Lens review: The Zeiss ZF.2 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar

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One year after the 1.4/55 Otus APO-Distagon, Zeiss is back as promised with the second installment in the new line of super-lenses: the 1.4/85 Otus APO-Planar. Announced unofficially on facebook several months back, the lens makes its official debut at Photokina. I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with a final-pre-production prototype for the last two months; in fact, through pure coincidence, I got the email from my contact at Zeiss saying they had a surprise for me on my birthday…

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Photoessay-review: the Nikon AFS 70-200/4 VR and Havana cityscapes, part I

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This will be the first in my new review format for ‘light’ reviews – pieces of equipment that perhaps don’t necessarily need a full blown magnum opus, but benefit from some context in deployment and typical usage. A short piece on the D4 will follow next.

One of the few lenses in the Canon system I’ve long been jealous of is their 70-200/4 IS (in addition to the 17TSE). Until not so long ago, Nikon users have been missing a light/ compact high quality telephoto option. Sure, there’s been the 70-300/4.5-5.6 VR, but that was only a decent performer up to 200mm; anything else was emergency territory. And it simply wasn’t that good on the D800E, nor a pro build. Finally, we have the AF-S 70-200mm f4 G VR ED IF (what a mouthful). I’m going to address two questions in this review: firstly, is it any good, and secondly, f2.8* or f4? I suspect the latter question is going to be of interest to many still sitting on the fence.

*It’s important to note there are two versions of the 70-200/2.8 G VR. I’ll go into the differences in more detail later.

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Lens review: The Olympus 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko PRO

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Announced and available together with the new OM-D E-M1 (reviewed here), the 12-40/2.8 M.Zuiko Digital PRO (24-80mm equivalent) is the first in a new line of M.Zuiko Digital PRO lenses. Development of an equivalent-grade f2.8 fast telephoto zoom was also announced, with a 2014 release. Thanks to the folks at Olympus Malaysia, I’ve had the opportunity to use this lens together with the new camera for some time now. Read on for my review.

Advanced warning: Flickr will apparently be down for maintenance for a little while on Friday 13/9, so if some images don’t appear, it’s because they’re hosted there…

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Lens review: The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G

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14-42 X on OM-D, collapsed and extended. If you’re wondering why I got a silver one, it’s because the black ones were out of stock at the time I needed it. Would I have preferred black? Obviously.

I don’t normally review ‘consumer’ grade gear for the simple reason that it’s usually built to a price, rather than built to deliver a certain grade of result (or perhaps it is, only the accountants and engineers know for sure). However, sometimes you come across a piece of equipment that fills a need much better than you imagined; this lens is one such example. The Panasonic Lumix Vario PZ 14-42/3.5-5.6 X G (what a mouthful, hereafter known as the 14-42X) is a very small – about the size of the 20/1.7 pancake when collapsed – zoom for Micro Four Thirds. It was the kit lens for the GX1 and a couple of other cameras for a while, and fortunately also available separately.

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Lens review: The Nikon AF-S 80-400/4.5-5.6 G ED VR II N

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Nikon’s 80-400mm received a long-deserved update earlier in the year; it’s in fact had a complete overhaul and optical redesign. The original lens was Nikon’s very first VR lens, and body-driven to boot – the large front element had a reputation for pinching fingers between the protruding filter ring flange and the zoom ring (I fell victim to this on my first outing with it). It’s gone from being a 17/11 design to a more complex 20/12, gained Nano-Crystal coating, a shorter minimum focus distance (1.75m in AF and 1.5m in MF vs 2.3m), a silent wave motor and internal focusing, second-generation VR, and plethora of additional switches. Gone is the aperture ring, so you’re not going to be using this on a pre-command dial film body. The hood is also now a petal-type design with the same kind of locking catch as the 17-55, 24-70 and 70-200 hoods. It reverses for storage. Unlike the old lens, it’s also fully gasketed and weather sealed. It’s also more expensive; about $800 more, to be precise.

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Lens review: The Leica 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE

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I couldn’t find a product shot in my archive, so you’re going to have to settle for one of me using it instead.

