Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2 Distagon T* 2/35
July 2, 2010
by Andrew Alexander
Carl Zeiss has been offering prime lenses in the ZF format for some time now, offering a high-quality alternative, but with only manual focus. The 35mm ƒ/2 Distagon is among these options, available for the Canon EF-Mount (ZE), Nikon F-Mount (ZF, ZF.2), Pentax K-Mount (ZK), and M42 Screw Mount (ZS).
The Distagon 35mm ƒ/2 ships with a circular lens hood, takes 58mm filters, and is compatible with full-frame and APS-C digital SLR camera bodies. It is available now for around $800.
The Zeiss 35mm ƒ/2 Distagon is a very sharp lens. Mounted on the D200, the APS-C sensor is concentrated on the 'sweet spot' of the lens, producing very sharp results even fully open at ƒ/2. In this case we note around 1.5 blur units across the frame. Stopping down to ƒ/2.8 produces slightly more central sharpness (1 blur unit in the center, 1.5 in the corners). At ƒ/4, the lens is essentially tack-sharp at 1 blur unit across the frame. Between ƒ/4 and ƒ/8 the lens is essentially tack-sharp, and diffraction limiting doesn't impact that much at ƒ/11 where the lens returns to 1.5 blur units across the frame. At ƒ/16 the lens shows just under 2 blur units of sharpness, while at ƒ/22 it's just over 2 blur units.
On the D3x, corner softness is slightly more of a factor. Wide open at ƒ/2, the 35mm Distagon produces the same 1.5 blur units of sharpness in the generous central sweet spot, but degrades slightly to about 2-3 blur units in the corners. There's a slight improvement in the center at ƒ/2.8, the corners don't change that much, but by ƒ/4 the lens is (similar to D200 performance) essentially tack-sharp across the frame. Again, it's sharp all the way through to ƒ/11, where we note results of around 1.5 blur units, just under 2 at ƒ/16, and just over 2 at ƒ/22.
In short, excellent results, even the corner softness is very slight, showing up at the extreme corners of the image, and disappearing completely at ƒ/4.
There isn't much CA to speak of, just some light fringing when the lens is used wide open in areas of high contrast. It's more relevant on the D200, which doesn't have the automatic chromatic aberration reduction feature of the D3x.
Corner shading also isn't much of a factor with the CZ 35mm ƒ/2 Distagon when mounted on the APS-C D200; when set to ƒ/2, the corners are just over a half-stop darker than the center. At any other aperture, the differential is a quarter-stop or less.
On the full-frame D3x, it's a different story: corner shading is a bit more obvious. At ƒ/2, the corners are a hair under 1 1/4 stops darker than the center. Stopping down, it brightens up: the differential is 2/3 of a stop at ƒ/2.8, and just over 1/4 stop at ƒ/4. At other apertures, corner shading isn't a problem.
There's a little barrel distortion to speak of when using the CZ 35mm ƒ/2 Distagon: on the APS-C D200, around +0.25% in the corners, and on the full-frame D3x, just under +0.5%.
The 35mm ƒ/2 Distagon is a manual focus lens.
The 35mm ƒ/2 isn't a macro lens. The minimum close-focusing distance is good for close subjects, at just over a foot (30cm); at this range, its coverage is 19 x 13cm.
Build Quality and Handling
The Carl Zeiss 35mm ƒ/2 Distagon is built with an old-school appreciation to quality. The lens is quite heavy, using a construction of both plastic and metal, weighing in at 18 ounces (530 grams). Both the body mount and filter threads are metal. There are no buttons on the lens, and you'll have to ensure that the version you have is compatible with the camera you intend to use it on; in some cases, this may be in manual mode only (though in the Nikon version, Zeiss has released a ZF.2 version which includes CPU contacts that address this issue). The lens features an aperture ring, a distance scale marked in feet and meters, and a depth-of-field scale with an infrared index mark.
