Review: The Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T*

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One of the legendary wideangles for SLR users, the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T* (referred to simply as the ’21’ after this) is a fairly complex – by Zeiss standards, anyway – telecentric design with 16 elements in 13 groups and a floating rear group for close range correction. As with most of the modern Zeiss lenses, it’s based on a derivative of the older Contax/ Yashica 2.8/21 Distagon (however, that was a 15/13 design). It’s currently available in Canon (ZE, fully electronic) and Nikon (ZF and ZF.2, the latter of which is fully electronic) mounts.

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Like all Zeiss lenses, this is a piece of glass that is extremely solid, moderately heavy (~620g) and very well built all-round – it’s like an old-fashioned scientific instrument, in a good way. There is no plastic on this lens; except perhaps some of the baffling at the front and rear. The barrel is black-anodized aluminium, with chrome front bayonet for the hood, and chromed brass rear mount. My two minor complaints about build quality relate to the hood lining and mount – like all Zeiss lenses, the mount seems to wear very quickly, showing brassing after just a dozen or so lens changes. The hood is metal, solid, and locks into place on the front bayonet thread with a reassuring click – and doesn’t move thereafter. However, it also has very crisp edges that are prone to denting, and the felt lining can easily start peeling around the front edge if you get it caught on something. A thin rubber bumper lip around the front edge would solve both problems handily (and if I’m not mistaken, the hoods for some of the Sony Alpha Zeiss lenses have this).

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One curious design quirk is the front portion – it reminds me very much of a martini glass. Although the glass itself appears to be able to fit within a similarly-sized housing as the 2/28 Distagon, the front filter thread is a whopping 82mm. I presume this is so one can stack filters without worry for vignetting, but it could also be because some parts such as the hood and bayonet are shared with the similarly martini-like 4/18 Distagon. Unfortuantely, this makes the lens rather cumbersome to pack as it occupies virtually cube-like dimensions.

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Boats, stored. Le Sentier, Switzerland. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

This is, of course, a manual focus lens – apparently the tale goes that all of the autofocus patents are held by the Japanese, except for Hasselblad, who bought technology from Minolta. Needless to say, these patents are being kept very closely guarded; I honestly can’t think of a reason to buy a large portion of Nikon and Canon’s lenses if I could get autofocus with Zeiss. Industry politics aside, the manual focus ring is perfect – spinning freely enough to change focus distance quickly, but not so loose that you can’t set the distance precisely. The amount of damping is perfect. Why Zeiss can’t make all of its other lenses feel like this is beyond me – they’re mostly a bit too heavy in feel for my tastes, especially in a fast moving reportage scenario.

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Spiral. Sasana Kijang, Kuala Lumpur. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

The near focus limit is just 22cm, which makes for some very dramatic closeups indeed; however don’t be expecting fantastic magnification because it is, after all, a 21mm lens – which means you’re looking at 1:5 or so. More importantly, however, is that optical performance across the frame is maintained even at this focusing distance; undoubtedly thanks to the floating rear group that compensates for near aberrations. I personally can’t think why I’d use it at this range, though it might make an interesting lens for food photography on the OM-D – being a 42mm equivalent.

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Boutique interior. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Sharpness and resolving power are excellent; this is one of the few wides that really does the D800E sensor justice – even into the edges. The center is already extremely sharp from wide open, and the extreme corners catch up at around f5.6 or so. There are very mild traces of lateral CA wide open in the corners with high contrast subjects and the D800E; they’re not visible at all on the D700 and DX bodies. And there’s no odd color smearing, either – everything resolves in the same spatial location, which can’t always be said of wide angles (the Sigma and Voigtlander 20mms come to mind). Interestingly, this lens has an extremely impressive MTF chart* – almost flat by f5.6 – made even more impressive by the fact that Zeiss MTF charts are measured averages not theoretical maximums.

*The interpretation of which will be the subject of a future article.

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Dreaming of the high seas. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

What of the other optical properties? Well, there’s some vignetting; around 1-1.5 stops in the corners at f2.8, but it’s almost entirely gone by f4. There’s distortion, too; up to 2% taking an odd moustache or sombrero-shaped pattern that isn’t so easy to correct manually, but can be taken care of easily by ACR’s built in profile for the lens. Bokeh is neutral and pleasant, with no hard edges; that is, when you can get enough subject separation to see any bokeh in the first place. You’re pretty much going to be at hyperfocal from 2m if you set f5.6.