Not long after this lens was initially released and generally available – early 2012 – I published a guest post review here on the Leica Blog. At that point, I’d had no more than a couple of weeks to shoot with the lens, and certainly not under any kind of duress or pressure. Since then, I’ve both encountered many situations with the lens and used it as pretty much the go-to on my M9-P in the hopes of making 35mm one of the intuitive focal lengths in my repertoire. It didn’t stick, and somewhere in the middle of last year, I landed up selling it to one of my students.

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Diner. All images in this review shot with the Leica M9-P except where otherwise noted.

I’ve been meaning to do a full review for some time now, but the reality is that there have been many other things which have gotten in the way – or perhaps I should stop making excuses for being lazy.

The 35mm f1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE is version seven in a long and distinguished line of lenses – some may even think of them as legendary and quintessentially Leica. They’ve grown larger, heavier and more expensive as time moved on – earlier versions were practically pancakes compared to the 35 FLE, but admittedly they were also relatively poor performers at maximum aperture. The previous version (VI) featured a single aspherical element (there was a very rare double aspherical version produced too, relatively early on in the life of this lens) and was known for being both an excellent optic, but hamstrung by one huge flaw: focus shift.

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Lens review: The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro

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In what appears to be a hideously enormous oversight on my part, I seem to have neglected to review what is ostensibly my most used lens: the Nikon AFS 60mm f2.8 G Micro-Nikkor. As you might expect, I use this lens for the majority of my commercial watch photography. I prefer it over the 85 PCE for images that require high magnification, as this lens natively reaches 1:1 magnification on its own; thus requiring fewer extension tubes to reach even smaller levels of frame coverage.

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Nitro Experiment One

Before we start talking about the lens specifically, I would like to debunk some myths about macro vs micro photography: both have to do with the reproduction ratio created by the lens on the imaging medium; it is format independent. Simply, macro refers to 1:1 or greater magnification (i.e. a 20mm wide object in reality would be 20mm or wider when projected on the sensor plane); whereas micro refers to magnification slightly less than this but more than would be encountered during normal photography – ‘close focus’ might perhaps be a more accurate term. Almost nobody seems to get this right online, even the manufacturers; ‘macro’ mode almost never yields 1:1 magnification, and there aren’t that many lenses that achieve this natively. (I suppose Carl Zeiss gets away with it by sounding German and putting a ‘k’ in Makro-Planar – these are 1:2 lenses.)

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Water on slate

The 60/2.8 G replaces its predecessor, the 60/2.8 D, both of which are 1:1 lenses; unlike its predecessor, it reaches 1:1 through internal focusing alone, and the lens doesn’t extend – the front element on the G is a lot closer to the front of the barrel, and as a result, offers greater working distance at a given magnification than the D (which has a very heavily recessed front element). The lens has been completely redesigned with a new optical formula; it’s a 12/9 design with aspherical and ED elements, as well as Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating. It also has a silent wave motor, but no focus distance limiter (oddly, the older version did have this). Focusing is fast and silent, but occasionally the lens does get ‘lost’ – if you’re say at the near focus limit and point it a subject at infinity, then sometimes it can hunt and fail to find focus. A quick tweak of the focusing ring solves this. One thing I have noticed with all of the Nikon SWM macro lenses is that they appear to be very ‘nervous’ when focusing at close distances; they’ll chatter and hunt and rack back and forth slightly. This could be because I’ve got the camera in AF-C most of the time, but it doesn’t really make sense given that everything is static – camera on tripod, inanimate subject. Still, I haven’t noticed any focusing errors, even on the D800E; in fact, this lens is the only one I’ve got that doesn’t require AF fine tune correction on any of my cameras.

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Cigar

I also owned the previous version of this lens, and the difference mechanically is night and day; optically, somewhat less so, but the newer version is clearly better. (I suspect part of the reason why the G appears sharper is simply because it can focus more accurately without any of the backlash inherent to screwdriver-focusing lenses.) The biggest difference in optics between the two version are seen in off-center performance – specifically to do with CA – and bokeh. The new lens has very little lateral chromatic aberration; you have to be shooting something very, very contrasty and bright to excite it. For most subjects and shooting conditions, you probably won’t see any lateral CA at all. Longitudinal CA is a different matter – whilst again better than the old lens (and much better than the 105/2.8 VR), longitudinal chromatic aberration is still visible, as are traces of spherochromatism. It’s not a disaster, but it does mean that some work has to be done in postprocessing to remove traces of this – especially on say, white metal watches. On the bokeh front, the new lens has a 9-bladed, perfectly round aperture diaphragm that makes for very smooth out of focus areas; amongst the best I’ve seen, actually – though at normal distances, a 60/2.8 will not yield a huge amount of separation.