The focusing ring is the manual control surface on the lens. It's a ribbed polycarbonate ring, 5/8'' wide. It has excellent manual focus response (as you'd expect) with a very smooth turning action, and offers a great amount of play - about 120 degrees of turning action from minimum close-focus to infinity. The lens won't focus past infinity however, with hard stops at the close and infinity ends. There is a slight amount of lens extension as the lens is focused - about 3/8''. The front element of the lens won't turn during focusing, making life that much easier for polarizer users. The lens takes 58mm filters.
The lens ships with a circular lens hood, which can be reversed and stored on the lens via the bayonet mount. The interior of the lens is flocked to reduce stray light, and when mounted, the lens hood adds a half-inch to the overall length.
When considering other options, it's worth stating the obvious: the Canon, Nikon and Pentax primes all have autofocus motors, while the Zeiss lens does not.
Canon EF 35mm ƒ/2 ~$300
Canon offers two 35mm prime lenses, the ƒ/2 and the ƒ/1.4 (~$1,350). The 35mm ƒ/1.4 offers similar performance for sharpness as the Zeiss, but with the additional ability to go one stop faster at ƒ/1.4; the 35mm ƒ/2 is slightly less sharp until they reach a parity at around ƒ/5.6. Results for vignetting and distortion are about the same between the lenses: for CA, it's also very similar, with perhaps a slight edge to the Zeiss.
Nikon 35mm ƒ/2 AF ~$350
We haven't yet tested the Nikon 35mm ƒ/2, but if you're a Nikon full-frame user, this is your autofocus alternative. There is also the Nikon 35mm ƒ/1.8 DX, for APS-C cameras, which also works on full-frame bodies with only slight vignetting. Our tests of this lens showed it to be excellent value for the money, but the Zeiss lens is somewhat better in all respects.
Pentax 35mm ƒ/2 AL SMC P-FA ~$?
Pentax made a 35mm ƒ/2 autofocus lens, but it's now discontinued and we never had a chance to test it. Pentax is making some interesting limited edition lenses in a similar range - 31mm, 40mm, 43mm - our test of the 40mm lens showed it to be an excellent lens, and very competitive to the Zeiss 35mm ƒ/2. Further, Pentax makes a 35mm ƒ/2.8 macro, which could be considered an alternative.
There's not much to add here - if you're fine with manual focus and you want the sharpest performance, the Carl Zeiss 35mm ƒ/2 Distagon will serve you well.
The VFA target should give you a good idea of sharpness in the center and corners, as well as some idea of the extent of barrel or pincushion distortion and chromatic aberration, while the Still Life subject may help in judging contrast and color. We shoot both images using the default JPEG settings and manual white balance of our test bodies, so the images should be quite consistent from lens to lens.
As appropriate, we shoot these with both full-frame and sub-frame bodies, at a range of focal lengths, and at both maximum aperture and ƒ/8. For the ''VFA'' target (the viewfinder accuracy target from Imaging Resource), we also provide sample crops from the center and upper-left corner of each shot, so you can quickly get a sense of relative sharpness, without having to download and inspect the full-res images. To avoid space limitations with the layout of our review pages, indexes to the test shots launch in separate windows.
Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2 Distagon T* 2/35 User Reviews
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Airy (14 reviews)Sharp, crisp rendering, excellent against the lightnothing important
A very high contrast lens. My best performer so far for shooting against the light: flare is very well controlled, there is nearly no loss of contrast, and what gets lost can be recovered in post-processing. Night shots are good too, as coma is not outrageous. Color and micro-contrast are always excellent; images really "pop".reviewed April 8th, 2015 (purchased for $600)
The usual shortcomings (high vignetting wide open, CA, distortion) do not really matter.
The lens is very long and pretty heavy:elaborate retrofocus design, I guess. Maybe this is one reason for good performance on digital full-frame.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by telecommuter (9 reviews)build quality, color rendition, transition from focus to out of focusslight amount of vignetting on my FF body
This is another example of how lenses can differ...that is, I previously shot thousands of shots with the "L" series 35mm/f1.4 Canon lens and loved it. After shooting with this I sold the Canon.reviewed October 3rd, 2011
This lens is different in how it renders color and handles contrast. I use it for landscapes and stopped to 4.5 or so it is tack-sharp across my FF body. It is sufficiently sharp wide open, however, to use in very low light.