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Gallery. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Finally, a quick word on that famous Zeiss microcontrast – it’s present as expected. Microcontrast is the visible result of several optical properties: high resolution; even and high spectral transmission, and as little chromatic aberration as possible. The 21 has all of these things. Resolution and chromatic aberration are functions of the optical design; transmission dependant on the glass types and coatings used. As with all Zeiss lenses, the transmission of this lens is very high thanks to the excellent coatings – note how in the images above, the front few elements mostly disappear; this is due to the surface coatings not allowing reflected light. It’s especially important for maintaining contrast; good coatings manifest themselves in a deep, saturated look that I like to think of as ‘tonal richness’. But I digress: the T stop of the 21 is 2.9, which is just 0.1 stop down from the physical aperture of 2.8. It means that you’re pretty much going to get as much light as you can out of the optical design.

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Boats, in use. Lac de Joux, Switzerland. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

All of these technical qualities are useless if the lens doesn’t produce great images; it does. The 21 somehow manages to be an excellent balance of technical competence and personality; it’s not entirely a transparent lens, but its personality definitely lends a positive influence to any images shot with it. And despite the distortion, you can use it for architectural work uncorrected if you don’t put any straight edges too close to the frame border – in practice, it’s not that noticeable; far more obvious will be whether your camera is level or not. For critical applications, correct the distortion with ACR/ Photoshop. The drawing style of the 21 falls somewhere between the 2/28 Distagon and the 2/50 Makro-Planar; both resolve at very high levels, have excellent microcontrast and transmission, but the difference in ‘personality’ here seems to be related to the amount of field curvature and distortion; the 21 is not perfectly flat field, but it’s pretty close – which is a surprise for an ultrawide.

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MRI machine. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon with flash

One of the things I like very much about the way this lens renders – and perhaps more generally about the 21mm field of view – is that it’s about as wide as one can go without the perspective starting to render subjects unnaturally, so long as you carefully place the foreground in your images. It’s wide enough to convey space – especially in tight interior quarters – but not so wide as to appear unnatural, which is a problem I’ve always found with ultrawides. It’s simply impossible to achieve anything approaching a natural-looking perspective with anything wider because of the configuration of our own eyes: 21mm is roughly equivalent to your peripheral vision. Psychologically, our brains just aren’t conditioned to interpreting anything wider on a regular basis.

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Solidity and transparency. Sometimes perspective distortion is actually useful to add a bit of abstraction to an image. Sasana Kijang. Nikon D800E, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon.

I want to add a quick note on compatibility: thanks to it being a telecentric design, the lens actually works very well on smaller formats – Micro Four Thirds, for instance. Carrying say a Nikon FX body, a M4/3 body and the 21 and 100mm lenses gives you an optically excellent and reasonably light landscape kit covering 21, 42, 100 and 200mm – a nice spacing of perspectives. I did this for several early-morning walks in Switzerland whilst on my last assignment, except I had the 1.4/85 Planar instead of the 2/100 Makro-Planar.

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One of those falling trees in the forest that nobody ever hears about. Olympus OM-D, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Up until fairly recently, I’d done my wide architectural work with either a Voigtlander 20/3.5, whose low contrast and lack of bite I didn’t like very much; or the Nikon AFS 24/1.4G, which didn’t have the same microcontrast as the Zeiss. All I can say is that I have no idea why I didn’t get the 21 sooner; it’s another one of those truly outstanding lenses that is a must if you’re a wideangle shooter. It isn’t the most discreet lens for documentary work, but the pictorial results are excellent; but it is an absolute no-brainer if you’re an architectural or landscape photographer. Highly recommended! MT

Get your Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon is available here from B&H and Amazon

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Old factory reflections. Olympus OM-D, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon

Comments

  1. Hi Ming,

    Love your website, very informative and honest. Have you ever tried the Zeiss ZF.2 25mm f2. I noticed that DXO Mark rated the sharpness much higher than the 21mm. The 21mm was rated at 19Mpx and the 25mm a staggering 29Mpx with incredible edge to edge sharpness all the way through the apertures. Just wondering if you have experienced and what you think before I fork out $ 1700.

    Thanks

  2. Jorge Balarin says:

    Dear Ming,
    You said that the focus system of Nikon cameras are calibrated favoring “autofocus”, so if we want to use this Zeiss manual focus lens on a Nikon camera we must adjust the mirror position. Is this last change going to affect the autofocus performance of our Nikon camera ? Greetings, Jorge.

    • No, because you’re moving the main mirror, not the submirror. These rest on separate assemblies on newer cameras. In any case, even if it does affect the AF calibration, you have the ability to fine tune AF by adding a digital offset correction; you can’t do this with manual focus and the viewfinder…

  3. This a a very convincing review. I hope it holds up as well on the D600!

  4. Hi, I enjoyed reading your articles and viewing the photos. On the note of using this lens on a MFT camera, which adapter would you recommend? Is the one you use able to mount the Nikkor G lens? Thanks.

