NOTE: a comparison of this lens with the Sony Zeiss FE 35/2.8 ZA and Leica Summicron-R 35/2 is now online.
My loaner period is already half exhausted! The ZM 35/1.4 has been with me for a week now and I have made several hundred exposures with it. Time for more detailed comments than my quick initial impressions.
Unlike my previous review of the immensely lovely Loxia 50/2 lens, I will not be comparing the Zeiss Distagon T* 1.4/35ZM to its competitors in this post. By itself, the lens warrants a pretty long article and the comparison with the Leica Summicron 35/2 and Sony-Zeiss 35/2.8 FE will have to wait a few more days.
In this post, the ZM35 rules. It’s all about that intriguing lens that is not without flaws and yet has to be the most desirable I have ever used. Ever.
Here are 2 examples of photographs made at night, at time when artificial colours can flood the frame, but also be a challenge to recreate properly. These two samples are not straight out of camera like many others on the page are. Instead, I have chosen to make colours bold and strong, to show how natural they remain when pushed.
This second photo in particular is a spectacular result from what was just a grey-blue wall of concrete with pale lighting from office buildings on the right. The image took a bit of massaging for this result, but the fact it was even possible given the original scene is a testament to the quality of both the lens and the sensor. The two make a remarkable pairing for anyone interested in colour photography.
During the day, and with more restraint from the post-processing hand, there’s no dilution of colour and the potential for playfulness is evident (and partly indulged in on the first sample, taken at full aperture)
No, not the magenta hues in corners that foretell the mush that is typical of some wide-angle M-mount lenses used on the Sony A7r. There is none of that to be found anywhere, at any aperture or any focusing distance.
What I am referring to here, is the change of colour cast as you change aperture. I will spare you the full range of 1.4 to 16 test shots, but here are f/1.4 and f/8. The change is very subtle but it is there.
See Closeup performance, below.
Oh yes !
My optical tastes for B&W lean towards the gritty, the flared, the flawed lenses that add presence to the scene. Very old Leicas and Voigtlanders, for instance. The ZM 35/1.4 is clean as a whistle, with perfect transitions and neat surfaces.
And yet …
What this lens does that few others can achieve, is preserve a lot of micro information that make the final image lifelike and full of depth. The other side of the coin is that it leaves the photographer with more work to create something that is not an identity picture.
Either it wasn’t my type of lens for monochrome photography, or I just needed to work harder, but my first initial weren’t that fascinating. After a few days, things started to look a lot more promising. And for the real expert who wants as much information in as possible the file in order to free his interpretation of upstream degradations, it’s right up there with the best there is.
It doesn’t do the work for you like a quick fix Instagram filter. Quite the opposite in fact. But this lens mounted on a quality monochrome sensor would probably be a recipe for (hard work and) great results. Now, if anyone would like to lend me their Leica Mono … 😉
All great Zeiss lenses shine in their ability to render layers and depth brilliantly and the Distagon ZM 35/1.4 is no stranger to that mystification of the mind.
You’re either receptive to this quality or you’re not. I love old Leica lenses for their matte, flat rendition. But scenes such as this (above) almost give me vertigo so strong is the sensation of depth. The ZM 35/1.4 strips the image of all unwanted optical detritus and renders such scenes with utmost transparency and depth.
The photograph below is largely uncorrected (only white balance and vertical convergence). It is slightly underexposed and not that well composed, but the volume of the Imax cinema is almost palpable and the stairs pull you strongly into the Dome shopping center, don’t they ?
Even when the photograph itself does not include strong depth cues such as converging lines, the layering of planes is beautifully rendered.
“Amazement awaits us at every corner.”
Let’s get it out in the open right away: on the Sony A7r, the ZM 35/1.4 is not without fault in the corners. It is still, very, very good globally.
The photograph above was made at f/8. You can access the 100% version by clicking on it. As you can tell, corners are *very good*, thought not as good as the *excellent* center. And at 100% on a typical screen, this image is over 7 feet wide! At the usual A3 print size, it would take a loupe and a very fine print indeed to reveal any differences between various zones of the frame.
Other apertures are not as plain sailing, though.
Some photographs on this page will reveal that corner (or even edge) performance at wide apertures can sometimes be a tricky issue.
