Peter H. Myers

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Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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