The focus ring is like using a microscope, the size of the lens makes it appear insignificant. But, it can render detail and color as well as anything I use. It does not appear as resolute as other Zeiss lenses, slightly, but it can hardly be called lacking in resolution.
I am finding it to be better used in low light or other than full, bright sun. I feel as though it handles the subtle light better, but that may just be me.
Some examples at the link below, from a recent holiday trip.
10 out of 10 points and recommended by sako (4 reviews)Beautiful color, sharp, extremely well made, butter smooth focus.A little vignetting wide open on full frame but easily fixed in post processing.
The SLRgear review of this lens says that it has a polycarbonate focusing ring. Well, they must have a one off because mine is metal and so is a friends. Easy to prove by tapping it with a metal object or handling it in freezing cold weather when it's necessary to wear gloves when using this and the other Zeiss lenses. A beautiful lens at a bargain price.reviewed October 29th, 2010 (purchased for $800)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by edwardkaraa (12 reviews)Extremely sharp at all focusing distances and apertures.CA and vignetting quite elevated but not problematic.
Corners not perfect at infinity but all the rest is great!reviewed August 20th, 2010 (purchased for $1,100)
10 out of 10 points and recommended by Bazelmans (2 reviews)Contrast, sharpness, bokeh, flare, constructionvignetting, manual focus, slight distorsion
I use this lens on a D700.reviewed August 7th, 2010 (purchased for $975)
* Contrast is unbelievable, resulting in crystal clear pictures with brilliant colours.
* Lens is also extremely sharp from corner to corner throughout the entire aperture range. My impression is that the sharpness is constantly limited by the 12 million pixels of my D700's sensor.
* Beautiful bokeh too. I love to shoot at the f/2.4 - f/3.3 range.
* Vignetting is significant wide open on a FX camera. It drops when stopping down. Can be corrected in PP if desired.
* CA and colour fringing are low, but just noticeable in some occassions. Not to worry about however.
* Distorsion is low, but the lens is not without. Noticeable in architectural photography, not a problem otherwise.
* Flare is amazingly low, much better controlled than with other lenses I have seen.
* Solid mechanical construction. All metal. Smooth manual focusing.
This lens is wonderful. I highly recommend it for the serious photographer who doesn't mind to focus manually.
0 out of 10 points and not recommended by Dick England (1 reviews)
A few comments from someone wondering whether to get the CZ 35f2 while the Euro is low. Lateral CA at f8 is a real headache. I'm not worried about the purple longitudinal CA in the f2 files.reviewed July 6th, 2010
The VFA charts here show almost as good corner resolution at f2 compared with (disappointing?) f8 performance on both on the D200 and the D3X. I have tried correcting the lateral CA in the D200 f8 files of the VFA charts with PTLens and RawTherapee which seem to work in the same way. The result is not satisfactory because it leaves orange/cyan haloes several pixels broad which can't be corrected. Nikon's in-camera correction for the lens on the D3X seems more sophisticated. Some cyan/purple haloes are evident, but the combination is pretty good if you can afford it.
9 out of 10 points and recommended by Gandalf (8 reviews)Sharp, fine detalis, and the special Zeiss-look (the colors)Manual focus
I bougth it used, but it is perfect (if you wonder about the price - lenses are very expensive in Denmark).reviewed February 5th, 2009 (purchased for $450)
It is sharp with very fine details and I love the special colors Zeiss gives.
It is not totally ghost/flare- free, but better than many others ( I am "a flare/ghost hater", even I do know how to work around it, I would better use my energy on other things, than working with that problem, and I think most photographers will say, that it is very, very fine in this area)
I am just sorry, that I never will be so familiar with manual focus, but that is me.
If you like manual focus I can really recommend this lens.