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Alphabet pasta

It’s worth noting that the lens’ maximum effective aperture at 1:1 is about f4.8; this isn’t because it’s a variable-aperture lens, but rather because additional magnification always results in some light loss. The Nikon lenses and bodies are the only combination that reports this correctly – not that it matters, because the meter takes care of any necessary exposure adjustments anyway. I suppose it might be important if you were to calculate flash exposure with guide numbers, but I can’t think of anybody who still does that.

On the subject of flash, shooting into the light yields no problems at all; the Nano-coated element is clearly doing its job when it comes to suppressing flare. (I use partial backlight quite often to clean out backgrounds or help define the texture in watch dials.) Macro-and micro-contrast are both very good, improving slightly on stopping down. I feel this lens has a bit more microcontrast ‘bite’ than overall global macro-contrast; this isn’t a bad thing at all as it helps to extend dynamic range somewhat.

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Breguet La Tradition

I actually don’t have much to say about resolution and optics: what do you expect? It’s a macro lens. There’s almost zero distortion or field curvature, and nothing funny going on with the focal plane. Sharpness is already excellent at f2.8, though with the D800E you’ll probably have to go to f4 or f5.6 to hit peak resolving power across the frame. Note that diffraction softening will set in by around f13 or so with the D800E; I try not to go past f16 unless I absolutely have no choice. That said, you can get away with f22 on the 12MP FX cameras if you need to.

Something I’ve been asked in the past is why I don’t use the 105/2.8 VR instead for greater working distance; the answer is that for the kind of work I do, the 60 actually holds several advantages. Firstly, I don’t need as many extension tubes to achieve higher magnifications*; secondly, the lens itself has much lower chromatic aberration than the 105 – lateral is fairly well controlled on both, but longitudinal is ugly on the 105 – and requires a lot of work to fix afterwards. Finally, there’s the issue of depth of field: for any given aperture, you’ll get more with the shorter focal length**. And given that you’re already challenged to find enough as it is, I’ll take any advantage I can get.

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Who could resist a steak like that?

*The more mounts you put between your optics and your camera, the higher the chance of something going out of plane.

**A longer focal length does not mean that you can stop down more before diffraction sets in; that’s a property of the sensor’s pixel pitch, not the lens.

Of course, for those situations when I really need to manipulate depth of field, there’s the 85/2.8 PCE Micro – note it’s a Micro lens, because it only reaches 1:2 – and its full array of movements. That – and an accompanying piece on the Scheimpflug effect and how to properly use a tilt-shift lens – will be the subject of another article.

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Girard-Perregaux F1-047

For the work I typically do with macro lenses – watches and food – the pairing of 60/2.8 G and 85/2.8 PCE is usually more than sufficient to deal with any possible scenario. If you shoot bugs, or want the lens to do double-duty for portraits, the 105 is probably a better choice; that’s not to say that the 60 can’t do the job; it just won’t give you the working distance or depth of field control you’d like to have. (The optics remain similarly excellent at longer distances – you could quite happily use this as a long normal lens if you didn’t mind the slowish f2.8 aperture; it out resolves all of the ‘regular’ 50 1.4s and 1.8s I’ve used, especially in the corners.) Perhaps the most telling fact I can leave you with is that of all of the lenses I own, it’s the one that’s been with me the longest. MT

The Nikon AFS 60/2.8 G Micro is available here from B&H and Amazon.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Lens review: The Nikon AF-S 85/1.8 G

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The Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G (released at the start of this year) is a slightly odd product. Unusually for Nikon, the new version doesn’t cost a lot more ($50, give or take a bit) than the old one; doubly unusually, it isn’t a warmed-over cosmetically-modified version, either. (It’s also now made in China, which might have something to do with it. The old lens was made first in Japan, and then Thailand since 2010.) The 85/1.8 D was a simple double Gauss design with 6 elements in 6 groups; the new one uses a 9/9 optical formula. The elements in front of the iris ostensibly retain the double Gauss formula, but everything afterwards is new. As far as I can tell, the same basic optical principles apply, except every single element in the rear group has been replaced with an achromatic doublet of sorts; not a true achromatic doublet because there’s an air gap between neighbouring elements.