And tricky is the adequate term as it doesn’t seem easy to pin down the exact source of the issue in any repeatable way. In fact, my guess is it is a combination of 4:
All this conspires to make the lens a typical Distagon (OTUS excepted), the ZF2 35/1.4 behaving the same and the ZF2 25/2 itself being a similar, though worse, offender. Whether the issue is severe enough to stay away from what is, in all other respect, a magnificent lens, is really up to your expectations and intended use. I cannot imagine a street photographer ever being displeased, but some landscape specialists might think otherwise. The reality of it is that – to my eyes – sharpness is never lacking and the whole subject of it pales compared to the other wonders this lens has to offer.
This came as a bit of a surprise. Purple fringing is quite present, even severe at the widest aperture.
By f/2.8, all is usually taken care of, though the psychedelic edge tendency can extend beyond f/4 on very strong highlights.
Thankfully, chromatic aberration is the easiest to cure in post-processing, requiring only a gentle shove of a slider. But the slider almost felt rusty on its outer reaches, so long a while it has been since it needed to be pushed that far.
On 95%+ of my photographs, CA is either absent or not an issue. But on one overexposed shot of the sea in strong sunlight, this and the odd-mannered sharpness characteristics described above contributed to make the resulting image look like the work of a troubled child.
What intelligent words can I put on this? Vignetting is very predictable: relatively strong at f/1.4 and almost totally gone beyond f/2.8. Expose to the right and you will find correcting the corner darkening very easy. Here are some photos to illustrate the vignetting at maximum aperture on neutral and low contrast subjects (from a fast-moving train 🙂 )
As you can tell from the following photo, the ZM 35/1.4 displays very slight barrel distortion. This is one of the few frames (out of 600) in which I have felt the need to correct it.
A very good performance, then. But the architecture-minded photographer might object to the slight wave distortion found once you get rid of the barrel component. See corrected photo of the glasshouse, in the sharpness section, above. The very top of the house frame and the bottom, where it meets the pavement, are where this is most obvious.
You’ll need to be very geometry-focused to object to this in real life, though.
Remarkably glare-proof, the ZM 35/1.5 is not immune to flaring and disturbing internal reflections.
Predictably, matters are far better as you close down (f/8, below) than at full aperture (above, where contrast and clarity are pushed to accentuate the issue). The general diffusion around highlights is very well controlled at f/1.4 and never extends far beyond the light source. But reflections such as the purple UFO beams above should be expected throughout the frame. Short conclusion : horses for courses. As excellent as this lens is at full aperture, do not expect miracles from it and if perfectly clean results are required, stick to f/2.8 and beyond.
At full aperture, this lens’s bokeh is more cream than Eric Clapton himself.
Things get just a tad more nervous at smaller apertures (f/2 and F/2.8 below) but I have never found background burble objectionable at any point. Excellent performance.
Many lenses with nice looking bokeh tumble badly on highlights. The lovely Leica Summicron 35mm f/2 is such a case, for instance. So here is a complete set of photos from f/1.4 to f/11 showing you what these look like on the ZM 35/1.4
As you can tell, handling of highlights is excellent. No accentuated edges (a very rare trait) to draw attention away from the main subject, no coma (see Summicron 35 review, above) and no other recipe for unpleasantness I can think of.
Let’s call that a 9, the perfect 10 slipping away because of the slightly angular (rather than perfectly circular) shape of out of focus highlights, their “flat” nature (as opposed to fading on the edges) and some faint onion rings.
Not up there with the legendary kings of bokeh, but very good and never an issue.
What’s performance like at close quarters ?
To find out, I quickly dragged out my daughter during a sunny spell in an otherwise inclement weather pacth, and made a few portrait from as close as the lens will focus : 0.7m (2.4 feet). To make matters a little more interesting, the photographs were made looking into the sun (with a red house in my back, explaining the hue of some of the reflections)
Here is f/1.4 (out of camera)
and a 100% crop of the eyes (the image is a bit grainy because I forgot the camera was on ISO 640 and the jpeg compression is quite strong) :
Here is the same at f/5.6 (out of camera + gentle sharpening)
Not close enough ? Co-author Philippe (who helped me throughout this review) has both a wicked mind and a Hawks helicoidal adapter, so while testing the lens together in Paris, we indulged in some lazy (hand-held) macro-photography with the following results.
F/1.4 is your reporter mode. Entirely usable and perfectly lovely, this isn’t a marketing figure or a compromised insufficient-light-only aperture or a gooey slap-on filter. Out of my 600 frames, well 300 have been made at full aperture and benefit from it. Portraits glow (with beauty, not spherical aberration).
