Long term review: The Carl Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon T*

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A cinematic lens needs a cinematic product shot.

I’ve been lucky enough to own and use a lot of lenses in my time. And some of them pretty exceptional – off the top of my head, there’s the Nikon 200/2; the Leica 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH; the Leica 21/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH; the Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE (you can probably see where this is going); the Leica 50/2 APO; the Nikon 85/1.4 G; the Zeiss ZF 2/100 Makro Planar; the Nikon 85/2.8 PCE…suffice to say, it would be difficult to pick one as an outright favorite. But I think if there ever was a contender, then it’d be the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon T*.

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Firstly, it’s not a technically perfect lens by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it tends to score quite lowly on common testing metrics – especially in the corners – because its defining signature is highly pronounced field curvature. Imagine a ball around the camera; the plane of focus for this lens follows the surface of that sphere. It lends a very unique rendition to subjects shot with it because it has the property of emphasizing the out of focus areas by making them effectively further away from the camera. This, in turn, results in greater separation between the subject and background – it’s not always obvious, but if you shoot the same scene with a relatively flat-field lens like the Nikon 24/1.4, you can instantly see the difference.

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Proper DOF scales, but they’re too short.

This property makes for great bokeh and a very cinematic rendering. In fact, the earlier Contax/ Yashica mount version of the lens is known as the ‘Hollywood Distagon’ for its huge popularity amongst filmmakers for use in indoor scenes; I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of these lenses landed up being converted to some cinema mount. As far as I can tell from their block diagrams, the ZF and ZF.2 versions are almost (if not exactly) identical optically, with some minor updates to coatings and the like – as well as a different mount, of course.

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Dessert. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

On axis, there’s plenty of sharpness at every aperture. You cannot focus and recompose with this lens; use either live view or AF assist to focus edge subjects, else they will be out of focus. f4 seems to be the optimal aperture, but frankly there’s not a lot of difference from wide open. However, you’ll need at least f5.6 on full frame before your depth of field covers the effects of field curvature completely. Similarly, the lens vignettes noticeably at f2 – perhaps 1-1.5 stops in the corners – which almost disappears by f5.6. All of this adds to the flavor.

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Fire. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

The one optical quality that isn’t so hot is a propensity for purple fringing on bright contrast edges, especially noticeable around in-focus backlit subjects; it goes away with stopping down. It doesn’t look like CA, which makes me suspect that it’s an odd interaction of the older lens design with digital sensors. For most subjects, it’s fairly easy to correct by masking out the affected area and desaturating the magenta channel. There is some slight CA in the corners, but it’s almost completely gone by f4. Thanks to the excellent coating, flare is almost entirely absent – point the lens into any light source you wish, just watch your eyes. It’s a great lens for shooting contra-jour; what little flare does show (if the angle is just right) is mild and cinematic.

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That’s the most flare I’ve ever been able to get out of this lens. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

The ZF 28 has a rounded-polygon aperture with 9 blades; it isn’t perfectly circular, but I can’t complain about the bokeh – it’s absolutely beautiful, and renders even complex backgrounds in a pleasingly melted fashion. There are very slight highlight fringes on out of focus point sources, but the transition is fairly gentle so it’s not at all distracting.

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All about the bokeh. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

I find that the Zeiss ZF lenses seem to fall into two camps – there’s those with a very ‘crisp’ rendition, like the 2.8/21 Distagon, the 2/50 Makro-Planar and the 2/100 Makro-Planar, and those with a softer rendition, like the 1.4/50 Planar and 1.5/85 Planar. The 2/28 seems to straddle those two camps – it has higher contrast than the latter group, but not quite as much punch as the former. I personally find it very pleasing.

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Waiting. The 28 Distagon’s excellent tonal separation makes for great B&W conversions, too. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

Like all Zeiss lenses, microcontrast is excellent thanks to the T* coating. Speaking of coatings, the first few elements of the lens actually seem to disappear when you look into the front – this speaks volumes about little light loss there is going on inside the optics. This translates into excellent light transmission – T2.1, in fact. (It’s the same lens optically as the Zeiss CP.2 T2.1/28, but with different focus gearing and a much smaller price tag.)

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Kitchen portrait. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

Being a manual focus lens, you’re probably wondering how practical it is for regular photography – the answer is that it’s not too bad, but you’ll definitely see the benefit in having a split prism or similar screen installed. All modern DSLRs have focusing screens with a narrow scatter angle that are optimized for brightness with slow zooms rather than focusing snap; in fact, it’s a slow change that’s been ongoing since the beginnings of autofocus.

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Untitled, Nikon D3100, ZF2 2/28

You’ll probably find it nearly impossible to focus with an entry level APS-C DSLR; their focusing screens don’t have anywhere near enough magnification or ‘snap’ to make life easy. Although you can use the focusing aids – the green dot and arrows for Nikon users, or the beep for Canon shooters – depth of field with the 28 Distagon is shallow enough that you need to take care, because there’s a bit of range in the focus ring position for which the dot will stay lit or the beep will sound. And the extreme ends of that range will be clearly out of focus if the lens is shot wide open. You could stop down and use the DOF scales, of course, but the focus ring throw is a bit too short and the DOF scales too incomplete for that.