Images from Nikon USA. The D is on the left, the G is on the right. Note far more complex rear group; the pairs of lenses do effectively the same thing as the single lenses in the earlier design. The images are to scale, too – note increase in size. It doesn’t seem to be any heavier, though – and noticeably lighter than the 85/1.4 G.

This complex formula has two benefits: firstly, lower chromatic aberration because there’s that extra element there for correction; secondly, internal focusing is now possible (the previous design focused by moving the entire optical assembly back and forth, like all double-Gauss designs). As far as I can tell, the front and rear elements (possibly more than one) are fixed, and the rest move back and forth. At this point, it’s worth noting that unlike Nikon’s newer optical designs, it’s remarkably free of any exotic technology – whilst the bottom of most lenses now play host to entire essays in abbreviations about Nikon’s lensmaking prowess, the 85/1.8G is remarkably clean. All it has is internal focusing and the silent wave motor – that’s it. There’s no Nano-crystal coating, no ED glass (let alone Super ED glass) and no aspherical elements. Even the new 50/1.8 G employs asphericals!

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Untitled. Nikon D800E

Regular readers of my site will know that I was originally a huge fan of the 85/1.4 G, especially on the D700 for it’s sharpness, quality of bokeh and incredible ability to shoot into direct light sources with minimal to no flare. You’ll also know that despite trying multiple samples, I was never quite happy with the performance of this lens on the D800E; mainly due to lateral chromatic aberration wide open, and so-so edge performance. It’s therefore logical to assume that there are optical quality reasons as to why I’m now using the 85/1.8 G instead. You’d be right.

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Caution. Nikon D800E

In all of my A-B testing with similar subjects, several samples of both lenses – the 85/1.8 G was consistently sharper in the center at f1.8, let alone f1.4. it’s possible that real resolution was identical, however, the 85/1.4 G showed so much lateral chromatic aberration that it robbed the images of perceptual acuity. It was also sharper at the edges – markedly so, especially on the D800E. It’s worth remembering that at f1.8, the 85/1.8 G is wide open, and the 85/1.4 G is 2/3rds of a stop down. Granted, it’s easier to design a good slower lens than a faster one, but then again, the 85/1.4 G has a huge amount of technology in it – ED elements and Nano-crystal coating, for starters. Interestingly, the optical formulae for both lenses are nearly identical.

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Apprehension. Nikon D800E

Bottom line: the 85/1.8 G is sharp at every aperture, across the frame, even on the D800E – providing you nail the focus, of course. There is remarkably little falloff in sharpness from center to edge; consistency and microcontrast improve marginally to f4, but it’s already outstanding by f2.8. I only shoot this lens wide open, which should give you some indication of how I feel about the optics. Chromatic aberration under normal situations is almost non-existent; a remarkable performance. Even though this lens has 7 blades instead of the 9 of its predecessor (and 85/1.4 G), bokeh remains pleasing, neutral and smooth. I’ve yet to see any odd artefacts like double imaging or nervousness, but there is a tiny bit of spherochromatism (color fringing) in the out of focus areas. In fact, it’s one of the better-rendering lenses I’ve used in this regard. Color transmission is neutral, per the current crop of Nikon lenses; though the saturation is unsurprisingly not as high as the Nano-crystal equipped optics.

