UPDATE : The full review is now online.
There’s a myth in the amateur astronomy community that all too often comes close to reality. Whenever you’ve waited months, possibly years, for a new telescope to be shipped to your home, it arrives in the middle of an ark-proportioned downpour that lasts for weeks.
And so it is of Zeiss’s much-anticipated Distagon T* 1.4/35mm ZM M-mount revolution of a 35 mil lens. Maybe it’s because I am hoping to use if for night-time photography and possibly astrophoto. But the sad fact is that after a 4 week respite from torrential rains, wet weather – as in very – resumed this morning, just before the lens was delivered to my door.
The best laid plans of Zeiss and men …
Still, the lens has arrived, as a 2 week review loan courtesy of Zeiss France to whom I wish to express my sincere thanks. If very, very early impressions are anything to judge by, they’ll have to chase me all the way to South America to get their lens back 😉
What can I show you to justify this claim, so early in my review (roughly 10 minutes and 20 frames) ?
Sadly, not a lot. But I have seen enough to formulate meaningful first impressions.
One of the ambitions of my review was to check whether this 2000€ Distagon is an OTUS 35. After all, given the lower technical constraints of an M-mount and far lower cost of production (less glass, less metal, simpler design) 2000€ is vaguely consistent with the OTUS 55/1.4’s asking price.
Long story short: It isn’t. It didn’t take more than 10 frames to see technical glitches creep into the frame, and not just the corners. Chromatic aberration is present, as is well-managed but significant image quality degradation as aperture grows wide.
And that’s a good thing ! Why ?
Well, I might later eat my words, but this seems a more intelligent design than the full-on OTUS 35 might have been.
See the first picture on this page and the group portrait above. The Distagon ZM 35/1.4 is a compact lens. On the left is the tiny Sony/Zeiss 35/2.8 lens, a full 2 stops slower. 3rd from left if my battered but I-can’t-part-with-it Leica Summicron-R 35/2. And on the right a Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF2, that is dwarfed by the 35/1.4 from the same stable.
It feels … perfect. The focusing tab is well placed, the focusing ring is butter smooth yet perfectly damped. The aperture ring clicks into perfectly defined 1/3 stop notches.
It also feels … scary. There is glass everywhere, from 1mm inside the mount to 1mm behind the front ring. And the lens doesn’t come with lens shade so glass protection is minimal and a bit nerve-wracking when even Noah’s got his umbrella out.
So: great build, good size, great ergonomics.
The second reason for my early joy is that, in spite of the imperfect optics mentioned above, this lens seems to do everything that matters absolutely wonderfully !
Lab rats will be all over this lens with their negative remarks. Artists will hand it over to their great grand children as a treasured family heirloom.
Enough hyperbole, let’ be more accurate.
Colour is amazing. As previously hinted at, it pisseth like there’s no tomorrow and the ambiance is as drab as a Lucien Freud painting in a Ken Loach movie. Would you tell from the above photograph? Or the one below? These were shot just before nightfall and are straight out of camera, with only the Sony’s built-in mustard filter removed by a click on AUTO in LightRoom’s light balance menu.
Come on ! Gear has no right to be that good, what shall we blame our lousy shots on?
The transparency of the image belies its 10 lens construction. The impeccable colours and very organic feel are what I love most in a lens. While ultimate neutrality might be truth, I can’t help feel a microscopic coat of varnish added to the rendering makes the images incredible pleasing yet very (very) natural looking.
In that respect, the 1/4/35 ZM Distagon might better both the Loxia 35/2, based on a slightly harsh ZM 35/2 design and the Summilux 35/1.4 that adds a little more of its own gravy to the imagery. We are talking nuances and personal preferences here, but given the conditions these photographs were made in, I’m in love.
Finally, let’s get back to that filthy image degradation I referred to that may have sullied your perception of this expensive piece of glass.
Here again, design choices seem very intelligent. In the frame above, captured at a silly (for the scene) f/1.4, sharpness is clearly lower than at f/5.6. But only at 100% on a 6-foot wide image and not so much that you feel cheated at all. More importantly, the corners are not that much more fuzzy than the center. Sharpness seems to fall gracefully throughout the frame, with the corners giving up a little more than the middle but not disgracing themselves at any point.
Finally, bokeh is, shall we say, not bad. Possibly the best I have seen in any lens. See below, again at f/1.4 and straight out of camera.
Tomorrow morning, I’m off at sparrow to meet co-author Philippe in Paris, where we will be walking in the quartier latin to evaluate the lens more intelligently than these few minutes allowed. After that, I have a lot lined up to compare the lens to all of the above 35’s and possibly a Summilux FLE, if I can lay my hands on one (if a reader wants to send his over, I’ll be very careful with it).
Let me leave you a few final (uncorrected, save for added vignetting) shots. Stay tuned for a much more thorough review of this awe-inspiring beastie.
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