  5. How does it compare with the Nikon 16-35 at 21?

  6. This Zeiss is much better optically than Canon’s ultrawide and 28mm f/1.8 USM offerings. I have not compared it to Canon’s 24/3.5 TS-E II , which is a very different kind of lens.

  7. Your photos are beautiful, I especially like “Gallery”.
    You recommend this lens for architecture and your photos seem to indicate you are right. However, I read on Zeiss’ page:

    http://www.zeissimages.com/mtf/zf/distagon_28_21_en.pdf

    that the distortion is quite important. I cannot see it in your photos. May I ask if you digitally correct it? It seems a weird distortion not easy to correct.
    Ciao,
    Marco

    • Thanks – yes, I use the built in profile in ACR to correct it for critical architectural work with clear horizontals/ verticals, but for the most part you don’t notice it unless there are straight lines near the edge of the frame.

  8. Lars Jeppesen says:

    Just wondering – why not just use the D800’s DX setting and you would achieve something very similar – and less one extra body?

    “I want to add a quick note on compatibility: thanks to it being a telecentric design, the lens actually works very well on smaller formats – Micro Four Thirds, for instance. Carrying say a Nikon FX body, a M4/3 body and the 21 and 100mm lenses gives you an optically excellent and reasonably light landscape kit covering 21, 42, 100 and 200mm – a nice spacing of perspectives”

    • Because then I’d have 21, 32, 100 and 150 – 32 and 150 do not really work for me. I could crop down to 2x, but then I’d be sub-M4/3 quality, plus I was carrying the OM-D as backup anyway :)

  9. djoko susanto says:

    This lens is a legend, more shine than zf 15/2,8.
    Ming, what you think about sony rx1 ?

  10. Informative read, you’ve put the lens to great use. This is a lens that has been on my mind quite a bit this last few weeks (ZM mount). Cheers, Jason.

Trackbacks

  1. […] four or five years ago) and lenses geared at maximum image quality: this meant all Zeiss primes (2/21 Distagon for interiors, 2/28 Distagon, 1.4/55 Otus APO Distagon, 2/135 APO Sonnar) and Nikon PCE lenses. My […]

  2. […] and dirt, it meant that the Hasselblads were not an option. I went with a pair of D800Es2, one Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon, the 1.4/55 Otus and a 24-120/4 VR – I needed as much light as possible because it was very […]

  3. […] to describe exactly, but wides look wide. There’s a definite difference in the way the Zeiss 2.8/21 renders on the D800E as opposed to the Pentax 25/4 on the 645Z – even though the Pentax is […]

  4. […] were therefore the usual wide-envelope workhorses: a pair of D800Es. However, this time I used the Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon and 1.4/55 Otus – they were a challenge to focus in the darker environments, but the image […]

  5. […] tilt shift or 1.4/28, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen. At any rate, the current ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon is an excellent performer on the D800E, if not quite up to the standards of the Otus. It is a lens […]

  6. […] system – D800E, 24-120/4 VR, 85/1.8, Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon and a couple of SB900s (you never know when you might need […]

  7. […] this assignment, I packed a range of gear (D800E, D600, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100, Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR, OM-D and Panasonic 100-300, and of […]

  8. [...] native mounts for the more telecentric designs such as the Zeiss Distagons. I tested the Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 and 2/28 Distagons with no issues; the 2/50 and 2/100 Makro-Planars were also excellent performers. [...]

  9. [...] x3 Olympus OM-D Olympus ZD 12/2, ZD 45/1.8, ZD 60/2.8 Macro Panasonic 20/1.7, 100-300/4-5.6 Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon; ZF.2 2/28 Distagon; ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar; ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar; ZM 2.8/28 Biogon; ZM 2/50 [...]

  10. [...] even after selling all of my current equipment; there would be no wideangle solution to match the Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon, and the maximum macro magnification would be nowhere near what I can easily achieve now with a [...]

  11. [...] though at times I did wish I had something a little wider – perhaps an equivalent for the Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon which is my current mainstay for architectural work. The Sony RX100 covered everything else. Enjoy! [...]

  12. [...] the perfect lens – Nokia Conversations : the official Nokia blog#1: Shopping for Shopping NowReview: The Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T* – Ming Thein // IE Evitar seleccion de texto document.onselectstart=function(){ if (event.srcElement.type [...]

  13. [...] One of the legendary wideangles for SLR users, the Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon T* (referred to simply as the '21' after this) is a fairly complex – by Zeiss standards, anyway – telecentric design with 16 elements in 13 groups and a floating rear group for close range correction. As with most of the modern Zeiss lenses, it's based on a derivative of the older Contax/ Yashica 2.8/21 Distagon (however, that was a 15/13 design). It's currently available in Canon (ZE, fully electronic) and Nikon (ZF and ZF.2, the latter of which is fully electronic) mounts.  [...]

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