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Phonecall. Nikon D800E

You’re probably wondering what the tradeoff is, given the huge gulf in price between the 85/1.4 G and 85/1.8 G; the last line should have given you a clue. It has to do with contrast, saturation, transmission and flare. It seems that the Nano-crystal coating makes an enormous difference to all four; the 85/1.8 G takes a noticeable hit in every area compared to the 85/1.4 G (it still improves on the old lens in every way, however). The problem stems from flare; when you have extraneous light bouncing around inside the lens between elements – a good coating minimizes reverse reflections off air-glass surfaces – everything else suffers. The most obvious manifestation of this is under backlit conditions, of course – especially when there is a bright point light source in the frame. The 85/1.4 G shows almost zero flare; the 85/1.8 G gives an enormously spectacular trail of reflections off what appears to be every single element. This can be pleasingly cinematic for atmosphere or video work, except the lens has no hard infinity stop, which makes focus pulling challenging. For stage/ performance work, it’s a pain in the ass. Unfortunately, the supplied hood makes no difference simply because it can’t block light from entering the front of the lens – and it’s these rays that are causing the problem.

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Ugly flare – and this is after correction by burning and desaturation. Nikon D800E

Internal flare also lowers contrast; macrocontrast especially. Microcontrast is a bit worse, but not by much. By f2.8 both lenses are neck and neck here. The knock on effect is a reduction in overall saturation; no surprises here. Perhaps the least obvious, and most surprising side effect is a huge reduction in transmission (read my article on the difference between T stops and f stops for more detail). At any of the wide apertures, the 85/1.8 G transmits between 1/2 and 2/3 stop less light than the 85/1.4 G; this is to say that if both are set to a physical aperture f2, then you’ll find the 85/1.8 G’s required shutter speed for a given exposure to be noticeably lower than the 85/1.4 G. In other words, if you set 1/100s f2 ISO 200 on both lenses, the 85/1.8 G photo will be underexposed by 1/2-2/3 stop. The reason is because a lot of the light entering the lens isn’t making it to the sensor plane, thanks to suboptimal coatings.

That said, it’s still better than the old lens.

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Less ugly, more cinematic flare – but still flare. Nikon D800E

The new lens gains a silent wave motor and loses an aperture ring; it’s still plastic, but now the crinkle-finish variety to match the modern bodies and lenses. The plastic type appears a lot less brittle than the 85/1.8 G, though admittedly I’ve never had issues with any of the older lenses other than a propensity to pick up scratches easily. The silent wave motor isn’t any faster than the screwdriver method; it’s about the same, actually – especially on a body with a high voltage built in motor like the D3 or D4. The difference is in precision: it’s a lot easier to move a coreless linear motor in the small increments required to adjust for small changes in focusing distance than a geartrain with associated backlash. In practical terms, you’ll find the new lens a lot more precise than the old one. (It still remains useless if you use an older camera that requires an aperture ring.) The lens also gains environmental gaskets, making it a good choice for pairing with a similarly sealed body.

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Solo. Nikon D800E

I thought that it would be easy to write a conclusion to this review; it isn’t quite so straightforward. I’m going to turn it around a bit instead:

Buy the AFS 85/1.8 D if:

  • You shoot with a manual focus camera, or want to use the lens both on your Nikons and other systems via an adaptor – otherwise you’ll have no aperture control.
  • This lens is optically inferior to both of the G versions, and not much cheaper than the AFS 85/1.8 G.

Buy the AFS 85/1.8 G if:

  • Resolution at maximum aperture and CA are important, i.e. you shoot with a D800/ D800E.
  • You want lower contrast because you shoot with an older, lower dynamic range body
  • Size and weight are important; the lens is noticeably lighter and a bit smaller than the 85/1.4 G.
  • Price is important
  • You like cinematic flare.

Buy the AFS 85/1.4 G if:

  • You need as much light gathering ability as possible, or shoot frequently under very low light conditions
  • You shoot into bright point sources a lot
  • You shoot with a lower resolution body
  • Notice I haven’t mentioned bokeh yet: the 85/1.4 G is slightly better than the 85/1.8 G, but it doesn’t justify the increase in cost.

The Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G is available here from B&H and Amazon; the AFS 85/1.4 G is available here from B&H and Amazon.