From f/2. to f/4, the lens is at it most organic. Minor optical aberrations in various stages of lingering fail to mar the absolute beauty and subtlety of the rendition. This range accounts for 90% of my remaining frames and will represent more in the long run, when the fun of shallow DOF wears out (yeah, right 😉 ) Street photographers, storytellers, reporters …
F/5.6 – f/8 are for when technical impeccability are called for. The photo entitle Calder in the garden (red arch on green foreground) and the glass house photo in the sharpness discussion are the only 2 here. Architects and landscape photographers will love these apertures as the image looses very little of it’s naturalness.
F/11 brings with it less diffraction than I had imagined but photographs feel just a little lifeless compared to other apertures, a little more “matte”, as a f/1.4.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. Those who – like me – had hoped the Loxia offerings foretold a brighter future for Zeiss lens caps are in for a disappointment. All the cheapo ingredients we have learned to dread are well alive in this new ZM: cheap plastics, notches that manage to obstruct attachment of the cap to the metal ring of the lens then fail to keep it secure. Too small finger notches. You name it …
In contrast to this, exceptional build, buttery smooth yet well damped movements, very well defined 1/3 stop aperture clicks that can be made to disappear for video usage, solid metal rings fore and aft … Cap aside, this lens is a perfect 10.
It is a matter of personal taste, but I prefer the Loxia’s modern design and abfab integration of focusing with the A7 range. However, the ZM exudes more technological luxury and belongs in the drawer with the IWC and the keys to the Carrera 4S. Brilliantly put together.
How do you sum up a lens such as this ?
In many ways, it is the best I have ever used, including Mamiya 7 lenses, Hasseldblad lenses, M and R mount Leica lenses, other Zeiss lenses, Fujica lenses and a few quality Nikkor offerings as well.
The subtlety of its rendering, the natural yet strong separation of colours, the stunning sharpness, the lively yet natural micro-contrast are all top of the class, whatever brand or price point you compare it with. Backlighting is dealt with with aplomb. Colours are spot on, contrast is perfect. While 35mm isn’t usually the focal length of choice for portraits, I can imagine quite a few wedding photographers will go nuts with this specific variation on the 35mm theme.
I started out my review wondering whether the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM is the missing OTUS 35. It isn’t, not by a mile. This lens is a compromise, a tradeoff in absolute technical quality for size, convenience and aesthetic qualities. I hope to be able to ask someone responsible for the design of this lens one day, but my guess is it wasn’t any easier than the OTUS to create.
Compromises mean choice.
And I do feel the decisions made here are extremely intelligent. The lens has shortcomings. Put your mind to it and you can make it look more flawed than other lenses costing half as much. But the fact is that in real life, these flaws don’t ever seem to creep into your pictures uninvited to ruin your shot unless, you are being quite unreasonable. I’ve long loved Mandler-era Leica lenses because of the beauty powder they added to life. This ZM 35/1.4 adds nothing. It removes obstacles, noise, grit and other nasties to let beauty shine naturally through in a more elegant and subtle fashion.
What this lens is, then, is the ultimate storytelling machine. Because its focal length suits street photography, because its fully usable f/1.4 aperture creates a look and helps the grabber, and – mainly – because it reveals so much of the nuances and subtleties that caused the photographer to click in the first place.
Is it worth its asking price ?
Considering the ZM 35/1.4 provides all the niceties of a Summilux 35/1.5 FLE at barely more than half the cost and with far fewer compromises (on the Sony A7 range), the answer would seem to be a resounding YES. But the answer really depends on what you like in a lens and in photography in general. This is a lens that delivers delicacy, subtlety and realism in spades. Which leaves you – the photographer – with a lot to do to add personality to the photographs. When the Leica Monochrom was released, many were disappointed at how grey and dull the images it produces are. What some love (the huge dynamic range) others loath (a lot of work to extract the best out of the file). It takes work and experimentation to shine.
This situation is somewhat similar with this Distagon. It reduces the noise floor, lets the micro detail play their role in quality art and asks the photographer for a minimum of common sense and vision to extract the best it can offer.
Placed in a lab against lenses designed for sharpness at the expense of life, it will fail to convince those who live by corner lp/mm figures (on the A7r, that is). In the hands of a lover of natural beauty – regardless of skill level – it will bring out the best in the scene it is pointed at. I love it!
At the end of the day, the lens has to be bad news for Zeiss. Not only will nitpickers pick nits for zilch, but artists will buy this lens and never use anything else again. Zeiss can actually close shop today. I wonder if they’ll notice when I don’t send the loaner back …
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