#315. The Zeiss Distagon ZM 35/1.4: First Impressions on a Sony A7r

#315. The Zeiss Distagon ZM 35/1.4: First Impressions on a Sony A7r

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 …

A Zeiss Loxia 50/2 next to Zeiss's ZM 35mm f/1.4 lens

Range competition : Loxia vs ZM

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

What can I show you to justify this claim, so early in my review (roughly 10 minutes and 20 frames) ?

Cat portrait using a Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 and Sony A7r

Tap lap

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 2000โ‚ฌ 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) 2000โ‚ฌ 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 ?

A group shot of a Sony 35/2.8 FE, Leica Summicron-R 35mm, Zeiss istagon ZM 35/1.4 and Zeiss Distagon 25/2

Family portrait – the usual suspects plus one

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.

Grass growing into an abandoned bicycle. Sony A7r and Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

Abandoned bike

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.

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?

A pair of abandoned bikes in wet weather, Sony A7r ans Zeiss Distagon ZM 35/1.4

Old bikes, old grass

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.

Green flowers and thorns, sony A7r, Disaton T* ZM 35mm f/1.4 Zeiss lens

Winter green

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.

DSC00196

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.

DSC00202 DSC00204 DSC00209

 


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14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ron Scheffler January 19, 2015

    Thanks very much for this and I’m looking forward to what you and Philippe are able to do with it on the streets of Paris. One thing I think worth mentioning is that the performance you’re seeing may not necessarily indicative of the lens’s capability when used on its native mount, i.e. on a digital Leica M camera, which benefits from better optimization of the sensor stack thickness specifically for use with rangefinder lenses. As you know, the Sony a7 series cameras are notorious for edge image smearing with many wider rangefinder lenses, which I expect is affecting your results, to some degree. I was able to test the ZM 35/1.4 on the Leica M240 at PhotoPlus Expo in NYC at the end of October and my impression, in the limited time I could shoot with it in relatively unideal conditions, was that it’s very good wide open, very, very good across the frame at f/2 and excellent at f/2.8, though some purple fringing around bright highlights persists until between f/2.8 and f/4. I agree that it seems to be a very neutral and transparent lens with pleasing background blur quality.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy January 19, 2015

      Thanks Ron. That pretty much sums it up perfectly.

      Mu guess is Zeiss plan to sell far more of these to Sony A7 owners than to M240 users. So it would be very surprising if they hadn’t taken the sensor stack into consideration when designing the lens. I’ll work on field flatness and edge performance, but so far so not so bad at all.

      Purple fringing was a surprise. There’s quite a bit of it in specific circumstances that I yet have to determine. Other shorts are completely colour free. Anyway, that’s usually fairly benign to work on in post-processing. I’ll try to post more accurate information by the end of the week.

      Cheers

      • Avatar
        Hiep Phan January 22, 2015

        Unfornately, Zeiss didn’t account for the filter stack thickness in this design. They did MTF measurements with this lens on a thicker filter stack and they do show mushy corners.

        • Avatar
          pascaljappy January 22, 2015

          It is both surprising and a shame if the Sony’s filter stack wasn’t at all taken into account, given how few of these lenses will probably be sold to M240 owners. Still, I’m now up to 300 photographs in many different conditions and corners have never been a real issue. I’m aware of the problem and *can* make it show, but so far it hasn’t been a nuisance. More to come soon on that topic! Thanks for the info!

  2. Avatar
    Luca January 19, 2015

    “Sonyโ€™s built-in mustard filter”

    I literally almost fell from my chair! lol ๐Ÿ™‚

    Btw, probably not as good being an older design, but the Contax 35/1,4 should perform at similar levels, especially in terms of color reproduction, at a much lower price (around 800โ‚ฌ). And potentially without corner smearing problems, being an slr retrofocus lens. The only problem is finding one; usually people who has one doesn’t seem too thrilled to sell it…

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy January 20, 2015

      Hmm, that’s an interesting proposition. I wonder where I could find one for a few days … Maybe a local club ? Thanks for the tip, Luca ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Avatar
    Philberphoto January 21, 2015

    OK, my own comments, based on a couple of hours’ shoot this morning. Actually, I am going to sound a lot more positive than I came to expect, reading Pascal’s earlier piece. Yes, you can say that this is not the flawless-scientific lens that Oti are. But, in other ways, it may well be setting a new standard, even beyond Otus-land. I am totally gobsmacked by the amount of detail, the 3D, the subtlety, and, more than anything, the colours. While my Loxia 50 is IMHO a remarkable performer in this area, the ZM 35 f:1.4 makes it look almost lifeless by comparison. Oh, and the sharpness is simply awesome. I compared it to one of the world’s most admired lenses, the Leica Elmarit R 28mm vII. It looks positively unsubtle by comparison, almost brutish. Like a Zeiss ZE/F 35 f:2.0, which looks mighty fine until the f:1.4 shows up…
    Overall: it will send shockwaves in lens-land. And no, I did not detect issues with the A7R. Though, to be honest, I didn’t look for them either. Too many too good things happening for me to lose time over that…:-)
    Now I am sure Pascal will have much mor to write (and show). He can be such a demanding customer, whereas I am a sucker for beautiful colours…

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy January 21, 2015

      Agreed, the more I use the lens, the more I like it and feel the – very few – technical limitations are easy to understand and have very little impact. One of the very top lenses I have ever used and probably the most pleasant.

  4. Avatar
    www.albertofeltrin.com January 22, 2015

    Thanks for this review, it would be nice to see some 100% crops, and maybe a comparison with the nice Voigtlander 35mm f/1.2 or the Leica 35 FLE that imho are the real competitors of this lens.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy January 22, 2015

      Hello, 100% files are on their way ๐Ÿ™‚ As for the Voigtlander 35/1.2, I would love to compare it but don’t have one at hand. I’ll see if I can find one before the loaner Zeiss has to go back. A summilux FLE would be nice as well …

  5. Avatar
    Sean cook January 22, 2015

    Do you have an A7s to test the lens on? I would be so curious to see how it differs. I can send you mine if need be. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy January 22, 2015

      Hi Sean, unfortunately not … All I have here is my personal A7r. Don’t tempt me, I’ll take you up on that offer ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Given that the pixels on the A7s are so much larger, I can’t imagine why the lens wouldn’t perform even more brilliantly than on the A7r, but I cannot be sure of that. Sorry.

      Many more photos and comments on the way.

      • Avatar
        Sean Cook January 22, 2015

        Well, I know the A7s tends to do better with M-mount wide primes, and I would love to see some definitive tests on it before I drop the $2000. I actually would send it to you, but I’m realizing that with the name Pascal, I don’t imagine you’re in the states? Anyway, if you’re interested and think you have the time, shoot me an email. Sean (at) SeanCookWeddings (dot) com. And if not, thank you for being the first real review I’ve found of this lens on an A7 of any kind!

        • Avatar
          pascaljappy January 22, 2015

          Thanks Sean. Unfortunately you are right, I live in France and spend a lot of time in the UK. But maybe I can find an A7s for a few quick shots in a shop before the lens has to go back ? I’ll try this week-end, we never know.

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