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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

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

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

Understanding lens-related descriptive terms

I realize that in almost all of my past lens reviews, I use terms whose meanings may not be immediately obvious to everybody – allow me firstly to apologize for that, and remedy the situation by explaining some of the more comment terms I use. Note: This is not a technical lexicon (that’s in the works) but rather an attempt to help readers get an understanding of what I mean by ‘luminous transparency’, for instance. I know a lot of you are going to ask for images; I’ll add them in the future once I can find suitable examples. In the meantime, read the text and see if you can spot what I’m seeing in review images, or alternatively, make a small donation via Paypal to contribute towards a straightjacket if you think I’ve gone completely insane. MT

Aberration
Any sort of limitation in the optics that causes distortions in the final image, i.e. straight lines not rendered straight, curved planes of focus, incomplete spectra resulting in inaccurate colors etc – it’s a catchall term for imperfections.

Astigmatism
An effect where the left and right sides of the lens do not render symmetrically, e.g. left edge softer than right edge. Usually the product of misaligned elements. Note that most lenses are capable of theoretically much better results than in reality; the limitation is due to manufacturing tolerances and the impossibility of aligning everything perfectly. Such optical limitations are far more obvious on high resolution sensors, which means that you should really test the specific lens sample you’re going to buy before you actually pay for it…
Note that astigmatism can also be a design flaw where sagittal and tangential rays come into focus at different planes; it looks quite similar to coma. (Thank you Oskar O for pointing this out.)

Bokeh
A general reference to the out of focus areas in an image. Smooth bokeh has no uneven luminance values across the out of focus areas, or hard/ sharp edges, and renders even complex out-of-focus subjects in a uniformly blurred manner. Nervous bokeh is mostly smooth, but can be provoked into double images with the wrong kind of out of focus subject. Bad bokeh is full of oddities like double images, hard edges, artificial highlights, texture in blur areas etc – in other words, it distracts the eye from the primary subject and outweighs it visually. Swirly bokeh is where the background areas are rendered in a spiral pattern as though rotated; this is a trait of many fast lenses – especially the Leica 50/1 Noctilux.

Chromatic aberration
Light is made up of different wavelengths; uncorrected, these focus at different distances away from the lens, resulting in a lateral spread of color across the focal plane. Well corrected lenses use pairs of chromatic doublet elements that bend all of the wavelengths of light by the same amount at every doublet; this ensures that all wavelengths of light focuses in the same plane. Chromatic aberration, or CA, manifests as red-blue fringing on high contrast areas – this is the image separating out into its constituent spectra. Red and blue are usually the most obvious because they have the greatest difference in wavelengths – between 450 and 750nm or thereabouts.

Cinematic
This is one of the tougher properties to describe, and very personal. For me, a lens is cinematic if it has a few properties – smooth background bokeh, and transparency in foreground bokeh; slightly biased but accurate color transmission – usually warm; minimal to zero chromatic aberration; gentle flare; a well-defined plane of focus. These properties usually require at least a short telephoto to achieve, but there are some shorter lenses that do admirably well – the Zeiss ZF 21/2.8, ZF 28/2, Nikon AFS 24/1.4, Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, 50/1.4 ASPH and 50/0.95 ASPH come to mind.

Cold
A lens whose color transmission is biased in favor of the shorter wavelengths, i.e. blues; it attenuates reds.

Coma
The spreading of point light sources; usually at the edge of the frame. Points will not be rendered as points, but instead somewhat egg shaped – a corona of white with a bright ‘yolk’ at the center.

Contrast
The way a lens renders luminance differences in a scene – high contrast means that these are exaggerated; low contrast means that they are minimized. Low contrast lenses are good for high-contrast scenes, because they help to limit the dynamic range of the transmitted image – and thus leave it within the sensor’s capabilities.

Dark
A lens with high saturation and very low flare or internal reflection; ‘darkness’ in a lens mean that colors are rendered in a rich, saturated manner; low flare and internal reflection reduces the overall key of the image and eliminates bright but low-contrast areas.

Distortion
A flaw in the image where straight lines in the subject are not rendered as such. Perspective distortion is when verticals or horizontals that are not perfectly parallel to the imaging plane converge or diverge; lens-induced distortion (barrel or pincushion) is when straight lines are rendered as curving.

Field curvature
An ideal lens projects a flat subject plane onto a flat image plane; most lenses suffer from a mild degree of curvature in both, which is to say that the projected surfaces of subject and image are the opposite sides of a sphere – curving away from the sensor plane and towards the optical center of the lens at the edges. In real terms, this means that the plane of focus in the subject isn’t always the same distance away from the camera.