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Coffee time. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

One nice feature is that the lens focuses very close indeed – 25cm from the sensor plane – for some interesting closeup angles. Optical performance remains consistently excellent even at this focusing distance.

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about construction – that’s a good thing. Use any of the ZF or ZE lenses (optics are of course the same) and you’re in for a treat. They’re solid, fully metal (anodized aluminum barrels, I believe) with chromed brass mounts and buttery smooth focus throws; just enough resistance not to move or be nudged, but with a really nice tactile feel that reminds me of a well-damped heavy piston moving through oil, or something similar. For want of a better analogy, the lenses feel like scientific instruments. On the ZF.2 versions, there’s an aperture ring that locks at f22 for electronic control on modern Nikons. The ZF version has ‘rabbit ears’ for coupling with earlier cameras’ metering pins. And the ZE version is fully electronic with no aperture ring at all.

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Stair #173. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF2 2/28

There are a few areas for improvement, though – while the hood bayonet mechanism is beautifully made and locks with a nice positive detent, the hood itself is easily dinged and scratched on the rim if bumped into something. A rubber lip would be nice. And the velvet flocking on the inside of the hood might be great at preventing stray light and flare, but it’s also very good at picking up dirt (especially light-colored dirt) and seems to peel off the metal quite easily. To be honest, I land up not using mine a lot of they time because I’m particular enough to like to keep my equipment pristine. Finally, the lens caps need help – there’s not enough thread on the edges to keep them securely gripping the filter ring; the springs aren’t strong enough to keep the caps from moving if bumped; and they’re impossible to remove if the hood is attached. I’ve replaced all of my Zeiss caps with Nikon ones.

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Mt. Yotei wears a hat. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

If you think I’m gushing about this lens, it’s solely because of the pictorial results I get from it justify it. To my eyes, they have a special quality that I rarely see, and just makes images that pop – with saturated, slightly warm colors, great microcontrast separation, and a very three-dimensional rendering. And the enjoyable tactility of the thing as an object doesn’t do any harm, either. Frankly, if they did an M-mount version with thes same optical formula – size be damned – this would be permanently welded to my M9-P.

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Perbadanan Putrajaya. (Vignetting added). Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

How does it compare to the other 28s or 28 equivalents I’ve used? This is an interesting question, because the new Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G (which I recently reviewed here) seems to actually have a lot of the same optical properties as the Zeiss – field curvature, great central sharpness, smooth bokeh, high transmission – and most usefully, autofocus. Honestly, I think the Nikon comes very close; however, the one missing ingredient is microcontrast – it just doesn’t pop in the same way as the Zeiss. Color saturation is a little lower, too. I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m running and gunning, I’ll take the Nikon, but if I’ve got time to craft the image, then it’s the Zeiss all the way. I don’t think any of the other Nikon mount 28s are in the running, even the legendary f1.4; admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve used one. Both lenses have some distortion, which would probably render them unsuitable for architectural work without correction; I think they make much better contextual documentary lenses anyway.

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Train driver. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

I admit I’m a bit of a 28mm FOV junkie, so I’ve tried many lenses on different mounts and formats; in my mind, the two interesting competitors are the Leica 21/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and Zeiss ZM 2.8/21 Biogon, both on the 1.3x crop Leica M8 rangefinder. The former is the only wide I’ve ever used that gives the same sort of subject separation as a telephoto; the latter has similar 3D qualities to the ZF 2/28, and in fact reminds me quite a bit of the ZF 2.8/21 Distagon, too. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to evaluate the Leica 28/2 Summilux ASPH in any great detail, and the Leica 28/2.8 ASPH is very sharp, but a little characterless. The ZM 2.8/28 is a very competent lens, but missing that little something I can’t quite put my finger on.

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Riding the big yellow snake. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28

I don’t say this lightly, but despite its optical imperfections, the ZF.2 2/28 Distagon joins my personal pantheon of great lenses – if you’re a fan of cinematic rendering and the 28mm FOV, then this is the lens for you. It positively shines on full frame, but will do well on APS-C cameras too – if you can focus it reliably. Now, if only they’d make an autofocus version…MT

Note: some of you may be wondering why none of the images from this review were shot with the D800E; the honest answer is because I haven’t had a chance yet. However, my initial testing shows that the lens continues to perform as expected and without issue on the higher-resolution sensor.

Addendum: If you’re a Canon shooter, I actually recommend buying the Nikon (ZF/ZF.2) versions if you have a mirrorless cameras as well – you can then use this lens on the CSC with an adaptor, and retain full aperture control. This isn’t possible with the Canon version as the diaphragm is activated electronically.

Both versions of the lens are available here from B&H or Amazon.


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

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Roots. Nikon D700, ZF2 2/28