I’ve actually owned two of these lenses. My first experience was in mid 2010, with the D700 and after discovering the joys of Zeiss microcontrast; I found it stonkingly sharp, very contrasty, yet capable of delivering images with a rich saturation and three-dimensional pop. In other words, very much in line with the rest of the Zeiss ZF lineup.
This lens is my second one – now revisited because I feel the need to find lenses capable of making the most of the D800’s incredible resolving power. Between watches and food, I shoot a lot of macro work. This also means that I’ve got some specific requirements that can only be addressed by a mixture of several lenses; a tilt-shift for increasing depth of field in one plane, or moving the camera out of reflections; something short for use with extension tubes to produce high magnification; something longer to produce better separation/ isolation; and finally, something in a normal focal length that can focus a bit nearer if required.
I’ve had everything in each category so far until the something longer. The Nikon 105/2.8 VR was my previous choice of all-round macro, but it did have some fairly annoying CA issues that wouldn’t be remedied until stopped down by quite a bit; and the working distance at high magnification was actually pretty short because the non-extending internal focus design necessitated shortening the focal length at nearer distances. I replaced it with the 60/2.8 AFS, which I’ve always felt was a little better optically.
Enter the Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar T* (hereafter the 100MP). It’s a full stop faster than the Nikon at f2, which it impressively maintains throughout the focus range; it also doesn’t shorten the focal length as it focuses closer, which maintains working distance, as well as minimizes focus breathing (especially important for videographers). The downside, of course, is that a huge amount of extension is required to deliver only 1:2 magnification (extension for a given magnification is proportional to the focal length). 1:1 would have been nice, but I honestly don’t know where they’d pack that extra helicoid. Near focus limit is 44m at 1:2 magnification, with a clear 20+cm of working distance in front of the lens barrel (less if you choose to use the hood).
What does amaze me about the 100MP is its ability to cut an image into very clear planes; at every aperture there’s an abrupt transition between in focus and out of focus; in this regard, it reminds me a lot of the Leica 50/1.4 ASPH-M which has a similar ability. This impression is further reinforced by a complete lack of ghosting or fringing of any sort around the focal point, even at maximum aperture. The lens also produces excellent bokeh; out of focus areas are rendered as walls of blur, with no harsh edges or double imaging. The sole exception to this is the occasional cats’-eye-shaped highlight from very bright off-center sources. The iris is placed in the center of the lens’ optical elements, and made up of 9 blades with rounded edges. (The only perfect circle you get is at f2).
It’s a moderately complex 9/8 optical design, which doesn’t use any aspherical elements (as is traditional for Zeiss) – relying instead on different types of glass and the excellent T* coating to keep optical aberrations at bay.
Once again, the coating does its job admirably – flare is very minor, and in fact, almost nil when you use the supplied deep hood; contrast is always excellent, and the microcontrast rendition is superb – very much three dimensional and ‘like a Zeiss’. Color is warm and fully saturated; the lens’ spectral transmission matches that of its siblings, but will probably require some correction if you’re going to use it with those from another manufacturer. And needless to say, as a macro lens, it delivers an almost completely flat plane of focus.
However, there’s no such thing as a perfect lens – although some manufacturers might claim there is – but the 100MP comes pretty close, in my opinion. Its one sole flaw is longitudinal chromatic aberration caused by uncorrected spherochromatism – in plain text, it’s colored fringes on out of focus highlights (‘bokeh fringing’). It’s especially noticeable front-back on a high contrast subject. The only way to avoid it is by stopping down to f4 or smaller, or some handy Photoshop work with the sponge tool in post processing.
I just want to touch on one last optical property before talking about build quality and some general observations/ conclusions – and that’s diffraction. Although the primary driver of exactly when diffraction kicks in is down to the pixel density of the sensor, I can’t help but notice that there is also definitely some effect caused by the lens used – perhaps this is related to focal length shortening and effective apertures at different magnifications; I’m not absolutely sure. All I know is that if I compare this lens at f22 and the Nikon 60/2.8 G at an indicated f22, the Zeiss does seem a fraction softer – I’d continue the comparison at smaller apertures, but there aren’t any more on the Zeiss.
Moving on to the physical qualities of the lens – like all the ZF/ZE optics, it’s a superb thing to use. The lens is all metal, with a buttery smooth focusing action, and incredibly solid feel. The felt-lined hood locks on to the end of the lens by means of a bayonet mount (in chrome). Let’s just say the lenses feel like instruments, rather than disposable plastic toys. Actually, I do have some criticisms to do with both the cosmetics and the construction, though. Firstly, the red distance markings for feet are too dark and nearly impossible to read unless it’s fairly bright; this holds true for all Zeiss lenses.
The flocked hood is great at reducing stray light, but it’s also great at picking up lint, and the front edge is easily dentable – if only they would put a small rubber lip on it. I know it’s a macro lens, and the feel is superb, but the focus throw is just much too long – half a turn should be more than enough; the Nikons do this and get to 1:1; there’s no need to have a whole turn of rotation. It makes things slower to use than they have to be. Oh, and despite this huge distance turned…infinity to three meters is probably less than about 10 degrees of rotation.
Finally, it’s a macro lens: for photographing objects, with the lens in close proximity, which may or may not be reflective. The chrome hood bayonet looks magnificent, but it’s also the cause of a huge hotspot (hot ring?) in many shiny objects. The hood helps to some degree, but you can still see the inside of it a little. And that brings me to the nameplate on the lens: white lettering on the black front rim – guess what, this reflects off your subjects too, and has to be retouched out. Again, it’s not as bad when the hood is used (and much, much worse on the 2/50 Makro Planar because of the even shorter working distance of that lens) – but it should be black, or put somewhere else. Better yet, include with the lens a plain matte black blanking ring that covers both the chrome hood bayonet and the nameplate ring when the lens is used specifically for macro work.
This is perhaps one of the easiest lens reviews I’ve written: the optics are stunningly good, and there are no complaints here. Within it’s optimal working range – it’s fantastic, and longitudinal chromatic aberration aside, can’t be beaten. That said, the LoCA we see here is no worse than any of the other 100/105mm lenses on the market. It’s not only a great macro lens, but it also does very well at longer distances too – I actually like to use it for landscapes, because its tonal rendition really makes scenes pop. You can use it for portraits, but your subjects had better have perfect skin…at least bokeh will be beautiful, though.
If you do any sort of macro work, or are an aficionado of great optics, I can’t recommend this lens enough. It’s one of the few lenses that can keep up with the resolution of the Nikon D800E even at maximum aperture, and versatile enough to serve both as a macro, a portrait lens, and a short telephoto. I’m now off to tape up the front of mine to go shoot some watches. MT
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