Flare
A bright spot in an image caused by internal reflections off surfaces within a lens; usually caused by stray non-image forming light coming in at an oblique angle and reflecting off elements; this kind of flare is well-defined and usually lens-shaped. Flare can also take the form of a general lowering of contrast that appears as a white haziness across the image; this is caused by light scattered off the internal surfaces within a lens assembly – including but not limited to edges of individual elements, helicoids, etc.

Flat field
A lens that does not have perceptible field curvature. Most macro lenses and super telephotos are flat field.

Gentle
A rather abstract concept that is used to describe tonal gradations and contrast; shallow output gradation for a given input gradation would be shallow; the opposite would be strong.

Latitudinal chromatic aberration
Colored fringes (multiple images) on a solid edge caused by different wavelengths of light not focusing in the same place.

Longitudinal chromatic aberration
Colored fringing in the foreground and background areas outside the plane of focus, caused by prismatic separation of different wavelengths of light by the lens elements.

Luminosity
Another useful but slightly vague term; my idea of a luminous lens is one which has some minor degree of flare and moderate to low contrast, resulting in a bright or high-key image. Blacks are not always rendered as true black, and images shot with the lens at the correct exposure turn out somewhat brighter than expected. Not necessarily representative of low microcontrast.

Macrocontrast
The projected difference in tonality in the image, relative to the perceived difference between bright and dark areas of substantial actual luminosity differences in a subject. In short: how black are the blacks, and how white are the whites?

Microcontrast
Not quite the opposite of macro contrast – microcontrast is the lens’ ability to maintain small luminance differences in a subject and transfer them to the imaging plane. Note that lenses which have low CA are typically high microcontrast, as there is little ‘averaging out’ of fine detail structures when all of the light from the subject lands up at the same spot.

Neutral
A neutral lens is one without tonal or hue biases in any direction (warm or cold, light or dark). It reproduces exactly what it sees.

Purple fringing
Any portion of the image, usually high contrast, that has a purple glow around it; this is often confused with a lens effect but is actually a sensor effect; it’s due to minor internal reflections off the coatings of the microlens array covering the individual photosites. The color is uniform around the high contrast area, and does not shift left-right as chromatic aberrations would.

Resolution/ resolving power
The ability of a lens to reproduce fine detail structures. Related very intimately to microcontrast – a lens that can resolve high amounts of detail must necessarily be able to resolve small luminosity differences in adjacent areas.

Sharpness
A perceptual effect rather than an actual, measurable property; not to be confused with resolution. Something can be sharp with little resolution – i.e. able to project large differences in macro contrast with little chromatic aberration, creating a sharp edge; but have poor microcontrast resulting in low resolution, but high perceived sharpness. Rather, sharpness is a subjective measure for how much difference we perceive between adjacent areas of different tonal values.

Spherochromatism
The presence of chromatic aberration in bokeh – out of focus highlights separating into distinct red-green portions.

Tonality
The lens’ ability to reproduce luminance and color differences in a scene, and the nature of how it renders these differences in the image.

Transition zone
The plane represented by the distance from the camera where things just start to lose critical focus; a bit in front of and a bit behind the actual focal plane.

Transmission
The lens’ ability to capture light and transfer it to the image plane, limited only by the physical aperture/ iris of the lens. Applies to both the overall amount of light – T stop vs f stop – and the spectral transmission of the lens,i.e. which light spectra the actual types of glass allow through. See also this article on T stops and F stops

Transparency
The ability of a lens not to impart any of its own distinguishing characteristics on the image; it renders the scene as-seen, without any distracting properties or aberrations. My idea of a transparent lens is one with high microcontrast, moderate macrocontrast, natural spectral transmission with good saturation, and a T stop that’s close to its F stop. Bokeh is simply blurred and does not exhibit nervousness or swirliness; foregrounds and backgrounds are equally smooth. Such a beast is a rare piece of optics indeed.

Warm
A lens whose color transmission is biased in favor of the longer wavelengths, i.e. reds; it attenuates blues.

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